Monthly Archives: February 2011

Exodus 24:12-18: Gift for Instruction

Moses with the tablets of the Ten Commandments...

Image via Wikipedia

[Reflections on the Old Testament Lectionary Reading for Mar 6, 2011]

“The Lord said to Moses, ‘Come up to me on the mountain, and wait there; and I will give you the tablets of stone, with the law and the commandment, which I have written for their instruction.'” (Ex, 24:12 NRSV)

Why did God give us the law and commandments? According to this passage, God gave them to us for our instruction. Notice first that they are a gift not a burden. Notice second that they are for our instruction rather than for our condemnation.

So why should we obey God’s laws and commandments. It is surely not to avoid condemnation. Yet many follow the rules set forth in Scripture and their congregation out of fear. They have been taught that in order to avoid the condemnation of hell they must give their life to Christ. They are taught that they are saved by grace rather than works. But then they judge their own and others “faith” by the degree to which they measure up to these rules.

If these rules are a gift for instruction, then perhaps they were given in order to enhance our lives rather than to threaten us for our transgressions. Perhaps God has given us the law as an owner’s manual from our maker. Perhaps the law was meant to instruct us in how to live more fully on earth. Who better than our creator to show us what manner of living is consistent with our design and purpose?

Revolt Response Revelations

Protest Egypt

Image by gwenflickr via Flickr

Through simultaneous popular revolts around the world, we can get a glimpse into the character of political leaders. On the one hand, you have Egypt.  It’s people have been able to depose its 30-year autocrat, Hosni Mubarak without much bloodshed. On the other hand, you have Egypt’s neighbor, Libya.  It’s people have not yet been able to depose its 40-year autocrat, Muammar al-Gaddafi. And there has been much bloodshed.

These leaders both clung to power in the face of protests, but only one has gone to war against his own people in order to maintain it.  It may be that this is not a contrast in character at all; it may merely contrast the relative military strengths of these two leaders in the midst of crisis.  However, Gaddafi has insisted that he will fight until death, and Mubarak could have adopted a similar pose of stubbornness, but he did not.

What does it say about a leader who is more willing to see his/her people suffer and die rather than that leader lose some power and control?  For me it does not represent true leadership.  True leaders focus on the hopes and dreams of the whole rather than personal gain and fame.

Of course, the problem is that leaders are prone to see any resistance as having its origin outside the group being led.  In both Egypt and Libya, those supporting the status-quo have imagined that the protests were funded and led by foreigners. There comes a time, though, when the sacrifices of those who stand up to object overwhelm such accusations.

Some of this same dynamic is playing out in our own country.  The situation is different enough to prohibit any easy comparisons, but one thing remains: each of our leaders who are being challenged by protests show his or her character in the way she or he responds.  We should all pay attention because it isn’t often that we get to glimpse into the character of a politician.  In American politics, most demonstrations of “character” are well-scripted affairs.  Now are are seeing how our leaders respond when surprised by events.

People Power

Madison Protest

Image by pchgorman via Flickr

Who would have believed that an uprising in Tunisia would start a domino effect of disenfranchised uprisings around the world. It is still too soon to know whether any of them will turn out well for those whose energy have fueled them. Each of today’s series of protests have been countered by “protests” from the other side of debate. There is a history of such uprisings being hijacked by more powerful forces so that what at first seemed like a genuine revolution faltered.

Interestingly, the U.S. protesters of the past few years (the Tea Party) are the counter-protesters today in Wisconsin. The Tea Party claims to represent ordinary citizens, and yet so do those who are protesting in Wisconsin.  In a sense, I believe both of them. The Tea Party has many ordinary people as members, and the streets around the capitol in Madison are also filled with ordinary people.

Both of these opposing groups long to claim the mantle of being part of a “grassroots” movements.  Consider some of the differences, and you will see why I think what we’re seeing in Wisconsin deserves being called “grassroots” more than the Tea Party.  The Tea Party movement started slow, and it took many months to garner the sort of numbers that the Madison group has achieved in a matter of days.  The Tea Party movement was egged on by media types such as Rush Limbaugh and Glenn Beck.  The Billionaire Koch brothers helped “‘educate,’ fund, and organize Tea Party protesters.” The Tea Party rallies were planned out.  They appeared at a pre-planned location on a pre-planned date. The protesters in Wisconsin showed up and they keep showing up, and no one really knows when it might end.  Many figure this was all organized by labor unions, but I see little evidence at this point that this was orchestrated in any way like the Tea Party rallies were.

