President_George_W._Bush_and_Barack_Obama_meet_in_Oval_OfficeAfter so many posts, my long series on the Amendments to the United States Constitution is beginning to come to a close.  After today, there are only two more left.

But then I get ahead of myself.  The Twenty-fifth Amendment is our present concern.  Not sweeping or broadly inspirational in orientation like others amongst its small family, this change to the Constitution is more of a clarification and nuancing of our American plan for governance.  Comprised of four sections, it: 1) states that the Vice-President is first in order of presidential succession, 2) provides for the appointment of a new Vice-President when necessary, 3) allows for the President to write a statement of their inability to perform their duties, making the Vice-President the “Acting President,” and 4) details the procedure by which others may officially decide that the President is unable to fulfill his or her duties.

The amendment is basically a housekeeping measure that seeks to forestall controversy should questions arise Nixon-departabout the office of the Chief Executive.  While no amount of definition is probably going to stop a bit of chaos surrounding the potential enactment of (especially) Sections 3 and 4, at least we’ve got it in writing.

It is helpful for our nation to have such defined policy.  Especially when considered together with the Presidential Succession Act of 1947, there is a clear path for the inheritance of the office in case of death, disability, or impeachment.  That these laws were passed during the Cold War era makes sense, both due to the growing power of the Presidency and the potentially of far-reaching and devastating nuclear attack.

Yet considered together, the 25th Amendment and our laws regarding succession are a bit odd.  After the Vice-President, the office would descend to the Speaker of the House, then the President pro tempore of the Senate, followed by the Secretary of State and the rest of the Cabinet.  This person, whoever they might be, would serve for the remainder of the presidential term (up to nearly four years).

roslinWhile in the case of the Vice President this would seem to make sense, I’m a little less than comfortable with our plan should such a disaster befall the nation that someone like the Secretary of Health and Human Services or Secretary of Energy inherit the office.  First and foremost, it would have to be quite a tragic and dire turn of events (thus requiring strong leadership in response) for so many governmental figures to be eliminated in such a short time.  Second, the odds that a designated successor, chosen for their skills in more specialized roles, would have any idea how to govern the nation, are rather low.  Barring some sort of miraculous Laura Roslin/Battlestar Galactica situation, I really don’t want the Secretary of Education (whoever they might be at the time) to serve as the President of the United States for very long.16386wink

Wouldn’t it make more sense to say that if over half of the presidential term remains that a national election should take place so that the people themselves could choose a new leader?  The inheritor of the office after the death(s) or removal from office would still be in charge during the interim.  But in case they are not suited to the office or are not particularly desirous to inhabit it, this would provide a helpful option.  Stability in terms of succession is important, yes.  But so too is having  person with the proper skill set in place to lead the country.  All said, I think that 25th Amendment and/or the Presidential Succession Act could probably use a little tweaking.

There are certainly other options here.  Your suggestions?


Matthew 4

temptationSin.  It’s an ugly word that we rarely want to confront…especially when it has to do with us.  As a  particularly religious term, some like to avoid it entirely.  Talk about ethics, though, or matters of right and wrong, and a lot more people are on the same page.  Mention hubris or flawed human nature and pretty much everyone else is with you.

Lapses in judgment, moral failures, humanitarian wrongs, and deep betrayals are all part of our shared human history.  While we might not accept that we ourselves are necessarily caught up in “sin,” acknowledging this about the rest of the world is rather easier.  Further, though we may not all agree what constitutes right or wrong, that there are such things is near universally acknowledged.

Knowing that sin–or whatever we call it–exists means that its corollary (temptation) must also be recognized.  After all, each of us are faced with decision points at which we might consider the wrong choice or path.  To hurt or heal.  To love or hate.  To sin or not.

None of us are immune to these moments–not even Christ Himself.  In Matthew 4, He is thrice tempted by the Devil.  Three times indexHe is strongly encouraged to contravene the commands of God and go against the right He knew He had to do.  As the ordeal progresses, he is tempted to do something that he feels he needs (bread).  He is tempted to do something he can get away with (jumping from great heights knowing there are angels to protect him).  He is tempted to do something in order to get what He might want (all the kingdoms of the world without having to go through that nasty crucifixion business).

