I listened carefully to the President's press conference last night. I believe Mr. Obama is sincere, mostly. He can't resist the allure of power - or a friendly press corps - and so he's going to try to wield as much of it as he can. But I think he'd really like to go to bed at night with the feeling that more Americans were receiving better health care because of his doggedness on this issue. I can't say I know yet how he plans to do that; he speaks in such broad generalities that you can just about fill in the blanks with whatever seems right for you. But there is one component of the American health care system that the President's plan has failed to address. It's a two-sided coin, but it is the primary reason why health care costs keep rising, people keep falling through the cracks, health care is declining, and more and more people are drifting into desperation. The problem is covetousness, on the one side, and lack of neighbor love on the other. If people weren't so greedy for as much money as they can get, or so indifferent or even hostile to the needs of their neighbors, costs wouldn't rise, corruption would decline, and the quality of health care would improve all around. But that's a moral question, not a political one. So the President shouldn't speak to moral issues? His idol, Abraham Lincoln, surely did. Indeed, a large part of Lincoln's success was due to his insistence that Americans be a moral people and that they lay aside whatever immoral practices may be dividing the nation and contributing to the oppression of her citizens. Mr. Obama is a Christian. Shouldn't we expect a Christian to seize the moral high ground wherever he can? Shouldn't he call insurance companies, greedy and dishonest doctors, litigious patients and lawyers, and, well, the whole nation for that matter, to repent of our covetousness and lack of neighbor love? No amount of new government programs or watch-dog agencies is going to fix what ails the health care system. It's a moral issue at heart, and until our leaders address it as such, the sins of the people will throttle any efforts at reform, and the whole system will continue to get worse.
Yesterday morning was lovely. Warm but overcast, a light breeze wafting and the promise of some rain. I went out to have a cup of coffee on the front porch and watched as workers continued building a new access road to the local elementary school. A flat bed truck appeared with a single plastic drain pipe strapped on its back. The driver emerged and began the task of taking the pipe off and carrying it over to his colleagues to be installed. I have never seen anyone move as slowly as this man did. He could not have crawled any more slowly from one latch to the next as he loosened the restraining bands so that he could unload the pipe. Finally, he got them all loose and oh so slowly picked up the pipe - it was not heavy - and, with it on his shoulder, sauntered over to where his co-laborers were waiting to put it in the ground. Then he trudged back to his truck and, in what seemed like an eternity, filled out the paperwork indicating "job well done", got in his truck, and drove off.
I wondered: Would this man have moved any faster if he was performing this task under fire? If bullets were whizzing around him, ricocheting off his truck, would he have stepped up the pace a bit? I've never seen anyone do a simple task so slowly and with such apparent want of interest or delight. Then I wondered if this is not how I sometimes appear to others as I go about my daily tasks. Does the joy of my salvation show through? Is it apparent to those around me that I am carrying out a calling from God, in the midst of relentless spiritual warfare, with delight and satisfaction? Do people who see me at work consider that I'm sauntering through a job or soldiering on for the Kingdom of righteousness, peace, and joy in the Spirit?
We never know who's watching us, or what they may be thinking as they do. As followers of Christ we are recipients of the highest mandate and calling anyone can receive. No matter what our work, if we are doing iti as unto the Lord, that should be apparent to those who know us and observe us on task. Let them not view us as sauntering leisurely through a meaningless job. Instead, let them see us taking the next hill with gusto, raising the banner of the Lord over all we do, and readying for the next advance in a life-long struggle for the Kingdom.
