Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Do Americans Know What We Want?

Today's papers carried news about the latest approval polls that show President Obama's slide in popular opinion. In response, White House adviser David Axelrod is quoted as saying: "People fundamentally like this president, and they believe he's smart and capable and strong and trying to do the right thing."

I think Axelrod is right. I just don't think those are the key things that qualify someone to be president over the other realistic candidates. Of course President Obama is likeable. He is clearly smart. He is capable of many things. And I have no doubt that he is trying to do the right thing.

But is that really the defense we want to reassure us about our president? Isn't every viable candidate likeable and smart and capable? Don't we believe in our hearts that McCain or Nader or Bush or Kerry or Gore or Sharpton or Perot or Biden or Gus Hall would have tried to do the right thing?

I am discouraged that many Americans - and the official spokesperson of the administration - seem to be satisfied with someone who is smart and likeable and wants to do the right thing. (Lest you think I am applying this only to the current administration, I winced during the previous administration when President Bush's defenders would respond to attacks with lines like "He is such a good man.") I just don't think that's enough. I believe that we have to look at two more things: What does the president believe and what does the president do?

My objections to Gus Hall's candidacy would have had nothing to do with how smart he was or how much he wanted to do right. They would have arisen because his ideology was abhorrent to me and, in trying to do what he thought was right, he would have led the country in entirely the wrong direction. I would have voted against him because of what he believed and what he would have done.

George W. Bush's failure, ultimately, was not in being unlikeable or not smart enough. (I know, some of you are chuckling because of his malapropisms, but even you admit that he is smarter than the average bear.) President Bush's ultimate failures were because his actions did not reflect what he claimed to believe. He claimed to be an economic conservative but led the nation in huge (albeit dwarfed by the current administration's) increases in government spending. He claimed not to believe in nation-buidling but embarked on a long and costly effort in Iraq that can be classified as nothing else.

Near the end of Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets, Dumbledore says, "It's our choices, Harry, that tell who we are, far more than our abilities."

This blog is not meant to gauge opinions about President Obama's policies. You believe what you believe, and I believe what I believe. My point is to say that I fear that too many Americans voted for a likeable smart guy without fully considering the consequences, and I am amazed that Americans now may be defending him on the grounds that he is a likeable smart guy who is trying hard. His job is too important for that. He should be defended - or not - based on his choices, not his basic skills.

I believe that President Obama is entirely honest. I believe he has done exactly what he said he would do, from his promotion of labor unions to his government intervention into the business of GM to his "stimulus package" to his health care initiative to his Supreme Court nominee. Those are choices that he has made. His abilities are admirable; his choices are not the ones I would have made.

I would hope that his defenders would have more to say than "he is likeable and smart and trying hard." I hope his defenders would defend his choices and his ideology.

I know that some of you do defend his choices, and I applaud you for your consistency, even if I disagree with the particular political choices. But I worry when the quote the White House carefully chooses to put out is the one that showed up in the paper today.

Is that what Americans want? Likeable, smart, trying hard to do right?

Friday, July 10, 2009

Thanks, Jessica

I have a pretty eclectic set of tastes in music. I am not much for jazz or metal or grunge or hip hop, but my music collection runs the gamut of almost everything else.

Today at lunch, in the 98 degree heat, I was doing a two mile walk and listening to my MP3 player. You know how these things work - it is programmed randomly with music from my collection, and I cannot predict what I will hear each time I turn it on. At my pace, a two mile walk allows for about eight songs. I started off country, with Tanya Tucker's "Down to My Last Teardrop." Next was John Denver's "Poems, Prayers, and Promises" and then Styx performing "Fooling Yourself." I went back to the sixties with Coven's "One Tin Soldier" and then started moving forward in time, if only slightly, with America's "Horse with no Name." Then came Bob Seger and the Silver Bullet Band singing "Against the Wind."

By this time, I had gone about a mile and a half, and the temperature was up to 101. My mind was not experiencing endorphins ... only heat. I was ready to be done. At that moment, U2's "I Still Haven't Found What I'm Looking For" randomly appeared as the next song in the playlist. Now, I love this song. I have written about it before on this blog. But today, I was troubled by it. It is Bono's searching voice that cries out through these lyrics: "You broke the bonds and you loosened the chains... carried the cross of all my shame, all my shame. You know I believe it. But I still haven't found what I'm looking for."

Maybe it was the heat, but I was struck with a troubling sadness. How many are there out there who "believe" in some intellectual sense but have not found what they need in spite of that belief? What is the difference between "belief" and "faith". What did Jesus mean when he told us to "believe in" Him. Why hasn't the singer of the U2 lyric found what he is looking for?