While I’m probably reading more into this story than is intended, these three ideas: perceived need, entitlement, and desire form a nice troika in the psychology of temptation.  At least in my life.  I’ve been tempted–and sometimes failed–so many times.  I know the pattern will continue to repeat.  I don’t say this happily or proudly, but simply as a matter of fact.  To live means to make decisions, and as long as our decisions can move in the wrong direction, we will face the temptation to do so.  More specifically, I face the temptation to do so.

Girl Peeking Over the CounterThe fact that God Incarnate faced such temptations is comforting for many.  It is for me.  But then of course He never gave in.  He never gave up.  That isn’t my story.  And the assumption is, of course, that after this episode in Matthew 4 he was never tempted again.  How different this is than our lives, we say.  But then I’m not sure this is the case.  I think that Christ was continually tempted even after this period.  If you had the potential of all the power in the universe and were facing the seemingly inevitable reality of your own public execution, wouldn’t you be?

For me, Matthew 4 is not so much about Jesus’ only three temptations, but perhaps just those at the beginning of his ministry.  Though the text doesn’t specifically say that, it makes some sense.  Because I am sorely tempted from time to time.  Tempted to do what I shouldn’t.  And I sometimes give in.  The temptation won’t stop.  Not for me, and not for any of us.  Though God is there for us in the midst of our struggles and can help us in these places, Christ reminds us just a little later in the book of Matthew that temptation and sin are continual realities in our lives and consistent matters about which to pray.  Why else would the Lord’s Prayer speak of daily bread, forgiveness of sins, and avoidance of temptation all in the same breath?  A healthy reminder, surely…and a confirmation of sorts of one of Luther’s most famous maxims: that the Christian is simul justus et peccator (at the same time righteous and a sinner).


Talk 1 intro slideThis weekend I’ll be speaking at a youth retreat for some area churches.  I’m honored to have the opportunity and look forward to being able to share with them.

When first chatting with the event organizer, the theme of “love” came up.  During that conversation I shared a phrase I used a lot during my time as a youth pastor.  It has ended up becoming the theme of the entire weekend: “God loves you, and there’s nothing you can do about that!”

A little in-your-face, admittedly.  But nevertheless true.  For me, proclaiming God’s love is vital, especially to a those in a social and developmental stage that need to hear it.  Especially when the world is–more and more–perceiving Christians as people of hate.  Especially because God is love.

I realize that speaking so boldly of love carries a danger with it.  After all, there is Gospel AND Law.  Not just gospel alone.  God confronts us with both a Yes and a No.  There is meant to be repentance and responsibility in all of thisgod-is-love.  I get that, and I admit it.  But then I think that the everyday failures and brokenness of the world–and ourselves–speak pretty loudly to the fact that we’re aware of sin.  Even if not our own, then at least the world’s.  We are broken people who live in harsh place.  So if I’m going to lead with something, it is going to be that God can overcome our pain, estrangement, fear, and sin…with LOVE.

The constancy of God’s love for us–which admittedly, we can choose to accept or reject–is important.  By affirming that God’s love is there for us and available for us regardless of who we are or what we have done is essential.  It is not changing or capricious.  You don’t earn it.  This, my friends, is gospel.

I believe that if students can emerge from this weekend definitively knowing that God loves them, it really matters.  Regardless of where they go from here and what happens, being convinced of God’s love is vital.  This is an heart of godessential foundation upon which I hope a great deal else is built.  In this, the churches, ministries, and pastors represented  have the important and continued task of discipleship before them.

There’s more to the weekend itself than just a proclamation of God’s love for us, of course.  I’ll also be talking about how this love comes to so permeate us that it necessarily involves becoming more like God and exhibiting a love for others.  But then, of course, the root of this response is just that.  A response.  To a love beyond our own.  To a love that defines Love.  To the love of God that knows no bounds, and is here for us even now.

That might be dangerous, but I’ll take it.

