June 2017

AMERICA FIRST

 

     Recently I met my friend Arnold for afternoon coffee at our favorite café.  He wanted to talk to me about global politics.

     “I didn’t vote for the guy, but maybe he has something with his ‘America First’ policies.  What do you think, Richard?”

     “I keep thinking about that proverb of Jesus, ‘The first will be last, and the last first.’”

     “Oh, there you go, quoting the Bible again.  What does that have to do with the shape of the world today?”

     “Isn’t America already first in so many things – like natural resources, individual opportunities, vast wealth and productivity, advanced technology, and certainly in military strength?”

     “Yes, but that’s why everybody else in the world wants to bring us down to their size.”

     “So you envision the world as one of competition among nations?”  

     “Of course I do.  Competition is what makes the world go ‘round.”

     “Where does that leave cooperation?”

     “What do you mean?”

     “Take the environment, for one example.  No one nation can go it alone in improving the environment.  We all have to work together and put self-interest aside if we want to address things like global warming and air pollution.”

     “But why should we bear the brunt of the burden for things like that?”

     “Because we have resources that other countries do not have.  Like Jesus said, if you don’t mind my quoting him again, ‘To whom much is given, much will be expected.’”

     “But don’t we have the right to guard our own self-interests?”

     “Yes, but let’s not be selfish about it.  Other countries have looked to us in hope for our leading the way toward making this a better world.  Shouldn’t we share our resources, instead of pushing for even more wealth and dominance for us?

     “Don’t we do that already?”

     “We have in the past.  So what’s the big deal about making ‘America First’ all of a sudden?  Can’t we assume a less selfish posture?  After all, we’re not that insecure, are we?”  

     “I guess.  But I’m not so sure the world is such a safe place these days.”

     “Well, it won’t be if everybody is out for themselves, to the detriment of others.”

     “OK,” Arnold said with a wry smile, “as long as everybody agrees with us.”   

      

     

March 24,2017

WHICH BIBLE?

 

     My friend Arnold phoned the other day to ask about Bibles.  He said he had a Bible once but can’t find it, so he went to a book store and saw about twelve different kinds of Bibles and didn’t know which one he should get.  So he decided to call me and ask me about it.

     “Well, Arnold,” I said, “I’m glad you’re interested in reading the Bible.  What brought that on so suddenly?”

     “My nephew Ralphy said he got himself ‘born again’ and twits me all the time about my biblical illiteracy.  He’s always on my back about it.  He keeps quizzing me, like when he asked me if I knew who preached the Sermon on the Mount and I guessed it must have been somebody like Billy Graham and he laughed like crazy at me.  He says any educated person should know something about the Bible, since, he says, so much of world literature refers to biblical things.”

     “So what Bible does he use?” I asked.

     “I think he uses the Saint James Version, or something like that.”     

     “Do you mean the King James Version?”

     “That’s it,” Arnold said.  “Ralphy says that’s the true version.”

     “So all the other versions aren’t so “true”? I asked.

     “Not according to Ralphy,” Arnold replied.  “All the other versions change the Bible, because they’re translations, and they change the original King James Version.”

      “The King James Version is also a translation,” I countered.

      “It is?  Ralph says he uses the “original” King James Version, so I thought that was the “original” Bible.”

      “Well, first of all, nobody can use the original King James Version, because it first was published in 1611 and there are 600 words in it that are no longer used in the English language.”

      “How did that happen?” Arnold asked.

      “Because language is a living thing,” I said, “and you know that we don’t speak the same English as people did back in 1611.”

      “Of course, I should have known that.”

      “You also know that the Bible wasn’t originally written in English, don’t you?”

       “Oh, you mean Hebrew?  I guess I new that.”

       “The Old Testament was written in Hebrew, and the New Testament was written in Greek.  That’s why we need translations, and up-to-date translations into the languages that we now speak.  That’s what the original King James Version did:  it translated the Bible into the English that people spoke back in 1611.”

      “So no wonder I was looking at twelve different Bibles – they’re all different translations, is that it?”

     “Yes,” I said. “There are about 25 different Bible translations into modern English on the market today.”

     “Why is that, anyway?” Arnold asked.  “Can’t they all just go back to the original Hebrew and Greek and come out the same, so that we don’t get confused all the time?”  

     “Because we don’t have any original copy of any biblical book.  We have to rely on copies, and copies of copies, compare them, and reconstruct what can be accepted as the original Hebrew and Greek texts.”  

     “Man, is that ever complicated,” Arnold said.  “You mean, when you guys say the Bible is divinely inspired, like my Ralphy does, you’re really talking about the original biblical texts – which we don’t have?”  

