Opinions expressed here are my own and do not represent the views of the congregation I joyfully serve. But my congregation loves me!

Monday, February 28, 2011

Unprotected Texts: A Review


I have written about the Bible quite a bit on this blog. My general refrain is that we should not use the Bible as an excuse for not owning up to our own opinions. It is nice when you run across an articulate author who agrees with you (or at least you hope so!)

Jennifer Wright Knust is the author of Unprotected Texts: The Bible's Surprising Contradictions About Sex and Desire. She is an ordained American Baptist minister and an assistant professor of religion at Boston University.


Her book reminds me of the sentence that begins John Shelby Spong's book, Rescuing the Bible from Fundamentalism,

"Sex drove me to the Bible!"
Even as her presenting issue is sexuality, her book is really about how we go about reading the Bible, what we bring to it, and what we want it to say.
It is time for us to admit that we, too, are interpreters who hope to find our convictions reflected in biblical texts, and have been all along. Looking to the Bible for straightforward answers about anything, including sex, can lead only to disappointment. When read as a whole, the Bible provides neither clear nor consistent advice about sex and bodies, as the material presented in this book demonstrates. p. 244
She presents a great deal of material about how the Bible approaches sex. I hadn't realized that Esther and Jezebel were far more alike than different. Both were strong women. Both wanted to hold on to their faith and to the integrity of its practice in a foreign land. Both defended their people. Both had to use their "feminine wiles to advance their goals." p. 15.

What was the difference between Jezebel and Esther? Jezebel played for the wrong team. The way to slander, dismiss, and ruin the opposing player in biblical times and in the present is to call her a slut. Then have her eaten by dogs. Sexualize your opponent. Does that sound familiar in the arguments against equality for lgbt people?

Her six chapters take you through the Bible and its cast of characters, their actions, and attitudes toward themselves and others as sexual beings. She addresses how various interpreters throughout church history have interpreted certain texts. She takes on "Christian" educators who use scare tactics and misuse the Bible to support abstinence-only education.

...passages celebrating sexual pleasure outside the bonds of marriage can be found within the Bible and, remarkably, no one dies. p. 23
She explores the Song of Songs, David and Jonathan, Ruth and Naomi, "biblical marriage", polygamy, celibacy, slaves, virgins, desire, sexual politics, sex with strangers, sex with angels, sex between gods (Yhwh and Asherah), rape, Jesus's foreskin (did she really write about that? Yes!), virgin births, menstruation, managing "the wife", and much, much more!

Fundamentalists will hate this book. She dismantles their idols, especially the one that claims that the Bible has a unified voice on matters of sexuality. However, those who will appreciate this book are those who can appreciate the Bible, its authors and their struggles:

...the Bible is not perfect, but it can still be regarded as beautiful, particularly when we do not try to force it to mean just one thing. p. 247
I will be recommending this book to college students when I speak to classrooms at ETSU. Because I am a minister who advocates for equality for LGBT people, I often get asked to speak to classes about PFLAG. I get asked:
How can a minister possibly defend homosexuality when the Bible so clearly condemns it?
I find that many students are not asking that question derisively, but honestly. I give them my honest answer. The Bible is complex and we see in it what we want to see. I invite them to read the Bible for themselves and to examine their own attitudes. This elegant book by Jennifer Wright Knust will be a companion, guide, and a breath of fresh air for those seeking a conversation with the biblical authors that is intelligent, informed, and honest.

For other reviews visit the TLC Book Tour.

Sunday, February 27, 2011

This Week On Amendment A

Following a productive weekend, we have another challenge for Amendment A and for justice in the PC(USA). Thanks to CovNet for the schedule:
  • on Tuesday, March 1: North Central Iowa, West Virginia, Yellowstone
  • on Friday, March 4: Mission
  • on Saturday, March 5: Grace, Northern New England, Ohio Valley.
These were the votes last time:

YES:
Grace 203-182 (need to hold)
Northern New England 57-30 (need to hold)
Ohio Valley 57-44 (need to hold)
West Virginia 93-56 (need to hold)
Yellowstone 25-23 **(need to hold)**

NO:
Mission 181-181 **(this one needs to flip)**
North Central Iowa 31-60 (so does this one, but a longer shot)

Check the vote charts here, here, and here.

You Can't Keep A Good Woman Down--A Sermon

You Can’t Keep A Good Woman Down
John Shuck

First Presbyterian Church
Elizabethton, Tennessee

February 27th, 2011
Celebrate the Gifts of Women

Gospel of Jesus 12:27-31

He told them a parable:

Once there was a judge in this town who neither feared God nor cared about people.

In that same town was a widow who kept coming to him and demanding,
“Give me a ruling against the person I am suing.”

For a while he refused; but eventually he said to himself,
“I’m not afraid of God and I don’t care about people, but this widow keeps pestering me.
So I’m going to give her a favorable ruling,
or else she’ll keep coming back until she wears me down.”

Robert Funk and the Jesus Seminar, The Gospel of Jesus (Santa Rosa: Polebridge Press, 1999), p. 59, 61. Luke 18:2-5.



When a gospel writer tells you the meaning of the parable before telling the parable, you want to raise your eyebrow in suspicion. Luke not only tells you up front what he thinks the parable means but then puts words on the lips of Jesus at the end to reinforce not the parable but the explanation.

It is like a reporter who rather than report on the actual event, instead uses the event as a starting off point to tell his or her own story.

Yesterday about 200 people held a rally in Johnson City on behalf of teachers and union workers. There was a small counter protest of about a dozen, twenty at most. The reporter wrote that hundreds of people lined both sides of the street and said:

“They were voicing their opinions on both sides of a growing debate in Tennessee to change public education.”
According to the report, one would think there were equal numbers on both sides. It wasn’t the case. Except for a few brief words from the rally's organizer, the reporter didn’t actually talk to the demonstrators but to a woman who happened to stumble on the scene and offer her views about education and teachers, which were not favorable. Then the reporter spoke to a member of the handful of opposing voices. The reporter had a story to tell but it had little to do with the events that had actually occurred. We call that spin. A far more accurate report, however, is in today’s Johnson City Press. WJHL on Tricities.com did a pretty fair job as well.