Andy Griffith once famously described football as a game where one side tries to get a funny-looking ball over the other side's goal "without gittin' knocked down, or steppin' in sumpin'" President Obama has stepped in it royally, and he's doing his best to keep from getting knocked down over it. To say the least, his comments on the Sgt. Crowley/Henry Louis Gates fiasco were incautious, if not mean. He didn't know the facts. He was biased toward his friend, "Skip." And he didn't have a teleprompter to guide his remarks. So when he said the Cambridge police acted "stupidly", he simply thought he could say whatever he wanted and everyone would just say, "Well, OK, that's that." Not quite. The President offended all police officers with his remarks, and particularly the Cambridge police and Sgt. Crowley - whom he called yesterday to, you know, chat him up a bit. Then he burst into a press conference, unannounced, to explain that he "unfortunately gave an impression" that he was "maligning Cambridge police or Sgt. Crowley." He said he thought he could have "calibrated" his words differently. And then he expressed his regret that the media - heretofore his great bosom pals - had made a big deal over something that really wasn't all that important. Sooner or later he's going to offend the media, too, and then it will be hell to pay. Don't miss the logic: I said something that was unfortunate and could have been calibrated differently. Then the media, they... If ever there was an argument for original sin, this is it. Mr. Obama sounded just like Adam explaining the reason for his fall into from grace: "The woman You gave me, she..." This is the most overtly Biblical act our Christian President has taken since coming into office, but I'm quite sure he didn't intend it in that vein. "Pride comes before the fall" Solomon warned. The President is too determined not to be put in a position of having done something wrong. He screwed up. He stepped in it big time. He needs to admit his foolish mistake, apologize to the police and the public - and, OK, maybe the press - and get on with his job. He wants this to be a teaching moment, he said. Perhaps he will learn that there's more to that Biblical truth which he routinely ignores than he really understands. If he learns to get off his high horse and show a little less arrogance and a little more wisdom in leading the nation, well, that will be a good thing.
Of all the commandments, statutes, precepts, and rules which the Lord has given to enable His people to live free from sin and growing in full and and abundant life, only one is prefaced by the words, "above all." Which is it? Surely the first; I mean, what could be more important than having the Lord as our only God? Perhaps it is the commandment not to murder. That would make sense, since we need to respect others' lives and work for the wellbeing of our whole community. Maybe not lying? After all, if we can't get at truth, how can we ever communicate? Well, as you probably guessed, it's none of these. Of which commandment does the Lord say, "Above all you shall..."? Get ready. The fourth. Yeah, keeping the Sabbath, or, in the New Testament era, the Lord's Day (Ex. 31.13). Above all we are commanded to keep the Lord's Day. On the Lord's Day we renew our focus on God as Creator, Redeemer, and Lord; and we prepare for the week ahead by renewing our strength of soul and body to love others. On the Lord's Day we gather to worship and to hear the Word of God. On the Lord's Day we cease from our own activities and devote ourselves entirely to focusing on the Lord, resting in Him, and being renewed in His grace. God considers resting on His Day rather important - above all the other commandments of the Lord. Do we?
"Quality of life" is on the table again. Or, rather, under the table, it seems. Fox News Sunday reported on a Veterans' Administration workbook intended to help veterans think through their "options" when they find themselves questioning their "quality of life." The booklet includes what might be described as "the Oregon solution" as a consideration: taking one's own life "with dignity." I find the whole discussion sinister, uncaring, presumptuous, and dangerous. "Quality of life" can be defined by one simple term: Life. Life is a gift of God, is sustained by God, and is withdrawn by God according to His good pleasure and wise timing. As long as someone is alive, that life has quality. Even the most comatose individual attracts the caring attention of health care providers and the loving sympathy of friends and family. Science is encouraged to pursue technological, pharmacological, and therapeutic innovations in order to restore to conscious, restored, or prolonged life those whose lives are threatened by illness or injury. Why do we care? Because human beings have an innate sense of the value of life. We are made in the image of God, and God made us to live. As long as we are alive, we bear witness to the grace, mercy, wonder, wisdom, and might of God. Thus every option that we present to anyone who finds himself in a situation where whether or not to perpetuate his life is on the table ought to promote seeking life, if only as a witness of gratitude to God and rest in His sovereign care. Let the dictionaries by which we live, beloved, contain the following entry: "Life, quality of: Life!"
