Saturday, September 29, 2007

Yea for Marriage

Maybe you read the statistics that said fewer marriages were making it to their 25th Anniversary these days. Divorce is up, marriage is out and all that.

Turns out the statistics were wrong. Or to be more precise, that study had a major flaw – about 10% of the marriages it studies had not been married long enough to have reached their 25th anniversary yet – they still had another six months or so to go. Once they did (the study took place in 2004), turns out MORE marriages are lasting longer. Marriages today are MORE STABLE than they have been in decades. Yippee!

If you want, you can check out the article in today's NY Times.

So, whatever modern times have done to marriage, you can rest assured they have not killed it. It's different, that's true. People are marrying later (my father was 23 when he married – I was 30). But then, marriage has always been an evolving state. Never in our history has it meant just one thing.

Here are some examples of what I mean. Once, marriage meant one man, several women. The bible certainly shows many instances of that, and even today there are some cultures where polygamy is common. Once, women were seen as property or at best as junior partners. It was only in our church's 1928 prayer book that we removed the word "obey" from the bride's wedding vow.

And don't think the two-income household is something new. It was actually only the 50s and 60s that saw women staying home as a reaction to the return of men from World War II and a desire to get back to "normal." Problem is, the normal they created after the war had never existed before it. More women worked (albeit in different jobs) in the 20s and 30s than in the 50s. Added to that is the fact that many more households were farms where everybody worked equally to earn one family income.

Oh, and did I mention those good old days when people quite often just skipped over the whole marriage deal? Throughout history there has been something called common law marriage – that is, a marriage without any legal documentation or ceremony. It used to be the norm in Europe until the Council of Trent. It is still legal in several states here in the U.S. All it takes is for the couple to say, "We're married." In some places there is also a minimum amount of time for them to have lived together first.

When couples come to me for pre-marital counseling, we talk a bit about the history of marriage, of how our country was once a haven for young men and women who had run away from marriages they did not want back in "the old country," how it is easy to get into a marriage, traumatic to get out of one, and hard work to stay in a healthy loving marriage. Amazingly enough, most of them go ahead with it.

Yes, you get those who mess up or don't take it seriously and end up in divorce. But my sense is that most of them are in it for the long haul, prepared to do the work and usually up to the task. More than fifty percent of those marriages make it despite a harsh economic climate and a society that works hard at keeping people too busy for family time. More marriages stay together longer today than thirty years ago. That's good news worth celebrating.

Wednesday, September 26, 2007

Truth or Fiction

A friend of mine sent me one of those "Keep It Going" messages yesterday. You've probably gotten them before, too. They usually say something like, THIS IS TOO IMPORTANT TO LET GO – PASS THIS ON TO AS MANY PEOPLE AS YOU CAN SO THE TRUTH WILL BE KNOWN! PLEASE KEEP IT GOING!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

This one had a picture of pious fatigue-clad marines bowing their head in prayer – then it had a story about the evil ACLU once again trying to stop marines from praying. When asked about it, Colonel Jack Fessender was supposed to have said, "Screw the ACLU." This did not seem quite right to me for a few reasons. First of all the name of the supposed ACLU operative was suspicious. I mean "Lucius Traveler"? Secondly, the ACLU only becomes involved when there's a court case going on. Thirdly, it's unlike any military officers I know to go on record with such unprofessional language as, "Screw so and so."

Suspicions raised, I went to, my source for information about e-mail bunk. It's a handy resource – they do the checking and report on where the information or misinformation comes from. It's not always comfortable what they find, either, but most of the time I prefer to have the truth about something.

So, here's the scoop about those marines -- it never happened.

That's right. The ACLU never said "boo" about marines praying and have no record of any Lucius Traveler. The marines also have no record of a Colonel Jack Fessender. In other words, somebody wrote a lie because they wanted to get you pissed off at the ACLU.