The gospel writers used spin when they told the story of Jesus and when they repeated the stories he told. They took the parables of Jesus and used them to spin their own narrative. That is why the quest to get underneath the stories is so important. We are looking for what the guy said rather than what was said about him. It doesn’t mean that work is easy or is definite by any means. It is an attempt, however, to be honest to Jesus.

Luke has a theme.

The readers should pray always and not lose heart because the Son of Man is coming, the one who will deliver justice.

It is perhaps not a bad message. It just doesn’t have anything to do with the parable. You don’t even need the parable to deliver the message. Here is the message, both prologue and epilogue without the parable:

He told them a parable about the need to pray at all times and never to lose heart. This is what he said:
And then he tells the parable about a corrupt judge and a widow. Then Luke creates this epilogue:
And the Lord said, “Don’t you hear what the corrupt judge says? Do you really think God won’t hand out justice to his chosen ones—those who call on him day and night? Do you really think he’ll put them off? I’m telling you, he’ll give them justice and to give it quickly. Still, when the son of Adam comes, will he find trust on the earth?”
If that is the message, Luke picked the wrong parable to tell it. The judge in the parable is certainly not a good symbol for God. He is a better symbol for Dr. Evil. No amount of praying to this guy is going to change anything. No appeal to justice, no appeal to common decency, will ever change him. It is rather bizarre that Luke would use this example to make the point that God will grant justice and grant it quickly.

In the parables of Jesus, whenever we have characters in positions of authority such as judges, kings, or wealthy landowners, the tendency has been to interpret that character as a god-figure. The gospel writers themselves will often do that. To do so misses the scandal of the parable. Be very suspicious of any character in authority in the parables of Jesus.

We have two characters in this parable, a judge and a widow.

A widow is not simply a woman whose husband has died. That person would be called a matron. A widow is a person whose husband has died and who is destitute. Widows were singled out along with orphans and immigrants as people who needed special care. This occurs throughout the Hebrew Scriptures.

In Deuteronomy the people are to pay a tithe of their produce and give it to
…the Levites, the aliens, the orphans, and the widows, so that they may eat their fill within your towns… 26:12
And again in Deuteronomy:
When you gather the grapes of your vineyard, do not glean what is left; it shall be for the alien, the orphan, and the widow. 24:21
Special care is to be given to those most vulnerable. That is what it means to be decent. A compassionate and just society cares for the immigrant, the orphan, and the widow. A compassionate and just society treats the poor with respect.

Psalm 68:5 describes God in this way:
Father of orphans and protector of widows
is God in his holy habitation.
The prophet Isaiah writes against lawmakers in his time in chapter 10:
Ah, you who make iniquitous decrees,
who write oppressive statutes,
2 to turn aside the needy from justice
and to rob the poor of my people of their right,
that widows may be your spoil,
and that you may make the orphans your prey!
Sometimes I feel like going to Nashville or Washington and reading to them from the Bible. They are all into the Bible aren’t they? All these Christian men. They love the Bible.

A widow symbolizes the vulnerable. When there is a story about a widow seeking justice, that story is a judgment story on society. We don’t even need to know (nor are we told) the specifics of her complaint. It could be relatives of her deceased husband who are holding out on giving her a share of his property. We don’t know. It doesn’t matter. She is a widow and she is seeking justice. The convention of storytelling lets us know that she is in the right.

The judge we know by the narration and by the character’s own admission is bad to the bone. There are a couple of hints we might miss that emphasize the corrupt nature of this enterprise. William Herzog points this out in his book Parables as Subversive Speech. Normally, you would have more than one judge decide a case. That would prevent corruption. What we have here is one judge likely getting bribed by her opponent.

Also, a woman normally wouldn’t seek a judgment by herself. A woman in this society would be represented by a man. Why has no man anywhere taken up her cause? That also shows the level of corruption. The fact that she is appealing to him by herself is a sign of the shame of this corrupt situation. She doesn’t even have representation.

No appeal to justice will matter. The judge himself is portrayed as a cartoonish villain.
“I’m not afraid of God and I don’t care about people.”
He sounds like Snidely Whiplash.

He will not have a change of heart.
He will not see the truth.
He will not do his duty.
What do you do when the justice system is unjust?
A losing battle is it not?

Maybe not. Luke’s answer is pray always. Some day the son of man will return. Well, OK. Prayer may be a good thing to do. Prayer is good. Prayer is nice. But what saves the widow is action.

What she is forced to do is make a spectacle of herself. She has to go and publicly shame this guy. Again and again and again. The judge says that she keeps “pestering” him. He decides to give in before she "wears him down". The word in Greek is a boxing term which means give one a black eye. Here is this widow, the most vulnerable, taking on the powerful and the corrupt. Every day she goes and gives him a black eye, figuratively speaking.

You can’t keep a good woman down.

That is the title that Brandon Scott provides for this parable in his book Hear Then the Parable.

The spectacle of pestering works because it is still in the judge’s interest to maintain the pretense of justice. If every day she is giving him a black eye, at some point, it won’t be worth it for him no matter what the bribe to keep taking this punishment. Why does he relent? It could be a matter of exhaustion, but even more than that, he could finally relent because he is afraid that enough people could be watching and public opinion could decide in her favor.

He relents not because he has compassion.
He relents not because it is the right thing to do.
He relents because of convenience.
She is more trouble than she is worth.

Our parable paints a cynical view of society to be sure. But those who have seen and who have experienced life from the widow’s perspective are well acquainted with this view of so-called justice. It is not much more cynical than what we experience today.

And yet…

The judge is not afraid of God.
The judge is not afraid of people.
The judge is afraid of this “powerless”, vulnerable widow.

Those who have ears let them hear.

A political cartoon in today’s Johnson City Press had a drawing of two figures. One is a teacher and the other is a Wall Street CEO. The text says:
Judy Peaches: Third grade teacher. Tasked with nurturing the intellects and talents of our best shot at keeping America great. Pay: $34,742. Bonus: Hugs

Joseph P. Sherk: Wall Street CEO. Very nearly drove the economy off a cliff decimating public pension plans in the process. Pay $5,950,000. Bonus: $24,700,000.

Guess who gets to make “shared sacrifices”?
But there were 200 Judy Peaches and friends of Judy Peaches on the streets in Johnson City yesterday.

They were “pestering”.

Yes, like the widow they were making a public spectacle of themselves on behalf of workers and basic human decency. It is shameful to society that this has to be done.

