A Psalm for Thanksgiving

On the day established in the United States for giving thanks - to God, for His marvelous providences, and by reasonable extension, to all those we depend on - here are a few of the things I have to be thankful for:

  • A loving, peaceful family (even if we are scattered across the country): parents who raised me well, siblings who care, and an extended family that has stayed fairly close.
  • A good job with useful work to do; good coworkers and (mostly) well-behaved and studious pupils.
  • A place to live in comfort and security.
  • Good friends: I may not be as demonstrative as some, but I do appreciate the companionship.
  • A government still, despite its faults, dedicated to the ideas of peace and promoting prosperity.  I know I sound like the grinch here sometimes, but I am truly thankful that we live largely free from fear.
  • A loving, welcoming church family: they even let me sing in the choir, and Pastor Holliday knows everybody's name.  I have no idea how he does it.

On that note, I also want to share one of my favorite psalms, the one hundred thirty-sixth:

O give thanks unto the Lord; for He is good: for His mercy endureth for ever.
O give thanks unto the God of gods: for His mercy endureth for ever.
O give thanks to the Lord of lords: for His mercy endureth for ever.

To Him who alone doeth great wonders: for His mercy endureth for ever.
To Him that by wisdom made the heavens: for His mercy endureth for ever.
To Him that stretched out the earth above the waters: for His mercy endureth for ever.

To Him that made great lights: for His mercy endureth for ever:
The sun to rule by day: for His mercy endureth forever.
The moon and stars to rule by night: for His mercy endureth forever.

To Him that smote Egypt in their firstborn: for His mercy endureth for ever:
And brought out Israel from among them: for His mercy endureth for ever:
With a strong hand, and with a stretched out arm: for His mercy endureth for ever.

To Him which divided the Red Sea into parts: for His mercy endureth for ever:
And made Israel to pass through the midst of it: for His mercy endureth for ever:
But overthrew Pharaoh and his host in the Red Sea: for His mercy endureth for ever.

To Him which led His people through the wilderness: for His mercy endureth for ever.
 To Him which smote great kings: for His mercy endureth for ever:
And slew famous kings: for His mercy endureth for ever:
Sihon king of the Amorites: for His mercy endureth for ever:
And Og the king of Bashan: for His mercy endureth for ever:
And gave their land for an heritage: for His mercy endureth for ever:
Even an heritage unto Israel His servant: for His mercy endureth for ever.

Who remembered us in our low estate: for His mercy endureth for ever:
And hath redeemed us from our enemies: for His mercy endureth for ever.
Who giveth food to all flesh: for His mercy endureth forever.

O give thanks unto the God of heaven: for His mercy endureth for ever.


The Modern Pharisees?

I have been contemplating recently one of the odder passages in Christ's teachings.  In the twenty-third chapter of Matthew, we find Him discoursing on the state of Israel's ecclesiastical leadership.  I excerpt the following:

Then spake Jesus to the multitude, and to his disciples, saying, "The scribes and the Pharisees sit in Moses' seat: all therefore whatsoever they bid you observe, that observe and do; but do not ye after their works: for they say, and do not.  For they bind heavy burdens and grievous to be borne, and lay them on men's shoulders; but they themselves will not move them with one of their fingers.  But all their works they do for to be seen of men...

But be not ye called Rabbi: for one is your Master, even Christ; and all ye are brethren... But he that is greatest among you shall be your servant.  And whosoever shall exalt himself shall be abased; and he that shall humble himself shall be exalted.

But woe unto you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! for ye shut up the kingdom of heaven against men: for ye neither go in yourselves, neither suffer ye them that are entering to go in."

Then follows a list of the Pharisees' misdeeds and errors: abusing the poor, misinterpreting the essence of the law, and coming up with creative legalisms which miss the point entirely.

As a Protestant, it has always been easy to look at this passage - and similar ones in the apostolic epistles - and find an analogy to the practices of the Roman Catholic church.  To take a few of the more obvious: what else is penance - especially once established as a sacrament - but a "heavy burden grievous to be borne"?  Now, the instructed Catholic will look on and defend it as a discipline leading to virtue, but the practice has no Biblical warrant, neither does salvation depend on it, but on Christ: where is the use to be found?

Or take again the Roman practice of forbidding priests to marry.  While justified with the pious-sounding "be more like Christ", it flies in the face of Christ's choices and the apostolic teaching.  Christ, it should be noted, for the head of his church on earth (if we accept the papal claim for the apostle Peter), chose a married man.  The apostle Paul, giving instructions to his under-ministers Timothy and Titus, told them to find men as elders and deacons who were married and - to give the lie to later ideas of "celibate marriage" - had children.  Well-behaved children, of course.  The position of Paul, himself unmarried, has to be seen as the anomaly: he recognizes it, and defends his own right to marry should he want to to the Corinthians: "Have we [Paul and Barnabas] not power to lead about a sister, a wife, as well as other apostles, and as the brethren of the Lord, and Cephas [Peter]?"  He goes on, true, to imply this is something he has given up for the profit of his ministry, but we must recognize Paul's place in the early church as the great traveling missionary, and one often in jail: Paul's private considerations should not affect church policy on the whole, and especially are much different from those of the pastor of an individual church.