As an added precaution, I went to the ACLU's website. Sure enough, they had nothing on marines and absolutely no mention of even being bugged by people praying. In fact, on their religion page, most of the cases they were involved in were defending people who were being denied their rights to pray, preach or sing God' praises. One case involved a little girl who had wanted to sing "Awesome God" in the school talent show. Overzealous administrators feared this would be construed as supporting a particular religion and banned the song. The ACLU jumped in on the side of the girl who was ultimately allowed to sing it. They went to court in defense of a street preacher in New Mexico (as well as others in Nevada and Washington) arrested for preaching in the streets, arguing that they had the right to do so. They also supported a Christian inmate in Rhode Island who had been banned from preaching.

Funny, huh?

I don't know why some folks get so worked up about the ACLU – I mean, their stated goal is not to go after God – they defend religious freedoms pretty consistently. Their stated goal is to defend the constitution of the United States, to make sure it is not abused and people are not denied their constitutional rights. Radical concept, I know, but a lot of folks get all bent out of shape by the constitution.

Yeah, yeah, I know a lot of folks think the ACLU is getting God out of our schools because they don't like school led prayer. But they didn't write that part about separation of church and state. That was the founding fathers (some of whom – like John Adams – were not Christian). And don't even get me on the "In God We Trust" or the "Under God" stuff – that was NOT the founding fathers. In God We Trust was added during the Civil War to make people think God was on the side of the North. Under God was added to the pledge (which originally did not have it) in the 1950's to contrast us with the Soviets. In other words, political use of the divine name.

But that's a topic for another day.

Friday, September 21, 2007

Blue Laws

When I was a kid, there was something called the blue laws. Maybe you're old enough to remember them, too. Blue laws, in essence, made it illegal for stores to open before noon, or in some cases to open at all on Sunday.

Why did we have these laws? Because scripture said so. In fact, scripture spends more time on observing the Sabbath than on any other moral/ethical law. It has the most severe punishment attached to it – death – and this punishment is reiterated throughout the Old Testament for violation of the Sabbath more often than for any other sin.

I think religious crusaders who want to go after irreligious behavior that threatens the family as well as the rest of society should go on a campaign to restore blue laws. If you want to look at any single cause for degradation of society, the loss of these laws is as good a place to look as any, and far better than most.

Now, you may wonder why anyone would do something so crazy. Think about it. The Sabbath, which is the fourth commandment, by the way, requires that we neither work nor travel nor cause anyone else to work. Many Christians think Jesus did away with the Sabbath because a) his disciples broke some of the Sabbath rules and he himself healed on the Sabbath, and b) he was raised on Sunday rather than the Jewish Sabbath which is Saturday.

However, Jesus did not do away with the Sabbath. He restored it to its original purpose: rest. The Hebrew word Shabbat means "stop". It means to rest from work, the way God rested on the seventh day. Jesus said the Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath – meaning that Jews of his day had created such a web of legalistic exceptions (for example, the laws allowed people to go only about 3,000 feet from their homes, so a lot of Jews proclaimed for the day that their home was a tent, then carried it with them so that they were never more than a few feet from their homes) as to make the true Sabbath meaningless. Jesus wanted us to embrace the real sense of ceasing work in order to rest. Why do you think he rested on the Sabbath Day after the crucifixion?

Now, I know the blue laws were done away with because we are, after all, in an officially secular society – people are allowed to practice their faith freely, but government can't force its religion on the people. Having said that, the government certainly does still enforce some rules that have nothing to do with secular society and exist only because of religion (and are often far less supported by scripture). Besides, requiring a day of rest – not just for individuals but for the entire community as a whole – is restorative. It gives the entire community an opportunity to take a deep breath and pause.

But no. The truth is, we did not get rid of the blue laws because we are a secular government. We got rid of the blue laws because they interfered with profits. Businesses knew they could make more money if they had that extra day. Over the last twenty-five years, workers rights to a day of rest have dwindled to become nearly nonexistent.

I remember going into a North Carolina store some years ago and chatting with a cashier. When the subject of a day off came up she laughed. "Honey, I ain't had a day off in three years." She meant a single day off. This lady had been working seven days a week. I told her the law guaranteed her a day off, especially since she was a Christian and could claim it as her religious right to observe the Sabbath. She laughed again and said, "Yeah, and after that, you can find me a new job, 'cause nobody's gonna back me up on that."

