Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Remembering JFK: It Only Takes One: Inviting Violence

NOVEMBER 23, 2009 4:11PM

I wanted to post this yesterday, but was unable to do so. This is a repost of my first OS post, October 21, 2008. Almost nobody read it.

But the fear that I experienced as a very young man working in the Executive Office of the President on that November 22, 1963, the fear I felt for the then candidate and now President Obama last October is only intensified as the loonies are on the loose and few are calling them out on their vile propaganda.

People are legally carrying assult rifles to Presidential rallies, promoting and making thinly veiled death threats; and not subtle metaphors for the death of this President are the norm in the ranks of the fringe right. We are not, as a nation, safer than a year ago. And the President is not safer either.

What follows is a true account of one young, naive and grief stricken person's experience on the day President Kennedy was killed.

OCTOBER 21, 2008 10:12PM

I moved to Washington DC in July, 1963. A bright eyed and anxious 23 year old, I was nearly overcome by my good fortune to be invited to work in the Executive Office of the President, Bureau of the Budget.

I was the low guy on the totem pole and often got the duty of covering the phones when others went out to eat, or to work at the agencies we reviewed for budget and legislative consistency with the President's goals.

One day in late November I was half listening to some elevator music playing on the radio when an announcement interrupted to say, "The President has been shot!" I was of course stunned, and decided that I had to tell someone so I ran down to the Division Director's Office. He wasn't there, so I ran down the long hall in the Old Executive Office Building, up the stairs and barged into the Office of the Director of the Budget Bureau.

There was a meeting going on in the conference room and I, out of breath and likely hyperventilating, shouted, "The President has been shot!"

Two of the White House political staff were there as was the Budget Director, the Deputy and several Division Directors. The Deputy Director, Elmer Staats, who knew me, looked at me with disgust and said, "Monte, that is not funny. How could you even think to say something like that?"

While that was going on, someone turned on a TV that was in the room and the fact was confirmed. About the same time the two White House staffers were calling across the alley to the West Wing to confirm.

There are certain times when the world turns inside out; times when we will remember where we were and what we were doing when a major event happens. For much younger people than me, and most are, a day that is sealed in their memories, and mine, is September 11, 2001.

Unfortunately, by the time the '60s were over those of us who lived through those years would add the April 4, 1968, assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr, and the June 5, 1968 assassination of Robert F. Kennedy.

Those years were years of great political division in this nation, and until now, we have seen nothing like the kind of bitter, hateful rant that fueled the hatred then, and fanned the flames of intolerance.

We would all like to think that we have, as a nation, gotten past all of that. And, had we not been witnessing the fanning of the flames, the desperate acts of spinning a great lie about Barack Obama; a lie about his "otherness," "Un-American," "Socialist," and, today, "Communist" leanings.

These purveyors of hate continue to foment the unrest and play to the prejudices of race and class warfare. The litany of false descriptors piles up, lie upon lie: "Palling around with Terrorists," "Terrorist," and "Traitor."

Mainstream media, even the so-called liberal left media, allow such words to go unchallenged saying such things as, "Well. Its all that McCain has left to do." As if that makes it OK to scream "Fire!" in a crowded theater.

We have succumbed to something we would tell ourselves to our dying day that we do not believe: "that the end justifies the means." In a stupefying attempt to be "fair" we have turned our heads and allowed the intolerant rants of hate to be "tolerated."

If I had not lived through the short few years when three leaders of my hope for our nation were destroyed, when I, and the rest of the nation, had to grow up and realize that there is evil in this world, perhaps I would not feel so uneasy, and could just let it go as "Well, its just the politics of desperation."

Unfortunately, it only takes one nut, one crazy who is sent over the edge by the talk of terrorists, traitors, socialists, communists and the questioning of patriotism, to destroy the best hopes of us all.

It only takes one.

The Decalogue: Commandment Four: Remember the Sabbath & Keep it Holy

NOVEMBER 19, 2009 1:54PM


This is the 10th of a series of essays that cover the origin of the Israelite nation and conclude with a discussion of the Decalogue, or the Ten Commandments. This and all remaining essays will deal with the Decalogue. Links to the prior essays can be found in the left hand column of this post under My Links: "Essays on the Exodus and the Ten Commandments."