Sherman had it right: war is hell. And sometimes there's hell to pay as the business of war unfolds. It's one thing to go to war as a combatant when you know that both you and your adversary are agreed on submitting to international conventions regarding the treatment of prisoners. It's another thing to be a combatant on a side that utterly disregards, no, despises such conventions and openly, publicly, and in the most gruesome of manner demonstrates its scorn for all moral decency, every international convention, and even the most basic human rights. Anyone who signs up to fight in such a cause has, it seems to me, no right to expect anything from his adversary other than what he proposes to dish out. Americans fighting Islamic terrorists know what they're up against, and the fighters they oppose know the stakes as well. This is not to plead legitimacy for the use of torture; rather, it is to keep CIA interrogation practices in a proper context. Compared to the treatment of prisoners and innocent citizens meted out by terrorists, the reports of what CIA agents may or may not have done to break information free from prisoners seem, well, mild. Mr. Obama's decision at this moment in time to seek to deflect public outrage from his inept administration of the nation's affairs to the "transgressions" of American interrogators may only have the effect of increasing disgust with his politics. We expect more of a President who claims to be a Christian. Yes, we expect more from American combatants; however, to date no CIA interrogators have sawed off the head of a detainee or hanged his body from bridge and set it afire. I don't expect we'll see anything like that from American forces in the field, although, yes, there will be occasions when, in dealing with combatants whose regard for human life and common decency is nonexistent, what Americans regard as the occasional misstep or overextension will happen, and should be understandable and easily enough corrected. But it's not clear if President Obama will come through this latest ploy without significant damage. The hell he and his political colleagues hope to visit on the Bush Administration may end up raining brimstone down on their highest hopes and aspirations.
I have, I'm sure, now heard the phrase, "social networking", about as much as is needed for one lifetime. I am frequently asked why I'm not on Facebook, why I don't Tweet, will I become a friend of someone on this or that or some other "social network." Not that many readers would be inclined to invite me, but let me spare you the keystrokes anyway: I do not respond to invitations to join social networks, especially by those who use that phrase in their invitation. I'm as wary of this phenomenon as James Morris seems to be, in his article, "Divided" (Wilson Quarterly, Summer 2009): "Even otherwise sober folks have felt the need to put themselves out there, if not on TV then on social networking sites in the spaceless space of the Internet...With how many friends, pals, associates, contacts, fans, objects, institutions, life forms, can they claim connection?" Count me not in on this current craze. I'm the Henry Higgins, I suppose, of my day. I like to be at home. My wife is my best and closest friend. I have a few cherished comrades and colleagues with whom I chat on the phone from time to time. I like to read, write, meditate, and get my work done, and I don't need to know what hundreds of my "friends" did during the day, nor to have them be properly updated on my doings. If we never go out to dinner again or to see a film in a theatre, I won't miss it one bit. Now I know many readers are social-networked to the hilt and having a great go at it. That's fine - for you. But count me not in. I used to challenge businessmen to keep track of their time for a week in 15-minute segments, then, at the end of each day and week, add up the wasted hours in their daily schedule. This challenge was typically greeted with snorts of doubt, but accomplished with horror and dismay. It would be interesting, I think, for the socially-networked to keep track of their time a-Twitter or checking their Facebook account for, oh, about a week. Then tally up the minutes - or hours - and ask themselves, What hath all this achieved for the Kingdom? Perhaps James Morris is correct: "Face it: The machines have won. And they did so not by growing Terminator-big and -mean but by going all Lilliputian on us,,,We've put our private selves up for grabs, and what we risk surrending or having taken from us seems more than we care to imagine. We traffick in airy impulses and boast of emancipation while trailing invisible, adamantine shackles." What we surrender and have taken from us is more than our private lives. It's our time, our attention and focus, and our sense of the things that matter most. Count me not in.
In our little town of Hamilton a flock of turkey vultures roosts on the old water tower behind the Baptist Church. These late summer days, when the air is a little cool, they will often mount up together and soar, in fairly tight circles, kettling over the town as they drift from thermal to thermal, looking for food and just enjoying the ride. I've counted as many as 60 of them at a time engaging in these afternoon reveries.
