Monday, October 28, 2013

Angela Merkel, Privacy and Us

Of course Angela Merkel is upset.  I'd be upset too!  In fact, I am.  I'm upset to think that the government is listening in on her conversations, or, perhaps, yours and mine.  Is this any way to treat citizens and friends?  Don't misunderstand, I don't think Edward Snowden Angela did us any favors by leaking the information that he did.  But really--Angela Merkel?

None of this should take us by surprise, I suppose.  Any expectation of privacy has really disappeared--at least in terms of technology.  I remember when I was a boy, back in the day before we called land lines land lines.  My family had a private line.  Dad was a pastor, and felt it important to be able to speak with distraught parishioners over the phone without worrying about who was listening in to the conversation.  But most of my friends had party lines--phone lines shared by two or more households.  The number of rings let you know when the call was for your family--but lots and lots of folks listened in.  You never could be certain your conversation was confidential if you had a party line.  When party lines became a thing of the past, folks thought that was the end of our worries about privacy on the phone.

It's kind of funny.  Today, many people, young and old alike, are taking the next step getting rid of their land lines altogether. Instead, every member of the household has his or her own private cell phone and accompanying number.  My oldest son and his wife got rid of their land line quite some time ago.  They each have their own phone--as does their oldest son.  One household, three phones, three phone numbers.  You'd think that would guarantee privacy.  But it doesn't.  Just ask the German Chancellor.

I'm not sure where I'm going with all of this.  Maybe you should think of reading this as listening in on a conversation I'm having with myself.  Or maybe not!

Monday, October 21, 2013

Fall and Football and Prayer

Here in Southwest Florida they are predicting that a cold front will be coming through later in the week and that it will really begin to feel like fall.  Our temperatures will be going down to daytime highs in the low eighties!  I must admit, as a New Englander, it has taken some real adjustment.

It's a good thing we have sports to keep us on track when it comes to the seasons of the year!  After all, the Fall Classic starts this week, and this year features the Red Sox and the Cardinals.  Shades of 2004!  And of course there is football--the ultimate fall sport.  That's really big here in Florida.  Friday night high school games.  Saturday college games.  Sunday pro games.  All-season, all-weekend, all-football!

It is not uncommon to see teammates huddle up before a game begins for a team prayer.  The best of those prayers ask God to protect the players from injury and to help insure a good and fair game be played by all.  But I suspect many a player is praying for victory.

Several years ago the sports related comic strip Funky Winkerbean depicted a team prayer.  In the first frame the Coach says to his players, "Remove your helmets [men] and take a knee for the team prayer!"  Helmets are removed, heads are bowed, and the coah offers a silent prayer.  Then, as the players look up, one of them, gazing across the field, says, "It didn't work, Coach!  The other team is still there!"

That is often how prayer is viewed.  If we pray the right way, folks often say, if we pray hard enough, often enough, then we will get what we want.  But the truth is prayer isn't magic--rather it is how we relate to God."

Danish philosopher Soren Kierkegaard lived before modern football was even invented.  And even if he did live when it was around he would have thought you were talking about soccer if you said football!  But when it came to prayer he knew what he was talking about, and was a contemporary as they come.  "Prayer, he once wrote, "doesn't change God; rather it changes the one who prays."  Wise words--in this season, or any season!

Monday, October 14, 2013

The R* Word--Or Why Names Matter

I'm not a jock. I never was. I'm something of a klutz and never met a ball I couldn't drop! I have found physical activities that I enjoy, yoga, walking and cycling in particular, but I am not into competitive sports. At least not as a participant. But I am a fan. Most ardently, a Red Sox fan. As I write this, in fact, I am a bit sleep deprived because I stayed up well past my bedtime to watch game 2 of the 2013 American league Championship Series. It was a thrilling game, complete with a grand slam and a walk-off run to end it in the bottom of the ninth. Of course if you don't follow baseball, that may seem like real gobbledygook. My brilliant mother, for instance, knows more about literature than I'll ever begin to imagine. But sports? That is just not in her purview! She's never said sports are unimportant, or a waste of time,she's not that judgemental--but I suspect that may be what she thinks. Along with many others, I'm sure.

Now baseball is called America's pastime, but the truth is football has outstripped it in popularity. In fact according to an Adweek/Harris Poll taken in 2011, 64% of Americans watch NFL Football. Among men, 73%, and among women, 55%. And that is just professional ball. It doesn't even take into account those who watch college football, or that ever popular Friday night activity, high school football. Clearly, lots and lots of Americans are exposed to football, follow football, enjoy football, consider it an important part of their lives. And so while many would say sports in general and football in particular trivial, the reality is, sports greatly shape our culture as a nation.

