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February 2005

Birthday Weekend

The Birthday weekend was GREAT!!!! I had a most excellent time in OKC. Friday night 19 folk came to my birthday dinner. All my family and most of my OKC area friends. And it was great hanging out with John afterwards. Last night I had a great birthday party, with the last folk leaving around 3 a.m. Church was even a ton of fun yesterday, it being our annual Paws in the Pews when we do a blessing and commissioning of guide dogs as they leave their raisers and go to their owners for training. I was sung to a lot yesterday, and got lots of cards and silly gifts. We went for lunch to Babe's and didn't get done till around 3 p.m. It was chicken fried steak and all the fixin's served family style. We all overate. The Loretta Lynn concert for Saturday night got cancelled, so that was the only real blemish on the weekend.

This was probably the best birthday weekend in a really, really, really long time.

Off to Mom's

In about an hour or so I'll head off for Oklahoma City to stay at Mom's for a couple of days and celebrate my birthday weekend with family and friends. 21 folks are coming to my birthday dinner Friday night! I'm so excited about the weekend that this morning I awakened to discover six zits! I occassionally get one, but i haven't had this many since my early twenties. Oh well.

It's 2005, Time to Be on the Side of Right

Something made me mad this week. One of my youth told me about something his world history teacher said. He's a student at a public school in Dallas. They were discussing the French Revolution when the teacher decided to give her religious opinion on homosexuality. Why I'm not sure. But her opinion was that Europe had less homosexuals because of the Catholic church's influence and that America wasn't really a "Christian nation" because there are too many gay people. Something to that effect. Let's forego her clear ignorance of demographics, social/political policies, and the state of Christianity in Europe as opposed to North America (in fact, look at this GREAT news about the Royal Navy actively recruiting more gay members with policies like allowing gay partners to live in married housing on bases).

Besides her sheer ignorance, I was angry on a few levels. First off, as a public school teacher she should leave such religious positions to herself, or at least make every effort to distinguish between when she is giving an opinion of her own and when she is acting in her role as educator (my youth said she presented the material in the context of the lecture). It is also a good general rule that if you share a view with the Nazis, you probably should keep such a view to yourself (since they attempted to rid Europe of homosexuals along with Jews, gypsies, and members of the Confessing Church). But I was most angry that she would say such a thing to teenagers when the suicide rates among gay teens are so incredibly high. I don't expect our student's safety to be compromised by their teachers. How dare she. I wanted to confront her or at least write letters to the school complaining, but my youth asked me not to.

Folks, it is 2005. Everything that needs to be said about homosexuality has been said. Everything that needs to be written has been written. If a person hasn't taken the time to educate herself, then her ignorance is now moral culpability. You can somewhat excuse someone for still coming to terms with Civil Rights in 1955; but by 1965 if they weren't clearly on the side of right, then they are judged to have been on the side of wrong. 1995 is like 1955 when it comes to gay rights and 2005 is like 1965. Either you are on the side of right or you are on the side of wrong. I think it is basically that cut and dried now.

In fact, I don't even think being tolerant, open, or affirming, is enough. If you can't bless and celebrate that homosexuals are of intrinsic value and contribute something of worth to culture, society, the church, etc., then you are on the side of wrong.

Now, in my pastoral role I still work at bringing people along and educating them. But this is my personal opinion.

Presidents' Day

It is "First Shorts Day" (meaning the day I first wear shorts every spring. There is the corresponding First Sweater Day in the fall. I always love both days.). It is absolutely gorgeous outside. And I don't plan on sitting at this desk all day. I've got lots of youth out of school, so I'm going to go hang out with them and enjoy this sunshine.

Today I was thinking about it being Presidents' Day and all my friends who would be off work or youth out of school. I was wondering whether I should go shopping or avoid shopping because of crowds. Yet the whole time I was doing this I was putting my mail out and preparing checks to cash at the bank. What an idiot!

