Monday, October 25, 2010

Oh Mamma Mia

So we went to Anchorage over the weekend. Flew out on Thursday night. Our main objective was to see Mamma Mia which was playing on stage for two weeks only. This morning I awoke with the catchy tunes playing in my head. Which was unfortunate. Not that I did not enjoy it - I did not exactly. I enjoyed watching my wife who enjoyed it. And the hundreds of other women who were there. Women in their 40s, 50s and 60s who screamed and sang and danced in their seats like they were at a rock concert. They came in groups of 5, 6, 7 and more. It was a girls thing. Men made about 20% of the audience and like myself were largely clueless. I had seen the movie when it came out on DVD. The 70s music by Abba is bound to get your feet moving but the lyrics will not get your mind moving very far. At least I didn't remember much about them. When I saw the play in person though I got some of the lyrics. The story is simple. Donna's daughter is getting married and she wants her father to give her away. Problem is she has never met her father, her mother has never mentioned him and she may not even know who it was. It could have been one of three men she knew at the time. So daughter invites those three after finding a journal her mother kept at the time which mentions those three men. All three show up unbeknownst to Donna. She is livid. Why are they coming around now. She raised her daughter by herself, she built a business and a life by herself. She does not need any one of the former possible fathers help now. When she stated that fact in the face of one of the possible fathers the audience of women erupted in cheers and applause. I looked for the nearest exit. Was I to be an object of this low grade rage toward men that Mamma Mia had brought to the surface. I looked to my wife. She did not seem to be sharing the rage. I felt safer; she would protect me in case I was made to stand in for all the men who had failed all these women in various ways. The show went on. There was some reflecting on how much better life seemed in the 70s when life was more laid back, love was free and drugs were handy. Before life got complicated and responsibilities intruded especially when you had to raise and support a child by yourself. Donna's daughter did not want to do it like her mother had. It was no fun not having a father so she was going to get married and do it right. Her boyfriend wanted to travel with her - and do the 70s thing for awhile- he was going along with the marriage for her sake. In a twist at the end, daughter and fiance decide they don't need to get married and Donna does. She marries one of the possible fathers. Who is divorced and has two kids who live with his ex. One of the other possible fathers discovered he was gay. And the third is a free spirit who has never settled down and is not ready too. Although he is pursued by one of Donna's friends (Take a Chance). So men don't come off too well in this story. Neither does marriage, faithfulness, or stability. Except in the way Donna has raised and supported her child. There was not much need for a man in this script. I was feeling a little vulnerable on the way back to our hotel. I tried not to look many women in the eyes on the way out. When I did I thought I saw looks of scorn and contempt. You Male, you're nothing but 0ne of Them! What good are you! When I tentatively expressed my thoughts on the play to my wife, she laughed. It was fun, she said. And you know I value you. Whew!

Friday, October 15, 2010

Amazing Grace

Mickey Mantle, Brett Favre, Ben Roethlisberger.... and now William Wilberforce! After a squeaky clean bio and a movie came out about his life, you might think there was nothing more to say. You might think, ah finally a hero without flaws. You might think any dirt that was going to be found already would have been found. You might be wrong. Wilberforce was a real Evangelical hero. His was a great story of leading the fight in Britain to abolish the slave trade. Along with other members of the Clapham Sect he channeled his Christian faith into social action. His faith made a difference in the world in which he lived. Now a new book out on the Clapham Sect (The Clapham Sect by Stephen Tomkins) brings new information to light that shows us a Wilberforce who was forced to compromise his convictions for political gain. He was a politician, after all, and bringing social change is never a slam dunk. So it seems he looked the other way when the Sierra Leone colony in Africa, which he helped found, was practicing slavery while calling it another name. He knew what was going on but advised his handpicked governor there that there was nothing he could do and when the governor complained Wilberforce had him sent back to Britain. It was not a high point of Wilberforce's career. In fact, it showed an ugly side of this evangelical "superstar".