     “Right.  But actually we’re fortunate to have around 5000 ancient manuscripts – some complete, some fragmentary – of the New Testament alone, which scholars can compare in order to be relatively certain of what the biblical authors were writing.”

     “So why so many different translation then?” Arnold wanted to know.

     “Because language changes, and several newer translations are also written for different audiences, like children’s Bibles, for instance.  Just in general, we need a new translation about every 25 years, since new words and new expressions come into being virtually every day.”

     “I don’t know whether I can absorb all this, Richard.  Just tell me what Bible you would recommend for me to read.”

     “I would suggest the New Revised Standard Version – and use a study edition; you can learn a lot from the accompanying notes.”

     “OK, but don’t think this is the last time I’m going to talk to you about it,” Arnold said.

     “Fine with me, my friend.  Anytime.”

 

                                                                             -- Richard L. Jeske, Vicar

 

CONSERVATIVES, LIBERALS, AND EVANGELICALS

 

 

     My friend Arnold called early one morning and asked if I had time to meet him for coffee.  When we got to the diner, he asked if we could sit over in the corner where no one could hear us.  So we did.

     “Why all the secrecy?” I asked.

     “I have some questions and I don’t want to offend anyone who might overhear us.  You know I have this hearing problem and you always have to speak up so I can get it.”

     “OK,” I said, “so what’s the issue?”

     “Evangelicals,” Arnold said.  “Maybe I’d better ask first if you classify yourself as an `evangelical,’ so are you one?”

     “Yes and no, Arnold,” I said.  “The word comes from `evangel,’ which means `gospel,’ so if you’re asking whether I believe in the gospel of Jesus, then the answer is `yes.’  But the word `evangelical’ has been taken over by the conservative wing of Christianity, and if you’re asking whether I belong to that wing, then the answer is `no.’”

     “You see, Richard, that’s what makes religion so confusing.  When people like me want a Christian answer to certain things, I have to ask a ton of people, because there’s the Catholic answer, the Episcopal answer, the Evangelical answer, the mainline answer, etc.  And then who can say what answer is the `Christian’ one.”

     “Wait until you ask someone who belongs to the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America,” I said, trying to be humorous.

     “Is there such a thing?” Arnold asked.  “I thought Lutherans were mainline, not evangelical.”

     “Yes, they’re mainline.  They’re just the only mainline church body that actually has the word `evangelical’ in its official name.  But they’re not part of the religious right that calls itself `evangelical.’”

     “OK.  But what I really came to talk about is what the so-called evangelicals really stand for.  My neighbor, who used to be my friend, considers himself to be an evangelical, and before the election told me he couldn’t vote for such an indecent man like Trump.  When I asked him why, he said he couldn’t vote for a man who had been married three times, who boasted that he abused women, who stiffed his contractors, who built casinos with strip clubs in them, and who couldn’t quote the Bible correctly when asked to do so.  So after the election I told him he must be pretty disappointed, and he said he was totally glad that Trump had won and that he had voted for him.

     “But doesn’t that go against your religion?” I asked him.  “And he just stared at me and turned around and walked away.  And then I read that 81 percent of white evangelicals voted for Trump, more than Bush ever got in either of his runs.  So I’m confused, and that’s why I wanted to talk to you about what they really believe.  I mean, they are Christians, aren’t they, like you?”  

     “I know, Arnold, it really can be confusing, can’t it?” I said.

     “You got it.  So is it just a matter of liberal versus conservative?  They’re conservative and you’re liberal – is that it?”

     “There’s really more to it than that,” I said.

     “Like what?  What makes you `mainline’ and them `evangelicals’”?

     “OK.  For starters, we’ve kept the ancient creeds of the church, its ancient liturgies, infant baptism, and emphasize Holy Communion, and they haven’t.”

     “But that makes you `conservative’ and them `liberal,’ doesn’t it?”

     “Historically and theologically, yes,” I said.  But socially, they are opposed to women’s right to choose, to gay rights, and blame immigrants for taking away American jobs …”   

     “And Trump rode all those objections all the way to the White House,” Arnold interjected.  

     “It looks that way,” I said.

     “So if they got rid of all those traditional Christian practices and adopted a sort of nationalistic populism, are they really Christians in your mind?”

     “Well, they accept Jesus as their personal Savior,” I answered.

     “So is that all there is to it?” Arnold asked, getting a bit upset.   “They want to build walls, and the Pope said that’s not Christian.  They want to stop welcoming refugees into the country and the Pope says that’s not what Jesus would do.”

     “Maybe fear is a stronger motivation than we would expect,” I offered

     “But didn’t you tell me once that faith in Christ overcomes fear?”

     “Yes,” I said.

     “So I’ll take faith any day,” Arnold said.

