Monday, May 30, 2016

Decisions! Decisions! Decisions!

A Florist received multiple orders for bouquets. One order went to a young housewife on her birthday. The other order went to a young mother on the birth of her first child. Somehow the two cards got mixed.
Consequently, the young housewife received an unplanned birthday card that announced, “Congratulations. Hope the baby is doing fine.”

The other card arrived unscheduled at the home of the new mother and her new child. Her unsolicited greeting declared, “Twenty-seven; hope you have many more!”
Life would be far less traumatic if more of life’s mistakes could be viewed as humorously as most will see this story. How often did I as a pastor hear some anguished parent express concern for an adult child that refused to attend church as regularly as that parent would like. Yet, I knew that same parent seldom attended church during that child’s formative years, if ever.

The unfortunate truth is we reap as we sow. I have now lived long enough to understand that life permits us to choose to travel through life on a various levels of highways.

For the more discerning, there is a high road to be gained with some effort. There is also a low road for those who want to drift along, or who do not wish to choose something that requires choosing to become something beyond the norm.
Natural consequences follow each and every choice we make, or refuse to make. Moreover, God never forces us to choose one road over another. He may nudge us along by allowing some circumstance to encourage us this way or that, but when we make our choice, he allows us that freedom--even when it breaks his heart. The poet expressed it anonymously:
               But to every man there openeth

                              A High Way and a low,

               And every way decideth

                              The Way his soul shall go.
People and circumstances will heavily influence our lives, but when all is said and done, we make the final decision as to what we will do with our circumstances. In effect, our lives are just about what we want them to be. However; after we have decisionally determined what we will do with our lives, we also have the privilege of reaping the results of our choices:

               For those who seek the answer     

                              In houses, lands, and rings,            

               Will someday find that empty things          

                              Are just as empty filled with things.

Mistakes are the trademark of humanity and we each make our share of them. Nonetheless, those daily decisions we make provide the seed that produce tomorrow’s harvest. This is asking “What kind of crop are you planting for harvest?”

Sunday, May 29, 2016

A Thinking Man's Choice

Audrey Kushline believed in moderation. Abstinence from alcohol was not only impractical but unnecessary and absurd! In 1993 she thoughtfully organized Moderation Management to provide an alternative to Alcoholics Anonymous. Fourteen local chapters eventually organized.

Through attending Moderation Management (MM) sessions, problem drinkers were taught to reduce their drinking rather than totally abstain, as recommended by AA. Moderation Management recommended no more than nine drinks per week for women and fewer than fourteen for men. They insisted drinking was a learned behavior rather than a disease … until Mrs. Kushline found herself facing the Judge in an Ellensburg, Washington court room.

She faced two counts of vehicular homicide that resulted when a young father and his twelve-year-old daughter died as a result of her moderation. Her charges followed a head-on collision with a second vehicle, while driving the wrong way on Interstate I90.  At the time of her accident, Audrey’s BAC (blood alcohol level) was three times the legal limit.

Weeping while making her courtroom appearance, Audrey pleaded guilty to driving while intoxicated and causing a wreck that killed two people. Following that unhappy experience, Mrs. Kushline disavowed the Movement she had organized. She resigned as the spokesperson and candidly admitted, “MM. . .is nothing but alcoholics covering up their problems.”

As a result of incidents like this, new voices now publicly promote abstinence from alcohol. The Smithers Addiction Treatment and Research Center of New York became one more of the pro-abstinence voices when they issued a public statement reaffirming an earlier commitment they had made to abstinence as the only viable treatment for an alcoholic.

Thinking people do understand that sober people generally think before they act. Bill’s clouded mind, however, no longer comprehends this fine line of thinking. His claim of “moderation” enables him (in his own mind) to deny what everyone else knows is “his problem.” It reveals to both his friends and his family his inability to think clearly; thus, betraying his insistent claim and his flawed condition.