These bills that are being enacted across the country and in Tennessee are not just about teachers or government workers. They are about what it means to be a public society and what it means to have a public consciousness. Public education is called “public” for a reason. It is about education for all people. Sure some of us can send our children to private schools. So what happens to the vast majority of people who cannot do that? What happens to them? A decent society cares.

Well, we know that our legislators will not be convinced or have a change of heart. We have some of the best legislators money can buy. However, from our story we recall:

The judge is not afraid of God.
The judge is not afraid of people.
The judge is afraid of this “powerless”, vulnerable widow who makes a spectacle again and again.

Those who have ears, let them hear.

I know it may appear to be unseemly for a preacher to talk about so-called political matters from the pulpit. I don’t think they are political as much as they are moral. Nevertheless, I promise not to talk about social justice, poverty, corruption, and compassion any more than Jesus did.

It was justice day yesterday, I suppose.

Last night about 80 attended a concert here that was the idea of one of our folks, Jennie Young. She had a couple of singer/songwriter friends Dana and Susan Robinson who sang some songs and who raised awareness about mountain top removal strip mining.

Talk about an uphill battle. Taking on coal companies and every weak-kneed, paid for politician in the state can be a tad daunting. But Patricia Hudson does it.

You can’t keep a good woman down.


Pat Hudson is from an organization called L.E.A.F. the Lindquist Environmental Appalachian Fellowship. It is a group of women from Knoxville who think that caring for Earth is a matter of faith. They are on a mission to educate and inspire on behalf of our mountains, streams, and the people of Tennessee and Appalachia. They want faith communities to care.

Mountain Top Removal Mining in which up to 500 feet are blown off the top and dumped in the valleys below in order to get the coal is about the most destructive thing we can imagine to Earth and to Earthlings. It is coming to Tennessee.

Patricia Hudson and her friends at L.E.A.F. are blowing the whistle. They are creating spectacle. They are informing an uninformed public that this is happening under our noses and behind our backs.

I don’t know if the situation is as cynical as the situation with the judge and the widow in Jesus’ parable. I may have been a bit harsh on our politicians. Yet what I take from this parable is that the power for change comes from unexpected places and unexpected people.

People who in the words of Winston Churchill "never, never, never give up."

The judge is not afraid of God.
The judge is no respecter of humanity.
The judge is afraid of this “powerless”, vulnerable widow who makes a spectacle again and again.

Those who have ears let them hear.


Saturday, February 26, 2011

Sacramento Flips!

But that is not all!

Indian Nations and Central Nebraska flipped as well! Let's give these three flippers a big award, shall we?



So far eleven presbyteries have voted this week:

Three FLIPPED from no to YES:

  • Sacramento 80-76
  • Central Nebraska 36-16
  • Indian Nations 45-41
Four held on to their previous YES:
  • East Tennessee 71-63
  • Mackinac 44-30
  • Santa Fe 101-17-1
  • Tres Rios 35-32
Four held on to their previous no:
  • Tampa Bay 91-120
  • Northeast Georgia 75-87 (but with big improvement!)
  • South Dakota 32-49
  • Western Colorado 13-29
None switched from YES to no this week!

The unofficial score according to
MLP is 55-38 in favor of Amendment A!

Where are we so far?

  • The big news: twelve flips from no to YES so far.
  • One flipped the other way.
  • But we only need nine net flips to win.
  • We are in good shape with tough votes to come.
  • We have to hold every yes and work to flip some more nos!

Rally Today!!

Thanks to the Johnson City Press for posting about our rally which will take place in just about an hour on the intersection on North Roan by First Tennessee Bank. Here is the story:
A private citizen not connected with the Johnson City Education Association has organized a demonstration today to show support for teachers and union members in light of pending state legislation educators say will affect their salaries, tenure status and teacher and student performance.

Steve Denton created a page on Facebook in which he called for the demonstration from noon to 2 p.m. today in front of First Tennessee Bank on North Roan Street.

Denton says educators and unions are under attack from corporations and conservative politicians.

“I want to show people in this area there are people here other than Republicans,” Denton said by telephone Friday afternoon. “I’m just a private citizen. JCEA is not involved in this, it’s just a grass-roots movement for people that have taken it on the chin for 30 years.” (Read more)
Join us at noon today. Here are more details on the Facebook page.

Then tonight, join us at FPC Elizabethton for a concert to benefit LEAF and organization working to save Tennessee's mountains from mountain top removal strip mining. Here are those details.

Today is a good day to do some rousin'.

Thursday, February 24, 2011

Teachers Under Attack

UPDATE 2/25: Johnson City teachers will not be able to attend demonstration in Nashville. Story in JC Press.

UPDATE: Join us Saturday from noon to two p.m. on North Roan as we publicly support our teachers.
Details here!

In Wisconsin, Ohio, and now Tennessee, teachers are targeted as scapegoats.


Republican lawmakers in Tennessee have proposed some incredibly backward and mean-spirited legislation that will not only hurt teachers but education in general.

Teachers and those who support public education are going to Nashville Saturday March 5th. Join them at the Bicentennial Mall from noon to three. Wear red. Here is that story.

The Tennessee Education Association is urging all teachers to take part in the march to Legislative Plaza on Saturday, March 5 from 12 p.m. until 3 p.m. They're meeting at the Bicentennial Mall in Downtown Nashville, and asking everyone to wear red.

The TEA said "Several bills have been introduced to the 107th Tennessee General Assembly that attack public school educators and the Tennessee Education Association. It's obvious these bills have nothing to do with ‘education reform' in Tennessee."
Here is the article in yesterday's Johnson City Press.
After 28 Republican-backed bills were proposed in the state Senate this month concerning public education in Tennessee, the educators who make up the Johnson City Education Association said there is more at risk than just collective bargaining.

The elimination of collective bargaining, proposed in one Senate bill, would remove teachers’ rights to negotiate as a group for salary, benefits and working conditions.

A Jan. 26 Johnson City Press article discussed the concern that Johnson City teachers held over the potential loss of collective bargaining.

Four members of the JCEA spoke with the Press Tuesday about further implications of the wave of education legislation.

Among their concerns was a bill that would eliminate the requirement for licensure among teachers, principals and school supervisors. Under the proposed bill, the current requirements of a degree in education and the passing of numerous standardized Praxis tests would no longer be needed in order to teach.