Should we be surprised? Sometimes we need heroes so badly that we are in denial and not only overlook flaws but pretend there are none. But, who of us does not have any? When we are kids we hear Bible stories in Sunday School and VBS in which the Biblical heroes are held up as role models. It's like the segment on the old Rocky and Bullwinkle cartoon show called Reversed History. Someone sanitized those childhood Bible stories thinking it could not be a good thing for children to be exposed to the truth. And because we have a need for heroes. Then, when we get older and we read the real stories (which are so much better than the revised ones, anyway), we feel somehow manipulated - and either reject all the stories out of principle or settle in to rethink how and what we have learned about the Bible. Sadly, some people never outgrow their Sunday School years and never get back to the real reason for those stories in the first place. They hold onto their childhood stories all their lives and never find a faith to navigate the challenges of adulthood.

The only hero of the Old Testament my OT professor said is God. That's the point. He is the only hero we need. He is the only one who will stand up under pressure. Jesus is the only hero of the NT. Paul was a good guy and a brilliant theologian and a self sacrificing missionary - but as one of my NT mentors said, he was clearly a second class citizen when compared to Jesus. We follow Jesus not Paul.

Nor do we follow William Wilberforce. He was one of the saints, as we are, too. A flawed saint, as we are, too. He accomplished a great deal of good but he had his off days too, and so do we. We can learn from him and we can thank God for him. But like the title of the movie about his life he was able to do what he did because of God's Amazing Grace, and so it is with us.

Thursday, October 7, 2010

RIghtly Divide the Word

2 Timothy 2:15 says: Do your best to present yourself to God as one approved, a workman who does not need to be ashamed and who correctly handles the word of truth (NIV). The KJV has "rightly dividing the word of truth". In another place, the word of truth, God's word, is said to be sharper than any sword. But, this verse in Timothy has been used, swordlike, to skewer preachers who do not handle the word of truth the way their critics deem it rightly handled. In the preceding verse, Timothy is counseled to avoid word fights. The Greek word behind this translation is used only here in the New Testament but it means something like splitting hairs. To not put too fine a point on it, it is talking about fighting over minor things and turning them into the major things. It is dividing Christians over how they are dividing or handling the word of truth. Augustine said the preacher should make the truth plain, pleasing and effective. Chrysostom cautioned preachers to stick to the main thing and cut off whatever words are superfluous to it. In verse 15 Timothy is counseled to study to show himself approved. For Timothy as for all pastors, study has to be an ongoing spiritual discipline. A preacher needs to know the word and how to use his words to communicate the word. Correct handling or rightly dividing is a metaphor for a skilled craftsman building with an accurate plumb line. Rightly dividing is from the Greek word we get our word orthodoxy from. It is a hugely important word. It is outlined in the Apostles Creed. It is the outline for all preaching. It is the plumb line. Preachers holding to this line are not ashamed but proud of their work and have no reservations about showing it to the master for inspection. Still it is a hard and demanding task and one that calls for everything the preacher has and is. For it is not only taught but lived, tested in the daily life of the preacher. Matthew Henry, the great preacher, said the task is not to invent a new gospel but to rightly divide the gospel that is committed to their trust. Not to split hairs, not to focus on the minors, but to preach the great realities of the gospel: the birth, life and death and resurrection of Jesus Christ for our salvation. To rightly divide or handle the word of truth was never meant to be negative, a criticism, as in she or he does not rightly divide the word of truth but an encouragement, a blueprint, a vision for what the great call to preach is all about.