Life offers many experiences that allow us to freely indulge ourselves without harming ourselves. Some other activities call for moderation. There are also those things that are best left alone--except at great risk. We can freely indulge in alcohol only at great personal risk to our health and to our relationships. Phengsene learned his lesson the hard way. The forty-four year-old Laotian emigrant to Minneapolis made the mistake of drinking and driving.

Margaret Zack, Staff Writer for the Minneapolis Star Tribune, sadly reported Phengsene drove his vehicle the wrong way of the southbound lane of Highway l00 in nearby St. Louis Park. His vehicle struck a second vehicle driven by Kevin Garnett. The impact killed Garnett‘s companion--Malik Sealey, then a guard on the  Minnesota Timberwolves basketball team.

The County Attorney argued that Phengsene made the decision to get in the car and drive the wrong way. The Judge, following state guidelines, sentenced Phengsene to four years in prison. His sentence received the same time given to Lynda Jackson a few months earlier, after she drove the wrong way on the Mendota Bridge and killed Lynda Frein. In addition, Phengsene faced the terrifying possibility of being deported back to Laos.

Whether or not one agrees with abstinence as the right response, one thing is certain: alcohol is a depressant. That means it reduces one’s inhibitions with the very first drink and after that there is no definable point at which a person becomes legally unaccountable for behavior (emphasis added). In other words, that first drink reduces one’s decision-making ability. It greatly reduces one’s ability to say “no!” to that second or third drink. And since alcohol has no definable line by which impairment can be judged, abstinence automatically becomes the one and only logical choice, simply because one loses more controllability with each drink taken.

In September 2002 Michigan’s 91st Legislature consequently eliminated the so-called voluntary intoxication defense by passing House Bill 5398. In the meantime, ten other states have also taken action to clear some of this legal fog, thereby effectively slamming the door shut on “too drunk” as a legal defense.

Simply stated, moderation management, or moderate indulgence in alcoholic beverages, does not work. It effectively puts too many roadblocks into place and seriously threatens personal health, family relationships, and public safety. Abstinence is not the only choice I have, but it becomes my “thinking man’s choice.”

From walkingwithwarner,
It is my choice, but abstinence remains my only safe choice. It remains my most cost effective choice, and the most ethical choice - thus,my only responsible choice!


Saturday, May 28, 2016

Profitable Punishment or People and Preventive Rehabillitation--One Man's Journey

Head over heels in my last two decades of ministry, I simply had no time to give--until I met Jim! Hearing Jim’s concepts convicted me! I became a volunteer Case Worker with juveniles in this new Victim and Offender Reconciliation Program, (VORP) and was soon negotiating consensual agreements between first-time offenders and their victims.

I soon found resolving issues of restitution taxing but satisfying. I was making a difference preventing more serious legal confrontations, reducing the resulting socio-economic costs for all concerned, and helping potentially problem individuals become productive individuals.

This outside-the-box effort of going beyond the norm quickly became several of my final years of pastoral ministry invested as a volunteer in court-mandated efforts that were making a significant difference in people’s lives, and especially young first time offenders.

When a new State-directed Youth Program instituted a new Work Release Program and changed our penal code, they created a new level of for-pay State jobs supervising in-house inmates and assimilating the administrative essentials of our victim and offender program.

I continued to pursue my church ministry. I was, however, increasingly troubled by a revamped Juvenile Justice System that appeared to value profit more than people. The State Department of Corrections (DOC) continued its court-mandated efforts with young, first-time offenders, but without the frequent and effective reconciliation resulting between offenders and victims as happened with Vorp.

No longer seeking to bring about some kind of resolution via restitution, new State efforts lacked any opportunity for forgiveness and neither offered nor achieved any of the essential moral-ethical character-building qualities affirmed by VORP. Local rehabilitation efforts consequently deviated and redefined downward.

In the meantime, national efforts redefined America’s Drug War as “the major problem” and reinforced “get tough” policing! Punishing bad behavior sounded good and showed social accountability; it seemed. Yet as I watched crime prevention become a secondary issue, new questions abounded.      

