Wednesday, February 17, 2016

Catching Up

Recent events in the fair state of Michigan have conspired to keep me very busy. The unconscionable acts of corrupt officials and the inhumane attitude of politicians and their corporate keepers leave little time for the daily tasks of ministry.  As a result, I have not been keeping my contributions to the Midland Daily News posted to my blog for the past two months.

Since my submissions are now taking the form more often of printed editorials and not online blog postings, the paper has decided to eliminate the blog from its site.  As a result, I have caught up, posting my writings from the past two months here to the pizzatorium for posterity.

"Truth and Meaning" will continue in newspaper print form roughly once a month (or more often if the state of affairs demand).  But I will be returning to more regular muse kennel submissions as well for those of you who follow this blog (thank you!)

Rev. Jeff

A Crisis of Leadership...and Faith

People of faith across Michigan find themselves wrestling with the ongoing revelations that state officials knowingly allowed the poisoning of the people of Flint without warning for more than a year. Every day, more information shows us that Gov. Rick Snyder’s appointees sacrificed the health and well-being of thousands of citizens recklessly, perhaps immorally. As we learn more, we must cope with our immediate response to the crisis while at the same time discerning its cause.

In his State of the State address last Tuesday, Gov. Snyder apologized and vowed to fix the problem. Rep. Gary Glenn told us to accept his apology and move on, a sentiment I share. We should forgive Gov. Snyder and those who reported directly to him responsible for this heinous act. We should not let our feelings of betrayal and outrage lead us to lash out against politicians who may have — somehow — believed they were serving the public interest.

We should release the anger we feel toward Gov. Snyder and his appointees so that the work of reconciliation can begin. As people of faith, however, forgiving Gov. Snyder does not mean that we will not seek justice for the people of Flint. Every child who drank the lead-contaminated water will live the rest of their lives suffering the effects of their poisoning. People made intentional decisions that exposed those children to vile pollution. And they must be held accountable.

The acts resulting in the destruction of the water supply of Flint and the ongoing exposure of its people to toxic, perhaps fatal chemicals, were a sin against every human moral belief system. Whether you are Christian or Muslim, Buddhist or Jew, Atheist or Pagan, the decisions that allowed Flint’s children to be poisoned were unthinkable and evil. And justice demands that those responsible be held accountable for their actions according to the laws of our land.

Consider this comparison. You hire a trusted contractor to build a playground for your children. The contractor completes the task, but knowingly uses rotted wood and rusty nails without telling you. Eventually, the playground collapses, injuring your children permanently. The contractor apologizes and holds you in his prayers. Then he asks for your trust and assures you that he will fix the playground.

We cannot know the nature of eternal mysteries of creation and goodness in the universe. We cannot presume to understand what consequences Gov. Snyder’s actions will inflict on his soul. Therefore, we should leave moral punishments to the Spirit of Life and Love that we call by many names.

We can, however, determine to what extent he and others violated the law and deal with them as we would anyone accused of crimes. If the deaths due to Legionnaire’s Disease were attributable to decisions made by Gov. Snyder and his appointees, then they should be charged with those negligent homicides. Anyone complicit in the poisoning of children should be indicted for the appropriate crimes. And those involved in hiding or covering up knowledge of these actions should be held as co-conspirators. This is not “finger-pointing.” This is a call for justice and for the fair application of our laws to all, whatever their position in our society.

This investigation will also bring to light the many instances of corruption resulting from this governor’s application of the emergency manager law. We must examine its overtly racist application to cities with large minority populations, wherein citizens have been deprived of their democratically-elected representation. We must consider whether our state’s experiment with temporary totalitarianism has been a colossal failure and determine how our cities can survive sustainably in a 21st century environment.

Perhaps most important, as Rep. Glenn reminds us, we must “invest ourselves in finding solutions.” I could not agree more. So I call on you, Rep. Glenn, to take the lead on local relief efforts for our neighbors to the south. Perhaps you could negotiate with local businesses and corporations to provide regular truckloads of water at discounted rates to which we all could contribute. You could sponsor emergency legislation to bolster Flint’s public schools, medical services and civic infrastructure to begin their long path back to health. And, most important Mr. Glenn, show us your leadership by demanding a repeal of the emergency manager legislation and a comprehensive investigation into the actions of this governor and his appointees.

The opportunity for us to live the shared principles of our various faiths lies before us. We need leadership willing to let go of partisan loyalties and commit to the citizens of Michigan. And we need leaders with the courage to show us the way toward justice for the people of Flint.

