Wednesday, July 31, 2019

Endless Debates...

There must be a difference between political debates and a cock fight, but I'll be darned if I can find it. Feathers and talons flying everywhere, the Democrats, with a cast of characters bigger than "Hair," have taken to the airwaves. Like everything else from peanut butter to proctologists, these things are over-analyzed by the media and "Moe" down at the bar. I'm absolutely shocked that Vegas hasn't figured out a way to bet on the candidates and how they perform in each debate, or that the giant banks haven't figured out how to make a "derivative" out of them to sell. They are ripe for it.

The latest debate had a new guy, Bullock, pulling in like a line-jumper on the Interstate. He certainly made some good points, but there was an obnoxiousness about him that I can't explain. Elizabeth Warren still sounds "whiney," Bernie gets so passionate, I fear he's going to give himself a stroke, and that author, Williamson? She sounds too much like she is reading from one of her books. I still like Buttigieg, but his demeanor and politeness will probably get him killed, at least politically. Haven't I seen that Delaney guy in a movie? He looks like a "red shirt" from Star Trek or a second-rate bad guy in a "B" movie. He, Bullock, and Amy Klobuchar tried to carve out a moderate position compared to Bernie and his Magic Kingdom, but Ms. Amy has some nasty skeletons in her staff closet, so I'm a little leery of her.

Unfortunately, the debate format, with so many candidates, is way too restrictive. A minute to answer a question about how you will fix healthcare? Or what you will do about the environment? Why, the Miss Universe pageant contestants get more time than that to tell us how they will use their cat to bring about world peace. And the commentators--good, responsible journalists and broadcasters in their own right--must serve as referees and schoolmarms, trying to silence a candidate whose rhetoric has just gone nuclear and "damn the torpedoes, full speed ahead" on them. You get Bernie Sanders cranking, and it takes an aircraft carrier snag line to slow him down. And what's with the little audio cutouts that keep happening? And this is even on a different network? How hard is it, in a spoken debate, to keep the sound on? It surely seems like they have enough microphones around--that honor guard sounded like Third Army heading for Palermo as they marched out.

The second night of round two is yet upcoming (I'm writing this on 7/31). Tonight is the night to see if "Sleepy Joe" is awake enough--and not too old--to be the one to spar with The Donald. Kamala Harris will be back on stage tonight, and while I must say that I think she has been the over all most impressive candidate for the Dems, thus far, it will be interesting to see if she goes after "Smokin' Joe" again. Last time out, she sucker-punched him and made him her b*tch. I didn't like that. And I don't believe for a moment that Joe Biden is intentionally a racist. (Note: I say "intentionally," as we white people, as much as we continue to benefit from and deny white privilege, we ALL participate in institutional racism and white bias.) The last time out, I was impressed with Julian Castro and a bit with Tulsi Gabbard, but possibly because she had that kind of "mysterious woman" thing going. She's National Guard, though, and has deployed, so I have much respect for her. Let's see if she breaks out a bit tonight. Last time, one of my media "heroes," Chris Matthews really thought New York Mayor Bill de Blasio was super. I thought he was a loudmouth. Lost a little respect for Chris there, but maybe it's that "Tip O'Neill" thing.

I'd look forward to commenting on the Republican debates, but there won't be any, since they have the incumbent president. Yeah, I know there are those who are supposedly challenging him, but I doubt it will ever get to the debate level. Has there been anything that Trump hasn't bullied his way through? Who in the GOP has told him "No"? He will clearly be their candidate, and whomever the Dems choose will have to go one-on-one with him. He debates like a neighborhood thug, and uses arguments that sound a lot like "I know you are but what am I?" Or  "Yeah, your mother!" I do think, though, if it's Kamala Harris or Tulsi Gabbard on stage with him and he does that "lurking" thing like he did behind Hillary, either of them will cold-cock him one and will win the presidency.