To make it easier to understand this essay and to reference the relevant Biblical passages I am including here the passage that most closely relates to this essay.

From Exodus 20

8 Remember the sabbath day, and keep it holy. 9 Six days you shall labor and do all your work. 10 But the seventh day is a sabbath to the LORD your God; you shall not do any work--you, your son or your daughter, your male or female slave, your livestock, or the alien resident in your towns. 11 For in six days the LORD made heaven and earth, the sea, and all that is in them, but rested the seventh day; therefore the LORD blessed the sabbath day and consecrated it. (NRSV)

Commandment #4, "Remember the Sabbath," forms the bridge between the first three Commandments relating to God, and the last six Commandments, which are about relating to one another. The 4th Commandment is often viewed as the last of the four Commandments about how we relate to God. And it is. But it also involves how we relate to one another because believers are to keep the Commandment together in obedience to his instruction.

Let's start with a technical detail that has, through the centuries, caused a lot of heartburn for some Christians, including some of the members of churches I have served in the past.

Because most Christians take our Sabbath rest on Sunday, instead of Saturday, does that mean that we Christians do not obey this Commandment? The short answer to that question is "No". However, some Christians do make a big deal of which day the Sabbath should be observed.

One the one hand, the Seventh Day Adventists and the Seventh Day Baptists, and a few other smaller Christian denominations and sects insist that the Jewish Sabbath, which is celebrated on the "Seventh Day," which we call "Saturday," is the proper day of worship for Christians.

On the other hand, the vast majority of Christian denominations set aside Sunday, the "First Day" of the week, as the proper day of Christian worship because it is said to represent the the day on which Christ was raised.

Who is "right?" Well, its not clear cut. If you want to say that the traditional Jewish understanding of the last day of the week is correct, then the "Sabbath" is from Friday at sundown until Saturday at sundown. For them, that is the "Seventh Day." So, if you want to worship on the "Sabbath" then you should have your weekly worship service during that period, like the Jews and the Adventists do.

Or, if you want to worship on a day that is particularly symbolic for the Christian faith, there is no better day to worship than on the day when Christ was raised from the grave. Most Christians do just that. But, by worshiping on Sunday do those Christians violate the 4th Commandment?

Two points need to be considered before we decide that worshiping on Sunday is a violation of the Sabbath. First, the Sabbath Commandment relates to rest, and says nothing about worship. Certainly worship would be appropriate on the holy Sabbath Day, but worship is not in any way part of the Sabbath Commandment.

Tradition added worship to the Sabbath, and that is reasonable. But it is not a commandment of God that the day of rest be combined with a special day of worship. There is certainly nothing wrong with worshiping God on Saturday, but there is also nothing wrong with worshiping God any day of the week.

Second, the Sabbath day rest is based on the story of the Creation as recorded in Genesis, which says nothing at all about how to set up a calendar. Calendars were a hodge-podge of differing lengths of time, ways to divide the year into months, etc., right up through the time of Christ.

For example, the Jewish Calendar at the time most of the Old Testament was written consisted of ten months, not twelve. Weeks, however, from the time of Moses were seven days to honor the story of creation in Genesis. But, from God's point of view, who is to say that the day we later chose to call Saturday was in fact the seventh, last, day of creation?

What if the later calendar makers, who named some days of the week in English after pagan gods, had decided that the first day in the week was Thursday?

Luckily for both Jewish and Christian tradition Constantine converted to Christianity and decided that the calendar would be set up with traditional Jewish seven day weeks with the Sabbath day being the last day of the seven.

But there have been both longer and shorter weeks in other cultures. Some of those line up more closely with either the Lunar or Solar cycles. As recently as the last century at least one major nation recognized 5 and 6 day weeks. And historically weeks have varied in different cultures from 5 to 20 days.

The point is that what God was trying to tell us is that he rested on the seventh day of the week of creation - whatever day that may be: and so should we. We should rest one day out of seven, whatever that day may be in our modern calendar. Whether or not that is also our day of worship is something that he left up to us.

