Hoping for More Ethical National Conversation? Read the Instructions

In the wee hours of the morning on Dec. 25, parents everywhere will be frantically assembling toys to be presented to children just a few hours hence. Along about 2 a.m., some mom or dad will remember an old adage: “When everything else fails, read the instructions.”

Speaking of instructions, we continue to have important national conversations about the place of morality in our public life. What if we did a non-partisan, year-end inventory of how well our public servants have measured up alongside the Decalogue, God’s Big Ten, found in Exodus 20 and Deuteronomy 5? In other words, if we claim to be a nation founded on ethical principles, let’s read the instructions, the Ten Commandments! Time and space will not allow us to elaborate on each, so let’s primarily focus on the first three statutes as a yardstick, and assume that the reader can take it from there.

The first two Commandments assert that we are to have no other gods besides the one true God. God alone — nothing else and no one else should be worshiped. Idols can be physical objects, mental or metaphysical concepts, ideologies or ideas. How many times do we hear our elected officials exalt ideology, nation, flag, political party, personal ambition or capitalism above the true Lord God?

After many years of pastoring churches, I’ve come to the sad conclusion that for many of us —politicians included — scripture is a Rorschach test. We see what we are predisposed to see. Instead of using God’s instruction as a grid to read our personal preferences, we use our personal preferences to read God’s instruction.

But God is not a magic wand to be brandished for personal gain. George Bernard Shaw once said, “God created us in his image, and we decided to return the favor.” Listen up, politicians. We do not manage God. If our Judeo-Christian scriptures do not at some point convict and challenge us, that’s a pretty good sign our god is self-created. Anne Lamott said it best: “You can safely assume that you’ve created God in your own image when it turns out that God hates all the same people you do.”

And that leads naturally to the third Commandment. “You shall not take the LORD’S name in vain (use it wrongfully).” Frankly, this mandate would be much easier to obey if it only referred to cuss words. But it’s more. The statute actually warns us not to take God’s reputation (name) and drag it through the mud. Someone recently asserted that alleged inappropriate sexual behavior with a minor is analogous to Joseph’s relationship with the Virgin Mary. There it is. The sacred, dragged through the profane — big time. It’s not enough that politicians break God’s law; they hide behind scripture, as if knowing some Bible verses (out of context) excuses bad conduct. Is it asking too much that our nation’s leaders not use God’s name as a good luck charm?

The story is told that Mark Twain once listened impatiently as a speaker droned on and on about a desire to visit the Holy Land. The pompous fellow said he wanted to climb Mount Sinai and from there recite the Ten Commandments. Twain, who did not suffer fools gladly, finally interrupted, “Had you ever thought of just staying home and keeping the Commandments?”

Here is a humble, year-end, public policy suggestion. Let’s stop worrying so much about getting the Ten Commandments posted on courthouse lawns and focus instead on getting them inscribed in our hearts and integrated into our collective national behavior. New Year’s resolution: Let’s read the instructions.

Tags: , , ,

Three Redwood Wishes – Rev. Susan Sparks – The Shiny Side Up

Hi y’all, welcome to the Shiny Side Up! A journal of infectious inspiration that will lift you up, make you smile and leave you stronger.

I want to thank you for your patience. I haven’t sent out a Shiny Side Up for a few weeks. One of the reasons is an epic trip that Toby and I took over Thanksgiving. First, Amtrak across the country from Chicago to LA in a sleeper car. Then a drive through the great national parks of California, including visits to the sequoia and redwood trees.

Anyone who has stood in the presence of redwoods knows that it’s a holy experience. As I walked under their great canopy, I began to wonder: what if these massive trees could talk? What wisdom would they share with our twenty-first-century society? What redwood wishes might be offered for our broken world?

While I’m not sure of the answer, if I had to guess, I’d say they would share three wishes. And those three wishes would come straight out of Corinthians 13: 7:  “Love bears all things, love believes and hopes all things, love endures all things.”

Redwood Wish #1:   Bear Each Other up
One of the tallest living things on earth, redwoods can grow up to four hundred feet in height (comparable to a thirty-five-story building). But they don’t reach these towering heights by sinking their roots down into the ground. They grow to these heights by sending their roots out — horizontally — and connecting with the other trees in the forest. In short, they’re tall because they bear each other up.

Redwood Wish #2:  Believe and Hope All Things Good
As I sat in that forest, I was struck by the cycle of life all around me. There were the great mature trees forming a huge canopy shading the entire forest. Then there were the tiny seedlings; scrappy, feisty little green shoots straining, reaching up and out to find sunlight to help them grow.

Perhaps that’s what meant in 1 Corinthians when it says, “love believes all things and hopes all things.”  Love looks for the good. Like those little seedlings, it strains to find the best, the sunlight in others.