I just keep thinking about how great it would be to have a leader in the White House again. The last leaders we had were Dwight Eisenhower, Jack Kennedy, and Lyndon Johnson--Eisenhower built the infrastructure of the U.S. after the wars; Kennedy gave us a national vision and was a true "profile in courage," and Lyndon Johnson led us through the emerging fight for civil rights for African Americans, a fight which continues to this day. I could add Ronald Reagan, for what he did to bring down the Iron Curtain, but then he exploded the federal deficit, and we've not dug out since. Nixon opened relations with China, but there was that other thing. Clinton crossed the aisle better than almost any other president, but there was that other thing. And, while I really liked Barack Obama, I did not see him as a leader. He was a bit more of a technocrat like Jimmy Carter.

Well, if you can't tell already, politics is sort of my hobby (other than reading news and fussing with Miatas). I'm a democrat, and stand with them on many of their social justice platforms, but if truth be told, I'm really pretty much of a moderate when it comes to things like wanting a space program and understanding the need for an efficient, well-trained military (not the over-funded largess mess we have now). For example, I think submarines are a better investment than giant aircraft carriers, and f-16 Falcons were an effective bargain over the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter. I am a Democrat mostly, though, because my faith and my ministerial calling have led me to push against the small-town racism I learned as a boy, and to work for equality and justice for ethnic minorities, women, and the LGBTQ community. I do not see these as priorities for the GOP, the party of my upbringing and most of my family. (I will not go into my views on abortion, as that would tick too many of you off. I do affirm the position of my current denomination, the United Methodist Church, and I say current, because unless it fixes itself and puts on its "big boy" pants to include all persons, I'll be church shopping.)

If you are repulsed by politics and the circus just beginning we call the presidential elections, then never mind. Watch for my next blog. Until then, may the Force be with you. Shalom, Yinz.

Friday, July 19, 2019

The Late, Great Planet Earth...

Less than a year after two Americans first landed on the moon, an obscure Southern Baptist named Hal Lindsey wrote a book entitled, "The Late, Great Planet Earth," in which he gave his own interpretation of biblical prophecies. Lindsey believed the Earth, as we know it, would end sometime in the late 1970s or early 1980s, when Jesus returned. While there was no Internet back then, and therefore no social media or You Tube, his book went "viral," selling over 28 million copies by 1990. Lindsey's view was from the pre-millennial, dispensationalist view espoused by many Southern Baptists. If you don't know what those terms mean, you are the better for it. Basically, they assert true Christians get to have all of the fat and flavor without any calories, snatched out of the earthly turmoil they helped create in something called the "rapture," kind of a biblical version of "Beam me up, Scotty." The book frightened a lot of people into "believing." Even if you considered yourself a Christian, but didn't believe the Bible the way Lindsey and his ilk did, the book still scared the hell out of you. As a young adult exploring his rekindled Christian faith, I was enraptured by it, as were Sunday School classes and youth groups across all brands of church, including most "mainline" denominational ones. Given that the Post-Vatican II charismatic movement had turned many Roman Catholics into sacramental Southern Baptists at about the same time, even they latched on to Lindsey's doomed planet theories with great passion. The whole thing got a second life when Tim LaHaye and Jerry Jenkins later wrote the "Left Behind" series, and a fresh wave of paranoia spread across the bow of Christianity, from the "evangelicals" to the generally neurotic worriers, including the Methodists.

Fast forward to 2019. The earth is in danger again, and no "rapture" is in sight to save anybody. Turns out some of those prophecies may have been right about the events, but wrong about the cause. We're boiling our oceans with cataclysmic temperature rises, melting our glaciers and polar icecaps, raising our water levels, and swallowing our coastal cities. It's not "God's judgment," or even anything apocalyptic. It's just human stupidity, greed, and destructive public policy formulated to boost profits and assuage the corporations and the wealthy. Maybe that IS God's judgment, after all--"What you sow, you reap." We're poisoning our air, fooling around with genetic plant manipulation (breeding insecticide into our food crops?), and poking so many holes into the earth that one fears it could deflate like a punctured balloon. And if that isn't enough, we're drilling deep, deep wells just to pump the radioactive and caustic wastes from fracking back INTO the ground. Mother Earth can't like that! One might have thought we had learned just how precious and fragile our home planet--our ONLY planet--when the Apollo missions beamed back pictures of it floating in space like a "grand oasis," as astronaut James Lovell described it. "Earth Day" was born, in fact, from people seeing that famous "Earthrise" photo taken by the crew of Apollo 8. Surely we would never again backslide on efforts to clean up our environment and preserve our celestial home? Wrong.

