Is God Involved?

One of the biggest questions any faith must address in their theology is to what extent God is involved in human affairs.  The answer can range from seeing God as distant and totally uninvolved (if not unapproachable); to heavily involved in every last detail of our lives.  None of the world’s major faiths have a single viewpoint on this issue.  Instead, we see a range communities within each of these great faiths with a broad range of views on the continuum between these two extremes.

The “distant” conception sees God as a distant, uninvolved deity.  In this view, humanity is often seen as an accidental or deliberate byproduct of creation, as rejected or cut off from God, or perhaps even forgotten by Her (or Him).  Adherents of this view usually believe it is up to humanity to somehow bridge the gap between us and God to achieve salvation.  For myself, I have difficulty with this view, since I believe God can (and does) have a personal relationship with us.  A distant and uninvolved God wouldn’t care about us one way or another, and our very existence would therefore be meaningless and futile.

A “Highly Involved God” is one where all pain, suffering and bad choices in this life are “fixed” because of God’s love for us.  While I believe God loves us, I have concerns with this point of view because it requires God to interfere in human affairs on an ongoing basis.  If God miraculously heals or favors me in some way, the cost is probably that someone else must suffer or be denied access to the benefits I am being given.  As a Rabbi once said: if I take a walk one day and see a fire engine racing by me towards smoke rising in the distance from where my house is, and I pray for God to let it not be my house that is burning, then am I, in effect, asking that someone else’s house be burned?  A God who interferes in human existence in such a way would not be respecting the gift of freedom of choice, which I believe lies at the heart of what makes us human, and is what makes us capable of having a true relationship with God.  If God does not permit us to suffer the consequences of our own choices, then we are no more than pets, or perhaps robots: playthings without a meaningful existence of our own.

The Book of Job in the Hebrew Bible makes this same argument: as a human, I am finite and limited in my understanding.  Therefore, I cannot know all the consequences of what I ask of God.   So, when God does not grace me with what I see as a favorable answer to what I am requesting, is that a bad thing?  I think not.  To me, it merely means that I do not know the full story, and that I am asking for something that is not in line with God’s perfect will for me and for all of Creation.  It is not a matter of “not having enough faith” or not being perfectly obedient to God’s will.  (In fact, I would argue, as did Paul, that no one can ever be perfectly obedient, and therefore none of us ever “deserves” God’s grace.)  But, let’s get back to the question of “Is God Involved?”

Is God involved?  Does God actually care for us as individuals?  Does God even notice that we exist?  For me, the answer is “Yes”

I believe that the primary reason for the historical existence of Christ is to demonstrate that God shared with us and walked with us, both fully human and fully divine.  God knows what it means to be happy, to be sad, to be hungry, to be satisfied, to love, and to grieve.  Through Christ, God has experienced all of these things, and so knows exactly what it means to be human.  Through doing this, God demonstrated that he (or she) cares for us as individuals: that each and every one of us matters to God.

Further, as Christ said in John 14:26, the “Comforter”, the Holy Spirit, is still with us.  I believe this is the same spirit that manifested itself as the “voice” that came to Elijah in the cave (I Kings 19:13).  I believe that the Holy Spirit is but one of the many avenues God uses to communicate with us, to help us learn for ourselves what God already knows is best for us.  Yet, God will never seek to shield us from the consequences of our choices.  If we make a bad choice, bad consequences will follow.  For me, the doctrine of “original sin” teaches us that we cannot help but make imperfect choices.  In other words, any choice we make will ultimately lead to negative consequences for someone, if not for ourselves.

So, the answer is Yes, God is involved: God is constantly talking to us, feeling what we feel, walking our walk.  But, it is up to us to choose to listen and to walk the path that God knows is best for us.  Yet, if we fail to do so, God remains with us, experiencing with us the pain and loss we’re experiencing.

I believe that God never gives up on us, and so I will never give up on the God I see as a very personal and very loving God.

 

Copyright (c) 2011, Allen Vander Meulen III, all rights reserved.  I’m happy to share my writings with you, as long as you are not seeking (or getting) financial benefit for doing so, and as long as proper credit for my authorship is given (via mention of my name on your site, or a link back to this site).

A Transformative Moment of Faith

A little girl was born in (if I remember right) October of 1992.  She was extremely premature, suffering from numerous life threatening medical problems.  In December, after numerous surgeries, she was sent home.  Yet, her microcephalic brain was not so easily repaired: it was 1/3rd the volume it should have been.  Her parents were told she would be a “vegetable for the rest of her life.”

That Sunday, her family brought her to church.  The Pastor called for members of the congregation to come forward and pray for the family and for the child’s healing.  I was one of those who did so.