(originally published January 24, 2016)

The Heartbroken and the Heartless

People of faith across mid-Michigan feel heartbroken over the plight facing refugees fleeing the violent destruction of their homes in Syria. Fortunately, many nations have responded with open arms to these victims of war. Germany, once the producer of refugees decades ago, has accepted tens of thousands of Syrians, displaying a vigorous national relief effort.

In the United States, however, fear too often overcomes compassion. Prospective candidates for the presidency spew the same kind of vicious venom that helped turn away Jews, condemning millions to Nazi concentration camps. The rhetoric has even progressed to the horrific level that led us to erect our own concentration camps to inter American citizens without just cause. Such flagrant ignorance runs counter to every religion teaching us to love our neighbor, to care for the homeless and hungry, and to free the oppressed.

And our own state representative contributed his personal xenophobia to a Japanese television news team. Shamelessly purporting to report the concerns of his constituents, Rep. Gary Glenn failed to acknowledge that many mid-Michiganders would welcome war refugees who are fleeing exactly the violence he presumes them capable of. Rep. Glenn has brought international shame to our region by revealing the same heartless bigotry toward desperate Syrians that he usually reserves for the members of the gay and transgender community.

In fact, Rep. Glenn’s fears are groundless. According to a report by the Migration Policy Institute, “The United States has resettled 784,000 refugees since Sept. 11, 2001. In those 14 years, exactly three resettled refugees have been arrested for planning terrorist activities — and it is worth noting two were not planning an attack in the United States and the plans of the third were barely credible. In fact, refugee resettlement is the least likely avenue of infiltration by foreign enemies bent on causing us harm.

Rep. Glenn also fails to realize that the true danger facing our citizens comes not from outside our nation, but from our own politicians. Imagine this scenario. An ISIS terrorist infiltrates our nation and poisons the water supply of a major city. Every one of the hundreds of thousands of residents is affected. Rather than killing, however, the poison instead causes an entire generation of children to suffer irreparable brain damage. The outcry would blow the roof off every government building. Our media outlets would talk of nothing else for weeks. People across the nation would call for the immediate execution of this terrorist.

And yet, that is exactly what has already happened right under our noses, and few of Michigan’s citizens even know about the attack. In a series of reckless, monstrous choices, Gov. Rick Snyder, his emergency manager and other appointees made decisions that destroyed the water infrastructure of Flint, resulting in catastrophic levels of lead poisoning of its citizens. In spite of governmental attempts to discredit them, only the diligent research of individuals uncovered this act of domestic terrorism for the world to see. Cover-ups are slowly coming to light, making it clear that high level government officials knew exactly what was happening, and that they did absolutely nothing to prevent it, or to warn the innocent citizens of Flint.

Just one hour away, thousands of families face the prospect of raising children whose lives have been shattered by the government they trusted to look out for their interests. People you might know, or work with, or go to school with have been affected. And now that they know their water is poisoned, there is little they can do until the damaged infrastructure is replaced. People lacking the resources to move away must bathe, wash clothes, and do other household chores in poisoned water. But Gary Glenn tells us to worry about women and children from Syria coming here to harm us.

Where is your concern for the people of Flint, Rep. Glenn, who did not need religious extremists to launch a heartless attack on their city? The violent assault on our families is happening right now on your doorstep, and the culprit is our own elected officials. If you care about these citizens at all, then you will demand a complete and thorough investigation of Gov. Snyder and his appointees responsible for this crisis.

In the meantime, keep your xenophobia to yourself and stop shaming us before the world audience. America is a nation of immigrants, most of whom came to this land in search of the same safety and freedom that Syrians want. Who are we to deny them the same opportunities our ancestors had? Instead of fear mongering, we should be welcoming these people to their new land and showing the world that compassion and understanding will always triumph over hate and violence.

(originally published January 17, 2016)

The Real War on Christmas

Every year, at about this time, pundits begin the mantra of The War on Christmas. Usually, these dire warnings cite non-Christians as the source of efforts to remove the meaning of the holiday from the public arena. And while I agree that the important and wonderful meanings of Christmas are in jeopardy of being forgotten, I would posit a different source for the conflict.

Early in November, I made an online payment to a department store of $25.00. Unknown to me, my new virus protection software had a tiny bug — when in protected mode, the decimal key on the numeric pad simply didn’t work. So my $25.00 payment went through as a $2,500.00 payment.

Of course, I immediately called my bank and was informed that the payment was already in transit and that I would have to contact the store for the refund. The first two layers of customer service people told me that it would take them 7-10 business days to review the overpayment and issue a refund. Finally, the third person connected me with a different office. This person told me that if the bank faxed information about my account on letterhead, that they could process the refund in less time.

