Saturday, August 1, 2009

"Good Fences make Good Neighbors"

JULY 31, 2009 3:44PM

Allie, Jake and Gracie. Since this picture was taken Jake is bigger than both of his half sisters

We were frustrated and angry. I said, "We'll put in a fence."

"A fence?"

"Yeah, not around everything. Just on this side, from the front of the porch to the property line, then back to the garage and tie in there. About 130 feet as I measure it, maybe a little more."

"What kind of fence?"

"I was thinking a tall, 5', chain link. Something strong but that you can see through."

"Well, I definitely would want to be able to see through it to see what that bitch is doing. But isn't that pretty expensive?"

"Look, she says she will kill the kittens if they come on her porch again and I believe her. And you know they probably will go there again before we can catch them because Irene always fed them there before she moved. So, yes, we will catch the kittens and bring them inside, but I don't know how easy it will be to trap Mama."

"So? I still don't see why we need a fence."

"Because she has told you and everyone else that she has no intention of moving. And even if she does we have had pretty poor luck with those neighbors in that apartment. More importantly, you know that dog lunges at you every time you walk to the garage. She intentionally puts him so he comes right to the property line and sometimes over.

I saw that metal stake she puts the chain on. Its driven in the ground less that a foot. If that dog pulled that stake out you could never fight off a vicious 100 pound dog and you know it. The Police Chief says he talked to her and she told him to get off her property. There is nothing he can do until the dog actually hurts someone."


We had been feeding the Mama cat and her two kittens in our summer kitchen shed. We had a heated water bowl and heated pad they could use for warmth, but they seldom stayed in the shed. Earlier that spring Sue caught the kittens and we had them spayed and given rabies shots.

They were about nine months old at the time, calico sisters of the two kitten litter Mama had dropped the prior summer. We called them Gracie and Allie, for Gracie Allen. I can't remember why. We did not consider them "our" cats. They were feral and we already had a cat.

Since we had no doubt that the woman next door would try to kill them, we had to catch the kittens again and bring them inside to be house cats if they would tolerate that. Sue caught them, brought them inside and they adapted quickly.

Unfortunately, our old brindled tabby, Divot, hated them and attacked them constantly. Fur flew everywhere and they were terrorized. Later, after months of trying to figure a way to keep Divot from killing them we gave up and a good friend who had to put her dog down recently took Divot.

Divot adjusted totally to being the only cat again and is happy. We pay for Divot's vet bills, buy food and litter for her when our friend will let us, and Sue visits our friend and Divot frequently. Now that Divot is queen again and has no competition, she could not be happier.

Meanwhile, since there was no way we were going to get that renter to move from next door I proceeded with the fence project. First was the land survey which was $450. I got a friend who was starting a landscaping business to do it as a way to add to the things he offered his customers.

Although he had never done it before he did an excellent job and charged me "only" $1250, about half of what others were charging. So the fence project was $1700. Vet bills were another $150 for the feral kittens, and we still had the evil woman next door to contend with. Why? Because of the dog -- and because before we caught Mama she had another litter. We didn't know where she was keeping her kittens.

We had started feeding Mama out behind the garage on the alley because the dog would go nuts when he saw her and she would not come around, and the woman next door was threatening to kill her too. I had no doubt she would poison Mama if she could.

Within two months Mama started showing up out at the garage with two kittens, a light colored calico and a gray and black tabby. While we had put a nice custom made cat box out with the food and water they seldom got in it, preferring to live in the bushes and under the sheds in the neighborhood.

One morning Sue called me from work, "The cat box and the food and water dishes are gone."

What do you mean 'gone?'"

"They were there when I came home from work last night and they are just gone this morning."

"We both know who took them but there is no way to prove it."

"I know. But now I am worried about the kittens. If she sees them you know what she will do. They can scoot right under the fence in several places. I've seen them do it."

We agreed that we had all the cats we needed and that we would try to find a home for the kittens. So we called around to see if we could find anyone to take them. That did not work out.

A week later.

"The calico hasn't been around all week."

We looked around the neighborhood several times but never saw the calico again and have no idea whether the woman next door had caught it and killed it or if something else happened to it. Again, we had a theory and no proof.

Meanwhile, Mama had started rejecting the gray tabby, swiping at him if he came to eat and hissing and running him off. He was almost three months old and we had watched Mama do the same to Gracie and Allie at about the same age.

Mama's hormones were kicking in and she was likely to go into heat again shortly. It was time to catch her if we could and have her spayed. Eventually we caught her in a humane trap and had her spayed and given a rabies vaccine.

The little gray tabby was ultra friendly, loud and demanding of attention from Sue, totally unlike his calico sister who was shy and skittish before she vanished. Whenever the garage door was opened in the morning he was waiting for attention, running to her and crying all the time. She would pick him up, pet him and then get into the car. Soon he was jumping into the car as soon as she opened the door.

He would wait for her in the afternoons and as soon as she got home he would follow her car into the garage and yell his head off for attention. She was trying desperately to not get attached to him. But he started following her to the house and the dog next door would lunge and bark and claw at the ground and sometimes the fence.

I had more words with the woman about chaining the dog too close to the fence, which was 6" inside my property line. She screamed at me and I gave up and called the Police. They spoke to her again and told her I would press charges if the dog kept tearing at my new fence. I heard her screaming at them but the next day the stake was a couple of feet further from the fence.

Meanwhile we gave up trying to convince ourselves that we could not take in one more kitten, which is how we got Jake. He decided he was an inside cat and was never going to be alone again from the moment we set him down on the kitchen floor. He quickly started following his half sisters around demanding their attention too.

I named him Jacob because the Jacob of the Bible was a charmer and a scoundrel and Jake is growing into the name very well. He is loving, gets in trouble all the time, charms the socks off of everyone and then gets into more trouble -- just like his namesake did.

Through all of this commotion and anger and frustration with the woman next door I had been talking to her landlady about her. The landlady told me that she would do nothing about her until something happened that I could prove. It never did.

But, adding in the vet costs for Jake, when the dust settled the woman had cost us about $2000.

And, wouldn't you know, only a few months after we took in Jake the woman moved. I don't know why she moved but we were relieved to say the least.

Today, we have a new neighbor, another renter, a very nice single man in his 40s who has two cats! We often talk over the fence, almost always about loving cats. Right now I figure if every conversation we have is worth, say, $1, we should pay for the fence in about half a century or so.

I am gradually more able to look at the fence and not see dollar signs, but hey, "Good fences make good neighbors."

Or do they?

Monday, July 27, 2009

Mourning into Dancing


Note: like most of my religious posts this is not short. If you are looking for a religious sound bite, this is not it. Understanding religion is not easy even for professional clergy and theologians like myself. And making it easier to understand by intelligent laypersons takes more words than if I were writing a professional paper where I could assume that everyone understood the text, the context, the jargon, the shortcut phrases, and such. I write this post to be clear and understandable to Christians, and, hopefully, to other believers and non-believers alike. Keep in mind this is written by a Christian for other Christians and those interested in this religion, but it contains metaphors, themes and moral injunctions that should appeal to anyone interested in living an ethical life.

Jeremiah 31:1 At that time, says the LORD, I will be the God of all the families of Israel, and they shall be my people. 2 Thus says the LORD: The people who survived the sword found grace in the wilderness; when Israel sought for rest,

3 the LORD appeared to him from far away. I have loved you with an everlasting love; therefore I have continued my faithfulness to you. 4 Again I will build you, and you shall be built, O virgin Israel! Again you shall take your tambourines, and go forth in the dance of the merrymakers.

5 Again you shall plant vineyards on the mountains of Samaria; the planters shall plant, and shall enjoy the fruit. 6 For there shall be a day when sentinels will call in the hill country of Ephraim: "Come, let us go up to Zion, to the LORD our God."

7 For thus says the LORD: Sing aloud with gladness for Jacob, and raise shouts for the chief of the nations; proclaim, give praise, and say, "Save, O LORD, your people, the remnant of Israel."

8 See, I am going to bring them from the land of the north, and gather them from the farthest parts of the earth, among them the blind and the lame, those with child and those in labor, together; a great company, they shall return here.

9 With weeping they shall come, and with consolations I will lead them back, I will let them walk by brooks of water, in a straight path in which they shall not stumble; for I have become a father to Israel, and Ephraim is my firstborn.

10 Hear the word of the LORD, O nations, and declare it in the coastlands far away; say, "He who scattered Israel will gather him, and will keep him as a shepherd a flock." 11 For the LORD has ransomed Jacob, and has redeemed him from hands too strong for him.

12 They shall come and sing aloud on the height of Zion, and they shall be radiant over the goodness of the LORD, over the grain, the wine, and the oil, and over the young of the flock and the herd; their life shall become like a watered garden, and they shall never languish again.

13 Then shall the young women rejoice in the dance, and the young men and the old shall be merry. I will turn their mourning nto joy, I will comfort them, and give them gladness for sorrow.