The loss of blue laws makes us look worse than Jerusalem in Jesus' day. At least they paid lip service to the idea of rest. We don't even do that. Now, we push people to work until they break. We push ourselves to be busy all the time even when it's supposed to be leisure. My kids love sports, but when they started playing on travel teams, we had to draw the line on Sunday games. Some of those games took place during church hours. I confess, we cracked a little and allowed a few afternoon games, but I confess to being relieved when the kids chose to give up travel sports because it was too crazy – now their only games are on Saturday. Our lives are much more relaxed for it.

But we drive ourselves crazy with it – we feel like we have to "use" the weekend, so we travel incessantly. We feel like we can't waste our time staying at home, so we go out to the mall even when there's nothing we need. Families have no time together because they're going in 20 different directions, and while it's profitable for businesses to have everyone out doing things, it isn't healthy and it isn't in keeping with God's word.

So why aren't the churches going after the Sabbath breakers? Well, unlike going after gays – which is fun and easy since they make up only 10% of the population at most –being forced to observe the Sabbath would affect 100% of the population. Being forced to observe the Sabbath would affect profits. And being forced to observe the Sabbath would force us to sit still and face ourselves – which may be the scariest thing of all. We are a society that does not reflect, that does not know itself (we as individuals often don't know ourselves because of our incessant activity), and we are poorer and meaner for it.

So, conservatives, here's a call to arms! If you want a worthy crusade, take up blue laws. It's biblical. It promotes family values. It makes for a more decent society. What's not to love?

Thursday, September 20, 2007


Actually, I feel a little guilty for not writing these past few days. Church is an action-packed life, and I ran out of time.

But -- I've been reading with interest the ongoing discussion between two readers (comments on the "Muslim Priest" post) over the past couple of days. Rather than have that conversation continue on that line, I thought I'd open up a new place for that conversation to carry on. And, of course, I invite anyone else to join in.

Now, I call this post "Conservatives," in part because it seems the comments around "Muslim Priest" have not been so much about one person's struggle with her faith but about whether or not the liberals are loonies. These come mostly from people I assume would call themselves conservatives, since that's the usual dichotomy. Certainly, some believe that my leaving the judging to Jesus is somewhat akin to Marx and Engels, though I think it's closer to Mark and the angels. There was also a reference to Che Guevara, but I confess to not being totally up on my revolutionaries.

So, I thought a look at these words "liberal" and "conservative" might be interesting. In fact, they are pretty fluid terms. I used to call myself conservative, though I haven't changed my fundamental outlook on life. I simply used an alternate definition that the dictionary gives: one who does not make changes quickly, but after much deliberation. I remember going to Germany as a High School student and describing myself that way. The Germans looked at me in surprise and said, "Hmm. We understand consider conservative to mean hawk, and liberal to mean dove.

Obviously, neither of those comes close to the complexity of these two terms. Take, for example, the Roman Catholic Church which is generally considered to be a pretty conservative organization. During the run-up to the war in Iraq, the Catholic Church (joining nearly every other Christian denomination), warned our administration against invading Iraq because it would constitute an unjust war. Just this week, the pope refused a request from Condoleezza Rice to meet with him. Though the official explanation was that the pope was on vacation, Vatican insiders reported that it was at least in part in retribution for the administration ignoring the pope in 2003.

Mostly today, the conservative/liberal split seems to have three prongs: 1) war, 2) money, 3) sex. And it seems to apply to churches as well as politics. Again, this is gross oversimplification, but in general the lines of each pole seem to read thus:

Liberals oppose war in every instance possible but do not constitute pacifists since they will certainly retaliate when attacked. Conservatives are much readier to reach for the military option and generally see the willingness to use military action as a positive force for attaining one's "national interests." Churches in general adopted what is known as "Just War" theory and are pretty stringent about adhering to those guidelines when speaking out on war.

Liberals believe that all citizens have a responsibility to each other and for each other, and that appropriate and graduated taxation can be a useful tool in maintaining a healthy society. In general, liberals would believe in low to no taxes for the bottom half of the economic scale and increasingly higher taxes for those with more, placing the heaviest burden on the top 1%. Conservatives – again generally – believe that a person's money is a person's money and the government should keeps its hands off. Of course, most conservatives also acknowledge that some taxation is necessary or there would be no government, and chaos would reign. Curiously, churches are pretty quiet about taxes. Some quote Jesus, saying "render unto Caesar what is Caesar's and unto God what is God's", and others preach what is known as the gospel of prosperity (if you're a believer, God will reward you financially), but in general, they keep a low profile.

