Monday, November 24, 2014

Thanksgiving, Who Exactly Are You Thanking?

Thanks to whom: Mother Nature, the Universe, evolution, friends, family, neighbors, the nation, our government, ourselves?

Thanksgiving is hollow and/or self-serving, if God is left out of the equation.  In a universe without God, there is no one to thank, but ourselves; and to thank ourselves?  Well, that seems misguided or just flat out wrong.

And for what exactly are we giving thanks:  Life, liberty, prosperity, good health, family?  But what if these things are falling apart, or have never truly been had, or are just not coming through for us, as we had hoped or expected; what then?  Shall we curse rather than thank?

What’s amazing is that I have seen people in the worst of circumstances, people who could be justifiably angry and bitter, given their lot in life, on the contrary have the greatest appreciation for Life and the deepest faith in God; yet, those who seemingly have everything going for them and then more, are often full of fear, resentment, and can be on the verge of despair.  What gives?

Partly it’s a matter of who is perceived to be in control.  The one with the appreciative grateful heart realizes and accepts that there are things bigger, much larger in life that one cannot control.  Believing that God is the only ONE who can and should have final control over all things and trusting in God’s ultimate goodness and mercy, his/her faith is firmly placed in God.  However, those who disdain the very idea of God are on their own, fending for him or herself.  For there is no ONE “up there” looking after him or her.  For him or her, life is one long struggle, a battle of wits and skill, a battle to make it to the top, to get the best, to be the best, to have it all, or at least to get as much out of this life as one possibly can.  But, when one finally makes it to the top, to whom should he or she give thanks, one’s self?

And when one does finally make it, finds him/herself at the top, one soon discovers how very fragile that position is.  It doesn’t take much to bring it all crashing down, does it?  An accident, a sudden illness, a son or daughter’s addiction to drugs, or perhaps an unexpected death, may ruin it all.  Yes, life can be fragile.  In that sense, it’s so very, very hard to keep control of things, isn’t it?

So, this Thanksgiving season might we give thanks to God and give God the credit where credit is due?  God has given a promise.  Ultimately things will be made right.  Evil will be condemned and goodness will finally prevail.  And even those of us who are guilty of contributing to the bad that prevails upon this earth, even we can find forgiveness and be given a “second chance” as it were—in Christ.   I’m talking about redemption, salvation, something for which we can most dearly be thankful.  Unless, of course, you are perfect in every way and have no need of grace from God.

Monday, November 17, 2014

The American Dream, Christianity, and the Promise Land

Christians have a bad reputation.

More often than not, Christians, especially conservative Evangelical Christians, are viewed as narrow-minded, mean-spirited, angry and defensive holier-than-thou types, whose political power must be curbed in order to prevent the imposition of a Christian agenda upon everyone else.  On the other hand, Christians are also readily dismissed as naïve and out of touch, and therefore as irrelevant and insignificant in terms of today’s real world issues.  Why is this?

Perhaps we Christians are much to blame for our bad reputation.  If so, where did we go wrong?

Might it be because we have confused the American Dream with the Biblical “Promise Land,” as if we Americans are the real Chosen People of God and North America is the actual Promised Land?

From its inception America has seen itself as a kind of Biblical Promise Land, a sweet place of plenty brimming with milk and honey, a land of prosperity and happiness.   We are even constitutionally “guaranteed” that America is the place where we can freely pursue happiness.

And, until fairly recently, America has seen itself as a “Christian” nation, unapologetically embracing a Judeo-Christian heritage and ethos.  For many this is changing, indeed already has changed.   As a collective people, we can no longer assume a Judeo-Christian ethos or heritage or set of values for all Americans.  Some might argue that this was never the case anyway.  If so, it is now more so, than at any other time in our history.

And here’s where it gets ugly.  Seeing the weakening of Christian power, the dilution of Christian influence, and the retreat of assumed rights and privileges for the Christian faith, Christians have responded with a declaration of war: We are to fight against heathenish secularism, battle against humanistic paganism, and give a call to arms against heretical religious pluralism!  This is in line with the spirit of the Old Testament when God’s chosen were led into the Promise Land and were told to take it over with a call to arms.

How should a foreign people live in a foreign land?  What rights and privileges do a foreign people have in a land that is not theirs?  What kind of power and influence should a foreign people have while living under foreign rule?  This is what American Christians need to ask themselves—if, that is, they are to take their own faith and theology seriously.  “MY Kingdom is NOT of this world,” says Christianity’s Lord and King, Jesus the Messiah—the Anointed One of God.

Peter writes to fellow Believers saying, “Dear friends, I urge you, as aliens and strangers in the world…” (my emphasis).   He calls us “aliens and strangers” or as other translations put it, “aliens and exiles,” or “temporary residents and foreigners.”  We are not at home.  This is not our homeland; for we are a people on The Way to a greater homeland, the Kingdom of God.  That being said, it requires us to have a very different kind of attitude and response toward the people of this earthly land with whom we live, while we are passing through.

