Monday, July 30, 2012

Lessons from Beyond

I recently had a lovely conversation with the children of a deceased parishioner.  Their dad had been a very thoughtful man--a seeker in the truest sense of the word.  Despite being well advanced in years he made a real effort to attend my weekly seminars on subjects ranging from the History of Mormonism to The Religous and Political History of Haiti.  Apparently he had shared some of that experience with his children, neither of whom live close at hand.  In phone conversations he would relay some of what he had learned in class, and it would serve as fodder for discussion. 

One of the courses that particularly intrigued my late parishioner had been the one on life after death.  In that class I presented the various ways different religious groups view the matter.  I spoke about resurrection, reincarnation, the immortality of the soul, annihilation and other theological and philosophical understandings.  One night on the phone he told his daughter about the course.

"So, Dad," she said, "What do you think?  What's your view of life after death?"

"I don't know," he said.  "We haven't had the last class yet!"

I chuckled when his daughter told me the story.  It sounded just like him!  But the truth, of course, is that while we may have any number of theological understandings of life beyond the grave, in reality, we won't really know until after the last class, will we.  I suppose that's why they call it faith.  I can't prove that there is life after death.  I can't prove resurrection is real.  But I can have faith, I can trust that the God who has loved me throughout my life, will love me after my death as well.

Monday, July 23, 2012

The Colorado Shooting: A Response

And so the debate heats up once again.  As more than one pundit has observed, it happens every time there is a mass shooting like the one this past weekend in Aurora, Colorado.  Gun control proponents and those who are opposed to any suppression of gun rights trot out all the arguments, pro and con, and we hear anew how we need to get rid of guns or we need to keep them.  And, we don't really get anywhere.  And things quiet down.  And we wait for the next time.

I am reminded of the abortion debate, and how it often falls into the same pattern of all or nothing.  But the truth is there is a middle ground in both debates. 

While I can't personally imagine owning any sort of gun myself, I can get behind the right of folks to own a shot gun for hunting.  I can even understand why some people might want or even need a handgun for personal protection.  But an assault rifle?  One designed for killing many people in an incredibly short amount of time?  One capable of firing off one hundred rounds of ammunition in no time at all?  No one needs such a weapons. 

Even a gun proponent like Cameron Hopkins, former editor-in-chief of American Handgunner, acknowledges there are limits.  "If zombies were coming over the horizon, and I wanted to massacre thousands of zombies, I still would not use a 100-round magazine," he told Bloomsberg Businessweek reporters (  Such magazines, he said are bulky and unreliable.  (He does say he'd rather use 30 round magazines. We're not exactly on the same page, but still . . . . there are limits even for him.)

Here's the bottom line.  In Colorado, carrying a loaded assault rifle is legal.  In Colorado, requiring gun registration is illegal.  Something's wrong with this picture!  If you are law-abiding citizen, a hunter or a homeowner, how does carrying a loaded assault weapon advance your cause?  And how does registration hinder it? 

It's time to recognize that the context of the adoption of the Second Amendment is a vastly different context than that of our day and age.  It's time to let go of the polarized positions.  It is time to recognize that while it is true "Guns don't kill people, people do"--it is just as true that the more guns (loaded or otherwise) that you have circulating in society, the more likely they will be used for ill. 

I, for one, am tired of waiting until next time.  How many more lives need to be lost before we do something?  Let's get serious about gun control and responsible gun ownership.

Monday, July 16, 2012

Summer Camp and Sweet Sixteen

It was 1969.  The year I turned sixteen.  It was one of the longest summers of my life.  From the time I was twelve, I had been required to work part time jobs during the school year, and once I hit fourteen, full time in the summer.  I'd done a lot of babysitting and lawn mowing, paper delivering and dish washing, and I was determined to do something more interesting that summer.  So, when I saw an ad recruiting counselors for Camp Lincoln, I decided to apply.

Camp Lincoln was a YMCA sleep away camp.  It was very rustic.  And I wasn't really the outdoorsy type.  But when they offered me a job as a junior counselor I quickly jumped at the chance to be on my own for a whole summer.  I imagined it would be heavenly to be out from under my parents for most of eight weeks.  And on top of that, I got free room and board, all the bug juice I could drink, and at the end of the summer, the promise of one hundred dollars.

Little did I know the term junior counselor really meant indentured servant.  If there was scut work to be done, it fell to me and my peers.  And my overseer that summer was a wise guy college freshman who we'll call Bud.  Bud hated my guts.  Truth be told, I was probably a handful.  I'm sure I felt I knew everything there was to know about camp and our eight year old charges.  After all, I'd been one more recently than Bud had!  Still, in retrospect, it seems he went out of his way to make my life miserable.  Latrine duty,staying back in the cabin when a kid got sick, and whatever other tortures he could devise seemed to always be the order of the day.  By week two I was ready to go home, but I couldn't.  I'd signed a contract. 

There was one promise of respite though, for between weeks four and five, there were no campers in camp for a whole weekend, and we were allowed to leave the premises.  We could even go home if we wanted, so long as we were back by a certain time on Sunday morning.

Back then it was still safe to hitchhike, so the minute the last camper left, I was out on the road, thumbing my way home.  I really missed my girlfriend, looked forward to seeing my folks, and even felt a bit of love for my little brothers and sister.  And to top it off, it was the weekend of my sixteenth birthday.

I got home that Friday night, and was surprised no one mentioned my birthday was coming up the next day.  And so I went to bed a little disgruntled.  The next morning my mother came into my bedroom and woke me up.  "John," she said, "put one some clothes and come to the front room.  A somebody's here to see you."  So I dressed.  I have a picture from that day. I'm standing there in my dark framed glasses, with long hair, wearing jeans and a blue and red striped t-shirt.