Sex: Now, here's where the churches go wild. Seeing as we can't influence governments hell-bent on war, and we are afraid to talk about taxes, churches are some of the driving forces in the sex argument. It's also where fiscal and military conservatives and liberals split with each other as much as anything. You can be a fiscal conservative but a social liberal. Still, there are trends. In general, the breakdown seems to run like this: Liberals believe gender and sexual orientation should not be issues in employment or "pursuit of happiness." That is, the liberal line says women should receive equal pay for equal work, should have equal access and opportunity for all employment and other pursuits. They generally believe the same holds true for gays, though also a belief in the right for gays to either marry or have some sort of formally and legally recognized partner-relationship that bestows approximately the same rights. Beyond that, the liberal view is, sex is a private matter, and as long as you're not harming another person, it's none of anyone else's business. Conservatives in the sex issue believe women and men are fundamentally different so should be treated differently by society. They would generally agree that some jobs are inappropriate for women even if they are able to fulfill its duties. They would not argue with less pay for women for the same job and might even (some anyway) argue that women should not be working outside the home at all. Most conservatives would also argue that all homosexuality is wicked and should remain illegal. The end.

Again, this is a gross oversimplification, and I'm curious to see where others see the fault lines. But Jay and anonymous, if nothing else, let's move the conversation over to this post – and maybe move it forward.

Thursday, September 13, 2007

Mother Theresa

It's been a couple of weeks since the shocking news came out that Mother Theresa was, in fact, human. I thought I needed to give you some time to let it soak in.

Now, it's a funny thing about the brouhaha – or does it even merit that status? At any rate, quite a few folks were upset about the revelation that for the last 50 years or so of her life, Mother Theresa was plagued with doubts about God. She wrote letters to her confessors mentioning how she felt unworthy, how she felt no presence of God in her life, and how she even wondered at times if God was really there.

Yet she plugged ahead doing work she knew needed to be done.

If I'm reading the public response correctly, there seem to be a few angles on this. One is that it was nobody's business what she felt or believed. She had, after all, asked that all her correspondence be destroyed after her death. You would think a sense of decency would require that her wishes be followed. However, Mother Theresa lived and ministered in a hierarchical church under vows of obedience. The decision of what to do with these letters simply was not hers. The process of vetting her life to see if she should be granted the honor of canonization requires (as I understand it) a thorough reading of all her writings, including letters. I'm no expert, but apparently, that means making those writings public.

Another avenue of upset comes from those who are shocked that the dear woman should ever entertain doubts, let alone such profound doubts that plagued the majority of her life. Well, maybe it's just me, but I suspect her doubts were a product of her deep searching. An unexamined life experiences few doubts while those who really seek depth willingly take on a spiritual struggle. The operative word is struggle – it is never easy and the results are never certain. The fact that she never gave up on God is completely endearing to me. And to God, too, I imagine.

And then there are those who are breathing a huge sigh of relief now that Mother Theresa has been "outed" as a doubter. A parishioner recently confided to me that he had always suspected believing was easy for people like the saintly nun – that it just came naturally. He took comfort in realizing that believing and living a life of faith was just as difficult for her. I think he even felt a renewed sense of hope in his own spiritual life.

So, I'm not upset that Mother Theresa's spiritual battles have come to light. She was in life a public figure, dedicated to using her fame to help others. In death, she is still a public figure and, God willing, her fame will again help an entirely new set of people who need her.

Tuesday, September 11, 2007

9/11: Six Years Later

In grief counseling, they say that three years is a normal amount of time for someone to "get over" the loss of a loved one. What they mean, of course, is that it quite often takes up to three years before things start to feel somewhat "normal" again. It can progress faster, but it can take longer, too.