Proactively embracing our sojourner status, are we ready to deal with the fact that this present land, along with its government and the value system by which it is ruled, is a foreign rule to us who have given our allegiance to Christ and His Kingdom?

If so, we need to be more interested in inviting the natives of this earthly land, as we once were ourselves, to join us in our journey to the real Promise Land, than in trying to get them to run the place as if it were already Heaven’s land.  That being the case, we also then need to refuse to take up arms against our hosts, those in power, and rather seek and pray for their welfare, peace, and salvation: “But seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you into exile, and pray to the Lord on its behalf, for in its welfare you will find your welfare” (Jeremiah 29:7).

In short we need a completely different attitude and a different premise from which to address our new situation.  America is not a Christian nation.  And Christianity is losing the privileged status it once had in America.  Traditional Judea-Christian principles and values are no longer the guiding norms for many of this nation’s people.

That may be bad for America but good for Christianity within America, meaning that Christianity in American can get back to Kingdom work, Kingdom witness, and Kingdom living and journeying.  That is, there is much good and much love, and grace, and peace that we Christians can still bring to this nation.

But first we must re-embrace our sojourner status and Christ’s call for us to be a light to the world and the salt of the earth.  We must see ourselves as strangers and aliens living in a foreign land whose allegiance is to a greater Kingdom and a greater ruler—a people of love, grace, and mercy, a people of loving kindness, gentleness, goodness, peace, patience, and integrity, nothing more and nothing less.

In short, we don’t own the place.  And so, we should not be interested in controlling the place.  We are simply passing through.  For, we are heading to a better place.  What we do need to be concerned about is being a loving and redeeming presence while we are passing through, and hopefully we can bring along as many with us as we possibly can as we approach the true Promise Land.

Monday, November 10, 2014

Can You See Obama and McConnell Working Together?

The big politicians on both sides, most notably Obama and McConnell, say that they have to work together and get things done.  They say that they know that this is what the American people want.  Things have to change.  We can’t continue in a perpetual sate of conflict.  They both seem to be saying.  Will they do it?  We, the American people, have our doubts.

Take one issue: Obama Care:  Here, “working together” should mean neither trashing it all together nor giving it carte blanche support.  “Working together,” with respect to Obama Care, for example, first of all means respecting its best intentions while at the same time accepting that it needs a great amount of tweaking and correction to make it work properly.  It means not losing sight of its purpose—to ensure that Americans, who have heretofore failed to benefit from proper healthcare coverage, can do so and in a way that is equitable for all Americans.  Hence, working together means, both parties will work at ensuring that the Affordable Care Act really does become an effective, just, and appropriate policy that positively impacts American citizens as whole.

Or take the question of the Keystone Pipeline.  This refers to the oil pipeline system between Canada and the U.S. that runs from the Western Canadian Sedimentary Basin (Alberta, Canada) to refineries in the U.S., as in Steele City, Nebraska.  Must it be a question of no oil versus ecological protection?  Can’t we have both?  Does it not make sense to BOTH protect our environment AND allow appropriate means of transporting oil?  Yes, it probably costs more to be environmentally protective while drilling or transporting oil; but, that kind of cost is far cheaper than carelessly destroying our lands and contaminating our water resources.  Hence, “working together,” means being environmentally protective AND applying dependable and credible safe ways for transporting oil.  Such an approach can’t be that difficult or impossible, can it?

“Working together” means actually listening to, hearing, and respecting the other party’s values and concerns, in order to find common ground and workable solutions so that win-win solutions may be had.  That’s it!  “Working together” means deliberately and purposefully searching for win-win solutions.  It means steering clear of extremely polarized “all or nothing,” all of this and none of that, “I win you lose,” positioning and posturing.  But, sorry to say, that’s exactly what most Americans don’t see happening, despite all this so-called new talk about “getting things done” and working together.

It is possible that the political system itself is broken.  If our two-party system can no longer find ways to literally and realistically come up with win-win solutions, then the system itself needs to be fixed.  If the political system ends up actively working against balance and subverts the moderate, middle ground, cooperative win-win approach, the system is the problem.  And if that is the case, nothing will work right until the system itself is corrected.

Sunday, November 2, 2014

Fear versus Science: Kaci Hickox and the Ebola Threat

Maine’s governor, Paul LePage believes that Nurse Kaci Hickox should be quarantined, kept isolated in her home until the gestation period for her possibly coming down with Ebola ends.  That would be 21 days.  Nurse Kaci refuses and vows to fight for her “civil rights.”  Who is right?