For I am convinced that neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord. (Romans 8:38-39)

On Homophobia

I’ve been thinking recently about the word “homophobia.”  As our society has been rapidly–and very publicly–sorting through its feelings and perspectives regarding LGBT issues, the term has emerged with increasing frequency.  Broadly conceived, it is often used to refer to the feelings of those who take issue with, criticize, or attack homosexuality.  Considering the actual construction of the word, though, I have increasingly felt that it is not a helpful one for the national conversations in which we are engaged.

indexI took to Facebook yesterday to ask friends to “define homophobia.”  In response I received a number of thoughtful and respectful answers.  Also this Simpsons cartoon (I’ll let it speak for itself.).  Two responses stand out: one from a friend involved in counseling who noted that in 1972 one Weinberg “defined it as meaning ‘the dread of being in close quarters with homosexuals.’  More recently, both in gender theory and the mental health field, homophobia is understood to be “any negative attitude, belief, or action directed against homosexual persons (Hudson & Rickets, Journal of Homosexuality, 1980).”  Another friend (a lawyer), defined homophobia as “The position that lgbtq individuals are less human than you, and/or are not entitled to equal protection of the law, and/or are objects if scorn due to their lgbtq status.”

I think that all three definitions encompass part of what is often meant by the term.  Strictly speaking, “homophobia” would refer to a kind of fear related to homosexuals.  Much like agoraphobia (the fear of open spaces) and claustrophobia (the fear of enclosed ones), “the fear of gay people” would seem to be the narrowest definition of the word.  Often, though, the term is applied more broadly than this and is connected with those who seek to deny the LGBT community certain rights or heap scorn upon them in word or deed.  Even more expansive is the idea that homophobia can be “any negative attitude, belief, or action directed against homosexual persons.”homophobia11-10

While I fully admit that there are many in our country who interact in fear over issues of homosexuality, I would also assert that fear is not the only motivating emotion or perspective that defines their actions.  To say that everyone who opposes gay marriage or holds a certain religious or societal position is motivated solely out of a fear seems a bit unfortunate.  To use homophobia to refer to their position does not represent the full range of beliefs actually held, and it does not help in conversation.  After all, some people aren’t afraid; they just have a different opinion.  And then, of course, some people aren’t afraid; they’re just jerks.

This said, I do admit that for some who are opposed to homosexuality and its various implications, fear is a real part of their perspective.  Fear is insidious in that way and can masquerade itself as many things.  I also admit that regardless of what motivates anti-homosexual rhetoric and actions, a lot of the things that are said and done can come across as hurtful or hate-filled to those who are affected.  This isn’t helpful either.  But saying, in essence, that because someone disagrees with you they are afraid of you is probably also not the best approach.

In light of this, I think it might be wise for us as a society to invent a different term to use.  Different terms.  I consider the plural here because it is one thing to engage iRacism sexism and homophobia are not permitted in this arean hate-filled actions and/or dehumanizing rhetoric against fellow human beings that are homosexual, another thing to refuse them basic civil rights, and still another to have a certain religious opinion about homosexuality.  While I certainly don’t deny that each of these things can be felt and experienced as attacks by the LGBT community, simply labeling all of them as “homophobia” is too broad and-at least etymologically speaking–inaccurate.  Because even if the meaning of the word has moved on from its roots, the idea of fear is never separate from it.

So then: I’m sure that in just a few hundred words I have not adequately expressed myself.  In the process I’ve probably made a few assumptions that need correction or nuance.  I myself need to think more about what alternate terms would be helpful.  There is a lot of confusion, anger, hate, misinformation, doubt, sadness, reluctance, prejudice, oppression, and fear out there…and it is complicated.  I welcome your thoughts and invite you to consider what I’ve shared–agree or disagree–and suggest possible alternatives for our culture as we discuss such issues.

Poll This

indexThe Twenty-fourth Amendment to the United States Constitution removed a loophole left over from the Reconstruction Era: namely that you could require payment of a “poll tax” in order to vote in federal elections.  This requirement unduly targeted the African-American community.

First proposed during the Kennedy administration, the 24th Amendment later became law in the first full year of Johnson’s term.

Something like the poll tax and the necessity of its elimination by constitutional amendment shows how deeply entrenched racial attitudes and divides really were.  Couched, no doubt, in a desire to have government by “one’s betters” (in the Jim Crow South this meant whites, of course) some state laws had been manipulated in “letter” so as to avoid the “spirit” of the changes wrought by Reconstruction.