My weekend generally ranged from bad to boring. That's one reason I want to have some fun today. I had planned this weekend to be the kickoff to my week-long birthday celebration. It didn't quite go according to plan. But I am VERY excited about my week ahead. I'm going to OKC to spend time with friends and family. I haven't spent my birthday with my family or OK friends in four years, I don't think. And I'm trying something new. I'm having a birthday dinner on Friday night to which my family and friends are all invited together. I've never done that before. My Fville friend Ellen Edwards had a family and group of friends that all knew each other. Even her out-of-town aunts knew details of her friends lives and where they lived (because they partied together). I think I'm mixing the two worlds because I finally feel fully comfortable doing so. Oklahoma lately has come to represent freedom and my authentic self. No pretense when I'm there. No ministerial role-playing. Just me. I'm REALLY looking forward to the evening. Currently there are 22 people planning coming to dinner!!!!!!

On another note. Check out this series of small opinion pieces in the NY Times. They asked a variety of Europeans to give their views on what Bush should do wihile in Europe this week. Some of what is written will surprise you.

Also look at this article from The Christian Century. It is by John Dart and is entitled "Up Against Caesar." It surveys recent work in NT scholarship that discusses the very political, anti-emperial aims of both Jesus and Paul. Quite interesting.

And this from Fred Craddock's Lenten meditation for today, "This walk to Jerusalem is becoming more like a climb. But the hills do give me better perspective."

Wallis' Fourth Option

Jim Wallis writes that there are currently three options in American politics. The range of conservatives who are "conservative" on fiscal and social issues. The range of liberals who are "liberal" on fiscal and social issues. And what he calls "libertarian" (I hesitate to use this name so broadly and reserve it for the very detailed position in political theory that uses this name) for those who are "conservative" on fiscal issues and "liberal" on social issues. There needs to be a fourth option, he writes:

I believe there is a "fourth option" for American politics, which follows from the prophetic religious tradition we have described. It is traditional or conservative on issues of family values, sexual integrity and personal responsibility, while being very progressive, populist, or even radical on issues like poverty and racial justice. It affirms good stewardship of the earth and its resources, supports gender equality, and is more internationally minded than nationalist -- looking first to peacemaking and conflict resolution when it comes to foreign policy quesitons. The people it appeals to (many religious, but others not) are very strong on issues like marriage, raising kids, and individual ethics, but without being right-wing, reactionary, or mean-spirited or scapegoating against any group of people, such as homosexuals. They can be pro-life, pro-family, and pro-feminist, all at the same time. They think issues of "moral character" are very important, both in a politician's personal life and in his or her policy choices. Yet they are decidely pro-poor, for radical reconciliation, critical of purely military solutions, and defenders of the environment.

The Delta

In April 2002 I drove into the Arkansas Delta region for a preview trip to the site where we would take our mission trip that summer. The preview trip changed my life.

Before that trip race relations and poverty were issues that only occasionally intersected my life; they didn't have a regular presence. Sure I had the right views on both issues, but I hadn't been actively involved in the issues nor had the issues changed my mindset.

I arrived in Helena, AR early that morning. Helena is in Phillips County; one of the twenty poorest in the country. My meeting wasn't until 10, but I wanted to get to the town early and drive around some and get some sense of it. Helena sits a little more than an hour south of I-40. So the new education began as I drove down the country roads and through the small towns and cotton fields. I was listening to Mary J. Blige's No More Drama, which really seemed to speak to me a lot during that drive, even more than it had before.

As I came into Helena there were a bunch of things I noticed. It was local election season and all the faces on campaign signs were white. I knew that a supermajority of the population was black. There were lots of empty buildings and dramatically run down buildings. But then there were also lovely, grand homes. There were clearly sections of town of the haves and have nots, though the entire town looked depressed. The main street, Cherry Street, looked like it was still 1960 -- charming, but clearly behind-the-times. I got out and walked along the street, finally going into Bunny's cafe.