I mention all this because of the current controversy over the name of the Washington, DC based NFL team. The Redskins. There is a growing effort to see that the name be changed. Redskins, it has been noted, is the equivalent of the N* word or other ethnic slurs. Imagine calling the team the Washington N . . . well you get the idea. Redskins is an offensive term. According to an NBC poll a majority of Americans think is should not be changed. (Today Show, 10-14-13). Some, I am sure, feel it is a tempest in a teapot. Why worry about it? It's just a nickname, and it's been around forever, and gee whiz, it's just a football team. It's just sports! But sports are important to Americans, football in particular. And the words we use and the attitudes we foster in sports do matter because they influence how we speak, how we think, how we act.

Noted sportscaster Bob Costas weighed in on the matter this past weekend. In his remarks he called for changing the name. "It is an insult, a slur, no matter how benign the present day intent." He's right. The name should be changed. Because like it or not, sports matter. And so do names.

Monday, October 7, 2013

Back in the Day

One of my parishioners recently did a major clean out of an old family cottage. Among other things, he and his wife had to weed through hundreds of books and journals. Many of them found their way to the local Goodwill. But one of the journals got passed on to me. It is a copy of the January 1970 volume of The Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science. It passed into my hands not so much as an oddity, but because all the articles in it are focused around a theme near and dear to my heart: the Sixties. In particular, "The Sixties: Radical Change in American Religion."

Contained in the volume are articles about Vatican II, Black consciousness and the Black church, fundamentalism, the growth of interest in Eastern religions, and the growing battle over abortion and contraception. The authors are--at least for those of us schooled in the world of church history--some of the real rock stars of the era: Sydney E. Ahlstrom, James Gustafson, James Cone and Richard John Neuhaus among others. I have not read any of the articles yet. I'm hoping to find the time to sit down and read straight through the 140 pages or so of sixties related materials. I suspect it will be a trip down memory lane, after all, I'm a child of the sixties! But I also suspect I'll be amazed at how little we've moved on some of the issues.

One piece, for instance, discusses the matter of civil religion. I'm convinced we still haven't figured out the appropriate role of religion in the public square, we still don't have what Phyllis Tickle calls a good "theology of religion." And fundamentalism? Well, today most folks think Islam when they hear the word fundamentalist--but truth be told there is still a large contingent of such folks in Christian circles. How does that have bearing on society? One of the articles talks about Jewish-Christian dialogue in the light of the Six-Day War. Now there's a seeming bit of ancient history. Lots has changed in Israel-Palestine since then--yet nothing seems to have changed. How do we American Christians and Jews deal with the issue in our conversations?

I remember my PhD advisor, the very wise Earl Kent Brown of Boston University, once told me you can't write history until at least fifty years after the fact. The publishers of The Annals obviously hadn't heard that maxim--after all, they didn't even wait a month! Still, it should be fascinating--now that it is almost fifty years later, to take a peek and see if history does have anything to teach us.  I suspect it does!

Wednesday, October 2, 2013

Not Me!

When my children were younger something would occasionally get broken--a lamp that had been carelessly bumped during a footrace through the living room; a chair that fell apart because somebody sat on it with a sibling or friend in their lap . . . those sort of things.  Somehow whenever we tried to find out who was responsible we never seemed to get to the bottom of it.  "Not me," they'd all say one after another.  Sometimes they would blame one another.  "He did it!  I saw him running!"  "She did it!  I saw her horsing around!"  It was a game--the blame game.  And, unlike most other games, it was a game nobody ever really won--and in fact, if we got really exasperated, we'd send them all to their rooms.  And everybody lost.

Maybe that's what we ought to do.  Maybe we should send all our elected officials to their rooms.  I mean, government is broken, but nobody seems to be taking responsibility for it!  "He did it!"  "She did it!"  The Republicans are responsible!  The President is at fault!  The Tea Party's brought it on us!  The old blame game.  The one nobody wins--and in this case, the one where certain people really lose.  Elderly vets who want to see the World War II Memorial and remember their fallen comrades.  A lost hiker on federal lands.  The thousands of hard working public servants who've been furloughed.  The children who need the meager amount of fresh food supplied though their WIC stipends worth forty-five dollars a month.  Losers now--or soon enough.  And that's just a few of them.

Here's a thought.  Not only do we send them all to their rooms.  We also take away their desserts--or at least their paychecks.  Maybe we don't let them watch television or play video games for a week or two or at least until the debt ceiling is raised.  I don't believe in corporal punishment, so washing their mouths out with soap is out of the question.  But hey, it just might work!

I vote.  I write letters to my congressional representatives.  I pray for the President, the Governor and other elected officials most very day.  I keep abreast of politics and public policy.  I like democracy, and I'm willing to do my part--for free!  So why can't those we pay to make it work do their part?