She was such a frail little thing.  Her head was proportioned to her body as an adult’s would be, not the oversized head you expect to see in an infant.  She lay quietly as about a dozen of us crowded around, laid our hands on her and her family, and prayed for several minutes.

All of a sudden I felt a huge rush of energy pouring into and through me, and then found myself “speaking in tongues.”  I’d always dismissed this “gift of the spirit” as more likely a sign of self-delusion than a true miraculous event.  So, I was shocked, to say the least, to find it happening to me!  I returned to my pew, sweating and shaking; and had to completely rethink what had been a thoroughly intellectual and theologically liberal Protestant faith. I realized that relationships, especially my relationship with God, were much more than just logic.  Relationships require emotion, passion, and love.

Even though to this day I am still a [very] liberal Protestant Christian, this episode in my life was transformative, and made me realize that when it comes to faith, no one has all the answers, nor will we ever have all the answers: God can, and will, surprise us with something new and powerful when we least expect it.  I developed a profound and deep respect for the faith of others, as I now know that no matter where someone is “coming from,” their faith is of value not just for them, but also for others: if we are open to it, their faith can teach all of us something valuable about our own faith, and about the nature of God.

What happened to that little girl?  We left the church soon after, when we moved out of state.  We visited that town again several years later and made a point of stopping by one afternoon to see this family. The little girl with a disproportionately small head was walking, talking, and in school.  She came up to me when asked by her parents to say hello to this red headed stranger that she did not remember, then laughed and ran back to play with her sisters.

I still get tears in my eyes thinking of that moment.

 

Copyright (c) 2011, Allen Vander Meulen III, all rights reserved.  I’m happy to share my writings with you, as long as you are not seeking (or getting) financial benefit for doing so, and as long as proper credit for my authorship is given (via mention of my name on your site, or a link back to this site).

A Prayer Inspired by Martin Luther King’s “Letter from Birmingham Jail”

Pastoral Prayer Delivered at First Parish, Lincoln, MA on January 16, 2011.

From his jail cell in Birmingham in 1963, Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. wrote that “whatever affects one directly affects all indirectly” and that we all have to repent not merely for the hateful words and actions of some, but for our own silence.

He said that human progress never rolls in on wheels of inevitability; but comes through the tireless efforts of those of us willing to be co-workers with God, and that without this hard work, time itself becomes an ally of the forces of stagnation.

So, we dedicate ourselves to walking with those who find themselves in the abyss of despair, our brothers and sisters who have found that the trials of this world and the sorrows created by the choices of others can no longer be endured, alone.  In particular this morning, we remember:

  • The vast numbers of people in many lands who have recently lost homes and loved ones due to natural and manmade disasters;
  • Those experiencing the effects of illness, injury or disease in themselves or in those they love;
  • Those who have lost jobs and homes; and perhaps their own sense of hope and self-respect, in these difficult times;
  • Those mourning the loss of loved ones or are themselves recovering from the violence of those who have forgotten their humanity;
  • Those suffering from oppression and injustice, and are unable to speak for themselves.

Today, tomorrow and in the weeks and months ahead help us rekindle the light of faith and hope in those we meet and minister-to.  By helping them to walk, they are helping us to run.  By helping us to run, they themselves are becoming agents of change and hope.

God, we honor your presence here today, and rejoice in the many ways you walk with us, and are a constant companion in our journey through life.  We ask for your grace, inspiration and strength as we seek to do the same for our fellow human beings, and so enable them to see you working through us.

Amen

Copyright (c) 2011, Allen Vander Meulen III, all rights reserved.  I’m happy to share my writings with you, as long as you are not seeking (or getting) financial benefit for doing so, and as long as proper credit for my authorship is given (via mention of my name on your site, or a link back to this site).

God is Dead, God is Love

There’s been quite a bit of fuss over an nationwide ad campaign sponsored by some humanist groups who are determined to make us hear, in this the Christmas Season, that they believe God does not exist.

I agree with them.

These ads are reacting against a judgmental, limiting, inflexible god who’s main purpose seems to be to oppress humanity and destroy freedom.  I would have a hard time with such a god myself.  And so, I agree, the god they are reacting to does not exist.

The God I know is a god of relationship, a god of love.  Love transforms you.  Therefore, the god I know, a god of love, cannot be inflexible and unchanging.  Just as God’s love changes us, our love must change God.  My god is not a god of oppression, inflexible judgment or limitation.  My God is a god that would (and did) die for us; a God who wants to walk with us in the both the light and dark times of our lives.