The new public focus on “making criminals pay for their crimes.”1 sounded good until I discovered social scientists responding to some of my questions. Hosea Anderson described “the hopelessness and alienation” felt by young inner-city black men “largely as a result of endemic joblessness and persistent racism.” He argued that it fueled “the violence they engage in” and further confirmed “the negative feelings many whites and some middle-class blacks harbor toward the ghetto poor.”

Anderson insisted it legitimated the code of the street “in the eyes of many young blacks.” He concluded “attitudes on both sides will become increasingly entrenched, and the violence which claims victims black and white, poor and affluent, will only increase”2 and  further expose “the depth of racial bias in the system.”

Anderson’s writings only added to my personal experiences of visiting deep inside the cavernous depths behind electronic gates, in maximum-security facilities like Joliet where residents did “hard time.” I knew the difficulty of working with prisoners. I understood some Correctional Professionals were helpful while others remained quite calloused.

My visits included converted murderers and multiple offenders. I had “my experiences” of being “conned” by brutal sex offenders and of befriending former pastoral-peers. I corresponded with parishioner-related inmates. I understood that prison served a useful purpose for some. On the other hand, I found it of little value to others; and, at times I felt the isolation some churches communicated to prisoners.

I knew inmates who had become solid “Christians” for whom further punishment held no redemptive value. I observed God’s transforming grace in prisoner’s lives first hand. I also felt the deep disappointment of seeing prisoners executed in spite of compelling evidence to the contrary, their pleas for commutation rejected. Prisoners like Karla Faye Tucker brought tidal-waves of public opinion from politicians and citizens alike, much of which seemed more vindictive to me than helpful.

I listened to politicians promise tougher sentencing guidelines with expanded prisoner spaces, who also voted to reduce preventive-rehabilitation funds. I watched fear, ignorance, and pressure overwhelm the public and ignore a loving God that best reveals the Christian faith.

Jesus transformed the cross into a purposeful symbol for defining faith. He defended the vertical relationship that loves God above all else and makes it a priority. He emphasized the horizontal relationships of loving our neighbors as ourselves as the other side of this two-sided Gospel coin. Giving as example, Jesus used the Good Samaritan to express the ideal expression of this horizontal relationship (Luke 10:27). Consequently, I conclude that we must focus on prevention more than punishment if we correct our badly flawed criminal justice system.

Faith supports victim’s rights while demanding that we balance punishment without surrendering to “hate hysteria”. Economic stewardship and sound gospel each call for better balance between cultural trash bins called prisons and preventive programs that uplift people.

A Michigan Department of Management and Budget spokesman praised a nearby city for being five-hundred jobs richer because they offered “good paying jobs” at a local prison facility. He acknowledged a proposal to add 2,500 new beds and concluded, “That’s good for the state and for the taxpayers” (emphasis added). Simultaneously, a local reporter described abused prisoners in a privatized jail that prompted officials in still another state to stop renting beds from the first state.

Making programs pay for themselves is neither new nor unreasonable, but it challenges the theoretical purpose of the justice system!  We must decide whether our primary goal is to punish people and make money, or to rehabilitate people and build society.

Many tax payers appear more interested in profit than in people, but how does that fulfill our social obligation? With State Corrections spending “$130 million a year employing 2,500 people in one system alone, and adding another $20 million in payroll when the next new multi-security prison opens,” where will it end? 

Whatever one’s belief, behavior best tells the story. An alert editor consequently warned local readers, “We’d like to see the public’s money put to more constructive use, by shaping people’s lives for the better, and providing the same positive choices for everyone.”

I pray “God bless that editor!” Author Jerome Miller documented a criminal justice system that alienates and socially destabilizes our society. Demands for arrest, jail, conviction, and imprisonment, frequently create more problems than they solve. Theoretically, everyone believes in personal accountability, but that suggests the public must become as accountable for the economy of human lives as for the criminals it catches and condemns.