The issue of the Sabbath is not about what day of the week it falls on, but that we remember it. And do not think that "remember" means "think about it." The Hebrew word for remember means "to observe" it; i.e.: do something about it!

For example, a husband should "remember" his wife's birthday and their wedding anniversary. Visualize this conversation. You come home from work, spend the evening in front of the TV watching Monday Night Football, and, as she storms off to bed at the end of the first half, your wife says in tears: "You don't even remember what day this is!" And you reply, "Sure, I remember, its our 20th wedding anniversary!" How well do you think that would go over? She expected you to do something about your anniversary, not just "remember" it! Just so, God expects us to do something about the Sabbath, not just "remember" that it exists!

What is that something we are to do? The answer, in this so-called "positive" Commandment is negative: we are not supposed to work!

Verse 10: 10 But the seventh day is a Sabbath to the LORD your God; you shall not do any work--you, your son or your daughter, your male or female slave, your livestock, or the alien resident in your towns.

Notice too that it applies to the entire household, to servants and foreigners who reside in your country. Basically it applies to everyone. You are not to go off to play golf and leave the wife and kids home to do the wash and yard work! It applies to every creature that works, including servants, alien residents, even animals!

What God is saying is that he built into the very Creation a divine rhythm of work and rest. And when his creatures honor that rhythm within the created order that is how it is supposed to be. When we honor the Sabbath rest we honor God by imitating his actions at the beginning of Creation.

I do not want to get into some Pharasic argument about what specific things we can and cannot do on our day of rest. That depends, it seems to me, on how each individual defines "rest" and "recreation."

I do not think, for example, that riding around on my lawn tractor on a Sunday afternoon mowing the lawn is "work." I enjoy it. But I can remember a number of irritated parishioners of churches I have served, those who were self-appointed guardians of my moral conduct, who thought that to ride a lawn tractor on Sunday was a terrible sin! That is one of the joys of living in parsonages. An amazing number of church members think that they should tell you how to behave.

More to the point is that we may think that our busy-ness is not chaotic, but we actually know better. We may try to convince ourselves that the rat race we have gotten sucked into is "normal," but it is not normal to God. God did not create man or animals to work all the time.

Notice that the Sabbath rest is a great equalizer, applying to the rich and the poor, the oppressed and the oppressor. God is saying that he rested on the seventh day, and so should all of his Creation. God's argument to the believer is that the Sabbath rest is the way he designed things to be. So when believers violate that rest, we violate how God intends us to be, and how he intends the Creation to be!

So, here's the question for those who choose to obey the commandments in faithful response to God. Do some believers violate the Sabbath because we worship on Sunday and not Saturday, or do we violate the Sabbath because we are caught up in the web of constant work; of striving for success?

We are taught from the cradle that everything of value in this life comes from hard work. Sadly we believe that we get our identities from our work: from what we do, not from who we are! That is, we are told, the American Way.

But it is not God's way. God's way says we, all of God's creatures, need to slow down once a week, take time to smell the roses, to refresh ourselves, to recreate. Think about that innocent little word "recreate." Break it down a little differently than we normally pronounce it: "RE-create." We are to take time to "Re-create" ourselves.

That is God's way. It may not put a smile on the face of your boss who believes he owns you body and soul, and that your time is his to do with as he pleases. But, if you are a faithful believer, at least for one day a week, your time belongs to God! And God wants you to rest on that day!

So, believers have to choose. Do we choose to live God's way, in accordance to the way God would have us live? Or do we choose to live the way that modern society says we must live to be "successful?"

God says, "Remember the Sabbath day, and keep it holy." He is telling us that the Sabbath day, whatever day of the week we choose to make it, is his day, not ours, and we are to act like the creatures that we are and to observe the Sabbath rest that is built into the ordering of the Creation.

Next: Commandment # 5: Honor thy father and mother.

God bless.

The Decalogue (Ten Commandments) -- Do They Apply To You?