“I don’t think any parent would want their child taught by an unlicensed teacher,” said Jennifer Gaby, UniServ coordinator for the Tennessee Education Association, which includes the JCEA.

Another bill would lengthen the number of years required before a teacher could receive tenure. The JCEA said misconceptions are prevalent concerning the actual meaning of tenure in the Tennessee public school system.

“All it does is provide due process,” said Gaby. “It provides you a hearing if you think you’ve been unfairly dismissed.” Tenured teachers can still be dismissed if they are found by the administration to be inadequate. Tenure allows those teachers to appeal the dismissal if they feel it was not justified.

“That’s the public misconception — that tenure is a lifetime guarantee of a job,” said Joe Crabtree, JCEA president. “I don’t know a single teacher who thinks that. Especially here in Johnson City, every teacher here is frankly working their butt off to make sure that we stay at the top.”

Another frequent misconception, according to Karen Anderson, a JCEA member and secondgrade teacher at Lake Ridge Elementary, is that any group associated with TEA holds the same political leaning as the National Education Association. While TEA is part of the NEA, Anderson said the teachers who make up the TEA have no obligation to support the NEA’s views.

“There isn’t an outside entity called TEA that is telling teachers what to do,” said Anderson. “TEA is teachers. It is the voters, the people who live in the state, who pay taxes who are members. Our president is a math teacher from Sevier County. All the board of directors are teachers, principals or supervisors across the state.”

Two-thirds of Johnson City teachers are members of TEA.

Some legislators have implied a difference between teachers and the TEA, such as State Rep. Jeremy Faison, R-Cosby, who said the TEA had “outrun its usefulness,” then added, “I want teachers to know this (legislation) is a pro-teacher thing.”

“What’s happening is they’re trying to silence the voice of the public school teacher,” said Crabtree.

Misinformation — such as the discrepancies presented in the current proposed legislation — Crabtree said, only supports TEA’s argument that the teachers’ unified voice needs to be preserved in order to present the educator’s side.

“Every time we mention collective bargaining, everyone goes to the money,” said Crabtree. “But it’s about the working conditions, the length of the student day, the length of the teacher day.”

One example of the product of collective bargaining was the inspection and renovation of the Science Hill High School Tech Center.

“We filed a grievance, and that’s what got the technical building worked on,” said Deidre Brown, TEA member and math teacher at Science Hill High School. (Read More)

Prevent Mountain Top Removal in Tennessee (and Enjoy Good Tunes While Doing It!)


Thanks to the Johnson City Press for publicizing the concert we are hosting on Saturday at 7 p.m. Dana and Susan also will be featured on "Studio One" on 89.5 WETS Saturday at from 1 to 2 pm.

Check out some of their songs on their website.



And join us this Saturday night at your mountain-loving, tree-hugging church in the woods!

Here is the article:


ELIZABETHTON — There are few better pairings than a singer/ songwriter and a good cause. It appears Dana and Susan Robinson have found one.

The accomplished neofolk duo from Marshall, N.C., will be performing Saturday night at the First Presbyterian Church, 119 West F St., at a benefit for LEAF to raise awareness about mountaintop removal mining. Showtime is 7 and the suggested donation is $10.

LEAF is the Lindquist Environmental Appalachian Fellowship, a Christian fellowship of Tennesseans who feel their faith leads them to take action to protect the environment.

Coal advocates say MTR is the best, cheapest way to get coal, and that the affected land is reclaimed in positive ways as wilderness or developed for business or community purposes.

But many, including LEAF members, disagree — among them the Southern Environmental Law Center, which released its annual list of the top 10 places in the South that face immediate, potentially irreversible damage in 2011. Mountaintop removal in the Cumberland Plateau above Knoxville is on the list.

While MTR is common in West Virginia and Kentucky, it has seen limited use in Tennessee, and a battle is ongoing on legislation to limit it in our state. Until then, mining continues, including in the Sundquist Wildlife Refuge, and more MRT permit requests are pending.

Dana Robinson, who calls himself “a reluctant activist,” said he was aware of MTR, “but I’ve always been uncomfortable standing on a soap box, so to speak. But I have a lot of songwriter friends in Virginia, West Virginia and Kentucky who’ve been a part of these kinds of benefits, and when the folks in Elizabethton contacted me about doing this concert, I said yes immediately.

“Then I said, ‘I ought to learn more about this,’ so over the last three months I’ve just been studying, and it’s appalling. People need to learn about this stuff.”

Robinson said he and Susan, his wife, have even written a song about the cause.

“These mining projects and coal mining companies operate kind of invisibly, in remote parts of Appalachia, far removed from mainstream awareness,” he said. “They don’t have to be noisy and make their case to go about their business. It’s up to the people like us to get people united and make a noise. Because a large majority of people don’t support mountaintop removal.”

A little background on the Robinsons: Dana was raised in California to the music of the 1960s and ’70s, then settled in New England and drew from the folk singers of that region. Since moving in 1990 to the Asheville area, he’s immersed himself in oldtime and traditional music.

When he and Susan joined together about 10 years ago, “It magnified everything,” he said. “The music possiblities went crazy. Instead of just me doing a performance, we can swap instruments and do harmonies, and it becomes much more spontaneous, too. It gives so much more to the audiences.”

They play guitar, fiddle, banjo and mandolin, incorporating Appalachian, Celtic, folk and even English influences. Dana calls them both “songwriters and traditionalists.”

They’ll also perform Saturday at 1 p.m. on WETS-FM’s “Studio One” live radio show.

For more information, visit www.fpcelizabethton.org   or www. robinsongs.com  , or find the artists on Facebook as Dana and Susan Robinson.

Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Spend Your Weekend With Amendment A

Thousands of Presbyterians will be discussing, debating, and hopefully voting YES on Amendment A this weekend. I have been scouting about places like this, this, and that and have learned the names of the presbyteries who will be voting this weekend.

Here are the ones that voted YES last time and need to vote YES again:

  • East Tennessee
  • Mackinac
  • Santa Fe
  • Tres Rios
And those that voted NO last time and could use a good flip:
  • Central Nebraska
  • Central Washington
  • Flint River
  • Indian Nations
  • Northeast Georgia
  • Sacramento
  • San Fernando
  • South Dakota
  • Tampa Bay
  • Yukon
This will be a challenging weekend. A few of these NOs could definitely flip and so an encouraging phone call would be most helpful!