The 1980’s “get tough” politics increased federal, state and local expenditures for police 416%, for courts 585%, for prosecution and legal services 1,019%, for legal defense, 1,255%, and for Corrections a whopping 990%. It punished more while preventing less.4  And contrary to many of my white peers, 76% of illicit drug users came from the white majority, and only 14% from the Black Community, with 8% from the Hispanic Community. Most incarcerated inmates were admittedly from poor and minority communities.
The public sector railed thoughtlessly against jobless minorities, lazy drug-abusing criminals, and the abuse of sex for creating babies with the help of tax dollars. Most agreed the Welfare System needed reforming, but contrary to fact, public awareness perceived most welfare clients as minority or poor rather than white. Welfare has now been constructively reformed, but little else has changed.

The Criminal Justice System still focuses on criminalizing what it cannot control by building more prisons. It punishes people more than it rehabilitates. It clones criminals, and graduates some with magna cum laude skills in crime, as recidivism shuttles inmates in and out of the revolving doors of prison. This maintains a system that protects itself but mostly fails to assist inmates in building new and better lives.

So … “When do we quit criminalizing what we cannot control?” When do we reform our ineffective prison system? When will we do as much prevention as we do punishment? When will we value inmate education as much as inmate-incarceration? When will we show as much concern for people as we do for profitable punishment?
Restore the Family Bible 

Our current focus on punishment recalls that old Frank and Earnest cartoon in which Frank concludes, “Not only is Ernie going nowhere fast, but he knows a shortcut.” Our short cut to profitable punishment takes us nowhere—in a hurry. In addition, it adds to the cost of more incarcerations; and that is not only poor economics but a worthless gospel!

Balancing people and prevention with punishment and profit calls for a change of heart. A change of heart would invigorate the church and help to restore established family values and a new public trust.
               1 Jerome G. Miller, Search and Destroy. (Cambridge/N.Y.: Cambridge Press, 1996), p. 81. 
               2 Miller, p. 97. 
               3 Karen Motley, Battle Creek, MI. “Enquirer News,” 2-10-98). 
               4 Miller, p. 2.

Tuesday, May 24, 2016

God's Willing Worker

The world honors William Wilberforce (1759-1833) for his exemplary public service. Becoming God’s willing worker for humanitarian social reform came as an act of faith for William Wilberforce rather than as an accident of birth. It followed his personal encounter with faith after this twenty-five-year-old Member of Parliament realized the wisdom of abandoning what he called his heretofore dissolute and wasteful lifestyle.
Biographer William Hague describes the classic conversion Wilberforce experienced during the autumn of 1785.1 Hague finds it impossible to discern what other subconscious forces pushed Wilberforce into the agonies of his conversion experience that November. But he wonders if Wilberforce, after becoming a Member of Parliament representing the Yorkshire district, found the “excesses of the London club land he inhabited, with its gambling, womanizing, gluttony and restitution” revolting and dissatisfying.

Achieving membership in Parliament, and enjoying all the wealth he needed, failed to produce the satisfaction for which Wilberforce searched. Hague suggests that by November 1785 the peculiar mixture of influences Wilberforce experienced, namely the guidance he received from the writings of Doddridge, and the rational force of his friend Milner’s arguments, compounded by his boyhood receptiveness to religion “produced … a true conversion crisis.” 2

Wilberforce later described to his friend his emergence as an Evangelical convert as “like wakening from a dream and recovering the use of my reason after a delirium.” Although his wealthy Anglican family discouraged his evangelical and Methodist non-conformist leanings, walking with Christ became a lifetime journey for William. Dissatisfied with institutional religion as he knew it, his newly-found faith led him into the company of other transformed individuals also interested in giving active public expression to their personal faith.

Initially, he questioned whether or not he should leave public service. William Pitt, his close friend and future British Prime Minister, encouraged Wilberforce to allow his Christian life to produce action rather than mere meditation. William Wilberforce consequently sought the wisdom of John Newton, the former slaver that young William had idolized after meeting him when but a boy.