We're also polluting our relationships. Racism, sexism, nationalism, and white supremacy have all resurged within the past few years. In our own country, the historic election of our first person of color as president brought out the "birthers" and bigots in record numbers, and his successor has dumped gasoline on a smoldering pile of hate. American citizens of recent foreign ancestry are being told to "go back to where you came from," and not by Neo-Nazis, but by the President of the United States, himself a descendant of an immigrant family (aren't we ALL, unless you come from a Native American tribe?). America is fighting a civil war, this time without bullets, but using words and votes to exchange harmful volleys, harm that will take decades to repair and undo. Schisms are happening everywhere, from religious denominations to nation states like Great Britain.

Politically, we are falling into a new "Cold War" era, only this time we have added China and North Korea to the mix. Putin's Russia has fussed with our elections and is building new weapons of mass (and mass media) destruction. On its part, the United States has increased its military spending to record levels, trashing the Federal deficit, and is creating a "Space Force." While this country has always seen its military posture as defensive, our "Space Force" is an offensive enterprise, as no one else is fighting in space, currently. Let's hope it is a cure for which there is no known disease. Genocide is happening in many nations around the world, the Saudi government assassinated an American journalist with no regret and with no sanctions or punitive measures taken against it, and the fight over "Brexit" has deposed yet another Prime Minister in England.

I could go on, but isn't this getting depressing enough? Why, what is happening around Planet Earth now is making Hal Lindsey's stuff out to be small potatoes. Even if "raptured" off terra firma, we'd leave enough baggage behind to continue to inflict pain for those "left behind," as well as to weigh down our departed souls that we might not make orbit. So how do we fix this?

First of all, the entire burden is not on us. God made this island Earth, and we have to believe that if we start taking better care of it and stop intentionally poisoning it and working against its ecosystems, its "autocorrect" will kick in and save the day. BUT WE HAVE TO STOP! WE. HAVE. TO. STOP. DOING. HARM.

--To the Earth, for it is our mother and our home; it's time to "flip" it, like real estate people do houses.  Clean it up, repair it, and install some new carpet, ready for its next inhabitants--our children and our grandchildren

--To each other, because we are all neighbors, whether we like it or not! Walls and fences do NOT make good neighbors, in this case, and we have to realize that our DNA is all the same, regardless of what nation we come from, the color of our skin, or the languages we speak. There are only enemies if we MAKE them enemies. Haven't we watched enough Star Trek to know that we have the choice to make our society either Eden or Hell. You choose. And if we believe everybody is against us, they will be. That is called paranoia, and it can destroy lives, families, nations, and probably the planet.

--To God. Yes, we are harming God, or at least what many think about God. What is passing for a Christian witness today (on the part of "evangelicals," the Wesleyan Covenant Association, Franklin Graham, etc.) would chase you away from a dealer if you were looking to buy a new car. Because of infighting in the church and its frequent "circling of the wagons" in paranoia, many people have come to not trust God, or at least anything we people of faith SAY about God. We need God, but the loving, forgiving, reconciling Parent the Bible reveals, not the vindictive, rule-keeping, judgmental "evil step parent" getting preached in way too many pulpits. Jesus changed the narrative. Jesus didn't change God, but Jesus corrected the paranoid human filtering of the message regarding what God is up to.