These are the two most blatant problems: there are of course also the invented "days of obligation", the whole problem of images, and more.  But I point these out to make the point that the issues exist.  All of this criticism is relatively straightforward: Christ - Himself or through His inspired ministers - says to do this, and you don't.

In contrast, doctrinal problems are more difficult to chase down.  Paul says that we are justified by faith.  James says a man who trusts in faith but does not do good works is fooling himself.  If both were inspired - as all churches agree - how can this be reconciled?  The Protestant churches tend to teach Paul, with James as a footnote: this matches the content provided, in amounts if not in exactness.  The point here is that I have become less and less comfortable arguing specific doctrines, the more so as I have become aware of my own lack of knowledge.

None of this criticism, or refraining from criticism, though, addresses the way Christ begins this section - which is to instruct his disciples to obey the very Pharisees he then criticizes for the rest of the chapter.  Let me say that again: Christ instructed his disciples to obey the corrupt leaders of Israel, because they were the leaders of Israel, the ones who "sit in Moses' seat".  The apostles also instruct us to obey those in authority over us.

So the question is, how does this apply to us today?  Does - to take the possibility I find most disturbing - the Roman Catholic church really have Peter's seat", as they claim, regardless of corruption, scandal, and false teachings?  Or, to look at a more general view, if you go looking for authority how are you supposed to tell the "authentic church" from those with clear trails to the early church: the Orthodox, Roman, or Coptic?

I do not see any perfect church.  I do not even see any church with a perfect system of doctrine and practice which would be amazing if only fallen humans were not human.  I see a number of churches running around making various errors - the Reformed churches I attend, for instance, have concocted Presbyterianism somewhere, I am not sure how - with no clear best option.  I have reached the point where, if I had been raised Orthodox, say, or Anglican, I do not know how I would justify leaving that communion; but then the same argument applies to my own, which is part of the reason I stay.

But remaining wrong does not seem like a good option, either, if it is possible to be more correct.  An odd problem.


And Picking Up Speed

My favorite piece of political writing is a poem by Kipling, "The Gods of the Copybook Headings".  I do not know his motivation for writing it, but I can hardly imagine it was not intended as political, or at least societal, commentary.  I normally post the entire thing before elections, though I did not this year.  You can go read the whole thing, but I will excerpt the ending stanzas:
As it will be in the future, it was at the birth of Man
There are only four things certain since Social Progress began.
That the Dog returns to his Vomit and the Sow returns to her Mire,
And the burnt Fool's bandaged finger goes wabbling back to the Fire;

And that after this is accomplished, and the brave new world begins
When all men are paid for existing and no man must pay for his sins,
As surely as Water will wet us, as surely as Fire will burn,
The Gods of the Copybook Headings with terror and slaughter return!
 As President Obama has won re-election - I do not know if votes have been fully counted, but Governor Romney has conceded the election, and I assume he knows the writing on the wall better than I do - the immediate question is, "So what now?"

I had thought Romney would likely win the presidential race; I under-estimated - this is based on exit polling - how determinedly liberal the majority of young voters appear to be.  Some of this is probably the climate I mostly live in: the majority of my friends are conservative; the majority of my co-workers are not, but that is a much smaller group; DC is of course staunchly political and, believing in government, tends very liberal, but that makes predicting overall trends difficult.  All of this is without taking into account the habits of those who vote by party, with no regard to issues - a trend which historically seems to have favored the Democrats, for reasons beyond my knowledge.

Still, there were some indications that this would happen, even in my experience.  A sampling: several liberal friends thought - or just assumed - that the Democratic candidates won all the debates, even while most news sources thought they favored Republicans.  Political bases like to have their ears tickled, and the President's party apparently succeeded.  A casual acquaintance argued, with a straight face, that because a "great president" like FDR could not resolve a depression quickly, we should not expect President Obama to have done much either.  This is what bad history gets you.  (Is there a good biography of Calvin Coolidge?  It should be required reading for all high school students.)  And finally, the most emotional issue - that of sex and avoiding its real results - obviously was much more motivating to the liberal side.

It is this last that concerns me most.  By any reasonable standard, we are a libertine society and becoming more so; and the President's policies encourage this beyond reason.  Not only do the shapers of thought think we are supposed to accept abortion, and embrace the "diversity" of immoral lifestyles - notably homosexual and so-called "transgender", but the people in those categories are a tiny minority compared to those doing what used to be called "living in sin" - but now we are supposed to pay for the contraception and abortion which these people use to avoid the responsibilities their lifestyle ought to bring them.  And religious groups which object - remembering that this country was founded in a series of attempts to preserve religious liberty makes this more of a travesty - get the tiniest of protections from such governmentally-imposed thuggery, and private believers get none at all.  This has been said repeatedly and loudly, and the majority of the media - who ought to be hounding such abuse - have ignored it.