Jeremiah is a hard prophet to write about and the passage above is not typical of his writings; but it is the most important thing he has to say to us today. Mostly Jeremiah was a prophet of gloom and doom, and rightly so, given the time in which he prophesied. And, even a casual reading of his book will leave most readers with the distinct impression that often his elevator did not seem to go to the top floor.

Jeremiah was known to do crazy things. He was kind of a living metaphor. For instance, one time he walked 800 miles from Jerusalem to a place on the Euphrates River where he buried his new underwear in the side of the river bank, because, he said, "The Lord told him to do it."

Then, much later on, having returned to Jerusalem, he goes back to the river and digs the underwear out of the river bank, and the garments have all rotted and decayed. His point? This same fate will happen to Judah if it does not straighten up. A dramatic demonstration, to be sure, but there must have been an easier way to get the point across!

When not busy subjecting his underwear to the rot test he is screaming at people and almost gets himself killed several times for speaking God's word to people who simply don't believe it is God's word. How can God's word actually come from a guy who seems several cards short of a full deck?

And so, Jeremiah was often in mourning, mourning for the nation, and at times for himself; mourning because the day of reckoning for Judah was fast approaching and the people who needed to listen mostly ignored him.

But we must also remember that Jeremiah always had something than many, then and now, do not have: hope. Jeremiah was never without hope. Amidst his outrage, his diatribes, his utter disgust with the government and its people, God never let Jeremiah forgot that, with God, there was always hope.

But, mostly he was in mourning and left to his own devices he would have been a bitter, lonely man. But God filled him with hope, hope that he otherwise would have rejected because all he had to do was to look around him and see that there was no reason to hope.

And just as God insisted that Jeremiah preach the damning of the nation which had lost its way, God insisted that Jeremiah include in his message the hope of a brighter day.

Remember another thing about Jeremiah: he was God's spokesman, and it did not matter to him if he fully understood why God wanted him to say and do what he did, nor if he agreed with it. He spoke what God told him to say, and if he personally suffered from the responses to his oracles, well, that just went with the territory. And in the text above it is clear that at one point in this dismal prophet's life God told him to speak of turning mourning into dancing.

For you to understand how he got to this point I need to set the scene for you. Israel is in shambles. The Northern Kingdom, Ephraim, has already been overrun for over a hundred years, and is captive to foreigners.

What is left of free Israel is the smaller southern part, Judah, which is now facing its own doom, and is about to be destroyed by Babylonian hordes from the north. Shortly, the great city of Jerusalem, the city of David, will fall, not once but twice in ten years, and its leaders will be marched off to Babylon in chains.

Ironically, Jeremiah is the only prophet who understands that this invasion by the Babylonians is God's work. It is God's punishment of the Israelites for turning away from him.

Yet, in the midst of all the chaos, rot and decay, in the twilight right before the darkness of total military defeat, God speaks a work of hope through Jeremiah: "In that time, says the Lord, I will be the God of all the families...and they will be my people."

But when, one might ask, is "that time" in which God will once again be with God's people? There is an unstated opportunity for learning here, for the Israelites and for us. "That time" is in God's hands. "That time" will be when God says it will be. God's promise insists that God is in control, even though the Israelites may think that they are.

God is in control; not Judah; certainly not already defeated Ephraim. Even the fierce Babylonians are but the tools God will use to chastise the Israelites who have turned their hearts from him believing that they are in charge of their own futures.

Given that, what then, is the role of the Israelites? Israel's role is the wait and watch upon the Lord in hope, waiting and listening for his Word. God has promised that hope will be rewarded "in good [God's] time."

What is a bit amazing is that we Christians are already much better off than the ancient Israelites. Christians can not hide behind the idea that we have not heard. We have already heard God's word to Christians, and still we dig ourselves deeper into sin.

God has not told us to wait and watch for when God will be with us. Christians have been told for over 2000 years that our salvation is here, now, Emmanuel, "God with us." God has already answered us.

But have we really heard him? Do we really believe it? Have we heard him tell us that now is the time to turn our mourning into dancing?

The Israelites had to wait through a time of destruction and despair before they were to hear the Word of God again. But we have heard it. Christians know what that Word is, who that Word is: Jesus Christ. For those who believe the Christian message and know what it means to follow him in the Way, this time, now, is "in God's good time."

The Gospel message is that this is the time when God says it is time to turn our mourning into joy, our mourning into dancing. This is the time to dance, to participate in the party that God is offering us because of faith in his Son.

God is saying to us, "I have loved you with an everlasting love; therefore I have continued my faithfulness to you." If we believe that then why all the worry about when "things" will get better? Things, including material things, are already better for many of us. But. instead of helping things get better for all, we insist on hoarding our blessings, including our bounty.

Are we sharing those blessing with others so they can know them too? Are we reaching out to those that are hurting, have suffered losses, are in the throes of illness, and said that we will be with them and pray for them, that we will help them, sharing with them some of the love that God has poured out on us?

A few have shared generously and continue to do so; many have done that for a while and then fallen back into fearful, self preservation mode, even though God tells us we already have our salvation, that however bad it is now for us we will experience joy and love beyond our comprehension at a future time.

This is the time to share, to invite, to help, to reach out, to give both our bounty and our love to others. This is the time to dance, and to share that hope with others who have it far worse than we do, a time to turn our mourning, our self directed pity, towards others who are desparate to turn their mourning into dancing.

We may say that we are not worthy to celebrate; we may say that our Christianity is weak, that we have doubts about our faith. Of course we are not worthy! Christianity does not exist because we are worthy. We have weaknesses; we have doubt; we are, in other words, human. If we were worthy we would not need Jesus, his love, his sacrifice for us. God isn't inviting us to dance because we are worthy. He is inviting us because he loves us. It is by our faith in his Son that we are "considered" worthy.

We may say that we can't forgive those harsh words, the hurt we felt, when this one or that one said this or that, or did this or that to us.. We may say to ourselves, "I find it hard, maybe impossible to forgive." Of course it is hard to forgive. We are all sinners.

Why would we think that forgiveness should be easy? It was not easy for Christ to go to the Cross for us; to forgive we who crucified him. Yes. You are a sinner. But don't be afraid to come to the party -- because God is inviting only sinners anyway!

Why hold on to old hates, when there is so much love that you could be spreading around? So come to the party dressed in your sins. God loves you and if you come to the party some of that excessive love that God freely gives may rub off on you. And you may be surprised to find that you have the courage to ask that person that you "simply cannot stand" to dance.

Remember this: everyone is invited. Everyone. God excludes not one single person. To the Israelites he invited the far flung remnant to come home and rest under their own vines and trees unafraid. Christians are asked to invite others to "come and see" what we have when we gather to worship.

Were we to do that what would the visitors see? Would they see Christians partying, rejoicing in God's grace, welcoming all to come in and party with us?

Or would they see us picking and choosing who could come, who could dance, who will be considered eligible to become "insiders" and who we will define as "outsiders?' Would they see a warm, open, welcoming, joy filled group of people or would they find a dour, doubtful, fearful, closed, prejudicial, worried and inbreed bunch who have confused their own insistent selectivity with God's openness and love?

Christians would do well to remember that God calls all people in this world "his children." Christians have the way that we come to him, to close the gap between us and him. But Jesus came to the world that all might be saved, that all would be welcome, that all may know the joy of turning mourning into dancing.

No one should presume to claim that they know how God intends to bring all people to him. I know how God intends to bring Christians to him. That is enough for me to know. I have found in my years of working with Christians that I had more than enough work just getting Christians to dance. But the goal is the same regardless of the path: to make it to the dance and to live within the spirit of the promise of God to Jeremiah.

"They shall come and sing aloud on the height of Zion, and they shall be radiant over the goodness of the LORD, over the grain, the wine, and the oil, and over the young of the flock and the herd; their life shall become like a watered garden, and they shall never languish again. Then shall the young women rejoice in the dance, and the young men and the old shall be merry. I will turn their mourning into joy, I will comfort them, and give them gladness for sorrow."

God promises that the rest of this life and the life to come can be a party, a dance in celebration of life, of God's gift of that life to us. Now is the time to turn our mourning into dancing.

Sunday, July 26, 2009

The Case of Shoney's Big Boy & Evil Motorcyclists!

First published on JULY 20, 2009 2:01PM

The famous Shoney's Big Boy Mascot
A typical Shoney's Big Boy Resturant in the '50s to '70s

Riders bunched up --
right before setting the bike for a slide turn

Based on a true story. Summer, 1968

Every summer my best friend, Earl, and I chased the Grand National motorcycle circuit.

Flat Track racing was the most important part of the Grand National Circuit. At speeds that can hit 140 mph on one mile dirt tracks, riders slide into a corner, lean in for a left turn, put weight onto a steel soled shoe used as an outrigger, turn the front wheel to the right to scrub off speed, and slide the rear end of the bike around to face the other way.

This is a ballet of exquisite and infinitely dangerous beauty, often with more than a dozen riders hitting the corner at the same time, three and four wide, rubbing handlebars as they execute the turn. There is nothing remotely like it.