Our Jewish siblings have a saying in Hebrew that defines solid "marching orders" for us all: tikkun olam, usually rendered "repairing the earth." The earth is like any other house--we're either improving it, or we're using it up. Relationships are the same way--we're either growing them and making them closer and healthier, or we're using them to get what we want and dissipating them. Both "worlds" are in serious need of repairing right now. Again, we're not alone. The one with the original plans for people and planet is poised to assist, but we have to do our part, and be open to God's guidance and wisdom in the effort. There are heavily moneyed and powerful forces with a different agenda, the "principalities and powers," as the Bible puts it, that will resist our remediation endeavors. They will lie incessantly and pit "brother against brother and mother against daughter" to maintain dominance. Some need to be "voted off the island," while others just need to sit down and shut up. Our planet and our civilization are at stake here, or the "late, great planet earth" will be our epitaph.

Tuesday, July 9, 2019

The Giant Leap...

Fifty years ago, the Sterling family was returning from vacation, and the oldest child (yours truly), who was so caught up in the American space program that he could easily be labeled a "space geek," was sitting in the back seat of the car looking at a road map. 

"Turn HERE!" I shouted to the driver (my father). 


"Just TURN HERE!" I shouted again, with apparently enough passion and bossiness that he did. 

"Where is this taking us?" he asked. 

"To Wapakoneta," I informed. 

"WHERE?" he asked, with a strong sample of incredulousness in his question.

So, then I took the time to explain that Wapakoneta, Ohio was the home of the man who had just returned from walking on the moon. Neil Armstrong was in isolation with the other two Apollo 11 astronauts, just in case they brought back some alien germs in the dust and rocks they delivered to planet earth. And I figured that Neil's hometown must certainly be celebrating their favorite son's accomplishment, and Wapakoneta was only about eleven miles South of our route home. Thankfully, my father was almost as much a space geek as I was, so we motored into the tiny, sleepy town about 50 miles north of Dayton.

Sure enough, Wapakoneta was festooned with banners, bunting, and congratulations aimed at Mr. Armstrong who, it turned out, would be returning for a parade and a public tribute just a couple of weeks after being sprung from isolation in Houston. A storefront had been transformed into a Neil Armstrong homecoming celebration headquarters named, creatively, "Tranquility Base." And several utility poles around "Tranquility Base" had these posters (shown above) stapled to them, encouraging local residents to stop in to "sign scroll to be presented to NEIL ARMSTRONG" upon his return. There was one less poster after we left, and this one, yellowed from years on my bedroom--and later dorm room--wall, has been laminated and displayed in my church offices over the past 34 years. Once a space geek, always a space geek...

Fifty years ago, on July 20, 1969, the challenge of President John F. Kennedy was fulfilled. (Actually, it was four days later, as his challenge included "returning him safely to the earth.") Kennedy's challenge was apparently more about advancing technology and inspiring humankind than it was the "space race," which has been the most highly touted reason for it. If you've been watching the PBS historical tribute series "Chasing the Moon" recently, this fact was one of the most startling, as the series reports that JFK had been negotiating with Nikita Khrushchev to enter into a collaborative effort to put a man on the moon, something that this new series stated might have happened, had our president not been assassinated, and Khrushchev pushed from power in the Soviet Union. For those of us who lived through the actual event, it was an incredible experience, and one of the few times "the people of the earth were truly one," in the words of Richard Nixon, during his phone call to the moon-walking astronauts, Armstrong and Aldrin. Of course, this planet-wide unity only lasted about a day.

Landing people on the moon was a major technical accomplishment, indeed, and when you figure we did it with 1950s and 60s technology, it's even more amazing. In the earliest days of the space program, "computers" were human beings, aided by huge, mechanical "calculating engines." Digital computer technology would be greatly advanced by the space race, culminating in the Apollo guidance computer (AGC) that had a whopping 2k memory and weighed 70 pounds. Many modern authors serving as apologists for the Apollo missions trumpet the technology and "spin offs" of the moon program that benefited everything from kitchens (microwave ovens) to operating rooms, although recent documentaries have pooh-poohed the notion that Tang and Velcro came from NASA, as opposed to being merely employed by them in spacecraft.