Of course, nothing is ever that simple. After several different customer service people with my bank, I found myself talking to a special resolution department in Kalamazoo. He told me that the bank could not send the information because their policies prohibit dissemination of routing and account numbers. Wonderful Catch 22.

More calls and I provided the bank representative with the direct phone number and the email of the store representative. For the following week, calls to both people went to voice mails and were unanswered. Trying again, I got to the fourth level of store management. Now more than two weeks into this nightmare, she told me that the funds were earmarked for release, but that it would now take 3-5 more business days to process the check through a third party vendor. Finally, seven business days later, the money arrived in my account.

So my payment happened at the speed of fiber optic cables in less than a day. The refund took 27 days for processing. Of course, in the meantime, our family finances were a wreck only made tolerable by an incredibly patient landlord. And my money was earning interest for some parent corporation while I faced overdraft fees.

So when you ask me who is behind The War on Christmas, I will tell you. We are. We are all responsible for this war because we tolerate the delusion of capitalism portrayed by the American economic system. We turn away desperate refugees fleeing conflicts from which our military-industrial complex has richly benefited. We demonize people with different notions of God, while coveting people who worship no god but an idol of gold.

Christmas in America was long ago perverted into a commercial travesty of greed and consumer gluttony. A holiday that should bring togetherness instead forces minimum wage employees to work on Thanksgiving while we watch football and overdose on turkey. A holiday that should be about joy instead induces anxiety and the relentless bombardment from businesses telling us what we need to be happy. A holiday that should celebrate the life of a babe and his teachings as a man is instead marked by more mass shootings, more poverty, more bigotry, and more overt discrimination in our supposedly great nation.

Those who claim that the United States is a Christian nation need to wake up. Atheists are not your enemy. Muslims are not your enemy. LGBT people are not your enemy. Your enemy is your own hypocrisy, your own embracing of the privilege afforded you by the accident of your birth to benefit from inherited wealth, skin color and other advantages. Your enemy is your own corporate institutions that put profits before people, and the welfare of the few over the good of society.

Do you want to defeat the forces waging War on Christmas? Then practice the teachings of the man believed born on this day. Help the homeless, feed the starving and clothe the naked. Do this without expectation of benefit in return, but simply because it is the right thing to do. Fight oppression of minorities, women, gays and lesbians, veterans and others suffering from intolerance and mistreatment by an economic system with no incentives for activities that do not produce increased stock prices. And teach your children that this day is about giving, not about receiving.

But most of all, tear up your credit cards. Instead of greeting cards, write letters. Instead of gifts, give your time and attention. Don’t be led like sheep by chain department stores, consumer manufacturers and banks. Remember the true meanings of Christmas — love your neighbors, bring peace to the Earth, and join together in common purpose to make the world a better place.

(originally published December 6, 2015)

Our Souls

Catholic or Protestant, Muslim or Jew, Buddhist or Hindu, Pagan or Agnostic. Whatever your faith or religious belief, you possess morality. And that morality has a source from which you discern right from wrong.

For many, that source of our morality connects integrally to the essence of our being. Some call this our soul. Whatever you name that force that defines “you” sets you apart as unique, special and wonderful. One of the true wonders of humanity lies in those small, special differences that make us each one of a kind.

At the same time, we can come together with like-minded souls — people with whom we share concepts of morality and its sources. And so many of us belong to churches, temples, mosques and other houses of faith. These religious communities can be fonts of great strength and support. However, they can also divide us when sources of faith calcify into rigid dogma and believed truths.

Midland contains over 100 Christian churches. This fact mystifies non-Christians, who cannot understand how so many different interpretations of the teachings of Jesus can exist and manifest themselves in wholly separate communities. What is the difference between a Presbyterian and a Methodist, a Lutheran and a Baptist? And what separates the dozens of congregations not affiliated with any of the traditional Protestant denominations?

We know some of the distinctions involve ritual practices and internal governing structures. One church may interpret particular scriptures differently enough from another that worshiping together would be problematic. But many of us would be hard pressed to explain to others why we segregate ourselves on Sunday morning into 100 different buildings searching for the same things — fellowship, support, hope, love — things that everyone desires, whether they belong to a religious community or not.

As a result of this fragmentation, we find it hard to come together when needed to address matters that affect us all. Whatever our beliefs regarding the source of our morals, there are times when we should be able to unite in agreement against mutual wrong, against evil so clear that all would support its opposition.

We face such an evil right now, here in Michigan.