Every year Earl and I rode our bikes from DC to five to ten flat track races. We were young and we worked in the Executive Office of the President (EOP) so we were full of ourselves. We also drank too much. But we were happy drunks. Mostly.

This trip was in August. We were going to the Charity Newsies race at Columbus, Ohio.

Before I-68 was built the quickest route from DC was north on 1-70 which became the Pennsylvania Turnpike heading west and then, south of Pittsburgh, getting off the Turnpike where it was then a straight shot to Columbus through Wheeling, WV, and into Ohio. Not quite 500 miles.

I was on my new 1968 Triumph Bonneville and Earl was on a 1966 Honda CB 450. We left DC around 9 am on Saturday morning and made good time. We hit Wheeling about 4 in the afternoon. We decided to eat in Wheeling. Actually, I decided it. I wanted to do it early and at a place that didn't serve liquor. Earl would drink if it did.

There was a Shoney's Big Boy in Wheeling right off the interstate. As we rode into the parking lot a sign saying "No motorcycles" greeted us. We parked near the door and went in anyway.

When we got into the restaurant we were met by an overweight matronly woman who said, "No motorcyclists are allowed in here."

Earl said, "What do you mean, "No motorcyclists?'

"It's the policy. No motorcyclists.'

"Are you the manager?"

"I'm the head waitress. No motorcyclists."

"Let me speak to the manager."

She sighed and turned and walked to the back of the dining room and disappeared into a hallway. By this time others were entering behind us.

A small, thin middle aged man with no chin and wearing glasses came out to talk to us.

"I'm sorry, gentlemen, but you will have to leave. Corporate policy is clear. No motorcyclists are allowed."

"Corporate policy? "

"We are a chain of restaurants and no motorcyclists are allowed in any of our establishments."

Earl, usually calm and by nature bemused by life in general turned to me and said, "Let's go. There is a bar and grill across the street."

I'd like to tell you that I was furious about the policy, but the truth was that while I didn't like it at all we ran into it a lot of places. The other truth was that we were still 150 miles from Columbus and I had no intention of riding with Earl after he had three or four Martinis.

"Show him your parking permit, Earl."

Earl turned to me and said, "I don't have any parking permit for here." He could be thick at times. I moved in front of him, got out my wallet and produced my parking permit, said nothing, and handed it to the manager.

The parking permit was plastic laminate with a picture of the White House in the background and bold letters saying "West Wing Motorcycle Parking. Use North Gate." It had an identification picture of me wearing a suit.

Now the truth was that we did not work "in" the White House. We worked next door in the old Executive Office Building. But there was staff parking across from the West Wing Portico on a concrete pad made especially for motorcycles. EOP and White House staff both used it.

The manager looked at the permit and studied it quite a while. Meanwhile the line behind us had become a bunch of hungry, pissed off people. They were hesitant to say anything. They had watched too many biker movies.

The manager handed me back the card and said, "I'm sorry, sir, but the policy is still no motorcyclists."

I said, "Fine. We'll leave, but first I need to use your phone. In private. I need to call long distance and I will reverse the charges."

Seeing this as a way to get us out of the restaurant he said, "Follow me."

Earl said, "I'll wait here."

I went with the manager into his tiny office. He handed the phone to me across his desk. I took it from him, set it down on the desk, dialed "0" and then a number, picked the phone back up and walked away from the desk as far as it would allow, turned my back to him and pushed the button down on the cradle.

"Yes, operator, my name is Monte Canfield. Please reverse the charges." I paused a while. "Hi, Give me Bill Storm's office please." I paused. "How you doing, Cathy? It's Monte. We've run into a little trouble here in Wheeling, West Virginia. Is Bill in?"

I again paused a while and said, "Hi, Bill. Yeah. Got a bit of a problem here, a case of corporate discrimination." Then I explained to the imaginary person on the other end of the line what we had run into. "Wednesday or Thursday? Yes. Got it. I'll tell the Manager. Yes. We will. Thanks. See you Tuesday. Bye."

I handed the phone back to the Manager, who looked a little pale in the gills, and thanked him.

"Who were you talking to?"

"The Secret Service."

"The Secret Service? Why?"

"Well, the President never has liked any kind of discrimination, as you know. And when we run into it we are supposed to report it and the Secret Service takes it from there. They give it to the Justice Department to handle. The FBI will have a man out here Wednesday or Thursday."

"The FBI!?"

Yes. Who do you thinks investigates for the Justice Department?

"Look, we don't want any trouble. Why don't you gentlemen just come on in and eat and we can forget the whole thing."

"Can't do that. You've got a "No Motorcycles" sign out front and you didn't want us in here before I called them. That told me all I needed to know."

I turned and started walking back to the front of the restaurant. The little guy was following me all the way telling me how sorry he was, that it wasn't his fault, he was only following the rules, that it was corporate policy, and getting more upset by the second.

When we got out to the waiting area Earl was sitting there on a bench reading a newspaper.

"Let's go, Earl."

The manager was literally plucking at the sleeve of my leather jacket.

I turned to him, "What?"


I waited a while just staring at him. Finally I leaned down close to him and said, softy, "OK. Look. We'll be back through here on Monday. We'll stop by and see what your 'corporate policy' is by then. If it is different, I'll stop the investigation. OK? But that is the only chance you get."

"I understand."

We walked out the door, got on the bikes, and Earl looked at me and said, "What went on back there?

I wanted him to suffer a bit so I said "Nothing. Let's go."

"I need a drink."

"No, you don't. You don't need a drink until we get to Columbus and get checked in to a room. Then you need a drink. By then I will need one too. We're going to McDonald's."

We went to McDonald's. Then we got on the bikes and rode hard to Columbus, where we got a room at a Holiday Inn.

Earl was pretty cheap otherwise but he always insisted on an upscale motel, with a bar. We checked in, headed for the bar, had a few drinks and a late dinner in the attached restaurant. I ate mine. Earl picked at his while drinking Manhattans.

We had a great time at the race on Sunday; saw the full program which ran from noon well into the evening. The final started about 9 pm. It was some of the best racing in the world.

My favorite, Gary Nixon, National Number One, on a Triumph Bonneville much like mine, won. Beat the field of mostly Harleys. With that win he cinched the National Number One title two years in a row, 1967 and 1968. That was a satisfying feeling for a Triumph junkie like me.

On Monday we headed home. At lunch time we pulled into the Shoney's Big Boy in Wheeling. The sign was gone. We parked near the door, intentionally took our helmets in with us and were ushered to a seat immediately.

I had a tuna salad sandwich with chips. Earl had a salad, a chicken fried steak with home fries and fried okra, and peach pie a la mode for desert along with about four cups of coffee. That boy could pack it away as long as it was early in the day.

For the record, I never ate at a Shoney's Big Boy again. Then again, I never saw a "No Motorcycles" sign outside of one again either.

The Fat Boy that Didn't Fit

First published on JULY 14, 2009 3:15PM


I wrote this as fiction to protect the guilty.

It was a hot evening in Newcomerstown. Chilly Willy's weeknight rush was over. Families had eaten their grease laden burgers and fries, topped that with cones or sundaes for desert, and hurried back home in their air conditioned cars to watch UFC Unleashed on TV.

Cones melt quickly in that kind of heat so I was sitting eating a small bowl of soft serve out back under the canopy that was over a bunch of picnic tables. Nobody else was out there. My butt was on the table and my feet on the seat bench. I was turned toward the street keeping an eye on my new Bonneville Black. First summer I had it. It gleamed. Black and chrome. Simple elegance.

I heard loud straight pipes from four blocks away. A Harley. I couldn't see it, the Middle School blocked all sight in that direction. I listened as it pulled off the red light in front of the grocery store and I expected it to turn right at the next block and ride to the biker bar two blocks north. Instead it kept coming and stopped at another red half a block from where I was.

When the light turned I heard the distinct Harley "clunk" into 1st, and the roar as the bike peeled away from the intersection, on its way, I figured, over to West Lafayette. But, just as the sound got almost to me it changed and was coming right at me. The rider pulled in next to my bike and shut down the engine. Thank God for the quiet. Harley Fat Boy, not quite new and well kept. Long straight pipes with no other obvious modifications.

The rider was wearing jeans, death's head t-shirt, open denim vest, engineering boots and a doo rag on his head. Tattoo on one arm. He was maybe 5' 9", 180. He took the doo rag off and shook down his hair and ran his fingers through it. I thought nothing of it. I wear a helmet, have long hair and do the same thing. Something about the careful way he did that made me look again. He was a she.

She got off, looked at my bike and then at me.

"That your piece of shit?"

I didn't answer.

She walked over to me and stood on the sidewalk between me and the bikes.

"I axed you a question."

"I don't respond to insults. Better I keep my mouth shut. Never quite know what will come out when I am pissed."

"Well, listen to you. You some kind of tough old man, ain't you? Everybody I know calls Triumphs a piece of shit."