The key piece of evidence for me is to follow the advice of “Deep Throat” in the movie “All The President’s Men“: follow the money.  If you follow the money, you can tell who is behind something.  In the case of the protesters in Wisconsin, they want to see money NOT flow out of the pension funds of school teachers. In the case of the Tea Partiers, they at first wanted to see money NOT flow into banks in the form of the bail-out, but later they seemed to change direction by wanting to protect the flow of money into insurance companies (by opposing Health Care reform) and into banks (by opposing Wall Street reform).  They want to see money NOT flow out of Big Energy and Industry (by opposing cap & trade, alternative energy development, global warming legislation, etc.)

The Tea Party movement seems to me to have been a modest movement that gained legs only after big money interests steered them toward advocating for the rich.  The upheaval in Wisconsin is still very young.  Right now it is just a modest movement.  It isn’t as good at playing political games.  In an effort to be reasonable, their demands are modest. They’re willing to allow their governor, Scott Walker to balance the budget on their backs (even though he has already given tax breaks to the rich).  They have only asked to keep the rights to bargain collectively.  Once Walker gives them this tiny morsel, then ostensibly they’re done, and will then go home.  On the other hand, the Tea Party has arrived in Wisconsin with much more strident demands.  They want a recall of every democrat.  This puts them in a much stronger position to negotiate.  I hope that over time we begin to see the main group in Wisconsin begin to demand more from their governor.

Matthew 6:24-34: Service to Wealth

You cannot serve both God and money

Image by skambalu via Flickr

[Reflections on the Gospel Lectionary Reading for Feb 27, 2011]

In the context of prosperity in America, Jesus’ words, “You cannot serve God and wealth” sound as if he is challenging our rich neighbor but not us. Despite America’s wealth, we don’t consider ourselves to be wealthy individuals. Wealth begins somewhere north of our net worth and income.

Jesus continues, “Therefore, I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat or what you will drink, or about your body, what you will wear.” Suddenly his words no longer seem targeted at the super-rich. He appears to be talking to everyday folk. Uh-oh, I think he might talking to me. He is equating serving wealth to such mundane tasks as worrying about where our next meal will come from. He isn’t talking about luxuries; he’s talking about necessities.

Don’t get me wrong, I am not suggesting that Jesus wouldn’t consider the American passion for conspicuous consumption to be an example of serving wealth. But, that’s an obvious example–one that is so easy, that we can easily deflect the warning as one that doesn’t apply to our lives.

Jesus expands the notion of what it means to serve wealth to include our obsession with financial security–even for necessities. We live in a security obsessed culture. Media bombards us with tales of danger, and we become stressed about our own security. We feed our feelings of insecurity by storing up wealth as some sort of fortress against potential future danger. Jesus challenges us to let all of that go.  He says, “do not worry about your life.” He stresses the power of God to provide for us.

This isn’t just some sort of fluffy, feel-good message. Jesus is not singing a chorus of “Don’t Worry, Be Happy.” This is a radical challenge to our habit of justifying all sorts of selfish behavior in the name of security and self-defense. We save for our retirement in order to mollify our fears around security. We purchase many forms of insurance, just in case.  In order to do that, we must secure a “good” job that pays well. Meanwhile, we adopt a lifestyle fitting our income, and this in turn raises the stakes for our retirement. We want to be able to maintain this nice lifestyle beyond retirement. This nice lifestyle demands going into debt to buy automobiles and homes. In order to secure such a high-paying job, we must heavily invest in education. This usually involves more debt. In order to ensure success in school, we must work in early childhood to master certain concepts and skills. In other words, we spend an entire lifetime investing in self-centered endeavors that have nothing to do with serving God. We cannot serve both God and wealth.

Our service to wealth in the name of security spills over into our society. To make our lifestyle more affordable, and thus more secure, we are willing to turn a blind eye to the exploitation of others. We clamor after bargains made at the expense of exploited workers. We vote according to our pocketbook.  Our political friendships are determined by economic advantage rather than the Godly principle of  love. Our obsession about security convinces us to go to war against our enemies rather than to love our enemies.

Jesus tells us to strive first for the kingdom of God. We try to strive for that second, but we never get around to it. Jesus promises that God will take care of our security, but we’d rather do it ourselves. Our faith in insufficient to rely on God for such an important thing as our own welfare.