So, what was--or is--the value of manned spaceflight, including the six trips to the lunar surface? Technology? Honoring the visionary wishes of an assassinated president? Scientific exploration? One could make a case for any and all of these, but a line from an obscure little Australian film centered around the Apollo 11 mission maybe advances the best theory of its value: "It makes our spirits soar." That line, spoken by Sam Neill's character Cliff Buxton in the film, "The Dish," sums it up. A tremendous vision is cast by a charismatic national leader, a team of engineers, astrophysicists, and daring aviators bring it to pass, and all of humanity gets caught up and inspired by it coming to fruition. Apollo 11 truly "made our spirits soar." Other than for us space geeks, the space program--going forward from Apollo 11 up to the present time--has only caught the broader public fancy in times of crisis or tragedy (Apollo 13, and the destruction of Space Shuttles Challenger and Columbia). Only the private space program of a character like Elon Musk or the idea of going to Mars even gets much press today. And it's not like we don't have a need to BE inspired today, given that there is much to be bored with or disappointed in what is happening around us.

This brings me to draw a parallel between conquering space and religious faith, and while this is probably a bad idea, here goes: Even as people are "ho hum" about space efforts today, so have they become widely disaffected by religion. Each has lost its ability to inspire, or to "make our spirits soar." Good religion follows the script of the Apollo program: a vision cast by a charismatic leader, a team of dedicated "followers" to bring it to fruition, and an audience inspired by both its tenets and its heroes. Today, maybe we're guilty of so much bad religion--little vision being cast by anybody, followers who use their religion to bash those who don't agree with them, and their target audience being scared off by either boredom or disappointment. Not only are we not making "spirits soar," but to paraphrase a country song, we've "ripped that sucker out and stomped it flat!" Religious fundamentalists are actually doing harm to people; religious liberals have lost their creativity and their voice; and centrists are caught between the proverbial rock and a hard place. If our message had been watered down, we could spice it up; if it had been given too sharp an edge, we could hone and temper it with love. But we just don't even know what the message is today, let alone being able to use it to inspire anyone to want to believe it.

Not wanting to end on a cynical note, I guess I'm suggesting we need an "Apollo program" for religious faith. The pages of scripture have lots of things that could inspire us--the chastening words of the prophets or the empathetic and stirring words of characters like Moses and Jesus (or Mohammad, if your holy book is the Quran). If our religious bodies could begin to see themselves as a team coming together to bring to fruition the hopes and dreams of these scriptural visionaries, and if our efforts begin to create a meaningful intersection between God, people, and life, maybe religion could again experience "ignition and liftoff." Until we rediscover our inspiring words and work together to bring them to a "spirit-soaring" reality with the potential to engage and transform lives, our audience will be underwhelmed, and will "vote with their feet" to cancel the program. As long as religion continues its currently dominant course of being the gatekeepers of "who gets in" and "who is left out," instead of shouting God's reconciling, and affirming love from the housetops, it will find fewer and fewer adherents in an age of apathy and doubt. As Woody Allen said, "My God, my God, what hast Thou done lately?"

P.S. After touring Wapakoneta, we stopped at a gas station to fill up, and my father was talking with the service station attendant (yes, it was called a "service station" back then, and an "attendant" would pump your gas, wash your windshield, and check your oil) about how his "crazy son" ordered us to Wapakoneta. The attendant said, "If he's a big fan of Neil Armstrong, you should stop down at their house. It's right down the road, and I'll bet his parents are home." So, we did, and my dad and I knocked on the door, and Mr and Mrs. Armstrong stepped out on the porch and chatted with us for about 15 minutes! That was certainly an America that used to be...

What's Next?

  What’s Next?   2 Samuel 6:1-5, 12b-19 6:1 David again gathered all the chosen men of Israel, thirty thousand. 6:2 David and all the people...