     “So will I see you in church now?”  I asked.

     “Don’t pin me down, Richard.  Waiter, I’ll take the check.”        

       

                                 -- Richard L. Jeske, Vicar

12/29/2016

FIGHTING FOR PEACE

 

     My friend Arnold called a couple days ago to wish me Merry Christmas and to tell me he really tried hard to make it to our Christmas Eve candlelight service. 

     “Thanks, Arnold,” I said, “but what happened?”

     “Oh, on the way I decided to drop in for a few minutes to a friend’s Christmas party and I got into a fight.”  

     “You got into a fight on Christmas Eve?”  

     “That’s right.  And not just one of them, either.”  

     “Tell me about it.  Are you OK?”

     “Yeah, I’m OK. It didn’t come to fisticuffs, but almost.” 

     “ Tell me more,” I said.

     “Well, I got my drink and went over to the host standing there in a small group in a corner of the room and I told him I wasn’t going to be there long because I was going to Christmas Eve Mass.  Then one of them said, “What for?  All those fairy tales, you mean?”  And I replied, “So what’s with you?  You’ve never sung ‘Here comes Santa Claus?’”  And the guy got so mad he spilled his martini all over his tie.  I was just trying to be playful, but he got mad, for some reason.”

     “So did you leave?” 

     “I should have,” Arnold said.  “But I wasn’t finished with my drink, so I meandered over to another corner of the room, where some guy was saying, “We’ve just elected a sexual abuser as our next President!”  The woman next to him didn’t like that and said she was offended by what he just said.  He replied to her, “I’m not being malicious, I’m just stating a fact.”  “Well, it’s malicious,” she said.  So I couldn’t help myself and jumped in with “But isn’t that what the President-elect admitted about himself?”  “Oh, not another one of those Demo-libs,” she said.  “No,” I told her, “I’m a Republican.”  “Then just shut up about it,” she said, red in the face.

     So I drifted away from that conversation over to another one, where someone was saying, “I couldn’t vote for Hillary because she doesn’t tell the truth.”  So I asked him, “Have you ever logged onto “Politifact?  It’s a fact-checking organization that shows how Trump as a far bigger liar than Hillary.  “No, and I don’t care about those phony fact-checkers,” the guy replied.  So I told him, “You mean you’re more comfortable with fake facts and conspiracy theories?”  And the guy put his nose up against mine and said, “Who the hell are you to tell me what to think?”  So I just kept wandering around the room to find a decent discussion where I wasn’t going to get into any trouble.

     “So did you find one?” I asked.

     “No.  Everybody was mad.  I found that intriguing.  It’s Christmas Eve and everybody was angry.  It was the most cheer-less Christmas party I’ve ever been to.”

     “So why did you stay?”  

     “I don’t know.  It was my kind of Scotch and it was free, I guess,” he said with a chuckle.  

     “That’s not like you, Arnold,” I said.  “Something else must have made you stay.”

     “Like I said, the anger intrigued me.  So I just want around and listened to everybody.  What do you make of it, anyway, Father?  Everybody’s mad.  Fake facts and pizza place shootings and phone threats to teachers and swastikas painted on churches – now we’ve got mall brawls.  What’s your take on it, anyway?

     “A combative spirit is loose in the land, isn’t it?” I said.

     “You can say that again.  If you don’t agree with someone, they’re ready to go to combat.”  

     “So what’s your solution, Arnold?” I asked.

     “I think we need another election, with a whole new set of candidates, but if I go around saying that I’ll get into another fight, won’t I?”  

     “Probably,” I said.  “You should have skipped the party and come to Christmas Eve Mass, my friend.”

     “I know.  So what would I hear about there?”

     “How about things like the Prince of Peace?”

     “Peace?  Now there’s something worth fighting about,” he said.  “And Happy New Year too.”  

       

       

PULPITS AND POLITICS

 

     My friend Arnold called the other day with some excitement in his voice.  “I’ve just been talking to a friend who was up in arms about the pastor in his church, and I wanted your opinion.”

     “About what, Arnold,” I asked.

     “Well, you know I don’t go to any one particular church, and I haven’t been lately, but I just wanted to know if you preach politics from the pulpit.”  

      “Why do you ask?” I wondered out loud.

      “Because my friend insisted that clergy should not be saying anything politically from the pulpit, and he thinks his pastor is going too far on that subject.  So I wanted to ask your opinion on whether politics belongs in church.”

     “Well, wherever two or three are gathered together,” I said, “there’s going to be politics, right?”  

      “Come on, Richard, I’m serious.” 

      “OK, my friend, let me ask you:  as someone who would be rather “objective” about this – like you say you are about religion in general – do you think pastors should preach politics?”