I ordered grits and coffee. These were the best grits I'd ever had and one of the best cups of coffee. This was a small business begun by an African-American woman -- a positive sign of entrepeneurism in this community. I was chatting with the people and met Will (I can't for the life of me remember his last name while I'm writing this). He had grown up in Helena and moved away after integration to seek college and a career elsewhere. Later in life he realized that so many had left the native communities that those communities were suffering, so he had returned to Helena and created an organization to work with teenagers. He described all of his work and the culture and needs of the city. He told me something I had never realized before. He said that prior to integration that there had been a thriving black community with a strong middle class that owned and ran businesses that catered to the African-American community. He said that after integration all the black businesses had gone out of business as everyone shopped in the traditionally white stores. He said that though integration was a positive thing, it had had serious negative economic consequences. It had also destroyed a culture and community that in many ways no longer existed. He said that when he was growing up, he had role models and activities and that there had been less of that in recent decades as folk had left the area and the old pre-integration structures of the black community had disappeared. He had come home to try to help get some of that back for the kids and teens of the city. It was an amazing, revelatory conversation to have with a complete stranger.

I then went to Walnut Street Works for my meeting with the Rev. Dr. Mary Olson, Ms. Naomi Cottoms, and a representative from CBF of Arkansas. When CBFA decided to begin working in Phillips County, they found Walnut Street Works, a local agency, to work with. Mary Olson is a white, Methodist minister. Naomi Cottoms is an African-American educator who grew up in Helena and had moved away. Mary and Naomi moved to Helena together to begin Walnut Street Works to address racial and poverty issues, particularly housing, health care, deliberative democracy, and small business economic development. I was meeting with them to discuss our trip and what we would be doing. You could tell that there was some distrust of me. I came from Fayetteville. NW Arkansas is the rich part of the state. It gets lots of public works. It is growing and thriving. And it is predominately white. There is a distrust of NW Arkansas in the Delta.

But quickly I connected with Mary and Naomi, and we became good friends. You know how when you meet someone and you immediately recognize a kindred spirit. We talked not only about our mission trip and the specifics of the plans, but we discussed history and culture and race relations and politics and economics. They drove me around the town and told me about it.

Mark Twain said that Helena was the most beautiful spot on the Mississippi. Mid-twentieth century it had been a thriving town of 40,000. Now its population was less than 8,000. Whole neighborhoods and city blocks were empty and in decline. They showed me a housing area where people lived in something I wouldn't keep animals in. And this neighborhood didn't have running water. The residents had to go get water from a central spigot and carry it back to their homes. IN 2002 IN THE RICHEST COUNTRY IN THE HISTORY OF THE WORLD?!?! They showed me the worst poverty that I'd ever seen.

That one trip changed me. Within the next few months my ministry changed. I preached a sermon on race relations and how our part of the state needed to work to help the Delta and that we owed because we were white and had an inherited guilt. I brought Naomi and Mary to Fayetteville to talk to the Ministerial Association, out of which they formed relationships with various other churches and ministers. I got the person from the University of Arkansas in charge of working on economic development in touch with them to see what the University could do to help. And everywhere I went I spoke passionately about poverty and race and our forthcoming mission trip.

I ended up taking two mission trips to Helena, one with Royal Lane. This community is deeply embedded in my psyche, though I've only been there three times. I continue to care and keep up through Mary with various needs.

But the important thing is that it changed me. This one trip. It made me more politically active as a minister. It made me realize that my ministerial concerns included economic development, race relations, the role of minorities in politics, etc., etc. And my overall worldview began to change. I began to see things from the side of those left out and to understand their positions better. If I end up a full-blown Leftist, it will be because of that one trip that changed me.

A Test Case: Capital Punishment

I want to demonstrate something of the change in my thinking over time. Not only what I think, but how I think about it.

In My Youth
I supported the death penalty. However, I always felt it needed to be highly regulated with LOTS of appeals in the process. This was because I was committed to one of the core tenets of common law expressed in the famous quote from Blackstone, "It is better for ten guilty persons to go free than for one innocent person to die." My biblical basis was largely texts from the OT. From high school debate I had been philosophically influenced by Locke's version of the social contract theory. Someone who commits murder has violated the contract and is now outside of the contract, so the state can use lethal force because they no longer have the requirement of protecting his rights like when he was in the contract.

The Philosopher Years
I did a paper on captial punishment in my Biblical Ethics class in college and understood the complexities of scripture speaking to both sides of this issue. During the late '90's my thinking was more philosophical on the matter, however, because my public role was as a philosophy teacher. My philosophical justification was based on Kantian ethics. Kant held that a society must youth the death penalty in cases of murder, otherwise it weakens the moral law. So, if you had engaged me in conversation on the issue back in 1999, say, this would have been how I would have addressed it. Catholic moral reasoning, particularly the Pope's writings on the cultural of life, did make me think, however.

