Tuesday, December 25, 2007

Friday, July 20, 2007

Words of Peace and Praise

We live in a world in which the quality of language is deteriorating. Many conversations are sprinkled, or even saturated with curses and other words that divide and dehumanize people. Profane language can be heard at school, work, and at entertainment events. "Trash talking" has become an accepted practice at professional sports events. Rude or disrespectful comments, under the disguise of honesty, are heard on television and radio, especially "talk" radio. They're also seen on bumper stickers, billboards, and even on some greeting cards. Some uncomplimentary language may be legitimate, especially if it's accurately documenting past event or conversation, but much is not. Language that passes for humorous today would have been labeled as unacceptably obscene a few decades ago. Many conversations, intentionally or unintentionally, carry an antagonistic tone. Young people today are frequently exposed to profanity.

Not as openly hostile, perhaps, but ultimately just as harmful, is the exclusive language, used in many churches, which recognizes only males. Like cursing and racist labels, it also divides and degrades people.

In contrast, the words associated with the birth of Jesus are words that comfort and uplift. "Do not be afraid," and "fear not," were spoken by angels to Joseph (Matt. 1:20) and to Mary (Luke 1:30). The intense fear of the shepherds, some of whom were probably teenagers, or even younger, was dismissed by the calming words of the angel: "Do not be afraid. I bring you good news of great joy that will be for all the people" (Luke 2:10). Note the inclusiveness of the angel's message. The good news is "for all the people." No exceptions.

There was much to fear in those days. The lack of housing was a concern for the young couple. Soon Herod would be trying to kill their firstborn, similar to the way selfish and sinful governments today jeopardize the lives of young people by sending them off to war. But the divine messengers made a deliberate effort with wholesome and compassionate language, to comfort people and remove their fear.

Concern about language is found throughout the Bible. Matthew 5:37 tells us to keep it simple: "Simply let your 'Yes' be 'Yes,' and your 'No,' 'No'..." The wisdom book of Proverbs has numerous references to speech. Perhaps the most sobering passage of all is Matthew 12: 36-37. "But I tell you that you will have to give account on the day of judgment for every careless word you have spoken. For by your words you will be acquitted, and by your words you will be condemned."

Words are powerful instruments of communication. Often our keenest memories are of words which brought either healing or hurt to our hearts. Harsh words are frequently a prelude to war. Soldiers use derogatory labels to dehumanize the enemy and make it easier to kill them. Of course the vast majority of war victims are not soldiers, but innocent civilians. In my work in a hospital emergency department, I frequently see patients injured in conflicts initiated or aggravated by harsh words or language. Such confrontations are sometimes fatal.

What can we do about this problem? It's important to remember that the words we use not only reflect our thinking, but also shape it. It's possible to change our thoughts and our behavior by changing the way we talk. Perhaps the main reason it's so difficult for women to gain equal status with men in many churches is because the language used still excludes them.

The temptation to use profane and divisive language or labels can be very persistent for youth and adults alike. How do we avoid the infectious nature of such talk? One solution is to simply quit listening to it.

Let's take our verbal cues from the angels on that first Christmas. They spoke words that dispelled fear and brought peace and comfort to the listeners. They also invited everyone to participate in the joyous celebration of the birth of the Savior.

We can improve our language with practice. It's easier to talk our way into a change of thinking than to think our way into a change of talking. Can you imagine a war continuing for long if the enemy troops started saying nice things about each other? Seeing every person as created in God's image, as a living picture of God, reminds us that from our mouths should come only words that bless. The language of those who celebrate the birth of Jesus should bring peace and hope to the world. Young people today are growing up in a lost world that echoes with divisive sounds of hate and hostility. The peaceful compassionate language of Christian youth can make their presence an oasis of comfort and hospitality for others this Advent and Christmas season.

Published in slightly different form in the October, 1999 issue of Builder

Christian Hope on Election Day

"Voting is a precondition for good government and therefore a major responsibility of good citizenship," according to a leaflet from the Secretary of State of Idaho, my state, encouraging people to vote on Election Day. As November approaches in the United States, the media bombards us with election propaganda. We've heard it all our lives. Long before they're old enough to cast a vote, children are told that when they reach 18 they have to vote on Election Day in order to be responsible citizens.

It's important to keep the act of voting in its proper perspective. Voting is neither a Christian nor a biblical way of making choices. It fails to take into consideration the needs and wishes of the minority, thereby disenfranchising large numbers of people on Election Day. Rarely does voting give power to the powerless or food and shelter to the hungry and homeless. Neither does it make the structure of our society more just.