"Then you need to get around more, find out there are more brands than Harley."

There was a small smirk at the left edge of her lips.

"Hell. If I told anybody over at the Touraine Club I had a Trumpet they would kick my ass out."

"There are more places to drink beer than the Touraine. But you may not have noticed. I don't know why all you Hog riders run together like a pack of lemmings anyway, wear the same clothes, parrot each other's prejudices, pimp your bikes exactly the same way, and put on straight pipes that you have to know piss off all the non riders as well as a lot of riders like me."

I figured that would piss her off but I was sick of her attitude, sick of Harleys, not too happy with the redneck Harley owners in town with their 'monkey see, monkey do' attitude, and damned sick of being awakened every night by drunk Hog riders roaring home from the Touraine Club. Frankly, I just didn't give a shit what she thought. She could try to beat up this old man if she wanted. And maybe she could. I half way expected her to give it a shot.

Instead she says, "Hold that thought," and walks into Willy's. She is out in a minute or two with a huge vanilla cone with sprinkles! Sprinkles? Talk about ruining a carefully cultivated image!

She walks up to the table, and sits down on end of the table opposite me. And starts eating her soft serve, which is melting fast in the heat. After she is pretty sure she can say a word without having it drip, she looks at the two bikes sitting there side by side.

"You know, you are the only person I ever met who told me straight out what I have been axin' myself for quite a while now."

I didn't look at her. It might make her clam up.

"I used to ride on the back of my husband's Glide but I got sick of looking at his back and finally told him I wanted my own bike. Took him two years to get worn down enough to agree. I went looking on my own and I told him I really liked a 650cc Yamaha V-Twin. Fit me real nice. Easy to maneuver around in parking lots, just my size. I sat on a pretty red up at Apex in Philly."

"You didn't get it, from the looks of that Fat Boy."

"Hell no, Tom had a fit. Said that no wife of his was riding no rice burner. It was a Harley or nothing. And he didn't want me on any Sportster. Sportsters are, he says, for wimps. So now we are making payments on a used bike that cost twice as much as the Yamaha, is hell to move around when it isn't running, a bitch to turn in curves, doesn't fit me and is too damned loud."

"Other than that you like it, huh?"

This time I did look at her and she smiled.

"Yeah, other than that. That and this tat that I didn't want, wearing a vest that I don't like, these stupid t-shirts that say that I am someone that I'm really not, and riding with pipes that embarrass the hell out of me. And, yeah, I don't like never having a beer here in my own home town anyplace other than the Touraine."

"I imagine that would feel just a bit confining."

She changed the subject.

"Your wife ride?"

"Yeah, as I got fatter she got more and more tired of looking at my growing back. She started riding in '04. We do a lot of touring. She has racked up over 35000 miles since then. Loves it."

"What does she ride?"

"Kawasaki Vulcan 500 parallel twin cruiser."

"Isn't that small for the interstate?"

"Actually, we ride at least half of our trips on two lane highways. We take our time and enjoy the sites. And, no. Its not too small at all. It will cruise all day at 65-70 with a full touring kit of windshield, tank bag, seat bag, rack bag and saddlebags loaded with gear. At my age I don't want to go any faster than that anyway. Besides, her bike has a top speed of 125 so she is only using a little more than half of its potential."

She just looked at me, saying nothing, gave a small nod and then she was up and off the table. She threw the rest of her sodden cone in the trash can and stood on the sidewalk looking at me again. Her attitude seemed different.

"Well, nice to talk to you. And your bike really ain't bad. I just kind of get in a rut, you know?"

"Me too."

She walked to the big Fat Boy, swung a leg over it, stuffed her hair under her doo rag, thumbed the starter and the engine roared into life. Over the din she yelled at me.

"Thanks. Tom don't know it but after he gets a couple of beers into him tonight I am going to encourage him to have an attitude adjustment. I got me a sweet little red Yamaha in mind that he needs to reconsider."

I live on the main drag into town. About two months later I was sitting on my front porch and heard this straight piped Harley coming down the highway from a mile away. It turned off US 36, cranked it up for the one block to our street, turned in and roared down the street toward me, and I saw that it was her bike. From a distance she looked different, no doo rag for one thing. As she got closer I saw that she was a he. He was wearing a full double breasted leather biker jacket, zipped up, in the summer no less. I was starting to think I was developmentally challenged when it came to identifying the sex of Harley riders.

It was her bike alright, but it wasn't her. Old Tom must have had that attitude adjustment.

Couple of weeks later I'm sitting on the porch again and this guy roars by on a full dress Glide, straight pipes. Its far too big a bike for him. Short hair, t shirt, tats. Looked to be about 5' 6' or so, maybe 140 pounds soaking wet. Following a half block behind him was the prettiest little bright red 650cc Yamaha V Twin you ever saw, decked out in full touring kit: windshield, saddlebags, luggage rack, and quiet OEM mufflers. Had a nice purring growl to it. Not obnoxious at all.

As she rode by I saw that she had gotten rid of the vest and the doo rag and had tied her hair in a pony tail. She had a grin from ear to ear. I stood up and clapped as she went by. She pumped her left arm into the air, at the end of which were two fingers raised in a V.

The Bible

First published on JULY 13, 2009 7:06AM


Note: This post contains teaching applicable to Christians. However, much of it is equally applicable to Jews. I also think that it can be helpful to those of other faiths and of no faith at all who approach it with good will. This is how I view the Bible, nothing more, nothing less.

This is, of course, not the only way to look at the Bible. Unfortunately, too often those other ways have lead to abuse of the Bible and of those who trust the abusers. Many people have used it as a club with which to beat others over the head, to laud their superiority over others, to keep them in submission and under control, to foist their own agendas upon it and then claim that the Bible justifies their actions, and in hundreds of other both stupefyingly ignorant abuses of it as well as in highly intelligent yet devious and equally abusive uses of it.

It is time that we realize that the Bible is not our book to abuse as we please. It is God's book and we should do our best to use it as what it is meant to be: a source of God's revelation of God's self to us. If we believe, as I do, that the Bible is a Holy Book then it is incumbent upon us to treat it with respect. At the same time it is equally incumbent upon us not to worship it.

What follows flows from an discussion first of a small portion of a letter from St. Paul to his disciple, Timothy.

2 Timothy: 14 But as for you, continue in what you have learned and firmly believed, knowing from whom you learned it, 15 and how from childhood you have known the sacred writings that are able to instruct you for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus. 16 All scripture is inspired by God and is useful for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, 17 so that everyone who belongs to God may be proficient, equipped for every good work.

As we read above, in this letter Paul is admonishing his beloved pupil that Timothy should persevere in what he believes. He is to remember that he has known from childhood the "sacred writings" that are able to "instruct" him for salvation through his faith in Jesus Christ. Paul goes on to say that these scriptures are inspired by God and all are useful for teaching and for training in righteousness.

Paul was talking about the book we now call the "Old Testament" or the "Hebrew Bible." In Christian teaching Paul's admonitions have long since been applied to the New Testament writings, including, of course, Paul's own writings.

Today, Christians believe that Paul's teachings to Timothy are equally applicable to us. And so, some 2000 years later we are still to look to the Bible for teaching and training in righteousness. In fact, Christians look to the Bible as the primary source of God's revelation to humanity. It is to both inform us and to form us as to how we are to live.

Unfortunately, well meaning pastors, seeking to never offend a single soul in their flocks, see their jobs as taking what has long been considered an old, culturally conditioned, sexist, and often racist and narrow minded book in parts, and, rather than dealing with those issues head on, choose to poke around here and there in it and find the parts that might be "compatible" with our way of living. It then becomes kind of a soft, easy to swallow and digest, bland and tasteless gruel, but at least that is not offensive to anyone.

So too many then poke around in it and take some from part A and some from part B, conflate them, and wonder why they provide no nourishment. Worse, some then think this gruel needs to be spiced up a bit so they decide to tell the Bible what is possible and what is not, what they think is rational and what isn't, what they think make sense and what doesn't. All this is in some vague hope that we will pay attention to it, or at least be able to ignore it without having a guilt trip from hearing it.

For decades Robert Schuller filled the Crystal Cathedral and wrote dozens of "Be Happy" books by taking note of the American craving for self esteem and crafting a message which rendered Jesus into a personal therapist. Today, varying the theme just a bit, Joel Osteen fills his Lakewood Church with tens of thousands by preaching another form of feel good religion, calling himself a "life coach."

At the other end of the spectrum we have preachers like Jimmy Swaggart who preached hell fire and damnation for those who did not subscribe to the strictest of guidelines which he carefully picked selectively from the Bible. Ironically, of course, when he was caught in the act of sin, he then appealed to his public and, in tearful confession, managed to stay in the ministry and, within two years, was preaching the same old time religion that failed to keep him from straying.