Barely one hour away, one hundred thousand people have been poisoned, permanently harmed by their drinking water. This poisoning resulted not from a natural catastrophe, but from decisions made by men — men whose morality varied tremendously from our social norms. These decisions derived from a source that is not any god or sacred gift of goodness and grace. The men, women and children of Flint were poisoned by people who worship an unholy god — a god of money, a god of corruption, a god of racial hatred.

The people of Flint hurt. Already long-suffering, our neighbors feel betrayed and abandoned, powerless and hopeless. The people we helped elect knew they were poisoning a city and they did nothing. This governor and his appointees placed pipelines and profits over people. They played on your faith in them to care for and nurture our brothers and sisters in Flint to pursue a political and economic agenda that is growing more and more ugly as details emerge.

We are all praying for the people of Flint: the homebound elderly; the mothers and fathers; the children who have already suffered irreparable brain damage that may affect them for the rest of their lives. We should continue praying for our neighbors in Flint, and for everyone working to help them rebuild their damaged city.

But prayer is not enough. Charity is not enough. We must reclaim the road to Jericho from the thieves and robbers so that no more travelers end up dying in the ditch. As people of faith, we must unite against the idolaters and reclaim not only our own souls, but the soul of this state. We must tell Gov. Snyder that people matter more than privatization and profit.

To do this, we must look to the source from which these men derived their sense of values and expose it to the light of love.
  • The emergency manager law violates the most core tenet of our republic — representation of the people by those elected by the people. We must demand that the politicians in Lansing repeal this law and return democracy to this state.
  • The conjoined twin of the emergency manager law is vile racism — the belief that some people are inherently superior to others. Every person has worth and dignity and no one who believes otherwise should be creating laws, whether their hatred is based on race, ethnicity, immigrant status, sexual orientation, gender identity, age, or any other distinction. We must demand the resignation of bigots who cannot legislate fairly and equally.
  • State officials must be held accountable to their public service mission. The mission of the Department of Environmental Quality states that this agency is “dedicated to protecting human health and to preserving a healthy environment. The DEQ exemplifies environmental stewardship and affirms that a healthy environment is critical to our social, cultural and economic well-being.” Without accountability, such statements represent cruel perversions and indifference. Any staff or appointee who knew of this poisoning and did nothing must be fired.
  • Accountability can only occur when investigations into truth are impartial and unbiased. Appointing a prosecutor with known financial ties to the principle subject of the investigation tells us that our Attorney General seeks neither truth or impartiality. We must demand an impartial federal investigation into the poisoning of Flint.
  • Even impartial investigations require transparency. This governor’s expressions of remorse ring insincere when he continues to shield himself from requests for pertinent information. We must demand complete disclosure in this and all matters of governance.
  • And the core source of all of these problems? A philosophy of selfishness and greed expounded by entities like the Mackinac Center, a soulless organization devoted to helping the wealthy retain and increase their riches while the people starve, struggle for homes and jobs, and now suffer the loss even of usable drinking water. The pundits of the Mackinac Center have turned Flint into a third world country, and we must disavow their amoral teachings. We must refute these corruptions of capitalism and democracy and steer our ship of state to a port where people are never poisoned for corporate gain.
The soul of our state hangs over a fiery precipice. If we stand mute, then all of our Sunday sermons and prayers mean nothing; all of our creeds and principles ring hollow. We have elected men into office who have already sold their souls to golden idols. We must place no more faith in their ability to govern and make decisions for us or our neighbors.

Our brothers and sisters in Flint lie bleeding along the road and we must help them now. We must lift them up, bind their wounds, and see to their needs. This means not just bottled water and filters, but immediate replacement of pipes destroyed by chemical and political corruption. This means routing state money to Flint today to restore what was taken from that city. And it means ensuring that nothing like the evil inflicted on our neighbors ever happens again.

(originally published January 30, 2016)

Two Faces

We all wear masks. Usually, our masks are benign attempts at self-protection, to reduce our vulnerability to harm. But then there are the masks intended to deceive, to put you off your guard.

Politicians have always been users of the deceptive mask. In a representative democracy, some amount of masked deception is understandable. Politicians serve many masters, and must sometimes shave the truth in order the get the job done.

But today, we are surrounded by politicians whose face is permanently shielded by a mask of hypocrisy and disdain. Poll numbers rise the more a politician says outlandish and offensive statements. Conflicts of interest go ignored and fraud runs rampant.