In our nation, and especially in our state, we have been dealing with a much bigger, much different loss. It has been mingled with actions that have left us conflicted, too. So as we observe the sixth anniversary of the September 11 terrorist attacks, it still seems pretty raw.

I remember that day pretty well – I'm sure most people do. And I remember each of the memorial services that followed – the many in the days and weeks right after the attacks and the annual events thereafter. I'll be praying at another one tonight which takes place at a park named after a firefighter (and parishioner of our church) who died at the World Trade Center.

But it's different this year. There is a scaling back of the observances nationwide. Yes, we still remember the victims. Yes, we still loathe the hatred that went into making these murders. Yes, we still dedicate ourselves to working so that something like this won't happen again. Yet at the ceremony tonight, the organizing committee expanded its scope to include the various local firefighters who have died this year (presumably from natural causes as well as in the line of duty).

It doesn't minimize the sadness of 9/11, but it changes the perspective. And why not? It has been six years. Even though there is still a war going on, even though there are still terrorists loose in the world, it is possible to remember without ourselves becoming buried in the loss. We are all mortal and will all someday die. But while we're here, we have work to do – people to love, strangers to befriend, the poor and needy to serve, for example. It would be a shame to never rise out of the grief, to never raise our heads again and see that, despite hatred and anguish, it is still a wonderful world that offers us a bountiful life to live.

Friday, September 7, 2007


Look, I know it may have been a mistake to put my kid in charge of the camera on vacation – 490 photos is a lot. We have seven pictures of a pigeon, for goodness sake!

But there's one thing I took a lot of photos of – windmills. Not the quaint Hans Brinker and His Silver Skates windmills of yore, though we saw one, but the big ones. What we saw were those giant monsters with slow-turning blades each as long as a football field. They were so impressive and they were so pervasive that I took probably 20 pictures of them.

There's another reason I took so much notice of them. They are so important. I figured while I was in Germany and knew people I could ask, this would be a good time to learn a bit about wind power as it is practiced, not as the heated debates theorize here. So I asked my German hosts. They are quite proud of their windmills both because they are reducing the carbon footprint (as we say these days), and because it is helping Germany reduce its dependence on oil.

Germany has long been a leader in recycling and conservation (I remember in the late 70's having to sort through cans and paper and even the different colors of glass to throw into the community recycling bins that were located everywhere), so it comes as no surprise that they would be on the vanguard of wind power.

But we Americans don't like all this European tree-hugger, The Sky Is Falling and the World is Getting Hotter! bunk, right? We're not even sure if we believe Global Warming exists, let alone want to jump into some experimental, unproven and most assuredly ugly windmill farms – especially if they will obstruct my view of the great outdoors. Maybe some other state can do it – how about Vermont? – but not us, right?

To be honest, I found the windmills rather attractive, and as we sat in the train, my kids could not help but watch them with fascination. As far as I'm concerned, I welcome them as a much more interesting addition to the landscape than a lot of the McMansions or cell towers that we throw up so willingly. In fact, I don't see why windmills can't combine with cell towers. Or why they can't become tourist attractions. Those blades move so slowly, I bet you could sell tickets to rock climbers who want to scale them!

There is a theological side of this, too. God made the world and made us humans stewards of it. We are answerable to God for how we treat it and all that belongs in it. Even if there are questions about global warming – whether or not it is all it's cracked up to be, and all that – a Christian at least has a certain obligation to care for the creation, not merely exploit it. We also have an obligation to future generations, and even if you don't believe in global warming, there is no question that pollution hurts people, other animals, plants and the world as a whole. I certainly want my children to breathe clean air, have the energy they desire, and still know what it is to hike in the woods and drink fresh water.

Simplistic? Perhaps, but so are arguments that go something like this: "We're not sure global warming exists because some scientists say it doesn't, so why should we go to all the trouble of reducing carbon emissions and all that other stuff?" That sounds a lot like the tobacco industry of my youth that swore there was no valid scientific evidence that smoking could harm you. I've buried too many people who died from lung cancer to not think that, even if there is a potential threat that this might harm us, why not take it seriously?

And besides, I think they look cool.

Thursday, September 6, 2007

What I Did in Summer Vacation

Trying to get back into gear after a long trip isn't easy, so I haven't been writing much.