When I was in seminary some self proclaimed feminists were somehow "shocked" to learn that the Bible was sexist, although there had been dozens of books written on the subject and a class was taught on the fact for two decades, and refused to take essentially any of the Bible seriously, rewriting it before giving practice sermons to say what it should have said, and would have said had a woman written it.

Since then, with a predominance of women now graduating from the nation's mainstream seminaries those soon to be pastors have taken to dealing with the sexism issues in the Bible head on, not shocked at all, but discussing the problem, shining a light on it and moving on to find the truth that lies behind the culturally conditioned words. Those are two very different ways of dealing with the same problem. And it proves that progress in Biblical interpretation is not impossible.

In conservative evangelical circles entire denominations and their seminaries have chosen to concentrate exclusively on one or two types of "sin" that they define and rail out against those. They conveniently exclude worrying about the other million or so sins that they themselves indulge in and have declared somehow "lesser" sins, although the Bible does not distinguish sin on the basis of severity. Some of the "sins" that they claim are not even sins when the Bible is carefully studied and interpreted.

There are literally hundreds of other examples I could cite, and no doubt you have come head to head with some of this arrogance that is allegedly "in the Bible." Now, some of this highly indigestible stuff actually is. But most is not. And when it is it needs to be dealt with directly and a light shown upon it. For some reason, however, many pastors and preachers don't have a stomach for dealing with these issues honestly.

All of this is simply to prepare you for my belief that I do not think it is my job, or the job of any pastor or theologian, to make the Bible palatable to modern men and women, nor do I think it is the job of any legitimate pastor, teacher, preacher or theologian to use the Bible to make it tell us what they want the Bible to say.

Rather, my job is to make modern men and women, including me, able to hear what the Bible is saying to us. And that job extends to making us able to hear what the Bible is saying even if we don't like it, and even if we disagree with it. I do not assume that task is easy. It is much harder, in fact, than doing any of the easier things above. It is infinitely easier to read into the Bible what we want to hear (eisogesis) that to read out of the Bible what it is saying to us (exegesis).

It is hard to do exegesis because we often approach the Bible not as the sophisticated, educated and erudite people that we think we are, but rather as parochial, myopic folk whose vision doesn't extend much further than what has or is happened to us.

When I was preaching I know that many of the people in the congregation came to church wondering whether or not I was going to preach about something that would make them feel better, solve a particular problem that was bothering them, or give them a lift. I tried to do some of that, but that was never the real reason they should have come. They needed to come to worship God and hear what God was saying to them. If they did that chances are that they would feel better without worrying about whether they would or not.

I think that the Bible sometimes has rough going among us not because we are modern, sophisticated, astute, logical and rational, but rather because we can become quite content to be naive, narrow minded, narcissistic, inexperienced critics of the very book that Christians say we depend upon to guide our understanding of the world and our life in it. And when we allow ourselves to be like that, well, the Bible just seems odd. And there is the rub. Because when it comes right down to it our true feelings about it and abilities to understand it do not match our stated allegiance to the Bible. Too many Christians prefer to "talk the talk" and not "walk the walk."

Nevertheless, millions of Christians gather in churches on Sunday and act as if the Bible knows more about life than they do. We even pledge ourselves, over and over again, to living as though that is true. But far fewer actually live as if it is true. If we were honest we would admit we spend very little time with the Bible, and that we think that it is odd, difficult, demanding, and dogmatic.

But, what, in the name of heaven, do we expect? It is the BIBLE! Do we really want and expect that the Bible should read like a third grade primer about Dick and Jane? Do we really want a book that deals with complicated issues like life and death to read like a Doonesbury cartoon?

The Bible is, after all, about life. Where did we ever get the notion that it should be simplistic? Where did we come up with the idea that the solutions to life's problems are simpleminded, do-it-yourself formulas? Life is messy. And so is the Bible.

So, if it is a big, complicated book about life and living, and death and dying, and everything in between, what, specifically, is it about? And to that question I have bad news for our egos. It is mainly not about us. It is first about God! And therefore it is really big! I don't mean big as in long, although it is long. I mean big in the sense that God is big. The Bible is about big things, big events, big cosmic, earth shattering, mind bending, turn the world on its head happenings.

And it matters not whether the story is as big as the parting of the Red Sea, or as small as the parable of the mustard seed, or as commonplace as getting a drink from a well in a strange neighborhood, the stories are all big because they are about God. This God, this YHWH, is not some tame, timid, little idol that we can manipulate to fit our needs, or teach to do tricks. Nor is God the kind of god who is content to be used only as a consultant in those hours of our desperation when we finally turn to God.

So, I think that our main problem with the Bible isn't that it is so primitive and outdated. Rather it is that the Bible isn't designed to fit the way we are most comfortable thinking about ourselves. Our main problem with the Bible is that we come to it, if we come to it at all, with ourselves mostly in mind, to get a better glimpse of who we are, to receive help for ourselves. And sometimes that happens.

But the Bible simply isn't mostly about us. What we really find in the Bible is a big, prickly, outrageous God who demands justice, and paradoxically, and simultaneously, demands obedience to a love covenant that he sets before us, wants to be in with us, by his grace.

As Christians, we find his Son, Jesus, the Christ, who, by doing the outrageous thing of dying for us on a cross, turns on its head every idea about power and privilege that we ever had. This Son's actions are outrageous, yet he tells us that he loves us in spite of every evil that we do. This is a love that is so grand that St. Paul can only stutter and call the very telling of it a "stumbling block."

And, then, if that is not enough, we find this Holy Spirit in the Bible that dogs us and prods us and insists that we "listen to" this strangely loving and forgiving Son of God. And the Bible tops it all off by telling us this incredible story of God raising him from the grave, telling us that he is alive. He is "Emmanuel," God with us. Here and now. Wow! What a story! Who can top that?

No. The Bible is not first about us. That is the first hard truth to swallow about the Bible. And here is the second truth, a truth we will never understand until we believe the first truth: that, in the end, the Bible is about us, but only in a very peculiar way.

The Bible is about us understanding that we are creatures, mere mortals, finite, ultimately helpless over everything that really counts in life; and certainly helpless over death. We are creatures that are dependent on God for our very existence. Yet this God calls us his "children." So the Bible is about us, but only in relation to our God.

And because the Bible is about us in relation to God, it is messy! We are messy creatures, after all. And the Bible stories that recount the lives of the saints of God who came before us are messy stories. Few Bible stories follow neatly, one after the other. Things get repeated; get out of place; even Jesus tells parables that make no sense to us without careful study, and many of his parables don't even end! In fact, the Bible itself really doesn't end, because the story it tells, the love story between God and us, does not end.

The Bible is a bit like those old Saturday matinee "serials" of my childhood. They always "ended" with the words "to be continued." The Bible is "to be continued" because God isn't done with us yet. And perhaps that is why, even when we don't quite understand it, we keep coming back to it and trying to understand. We have this hunch, this faith, that maybe, just maybe, it will turn out to be our story after all. That is, after all, what the Bible wants us to do: to see that its stories are, in fact, our stories, that the God it describes is, in fact, our God.

If we can just manage to see ourselves as small enough, there is a lot to learn from this big, wonderful, unwieldly, unpredictable book that we call the Bible.

Help Kill "Don't Ask - Don't Tell"

First published on JULY 7, 2009 5:41PM


I am involved in a California based effort for progressive change called the Courage Campaign. While it is a "California" organization it includes people like me from all over the country who are attracted to particular issues that are national in scope.

Nothing is more national in scope than concern for the overturn of the rediculous "Don't Ask - Don't Tell" policy of the military. Part of the Courage Campaign is to support Lt. Dan Choi in his efforts to get this policy changed. Choi is about to be discharged from the Army after loyal and hazzardous service in Iraq.

The appeal below is not written by me, but by the Courage Campaign. But my heart and soul are behind it.

I have signed prior appeals to the Army and to the President. This is the latest strategy to get the attention of leaders in Washington. Please read the appeal, click on the link, and, if you agree, sign the letter to the Speaker of the House.

Last Tuesday, a military board told Lt. Dan Choi -- an Iraq War veteran and Arabic linguist -- that it was recommending his discharge from the Army for "moral and professional dereliction" under the military's "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" policy.

Despite this setback, Lt. Choi is not giving up. Bolstered by nearly 100,000 signatures to a letter calling for the repeal of DADT -- collected by the Courage Campaign, Knights Out, and the Servicemembers Legal Defense Network -- Dan is now taking his fight to Congress.

I just signed a letter that Lt. Choi is planning to personally deliver to Speaker Nancy Pelosi. It's important that he bring as many signatures as possible to the Speaker. If we can get 150,000 people like you to sign this letter before July 11, we will be able to increase the pressure on Congress to repeal "Don't Ask, Don't Tell."

A few weeks ago, 141,262 people signed Lt. Choi's letter to President Obama. And then 162,741 people signed Lt. Choi's letter to the Army. Combined, more than 300,000 signatures have been collected on Lt. Choi's behalf.