NOVEMBER 16, 2009


This is the 9th of a series of essays that cover the origin of the Israelite nation and conclude with a discussion of the Decalogue, or the Ten Commandments. This and all remaining essays will deal with the Decalogue. Links to the prior essays can be found in the left hand column of this post under My Links: "Essays on the Exodus and the Ten Commandments."

To make it easier to understand this essay and to reference the relevant Biblical passages as I did in the last essay I am including here those passages that most closely relate to this essay.

From Exodus 20
1 Then God spoke all these words:
2 I am the LORD your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery;
3 you shall have no other gods before me.
4 You shall not make for yourself an idol, whether in the form of anything that is in heaven above, or that is on the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth.
5 You shall not bow down to them or worship them; for I the LORD your God am a jealous God, punishing children for the iniquity of parents, to the third and the fourth generation of those who reject me,
6 but showing steadfast love to the thousandth generation of those who love me and keep my commandments.
7 You shall not make wrongful use of the name of the LORD your God, for the LORD will not acquit anyone who misuses his name.

Jews and Christians, inheritors of the faith of the Israelites, are taught to keep the commandments of God. But it is for us in this generation to see how ancient instructions, written over 2500 years ago, apply in modern times. This is a difficult question whenever we look at the Bible. What portions of it were intended for application only to the time, people and place about which they were written or spoken? And what portions have more universal application, to all generations of the faithful?

In the case of the Ten Commandments most commentators, including the vast majority of Christian scholars, believe that the words of God that comprise the Decalogue have a timeless quality, and were intended for all generations. I agree with that assessment. I believe that they are applicable to this generation of believers.

But, notice carefully that I said "this generation of believers." I did not say that they apply to everyone in this generation. Both Judaism and Christianity have always said that the beliefs of those religions are freely open to others to use if they choose to use them.

Neither faith is a private cult that has argued that no one but the members can know the mysterious codes of the faithful. In fact, every time some group has tried to turn the faith into a mystery cult that group has been denounced as anathema to orthodox faith.

But the opposite of that, believing that they apply to all persons irrespective of their faith, has been abused far too often, mostly by Christians who think that what they believe is what everyone else should believe - even if it has to be forced upon others by governmental decree.

Even though far too many Christians try to apply the Decalogue to all people in this generation, it is abundantly clear that we should not do that. Yet some Christians think that it is a good idea to tack up the 10 Commandments in all sorts of public places, and to hold all people to its precepts. That is not even remotely good theology.

The Bible is clear that the 10 Commandments were never intended to be applied to all people, and certainly not against their will. They were, by definition, given as a gift to those who follow Yahweh. They were the instructions by which those people of faith were to live their lives together.

In other words, the most accurate thing that we can say about the Ten Commandments is that God was, and is, applying them to faithful Jews and Christians, and to nobody else. Unless you are a Jew or a Christian who is in a faithful relationship with God, they do not apply to you. I cannot think of any way to more clearly make this obvious, and obviously often ignored, point.

So, if, for example, your batty, unchurched Aunt Mabel's has declared herself to be a worshiper of frogs, and has set up an altar to the Frog God and prays to the Frog God, your telling her that she is breaking the First Commandment just isn't true. She may be crazy, and she may be a pagan. But she isn't breaking the First Commandment, because it doesn't apply to her.

Just so the 10 Commandments do not apply to non-practicing, non-Christians or non-Jews who would come before a judge in a civil court room where you have just insisted the 10 Commandments be tacked up on the wall.

If Christians feel such a great need to tack them on some wall, we would be much better served if we tacked them to the walls of our own houses, and actually sought to practice them ourselves. We would find that doing that was hard enough without trying to impose them on others and judging others by their failure to comply with our beliefs.

But they do apply to those of us, Jews and Christians, who practice our faith. When God says "You shall have no other gods before me," he means you and me, if we practice the faith. And when He says, "You shall not make for yourself an idol," and when He says, "you shall not make wrongful use of the name of the Lord your God," well, God does mean all of those things.

When we believers accept that they do apply to us, a question still remains. How do the apply to us? Or, put another way, What do they mean for us today, in this generation? Let's look at that more closely.

