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As we celebrate our country tomorrow, let us not forget our commitment to justice. If, indeed, we are a Christian country, where is God in the hierarchy of what we do, how we treat others, how we present ourselves to the world? I suspect that in our eagerness for self-importance, we have put God at the “less than” side of things.

Stuck at the mean, sharp point of the equation,
God is not diminished. We seek skyrockets; God
makes stars. We long for parades, boots on the ground,
a tank or two to feel less tiny. Meanwhile, time marches on,
grander than all the spectacles we muster. And at the far shore,
God watches, waits. Freedom is a thought too big, it must be
reduced, like loyalty, like love. God sits in the open bracket,
alone. We are held in her hand, blessed by bounty, blinking,
blinded by what we think we’ve made. One nation under God:
below, beneath. Not above. Until we know this, we do not figure,
despite our calculations.

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Today is Veterans Day, a day to honor all those who have served in the military. I’ve always appreciated veterans, despite my doubts that it’s possible to bring about peace through war. It almost seems quaint to believe that noble ideals still define this nation, but one of the most important is being able to speak one’s mind freely.

When I read an article about a US navy ship being menaced by a Chinese destroyer recently, I thought, Uh-oh. They’re trying to provoke us into a war! Then I read between the lines:  “The U.S. Navy will continue patrolling the disputed South China Sea, a top Navy official said Monday, after a Chinese destroyer came dangerously close to an American Navy ship during a ‘freedom of navigation’ sail-by near a Chinese-occupied reef.”

Hmm. “Freedom-of-navigation sail-by” must be military-speak for, we’re going to buzz by your claimed territory and say You’re not the boss of me!

If the military is fighting to protect our way of life, maybe we can fight for them as well by questioning authority. They’re fighting for my right to say that I’m concerned for the safety of those soldiers and I wonder if it’s worth it.

As China continues to build its own islands to establish yet another military base, it makes me wonder. Are they doing this because we keep poking at them? Or are we poking at them because they keep adding to their arsenal?

A country, a company, a cause – all are strengthened when people have a right to speak freely. To me, that’s what this holiday signifies. We can speak up because they stood up. And for that, we owe them a debt of gratitude.

Every time a mass shooting occurs, The Onion runs the same headline: “‘No Way To Prevent This,’ Says Only Nation Where This Regularly Happens.” And every time a mass shooting occurs, Facebook explodes with opinions from both sides of the gun control debate. Because apparently some people are perfectly content living in a country where they and their children are 20 times more likely to die by gun violence than in any other civilized country on the map.

There are no arguments. Not anymore. Don’t tell me “guns don’t kill people; people do.” Yes. People with guns. Do you not get that? Don’t explain patiently that the killers on 9/11 didn’t use guns. I know that. And we immediately did something about it — we changed the way we fly; we put people on lists; we went to war (with the wrong country, but whatever). But there’s nothing we can do about guns? Fine then. What’s the other near-constant in gun violence? White guys. Shall we legislate against them? Oh wait. They’re the ones in charge of absolutely everything.

Well, I’m done arguing. Your right to own an object does not supersede my right to live.

In better, calmer times, I wrote the following (as Ruth recently reminded me). I’ve decided that it will be my version of The Onion article. Get used to seeing it, folks. Because we may worship God here in America, but guns — ah! Those are our real deity.

It was a week
to shake the faith
right out of our bones.

But faith cannot fall
to such a small god:
a god of bombs, bullets, ripped limbs.

Seek God elsewhere.
He is there in the helpers.
In solace, yes, and mourning, too.
In healing hands, in hope.

Look to those who know the truth:
What is not love
cannot be God.

Hate destroys.
Love restores.
There is your answer.

 

Right after 9/11, I did a strange thing — I wrote a funny Halloween story. It was part of a contest, sponsored by our local PBS radio station. I wrote it because it occurred to me that horror had suddenly become such a routine part of our lives. We were living horror every day. What we needed, desperately, was laughter. My story was later read on air…but that’s not the point. The point is, here we are again. And I haven’t got anything funny to say.

It isn’t funny that LGBTQ persons have been attacked in what was, for them, a safe space…perhaps the only one they had.

It isn’t funny that they still need safe places in this day and age.