It's difficult to find anything specifically about voting in the Bible, but the Bible does tell us something about responsible citizenship. In the Old Testament the chief defender of the nation was not the king with his armies, nor the participation of individual citizens in government, but the prophet who kept calling the people, including the king, to repentance. When they responded to that call the nation was saved. When they ignored it the country was doomed. Sodom was not destroyed because people failed to vote, but because God could not find at least ten righteous people living there.

In fact if the people in the Bible had voted, at least some of the time, it would have led them away from God. Can your imagine what the election results would have been if Moses had called for a vote to find out what the Israelites wanted to do when they were caught between the Red Sea and the pursuing Egyptians? How many would have voted to walk into the Red Sea?

In addition to living a righteous life, the best thing Christians can do for their country is consistently, fervently, and knowledgeably remember the nation and its leaders in prayer. James 5;16 says, "The effectual fervent prayer of a righteous person availeth much." How often has anyone been able to say that a vote they cast "availeth much?"

However many of us do vote and will continue to do so. Voting can be a small acceptable act that occasionally leads to minor, usually temporary, improvements. Selecting the best candidate is often difficult.

Perhaps the ideal candidate would be someone who could handle the job description mentioned in Ezekiel 22:30 - "I have been looking for someone among them to build a wall and man the breach in front of me, to defend the country and prevent me from destroying it. " The people had sinned and their sins were threatening to destroy them. A righteous person was needed to help defend the nation, not with military violence or power, but as Moses did when the Israelites sinned by worshipping a golden calf for which God said he was gong to destroy them. Moses pleaded for their lives and, according to Psalms 106:23, "stood in the breach before him, to turn away his wrath from destroying them."

That is perhaps the greatest accomplishment any leader can strive for - to be a God-fearing, compassionate, righteous person who leads a nation toward God. To be one who can honestly respond to the mandate in Matthew 25, one who has helped to feed the hungry, clothe the naked, and visit those in prison. A good leader is one who has the ability to plead to God for another chance if a nation's sins threaten to self-destruct and destroy them.

Moses handled that assignment. In the New Testament, Paul offered his life and soul for the sins of the people. More than anyone Jesus stood in the breach and protected us from our own sins. By living righteous lives all of us help protect our nation from the destructive effects of its sins.

It might seem mildly optimistic to think that we can find candidates who are able to handle such an assignment. Perhaps our biggest responsibility is to pray that God will change our leaders, regardless of who they are, into God-fearing, biblically obedient individuals who will be able to bring about positive changes in our nations. Even though this may seem unlikely, if we pray and share our faith we have a right, perhaps even an obligation, to be hopeful. God can bring about dramatic changes in people. Remember that both Moses and Paul were murderers before they became great leaders.

Previously published in slightly different form in the October 16, 1990 issue
of Gospel Herald.

Monday, June 18, 2007

Manasseh's Memorial

Manasseh's Memorial

Thoughts for Memorial Day

The Old Testament in 2 Kings 21 tells us of an ancient king, Manasseh, who turned the people of his kingdom from trusting God to worshipping the idol, Baal. Manasseh reversed most of the good changes that had taken place during the reign of his predecessor, Hezekiah. He built an altar to Baal and was so wicked that he actually sacrificed his own son to that idol.

Memorial Day reminds me of Manasseh. On this holiday many Americans act as if they are his spiritual descendants. Only they have exchanged the idol, Baal, for an even larger and more contemporary false deity, the god of nationalism. Americans are not the only ones guilty of this practice. In every country there are citizens who idolize their nation.

Manasseh had to tell a lot of lies to deceive his people. He claimed that Baal was the true god, and his sinful behavior indicates that he believed Baal was a god to whom human lives should be sacrificed. Verse 16 of chapter 21 says that Manasseh shed so much innocent blood that "he filled Jerusalem from end to end" (NIV).

Those who follow Manasseh's example today are as quick to shed the truth as he was to shed blood. On Memorial Day, especially, we can hear them twist and destroy the truth as they commemorate sacrificing their sons to the god of nationalism in the past and as they recruit more for similar sacrifices in the future.

They claim that those who died did so in defense of their country. Perhaps, but not likely. The United States mainland hasn't seen a credible attack in over a century. At least in recent conflicts they probably died while protecting the business interests of some large corporation or while nursing the macho image of a trigger-happy president.