Check the upper right hand corner of this blog for vote charts and for helpful resources that your friends who will be voting could find useful!

Blessed Be.

Peeps With Opinions!

Three of my FPC Elizabethton members have had letters published in the JC Press within the last couple of days. Pretty good stuff. You ought to read them.

Two letters were published in today's paper:

The first is Judy Garland writing about health care:

U.S. Rep. Phil Roe trips over his principles about federal spending. The Press reported on Jan. 27 that Roe introduced legislation to eliminate the Independent Payment Advisory Board provided for in the Affordable Care Act. How does such an anti-federal-spending politician justify the time and cost to taxpayers of re-repealing any provisions of the already symbolically repealed law? That said, it’s fair to evaluate his concerns.

The point of the IPAB is to force Congress to make the difficult Medicare solvency decisions that, so far, Congress resists. Members will be appointed to six-year terms by Democrat and Republican presidents with Senate approval. Members will include physicians, health care practitioners, consumer representatives, representatives of the elderly and appointed after consultation with minority/majority leaders of both Houses. It addresses cost and health care quality and reports on system-wide issues yearly. When Medicare expenditures exceed a target rate of growth, the board submits to the president and Congress a proposal to deal with no costs.

Congress then has to face the music. Unless it passes legislation to achieve savings at least as great as IPAB’s, proposals become directives for Health and Human Services implementations. The board cannot act unless Congress forfeits.

IPAB cannot ration health care, raise money, raise Medicare premiums, increase cost-sharing (like eligibility. For Roe to say otherwise must indicate desire to spur fearmongering death panel rants again.

To link Medicare Advantage plans with the IPAB shows his heart is with private insurance. Private insurers have been overpaid more than $12 billion yearly by the government, 14 percent more than for traditional Medicare, with no bigger outcomes. The new law aligns payments with costs under traditional Medicare, saving $145 billion over 10 years, adding 12 years to Medicare solvency.

Big insurance doesn’t merit subsidies. Anyone concerned about deficits surely agrees.

JUDY GARLAND
Johnson City
The second is about Evolution from Jeff Wardeska:
In defense of evolution

A recent letter critical of the pastor who celebrates evolution makes a series of claims against macro-evolution and “naturalism,” which I as a scientist (Ph.D.) and Christian feel require a response. His claims are:

• “No fossil transitional species have been found.” In fact, many such species are well-documented. Visit http://tiktaalik.uchicago.edu for a fascinating example.

• “More than 10,000 scientists believe in biblical creation.” The U.S. Bureau of labor Statistics counted over 437,000 U.S. scientists in 2008. So, by his account, approximately 427,000 scientists (98 percent) have not stated a belief in biblical creation. In contrast, nearly 13,000 pastors have signed the clergy letter supporting evolution.

• “Eighty-five percent of all scientists believe in God.” What’s the point of this claim?

• “The probability the information DNA molecule with its 3 billion parts is the result of chance and time is zero.” Darwin said evolution was the result of chance and law over time, not merely chance (read his book). The formation of amino acids, proteins and nucleic acids under simulated prebiotic conditions on earth has been demonstrated in the lab. Stanley Miller’s experiments in the 1950s found these molecules can form through the laws of chemistry.

• “The laws of thermodynamics.” Creationists are just wrong about this. I invite the writer to enroll in my general chemistry class where I explain how the laws of thermodynamics work.

• “Molecular mechanisms, for example vision, are irreducibly complex ,,, and could never evolve.” The evolution of the eye has been thoroughly demonstrated. Google it.

• “The Cambrian Explosion where the basic animal groups appeared suddenly without evidence of evolutionary ancestors.”

Lack of clear-cut evidence is never negative evidence. Again, Google it. Scientific evidence does not support Creationism, but it does overwhelmingly support evolution.

JEFF G. WARDESKA
Johnson City
This one was in yesterday's JC Press about immigration by Jim Bitter:
I opened up the Johnson City Press on Feb. 14 to discover how wrong I have been about life here in Tennessee. Apparently, the economy is not the No. 1 issue. Getting jobs for the unemployed or health care for the uninsured or generating funds to support our quickly faculty-depleted but student-bulging universities aren’t even close to the No. 1 issue facing lawmakers. No, it turns out that we need immigration laws to stop the flood of illegal immigrants pouring over our southern borders from Mexico, just 1,000 miles from Memphis and only 1,400 miles from Johnson City.

Who knew we were being overrun with illegals? Why they must almost be up to, what, 50 percent of the population? No, sorry, I just looked it up. Spanish-speaking people in Tennessee — both legal and illegal — make up about 3 percent of the population, and I am guessing the majority of the Spanish-speaking people here are legal.

Still, there are too many illegals for our focused lawmakers. So they are writing laws to target people who look like they may be Mexican immigrants (Canadians are OK) and they are making businesses verify that their workers are legal. We don’t want illegals here, but if they are, they should get a license to drive and they should pass the test in English. That will show them.

So thanks for straightening me out about what is important. I have stopped worrying about the economy, my job and the means for getting a higher education, which we all need now that times are hard. Just get rid of that half of 1 percent of the population who may have slipped in here illegally. Then, we will all be fine.

JIM BITTER
Johnson City
This one was published a week ago Sunday, that I just remembered from Jennie Young, also about health care:
The health insurance industry tramples with equal disdain Democrats, Republicans, tea partiers, libertarians, independents, all. It’s our common lot. We’re obliged to take it.

Count on industry-wide, non-negotiable yearly rate hikes, higher deductibles and out-of-pocket costs. Count on sick people summarily losing coverage. Each year more fall away as the trend is toward younger, healthier clients. Wage increases disappear in premium increases.

Employers with employee interests at heart have no more bargaining power than individuals.

Then there are the 50-plus million Americans who can’t afford or who just aren’t allowed to participate.

“Lucky” families pay an average of $15,000 a year for the privilege of being at the mercy of a colossal predator, a whopping average 22 percent of income. It’s a cruel trap.

My party, the Democrats, say our free enterprise system actually benefits when predatory, consumer-strangling enterprises find themselves, by law, constrained in the public interest.

That surely should include the profitobsessed health care industry and big banks who gamble away our mortgages and pensions.

It seems to me those on the conservative side would be no less true to entrepreneurial principles if they chose to stand in the way of parasites who could not both continue to gouge us and survive honest competition, like a public option (not dirty words) would be.