So, my advice to those offended by these “God does not exist” advertisements is to agree with those who have such a viewpoint, then show your love to them, to those who seem to hate God.  What they hate is the pain inflicted on them in the name of a god that does not exist.  Let the love that God has placed in you show them that there is a different God, a real God, a God who loves them, too.  A god who gives us the freedom to love back, or to choose to not love at all. To love God is our choice, if it isn’t a choice, then God’s love would be meaningless.

 

Copyright (c) 2010, Allen Vander Meulen III, all rights reserved.  I’m happy to share my writings with you, as long as you are not seeking (or getting) financial benefit for doing so, and as long as proper credit for my authorship is given (via mention of my name on your site, or a link back to this site).

Power and Silence – First Sunday of Advent

Sermon given at Payson Park UCC Church, Belmont, MA November 28, 2010.

Scripture readings:
2 Samuel 11:2-5; 11:14b-15 and 11:26 – 12:7a (Bathsheba & David)
John 7:40-8:11 (The Story of the Adulterous Woman)

My thoughts today are on two themes, Power and Silence, which are both found in this morning’s scripture readings. We will look at how Power and Silence interact with each other in each story, and how they tie these two stories together across a one thousand year gap in time. Then we’ll close with some reflections on what we’ve learned and how these two themes are reflected in the coming of Christ, and Advent.

Let’s start by considering our Old Testament reading, and the setting of Nathan’s audience with David.

Nathan’s story is presented as a legal dispute. This is significant. For thousands of years throughout the ancient world disputes were brought to the local ruler or wise man for judgment. It was a very public event, with many people there: those seeking a resolution to their disputes, spectators, the King and his Court, all listening to the proceedings.

When Nathan presented his case to David, it was in such a setting; which, given what he intended to do, was a wise move! I suspect that if he had done this in a private audience with the King, he might have succumbed to a “Sword Malfunction.”

Let’s imagine what the scene must have been like: David is there with his badges of authority, a scepter and crown. He is sitting on a simple chair in front of the crowd. Scores, and perhaps hundreds of people are standing around the edges of the courtyard, waiting for their turn to be heard. David’s advisors are waiting off to the side for him to call on, if needed.

Then Nathan steps forward to tell his story. The King listens, his anger rising as he hears the tale, and when he can’t restrain himself any more, his face red, gripping his chair with both fists, he leans forward and says “As the Lord lives, the man who has done this deserves to die; he shall restore the lamb fourfold, because he did this thing, and because he had no pity!”

And then Nathan said four simple words, “You are the man!”

Continue reading “Power and Silence – First Sunday of Advent”

What’s in a Name?

My hometown, Brattleboro, VT, has built a new bridge across Whetstone Brook to replace the historic but long outdated “Creamery Bridge” (which will be turned into a pedestrian bridge).

Although there seems to be a consensus that some person should be honored by naming the bridge after them, there is much controversy over exactly who to memorialize in such a manner.  I hear that a very vocal group wants to name the bridge after a local man who gave his life in service of our country.  — A similar effort a few years ago resulted in a bridge in the center of town being named after a young man who died in (I think) Iraq.

I applaud and agree with the motivation behind the campaign to name the bridge after him, and have no objection whatsoever to honoring those who have served our country, particularly those who have had to put their own lives on the line while doing so.  (If anything, I think they should get far more recognition, honor and support than many or most of them do. Without them, the USA would never have become the great nation that it is.)   Yet, I have two significant reservations with regards to naming a bridge after a single fallen soldier.

The first is that we don’t have enough bridges!  Brattleboro, VT has perhaps a couple of dozen significant bridges in town (though some are Interstate Highway, not local, bridges).  Hundreds, and perhaps thousands, of Brattleboro natives have served in the military over the years; and many of them made the ultimate sacrifice.  Should we name a bridge for each of them?  What do we do when we run out of bridges?

Second, if there’s one thing I’ve learned from working with those serving in the military, it’s all about your buddies. Going into a fight, you are betting your life that the men and women with you, and supporting you, will “have your back” when the going gets tough.  That sort of complete reliance on each other to survive in the midst of battle is at the root of a camaraderie and trust that I have often heard those in the service speak about, but which most of us civilians will never experience.

In the center of town, on the “Common”, are a number of monuments. They list the names of those from Brattleboro who served and died in every war since the Civil War. What’s important to me about these monuments is that there are many names listed. A fallen soldier’s name is listed along all of his (or her) comrades in arms who died in the same war. The companionship that sustained them, and which more than a few gave their lives in battle-for is echoed in these monuments.  They are remembered together in death, just as they served together in life.   By having all of these heros memorialized and honored in one place, it gives us who pass by a chance to reflect on the dedication of the men and women of this town to serving our country, and the magnitude of the losses we’ve experienced in the fight to keep this country free.