Now we need to take this cause to Congress and ask Speaker Pelosi to stand up and take leadership. Will you join me in signing the letter below and urge your friends to do the same before July 11? Just click on the link below to add your name -- and help Lt. Choi bring 150,000 signatures to the Speaker:



Where Everyone is "Above Average"

First published on JUNE 29, 2009 5:41PM

Note: This post refers to a specific Christian belief and practice as a metaphor for how we are to view our talents and gifts, and what we need to do with them whenever we gather as a community.

When I was a pastor and spoke to people about becoming members of the congregation it was not very different than it is here. Some of them always said that they are concerned about their ability to be of any actual service to the church. “Just how, they wondered, can I be of any help? Do I actually have any gifts or talents to give?”

Those were valid questions in that setting and, from what I have seen, also valid in this one. Most of us have them from time to time, yours truly included. I have feelings of inadequacy when I feel that I am not doing well at something, like, for instance, not being able to convince more of us to be more careful and caring about what we say to others, both in our posts and comments.

I also feel it here when I see posts dedicated to taking another member to task in public, or, under the mask of "being honest" criticizing a member about his/her writing skills or ability to communicate. I feel it keenly when someone attacks a person rather than the person's argument, especially if that individual is not on the same political or ideological wavelength of the critic. The argument far too quickly moves from discussion of the subject matter to one of attacking the integrity of the other writer.

But, let me assure you, such problems are not new. And I would like, once again, to turn to something I know well to use it as both an analogy and as an example of a similar problem that happened 2000 years ago. Some things, particularly those involving the human ego and human relationships, just don't change all that much.

St. Paul dealt masterfully with the question of gifts or talents, what to do with them, and how to acknowledge them, in the twelfth chapter of his first letter to the Corinthians. Paul's letter was written to a bickering church much in disarray, a church confused about its own gifts, both as a congregation and as individuals, and confused, as we often are about the source of those gifts.

All gifts, all talents, that we have, according to Paul, are gifts of the Spirit; which is, I think, nice to know, because it means that we don’t have to try to create our own gifts. They are already there, gifts from God, to us. Our job is to discover what they are, and have the courage to put them into use.

Some of you may enjoy, as I do, Garrison Keillor’s wonderful stories about his mythical home town, Lake Wobegon. He always ends his radio episodes about life in Lake Wobegon saying, “And that’s the news from Lake Wobegon, where the women are strong, the men are good looking, and all the children are above average.” While I chuckle at that every time I hear it, I also know that, deep down inside, all of us would like to live in a place where everyone is “above average.”

In this time of super stars and mega celebrities, this time when hyperbole is king, you get the feeling that you have to be at least “above average” just to be credited with having any value at all. In the inflated language of everyday life, “average” sounds like a dirty word.

Yet, by society’s standards, most people are not extraordinary at all, and so a look in the mirror leads to a lot of disappointment. We think, “I’m average at best.” And the unstated premise behind that lament is, “And, therefore, I’m of no value.”

But that’s not what God thinks. In fact, that is the furthest thing from God's mind. No, the vision of the Kingdom of God is one in which all of God’s children are not only above average, but are absolutely gifted! According to St. Paul, the Holy Spirit is at work right now bestowing a broad diversity of gifts upon each individual.

And the Spirit goes right on bestowing gifts, talents, abilities all of our lives. You have gifts. You have talents. You have abilities. You have value – infinite value. And it matters not one whit whether or not you think you do. Your gifts come from God, and God alone has already decided that you have them, regardless of what you, or anybody else, thinks.

But the members of the church in Corinth didn’t believe it. So Paul called them spiritually immature, because they had no faith in their talents, and what talents they had were being abused. Their talents were actually hurting themselves and the church.

There were instances of blatant immorality in the church, and a constant propensity toward conflict. The wealthier believers openly discriminated against the poorer members. Believers who had a dramatic and emotional conversion experience took a superior attitude towards those who did not.

In short, their community was being divided between those who thought they qualified to be part of the “gifted children’s program" and those who did not. They totally misunderstood the ways and the work of the Spirit in their lives. Too often, so do we.

One of the most important highlights in this chapter is that Paul is absolutely unequivocal in saying that the gifts of the Spirit are not uniformly distributed. If we are convinced that God really prefers the particular gifts we have, forget it. It may well be that what God wants for me says absolutely nothing about what is best for you. The gifts of the Spirit are as diverse as there are individuals.

Paul specifically names nine different gifts that he believes God bestowed on the members of the church in Corinth, and he in not saying that these are the only gifts, they are just a representative sample! The first two gifts he names are wisdom and knowledge. The third gift mentioned is faith (meaning trust in God), followed by healing, miracles, prophecy (meaning the ability to proclaim the purposes of God, not to read the future), discernment, and finally, tongues, and the ability to interpret tongues. Sadly, the last two gifts have captured the common perception about what "gifts" are. But Paul discounts the value of those gifts.

The important thing that I want you to notice is not the particular gifts, per se, but their diversity. Paul pounds the point home, time and again, that all of these diverse gifts are given by the same Spirit. All of them.

The test of a gift of the Spirit is not what it is, but that it comes from God. If your gift is reading and commenting occasionally, then that gift is just as precious as an EP on a post, or the ability to post every day, or make the Cover every post, or have every post read by 10,000 readers. Paul's point is that all gifts are from God. And all gifts are equally valued in God’s eyes.

Paul also makes it abundantly clear that the purpose of all gifts, no matter how esoteric or ordinary, is for the “common good” of the community. Starting with verse 12, through the rest of the chapter, Paul completes his argument using the magnificent metaphor that many of us know: that of the body of Christ.

Here is the majestic and daunting proclamation that the Church is the Body of Christ, and that each member is useful to, and needful of, all the rest of the members of the Body. The body, and its many and diverse members, show how the gifts of the Spirit contribute, each in its own way, to the unity and health of the Church. And I believe that metaphor is helpful when viewing other communities such as OS.

Paul says that no Christian is complete, whole, when alone; just as no bodily part is complete, whole, vital, and functional, without the others. No part of the body is independent of the rest. All of God’s children are necessary if the fullness of the Kingdom of God is to be expressed.

And the “higher” gifts are not what you might think. The “higher” gifts have nothing necessarily to do with what society values as “talent” or “gifts.” The higher gifts of the Spirit are any that are beneficial to others, and to the community as a whole. On OS reading is a high calling. So is commenting, or taking the time to send a PM to a member who is hurting, or leaving a kind comment when someone is struggling with a problem and needs to know that others care..

Ultimately, of course, all of the gifts get rolled into one in Chapter 13, the chapter on love that we discussed in my last post. Paul argues that all of the gifts of the Spirit are ultimately expressed in one word: love. Not only is love the Spirit’s greatest gift, but it is the standard by which all other gifts are measured and tested.

All gifts are to be measured as to whether they come from and result in love. If they come from love, they are rightly viewed as gifts of the Spirit. If they result in love, then one can know that his or her gift is a product of the Spirit moving in one’s life.

This has far reaching implications for us. In the first place, you are one of God’s own gifted children. Whether a new member or an old one, whether you write well or not, whether young or old, whatever your politics, or whatever your social standing, your sexual orientation, or any other diversity, you are a valuable, gifted child of God.

Despite all of our negative self-images, despite all the feelings of inferiority, despite all outward appearances from the world’s perspective, despite any estimates of your worth by either friends or enemies, each one of us is a uniquely gifted child of God. And whatever gifts you possess are to be used to lift up one another, to reach out with your own gifts in love. This is both a blessing and an obligation. And it applies here on OS or to any other aspect of our life where we interact with others.

The praise that we receive from others, and the wrongful pride that praise often induces in us, will falter and fade; and the normal human question will always be, “But what have you done for me lately?” But the love of God for those who use their gifts in the love of others will be boundless and eternal. All who use those gifts with care and concern for others are, indeed, “above average!” And we don't even have to live in Lake Wobegon

Without Love We are Nothing

First published on JUNE 25, 2009 1:22PM

Agape Love
Koine Greek Word Agape: Sacrificing Love

There has been an intentional and consistent theme to several of my recent reflections: the absolute importance of love. I am a Christian. As a Christian it is absolutely necessary to understand that God loves us, all of us, Christian or no. And for the Judeo-Christian religions the instruction to reflect our reciprocity to God's love is clear: we are to love God with all our heart, mind and soul. I skipped a bit of that thought. We are also to love our neighbor as ourselves. Jesus, of course, challenged us further. Jesus says we are even to love our enemies. Here and in the rest of this post the kind of love we are talking about is agape: love that puts the well being of the other first; a spiritual love; Christians say it is the kind of love exhibited by Jesus.

But the challenge of loving our enemies is, unfortunately, almost never at issue in most of our lives. I almost never, except in counseling environments, get asked just what exactly loving our enemies means, or how that could be implemented. Most of us, apparently, are having too hard of a time just loving our neighbors, including our neighbors on OS, to even wonder about how to love our enemies.

