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Occasionally, Pastor Ryan Ahlgrim will post a biblical commentary or discussion of a contemporary topic, inviting readers to submit their comments for a readers' dialogue. You are welcome to join the conversation!

If I Were Running for President

When I was seven years old an adult asked me what I wanted to be when I grew up. I replied, “President of the United States.” I don’t know why I said that. I may have been influenced by the recent assassination of JFK and the nation’s outpouring of grief for a president who had brought hope and optimism to so many. As I grew older, I shifted my interest to other professions (becoming a writer, or an archaeologist, or a minister), but I have never quite lost my political dreams.

With so many people currently running for president (and my being somewhat disappointed in all of them), I can’t help but imagine what kind of platform I would run on. It’s all fantasy, of course, but I would love to address the most important issues facing our nation and world without pandering to a certain segment of society or worrying about popularity. If I could be entirely honest with the American people, here are the issues I would run on:

Taxes. The fact is, the government doesn’t take in nearly enough taxes to cover the cost of all of the things we demand from it and receive from it now. The result is a national debt that is unimaginably high and virtually impossible to pay off for generations to come. So it’s time to face reality and raise taxes in a smart way to at least cover our current expenses. The middle class needs to pay a bit more, and the rich need to pay significantly more.

The IRS. Over the years the IRS has been eviscerated, greatly reducing its ability to audit tax returns. This only encourages tax cheating–especially by the rich and by large corporations. Employing a lot more IRS agents more than pays for itself; it will add billions to the government coffers and make tax payments more lawful and fair.

Fix Social Security. Democrats in particular are allergic to fixing Social Security, treating it as a sacred cow despite the fact that it will run out of money without a fix. The age at which people can receive benefits will need to be raised, and the benefits for the wealthy will need to be cut.

Audit the Pentagon. The Pentagon has never completed a full audit. The Inspector General’s report in 2016 uncovered 6.5 trillion dollars that the Pentagon cannot account for. Paperwork is simply missing. No government agency has more financial fraud and waste than the Pentagon. If I were president, I would insist on financial transparency and accountability. Related to this is the need to cut military programs that even the Pentagon does not want, but which continue in the budget at the insistence of members of Congress whose constituencies benefit from the spending. This kind of shortsightedness will bankrupt us as well as put us at a great disadvantage with our military opponents.

Cap-and-trade and Carbon Tax. One of the greatest threats to the well-being of the entire planet for generations to come is global warming. The sooner we reduce carbon and methane emissions to near zero, the better (and cheaper) for all of us. According to the economists I have read, the most effective and efficient way to do this is through a combination of cap-and-trade and a gradual tax on carbon emissions. A carbon tax does not distort the market, but rather seeks to recoup the real cost of spewing carbon into the atmosphere. About twenty-five years ago Sweden began a carbon tax. Carbon emissions are down 23% even as the economy grew 55%.

Nuclear Energy. Although we should be investing in the further development of wind and solar energy, these two green sources, by themselves, will not meet our energy needs. The safest and most efficient source of green energy is nuclear. The public is afraid of nuclear accidents, but no one died (directly or indirectly) from the accident at Three Mile Island, and only one person died from radiation exposure at Fukushima. Chernobyl was a genuine nuclear disaster, but that was due to a very poor design combined with very poor management. I would fast-track the building of up-to-date and safe nuclear power plants.

Immigration and Border Enforcement. The birthrate in the U.S. is now below replacement level. If we want our economy to thrive, and if we want enough workers putting money into Social Security to pay the benefits going to the retiring Baby-boomers, then we will need a lot more immigrants. We also need to get the millions living here illegally (who have committed no crimes) out of the shadows, giving them a route to citizenship (or at least legal status). The guest-worker program also needs to be expanded in order to fill our need for migrant workers. At the same time, we need more effective border enforcement. A wall is not the most effective option in most cases; but a lot more fencing, surveillance, and border agents are needed, as well as stiffer penalties for trying to enter the country illegally. Asylum-seekers and war refugees who are fleeing violence and likely death must be given a fair hearing and sanctuary.