My public option, Medicare, frees me from the insecurity of the for-profit system. It’s a good thing, as long ago my profit-draining demographic would have been, in insurance lingo, rescinded.

Representative Roe, another Medicare beneficiary, would sacrifice no abiding principle to use his new chairmanship to unequivocally advocate for those Americans with no hope but their government.

Focusing on abolishing the Affordable Care Act is petty.

(The bullies count on Roe to distract us this way. Maybe’s he’s unaware they don’t respect him either.)

JENNIE YOUNG
Elizabethton
Keep at it, Beloveds!

Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Amendment A Update!

The presbyteries of Detroit and Wabash Valley both voted yes today!

Both increased their YES to no percentage!

Very good work folks!!


Wabash Valley 66-42
Detroit 113-66

More Light has our score 48-34.
The Biblical Reclaimers have Suroeste voting
No making the score 48-35.

The remainder of the presbyteries to vote this week except for Tres Rios all voted NO last time. Tres Rios was close. It will be important to hold Tres Rios and get at least one flip from the remainder. If you know someone in one of these presbyteries, now would be the time to encourage him or her to come to the meeting. One vote makes the difference!

  • Tuesday or Wednesday, Western Colorado
  • Friday, South Dakota (postponed from Monday due to snow) and Tres Rios
  • Friday or Saturday, Yukon
  • Saturday, Tampa Bay

The Boys Just Want More Votes!

I sent a letter to the LayMAN. As the LayMAN has a tendency to "edit" I thought I would post it here too.

My letter is about an article that I found rather amusing by Winfield Casey Jones. Mr. Jones seems to think that the big steeple boys are upset and wrote their manifesto to the denomination because they are under-represented at presbytery. Who would have thought? According to Mr. Jones, the boys are mad because their churches don't get enough votes at presbytery meetings! Mr. Jones writes:

"Is there any wonder the pastors wrote a letter?"

So that is why we are "deathly ill". Go figure.

Dear Editor,

Is Winfield Casey Jones serious? The reason that the big steeple pastors wrote their "deathly ill" letter that accuses the denomination of "creeping universalism" and "biblical drift" is because they are under-represented at presbytery meetings? Is that all you boys want? More votes for your churches at presbytery? Mr. Jones writes: "Is it any wonder the pastors wrote a letter?" Surprisingly, there is a solution to such a conundrum. If the boys don't feel that they have enough votes, they can send a resolution to their presbyteries who in turn can send a resolution to the next General Assembly where it can be considered. If that is really all the boys are worried about, they could make their case. It would be heard. This is how we make change in a constitutional form of government. Although, it isn't as dramatic as calling us all deathly ill and inviting the like-minded to schism. So is that really the issue, fellas? Or is Mr. Jones just blowing smoke?

John Shuck
Elizabethton, Tennessee
I think Mr. Jones may have a point in regards to representation. I am sure there is a way to talk about and possibly even make some changes. But I have a hunch that the boys wouldn't be satisfied with another vote at presbytery. What do you think?

Monday, February 21, 2011

This Blog Post is Not Based on the Bible


I found the following on James McGrath's blog.


Ouch! But if the shoe fits...

James has a fine post, Trusting the Bible Vs. Trusting Human Reason.

He speaks against an argument I find leveled against those of us who advocate for equality for LGBT people in the church. We are accused of relying on "culture" or "human reason" as opposed to the "authority of scripture."

Creationists say the same thing. A church signboard in my community a couple of years ago had written upon it:
Evolution is manmade. Creation is Bible.
One can only marvel.

James points out that no one can even read the Bible without human reasoning. Do check out his post. I find it very good. In fact, I agree with him. It is pretty obvious.

For those who claim that there was some sort of supernatural agency active in the creation of the various biblical texts, it makes absolutely no difference in regards to what one does with the texts. You still have to use reason to read it and to convince another of what you think the text "means".


All of that said, I actually find the accusation that I rely on "human reasoning" to be a compliment. Yes I do, thank you very much. For most of the decisions I need to make in life, I don't use the Bible at all. It would be rather absurd to consult the Bible for advice or knowledge on virtually anything from cars to sex to evolution.

The irony is that those who claim to be "oh so biblical" don't make decisions based on the Bible either. They just say that they do. The only time I really find people using the Bible is when they quote a verse to uphold an opinion they picked up from somewhere else.

The claim that someone's opinion is based on the "authority of scripture" while another's is not appears to me to be little more than disingenuous piety.

I am game for reading the Bible as much as my pious brethren. I preach from it on a fairly regular basis. I have several shelves of books about the Bible (some that I have even read).

But at the end of the day, I refuse to let the Bible be an excuse for not owning up to my own opinion.

Voting on Amendment A This Week!

Here are the presbyteries voting on Amendment A this week.

Please keep the good folks in these presbyteries in mind. If you are an equality-minded person from one of these presbyteries please get to the meeting and get others there too!

If you know someone from one of these presbyteries, shoot them an e-mail, a facebook message, a tweet, a phone call, a smoke signal, or scream loudly out your front door that they need to get to that meeting and get others there too!

We are ahead 46-34...

BUT...

If the remaining presbyteries voted as they did in 2008-09 we would lose by one!

This margin WILL NARROW
as many presbyteries who previously voted NO are yet to vote. There are likely to be some switches from YES to NO. We need even more switches from no to YES and to hold the YESes!

This could come down to one vote in one presbytery.

Don't be the "one" who missed the meeting!

Here is the schedule for this week and it will be tough:

  • Tuesday, Detroit and Wabash Valley
  • Tuesday or Wednesday, Western Colorado
  • Friday, South Dakota (postponed from Monday due to snow) and Tres Rios
  • Friday or Saturday, Yukon

Sunday, February 20, 2011

Creativity and Shrewdness: A Sermon

Creativity and Shrewdness
John Shuck

First Presbyterian Church
Elizabethton, Tennessee
February 20th, 2011

Gospel of Jesus 12:14-26

Jesus used to tell this story to his disciples:

There was this rich man whose manager had been accused of squandering his master’s property. He called him in and said, “What’s this I hear about you? Let’s have an audit of your management, because your job is being terminated.”

Then the manager said to himself, “What am I going to do? My master is firing me. I’m not able to dig ditches and I’m ashamed to beg. I’ve got it! I know what I’ll do so doors will open for me when I’m removed from management.”