It isn’t funny that, among the huge outpouring of love and concern over the deaths in Orlando, there are still a few bad seeds who so misread the Gospel as to believe that God does not love everyone, no matter whom they love.

It isn’t funny that no matter how many people are killed by firearm in this country, we cannot effect meaningful dialog on gun control.

It isn’t funny that I am certain our founding fathers did not mean for this to be so.

It isn’t funny that the easiest way (by far) to murder so many people in so short a time is by gun.

It isn’t funny that the NRA is happy to accept money from terrorists and the mentally ill.

It isn’t funny that someone on the “no fly” list can buy a gun with ease and that so many of us refuse to even discuss why this isn’t funny.

It isn’t funny that the idiotic hysteria of “They’re coming for our guns!” still seems to work. When has anyone come for your guns? When has that happened?

It isn’t funny that we can wait for a marriage license, a driver’s license, for the ability to buy the car we want with the options we want, but we can’t wait a single minute to own a gun.

It isn’t funny when a politician’s takeaway from a mass murder is “I told you so.”

But the least funny thing of all is that this will happen again. The US suffers more gun deaths than any first-world nation on earth — innocent people, little kids. And we won’t even stop for a moment to analyze why because we’re too afraid to. Not funny, folks. Not even a little.

Driving from Kansas to southern Indiana (and back) is an interesting experience. As you wend your way through the heart of the Midwest, you see things. You learn things. Like what’s important to the people of the heartland. How? By simply looking around at the signs and billboards we post.

Politics, for instance, energizes us. Is “right to work” right for Missouri? I imagine the people of the Show Me state will have to work that out for themselves. Whom should earn your vote for judge in Terre Haute, Indiana? Perhaps a native could decipher an answer from the signs — I could not. (Though I liked the ones shaped like donkeys.)

We are a commercial society. Just about every town off the interstate attempted to draw me in with their antique shops, fireworks outlets and restaurants. Mile-high pie! Clean restrooms! All of these little towns proudly tout their heritages, as well. Come see the magical caverns! Walk the historic district! We are proud of where we live and what it has to offer.

We are proud of our faith, too. We like to advertise our churches and post random admonitions — scriptural and otherwise — in fields and on roadsides. The Midwest is keen to know whether or not I am saved. Anonymous sources exhort me on my sinfulness. Several cities advise me that I cannot possibly love babies enough. (Once the little rascals grow out of infanthood, I can only surmise that they are on their own.)

I love the Midwest. The weird juxtaposition of “Jesus saves” signs next to billboards for fast and discreet gun sales. The Burma Shave-like buildup for a café that may or may not exist anymore. The constant road construction and revamping.

I wonder what God sees when God looks at America and Americans — at our hearts, our good hearts, mostly in the right places. Does God laugh at our foibles, our quibbles, our vanity? No doubt. But God loves these things about us, too. God loves the giant cross in Effingham, Illinois, just as God loves the burgers and sundaes at the local Culver’s.

We are a big, loud, bombastic bunch, we Americans. We’ve got things to say! And that’s what makes the trip worth it: Taking in the come-ons, exhortations, admonitions, lures and wheedles and using our own moral filters to discern our paths.

I-70 runs through the heart of America, good, bad, ugly and righteous. It is up to each of us to decide what to buy…and what to speed on past.

Of late, the popularity of Pope Francis has plummeted, particularly in the U.S. I guess some people (particularly Conservatives) don’t like what he has to say. Which is really funny when you think about it — because there’s nothing that Francis is saying that hasn’t been said before, by Jesus himself.

Feed the poor? Check. The rich man will not get into heaven unless he changes his ways? Check. Blessed are the suffering and outcast? Yep, that too. Honestly, you’d think the Pope was saying something radical. Anyone who’s read the Gospels knows who the real radical was and is. It’s why Jesus was put to death: Instead of leading an army against the Romans, He took the side of the marginalized. He wasn’t what the people of the time expected from a savior. Nor is Francis what you might expect from a Pope. He eschews pomp and circumstance for humility and simplicity. He doesn’t try to be popular.

Just as Jesus riled up the powers-that-be, Francis disconcerts the mighty. As well he should. Who said being a Christian was going to be easy? Anyone who thinks so is barking up the wrong tree (in the medieval sense, where “tree” meant “cross”). It is the Pope’s job to disconcert. That is how change occurs.