I get PMs fairly regularly asking basically about our relationship here on OS: “Why can’t we love one another more?” Most of those PM questions are not stated exactly that way, but stripped down to their true meaning, that is the underlying question. Now, granted, those questions are often asked in frustration about someone who has been snippy in a comment, or about some of the very angry people here who can not restrain themselves long enough to leave a civilized comment on some post.

People often come to me to learn the name of a universally applicable salve that I can prescribe and they can rub on and then wake up the next day just chock full of love for whoever it was that was so unlovable, or did something so unloving yesterday.

When I first started counseling people the fact that I had no universal solution scared me to death. I was forever thinking that I might be some kind of a fraud if I could not answer such a simple question. Now I don't feel that way. I have learned that simple questions do not automatically mean that there are simple answers, anymore than that universal truths are universally applicable to every individual or every situation. They are not. I take comfort in that fact, but I realize that doesn't make your relationship problems go away.

Sometimes after I understand a bit of the story, at least from one side, I can assure the good soul who has written to me that the unloving experiences or the past month or so of her/his life is likely just an aberration because the one they are worrying about is normally not that way. Chalk it up to a bad hair day. I opine that most of the time we do love one another, but sometimes we just have a hard time showing it. Perhaps S/he just had the misfortune of running into people at a bad moment, or in a bad situation, or catching them at the wrong time.

But sometimes when I do that, as the days pass I have a little time to reflect on the point, and to pray about it; and the more I reflect and pray on answers like that, even if they turn out to be true, the less satisfied I am with my answers.

Which brings me back to Open Salon. I really don't think that the increasingly hostile and unloving atmosphere on OS can be chalked up to a bad hair day, or even several bad hair months. The fact is that when I am completely honest with myself I have to admit that I have noticed far too many signs of the lack of demonstrating anything approaching agape love among ourselves.

Now, to anticipate your next thought, it is true that we are not all Christians and there is nothing that demands that everybody has to show agape love to everybody else. That is both obvious and true. But a love that puts the wellbeing of another ahead of our own selfishness surely cannot be something we would credit only to Christians, would we? I hope not.

For example, those of no religion at all often have very high moral standards that include some variation of that kind of love as the hoped for moral goal that we should all reach in our interaction with one another. I can't think of a single atheist friend of mine on OS who would say that he or she did not try in their own way to show such care towards others.

So, we aren't dealing with just a Christian thing here.

Let's ask ourselves if we can begin to approach this sometimes hard to get our hands around problem we face in OS not by showing what treating each other with love would necessarily look like (we'll get to that in a bit) but to identify some of the signs that not loving each other look like. What are some of the signs of a failure to demonstrate love among ourselves? Here are just a few of the ones that I jotted down; you can add your own.

--- too often being abrupt and dismissive. And its opposite: assuming that someone who might simply be pre-occupied was being abrupt and dismissive – rude – to you.

--- indulging in far more gossip than we, any of us, should engage in, and surely more than we need. Maybe here via PMs, or via email or even on right here in our own posts. And its opposite: accusing others of promoting gossip about us or one of our friends with no evidence that such was the case.

--- questioning the motives of others, rather than taking one another’s statements at face value, and giving people the benefit of the doubt.

--- suspicion that there must be an ulterior motive behind seemingly innocent statements or gestures. Or even assuming that someone who posts about something that is truly bothering them is doing it for fame or publicity or to gain sympathy, rather than believing that they would not have posted about all that pain if they did not feel it.

--- an unwillingness to see as unintentional foul ups in a post or failure to post at all, absences from OS, failure to read, failure to comment, failure to rate, failure to praise, poorly worded comments that can be taken two ways, and honest mistakes. Yet the fact is that foul ups happen, sometimes people are forget, and people make mistakes, lots of them; and most of them are unintentional. And, believe it or not, some people have more important things than to be on OS for hours every day.

--- an unwillingness to assume good will on the part of someone who disagrees with us; a failure to realize that the person has his or her own convictions and need not always agree that everything we think is right. A corollary of that is to assume that when someone disagrees with an idea of ours that they are attacking us personally, when, in fact, they are challenging our position on an issue.

--- finally, an unwillingness to listen and really try to understand what someone else is saying, rather than trying to figure out what we are going to say next. In other words, failure to communicate because we haven’t really figured out what the other person is saying because we are too busy trying to make some brilliant point in our comment.

Now, who is guilty of that? Well, me, for one. I am guilty of quite a bit of that from time to time; not all of it all the time, but definitely some of it some of the time. I’m not proud to say that. But it is true. If it weren’t true I wouldn’t have the nerve to bring it up. Sinners all – that’s what the Good Book says. All includes me.

How about you? Are you guilty of any of that, or of any of a hundred other unloving thoughts or gestures toward others here that I could have listed? Or are you above all that? Or do you find it irrelevant in "an internet environment"?

Before you even attempt to answer any of those questions, let me warn you that I am going to introduce some Christianity right here. But let me also say that what you read from here on is applicable to anyone who claims to be part of humankind.

Let’s look at Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians. Let’s let Paul inform our hearts and minds before we get any further here, lest we decide that this stuff is all small potatoes, that it really doesn’t matter that much, and that all of this agape love stuff isn’t quite all that important anyway, so what’s the big deal?

Paul’s first letter to the Church at Corinth is addressed to a divided church. The challenge for Paul was to differentiate between what the Corinthian Christians might have thought love was and what Christian love actually is. He was trying to convince a local church that he founded and loved very much just what made the love he called "Christian Love" special? He wanted them to understand that there was a kind of love that was different than sexual, sentimental or romantic love. This was a "self sacrificial" love. But what is sacrificial love, anyway? Paul tells us that self-sacrificing love is a love that “seeks not its own.”

Chapter 13 of his letter we call First Corinthians is his great answer to those questions. But there is a problem with Chapter 13, or at least with referring to Chapter 13 in Christian circles, and that is that Christians all know it and love it. It is by far the favorite text chosen for reading at weddings. And that is the problem. Christians literally associate it with weddings. It is even known as the "Wedding Chapter." And implicit in that is the illogical conclusion that it should never be read or used at any other time!

Of course, it was never intended to be associated with weddings. Paul had no such thing in mind. For Paul it was the ultimate truth about who God is, about who Jesus is. It was Paul’s own epiphany, his “Aha! I’ve got it!” in terms of understanding what God was trying to do on this earth: to establish love: love for the Father, love for the Son, and love among all of us. Ultimately, Paul knew, nothing else matters. Only love. Love. Above all else: love.

So, to some extent those of you who are not Christians have an advantage when you read what Paul has to say since you may have no preconceived notions that this chapter is "properly" used only at weddings, wrong though that notion of many Christians may be. And here is the bottom line for all of us: Without love we are nothing.

Paul says, “If I speak in human tongues or even the speech of angels, but have not love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal.”

Preachers ought to pay attention to that one. No matter how well I used to preach, and I was recognized as a good preacher; no matter how clever I was, no matter how well I know the Bible and no matter how well I can write about it, if I do so without love, I have done nothing more than make a lot of noise.

Those are strong words. Paul, a beautiful writer, says that all the pretty words are nothing but noise without love.

Agape love is not sex; it is not sentimentality; it is not romance. It is not a stupefied unwillingness to see the world as it really is. Rather, it is the recognition that, because the world is often corrupt and evil, nothing at all will do except love. You don’t fight evil with evil, you fight evil with love. And, if you are going to succeed it had better be a tough love.

Paul says, “And if I have prophetic powers, and understand all mysteries and all knowledge… but do not have love, I am nothing.”

Well, so much for all of this education that I have accumulated over the years. It is worthless without love. All this insight into the Bible, all this “insider” information that I have picked up, isn’t worth anything on its own. Nothing.

I want to rebel at that. A lot of time, money and hard work went into the gathering of all this stuff in my head. How about you? What about all you have learned, the wisdom you have gained, the skills you have perfected? Don’t they stand for anything? Well, without love, they don’t!

Christians sometimes get the idea that we have all the answers, sort of a closed club. We feel sorry for those on the outside who aren’t “with it.” But let us not forget that Jesus didn’t come to proclaim a new philosophy of life, he didn’t come to teach us how to “be all we can be” for its own sake. He came living and dying in a new way. He came to show us the perfect embodiment of love: to show us what love really means and how to love that way. That is why Christians have faith in him. Christians say that faith is the answer. And it can be for many.

But what about that stuff Paul says about faith? You know: “And if I have all faith, so as to remove mountains, but have not love, I am nothing.”

That’s going a bit far, isn’t it? Isn’t faith, after all, what saves us Christians? How can it be “nothing?” Well, without love, it is nothing. Paul doesn’t say it outright, but I will: Faith without love, my friends, isn’t faith. Period. So if you are a Christian and are proud that you are saved, which is a sin in itself, then, watch out; because if you can’t demonstrate love to others, you had better question whether you have faith at all. Harsh? Yes. But true.