So he called in each of his master’s debtors. He said to the first, “How much do you owe my master?

He said, “Five hundred gallons of olive oil.

And he said to him, “Here is your invoice; sit down right now and make it two hundred and fifty.”

Then he said to another, “And how much do you owe?”

He said, “A thousand bushels of wheat.”

He says to him, “Here is your invoice; make it eight hundred.”

The master praised the dishonest manager because he had acted shrewdly.

Robert Funk and the Jesus Seminar, The Gospel of Jesus
(Santa Rosa: Polebridge Press, 1999), p. 59. Luke 16:1-8

This parable has stumped folks for many centuries. It stumped even the author of the Gospel of Luke. There are nearly as many words that were added in an attempt to explain the parable than the parable itself contains.

The parable probably ends after the master’s praise. The first explanation is the following:
“…for the children of this world exhibit better sense in dealing with their own kind than do the children of light.”
Then another explanation was added:
“I tell you, make use of your ill-gotten gain to make friends for yourselves, so that when the bottom falls out they are there to welcome you into the eternal dwelling places.”
Then still another. Notice how the explanations get more far-fetched as they go:
“The one who can be trusted in trivial matters can also be trusted with large amounts; and the one who cheats in trivial matters will also cheat where large amounts are concerned. So if you couldn’t be trusted with ill-gotten gain, who will trust you with real wealth? And if you can’t be trusted with something that belongs to another, who will let you have property of your own?”
Then a well-attested saying of Jesus is attached at random:
“No servant can be a slave to two masters. No doubt that slave will either hate one and love the other, or be devoted to one and disdain the other. You can’t be enslaved to both God and a bank account.”
Finally, Luke attaches this narrative setting:
“The Pharisees, who were money grubbers, heard all this and sneered at him. But he said to them, “You’re the type who justify yourselves to others, but God reads your hearts: what people rank highest is detestable in God’s estimation.”
So at least five morals were added to this parable either by Luke or by a tradition that Luke inherited.

This shows that the parable did not have a moral to begin with or at least not an easily discernible one. These explanations are attempts to soften or to explain away this parable.

Part of the problem in hearing the parables of Jesus is that
  1. we want to put a moral on them and
  2. we tend to think that characters in authority such as kings, judges, and masters are stand-ins for God. That God-figure must then be right and good.
If you remove those two assumptions, you have a parable. You have a story that can be used to start a conversation rather than provide an answer. You have characters that are not necessarily good or bad, but are participants in a story that invites reflection upon life.

I am going to offer a way to hear this parable that is indebted to William Herzog and his book Parables as Subversive Speech: Jesus as Pedagogue of the Oppressed.

Herzog looks at nine of the most challenging parables of Jesus. These include the Unjust Judge, the Talents, the Unmerciful Servant, the Wicked Tenants, and this one. He invites us to look at them through the social situation of the characters in 1st century Palestine.

In this society
  • 1-2 % would make up the ruling class (the master in this parable)
  • Retainers (the steward) would make up 5-7%.
  • Merchants (the ones with whom the steward is dealing) another 5%.
  • Artisans (not in this parable) 3-7%
  • Peasants, the unclean and degraded, and the expendables (who are all the hearers of Jesus’ parables) 80 to 85%.
There is constant conflict within and between these groups. The ruling classes need to keep that balance. They need to keep the peasants at a subsistence level, but not so low that they starve as they are needed to produce the wealth.

Meanwhile, the peasants and expendables have internalized the values of the ruling class. The order is set up by divine right or so it is believed.

The parables of Jesus, according to Herzog, offer a slice of life, a reflection and a critique upon this economic system and the theology that undergirds it. It is for Jesus, “the kingdom of this world.”

Jesus preached the kingdom of God.

This for Jesus appears to be a kingdom of justice and compassion.
It is a kingdom where the poor are blessed.
The outsiders are in.
Peace comes not through victory but through justice.

Throughout the centuries the church “theologized” and “moralized” Jesus’ teachings and parables and turned them into otherworldly tales. The kingdom of God became “heaven” up above and beyond.

Herzog and other commentators who have looked at the social and economic situation of this period and place are showing us that Jesus was speaking about real economic situations—real kingdoms—especially the kingdom of Caesar.

Jesus offered a critique of the kingdom of oppression and dominance as well as encouragement and wisdom for those suffering under its weight. The kingdom of God was an alternative way of imagining life together. He invited his hearers to contemplate a life without oppressive debt, starvation, and brutality.

He did it by telling stories.

He told creative little parables that illuminated, poked fun, inspired, delighted, and empowered.

It is possible that the characters in Jesus’ parables might be a bit roguish. They would use as Herzog calls them, the "weapons of the weak".


In an oppressive situation, those without power resist not in direct ways such as protest and revolt but in everyday forms of resistance. These forms of resistance include pilfering, foot dragging, passive non compliance, or shucking and jiving.

You know where the phrase “shuck and jive” comes from? The best explanation I have heard is this:
"To shuck and jive" originally referred to the intentionally misleading words and actions that African-Americans would employ in order to deceive racist Euro-Americans in power, both during the period of slavery and afterwards. The expression was documented as being in wide usage in the 1920s, but may have originated much earlier.

"Shucking and jiving" was a tactic of both survival and resistance. A slave, for instance, could say eagerly, "Oh, yes, Master," and have no real intention to obey. Or an African-American man could pretend to be working hard at a task he was ordered to do, but might put up this pretense only when under observation. Both would be instances of "doin' the old shuck 'n jive."
The Uncle Remus stories about Brer Fox and Brer Rabbit fall under the category of trickster tales.

Shuck and jive.

They are parables that would have inspired these forms of resistance.

For example, here is a poem by James Weldon Johnson, Brer Rabbit, You’se de Cutes’ of ‘Em All

Once der was a meetin' in de wilderness,

All de critters of creation dey was dar;
Brer Rabbit, Brer 'Possum, Brer Wolf, Brer Fox,
King Lion, Mister Terrapin, Mister B'ar.
De question fu' discussion was, 'Who is de bigges' man?'
Dey 'pinted ole Jedge Owl to decide;
He polished up his spectacles an' put 'em on his nose,
An' to the question slowly he replied:

'Brer Wolf am mighty cunnin',
Brer Fox am mighty sly,
Brer Terrapin an' 'Possum — kinder small;
Brer Lion's mighty vicious,
Brer B'ar he's sorter 'spicious,
Brer Rabbit, you's de cutes' of 'em all.'

