Friday, December 24, 2010

A Christmas Prayer

God who came as a baby,

We, the faithful, come to worship and to adore you. These last weeks, we have walked through Advent in search of new and different important meanings to find in this season. Now, we gather to celebrate the familiar. Now is the time for “Hark the Herald Angels Sing” and “The First Noel.” We sing the carols we have known since childhood.

We sing the familiar with assurance because we know what we will find: you, awaiting us in a manger, under a star.

We come with a strange combination of emotions. 2010 has been difficult. Friends are sick. We have lost loved ones. Family crisis has not spared us. Floods have touched us and those we love. We are older. Divisive political rhetoric continues to turn up the volume and the vitriol on both sides. We hurt, and we grieve. The longest war in our nation’s history rages on.

And yet… the sense of joy and expectation cannot be defeated. We hear the angels singing. We are ready to join them.

We come to you because love has come to us. We seek your presence with us because we come to worship you... to see your newborn face... to hear your infant laugh... to come, like shepherds, poor as we are, to offer our hearts. We thrill to hear the angels singing “Gloria in excelsis deo.”

We come to your manger expecting Jesus.

Our soft, introspective “O Little Town” and “Silent Night” match the majesty of Christmas Eve. Christmas morning, then, is a day to overcome, to rejoice, to celebrate. Christmas morning, we are poised to declare “Joy to the World.”

Jesus of the manger, we receive you as our king. We come because we know that joy has come to the world. We join the triumph of the skies.

We pray today in the name of a baby. Amen.

Monday, December 20, 2010

Helping the Poor - The Politics of Jesus

Stephen Colbert is brilliant and funny. He is also thought-provoking. His rant from December 16 in which he declares that Jesus would be a liberal Democrat because He was always talking about helping the poor and because He never suggested tax cuts for the rich Romans has something going for it - it talks about Jesus in the present tense as a realistic basis for our decision-making. I applaud Colbert for that.

I do not applaud him for his politics, but it is probably no surprise to anyone reading this that I disagree with Colbert's politics on this one.

That is not what this blog is about. This blog is about the idea that our Christianity necessarily compels one answer to the question of dealing with the poor. The leap from "we should help the poor" to "therefore we must be liberal Democrats" is simplistic and narrow-minded. To think that all conservatives are against helping the poor is either tragically ill-informed or deluded by the extremists.

If you want to believe that the President's economic program is the best way to help the poor, you have every right to believe that. I would be happy to debate the point with you. What is sad, however, is to suggest, as some who have latched onto Colbert's rant have done, that the only way to follow Jesus is to be a liberal Democrat.

If some who wear the label "conservative" have looked down on the poor or treated poor people as lesser beings or selfishly refused to help them, that is wrong. Come to think of it, if liberals have treated poor people badly, that is wrong. None of that is inherent in being conservative or liberal.

I believe that President Obama's economic plan is not a good way to help the poor. My understanding of both economics and human nature informs me in that view. Of course, so does my religion. I agree with my friends that following Jesus necessarily calls on us to take care of the poor and to do so sacrificially. It is just that I believe that liberal Democratic economic policies are perhaps the worst possible way to do it. That is not religion. It is politics and economics.

I am not writing this blog to convince anyone to be a conservative. I don't believe the only way to follow Jesus is to be a conservative. Many of you are good Christian liberal Democrats. I hope you allow me the right to be a good Christian conservative.

It is dangerous to claim that God is on your side in a political discussion. (These claims come from both sides of the aisle, of course. On the same day several friends forwarded me the Colbert rant, I got an email from another friend decrying someone's "Obama-loving atheism.") I don't believe that Jesus' teachings allow us to do that, at least not in this particular political discussion.

A very good friend of mine (who is still a liberal Democrat, despite my efforts) makes a brilliant point about Jesus' "render unto Caesar what is Caesar's and unto God what is God's" response to the question about whether it is right to pay taxes. My friend says this: "These who questioned Jesus were trying to push him onto one side of the fence or the other ... and Jesus, in a fantastic move, demolished the fence."

There is much for us to learn. Jesus is about His father's business, and He is not distracted by lesser things like the divisive political questions of His day or ours. There is no question that Jesus told us also to be about the father's business, which of course includes taking care of the poor. But that is where the Christian unanimity ends. There are many, many ways of taking care of the poor, and some work a lot better than others. And just because the press, or the President, or Stephen Colbert declares that Jesus would have chosen a certain one does not make it so.

Don't try to force Jesus on one side or the other of the fences that we have chosen to build.

Thursday, December 9, 2010

With Friends Like These... : Why Manners Still Matter in Political Discussion

I should have known better.

I have an old friend who was in elementary school and the same church youth group in high school with me. I have not seen her since the early 80s, but through the magic of the internet, we have "friended" each other and occasionally drop each other a line.

She has a job that involves politics. She is, as best as I can tell, a spokesperson in her state for a particular party and often writes about certain issues and candidates. While I almost never respond to these posts, yesterday, I did. She had made a statement about a certain issue that I felt was unintentionally misleading, and I offered a different idea.

In rejoinder, she launched a long paragraph beginning with that dreaded phrase, "With all due respect..." You know you are about to get pounded after an intro like that. She then stated her position and listed some examples, and she concluded by saying that those who disagree with her "have not only proven to be an abject failure, they are immoral."

This is where our political dialog has gone. In what should have been a light-hearted exchange between two old friends, I made one statement and was called both an "abject failure" and "immoral."

Our two respective viewpoints are not material to this blog. You can find this level of personal attack on both sides of the political spectrum.

My point is to note that if a semi-public forum where a politico is responding to a "friend" produces this type of name-calling and insensitive rhetoric, it is not hard to understand how bad the hard-core political debate has become.

We have a serious problem in this country. It is a problem that goes far beyond tax policy, abortion, the war in Afghanistan, or WikiLeaks.

The problem is this: We don't like each other. We don't trust each other. Too many of us want everyone else to shut up so we can speak.

We have a fear of opposing views. We are largely unwilling to encounter, understand, or tolerate the opposition. We have a great deal of trouble getting along in what our grandparents would have called the required fashion.

It was not so long ago that calling somebody "immoral" would have earned you a punch in the nose.

How did we get here? Undoubtedly this is, at least in part, a necessary by-product of the combination of the explosion of information technology and the constant pressure to protect First Amendment freedoms. Both of those are good things. But they require common sense and decency among us. When the sphere of public debate opened to anyone who has a computer or a videocamera, the standards of what it takes to be a "commentator" plummeted. It's like expansion in baseball - it is a lot easier to be a starter, or even an All-Star, when there are a lot more teams that have to be filled.

Another reason we got here is the sense that the person who yells the loudest wins the argument. Whether we follow someone who says he can win the debate "with half my brain tied behind my back" or we adhere to the views of one whose "honesty ... has set the boundaries of where funny, political talk can go," we see celebrity debate defined by volume, pique, and highbrow insult.

However we got here, it is time to evaluate where we are going. Does anybody at this point think the level of political dialog in this country is on-balance good? Is there anybody left who really believes the discussion can be bettered with just one more ad hominem attack?

It is an individual responsibility. Each of us needs to remember what our mothers taught us. Watch the shows that respect people. Use language that engages issues without demeaning the opponent. Vote for candidates who are interested in bettering your community instead of earning the sound bite.

I know I may be dreaming.

So let's just start here. Don't call your friends "immoral" because they take a different political position from yours.