Therefore, while naming a bridge after a single fallen soldier will honor that individual’s memory, and provides closure and solace to those they leave behind, it in effect dishonors the very thing that they and their comrades risked their lives to preserve – the lives of their fellow comrades in arms.   From what I’ve heard WWI, WWII and younger veterans all say when lauded for their service, I also think that most of those who have died while serving this country would be unhappy to hear that their sacrifice is being honored above the sacrifices of so many of their fellow servicemen.  Therefore, listing the fallen on a monument that honors all fallen soldiers from the same war together, and in a place where soldiers from all other wars are similarly honored, is (to me) much more appropriate, and provides a fitting way for us as a people to remember and honor those who gave their lives that we might remain a free and democratic country.

So, I ask the Selectpersons of Brattleboro to consider carefully whether it is appropriate to honor a single servicemen when naming this bridge.  Also, we must consider that the person we will memorialize through having their name on this bridge says something about who we are as a town, and what we think is important to be remembered about our community in years to come.  While every life is important, and the loss of even a single soldier in battle is a disaster to those who knew and loved them, no soldier (at least in this era) achieves victory by fighting alone.  Every soldier that has fallen was part of a community, a community they were fighting to preserve.  Let’s honor what they felt was worth giving their life-for.

For me, a bridge is about connection and community, about bridging gaps and making paths were no path existed before.  Therefore, whomever we name this bridge after should be a person whose life impacted Brattleboro in a positive and significant way, someone whose life reflected deep concern for the community, someone who worked to bridge gaps, and/or someone who built paths were no path existed before.

Copyright (c) 2010, Allen Vander Meulen III, all rights reserved.  I’m happy to share my writings with you, as long as you are not seeking (or getting) financial benefit for doing so, and as long as proper credit for my authorship is given (via a credit that mentions my name or provides a link back to this site).

A Memorial Day Prayer

Given at the regular Sunday Worship Service at First Parish, Lincoln on Sunday, May 30, 2010…

Before giving this morning’s pastoral prayer, I’d like to read you a poem that inspired my prayer and, I think, fits well with this Memorial Sunday.  It was written by Sgt. James Lenihan, a veteran who passed away in 2007.  He is known to have written only one poem in his life, describing his feelings after killing an enemy soldier in 1944.  Here it is:

A Warrior’s Poem: “Murder–So Foul”

I shot a man yesterday
And much to my surprise,
The strangest thing happened to me
I began to cry.

He was so young, so very young
And Fear was in his eyes,
He had left his home in Germany
And came to Holland to die.

And what about his Family
were they not praying for him?
Thank God they couldn’t see their son
And the man that had murdered him.

I knelt beside him
And held his hand–
I begged his forgiveness
Did he understand?

It was the War
And he was the enemy
If I hadn’t shot him
He would have shot me.

I saw he was dying
And I called him “Brother”
But he gasped out one word
And that word was “Mother.”

I shot a man yesterday
And much to my surprise
A part of me died with Him
When Death came to close
His eyes.

On this Memorial Day weekend, we remember all those who fought and died for this, our Nation, but we also remember that those who died fighting against us had mothers, fathers, brothers and sisters, spouses, sons and daughters – just like us – who are grieving their loss, as we grieve ours.  We remember that in War there is loss and pain for all involved, affecting a community that extends far beyond the battlefield in time and in space.

Holy Spirit, we come before you this morning, remembering the losses we and those we love experience as a result of War.  We remember the pain and anguish that many, soldiers and loved ones alike, have endured for years after those battlefield experiences.  In doing so, we honor the sacrifices that so many have made in the name of freedom and in defense of this country.  We ask, Holy Spirit, that you work in us, and in those we confront as enemies, to bring peace, healing and understanding, so that armed conflict and hate no longer come between us.  Instead, let Your Love and understanding embrace and fill all of us.

We also lift up those who are battling in other ways at this time: justice or job loss, illness, and other crises in their personal lives: battling the effects of the oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico; and those who are still seeking to recover and rebuild from the effects of the earthquake in Haiti and other natural disasters.  We ask that your spirit, love and healing fill and strengthen them, and enable us, individually and as a community, to support them in their times of spiritual and material need.

Thank You, Holy Spirit, for Your presence, Your guidance, Your Love, and Your healing power working in and through us.

Amen.

 

Copyright (c) 2010, Allen Vander Meulen III, all rights reserved.  I’m happy to share my writings with you, as long as you are not seeking (or getting) financial benefit for doing so, and as long as proper credit for my authorship is given (via mention of my name on your site, or a link back to this site).