Memorial Day orators claim that military personnel are protecting the citizens of this country. In fact the opposite is true. Large civilian populations who would be devastated in any war today is one of the main reasons that the United States and the Soviet Union have shown restraint in their aggression toward each other. United States citizens are actually the hostages that protect American military forces.

We hear loud proclamations that the soldier who was killed did not die in vain, that his life was not wasted. Nothing could be further from the truth. Perhaps the portion of his life that he lived was not wasted. But the part that he did not get to live, because of his premature death in battle, was most certainly wasted. The approximately 56,000 young Americans who died in Vietnam lost, on the average, 40 to 50 years from each of their lives. That preventable war cost our nation well over two million, "life-years" of teaching , scientific, artistic, and whatever other abilities can be found in 56,000 young men. Of course the cost to Vietnam was much greater.

Our government would like us to believe that our young people are as disposable as the plastic bags their bodies often come home from war in. It's another one of those lies which control our lives when we give a nation our highest allegiance.

We have to remember that the life of each young person, regardless of nationality, is a non-renewable natural resource and deserves all the protection we can give it.

I'm afraid that our willingness to sacrifice people for a political cause is proof that the United states has embraced the idolatrous wickedness of Manasseh. The malicious spirit that controlled him is alive and well in our country's actions toward Central American and Vietnam, and in our dropping nuclear weapons on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, not to end the war with Japan, as many would like to believe, but because the war was about to end, and then we would have no excuse to use them.

Instead of commemorating such destructive misbehavior each Memorial Day we need to do the only truly heroic thing which can be done with war. Get rid of it! Although it is not likely that we will soon see a time free from wars or the threat of war, much has happened in recent months with regard to international relations to give the human race hope.

In the book How to Stop a War, James F. Dunnigan and William Martel have an interesting chapter entitled "Wars That Never Happened." They point out that numerous potential conflicts between nations have been avoided or postponed by relatively small doses of caution, patience, and diplomatic discretion.

For example, in 1980 violent conflict was a real possibility between Poland and the Soviet Union. The growing Solidarity movement threatened Soviet control of Poland. The Soviets had not hesitated to use troops against recalcitrant neighboring countries before, and the Soviet Army was clearly militarily superior to Polish forces. But war would have wrecked economic havoc on Poland and perhaps on the Soviet Union also.

Some changes were allowed and compromises made with Polish workers, thereby avoiding what could have been a major war. Since then additional hopeful changes have occurred between those two nations, changes which might have been impossible if they had engaged in war a decade ago.

The same writers remind us that many of history's conflicts came very close to not happening. Numerous factors, including the demise of the Turkish and Austro-Hungarian empires, significant increases in the destructiveness of military technology, plus the rather strong desire among many people to engage in combat, led to World War I. Other contributing factors were the acquisition of two French provinces by Germany and attempts by the French to regain their lost territory. If any one of the contributing factors had been missing, the first World War might not have occurred; it might have been postponed or been less destructive; perhaps it would not have led to the even more deadly Second World War.

Likewise the Vietnam War, as we know it, would never have occurred if the United States had simply refused to get involved in the Vietnamese civil war. It's likely that a little more caution, patience, and diplomatic discretion could have prevented some of the saddest and most destructive times in human history.

We can give those who died in previous wars the recognition they deserve and make certain that their deaths were not in vain; to do this we must agree that never again will we use violence against other countries instead of the better methods of resolving our differences that are always available. We waste the lives of former war victims and render their deaths useless by repeating the same human sacrifices in present and future wars.

Memorial Day is an appropriate time to renew our caution against being so devoted to a particular country that our allegiance requires us, like Manasseh, to make human sacrifices to it. Christians need to be motivated by a different spirit. The focus of most Memorial Day celebrations is misdirected. The true war heroes are not soldiers who died while trying to kill the enemy or those who praise and insist on continuing past idolatrous sacrifices. The true war heroes are pacifists, conflict-mediators, conscientious objectors to registration as well as to participation in military service, and those who pray and work for peace in other non-violent ways.

If you are one of that minority, let it be known that we are grateful. Although you may not receive any recognition this Memorial Day, it is highly probable that countless thousands, perhaps millions of people are alive today because of your efforts. You are, without a doubt, the true war heroes or heroines of this or any nation.

Published in the May 22, 1990 issue of Gospel Herald

Thursday, April 19, 2007

I Write This to Report...