Sometimes Things Don’t Unfold According To Plans


Image by chbrenchley via Flickr

I have been looking forward to the House tackling a budget because I am hoping it will force the GOP to back up their promise for drastic cuts with some concrete details.  I am sure that conservatives have been looking forward to it as well.  They are likely seeing it as another opportunity to focus on cutting government spending.  They get to haul out all of their old canards about how terrible the Democrats are in general and how terrible Obama is in particular.

The only problem with their plan has been an unfortunate coincidence.  While they are posturing over the budget, Middle Eastern nations are undergoing a potential revolution.  The overthrow of the government in Egypt has eclipsed the budget in the news. Actual history-in-the-making trumps political posturing.

The spreading revolution reminds me of the crumbling of the Soviet empire.  People power is spreading from country to country.  I am not predicting that this will turn out as significantly or well as the fall of the Soviet Union, but it is similar in the way it has organically grown.  These regime changes were not sparked by CIA plots or military invasions.

Consider the comparison between the fall of Hosni Mubarak and Saddam Hussain. Both fell rather quickly, but only one of those events cost the U.S. a lot of money. Only one of those smelled of imperialism. After Hussain fell, we have had to continue to meddle in order to achieve our true objective.  We enjoyed deposing Hussain, but more importantly we want the new Iraq to be friendly to the U.S. There is no guarantee that the new Egypt will be friendly to the U.S. There is no guarantee that the new Iraq will be friendly to the U.S. It will be fascinating to track these two cases and make a comparison.

Getting back to the Soviet Union: I’m not sure how “friendly” I would say Russia has been to the U.S. since the fall of the Soviet Union.  Americans tend to credit Reagan for the fall of the Soviet Union. I suspect this appears to foreigners like typical American hubris. My conservative brother-in-law remarked recently that presidents should be held accountable for good and bad things that happen in their administrations. He was not willing to blame Bush for 9/11, however, and now I wonder whether he will credit Obama with the fall of Egypt and for whatever good things may come out of this current wave of democracy. I feel quite certain he will readily blame Obama for whatever the rabid right can find wrong with the consequences of these revolts.

Who the Heck is Esperanza Spalding?

Grammy Award

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The Grammy awards have always been a bit of a joke. They are notorious for ignoring the best artists and music. The Best New Artist Award is one of their most dicey categories. They are so prone to fall for the latest “cool” artist that they frequently honor artists who are nothing more than a flash in the pan.

This year’s award went to Esperanza Spalding.  I confess, I have never heard of her.  Now that doesn’t mean that she will prove to be a flash in the pan  (Where did she spark a flash?), but based on their track record, I’m not sure I’d be celebrating much if I were her.

She joins the ranks of artists such as Amy Winehouse, Evanescence, Norah Jones, Shelby Lynne, Lauryn Hill, Paula Cole, Marc Cohn, Milli Vanilli, Tracy Chapman, Bruce Hornsby and the Range, Christopher Cross, Rickie Lee Jones, A Taste of Honey, Debby Boone, Starland Vocal Band, and Marvin Hamlisch. They beat out Taylor Swift, 50 Cent, John Mayer, Avril Lavigne, Brad Paisley, Backstreet Boys, Puff Daddy, Boyz II Men, Dire Straits, Elvis Costello, Toto, The Cars, Foreigner, Boston, and Bad Company.

Other artists who lost to lesser talents include: Jefferson Airplane, Cream, Led Zeppelin, Elton John, and the Eagles. Artist who were not even nominated? Well, that would include the entire slate of Motown artists. In 1970, Michael Jackson and his brothers had 4 number one hits, but the Jackson 5 was never nominated for best new artist. However, the Partridge Family got a nomination that year. Hip-Hop and Rap artists are routinely snubbed. One would think that this category would be a shoo-in for American Idol winners. Yet, only Carrie Underwood has won (or even been nominated, I think).

Don’t get me wrong, I’m as thrilled as anyone when an artist I like wins a Grammy. I still remember in 1974 how thrilled I was that Stevie Wonder won the album of the year Grammy. This was the first time an African-American had ever won this award, so the deck was stacked against him. Most believe that his success at the Grammy’s and within the larger music elite was possible because of the credibility he gained by touring with the Rolling Stones in 1972.

Also, I have nothing against Esperanza. She lists Stevie Wonder as a major influence, and so I would probably like her. She may be a major new talent. All I’m saying is that this award is not a very good predictor of future success or promise.