But of course, there’s a trick.  In order to see the best in others, we have to be able to see it in ourselves. Unfortunately, many of us tend to go to the negative first, the faults first, the flaws first. We forget that we are made in the image of the divine; that each of us at our core is holy and loveable and full of sunlight. There is a reason that the bible says, “love your neighbor AS yourself.”   Like the sunlight for those little seedlings, love is about finding the good in ourselves and our neighbor; it is about finding our source of life and being.

Redwood Wish #3:  Endure with an Eye Towards the Longview
Not only are redwoods some of the tallest living creatures, they are some of the oldest, many dating back two thousand years. That means that some of these trees have lived through everything from the Roman Empire to Lady Gaga.

It makes you wonder: how would our lives be different if we had such a long view of the world. How would our choices – our life – be different with such a perspective?

It is so easy to get caught up in our day to day stress, the “crisis” de jour staring at us from our inbox, the ringing phone, the emails, the tweets.  While these may seem important now, if we look at them with an eye to the long view, they begin to fade into obscurity. In the long view things like family, community, health, joy, and compassion become the clear priorities.

Do we bear each other up? Do we believe and hope all things good? Do we take the long view? Our lives might take a different turn if we would only begin to orient our path toward love, compassion, and these three redwood wishes.

Tags: , ,

Why It’s Important to Record Your Family Stories – ethicsdaily.com

Why It's Important to Record Your Family Stories | Mitch Carnell, Storytelling, Family, Memory, Remembering, National Day of Listening

If you do not write or record your family stories, they will die with you, Carnell says.

Who was the funniest person in your family? Who was the most serious? Who was the caretaker? Who was the prankster?

Family stories are important. They tell who you are and where you came from.

My grandfather had the greatest laugh I had ever known until our son, Michael, came along. His laughter can light up the room.

My sister is the caretaker. She mothers everyone. Cousin Virgil could spin an unbelievable yarn. Uncle Calvin was the optimist. Daughter, Suzanne, could compete with my dad for being tenacious. The two of them were thicker than thieves.

You haven’t experienced anything as ridiculous as listening to my great-nephew, Justin, talking about his love affair with bologna. I hold the family record for preparing the worst ever Christmas ham.

I have a prized family heirloom. It is a record of the births and deaths of my father’s brothers and sisters in my grandmother’s handwriting on a parchment scroll. It was rescued in the nick of time from under my uncle’s house.

The record starts in 1888 with my grandparents’ wedding on Sept. 20. My dad took it with him to prove his eligibility for Social Security benefits. It made the rounds of the office before he got it back.

Why are these things important? These stories tell us who we are. If you do not write or record your family stories, they will die with you.

Nov. 24, the day after Thanksgiving, is the National Day of Listening. It was started by StoryCorps in 2008 as a day set aside to tell and record family stories. Where did your family come from? What brought them here?

My friend, Carl, tells the most wonderful stories about his father, who was one of the first highway patrolmen in Texas. I keep urging Carl to record his stories; otherwise, they will disappear with him. I would buy his book.

You may think that your family’s history is dull, and no one would be interested. Think again.

When I was writing my book, “Our Father: Discovering Family,” and was about to give up on the project, my wife said, “You have got to finish this at least for your grandchildren.” I finished it, and one of the reviewers said, “His grandchildren and great-grandchildren will treasure this.”

Of course, you can spend Black Friday shopping, but sitting with relatives, friends, fellow church members or civic club members and recalling and recording shared moments will prove to be much more meaningful. Try it with some older members of your church.

When I was about 9 years old, we were in Spartanburg, South Carolina, walking to the office of my ophthalmologist. I was a few paces in front of my parents. I heard my mother say to dad, “I’m not sure I want Mitch to get new glasses. He has always thought that I was so pretty.”

My late wife, Liz, was such a procrastinator that my sister told her, “Liz, you will be late to your own funeral.” As we were riding in the limo to her funeral, my sister said, “Mitch, look at your watch.” We were 10 minutes late.

Do I want that story to die with me? No, absolutely not.

When my children were small, we were driving to my Uncle Calvin’s funeral. We passed a small country church with a sign out front that read, “Revival in progress. Come and be revived.” Michael spoke up front the back seat and exclaimed, “Daddy, that’s where we can take Uncle Calvin.”

I never tired of hearing my dad talk about his asking my grandfather for my mother’s hand in marriage.

My grandfather was a big man, already dressed for bed in a nightshirt and barefoot. “There he was with tears flowing down his cheeks. ‘Well, Carnell,’ he said, ‘if you don’t know how to treat her, you know where you got her.'”

Your family stories are just as valuable as mine. Take some time. Laugh a little. Tell the stories. Be sure the voice recorder or video camera is turned on.