Trade and Alliances. A peaceful global future depends, to a significant extent, on expanded webs of trade and strengthening alliances. Our most valuable export is our philosophy and practice of freedom: specifically, human equality and human rights which have resulted in our cultural vibrancy and creativity. At the same time, we need to show respect and understanding for societies that function differently than our own. We need to once again project a positive image to the world. Friendship and admiration make us more secure than intimidation.

National Service. I believe every person, following graduation from high school, should be required to do one year of national service (working in national parks, hospitals, schools, overseas in the Peace Corps, or in the military). This will help to enhance a greater understanding and empathy for our diverse society and world, build a sense of national unity, and provide much-needed services. It will also bring greater maturity and clarity to those who then wish to purse a college education.

Personal Faith. If I were running for president, I would want to be open about my personal faith and how it motivates me and informs my values. I would also like to show how that faith respects all faiths as well as those with no faith–a principle foundational to our nation. The freedom of (and from) religion is what has made religious faith in the United States so much more vital than it is in many other countries with a history of state-sponsored religion.

My list of issues could go on, but these are among the most important. If I were to run on such a platform, I would certainly lose; and even if I were to win the presidency, Congress would almost certainly block all or almost all of these initiatives. So why even run such a campaign? Because if no candidates are willing to tell us the truth and speak about these things, we will never address them, and we will slowly choke on our own selfishness.

[I have been writing this weekly Monday blog for over nine years. I will now be making it occasional. Thanks for reading and commenting!]

 

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Toy Guns

Recently I was asked what my favorite toy was during my childhood. After a little thought, it was obvious: it was my various toy guns. I grew up in the sixties, during the Sean Connery/James Bond craze. I wanted to be a spy with a license to kill, so I loved my toy guns. The more realistic they looked, the better.

My younger brother and I had a favorite game that we played almost nightly. One of us would hide in the darkened basement while the other would creep down the stairs and attempt to find the one hiding. We each had a gun, and the point was to shoot and kill the other first. We took turns either being the one hiding or the one trying to flush the other out. We played this endlessly.

As I think about this game now, and my utter fascination with guns and killing, I am troubled. I have changed, and the times have changed as well. Parents are less likely to buy their children toy guns, and toy guns are less likely to look realistic. Today, a child playing in a park with a realistic looking gun (something I did often) is liable to be shot and killed by a police officer–and the officer may not even face prosecution. Our society seems to be much more fearful now than it was fifty years ago. We are on a hair trigger, ready to shoot and kill anyone who appears to be a possible threat. No more playing with toy guns–it’s too dangerous.

But toy guns haven’t disappeared, they’ve just morphed into something even more dangerous. We see a lot less toy guns outside because they are now all inside our homes in computer games. Games of shooting and killing have become wildly popular, and they are far more realistic than anything I could have imagined as a child. In our shooting games today we can see bodies torn apart and pink mist exploding from head shots.

Is this virtual reality of murder and mayhem conditioning some troubled children to act it out in real school shootings? Is it conditioning some adults to take guns with extended clips of ammunition into the workplace to gun down as many people as possible?

Violence will always be a favorite fantasy of many children and adults–especially males. I think it’s built into us. It’s deeply woven into our fairy tales, epics, and fantasy movies. Maybe it’s a needed rite of passage for boys to imagine courage and self-sacrifice in the face of violence.

But real guns and real violence are a different matter. These should have no place in our homes. I’m not talking about opposing the constitutional right to keep and bear arms. I’m talking about a personal choice not to arm ourselves. The imagination we need to be instilling in our children and ourselves is the imagining of overcoming hostility with compassionate goodness, and conflict with courageous peacemaking. Is this not the faith of Jesus and the New Testament church that so many Americans claim to profess?

For those who live in fear and choose to rely on a gun kept in the bed stand, wouldn’t it make sense to at least insist on better gun safety? Things like: universal background checks, limited capacity ammunition clips, age limits for owning a gun, and banning silencers and assault rifles.

The mass shooting last week in Virginia Beach is just the latest reminder that we need to change the soul of society now. Arming more people is not the answer. That’s simply a further reliance on fear jacked up by gun manufacturers who want to make more money. Let’s have the courage and heart to say no to our escalating fantasy of violence.

Electability?