That is the most disturbing long-term trend.  But as a moral issue, some will argue it should be kept out of politics.  I defy anyone to manage to run a government with no moral ramifications, but for the sake of argument I will move on to the next biggest problem, the one that originally motivated my interest in politics: our national finances.  They are a mess.  We spend more than we have, borrow more than we can afford, and when it is suggested that we maybe stop with the money-wasting, we just re-elected a president whose party thinks the bright idea is to "tax the rich" more.  Never mind that "the rich" already pay most of the taxes, and by percentages more than their share; never mind that taking the money from the haves will only result in a society where - as the USSR found - there "are no rich no more" (except the political elite managing the extortions).  We like austerity and responsibility no more than the European states that are already foundering having followed the same path we pursue.  And for the future?  The government's bailout/buyout of GM has produced a stagnant (at best) company.  The investment in "clean energy" that the President's party pursued has resulted in a series of failed companies, while proved methods of energy production - and the prosperity they might bring - are rejected: and all this in a recession, where the short-term problems are the most pressing.

All this demonstrates is that we have rejected responsibility and freedom.  The trade-off, apparently, is supposed to be security.  A "security blanket" for the less fortunate.  The powers that be sell us on domestic libertinism by assuring us that at least our defense spending will be fine.  We have mostly forgotten what the wise men of old said - which one exactly said it first is not clear - that the nation which trades liberty for security will have neither.  What the conservatives have been shouting - not nearly loudly enough, apparently, nor from high enough rooftops - is that the whimsically-justified government may start by "helping" the unfortunate and sponsoring "noble" causes, but it depends on the views of the elite - and if those change, well, all the infrastructure is in place to produce fascism and tyranny.  A government equipped to play bodyguard is equally well equipped to play prison guard - let's call it house arrest

This is why, among other things, I - despite being conservative - was not particularly bothered by that stupid HHS pamphlet advertising right-wing groups as security threats.  They are "security threats" to a modern nanny-state.  They are armed - as allowed for in our very Constitution, among other reasons, to be a threat to would-be tin gods - and it is anybody's guess how long it will be until continued usurpations by the Federal government drive them to action.  I put it at 30 years, give or take.  The question is, though, are they truly threats, or patriots?  It will be impossible to tell until it happens, and maybe after.  Our Civil War, the one we already had, was a mess of arguments; I tend to think the Union was less wrong, but I am not comfortable in passing judgment categorically.  King George's government no doubt warned him - or the relevant ministers - that the hotheads in Massachusetts and Virginia were a threat to the peace of his dominion.  History by now has largely agreed that it is those hotheads who were - with qualifications - in the right.  But of course, it is easier to accept that a successful rebellion long since over was justified than it is to look forward to a (probably badly provoked) revolt and find the situation appealing.

That is a long-term prediction: that we are bound for another civil war, this one provoked by the impossibility of surviving in the real world as a "liberated" society, and the resentment that that will generate.  (And to be honest, my evaluation would be the same - though this piece might not have been provoked exactly - should Romney have won: he seems to me a manager, not a reformer.  I might up my projection to 40 years - or he might have been better than I imagine.)  In the short-term, the question is what to do about the next election.  After 2008, I was of the opinion that the Republican party is doomed.  They had reduced themselves to a series of candidates parroting Democratic and liberal lines, with just enough defense, America, and God panacea thrown in to placate the base.  After the last two elections, I am not so sure.  The Republican's energized base has become (or returned to) those holding right-wing, small-government, social conservative views - the (oddly villified) Tea Party.  On the other hand, the political future may well belong to the libertarian conservatives; in which case, the Republican party will continue to lose votes in upcoming years, until a shift takes place - suddenly.

I do not know if the two-party system can be truly broken.  It has been a feature of American politics since the beginning of the country.  I am not even sure it is a bad thing - like democracy, it might be one of those things that is worse than any system except all the others.  What I would like to see, though - two parties or twenty - would be a de-emphasis on party.  The most likely way to break the two-party stranglehold?  Take party names off ballots.  Get the state governments out of party politics.  If you want primary electiona, take all the candidates, put them on a ballot, and take the top five as the candidates for the general election.  (This is an off-the-cuff suggestion.)  As it is, the two major parties are invested and intertwined in the system in a way that prevents significant change, or at least makes it more difficult.

Regardless of the system, important things can be done, whether you agree with my evaluation or dislike it.  Pay attention to local politics.  Go to school board and city hall meetings.  I admit, to my embarrassment, that I did not do significant research on the city elections for Alexandria - something I can change and improve next time.  Run for office.  Ask candidates questions.  And, yes, pray.  Truth be told, the re-election of President Obama does not really worry me - I worry not that much anyway, but by faith I know God reigns, and if the Apostle Paul could tell his congregations to pray for the Emperor Nero, and Christ could tell his disciples to pay their Roman occupiers' taxes, I can survive and even rejoice under a less-than-ideal government.