There are Christians who know just about everything there seems to be to know about Jesus, except that he is love. These people wear their faith on their sleeves, like some badge of honor. Yes, they know everything about him -- except that he is love.

If they knew that then they wouldn’t use their knowledge to bludgeon everybody else over the head with it. They wouldn’t feel so self-righteous because they think that they sin less than we do; they wouldn’t spend so much time testing fellow Christians about the details of our faith, or our belief in propositions they think are essential, but are really details in disguise, separating us in their minds from the "true believers" like themselves. They wouldn’t be such Pharisees. Not if they truly loved like Jesus loves.

I could go on further with the importance of love. But I won’t. You get the picture. The bottom line is that without love, we are nothing. Nothing at all.

But the question remains, “What is love?” And the smart-alecky answer is, “If you have to ask you will never get it.” Fortunately, Paul didn’t give us that answer. He spells out the characteristics of self-giving love in detail. These, says Paul, are the characteristics of agape love:

4 Love is patient; love is kind; love is not envious or boastful or arrogant
5 or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful;
6 it does not rejoice in wrongdoing, but rejoices in the truth.
7 It bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.
8 Love never ends.

That’s it. First Corinthians 13:4-7. Read it. Study it. Ponder it. And if you pray, then pray about it. And then, and only then, compare this definition of agape love with how you demonstrate your love to others.

I can’t tell you how any of you will compare. I’ve done it. I come out fine on some, OK on others, and I fail on some. Six months ago I probably would have come out the same way, succeeding on some, doing OK on others, and failing on some, but not necessarily succeeding or failing on the same points.

You see, we all change. If we take up this challenge today and then we try to do something about our weak spots over the next several months and take the challenge again, the results won’t be the same. We change. Hopefully, we grow. And, I pray that we grow in demonstrating our love to one another.

My belief is that the Open Salon center still holds. I still believe that most of us can and do try to offer agape love to one another on OS. I still believe that this is a community filled with far better people than I ever imagined could be gathered in one place on the internet. In 15 years of internet involvement, from the days of bbs and Tandy 1000 computers and 2800 bps modems this is the best place I have had the privilege to be part of. And I thank God that he has chosen to place me here among you. It is a blessing.

And, yet, I also believe that we can do a far better job of demonstrating our love for one another than we have over the last few months.

So let’s do it. Together. Let any one who looks in on this community, who asks "Is this the right place for me to display my writing or artistic skills?" drop in and say, "Wow! Those folks on OS really care for and about one another! I would like to be part of an internet community like that!"

May we, by our thoughts, our feelings, and our actions demonstrate that kind of agape love toward one another.

Hell No! I Won't Go! Jonah, Part Three, Final

First published on JUNE 19, 2009 5:23PM

Jonah warning Ninevah

Jonah Warning Nineveh

When I began this short series I pointed out that, while we know little about Jonah, one thing we know is that Jonah was an insider and that the book was written by an insider for insiders. Today's insiders who read this short book are modern Christians and Jews. That is not to say that there is nothing to learn if you are not an insider. There is much for "outsiders" to learn, including much of that is painful for insiders to hear. Yet the lessons for insiders should be heeded by modern insiders because we are still not listening very well after 2700 years.

Unlike many of the wandering prophets we read about in the Bible, Jonah was very much an insider prophet, a prophet in service to the King and listened to by those in power. Jonah was a royal prophet. He was more powerful than a modern day bishop or church leader who is seldom listened to by the prevailing powers that be. But Jonah had credentials that only a prophet in a theocracy sitting near the throne of power could have.

And, to top that off, he was first and foremost, a prophet of God. He was God's ultimate insider, set apart for the sole duty of being the mouthpiece for God. As God's prophet he had God's ear and was God's personal spokesman. When he started an oracle with, "Thus says the Lord," people listened. People in power who could make God's wishes happen if they heeded Jonah listened.

But Jonah comes off very poorly in this book. He is hardly the prophet that God would have him be. He is vain, disobedient, stubborn, self centered, self righteous, arrogant and bitter. And, ironically, in this book it is not Jonah, the insider, who comes off well in our eyes, but the outsiders. It is the outsiders who look good to us, and, in the end, they also look good to God.

There are two groups of insiders highlighted in the story: first, the sailors and their captain; and, second, the Ninevites and their king.

I imagine that the sailors were a rugged bunch of individuals, having little sociologically in common with one another, coming from different places, worshiping different gods, trying to make a living in a dangerous occupation. That is one thing they have in common: a dangerous, difficult, hard, low paying vocation.

And they all know the sea and respect the danger of a storm at sea. When one comes they know what they must do: they pray to their individual gods and then they take action. They are none of them Israelites, the "people of God" that Jonah is familiar with. Like the Ninevites they represent the people of "the world," far from the "people of God," purely outsiders, and worse, pagans, worshiping other gods.

To Jonah all of these outsiders, sailors and Ninevites, are anathema.

But the major purpose of the Book of Jonah is to shock insiders into seeing that these outsiders are people who do the things that insiders are supposed to do, and often do not actually do. They exhibit characteristics that insiders associate only with other insiders, as if moral values and an awareness of God were a monopoly owned by insiders.

The sailors are humane. They risk their lives trying to row the boat to shore and to save the ship and Jonah. They are pious. When faced with danger they turn first to prayer and then to action. They are practical. When disaster strikes they work, shoulder to shoulder, together, to do what they can. They do not easily give up.

And, they are open to theological growth! When, at the height of the storm they learn about the true God from Jonah, unlike Jonah, they pray to his God and offer to Him their sacrifices. Meanwhile, Jonah, the prophet of this God, sleeps and does not take the time to pray to the God he claims to worship.

Jonah is willing to tell them about his God, but it does not occur to Jonah to pray to God even during the height of the storm. He doesn't even pray on his own behalf, and certainly utters not a word on theirs.

The story wants insiders to be very uncomfortable. We insiders are supposed to identify with Jonah, a fellow insider. But we have a deeper sense of what is right and we know that we actually identify with the outsiders. We want to think that we would act like the outsiders, not like Jonah.

What is happening here is that the writer wants insiders, those of us who see ourselves as "God's people," to reevaluate our attitudes and prejudices toward "outsiders," those that we would never normally see as "people of God." Perhaps it might help us to remember that centuries later St. John would write: "For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son..." John did not write, "For God so loved insiders...."

Turning to Nineveh, we see the Israelites calling her a whore of a city. Jonah hated Nineveh with all his passion, yet there is no indication that, up to now, Jonah had ever set foot in it. But, spit safely onto the beach by the whale, Jonah is given by God a second chance to go to Nineveh and see for himself. And this time, with great reluctance, Jonah goes to the whore, Nineveh.

And, miracles of miracles, he preaches the imminent destruction of the city and the whore listens! And the murderous King of Nineveh hears and takes action. The Ninevites respond with mourning. The King himself sits in sack cloth and ashes. He calls for a fast, one extending to even the animals as well as the people. And the irony is that even the King has no clue whether any of this will help and avoid the destruction of the city by God.

One of the great ironic statements in the Bible or in any other literature, is the King's "Who knows? God may relent and change His mind; He may turn from His fierce anger, so that we do not perish."

The King does not presume to know if God will have mercy and turn from his righteous wrath. This outsider, this leader of the city known as the whore, throws himself and his city on the mercy of God. He knows all too well of the sins of his city, but, like the captain of the ship, his overriding concern is for the salvation of his people. And he intuits what Jonah claims to know and even once prayed, "Deliverance belongs to the Lord."

And the city is "overthrown" all right. But not as Jonah expected. God changes his mind and does not consume it with His wrath. It is overthrown by the repentance of its people, and by the love of God for these lowly "outsiders." They are precious in God's sight.

Who besides the Ninevites care that God repents of his righteous anger? Certainly Jonah, this prophet of God, cares, but he does not see this as a good thing. Rather he is enraged. And he walks out of the city, turning his back on this miracle of repentance and love. He tells himself that God should have destroyed this city of whoredom, which by every standard of justice, and yes, vengeance, should be destroyed.

Jonah, this prophet of God, this insider of insiders, hated what happened to the city and he was furious with God. He hated that the God to whom he sang while in the belly of the fish, "Deliverance belongs to the Lord," would have the nerve to deliver THEM!

This story insists that insiders, those of us within our churches and synagogues, who think of ourselves as God's "own" people, reevaluate how we feel about and act toward all of those "outsiders" we hold morally inferior to us. It is past time that we recognize that God cares about and loves all the peoples of the world, not just Christians and Jews.

This story speaks a sharp word of criticism against a people who prefer the safety of their own groups. It calls them to be about the tasks to which God calls them. It warns insiders against the danger of forgetting that we are ambassadors, givers, healers, friends and neighbors, participating in reconciling the world to God.

To me this story says that we who think of ourselves as "insiders" must, in our lives and by our actions, open ourselves to serve and to love all others, in a world filled with "outsiders." And then, "Who knows?" Perhaps God might spare US a thought, and be pleased by the compassion of those who claim to be His people.