The Unforgiving Servant (Matthew 18:23-34), a Narrative Sermon

You know, never in my whole life did I think I would ever see the things I that saw today.  Boy and how, it’s been quite a day, I can tell you!  What did you think?

Oh, that’s right: you were out in the vineyard since early this morning, picking grapes for the master.  So, I guess I’d better tell you the whole thing from the beginning.

You remember the steward telling us that today was the day when the master was going to come out from the city to settle accounts?  That’s right, I guess he was going to do you after you guys came back from the vineyard.  Yeah, I know, it’s been a long time.

Well, this one fellow – you know, the guy with a swelled head, always thinking he’s some hoity toity bigshot?  Parading around showing off his nice clothes?  Yeah, him!  Well, now we know where he got the money for all that nice stuff!

You shoulda seen his face when he was brought in to the master!  He was the first one!   Hee hee hee!  It was just too good!  I don’t think he ever imagined the master would actually make him settle up.  Maybe he thought the master had forgotten about him.

Anyway, my jaw just about hit the floor when I heard the steward tell the master how much this bozo’s debt was: 10,000 talents.  10,000 talents!  Can you believe it?  The master couldn’t!  He was angry, I can tell you.  And you know, I think the guy spent all of it.  I have no idea where, you could buy a whole kingdom with that kind of money.  Remember how he’s been calling in the debts us other slaves owe him for the last few months?

So, like I said, the master was already really angry, I think because the steward never told him about the debt.  Then this guy said he didn’t have the money to pay it back.  So the master, he stands up, turns red and starts shouting at the guy.  Then he tells the steward to sell him, his wife, his kids and everything he owns to repay the debt, not that the few thousand denarii you’d get for the sale would do any good against a debt like that!

What’s amazing is this guy is as cheeky as ever.  He falls down on his knees and starts worshipping the master – worshipping him!  I mean, I never saw a bigger suck up in my life.  He grovels, pleads for mercy, tears running down his cheeks, grabs the master’s knees, said he’d name his oldest son after the master, kisses his feet, the whole bit.  Yeah, can you believe it?  I wanted to poke a stick in the guy, the whole thing was absolutely nauseating.

What’s worse, the master buys this guys act. He eats it up!  Really!!  We all knew the master wasn’t the brightest lamp on the block, but come on!

Then comes the part you just won’t believe: the master goes ahead (and I think probably went soft in the head) and forgives the guy’s debt.  The whole thing!  Every last bit of it, down to the last mite!  … And the guy just gets up and walks out of there without a word, and what does our master do?  Nothing!  He just smiles, lets him go, and starts reviewing the accounts of the next guy in line.

Ah, but then the good part.  A little later, after my turn, I went to have lunch in the shade, you know, where everybody hangs out under the fig tree over by the far wall of the barnyard?  And here comes that guy, the one who’d had his debt forgiven.  You should have seen him! …And we thought he was bad before!  The guy was acting like he was the master!  Kicking the old woman and making her give him the best spot; then taking the best piece of meat away from her, too.  I could hardly stand being in the same province with the guy!

Yeah, I know –hold on, I’m coming to it!

Then the guy who just had a baby comes up.  You know, he had a rough time the last few months, his wife was sick while she was pregnant, and he had a real hard time scraping together enough money to pay the physician.  Now he’s trying to do both his job and his wife’s because she’s not up to working yet, and the steward isn’t giving him or his family any slack.

Well, the new father gets his lunch and sits down.  Then this other guy, the one with the swelled head, goes over, grabs the new father with both hands and hauls him to his feet.  He starts yelling at him, cursing, choking him, and demands that the new father pay him back what he owes him – 100 denarii – right now.  I was like, be real!  It may not be as big as that stuck up guy’s debt was, but nobody carries that much money around with them!  It’d take any one of us years to pay back a debt that big!  What was Mr. Fat Head thinking, that he was the master?  Unbelievable!

The new father didn’t have that much money either, of course.  So, this guy, he throws him in prison until he can pay the debt.  Now, how’s that going to help?  Not to mention that when the steward finds out he’s in prison and that neither he nor his wife are working in the field, then the stuff is really going to hit the wall, if you take my meaning.

That guy’s fun didn’t last long though.  We all ran up to the house – really! We ran into main hall where the master was, and told him what had happened – yeah, me too.  I don’t know what we were thinking, the master could have whipped or tortured us for coming to the house, let alone interrupting his meal like that.  But, when he heard the story, he got mad like we were afraid he might, but (praise the Lord) not at us!  He had the steward go out and drag that guy into the hall.