Nurse Kaci recently returned from Sierra Leone, West Africa, where she served as an aid worker with Doctors Without Borders, helping to fight the Ebola outbreak there.  That makes her a kind of humanitarian hero.  She risked her own health and wellbeing to save others in a foreign country.  Hats off to her for that!

However, upon her return home to the States, she now balks at what some may call taking reasonable steps to protect the residents of her own country.  Some question, are they really “reasonable” steps?  Others are wondering, is she not concerned for the safety of her own home community?  Legal battles are on the horizon, Maine’s governor versus nurse Kaci.  Is this how it should be?

Hickox arrived in New Jersey on October 24th; there Governor Chris Christie quarantined her for four days.  Apparently she showed signs of a fever, but it was not due to Ebola.  Proving to be asymptomatic in terms of Ebola, Governor Christie eventually released her to travel on to her home state of Maine.  Nurse Kacie criticized Christie for detaining her.

Once she arrived in Maine…, well, by now you know the story.  Nurse Kaci, in an interview says that she is “appalled by these home quarantine policies that have been forced upon me,” asserting that she continues to be in “perfectly good health,” “feels perfectly strong,” and has been “completely symptom free” thus far.

Thus, Nurse Kacie resents and resists the idea of enforced quarantine, virtually being locked-up in her own home until November 10th (which apparently marks the required 21-day period for assuring that she is Ebola free).  Doctors Without Borders sympathizes with her, having put out a statement which “strongly disagrees with blanket forced quarantine for health care workers returning from Ebola affected countries.”

“I’m not going to sit around and be bullied by politicians to stay in my home when I am not a risk to the American public,” she says.  “When someone is asymptomatic, there is no risk for transmitting the infection, so to imprison me in my house for three weeks when you don’t know ahead of time whether I will develop the disease … I’m not willing to stand here and let my civil rights be violated when it’s not science-based.”

She’s got a point.  Rational heads must prevail.  Policies and decisions should be based on solid scientific evidence.  I’ll give her that much.  However, I’d also add that public fears and lack of trust also need serious consideration and respect.  One does not allay another’s fear by in effect saying, “Hold on, you don’t know what you are talking about!  I DO.  So, I’m going to do what I will, regardless of your fears.  Deal with it!”  Did she say that?  No, she did not.  But her attitude and actions come across as much.

Nurse Kaci is resisting her Governor’s civic authority to keep her at home.  Dismissing the Governor’s authority to keep her at home, she plays up her own authority as a scientific medical nurse.  In short, it’s become a power struggle; two different kinds of authorities butting heads, governing authority based on fear versus personal rights based on scientific authority, as Nurse Kaci is inclined to depict it.

Nurse Kaci calls her treatment by the Governor a form of “stigmatization, not based on science or evidence.”  Well, okay.  But even if her treatment is based on reactionary fear that is not based on science, these fears are real and must be addressed as such.  Fearful people require real assurances with cooperative, positive, concrete action, so that those fears are alleviated.

Now, it is safe to say that the average American has a great amount of respect for the voice of science.  Some even treat Science as the new god on the block and scientists as its High Priests.  Nevertheless, the average American also knows that scientists are not perfect.  Miscalculations are made from time to time.  Science and the scientific method are not error free.

So there is a kind of artificial or false dichotomy that gets raised when one quickly pits scientific knowledge and know-how against social public fears.  This is true of any subject where science has a say over against public fears and doubts, be it about fracking, global warming, or the spreading of a life-killing virus, for example.  Bottom line: One does not alleviate fear simply by stating scientific facts and figures to logically prove how silly one’s fears are.

Science is interpretive and requires judgment even educated guesses at times.  All scientists, including doctors and nurses, make mistakes, get things wrong, and make bad judgment calls.  Hence, the need for the scientific community, or in this case the medical community, to develop and sustain public trust and to show some respect for the peoples’ fears each step of the way—no matter how irrational or unscientific those fears may be.

As I understand it, Federal guidelines say that a person in her situation may engage in “non-congregate public activities” like jogging in a park, as long as a 3-foot distance from others is maintained, for example.  That tells me that there can be a middle ground for the Governor of Maine and Nurse Kaci to find. 

The Governor is making a mistake by apparently demanding total isolation of said nurse while the nurse seems to be making the mistake of appearing preoccupied with self.  Both the Governor and Nurse Kaci need to think of what’s best for the public.  For example, Nurse Kaci could allow herself to become a test case to concretely verify and validate what science already knows about the Ebola virus and how it spreads.  She could allow herself to become a case-study by submitting to a bit more restrictive set of rules, so as to eventually confirm that the present Federal guidelines actually work.  By so doing, she could bring more confidence to a frightened public and provide practical reassurances to a doubting and fearful people.  But to do this, both Nurse Kaci and Governor LePage need to work cooperatively.  They must avoid allowing this to become an issue solely about one person’s individual civic rights.