I am now standing, with others, in
Acteal, Mexico, at the very place where,
on December 22, 1997, paramilitaries
massacred forty-five Christian pacifists,
thirty-six of them women and children, while
they worshipped, fasted, and prayed.

A soft wind curls around the coffee
and banana trees. Rain falls like the
tears of the bereaved, hesitating only a
second on the steep earth before
racing, as if in fear, toward the
sea. No birds sing.

Quietly we stand in the memorial
building, constructed on the graves of
the victims, gazing at photos of the
people who died. Their clear eyes return
our stare, awaiting an answer to the
unspoken question.

Soon night will cover this mountain
town, but nothing in this life will
cover the grief felt for the loss of Rosa
Vasquez Luna, Catarina Luna Perez,
Josefa Vazquez Perez, Maria Gomez
Perez, Margareta Mendez Paciencia,
and forty others who died that day.

While shadows of death brush our shoulders,
we circle and kneel, blowing gently on the
glowing embers of peace, watching,
as the flame begins to rise.

Published in March/April, 2002 issue of
"Fellowship Magazine," and in the 2003
book "Poets Against the War."

Dawson, New Mexico

From Route 64 South of Raton
I go west toward the crimson
Sangre de Cristo range.
Weeds like fingernails scrape
my VW's bottom while the tires
trace tiny strips of pavement.

Here the remains of Dawson die
another untimely death.
Abandoned since the 1950's when
natural gas replaced coal, the
mines are quiet, no longer an
origin of heat and light.

Stiff from the long drive,
I slip off the seat and
the coal sand grits its teeth
beneath my feet. I glance
both ways, alert for reptiles
and snoopers like myself, and

sneak past the "trespassers
will be prosecuted" sign. Pale
as the crosses in the cemetery,
it names some distant owner as
possessor of this noble past.
Like icons to ancient gods,

two smokestacks cast
their shadows on the dry earth,
and silence rings through
the lean streets of this ghost
town where concrete steps stagger
beside foundations whose

houses were removed when their owners
left. The only discord comes from
me, lone intruder into history. A
suspicious wind slips across the
mesa to the cemetery where the last
names remain: Silvino, Ybarro,

Zaccayinno, and more. Shrines without
graves for 383 men who died in mine
disasters. Their ashen memorials erode
like memories, while snakes shed their
skins and deer their antlers far above
the veins where men and coal mix.

Published in the 1993 "cold - drill."

The Spotted Stone (a prose poem)

On the edge of a small grove of juniper trees at the northern boundary of the Great Basin you will find the Spotted Stone. About the size of the one that sealed the tomb, it stands vertical, like a sentinel guarding the grove. The Spotted Stone is the color of granite with fine veins that shine in the moonlight like lines of cold unblinking fire. The spots are large, white, and number half a dozen. They stare like glaucomic eyes toward the cumulus clouds congealing on the horizon.
The raven has traveled far and is fatigued, but his spirit rises when he spies the stone. Silently he drops toward it, breaks with spread wings and wedge-shaped tail, and alights on its solid berm. Pausing a minute, he surveys the convoluted terrain, then dips his heavy bill deep into the largest spot on the stone. Suddenly, with renewed energy, the ebony bird accelerates upward, vanishing into the cloud cover. A drop of blood, the size of a cherry clings to the tip of his lower mandible.

Published in the December, 1999 issue of Mennonite Life.

Wallpaper Postcards

Nervous ocean clashes with blissful
heavens, tacked diagonally to the dark
wood wall. Stick people withered by
sun stand dazed between sea and sky.
Rehoboth Beach, Delaware, July 5, 1958.

Twin rows of shimmering white teeth
in faces black as a Bible's cover.
Small boys picking berries.
Birmingham, Alabama, August 21, 1961

Lonely, arthritic blades on tottering
legs creak in the unrelenting wind.
on all sides, empty space.
Sunray, Texas, December 1, 1967

Gray box on wheels: one horsepower.
Striding out of the last century and
into the next. Amish family. Bird-in-
Hand, Pennsylvania, April 12, 1990

Turbulent, ghost-like it rises, ashen
against an indigo sky. Old Faithful,
Yellowstone, September 16, 1992

Originally published in the 1994
"cold drill," a literary publication
of Boise Stae University.

Please note that, unless otherwise indicated, all the poetry, prose, and photographs on this blog are the creative property of Leonard Nolt and may not be reprinted or republished in any form without permission.