When God says "You shall have no other gods before me," as I told you in the last essay, he was speaking to a people who believed that there were, literally, many gods. Today, of course, Christians and Jews believe no such thing. So, since believing Jews and Christians don't believe that there are other gods, does that mean that this 1st Commandment is not applicable to us? Or that we automatically meet its requirements?

Not at all. I wish it were that easy. But it is not because, while we may not literally worship other entities that we believe are gods, we can, and often do, worship other things as more important than Yahweh, the God of Israel. We may not intend to, but it is easy to worship the god known as money, or sex, or power, or even "our own time;" things and activities which keep us from worship, prayer and Bible study.

Now, when we take the time we should be focusing on God, and use that time on some thing or activity, we effectively substitute that thing or activity for worshiping Yahweh, our God. Whether or not this breaks the 1st Commandment, against worshiping other gods, or the 2nd, against worshiping an idol, is a mere technicality. Whether money or power, say, is a "god" to you, or is merely an "idol" that you worship is irrelevant.

The whole point is that when a thing, person or activity becomes more important to you than God then you break one or both of the first two Commandments. Any activity, thing or person that you "idolize" can become every bit as much an "idol" as is a physical object. The minute that any thing, person or activity actually influences our lives more than God influences our lives, we have given our faith to that thing and taken it from God.

The 2nd Commandment also applies to not making an idol or an image of God himself. Many of us do not realize that; but the Bible is clear on it. When the people, later in Exodus, made an idol in the form of a Golden Calf, they thought that they were making an idol of Yahweh. And God was furious. God forbids idols of himself! The reason is simple. God has no intention of being confused with anything that is man-made. He has no intention with being confined within any object.

So, if Christians have pictures of Jesus (most of which probably are totally off base, because we have no clue what Jesus looked like) or perhaps a crucifix, or any other representation of Christ or God, the Father, or of the Holy Spirit, for that matter, we need to avoid falling into a pattern of "worshiping" those things.

If you find, for instance, that you can only pray when you are before a picture, a crucifix or a statue of Jesus, ask yourself if you are praying to Jesus or to a representation of him. Don't let yourself get trapped into thinking that there is some special power present in pictures, symbols, or statues. There isn't. Jesus is not in a statue or picture or crucifix -- and you can't put him there.

Likewise, don't get trapped into worshiping the Bible. That sin even has a name: Bibliolatry. The Bible is the witness to the Word of God, who Christians believe is Jesus Christ. Christians, especially conservative Christians, often use a kind of short-hand and say that the Bible is the "word of God." But the Bible tells us that it contains the revealed word of God. It tells us that it is good for instruction in the ways of God. But it never claims to be God. And it is not. Do not fall into the trap of worshiping a book, a thing. Worship instead the One that it reveals!

The third commandment, "You shall not make wrongful use of the name of the Lord your God," is a rather straightforward commandment that we have somehow tended to narrow its meaning to its least important aspects. Mostly we connect it with not swearing. Sometimes we connect it with not invoking God's name in magic or divination, like Simon the Magician did, and occasionally we think it applies to not swearing falsely in God's name.

Now, it does apply to those things, so we are not wrong when we think that. But something far more important is at stake here, and that is maintaining the integrity of God's name. What this Commandment intends to do is to protect the name of God from being used to further our own agendas, draping them in the name of God.

Walter Harrelson suggests that this Commandment's intent is to keep us from using God's name "for mischief." I love that phrase, because it is so easy to invoke the power of God to get what we want, and not necessarily what God wants. And that certainly is using God's name for mischief! We may try to convince ourselves that they are the same thing, all the while knowing that they are not.

Some pastors and many televangelists are notorious for invoking the name of God in order to get what they want and often not necessarily what God would ever want. Beware of so-called Christians leaders who tell you that God told them to tell you to do this or that: like give them your money!

In other words, beware of those who invoke the name of God in the service of some purpose or cause other than God's. The last half of the Commandment makes it clear that God takes this quite seriously, telling us that God "will not acquit anyone who misuses His name."

Next: we'll look at the 4th commandment about keeping the Sabbath - which "technically" most Christians do not do.

God bless.