During that time I did move to thinking it should be used rarely and in only the most extreme situations. One of my principles was that it should never be used in a circumstantial evidence case. This meant that I didn't support the death penalty for Timothy McVeigh, an opinion I by-and-large kept to myself in Oklahoma in the late-90's. Toward the end of this period I began to have more doubts as we began to see the problems in Illinois and Gov. Ryan ended the practice.

The Theology Years
I officially changed positions on capital punishmen for practical reasons. When it came out, after his death, that the FBI had made some mistakes and not given all the evidence to the defense in the McVeigh case I determined that if our system could mess up the most prominent capital case in recent memory, then the poor black kid didn't stand a chance of receiving due process. Even though I still felt it philosophically justifiable, it seemed to me that as a matter of praxis, we were incapable of practicing capital punishment ethically.

Of course as I have read more theology in the last four years and become more actively political then I have begun to argue against capital punishment on moral grounds based upon my reading of the New Testament and my resolve to be a pacifist.

The Source of So Much

On a separate note from the political narrative.

Today I had a pretty intense therapy session. I decided that I wanted to talk again about my father, his death, my grief, etc. We had discussed this in my second session back in August and again when I was attacked for how I choose to express my grief in October. The last couple of days I've just been feeling that I needed to talk about this again. I know that it lies at the root of so much in my psyche and suspect that it is at the root of much else that I don't fully realize.

In today's session I discovered a lot about myself that I had not understood before and am looking forward to getting home this afternoon and doing a lot of journalling (maybe walking and thinking it all back through first). I have always known that Dad's death was the most significant event in my life and the one that folk needed to understand about me if they were even going to begin to really know me. But there's so much nuance to my relationship with my father.

Today I realized how much I resent how I chose to grieve after Dad died. I began to cry as I said these words to my therapist, "I tried to live up to all the things I was expected to do." My family received so much praise at church for how we handled our grief. We remained active; we remained good kids; we spoke the "right" religious words. I didn't realize how much resentment I have about this. How I had every right to rage and fume and explode with sadness and anger and that my own desire to live up to this image of "Scott-Jones-the-good-kid-and-preacher-boy" had robbed me of my authentic emotions. Sure I grieved in private and occasionally did explode randomly at school or on a speech trip. But I didn't grieve adequately when I was 16. I was trying too hard to be the man of the family.

And I was inadequate to the task. I couldn't be all that I felt I needed to be. At 16 one is not equipped to become the person your mother discusses finances with. I couldn't be the male figure that my sister wanted and needed. I couldn't be the friend to my uncle's that my Dad had been. I couldn't take care of all the physical needs of the house. I couldn't fill the huge gap in my grandmother's life no matter how much she would hold me and run her fingers through my hair and talk about how I looked like my Dad. It wasn't in my power at 16 or 20 or 25 or 31 to be my Dad.

I've written before about the two lessons I learned from Dad's death. First was that family would be the most important thing in my life. Second was that life must be lived fully each day because you never know how long you've got. These are good lessons, but they are also the cause of my abiding loneliness. Today I learned something new about the first one, though.

My therapist asked me if family was important to my Dad. I answered that it was, and I started to tell the story about he had changed careers from a pretty successful one as a hospital administrator to becoming a school teacher so he would have more time with us. But then I realized that it went back deeper than that. Through tears I told the story of his adoption at the age of four and about the pictures of that day when the Joneses brought him home. They had picked him up at the orphanage and taken him shopping for clothes and toys. When they got back to the farm they took pictures of Dad, and he's smiling ear to ear (in that distinct smile we both have), so happy to be a part of a family. And then I realize that my desire goes back so much further than Dad's death. It was the deepest part of his psyche -- his love for family and home. I inherited that. So I create surrogate families, and develop groups of friends that are family-like, and have this abiding desire to be home. It's the core of who I am because I am my father's son and it was the core of who he was.