Tags: , , ,

Paying for the Second Amendment – Rev. Dr. Bill Leonard* – Baptist News Global

Bill Leonard“The United States has 270 million guns and had 90 mass shooters from 1966 to 2012. No other country has more than 46 million guns or 18 mass shooters.” So the New York Times reported on Nov. 8.

Let’s be honest, as a people we are paying for the Second Amendment. The dead are stacking up like cordwood, not simply from mass shootings, as heinous, collective and “normative” as they are, but in the day-to-day local firearm slayings that haunt American communities urban and rural.

In ways we recognize yet try our best to deny, the Second Amendment defines us as a people, a nation where individuals plagued by hatred, mental illness, religious bigotry, gambling losses, family dysfunction or other discernably unoriginal sins utilize Second Amendment-protected arsenals to destroy the lives of innocent, unsuspecting human beings at Bible studies, worship services, country music concerts, night clubs, shopping malls, college campuses and elementary schools. Right now, the list of safe spaces in this country narrows monthly due to gun-related massacres.

The Second Amendment does not create these malicious shooters; rather, it enables them through the proliferation and accessibility of millions of firearms — regulated, yes, but clearly not enough to affect the slaughter. Violent, deranged human beings occupy every nation state in this world. In the United States, however, current interpretations of the Second Amendment give them the means, legally or illegally, to turn this country into a killing field, any place, any time.

We are paying for the Second Amendment, and most of us will probably not outlive this defining element of our national ethos. Firearm obsession, supported or tolerated by the American people, exemplifies our national identity, and we should all own that reality. Indeed, firearm violence has become so routine that barring an immediate political or spiritual Great Awakening, these events demand some form of national triage, collective methods for responding to the consequences of weaponized carnage as an American constant.

The recent bloodbath at First Baptist Church in Sutherland Springs, Texas, incarnates the firearm crisis and the need for a shared national response. It is that state’s largest single shooting with 26 congregants killed and 20 wounded by a known criminal who extended a family vendetta into a church at worship. The violation of sacred space is so egregious that the pastor, Frank Pomeroy, whose 14-year-old daughter, Annabelle, was among the dead, has announced that the building will be torn down, a new church facility constructed in another location, and a memorial established on the current site.

The sanctuary of that Baptist church in a tiny Texas hamlet off US 87 was violated in the bloodiest of assaults with a semi-automatic weapon that poured forth some 450 rounds. Eight of the dead were children, the youngest being an 18-month-old and a baby still in utero, dying in the belly of its mother who was also gunned down. The church’s own video system, streaming the service to homebound members, now too graphic to be shown, reveals that the butchery, carried out with a Ruger AR-556, took only about seven minutes.

Those facts alone should compel gun owner and non-gun owner alike to cry out in collective pain and determination to respond to the unending national slaughter of the innocents. A growing number of faith communities are now compelled to develop security procedures that include hiring professional agencies, training members as armed “gatekeepers,” or depending on congregational concealed-weapon-carriers prepared to match bullet for bullet, another inevitable recompense for Second Amendment “freedom.”

As mass shootings multiply, I keep thinking that I’ve written enough about this topic. But they continue, world without end. As I finished this particular column, four people, including an elementary school student, were killed and 10 wounded in a California shooting. More children would have died had not the school activated an immediate lock-down. How can any of us be silent?

Bret Stephens won’t be silent. The New York Times commentator finds the situation so dire that it is time “to do something more than tinker at the margins of a legal regime that most of the world rightly considers nuts.” Rather, Stephens calls for repeal of the Second Amendment, noting that while “gun ownership should never be outlawed, just as it isn’t in Britain or Australia … it doesn’t need a blanket constitutional protection, either.” He admits revocation is a long shot, but concludes that “most great causes begin as improbable ones.”

Given that wistful proposition, let’s consider another improbable but perhaps viable response to America’s firearm scourge. What about a Second Amendment Reparations Tax, levied on all American households and corporations? If the Second Amendment is essential to American identity, and if additional firearm-related legislation is a long time coming (if ever), then why not create a communal fund to assist those families and institutions devastated by inevitable gun violence? Such a FEMA-administered reparations tax would commit all of us to the task of “binding up the wounds” created by firearm violence. If we can’t affect the laws, the least we can do is help pay for the funerals.

Powerless in the face of Second Amendment-facilitated atrocities, but hoping for additional solutions, we begin by owning the problem and offering a collective source of financial triage to assist those literally caught in the crossfire of a vicious cycle of death that has become the public face of the American nation. Special fund-raisers for specific firearm brutalities remain indispensable, but since it is our Second Amendment, and we’re all vulnerable, we’d all best pay up.

“Bill Leonard was a favorite at the John Hamrick Lectures at First Baptist Church of Charleston.

Tags: , , ,