Then the master said “You wicked slave, I forgave you all that debt because you pleaded with me.  Should you not have had mercy on your fellow slave, in the same way that I had mercy on you?”

He didn’t say a thing.  I mean, really, what could the guy say?  Then the master handed him over to the torturers until he could pay back everything he owed him.

Good riddance, but I wonder: I mean, we all knew this guy was a real nut job.  Yet, the whole thing is just too bizarre.  Running up a 10,000 talent debt, and the master didn’t even know, then forgiving the guy?  Then the idiot goes ahead and acts like he’s the master!  I mean, what did he think was going to happen when the master found out about that? And so, when we tell the master about it, he tortures the guy – no surprise there!

But, the master doesn’t even try to reclaim the debt.  Torturing him until he can pay it back? … Never going to happen: that guy’s gonna be in a world of hurt for a long, long time!

You know, the master would’ve done better if he’d just sold the guy and his family, like he said he’d do at first.  I just don’t get it.

 

Copyright (c) 2010, Allen Vander Meulen III, all rights reserved.  I’m happy to share my writings with you, as long as you are not seeking (or getting) financial benefit for doing so, and as long as proper credit for my authorship is given (via mention of my name on your site, or a link back to this site).

Healthcare and Battle Fatigue

I may not be a conservative Republican, but I do respect and admire the opinions of thoughtful, balanced writers, no matter what their political stance. David Frum’s recent CNN column is a very well written and persuasive commentary on the damage the Republican party has done to itself in the healthcare battle, as well as some well reasoned suggestions as to where to go from here.

I agree with Mr. Frum on most of his points.  Healthcare is an accomplished fact, and the Republican leadership needs to accept that and move on.  Attempts to derail the legislation after it is signed into law may well have far-reaching negative consequences for the country as well as for the Republican party.  As Frum says, a more productive and probably more favorably received (by the voters) strategy would be to pass laws to fix those portions of the new legislation that are the most troublesome from a Republican point of view.  Blindly attacking the entire legislation is a strategy that is very high risk and which has already failed (probably at great cost to the Republican Party), and continuing to do so may well have additional major side effects.

I find it disingenious, for instance, that former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney is denouncing the new legislation as unconstitutional due to it’s requiring all citizens of the US to sign up for healthcare or face fines.  He seems to have forgotten that he was governor when the system upon which the new Federal Law was based became law here in Massachusetts, legislation that he championed as a bipartisan victory, and for which he lauded the Late Senator Ed Kennedy’s assistance in making it possible.  Does he think Democrats will forget this in the upcoming election cycle?  Romney’s claim will be great ammunition for any Democrat running against a Republican who makes the constitutionality of the new law an issue.

I also wonder, in this rash of Republican State Attorney Generals filing lawsuits to get the law declared unconstitutional even before it has been signed by Obama, if anyone has considered the consequences of such a legal victory (should it ever happen)?

If the U.S. Supreme Court were to decide that Federal Government programs forcing citizens to get insurance are unconstitutional, then does this impact Social Security, which is another Federal Insurance program that all citizens are required to sign-up for?

If not, then it will be because the new legislation forces citizens to sign up for private insurance, not a government program.  This will leave Republicans with the option of either taking responsibility for ditching healthcare reform entirely – not likely to win them many friends when millions of formerly uninsured Americans instantly lose their newly acquired protections; or else they will need to create a government sponsored insurance plan in its place – the very thing they spent lots of time and effort demonizing the current legislation for!

Finally, there is the issue of “battle fatigue”.  You can’t keep on whipping up the rank and file of your party into a frenzy on every major issue, especially if you keep on coming back to them with nothing to show for it.  Eventually they’ll get burned out and turn their back on you, or else they’ll go and look for someone else who is actually able to get things done.  As Frum says, the “All or Nothing” approach the Republican leadership is currently using is a negative, short term, high risk approach.  It is not a long term, strategic plan for positive change.  It can be effective, but is a weapon that gets “blunt” very quickly.

Frum’s column is one I think Liberals and Conservatives, Democrats and Republicans should read.  He raises issues and questions about the new legislation that all of our representatives in Washington should seriously consider, and not just dismiss out of hand, or sweep aside in favor of a broad attack upon the entire package.

Liberals take note: there is intelligence on the other side of the fence!

Copyright (c) 2010, Allen Vander Meulen III, all rights reserved.  I’m happy to share my writings with you, as long as you are not seeking (or getting) financial benefit for doing so, and as long as proper credit for my authorship is given (via a credit that mentions my name or provides a link back to this site).