Before you think that I have lost my mind, rest assured that I do have some answers for those questions. I do not promise that they are satisfying answers to everyone, but in the peace and quiet of my study, I can work through them. In the heat of the day and the walk, however, I was not answering. I was just troubled.

About that point, I hit the 1.75 mile marker, and the last of the songs I would hear today came on. It was Jessica Lofbomm's "In the Morning." If you don't know Jessica and her music, you can learn more here.

Anyway, Jessica is one of my dearest friends, a virtual family member, going back to her days as Gena's and my "adopted college student" when she first moved to Nashville. She lives on the other side of the world now, so we do not see her often. But today, of all days, my little portable music box sent me Jessica's clear, strong, faithful voice just when I needed to hear a clear, strong, faithful voice. In my troubled response to Bono, I heard Jessica's "Alleluia" pour through. "In the Morning" is a relatively simple song - its message includes the same kind of uncertainty about faith as does the U2 classic. Jessica sings "Jesus, I am sorry, I have fallen asleep. Why are you giving your life for me?"

The difference is not in the questions, for we all have questions. We all face uncertainty. We all walk through the heat.

The difference is in the response. We can say "I believe but I have not found", or we can say "Why? ... Alleluia." That was what I needed today. Today, I do not so much need to be reminded of the factual details that I am supposed to believe. Today, I do not need to address every question, to psychoanalyze Jesus to find out why He did and does everything He did and does.

No, today I just need to hear a faithful sister sing "Alleluia" even though she has questions and uncertainties and heat to walk through. I can face the questions posed by Bono when I know the faith sung by Jessica is always right behind.

Thanks, Jessica.

Saturday, July 4, 2009

Who Is Touching Jesus?

The story in the gospels of the woman who touches the hem of Jesus' garment is familiar. As Jesus is on His way to Jairus' home in order (as we find out in a few verses) to raise the man's daughter from the dead, His clothes are touched by a sick woman. She is immediately healed. The gospel writers tell us that Jesus feels power go out from Himself and turns and asks, "Who touched me?"

I have often wondered about this little story. Why would Jesus ask this? One explanation is that the crowd around Jesus is so pressing and so large that He simply does not know which person among many has touched Him.

That too-easy explanation does not work for me. Even in human form, Jesus is God. Of course Jesus knows immediately who has touched Him.

My Christology understands the healings of Jesus as personal extensions of Himself. If Jesus does not know who has reached out to Him, then the healing is simply an impersonal passing of power from the Christ to a sick person, transmitted by touch, without Jesus' independent knowledge of the faith of the one seeking the healing. I cannot accept that. I believe that Jesus does not act randomly. I also believe that the control of the whens and hows of His miraculous work is not ceded by Jesus to a person who chooses to reach out and touch Him at the coincidentally correct time.

I believe that Jesus asks this question - as He does many times with questions in the gospels - as a teaching device. I believe that Jesus, who is in a crowd and on His way to the house of an important man with an urgent need, pauses that journey and (first!) heals a person who would be considered "unimportant" by virtually everyone around, and then Jesus takes the opportunity to teach a lesson.

Stopping His important trip, having quietly healed the formerly-bleeding woman, Jesus asks a question to make the point that only He had noticed her. He says to those with Him - undoubtedly Peter and Thaddeus and Judas and Matthew and the rest - "So, did you notice? Of this whole crowd, who reached out to me? Out of these good people, whom did I heal? In the midst of this group, did you see the power of God displayed?"

The disciples are clueless. "Master, there are an awful lot of people here. And besides that, we are focused on the important job of getting to this important man's house. You can't have expected us to notice anything else."

I believe the same question could be asked today. We rush around on crucial errands. We direct Jesus in the way we want Him to go, aiming for the right person who has asked for proper help. On the way, we are surrounded by many others, some of whom desperately need the touch of the Master. I believe that He gives just that touch right in our presence, and we are none the wiser. I believe that the sick and the seeking are stepping out in faith right under our noses. Triumphantly, Jesus sees them and their faith and responds as only He can. Tragically, we never notice.

Maybe it is because we are legitimately distracted with serving Him in a different way. Too often, I fear, we miss the work of God because we are preoccupied with ourselves, our politics, our narrow views of how God works, and our so-called important stuff.

There is another reason Jesus asks the question, of course. He wants the woman to be noticed. He knows that her faith is exemplary, and He wants us to see it.

"Who touched me?" is not a request for information - Jesus already knew the answer. "Who touched me?" is a quiz, a rebuke to those followers of Jesus who wouldn't know a miracle if it happened in front of their face.

Jesus is acting around us all the time, rewarding faith and touching the needy. Do you notice? If Jesus asks you where you have seen Him work today, will you have an answer?