The number of Democrats running for president is somewhat amusing. I roll my eyes every time I hear of yet another obscure person with thin credentials deciding to pursue the most difficult job in the world. On the other hand, the presidency of Donald Trump is seen by most Democrats as so disastrous for the well-being of the country and the world that every possible alternative is being explored. For better or worse, Donald Trump has taught us to think outside the political box.

Foremost in the minds of Democratic voters seems to be the idea of electability. Yes, they are motivated and passionate about a variety of issues–affordable healthcare for everyone, combating climate change through more green energy and technology, protecting biodiversity, college affordability, raising the minimum wage, expanding trade agreements, equality for women and LGBTQ persons, strengthening ties with all of our allies, arms control agreements, gun control, spreading democracy and human rights–but none of those issues will move forward without first beating Donald Trump in the next election. So deciding on the most electable candidate has become the key debate.

So who is more electable: the most progressive candidate or the most moderate? The most charismatic or the most comfortable? The non-white or white? The female or male?The gay or the straight? The outsider or the insider? The least experienced or the most experienced?

The argument on the one side is that only someone who is clearly progressive and different from the norm can generate the enthusiasm needed (especially among younger voters) to beat Trump. Enthusiasm is the key. The argument on the other side is that only someone who can peel away some of the Trump voters from the previous election can win the electoral college. Playing it safe is the key.

Both of these approaches make sense. I don’t think one is clearly better than the other for beating Donald Trump. Frankly, I think he is beatable either way.

But my question is whether electability ought to be the central concern. If Democrats win the White House, but they do it with a divisive candidate, then the paranoia and distrust and dysfunction of our society, reflected in Congress, will continue. The wounds that have been growing ever wider since the 1990s (and that Trump has slashed more deeply) will continue to fester with an infection that sickens our country. For the good of our society, I want to see a president–Republican or Democrat–who can actually heal some of our divisions. That will require a candidate who works with both sides, borrows the best ideas of both sides, and whose personality and behavior and skills gain the respect of many on both sides (even if not always supported by both sides).

Ideally I would like to see a woman as the next president. It would also be wonderful if the president was non-white. We are a diverse nation (soon half our nation will be non-white, and over half are female). We need leadership that reflects those facts, and we need to be informed by different perspectives than what we usually see and hear. Yes, I have my own pet issues that I yearn for the next president to embrace. But for the long-term progress of our country, and for the sake of having a positive influence on other nations, I mostly hope for a president who builds a broad base of support that includes people in both major parties.

Maybe that’s impossible. Maybe talk radio and cable news networks and social media have made it impossible to build trust across the Republican-Democrat divide. But I know that trying to conquer and disable the other side (whichever side that is) also does not work, but only feeds resentment and reaction.

Love your neighbor as yourself. Who knew that that would be such a relevant political stance?

Prayers for Healing

In yesterday’s adult Sunday school class we got into a discussion about praying for healing when healing doesn’t happen. How does this affect how we pray? I would like to explore this a little further.

In the ministry of Jesus there are several examples of Jesus calling on people to pray with faith. In one famous passage, he says that if your faith is as large as a mustard seed you will be able to move a mountain “and nothing will be impossible for you” (Matthew 17:20-21). In another passage he says that if you ask anything in his name it will be given (John 14:14). Several of his parables also call on his followers to be persistent in prayer and believe that if you ask, it will be given (Matthew 7:7-11; Luke 18:1-8). And many of his healings are attributed to the faith of the recipient (Mathew 8:5-14; Mark 5:24-34).

From these many passages one certainly gets the impression that Jesus saw physical, mental, social and spiritual healing as God’s will for people (and a sign of the in-breaking kingdom of God), and that our faith is a key component in those healings. Praying for power and success is never envisioned by Jesus; prayer is for that which is unselfish and brings wholeness and the deepest well-being. So if we are praying for what is helpful and healing for another, we ought to pray for it with utter faith and confidence and persistence, without any doubt at all (James 1:5-8). This was the way I was determined to pray when I was a teenager and college student.

After my freshman year in college, my mother was diagnosed with cancer and taken to the hospital for surgery. I prayed with utter faith that she would be healed. To prove my faith, I told other people that she was now healed. The surgery found no cancer. I felt elated and vindicated.