The Unseen

When I lived in Belmont, MA I would often see an old man – big beard, thick graying hair (though going a little thin on the top) with a Mediterranean-looking complexion. He usually stood near the exit of the store: not saying anything, just standing there. His clothes were neat, but obviously old and worn. Yet, no one saw him. Yet, no one saw him: he was ignored as if he didn’t exist. His face, stoic as it was, always seemed to me to be filled with a hurt pride: doing what he had to do to survive, yet once having lived a life far better than the one he has now.

A few Sundays ago, at the beginning of Advent, I was asked to give the “Childrens’ Message” at my church – appropriate (or ironic, depending on how you look at it) since at the time, my son was due to be born any day.  I warned my fellow worship leaders that this might interfere with my being there — making it difficult for me to give the Childrens’ Message!  I said that if it happened, I would be invisible (even though everyone would know why), but that I would be “present in spirit”.

Yet, there is another kind of invisibility: the invisibility of those who are unseen.

When I lived in Belmont I would shop at the supermarket at Belmont Ave and Mt Auburn Road, not far from “Mt Auburn Cemetery” where so many notable Americans have been buried.  While shopping there, I would often see an old man – big beard, thick graying hair (though going a little thin on the top) with a Mediterranean-looking complexion.  He usually stood near the exit of the store: not saying anything, just standing there.  His clothes were neat, but obviously old and worn.  Yet, no one saw him: he was ignored as if he didn’t exist.   His face, stoic as it was, always seemed to me to be filled with a hurt pride: doing what he had to do to survive, yet once having lived a life far better than the one he has now.

Not many people think about it, but there is an abandoned railroad spur that runs behind that store: it starts as a branch off of the “Red Line” near Alewife, runs behind Fresh Pond Mall, through Fresh Pond Park, past many industrial buildings and Mt. Auburn Cemetery, before it dead ends at the Lexus dealership near the Arsenal in Watertown.  It is heavily overgrown, with at least four bridges where it passes under major roads.

Such an overgrown area in the middle of suburbia is a perfect hideaway for the homeless: trees, old buildings and overpasses provide excellent shelter.  Recycle and trash bins provide excellent foraging for cans and bottles to redeem at the supermarket.  (I often see the homeless in the area: pushing grocery carts piled-high with cans, bottles, and their worldly possessions, searching in our garbage cans anything that they can use or redeem.)

These are the real “invisible” people: living right alongside us, sometimes sleeping just a few yards from our bedroom windows, but we never see them, we never acknowledge them, we never engage with them.  — Just like that old man I saw so many times at the Shaws in Belmont.

In this Holiday season, we often talk about how Jesus, the babe is a gift from God to the world.  (…John 3:16!)  Yet, we often forget that this gift is to the world, not just us.  That world includes the homeless, the hungry, the poor.  Also, the gift wasn’t “stuff” rather, God gave of himself.

I’m reminded of another poor man I once knew – “Old George” – who had just enough money from his Social Security Check to pay his rent, and that was all.  He survived as so many of the poor in this area survive – scrounging tin cans and bottles so that he could buy food.  He was renowned for being verbally abusive and mean to people, but he changed.  The change came not because he got more money or was given more “stuff” but because someone I knew invited him to lunch.  She befriended him, and saw him as a person.  She gave of herself, her own time: showing him that he mattered, that he wasn’t just a forgotten and poor old man.

As the friendship with him continued, he began to take the love and friendship he was receiving and “spread it around” to others.  The thing that changed him as a person is that he learned that someone cared.  So, in this Christmas season I ask myself: how am I showing that “I care” to those around me?  How will that old man at the Shaws Market in Belmont know that he matters to God, unless I show him – as Jesus taught us to do?

Next time I’m in that neighborhood, I’ll seek him out and say “Hi, my name’s Allen: what’s your name?”

I wonder if he’ll be hungry.

 

Copyright (c) 2009, Allen Vander Meulen III, all rights reserved.  I’m happy to share my writings with you, as long as you are not seeking (or getting) financial benefit for doing so, and as long as proper credit for my authorship is given (via mention of my name on your site, or a link back to this site).

For Unto Us

It is with great pleasure that I tell you that my son, Allen Vander Meulen IV, was born on December 9 at 1:15am.  As for his vital statistics, his weight was 7 lbs, 12 oz and he is 20.5 inches long.

“Junior” is a very happy, peaceful baby boy – very much like my daughter was at that age.  In fact, about the only thing dimming the beauty and wonder of this occasion is that the relationship with my daughter is still broken.

I very much want her little brother to get to know her – I am certain he will grow up to be as fine and wonderful a person as she is.  I will be just as proud of him and love him no less (and no more) than I am proud-of and love my daughter.