Dis caused a great confusion 'mongst de animals,
Ev'y critter claimed dat he had won de prize;
Dey 'sputed an' dey arg'ed, dey growled an' dey roared,
Den putty soon de dus' begin to rise.
Brer Rabbit he jes' stood aside an' urged 'em on to fight.
Brer Lion he mos' tore Brer B'ar in two;
W'en dey was all so tiahd dat dey couldn't catch der bref
Brer Rabbit he jes' grabbed de prize an' flew.

Brer Wolf am mighty cunnin',
Brer Fox am mighty sly,
Brer Terrapin an' Possum — kinder small;
Brer Lion's mighty vicious,
Brer B'ar he's sorter 'spicious,
Brer Rabbit, you's de cutes' of 'em all.

What’s the moral of that story?

Well, there might not be a moral but those with two good ears ought to listen. The Uncle Remus stories and the poetry they inspired were tales of delight and of resistance.

This world is not easy and it is not set up for you to win.
Consider, therefore, Brer Rabbit.
The one who survives in this world is not necessarily the strongest,
...but the cutest.

So what then of our so-called “dishonest” manager?


He might not be dishonest, just cute.

The world of this parable is the world of high finance. It is not the 80% of the world made up of the peasants and expendables. The characters of this story, the ruler, the steward or the retainer, and the merchants are the elite. They can all read and write.

We can imagine Jesus telling a parable about the lives of the rich and famous and how funny they are.

They are all in competition.
None trusts the other.
It is a constant game of balance.
You need to be greedy enough to make a profit but you can’t be too greedy or you will arouse suspicion and get knocked off your pedestal.

The rulers, masters, or landowners extract from the producers (the peasants) the produce. The peasants give up so much to the landowner for rent and keep a small amount for themselves. This is negotiated through the steward. The merchants are another level of bureaucracy. They get the produce to the cities and the markets.

The steward needs to negotiate with them and write contracts on behalf of the owner. These contracts include interest (although you have to be careful with that as in a Jewish setting there are rules about interest—so it has to be hidden). The steward needs to make his own profit off the books.

In this parable, there are no peasants; just the stewards, merchants, and the ruler. There is always gossip, rumors, and one-upmanship going on. It appears that the merchants have been trash talking the steward. Word gets to the ruler that the steward is ripping him off. Who knows if it is true or not?

It doesn’t really matter as none of this is what we would call honest. The reality is that they are all crooks. The merchants are playing power games in attempt to get better negotiating prices. If they can threaten the steward, they might negotiate a better price.

So the steward sees the game.

He needs to keep his job or set himself up to be a retainer for another owner. He isn’t going to become a peasant or expendable. Digging ditches and begging are euphemisms for a death sentence. He needs to find a way to be cute.

So he does.

He goes to the merchants one by one and makes with each a behind the scenes deal. He knocks off the interest, that is, the profit, for the owner. The amounts the steward has them knock off are not just random amounts, but the interest, the profit for the owner.

The merchants sign these new contracts with the owner through the steward. The merchants are happy. They realize they are indebted to the steward. They praise the ruler for the good price.

When the steward shows the owner the books that he has demanded, the owner sees what has happened. The ruler can either accept the praise of the merchants and retain the steward or fire the steward and make him a martyr. That would blacken his reputation.

The owner sees that the steward had been including the interest in the contracts and that he had been making good deals for him and he sees that the steward had been working in the ruler’s interest all along. The ruler praises the steward for his shrewdness because good shrewd stewards are hard to find.

Is there a moral to any of this?

We tend to think there must be.
Jesus told the story so there must be a moral to it.
It must be about "God" somehow.
There must be some huge theological explanation or insight.

Maybe not.

Perhaps it is a slice of life.
It is a story of turning the tables.
As Herzog writes:

“The master who held all the cards lost the hand.” P. 258


The steward who was headed for misery ends up being praised by both the merchants and the ruler.


It is a story of survival.
It is a story of how to keep your cool and how to be creative.

I think Jesus had a practical orientation about him. He didn’t just talk about “spiritual” things. He talked about very practical, earthly things as well. His primary audience consisted of people who did not benefit by the economic system in which they labored.

Jesus’ advice seems to be:
  • The kingdom of this world is not set up for you to win.
  • Don’t take it head on.
  • Discover your creativity.
  • Learn from this rogue.
  • Because at the end of the day...
...he ends up being the cutes’ of them all.

Saturday, February 19, 2011

Sweet Home Alabama!


Who'd a thunk it?

Both the presbyteries of North and South Alabama voted for equality and justice today and approved Amendment A!





Let's give them an award!






Here is the rundown for the day thanks to Covenant Network and More Light Presbyterians.

Those holding on to YES:
Arkansas 120-42
Northern Waters 39-14
Greater Atlanta 262-157-5
New Hope 158-118
John Knox 60-19

Those holding on to No:
Pines 36-44
Palo Duro 35-50
Lake Erie 36-44

Those flipping from no to YES!
North Alabama 36-28
South Alabama 34-33

Those flipping from yes to no:
NONE!

Here is the More Light Vote Chart and the CovNet Chart, and John McCrosky's chart!

The score is now 46-34 with eight net flips. If we retain the remaining yeses and flip one more no to yes, amendment A will pass. We have a lot of work ahead of us! Thanks to all for the work that has been done!


Whoa! Does Every Vote Count!


Super Saturday started off by Arkansas continuing their support for justice by voting for Amendment A, 120-42.

And then?


South Alabama flips!
By one vote.
34-33

I am pleased that that one person decided to show up for that meeting!

The score is now 41-31.

Hoping for more great results throughout the day!

Benefit Concert to END Mountain Top Removal Mining

We are excited to have Dana and Susan Robinson in concert at your favorite mountain loving church. The concert will benefit LEAF in their efforts to end Mountain Top Removal Mining. This is an incredibly destructive mining operation that has destroyed nearly 500 mountain tops in Appalachia.

The concert is Saturday, February 26th at 7 p.m.

Tomorrow, Sunday, during worship at 11:00, Dana and Susan are going to offer a preview by singing a couple tunes during worship!

Here is the info about the concert.

Please spread the word!