Following that experience, I became even more convinced of the power of faith in prayer. During a semester in Honduras, I worshiped with a Pentecostal-style church that was growing rapidly and practiced what I would call “fighting prayers.” Those prayers were like wrestling matches with God (and the devil)–not letting go until we got a blessing. That church experienced one wonder after another.

When I became a pastor, following years of seminary, I was drawn again to this way of praying. I read a book by a cancer doctor called “Love, Medicine & Miracles” that encouraged the use of spiritual visualization to help hold cancer in check and overcome it (supplemented by chemotherapy). It was a kind of “power of positive thinking,” unleashing the healing energies of love, laughter, and imagination.

A middle-aged man in my congregation had a rare form of cancer, and a huge tumor was removed from his abdomen. The chances of the cancer coming back were over 90%, so the congregation got to work praying. We prayed for this man–a man beloved by everyone who met him–fervently and regularly. I encouraged everyone to have absolute faith. A year later, the doctor thought his cancer had returned, and ordered surgery; but when they opened up his abdomen, all they found was scar tissue from the original surgery. When the man came out of the anesthesia and was told what had been found, he raised his fists in the air and shouted, “Thank you, Jesus!”

But another year later the cancer did return–with a vengeance. He was so full of cancer, the surgeon simply sewed him back up. Chemotherapy was ordered. Several months later, when his time appeared to be short, he told me he had heard a voice tell him, “I have work for you to do.” It gave him confidence that his time was not yet up. But a week later he was dead.

This was not my only experience of deep disappointment following intense prayers of faith. I had prayed for others as well, utterly confident that God had brought about physical healing, only to to see them die as well. I needed to rethink prayer.

There were various ways I could view what had happened:

  • I hadn’t prayed with enough faith (or the person being prayed for did not have enough faith).
  • A hidden sin or negative attitude had blocked the power of healing.
  • I had prayed wrongly. God had not wanted healing for those particular people.
  • God had indeed healed them, but not in the way I had envisioned.
  • Prayers for healing don’t work.
  • Prayers for healing have limited effectiveness.

I didn’t agree with any of these options. None of them was right, or right enough.

I looked again in scripture. I noticed 2 Timothy 4:20, “Trophimus I left ill in Miletus.” And 2  Corinthians 12:8, “Three times I appealed to the Lord about this, that it would leave me.” Not everyone gets healed, even in the New Testament.

Of course the most famous example of God not fulfilling a prayer is Jesus’ own prayer in the Garden of Gethsemane. “My Father, if it is possible, let this cup pass from me” (Matthew 26:39). Jesus prayed this repeatedly. Surely he was not lacking in faith or goodness. The key line is when Jesus says, “Yet not what I want but what you want.” Our faith must never be that our prayers and desires are perfect; our faith must never be in our prayers; our faith must always be in God–and we are not God. The purpose of prayer is not to get what we think is good and right. The purpose of prayer is to strengthen us to do what is good and right and to trust in God no matter what the consequences or outcomes.

Life contains tragedy and absurdity. Abraham discovered that when God told him to sacrifice the promised child–the miracle baby Abraham and Sarah had hoped for for so long. Job experienced it when all that he loved was violently taken away. Jesus faced it at his arrest and while dying on a cross: “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” Tragedy and absurdity are littered around us. God allows it. It is part of the human condition and the larger condition of nature. What God wants us to do is not cave into despair. Instead, God’s will is for us to believe in goodness and love and hope regardless of what happens. God’s will is for us to work and pray and cry out for these things without ceasing. Because in that crying and praying and hoping and loving the darkness is surely pushed back. The mountain will move.

God’s strength is made perfect in our weakness. That’s what Paul discovered when the thorn in his flesh would not, could not, be removed. Our acceptance of our weakness; our acceptance of mystery; our persistence in hope and love and letting God be God–that’s how we are healed.

I pray for healing for those around me (and for myself as well). I pray for physical healing, but more importantly, for spiritual healing. I anoint with oil. I bless. I believe in the healing power of God through words and signs and faith. I use medicine. I pray for physicians and nurses and medical technicians to be used by God. I pray for peace, stillness, letting go of all fear. I pray that ultimately God’s will is done here on earth as it is in heaven.