And now, a Michigan city is paying the ultimate price for our two-faced government. Incompetence, greed and a careless disregard for people have resulted in the destruction of the water system for Flint, and the poisoning of its residents. Under the direct leadership of Gov. Rick Snyder, his appointed emergency manager made decisions resulting in corrosion of Flint's water pipes and the subsequent lead poisoning of thousands.

Other officials reporting to the governor ignored warnings and direct research revealing the problem. And now, Gov. Snyder is sorry. Too bad, Flint. Oops.

Where is the outrage from our so-called "pro-life" legislators? State Rep. Gary Glenn cannot stomach the idea of a man loving another man, but stands mute when children's brains are irreparably damaged by the state. State Sen. Jim Stamas cannot bear to hear the word "vagina," but is quiet when pregnant mothers drink toxic water.

The nonchalance and general silence you hear from Lansing about this travesty should appall you. If your child drank poisoned water for more than a year, suffering permanent damage to cognitive ability, how would you respond? What would you demand of your legislators?

This governor has made Michigan a laughingstock among states with his utter disregard for democratic processes and his support of fraudulent backroom deals. It is time to remove the smirking veneer and reveal the evil beneath. The ball is in your court, Rep. Glenn and Sen. Stamas. Stand up for the lives of the people of Flint.

(originally published January 11, 2016)

The Luxury of Despair

All of us experience difficult times. Whatever your economic circumstances or social position, you cannot live long without feeling the impact of accidents, unexpected losses or cruel twists of fate. Feelings of loss, loneliness and longing are a natural part of human existence.

Clearly, however, some of us dwell in situations better suited to buffer us from the storms life can send. Repairing a broken car, finding a new job or negotiating governmental bureaucracies — many of us face and deal with such trials successfully. We are able to do this for a number of reasons. Perhaps we have financial reserves, attended quality schools that prepared us for high-paying jobs, have access to support networks or were born into a sustainable social class.

Of course, there are events for which nothing prepares us. Unexpected death or illness can hobble us in ways that money and social status cannot prevent. And yet, even in these challenging times, some of us possess resources that help us cope, such as access to therapy and counseling, paid time off from work and quality medical insurance.

For most Americans, the challenges of life are something we can overcome. We may face brief periods of sadness, confusion, even anger. But most of us can adapt and move beyond life's difficulties.

For some Americans, however (as well as for much of the world's population), such resources do not exist to overcome hardship. For people in need of clean drinking water, arable land to till, or homes free of bombs and bullets, every day presents insurmountable challenges. For these people, despair is a luxury they cannot afford, because every waking moment must be spent surviving and caring for loved ones.

So in this season of Christmas, let us remember the man whose birth is celebrated — not as an iconic babe, but as a champion of social justice and equality. Let us remember Jesus as the peacemaker and healer. Let us live his words through our deeds, and continue to do so throughout the year.

(originally published December 26, 2015)

Giving Thanks

At this time of year, we typically express our thanks for people and things in our lives for which we are grateful.

One sad element of this practice is the fact that we perceive the need to do this at all. What I mean is this. Wouldn't it be amazing if the things we were thankful for in our lives were simply part of our lives all the time and not exceptions to the rule? Wouldn't it be fantastic if the act of giving thanks were made irrelevant by a more enlightened society and higher expectations of each other?

With that I mind, I want to give thanks for things that should simply exist without special notice, things that should be so normal that we would not view them as exceptional.
  • I give thanks for people who possess the courage to speak truth to power.
  • I give thanks for organizations that fight for the rights of oppressed peoples in spite of the ignorance and hatred displayed against them.
  • I give thanks for the founders of this nation, who understood that freedom of religion did not give people the right to use their religious beliefs to discriminate against others.
  • I give thanks for Gandhi, King, and other master teachers of nonviolence.
  • I give thanks for protesters who use creative forms of civil disobedience in their quest for justice.
  • I give thanks for true patriots who are not pawns of our military-industrial war machine.
  • I give thanks for the men and women who continue to serve this country, as well as their families, in spite of the shockingly poor treatment veterans too often receive.
  • I give thanks for the nurses and day care workers, home health aides and therapists, crisis counselors and shelter advocates who help people survive life on a daily basis.
  • I give thanks for those who remind us of our unearned privileges so that we might be better allies.
  • I give thanks for those committed to preserving the earth and a high quality environment for our children.
  • I give thanks for the poets, musicians, artists, and dreamers who remind us of what matters in life.
  • I give thanks for everyone who loves all of their neighbors and who remembers that a good life isn't about what you call god, but about how you treat the hungry and homeless, the poor and imprisoned, the helpless and the hopeless.
Happy Thanksgiving.

(originally published November 21, 2015)