Oh, THAT Prayer!

A Classmate gave a sermon in “Preaching Class” that made me realize how my current experience parallels that of Zachariah (the father of John the Baptist, in the Gospel of Luke) in some ways, and how thankful I am for the grace of God in my life.

In “preaching” class recently, a fellow student gave a message that was deeply moving and poignant.  The text was Luke 1, the story of Zachariah, father of John the Baptist.  She talked about how Zachariah had been chosen to burn incense on the altar in the Temple and pray.  Then, an angel appeared and said “your prayers are answered.”

Then she asked “which prayers were being answered?”  At the time, Zachariah was praying as part of a public ritual, he was not praying solely for himself.  He must have done a double-take, thinking “Oh, THAT prayer!” when the Angel said “Elizabeth will have a son” instead of saying something like “the Messiah is coming and Israel will be restored.”

Zachariah was old, as was his wife.  Would they have bothered talking about wanting a child to anyone, any more?  Was that long-unanswered prayer one that they only thought-about in the dark hours of the night, when sleep could not find them, when (as my classmate said) they stared at the empty spot in the corner where they had once hoped a cradle, someday, would be?

These are the types of prayers that we hide and bury down deep because we can no longer bear saying them out loud.  Was God answering a prayer that Zachariah had given up-on himself?

His response to Gabriel seems to indicate this was the case: “How will I know this for certain?”  At this point in the sermon, a whole train of thought hit me: All those unanswered prayers of my own broke upon me, and I completely lost track of the rest of her message.

All of us can identify with Zachariah’s “hidden prayers” all too well.  We have all spent many lonely nights, remembering those earnest prayers that never seem to have been answered.  And yet here, those hopes were answered in an unexpected way, at an unexpected time: Zachariah was completely unprepared for it.  What can his story teach us?

First, God’s timing is not ours.  Zachariah had given up on his hidden prayers being fulfilled.  There was no longer any reasonable expectation that they could be:  Zachariah certainly didn’t expect it, nor did I when my own such prayers were answered.

Second, that God’s means of fulfilling those hidden and buried prayers is not ours.  If someone, on July 9, 2005, had told me that my life would be anything like where I am today, I’d have (bitterly) laughed in their face: at the time I felt that all of my life’s prayers were beyond reach, any hope of attaining them gone forever.  Yet, a day later, my feet were firmly on the path to the life I have now.  Like Zachariah, the change was sudden, startling, and irrevocable.  For me, the path forward was not clear, nor was there any certainity to it, but I knew that the path forward could only be far better than where I had been.

Third, that attaining the fulfillment of those hidden prayers is not easy – even once the door opens.  There was a high cost, at least for me and Zachariah.  Yet, I don’t think either of us would think about paying it all over again if we had to.  For us, every step of that journey has been worth it.  In Zachariah’s case, it was the birth of a son.  For me, it has been a whole multitude of things, not the least of which is my wife, my new (and restored) family, and the opportunity to pursue the career that itself had been a hidden prayer for many years.

Finally, the journey is not done.  The need for God’s grace and presence didn’t end with Zachariah’s naming his son “John”.  Although we are not told the rest the story, I am certain that John’s walk towards becoming a Prophet was marked by unnumbered examples of God’s grace and guidance, and that his parents were on their knees frequently: thanking God and praying for their son.  In my own case, a similar journey is one of several that are just beginning for me.

Other “hidden prayers” remain in my own life, as in all of our lives.  For me, one unanswered prayer that I think about every day, if not several times a day,  is seeing the relationship with my daughter healed and restored: a hidden hurt that has become all the more poignant for me, now that her brother’s birth is imminent.  I pray that the gulf between us is somehow bridged, so that I can at least know that my constant prayers for her safety and happiness are being answered.

But, maybe those prayers aren’t as hidden and forgotten as we think: from Zachariah’s example, we know that those prayers are not hidden from God, and so that hope of their fulfillment never needs to die.  But, we can also be sure that God will fulfill them in a way and time of His own choosing, not ours.  So, I will also remember what Romans 8:6 teaches us: “For the mind set on the flesh is death, but the mind set on the Spirit is life and peace.”  If we focus on worldly means of achieving our prayers, as Zachariah and I did, those hopes will die.  But, by staying focused on the inner witness of God’s Love for us, we will have peace even when all worldly hope is gone.

 

Copyright (c) 2009, Allen Vander Meulen III, all rights reserved.  I’m happy to share my writings with you, as long as you are not seeking (or getting) financial benefit for doing so, and as long as proper credit for my authorship is given (via mention of my name on your site, or a link back to this site).

Amen!