      “Why not?” Arnold asked.  “I would guess that some people would like to have some political direction from their pastors, wouldn’t they?  I mean, if they are serious about applying biblical principles to their lives, wouldn’t they want their ministers to guide them?  Who would be a better resource than that?”  

     “So why don’t I see you in church more, Arnold?”  

     “There you go again, trying to evade my question.  Maybe if you had more politics in your sermons, I’d come more,” he said with a chuckle.  

      “Arnold, our primary goal in preaching is to preach the gospel of Christ, the good news that we have been redeemed by God as God’s free gift to us.”

      “Wasn’t Christ political?  Weren’t the Old Testament prophets political?  Didn’t your New Testament biblical leaders – like John the Baptist and the apostles -- take on kings and rulers when they were wrong?”

     “Whoa, my friend, you’re getting ahead of me now.”  

      “Well, speak up.  Give me some answers,” Arnold said, a bit irritated at what he thought was my evasion of his concern.

      “OK.  Yes, the prophets of the Old Testament were directly political when they felt they had to be.  And yes, John the Baptist took on King Herod and the apostles appeared before governors and kings.  And Jesus himself was executed as a political threat to the establishment.”

     “So what’s the problem about you pastors getting political?” Arnold asked.

     “OK.  If you mean that we should engage in partisan politics from the pulpit, we will simply turn some people off and bring division in the church.  That’s not very helpful to the unity of a congregation.  But if the gospel of Jesus, with its emphasis on unity and love, is spoken boldly and clearly, people should be able to apply it to the decisions they have to make in life.  Don’t you agree?”

     “Yes,” Arnold said, “but do you see them doing that?”  

     “I know what you mean.  People can hear Jesus’ message of unity and love and still support division and hate in their communities, in their voting, and in their daily lives.  But if I bluntly tell them to stop it, and tell them what to do in every situation, they will still make up their own minds, won’t they?  After all, I can’t force them, can I?”  

     “Then why do they go to church?” Arnold asked.

     “That’s a totally different subject, my friend,” I said.

     “I’m still not sure you’ve answered my question, Richard.”

     “Well, drop in some Sunday, Arnold, and maybe I might.”   

     

                                       Richard Jeske, Vicar

A COUPLE COINS

 

     My friend Arnold made one of his infrequent trips to church on a recent Sunday and came to ask me about the offering.  He said he feels a little guilty about not putting something in the collection plate.  

     “So why didn’t you throw in a couple coins when it went by?” I asked.

     “Well,” he said, the plate came around so suddenly I didn’t have a chance to put something in.  Do you pass that plate every Sunday?”  

      “Yes, every Sunday,” I told him.

      “Why?” he asked.  “Are you so far behind on the light bill?” 

      “Giving is part of Christian life,” I said.  

      “I know,” said Arnold.  “I have a buddy – he’s a good Christian, I guess – who always gives to someone begging on the street.  Once we had a good discussion about it, but I disagreed with him.”

      “About giving to someone who asks?”  

      “Yes,” he replied.  “Giving to those panhandlers only makes them keep panhandling.  Some of them could get good jobs and do some work for a living, if they really wanted to.”

      “Some of them?” I asked.

     “Well, I suppose that there are a few of them who are unable to work – but not most of them.  I remember a movie with Clint Eastwood when Clint was hit up by a panhandler and Clint gave him five dollars and said to him, ‘Now make sure you don’t buy any food with this.’  That was really funny.  And that’s another reason not to give:  they’ll just use it for drugs or booze.”

     “Now Arnold, aren’t you being a bit judgmental?”  I asked. 

     “Probably.  But there are enough soup kitchens where they can get food for free.  Places, like shelters, where they can sleep for free too, without cluttering up the sidewalks.”

     “Do they feel safe in those places?” I wondered.

     “Why not?  A lot of those places are churches,” Arnold said.

     “See?” I said.  “That’s one of the reasons Christians give, to offer safe places to those who need them.”

     “So that’s why you pass the plate every Sunday.”

     “Not the main reason,” I said.  “Christians know that everything they have comes from God – life first of all, then skills and talents to pursue their professions – and they commit themselves to giving back to God a portion of what God has given them.  It’s an act of thanksgiving.”

     “So I suppose you think that those of us who don’t give aren’t very thankful.”

     “Arnold, you said that, not me.”    

     “So it’s not all about the light bill?” Arnold said.

     “No.  It’s all about you, and the kind of person you want to be,” I replied.

     “Well, Padre, thanks for the religion lesson.  Maybe I’ll be back to your church in a couple Sundays – and I’ll bring a couple coins with me.”       

      

                                -- Richard Jeske, Vicar