And, as ever, we need to change. Thousands and thousands of years post-Christ and what have we learned? We still choose war over peace, division over communion, and money over just about everything else. We still lack in love. We would still crucify Jesus for not being what we want.

If Christ came back tomorrow, I daresay he would be even less popular than Francis, especially in America, a country that many (especially those in power) call “Christian,” a country that claims to be “one nation under God.” Which begs the question: Do we really know what being Christian means?

Look to Francis for answers. And if you don’t like those answers, feel free to be disconcerted. You should be.

I confess; I wanted to open with a joke about how anyone who would burn down a church probably can’t read this. Admittedly, it was a cheap shot. But I can’t get past my dismay at the continuing tide of violence and bigotry in this country. I’d love to be able to dismiss church-burners as idiots, thugs and losers. Wouldn’t it be easier if they were? But some of them — and I include here those who don’t actually light the matches but think about it in their heart of hearts — are almost certainly our neighbors, people we see every day and think of as reasonable folks.

I imagine what church-burners are trying to destroy, ultimately, is hope. That, I can tell you, is impossible. Hope is made of impermeable material, tougher than Kevlar, bulletproof, flameproof. Furthermore, the people whose hope the church-burner wishes to extinguish have been living on hope for hundreds of years; hope is bread and butter, manna and sustenance to their communities. It has been, in all too many dark times, all they had.

I have never seen a church burn. But I have seen hate. When I was a kid, someone defaced the statue of Mary in our church’s courtyard. They cut off her hands and wrote words on the statue that my mother would not allow me to see. My mom also tells stories of how the Klan burned a cross on her parents’ lawn, how she herself was mocked, called “Cat-licker” and other unoriginal epithets by fellow schoolchildren. The aged nuns at my college alma mater still sit sentry, day and night, in case someone decides to burn down their church, as has been attempted in the past. The point is, those people, from the vandals to the name-callers, did nothing to our faith but strengthen it. Faith cannot be killed, not by the hottest hate or most scorching disdain.

Anyone who calls him or herself a Christian — or, indeed, a human being — owes it to the world to stand up against anyone who attacks a spiritual home or any of the people who hold the place dear. In the wake of this most recent spate of bigotry and racism, we need to make a louder noise. Taking down the Confederate flag is not enough. We need to make clear that this will not stand. Nobody who lives in this country must be treated as “other.”

Church-burners, and potential church-burners, if you are reading this, please knock it off. I know I’ve said a lot of harsh things, but you must feel very unloved to do what you are doing. Return to God’s loving and forgiving arms. All of us who stand with love are waiting for you.

Back in college, I once had to take a bus to the airport in Indianapolis, a two-hour drive. A fierce snowstorm was brewing, and none of my friends dared drive me themselves. Boarding the Greyhound, I found every seat taken but one…in the very last row in the back, next to a man who made Charles Manson look like a choirboy. Knowing full well that the driver would be concentrating on the storm and would never see my imminent death, I took the seat anyway.

Though I immediately stuck my nose in a book and prayed for anonymity, my seatmate engaged me in conversation. He even introduced me to his friend “Red Dog,” who occupied a seat ahead of us and to the right. (Why weren’t they sitting together?) Turns out, my new friend was on his way to Chicago after a disastrous trip to Las Vegas, during which he was incarcerated for possession of “one little knife.” With these words, he drew a dagger from his boot.

“How unfair,” I hear myself squeak.

That I made it to Indy at all (with Red Dog even gallantly helping with my luggage) is an act I attribute directly to divine intervention.

Yesterday, I saw an article about the number of weapons seized at airports in 2014: an average of six guns a day, with a high of 18 one day in June. Grenades, C-4, landmines. Not to mention the wide panoply of knives and other pointy things. Knives baked into food, knives disguised as markers and canes or slipped into the inner workings of a laptop. Hundreds and hundreds of knives, all knowingly hidden from authorities.

What struck me first was the number of people who openly flouted the rules of air travel. What struck me second was this: why? Were the weapons meant for self-defense or something more nefarious? Why in a nation of people who overwhelmingly believe in God, who claim to be religious, who call out for prayer in school and demand to know on Facebook whether or not I agree that we are one nation “UNDER GOD” — why in the world are we all armed to the teeth?