While the idea of government by those deemed superior in society has had a longstanding tradition in world history (warriors, kings, nobles, landowners, men, etc.), the direction of American democracy had been steadily heading another way for a long time.  For indeed, the logic goes–and rightfully so–that if you are going to have a stake in this society, having the right to vote is essential.lord-grantham-downton-abbey

There’s no Downton Abbey-esque Earl of Grantham to lord over us peasants in the United States.  We are not supposed to submit to someone because of position, gender, or race.  We are supposed to have equal rights.  Though it took us a long time to get even here, we are here now.

I realize that extending the franchise as broadly as possible can possibly open the doorway to demagoguery of various shapes and sizes.  But then you don’t even need a democracy for a demagogue.  You just need a mob and some pitchforks.

images1Responding to fears of demagoguery with recourse to legal restrictions on voting (the rich, the landowning, the male, the white, etc.) doesn’t really help.  Because, in its place you leave behind the demagoguery of the few.  A group that decides for itself who is in and who is out.  An aristocracy beholden only to itself.  This is the logic, I think, of the limited franchise.  Though there are-as I’ve mentioned–potential problems inherent in too much democracy, the United States has decided again and again that this is not the way forward.  I and so many others (male, female, black, white, Christian, Muslim, gay, straight) can vote and participate in this thing called the United States.  Thankfully, we have a voice.  And for all the flaws inherent in our system, that voice is more than most people have had throughout recorded history.

Things I Would Like To See (Part XII)

sochi_logoEvery now and then, one of things I’d like to see actually corresponds with reality.  In this case the Olympics fits the bill quite nicely.

A childhood tradition in my household, every few years my family would watch the games, cheer our momentary heroes, and take a break from “normal life” to indulge our international athletic excitement.  We weren’t–and aren’t–practitioners in almost any of these sports.  We never watch most of them outside of a few weeks in the summer or winter every couple of years.  But when we do watch, it’s a lot of fun.Ski-Jumping_12335_600x450

Established in ancient times and revived in the modern world, the Olympics represent, at their best, the peak of human achievement.  A time when we all get together as a human race–made in the image of God–to show each other what we are able to do.  The limits of endurance.  The height of skill.  The gifts of a lifetime of hard work.  There’s almost a Renaissance quality to it.

And then of course there’s the chance to cheer, whether it be for the greatest athlete in his or her sport, the underdog, the national hero, the ancestral homeland, or the inspirational story of the day.  It gets exciting.

2010_Olympic_ladies_podiumI know there are problems with this Olympics, and that is unfortunate.  Russia is not exactly a paragon of democracy and good governance.  Its preparations and readiness for these Games have been panned.  Questions persist about its commitment to–or violation of–some basic rights.  So please understand I’m not endorsing the dark side of things here.

But please also know that I think the spirit of the Olympic games and the joy and wonder they’ve  brought me continue on.  I hope that you too can embrace them during this season, taking in the cultures, stories, exotic sports, and–dare I say it–even a little bit of international understanding these few weeks can provide.  At least, that’s one of the things I’d like to see.

Matthew 3

“The ax is already at the root of the trees, and every tree that does not produce good fruit will be cut down and thrown into the fire.” (Matthew 3:10)

baptist3Once again the brief story of John the Baptist confronts me.  The necessary precursor to Jesus (it seems), he is a stark and fiery preacher that demands repentance as preparation for the coming of the Son of God.  He tells everyone to turn from their sin, and has especially harsh words for the religious elites of the time.

“The ax is already at the roots of the trees…”  A powerful image, reminding these latter hearers–and me–that the time has come to make a decision.  That there is such a thing as justice.  As judgment.  That bad, dead, fruitless living needs come to an end.  That there is a great “No” to the gospel as well as a great “Yes.”

Being theologically trained and suspicious of the over-individualization of spirituality and sin, I might read this story and default to thinking of the ways in which all of society is broken.  And that’s true.  Our whole world is a fallen place.  But then that is only part of the story.  Because it isn’t just the world that is barren, false, and a in need of repentance.  It is me too.

Picturing the an ax at the root of my life reminds me that ax at rootjudgment doesn’t start with the world.  It starts with Joshua Ziefle.  It means looking within and being aware of where I am not producing good fruit…far from it.  It necessarily humbles me before the Lord.  And it keeps me from getting so excited about denouncing all those other sinners…because I’ve got quite a lot to deal with right here.

In light of this, maybe we Christians–personally and societally–simply need to spend some more time listening to John the Baptist.