Grant's Last Battle

U.S. Grant served the country as president for 8 years during the time called Reconstruction. Much of the South hadn't accepted the results of the civil war. In retrospect, Grant thought there should have been a long period - as long as 20 years - of military government only allowing the southern states back in the Union when they were they were ready to accept the terms of Reconstruction ie, national unity and the end of slavery. Instead, Grant fought a long, protracted battle with the South over the rights of Blacks. He authorized the use of troops to fight the Ku Klux Klan's reign of terror as well as many other terrorist attacks on former slaves. The 15th amendment adopted in 1870 was unenforced in much of the South and proved to be unenforceable. Grant, with all the resources at his disposal basically had run out of energy by the end of his second term. The North had lost the moral strength to keep the battle for civil rights going. By the Panic of 1873 most Americans were focused on the economy. Civil Rights in Congress and the North was a lost cause. Rutherford B. Hayes who followed Grant as president was compromised from the start. Florida, South Carolina and Louisiana were mired in nearly hopeless election fraud. There were reports of widespread election thuggery and violence designed to keep Blacks and pro- Republicans from the polls. In one Louisiana parish there were over 1500 fewer Republican voters than four years before (there was only "one" Republican voter reported in the Hayes race!). Hayes was unofficially one electoral vote behind his opponent, Samuel Tilden, who actually won the popular vote. Grant called for an election commission to try to sort out the election fraud and eventually Hayes was awarded the victory. But it came at a high price for Southern Blacks. Hayes pledged to withdraw the federal troops from the South, end Reconstruction and essentially hand the South back to the White Democrats. It was the presidency for Hayes but the beginning of almost 100 years of Jim Crow Laws for the former slaves who were technically free but wouldn't realize that freedom for years and years.

Wednesday, October 6, 2010

Grant and the Indians

Thomas Jefferson wanted to relocate the Indians west of the Mississippi. Monroe wanted them to be removed somewhere even further west near the Rocky Mountains. Congress passed the Indian Removal Act in 1830 to appropriate money for the removal of the Indians to parts of Louisiana Purchase where no one was living. President Jackson pursued Indian Removal with a vengeance. By 1845, at the end of President Tyler's term it looked like the Indian Problem was solved. Most of the Indians had been forcibly moved out west. Indians were west of a boundary line drawn from Lake Superior to the Red River on the Texas border. The Indians were promised this land in poetic treaty language that said, "as long as grass grows and water flows." Trouble was as white settlement kept pushing west, treaties were ignored and Indians had be moved again. Gold was discovered, railroads built, buffalo hunters, farmers and cattleman -all headed to the American Frontier and their rights trumped whatever rights the Indians thought they had. Indians who were losing their land and their way of life fought back. It was a losing battle. Some in the American government and army were looking for a reason to exterminate them. Those who did not want to kill them wanted to "protect" them on a reservation where they could be "civilised" according to the white man's ways. Two large reservations were planned - pretty much all of Oklahoma and South Dakota. Most of the Indians submitted to the plan. Trouble was Congress failed to appropriate the funds. There were more Indian uprisings mainly because they were starving. The former Union Civil War Generals Sherman and Sheridan (who said infamously, "the only good Indian is a dead Indian") were in charge of putting down rebellions. President US Grant took office in the midst of all this unrest (1869). He had commanded Sherman and Sheridan in the Civil War so he was able to control them to a certain extent. Had Grant not been the president during this time his biographer, Jean Edward Smith, wrote, "tens of thousands (Indians) would have perished, and ethnic cleansing would have been the order of the day." Almost singlehandedly Grant changed the direction of Indian affairs in the country. Few others in government shared his conciliatory approach to the Indian Problem. Grant's principal advisor on Indian affairs was Ely Parker who had been his aide during the Civil War. Parker was a Seneca chief and helped Grant administer Indian policy. It was a tumultuous four years as Grant battled those within and outside his government who advocated a much harsher Indian policy. It was finally Custer's Last Stand that almost did his policy in. In the aftermath of the slaughter at Little Big Horn, the public wanted Indian blood. Even though Grant had no regard for Custer, his death made him into a national hero. Government and public opinion was against Grant and his policies toward the Indians. Still all was not lost and after the outcry over the Custer debacle blew over, some of Grant's good work toward the Indian was left to stand. Custer was avenged and what was left of the Sioux were driven to the reservation. Sheridan gloried in his mission to rid the west of the Indian and make it safe for the farmer, prospector, and emigrant. All in all, Jean Smith, concluded "Grant changed the way the United States thought about Native Americans and his decision in 1869 to pursue peace, not war, helped to save the American Indian from extinction."