If we truly are a Christian nation (as some pundits assert — I rather hope we are more diverse than just that), then why do we feel the need to fend off one another, to be ready to attack at will? Jesus never carried a weapon. When confronted with violence, he turned the other cheek, accepted the crown of thorns, carried the cross, let the nails be hammered into his skin. It says very little of Americans that we are so prone to violence, so attached to our weapons of choice that we dare not be parted from them even while we travel by winged metal tube for a few paltry hours.

Violence and the weapons from which violence springs cannot be held in tension with true spirituality and belief in a loving, giving God. The two are incongruous. As St. Paul observed, they will know we are Christians by our love, not by the razor-sharpness of our blade or the caliber of our firearm.

Being Christian means loving others not just as much as we love ourselves, but as much as Christ himself loves them. And that requires a love beyond human bounds, a love that does not discriminate, that does hesitate, that does not demand qualifications. It is the kind of love that makes weapons ludicrous, laughable.

So what gives? Either a large number of us are hypocrites, or we love our weapons more than we love God. And yes, I know that’s an inflammatory statement; I meant it to be. This is a subject that demands serious self-examination. If you believe in the sanctity of gun rights, how do you square that with the perfection of love your faith calls you to? And no, “hunting” is not a sufficient reply. No one’s going hunting at 20,000 feet. (I hope.)

This isn’t chocolate and peanut butter, folks. These are two ideas that don’t go together. So why not put down your weapons? Arm yourself with love instead. I guarantee a better bus ride for all of us.

I’ve read a lot of conjecture lately about politics and God: Namely, how would Jesus vote? What party would He back? My conclusion? People can twist scripture to affirm any notion they care to affirm, from socialism (Christ did say, “Sell all you have and give your money to the poor”) to Ayn Rand-ian hyper-Capitalism (in Jesus’ parable, those who invested their talents were rewarded, and those who didn’t were punished). In the end, it’s a moot point. Jesus wasn’t about politics. He was about souls.

Still, there are those who argue that America is a Christian country. “One nation under God,” and all that. (No matter that the “under God” is a rather recent development.) If this is so — and I like to think America is more tolerant than to insist that only one religion is the right one — there are a few guiding qualities that we ought to have, attributes that surpass petty political squabbling.

Kindness: Are our politics (and politicians) kind? Is what they stand for kind? What is the kindest approach — the approach Christ would take — toward immigrants, the poor, minorities?

Inclusion: Tax collectors might have been the most detested people in Jesus’ time, but He not only spoke to them, He included them among His disciples. He embraced women, who were not even considered people in His time, but rather possessions. Are our political leanings inclusive? Who do they include? Who do they leave out?

Forgiveness: If there’s one thing Jesus stood for, it’s forgiveness. Are we forgiving toward those who disagree with our political point-of-view or do we trample all over them, hoping our louder voice will drown them out?

Love: God is love. If we want Him to be present in our politics, our politics had best be loving. Is it loving to deny rights to people? Is it loving to punish or impede the side we don’t agree with?

In the upcoming political season, let’s keep these qualities in mind.

It’s the land of tall tales and hero stories, a place where we pull ourselves up by our bootstraps and reach for the American dream. So why do so many of us prefer to wallow in our misery? Why do ordinary conversations turn into one-upmanship of the gloomy variety? Feeling sick? Well, I have a chronic illness and a dead-end job. Really? I can go you one better — I’m sick, embattled, and the world is out to get me!

Maybe it’s in our roots. The Pilgrims schlepped over here on the Mayflower because they were being persecuted for their faith. First thing they did? Persecute others for their faith. The list of victims grew. After awhile, it became a culture. Everyone knows a person (sadly, usually a woman) who uses her endless list of misfortunes to gain pity, caring, even a sad simulacrum of love. Why? Why would anyone want to be important for being harried, put-upon, miserable?

Maybe they don’t think they can do any better. Perhaps their low self-esteem keeps them from believing they can do great things. Or, maybe, the victim role works. Their plight is so desperate, others can’t help but admire them: “Look at that plucky little lady! Look at how she suffers, yet bears it all somehow!”

Yes, there are those who are truly burdened, but they generally aren’t the ones moaning about it. They’re the ones doing something about it. It’s time to give up voluntary martyrdom. We’re better than this, America.

Have a Mary Little Christmas

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