The birds know how to convert the power of the sun into energy for flight. Where the sun irregularly heats the earth, the climb rate of heated air is able to overcome the sink rate (pull of gravity) of the vultures, providing a natural lift for the birds. The vultures' wing-to-body ratio has been perfectly created to allow them to travel with ease on these currents of rising air, and it is a beautiful sight to see.
As the energy crisis continues to vex our nation's leaders, perhaps it's time we made a decisive turn toward alternative power, especially wind and solar. Innovation in these areas has been hindered by Big Oil's dominance of the energy market and their comfortable relationship with lawmakers. Even environmentalists - of all people - have tried to foil development of wind and solar power, in the name of preserving some desert or prairie landscape which they suddenly discovered they just love.
But if even bird brains can figure out how to convert the energy of the sun and wind to flight, surely there must be even more wondrous and astonishing innovations to be discovered by men. Scripture encourages us to be innovative and creative in our use of the creation's resources; but as long as we prefer our dependence on fossil fuels, we will not be likely to make many strides in developing alternative energy sources. These are hard choices, I know, but something like a national agenda and mandate to replace fossil fuels with those which are more abundantly, readily, and cleanly available might just begin to move us in the right direction.
I'm having a cup of coffee on the front porch yesterday mid-morning, when the mail lady turned on to our street. She didn't see me when she entered; nor did she when she made the rounds of the twin cul-de-sacs and headed back out of the neighborhood. But the neighbor's tabby cat crossed the road just in front of her vehicle, and she dutifully slowed to a near stop while he crossed. Then, as she turned the corner, she slowed down and I heard her say to the cat, "Now you be careful; don't go out into the road." Then off she went.
There was no one to hear her, only the cat. But something deeply human, thoughtful, and tender rose from within her and expressed a simple act of decency to a neighbor's pet. At the precise moment this happened I was musing on the topic of political speech, because Marshall Adams and I are going to teach a series of The Gospel and This World Group on this subject, beginning later this month. I had been thinking about the forms of political speech that obtained throughout the last month - angry and threatening shouts, slanderous innuendos, tacky and tasteless placards, and all the rest. I was wondering whether it's really possible for Christians to make an impact in that arena, when the mail lady came by and reminded me of the power of decency and grace.
I think Christians can participate meaningfully, even transformingly, in the political dialogs of the day, but we need to think of some ways to inject more decency and simplicity into our conversations and deliberations. I'm frankly sick of all the rants, hyperbole, misrepresentation, duplicity, and double-speak that passes for political speech today. If we ever throw in the towel, shrug our shoulders, and say, "It has ever been thus," we will forfeit a major opportunity to turn back the powers of corrosion and decay.
Solzhenitsyn wrote, long in advance of the fall of the Soviet Union, that what would be needed to bring the whole house down would be for every Russian who loved his country to "take a single moral step within his own power." Beginning with the candlelight revolution in Romania, that's pretty much what happened. What we need today is for Christians, in every area of life, not just politics, to discover new ways of practicing simple acts of decency toward their neighbors. A gentle tsunami of decency, sweeping over the land, will raise all boats and inundate but a few. Thanks, mail lady.
On Tuesday next, America's public school children will be treated to a special assembly at which the Principal-in-Chief will speak to them about the importance of education. And he means it. By itself, President Obama's speech to the children doesn't trouble me - much (however, I try to imagine the hoots and calls for impeachment if President Bush had tried the same). The President wants to tell the kids to study hard, be good, and have a great year. OK, that's not so bad.
Conservative pundits and commentators are concerned that the President wants to enlist the children in his nationwide community-organizing Administration. Even that, as self-serving as it would be, could have benefits. Kids get to learn early on about the importance of being politically active and knowing that their contribution can make a difference. I'm almost OK with that, too. My real concern is not that all the public school kids in America will go on a hunger strike until their parents pressure Congress to give Mr. Obama whatever he wants, or that Mr. Obama has plans to lower the legal age for voting to 6, or get an amendment to the Constitution allowing him to be President-for-Life.