When I walked into the front room, I was suddenly surrounded by a whole gang of my friends!  It was a surprise birthday breakfast!  All my best buddies were there, and of course, my girlfriend.  We had a great breakfast.  Bacon and eggs as I remember, and cake, of course--teenaged boys will eat anything at anytime!There were presents and lots of joking around.  Whatever sense of disgruntlement I had felt the night before, simply disappeared!  All the woes of life at camp melted away.  I felt renewed and energized.  I felt embraced by love and acceptance.  And though I was sorry to leave the next day, I knew I could finish out the summer.  I knew I could handle whatever got thrown my way.

That was a long time ago.  I turn fifty-nine later this week.  I don't imagine I'll have cake for breakfast.  But I know I'm loved--and I'll never forget the lesson I learned that summer.  Like a pop song of that era once said, "Love will see you through." 

Tuesday, July 10, 2012

Curses--Foiled Again!

"Whoever having arrived at the age of discretion accosts or addresses another person with profane or obscene language in a street or other public place, may be punished by a fine of not more than $20.00."
Article 8, Section 5, Bylaws of Middleborough, MA

The bylaw above was originally adopted by the good people of Middleborough in 1968.  Apparently it didn't work very well, and was rarely enforced.  And in recent years the use of profanity has been on the rise in certain parts of town.  So at a town meeting held on June 11 local police were given authority to treat public cursing as a civil offense.  And the power to write out tickets for offenders.  The fine, despite inflation, remains $20.00.  The vote was 180-53.  Will it make a difference?  Who knows.  I guess its OK to cuss out Uncle Murray in your living room, but not at the supermarket.  Maybe cops should just carry bars of soap and take care of things on the spot!

I suppose one could get upset about the new regulation. (In fact some folks did--and they held a rally on June 24, attended by under one hundred folks, many from out of town.  An anti-anti-profanity rally.) It certainly calls into question certain constitutional issues, like first amendment rights to free speech.  But laws and regulations aren't going to curb the tongues of folks inclined to curse. And what really upsets me about this isn't the fact folks are cursing up a blue steak in Puritan country, or that government is horning in on free speech.  What upsets me is the vote itself.

Middleborough has 23,000 residents.  I don't know how many of them are registered voters, but its got to be a lot more than the 233 who put the new regulation into effect!  Talk about low voter turnout!  If this were an isolated incident, if Middleborough was an anomaly, I wouldn't be concerned.  But it is happening all over America.  More and more people are saying, "To hell with voting!  What difference does it make anyway?"  (Or as law abiding people say in Middleborough, "The heck with voting!")

I hope that folks will clean up their language in Middleborough--and anywhere else its getting too rough.  But more than that, I hope folks will start taking the franchise seriously.  Democracy only works if we are all willing to participate.  Not voting?  Now that's a real civil offense!

Monday, July 2, 2012

Free to Believe

Freedom of religion--at least as we understand it today--was not part of the plan for the first European settlers here in the New World.  The Puritans and others fully expected that there would be an established church, an official church, supported by the government.  But Baptist preacher Roger Williams, who was run out of what is now Massachusssetts, had other ideas.  And in 1636 he founded the Colony of Rhode Island.  There men and women could worship as they pleased.

Many groups flocked to the new colony in hopes opf finding refuge from relgious persecution--including fifteen Jewish familes who settled in Newport.  By 1763 they had grown in numbers sufficient to support a rabbi and the first Jewish meetinghouse, the first syangogue, in what is now the United States. 

During the Revolutionary War Touro Synagogue had hosted an important meeting of generals, which included George Washington.  Later, when Washington became president, the members of the synagogue sent him a letter of congragtulations.  Washington, in turn, sent them a letter that is considered by many to be one of the most important letters ever written in our country.  In that letter he noted his appreciation of their earlier hospitality.  And then he assured the good people of Touro Synagogue that he understood the importance of religous liberty.  "[T]he governement of the United States, which gives to bigotry no sanction, to persecution no assistance, requires that they who live under its protection should demean themselves good citizens in giving it on all occasions their effectual support."  (Letter from George Washington to the Hebrew Congregation at Newport, August, 1790)

Like those early Jewish Americans in Rhode Island, we are grateful for the liberties and freedoms we enjoy in our nation.  We are grateful for the rights we have to worship and believe as we wish.  There is much about America to love and we want to be loyal citizens.  But we also want to be true to our beliefs as people of faith--and sometimes those things seem to be in conflict.  Does being a loyal Christian, or Jew, or Muslim or Buddhist or whatever, completely compromise ones ability to be a loyal citizen?

I think not--as long as democracy exists, as long as we have voice, as long as outrs is a government "of the people, by the people, and for the people" we can still be good citizens and, in Washington's words, give our nation "effectual support."  For in a democracy, good citizens are those who qyuestion, those who participate, those who think.  If we see our nation going astray, if we feel our governemtn if failing to do that which is right and good, the most loyal thing we can do is speak up and speak out.

Does that mean jamming one's views down other folks' throats?  Does it mean legislating secular laws for religous reasons?  No.  But uit does mean working out of ones religous convictions to identify and address important concerns.  It means finding common ground with others and identifying secularly based reasons for advocating for particular concerns.  The laws of the land must be bulit on secular reasons, not theological doctrine. 

We must not try to impose our religous convictions on others.  But we must bring them to bear on our own actions, our own opinions.  We can be people of faith, while at the same time recognizing that there are other people of other faiths all around us.

Have a grand Fourth!

(Picture:  Touro Synagogue, Newport, Rhode Island)