Still, thought I'd show a couple of pictures from vacation and give a quick reflection on what a trip like this means.

We were in Germany for two weeks visiting friends and doing some sightseeing. As the picture on the right shows, sometimes we were doing both. That's my friend Kerstin and her kids with me in from of the Brandenburg Gate in Berlin. When I was an exchange student in Berlin lots and lots of years ago, the Brandenburg Gate was in East Berlin, and the Berlin Wall ran in front of it. What a thrill to be able to walk under it (even though they were preparing for an anti-violence concert at the moment, making this difficult).

While in Berlin for only a couple of days, we spent much of that time – at my kids' request, believe it or not – looking at remnants of the Berlin Wall. We went to a wall museum and the old Check Point Charlie where so many prisoner exchanges were made. To look at huge lengths of the wall that separated people so violently – even though I lived with it on a daily basis while it was still a real wall, this felt very sobering. The wall museum we visited listed other societies that tried to "protect" themselves with walls and noted how they all ultimately failed. Made me think of our own wall we're building across the Mexican border.

We spent time in less popular locales, too. One of our favorite – and another place I spent a good bit of time in my youth – was Alfeld, a small city in the middle of the country that has less tourism than Poughkeepsie. But the kids loved it there. More than the famous Neuschwanstein Castle (model for Disney's Cinderella castle), more than the Rhine River and the grand Cologne Cathedral, more than Heidelberg and Wiesbaden … Because it was just a home, and our hosts – my friend Axel and his family – were just a family doing what families do.

Here's a picture of Axel's home. Anyway, what does that go to show you? That perhaps the best things in life are not the fancy, popular ones but just regular life. And that the best attractions are, after all, people.

There's only one other thing I'll mention about this vacation. As I said, I speak German because I studied in Germany for a couple of years. That meant that I acted as interpreter for the whole time, and although it'd been fifteen years since my last visit, it came back pretty quickly. On our cab ride to the airport to go home, the cab driver (a Turk who'd been in Germany for years), expressed surprise that an American could speak such good German. We had a great conversation, and my ability to talk with him made the ride much more efficient, pleasant and possibly cheaper.

Then, when we got to Newark, the shuttle bus driver (who took us to our off-sight parking lot), spoke almost no English – he is a recent Cuban immigrant who is just learning the language. My wife speaks Spanish, so they were off on another conversation that made the ride once again more pleasant and efficient.

As I listened to her speaking with the man, it occurred to me that within a nine-hour period, our children had just had the opportunity to watch their parents converse in two different languages, making travel much more enjoyable. I hope the lesson they take from it is that languages need not be a barrier to relating with others. All you have to do is put a little work into it, and you can break down barriers.

It was a fun and educational vacation – but alas, now it's back to work. Still, even vacation can give you much to reflect on.

Monday, September 3, 2007


Well, everyone, I'm back. It was a great vacation, great to visit friends I haven't seen in fifteen years (and introduce our families), and great to be back.

While away, I had very little access to the internet, so it was with some gratification that I came back to find quite a few comments about some of the posts. I appreciate the discussion that can pop up, even those that are in conflict – and let's face it, any time anyone puts anything on the web, there are going to be plenty of folks who disagree.

HOWEVER, what disappointed me quite a bit was the level of snotty-ness in some of those comments. I noticed that most of those nastier comments came from the infamous "Anonymous." In fact, with only a couple of exceptions, I noticed that most of the "Anonymous" comments were rather vitriolic.

Why would that be? Maybe anonymity frees a person to be nastier than they would be if their name were attached to the statement? I can't answer to that, but I'll tell you, when comments come around calling whole groups of people wackos or saying that whole populations are insane, that's both irresponsible and plain old mean.

I know that lots of people come from different religious and political backgrounds, but I don't see how rudeness, stereotyping and meanness fit into any Christian conversation. So, Anonymous, I will ask for more politeness. If that's not forthcoming, I'll simply not allow any more anonymous statements.

Oh, and if anyone who uses their name is rude and belittling to others, I'll not allow their comments to be posted, either. Disagreement if fine, denigration is not.

Tomorrow, a more fun topic: What I did on vacation.