Newton encouraged Wilberforce to avoid becoming cut off from his friends. “It was Newton,” concludes Hague, “who not only calmed and soothed him but, from that time and for a good decade afterwards, fortified him in combining his religious beliefs with a continued political career” 3
William Wilberforce consequently became the point-man in a non-conformist platoon sometimes referred to as the Clapham Sect. These young evangelicals [born-again believers] came mostly from privileged Anglican families. They married and neighbored together in the Clapham area south of London. Lampooned as “Clapham Saints,” they became the nineteenth century social reformers (active c. 1790 – 1830).

Historian Stephen Tomkins describes them as "a network of friends and families … powerfully bound together by their shared moral and spiritual values, by their religious mission and social activism, by their love for each other, and by marriage." 4

His new associations fired his passion for further independent reform. Before long young Wilberforce, also being a man of privilege launched his own personal effort to improve working conditions for British factory workers. As the scion of a wealthy Hull merchant, he enjoyed the privilege of entering Cambridge at seventeen. At the university, he met another student named William--William Pitt, the younger.

These two young men became life-long friends and Pitt, the Younger, eventually became Prime Minister of Britain. Having no interest in his family business, Wilberforce joined parliament in 1780. The twenty-one year-old university student represented Hull while completing his studies. Later, he represented Yorkshire.

Wilberforce’s Clapham Sect friends added enormous influence into his life as a young Christian, with a social conscience. Thomas Clarkson was the son of an Anglican clergyman. Granville Sharp and Josiah Wedgwood were strong abolitionists. They were ably assisted by other Clapham associates and together this close-knit body of believers campaigned hard against British slave trade. Forming the “Committee for the Abolition of the Slave Trade,” they opposed allowing British ships to transport captured slaves from Africa to the West Indies (Official Medallion pictured right).

Slaves, being commercial property, endured the worst of shipping conditions. They were sold in the West Indies, and elsewhere, with all the other products of growing commercialization. Such influences prompted Wilberforce to pursue with quiet vigor the abolishment of slavery throughout the Empire and today the world honors him for his significant part in turning this page of human history.

Wilberforce assisted those of us who follow him by first turning a corner himself, and by then reestablishing a new direction while devoting his life to public service. Once he agreed to lobby against the slave trade, he continued to bring consistent anti-slavery legislation before parliament annually, vigorously  supported by his Clapham Sect friends.

With other abolitionists assisting, he and his Clapham friends raised public awareness by writing pamphlets and books, signing petitions, and participating in rallies. Wilberforce remained a faithful and willing worker; petitioning Parliament patiently but regularly with his anti-slavery legislation for eighteen long years.

By 1807, a sufficient number in Parliament supported Wilberforce that the British Government mandated abolishment of the trading of slaves. In 1833, Parliament enacted further legislation freeing all slaves found under the British flag. By this time, Wilberforce had become Britain’s retired Elder Statesman, and it was with a tear-streaked face that the elderly abolitionist listened quietly as friends read him the exciting news stating that Parliament had finally passed the anti-slavery legislation.

Wilberforce died shortly thereafter, after investing his life in causes that he deeply believed renewed society. In 1802, he helped organize the Society for the Suppression of Vice. He cooperated with holiness reformer Hannah More in the Association for the Better Observance of Sunday, also a member of the Clapham Community. He associated closely with the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals. Throughout his long public career, William Wilberforce encouraged Christian missionaries to serve in India.

His 1825 retirement from public political life was followed by his death on July 29, 1833, very shortly after Britain’s House of Commons freed all slaves under the British flag.