My real concern is with what it says about Mr. Obama that he feels he has to reach his political tentacles so far down into the populace and so often. This is the most exposed President in American history. He's already had more prime time news conferences than Mr. Bush did in eight years. He spends more time in town hall meetings and galavanting around the country than at his desk thinking seriously about serious matters. Now he wants the school children of the land to make posters of him with quotes from his speeches, and to write letters to themselves describing how they can help President Obama accomplish his agenda.
Mr. Obama has pretty thin skin as it is; he doesn't like criticism or resistance (to the Bluedogs: "You're going to ruin my Presidency!"). Does he really need to be so visible, to feel so important, so wanted, so loved? One almost gets the impression - I do, anyway - that President Obama considers his first order of business each day to make sure that people know he's the President and hear what's on his mind. Such egoism is unbecoming a President of the United States. It is also unbecoming one who claims to be a Christian.
The case of Mr. Van Jones, President Obama's Green Czar, is troubling. Mr. Jones is not a gentleman. He may be well versed in green technologies and whatnot, but he is an ideologue first and foremost whose comments regarding the Republicans in Congress, President Bush, and who knows how many other things are an embarrassment to the nation. That such a man should be appointed to a leadership role in the President's administration is inexcusable.
Either the vetting process for such posts is a sham, or there isn't one, and the President simply appoints whomever he will, hoping their more despicable sides won't become public knowledge. Or, even if they do, that it won't matter, or will blow over quickly, because they're Mr. Obama's people.
Perhaps Mr. Jones will be invited to speak to all the school children of the land. If so, or even - what's more likely - if not, let's pray our children feel no inclination to keep up with this Jones, or with any of the other shady and ungentlemanly people who surround the President and advise him on matters of national policy.
I keep trying to give President Obama the benefit of the doubt, but he keeps removing all doubt. He is a campaigner, a community organizer, and a cult figure. But so far he has yet to demonstrate that he is the President of the greatest nation on earth. And I keep hoping he will put some legs on his oft-repeated claim to be a Christian. That hope, however, fades daily.
The Economist opines that the"current debate about health-care reform is in part a debate about death, which is why it evokes such fear" (September 5th, 2009). Americans, like everybody else, are afraid of dying. Dying is, well, messy business, and, even though you can't really do it "right," Americans don't want government getting in the way and making a messy business even messier. Like determining who should die when, for instance.
There is a good deal of talk in the health care debate about "death panels", when to withhold treatment and when to grant it, "quality of life" issues, and so forth. You get the sense that the specter of death is always stalking around hospitals, doctors' offices, insurance companies, and, especially, the elderly. Many seem to feel like government is presuming to be the gate-keeper to death, opening the door to its arrival before, you know, folks are really ready to go.
But who's ever ready for death? And why do people fear death, anyway? Isn't death a little like taxes? We don't fear taxes. Instead we curse and joke about them, but we usually end up paying them all the same. We may not like taxes, but they don't cause us to lie awake at nights in the fear of April 15. Why isn't this our attitude toward death as well? Why can't we just curse and joke and shrug our shoulders and say with The Economist, "We are all going to die"?
Two things, each explained by Scripture: First, we have a sense that life is sacred and is supposed to fulfill a purpose. Most folks spend a great deal of their lives looking for that purpose, but never finding it. If they ever did, and if they were able to fulfill it, they might be able to die in peace. Second, because everyone knows God at some level - no matter that some loudly deny Him - everyone knows that, sooner or later, we're all going to have to contend with Him. And if that comes after death, well, there's a lot of uncertainty about what that might mean. Dying for many means the end of something sacred, but unrealized, and the onset of something horrible, but unknown (Heb. 2.15).
The fear of death is very real, and I suspect The Economist is right about this as a factor in the current health-care debate. But it also represents an excellent opportunity for Christians to speak the Word of life to those who all their lives fear what they cannot avoid.