Animal Emotions

Rats, dogs, crows, apes–they all have surprisingly human-like emotions. So claims Frans de Waal in his recent book, Mama’s Last Hug: Animal Emotions and What They Tell Us About Ourselves. De Waal, who has spent four decades doing cutting-edge animal research, sweeps away the notion that humans are the only creatures that cry, smile, laugh, have friends, use conflict mediation, express disgust, express guilt, have a sense of fairness and morality, use tools, use imagination, plan ahead, and mourn the dead.

De Waal admits we have limited access to the inner thoughts and feelings of animals, but an impressive array of elegant tests and observations and brain scans reveal that the bodies and brains of animals work pretty much like ours do, and respond in the same ways to various situations. We humans have spent thousands of years convincing ourselves that we are essentially different and separate from the rest of the animal kingdom. Our big brains and frontal lobes supposedly give us qualities fundamentally absent from other creatures. De Waal, I think, makes a convincing case that this is not true. He explodes the old view that animal behavior is based on “instincts”–automatic responses devoid of thought or emotion. Rather, animals do what they do based on complex emotions and decision-making processes–just like us.

Such conclusions lead to an ethical crisis: How can we continue treating animals, particularly livestock, the way we do if they have emotional lives quite similar to our own and are therefore suffering terribly from our mass-production practices? The case for vegetarianism and veganism becomes much stronger. At the least, we must adopt free-range approaches to raising livestock that recognize their social and emotional needs. Making a vegetable-based burger that tastes like beef can’t happen soon enough.

The conclusions of this book also lead to a spiritual challenge. For over a thousand years Christian theologians have been concerned with the ultimate well-being and destiny of human beings, not animals. Human identity was located in a disembodied soul–something animals supposedly do not have. So humanity’s ultimate well-being was separated from our bodies and the animal kingdom and from nature itself. All that mattered was a spiritual paradise for our souls.

But the biblical writers have a much richer vision of what our ultimate well-being means. All of nature is pronounced “good” in Genesis 1, and the arc of the biblical narrative is the story of how to get us back to that primordial goodness. God is depicted as delighting in and caring for the entire animal kingdom in such passages as Psalm 104 and Job 39-41; and Romans 8:19-23 proclaims that all of creation groans for an ultimate healing, waiting for the day when it “will be set free.” The well-being of humanity and the animal kingdom and nature itself are all bound together. Disembodied human souls being freed from nature is a gnostic idea, not a biblical one.

If animals are emotional creatures like us, and at least some of them are moral beings making moral choices, then we must be seeking the welfare of them all, and our ultimate fulfillment as human beings is bound up with theirs. My own intuition is that all living organisms are on a continuum of making moral choices; cooperation and altruism are embedded in life itself and are always seeking greater unfolding. This, I believe, is nature’s destiny.

Weddings

After a dry spell of five and a half years, I’m finally officiating weddings again. I’m scheduled to perform three ceremonies this year. Over the course of the past thirty-five years of ministry, I’ve solemnized sixty-six marriages. Eleven of those marriages eventually ended in divorce (that I know of). That’s one out of six, which at least is better than the national average of one out of two.

Performing a ceremony in which two people make a lifetime commitment to each other, witnessed by friends, family and God, is a great joy. I always feel deeply privileged when asked to officiate something so wonderful (and the receptions that follow are a lot of fun too!). Weddings are a little nerve-racking as well. There are sometimes complicated and painful family relationships that have to be negotiated in the ceremony. And from time to time, something goes wrong–which hopefully becomes a source of future laughter rather than ongoing embarrassment.