William Wilberforce left a shining example of faith and piety for all to follow. He modeled a role for Christians of all times, especially those willing to invest time and talents in sharing God with others. Wilberforce honored others with the same acceptance he sought for himself, and the world has not forgotten. Tourists still visit Wilberforce’s burial plot in Westminster Abbey where his remains lay adjacent to his life-long friend, William Pitt:

            ... In an age and country fertile in great and good men,
            He was among the foremost of those who fixed the character of their times
            Because to high and various talents
            To warm benevolence, and to universal candour,
            He added the abiding eloquence of a Christian life … 5
            1 William Hague, William Wilberforce, The Life of the Great Anti-Slave Campaigner. (Orlando: Harcourt, Inc., 2007), p. 78.
            2 Hague, p. 82.           
            3 Hague, p. 88.
            4 Tomkins, Stephen The Clapham Sect: How Wilberforce’s circle changed Britain (Oxford: Lion, 2010), p1.
            5 Eric Metaxas. Amazing Grace, William Wilberforce and the Heroic Campaign to End Slavery. (San Francisco: HarperCollins, 2007), p. 278, lines from “To the Memory of William Wilberforce”

_____    I am

Sunday, May 22, 2016

Father Forgive Them...

Three days before Senator Hubert Humphrey’s death. He received a visit from the founder of the Rainbow Coalition, Jesse Jackson. As the two men visited, the distinguished and ever-popular Minnesota Senator confided to his guest: “At such a time like this, you are forced to grapple with that which is really important. And what I have concluded about life is that when all is said and done, we must forgive each other, redeem each other, and move on.”
Following the former Vice President’s death, I joined a vast audience of American citizens and global community of admirers in watching our national leaders memorialize Senator Hubert Humphrey. Many who saw that service, watched quite unaware of the visit that had taken place between these two men a short time before.

Many observers filled with wonder as they questioned why Humphrey’s former political adversary, Richard Nixon, had occupied the special place of honor and was seated beside Muriel, Humphrey’s widow. Here were two successful men of high political standing, but each man approached his political problem-solving quite differently; each from a vastly different direction, and with very different results.

In spite of their conflicting socio-political differences, Mr. Humphrey had prearranged for Mr. Nixon to fill the special seat of honor next to Muriel Humphrey, his widow. When all was said and done, Hubert H. Humphrey desired more than anything else that people understand that he forgave his former political foe.

It was on his own cross that Jesus prayed “Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they do” (Luke 23:34, RSV). The timing of this unique statement makes the words of Jesus among the most important words he ever uttered. Forgiving others holds a very high priority on the teaching agenda left to us through the life and ministry of Jesus.

It is a well-known truth that we live in a very imperfect world. This is primarily true because our world is filled with such imperfect people. As a common consequence of our imperfections, we frequently find ourselves in fractured and hostile relationships that remain badly in need of repair, and some even result in destructive wars.

Broken relationships can become genocidal wars pitting nation against nation, involving whole regions, and at times our whole global community. We live in a broken world that regularly needs mending. Friends, families, and even nations need often reconciliation and restoration of relationships. Whenever such occasions arise, forgiveness becomes a uniquely rare and special gift that not everyone can give. Participants may be a friends or enemies (Matthew 6:12) and may include family members, whole communities, and whole races of people. Such experiences can be potentially life changing, socially and spiritually transforming, as well as peace producing.

When someone experiences the cross of Christ as an experienced reality, their relationship with God becomes something of a musical keyboard in which God serves as the Master Conductor of the Symphony being played out in the life of a particular person, family, or community. As his sensitive fingers sweep across the keyboard of people’s lives, his fingertips skillfully transform the cacophony of sounds that people experience and transforms them into a symphony of peace and joy.

The Master’s touch lifts us upward toward a new level of spontaneity and vibrant living in what might otherwise be a joyless world. This Ode to Joy created by The Master’s skills lifts our discipleship journey ever upward. His Presence reveals new levels of discernment and discovery and identifies healthy and wholesome relationships in what might otherwise remain a fatally fractured global community.

Howard Loewen describes this new discipleship as “a particular, authentic representation of God’s people.”  Beginning with individual people, whole nations can be transformed.  Without this experience of forgiveness, which we all need at some time or other, few of us individually or nationally have any hope of ever recovering the common humanity we share under our Creator.

Without this representation of God’s people, we remain a global community filled with endless wars and rumors of war, forever in search of peace

... I am