I offer here a few random notes and observations regarding weddings and their preparation:

  • I always insist on premarital counseling, though I’m not sure how much good it does. Couples who have decided to marry–like couples who have already decided to divorce–are next to impossible to counsel. Engaged couples are mostly in denial about their problems, covering up or minimizing the issues that will become difficult in the years ahead. In the premarital counseling sessions I try to uncover and identify the future marital landmines. At least three couples successfully hid major issues from me, and eventually divorced. Another couple resented my questions and decided to have someone else marry them (to my surprise, they are still married). Another couple, after the first two sessions, changed their minds and broke the engagement. I think that was wise. I don’t want to give the impression the premarital counseling sessions are designed to be difficult; on the contrary, I try to make them enjoyable–but honest.
  • Couples surprise me. Some of those that I thought were the most immature and ill-prepared have had the most long-lasting and delightful marriages. Others that I thought had their headlights on, soon divorced. I don’t tell couples whether they ought to marry or not–that’s up to them. I have never refused to perform a wedding (though if I were to be aware of abuse or infidelity, I would). The requests that make me the most uncomfortable are those from couples who want to get married in a hurry. Those do not end well.
  • Unless you like chaos, wedding rehearsals are essential. My struggle is to keep the rehearsal from being chaos. All rehearsals begin a half hour late because someone in the wedding party is never on time. Then we have to figure out the order of procession, who is coming in with whom, and timing the music (all of this while trying to appease competing interests). Ring-bearers and flower girls are always a wild card–you never know what will actually happen. Microphones, bouquets, readings, recitations, positions and movements all have to be arranged, practiced and choreographed. I can’t believe my first wedding ceremony, when I knew none of this, wasn’t a complete disaster.
  • I always have the bride and groom fill out the license at the rehearsal. I then sign it after the ceremony. It’s too hard to get the bride and groom aside at the reception for filling out the paperwork.
  • For the wedding itself, nix all pranks. Save the humor for the reception. (The homily can have a little humor, but don’t let that best man become a comedian during the ceremony.) As a minister, I must ensure the ceremony is spiritually-centered, not entertainment. It seals a holy covenant and strengthens all other marriage covenants of those who witness it.
  • The receiving line takes longer than you think. Plan on a half hour per one hundred guests.
  • Even if the photographer takes most of the pictures before the ceremony, it still takes at least a half hour for the photographer to do the final photographs after the ceremony (so plan on having something for the guests to do in the meantime).
  • To all officiants: Remember to send in the wedding license! (I forgot after my first wedding, and then rushed it to the courthouse a few days after the expiration date for having the marriage recorded; fortunately the county clerk accepted it.)

I’m excited about the three weddings coming up this year. Each one will teach me something new and inspire me with indelible memories.

What Brings You Joy?

What brings you joy?

This is a question that was recently asked of me. It is an appropriately happy and hopeful question following the celebration of Easter. A few things come immediately to my mind:

I feel joy for my daughter. Recently she began a new job in Animal Protection. Working with (but not for) the police, she investigates possible animal abuse on ranches and private residences. She absolutely loves her job. It feels important and fills her with passion. After the past two years exploring several different vocations, and having diverse and challenging experiences, but still feeling unsatisfied, she now says she has found the work she wants to do till she’s 80!

I feel joy for my son. His employer recently moved him from halftime to full time, which means he now receives medical benefits–just in time. His responsibilities and abilities have grown, and he continues to enjoy his work, his coworkers, and his network of friends.

I feel joy for my wife. Our 30th anniversary is coming up, and it’s been a delight for me to realize just how perfectly suited my wife has been for me. My appreciation for her grows.

I feel joy for my congregation. It is heartening to see many new people worshiping with us, and new babies being born. There is an atmosphere of warmth, liveliness, diversity, service to others, and gratitude.

I feel joy in finding my voice. I have always enjoyed writing, preaching and teaching, but I feel like I am doing all of it better now than ever before. I am passionate about addressing certain crucial issues in my writing, and certain ideas are coming together for me in powerful ways. I think I may have something important to contribute.

I feel joy for the friends I have made over the years. I am glad for the many people I have pastored or befriended over the last several decades. Among them are a few very close friends. I don’t see them often since we now live far apart, but that means the times when we can get together are all the more special.

What brings me joy are the personal things happening in my life. On the other hand, when I look at our society, our politics, and our wider world, I am not feeling much joy. In fact, I am deeply alarmed. Today is Earth Day, but it is not a good day for planet Earth.

Nevertheless, the pendulum always swings; and when it swings too far in one direction, it inevitably begins swinging in the other direction. The missteps of today may show us more clearly the right path for tomorrow.

To do real good in this world, I think we first need to find our joy. Only when we know what truly gives us joy will we be attractive to others and thereby effective in doing good for the sake of tomorrow.