Thursday, March 28, 2013

Holy Week, episode 4: A couple of years ago I had a nice, peaceful fishing business . . .

During the week Jesus continued to go to the temple court yard, speaking truth boldly and provocatively.  His amazing  language was pointed and direct and passionate. You should read it. I read out of Matthew 23-25 today. There is far too much to summarize.

Jesus had made the message clear.  The religious authorities had perverted what God had entrusted to them. The poor, oppressed, and outcast had a special place in his heart, and a special place in God's kingdom. If one desired to be with Jesus, with God, one should stand among the least, the last, the lost.

Any different way would lead to destruction.

And that destructive way was the choice of the powerful people that week.

As the plot against him was being hatched, Jesus planned and served a final meal for his disciples, as if there were still more that he wanted them to know, that they must know.  It was the night of the Passover meal. Jesus served his friends.  At one point in the meal Jesus said that one of them would betray him.  He was right, of course, and Jesus told Judas to go do what he will do. But Jesus continued with the meal.  Remarkably, he washed their feet.  And towards the end of the Passover ritual, Jesus added something.  He blessed the bread, broke it, and served it to his friends, telling them it was his body that was broken for them.  He then took the cup of wine, blessed it, and asked his friends to drink, saying that it was his blood that was shed for them, for forgiveness.  He asked his friends to share this meal often, and when they did, always remember him.

There wasn't a whole lot left to say, or maybe the time for talk was over. Surely the disciples were speechless, except maybe Peter.   They did a little singing, as often happens after the conversation lulls, and then they walked to the Mt. of Olives.  Jesus, always trying to prepare his friends for what lay ahead, warned them that they would all betray him, but even so, he would meet them later in Galilee. Peter, bless his heart, spoke up and said that he would never betray Jesus.  Jesus told him that he would deny Jesus three times before the rooster crowed.

One can only imagine the mood of the group as Jesus went to the Garden of Gethsemane to pray.  He had spoken of death and betrayal. Yet he seemed to have no plan to escape.  Jesus prayed so hard he was sweating blood.  Peter, James and John dozed off.  Jesus prayed some more, asking God for a different way, if there was one. There was none.

Then the quiet of the night was shattered by an armed crowd, sent by the religious leaders to arrest Jesus.  Judas, who had been with Jesus for a couple of years,  was with them.  He identified Jesus, betraying him with a kiss.  Peter, bless his heart, drew his sword to protect Jesus.  Jesus told Peter to put it away, reminding Peter that Jesus had a heavenly band of angels if he wanted to use them, but it was not the thing that had to be done. Then Jesus healed the wound Peter had inflicted on his captor.

Jesus was arrested and taken away to the High Priest.

His friends deserted him and ran away.


Wednesday, March 27, 2013

Holy Week, episode 3: "Oh no you dident . . ."

Previously, on Holy Week:  Jesus rides into Jerusalem in what, to the Jews of the day, would be a clearly Messianic fashion . . . on the back of a donkey. Huge crowds gathered and welcomed Him shouting, "Hosanna, Save Us, Blessed is He who comes in the name of the Lord . . ."  Jesus went straight to the temple and confronted those who were making obscene profits in the name of God by selling sacrificial animals to travelers and the poor. He destroyed their kiosks and drove them out of the temple court with a rope whip, charging that they had turned His house of prayer into a robbers' den. .(See prior two posts for complete episodes, or better yet, get out your Bible and read it).  Now to today's episode.

Like any good kindergarten teacher, Jesus knew that before He could be heard, it was necessary to get the attention of those to be taught. After putting the temple dove vendors out of business, he turned his attention to others in the courtyard.  There were many in need. He healed the blind and lame. Their numbers grew as they marveled at what Jesus was doing, and to whom.   Jesus left no doubt He was doing all these things as the Messiah, the son of God.

So all eyes and ears were on Jesus as He challenged the authority and actions of the religious leaders in the temple, the Pharisees and the Saducees,  while at the same time giving importance and assistance to the poor, sick, and outcast.

This kind of thing was simply not done.  The dove vendor kiosks were not the only thing Jesus turned upside down.  Everything the temple goers knew was suddenly topsy-turvy.

Jesus life was in danger.  Religious authorities conspired to find a way to destroy Him before He destroyed their way of life.  But they had to be subtle.  They were men of God, after all.  So, like hunters stalking a wily prey, they spent the next few days setting theological traps for Jesus so that he could be charged under religious law.

There are a lifetime of lessons to learn from Jesus' few days in the temple courtyard. It was if Jesus was desperate to say all the things he wanted us to know in the space of a couple of days.  But perhaps the most obvious is that you cannot win an argument with the guy.  We can come up with the most clever questions for Jesus to justify ourselves, our actions, our petitions.

And then He answers us with one of those darn questions.

Should we pay taxes to Caesar?  Whose picture is on the coin?

Who gives you the authority to say these things?  Was the baptism of John from man or God?

If a woman marries several brothers in succession after each dies, whose wife will she be in the resurrection?
Is this not why you are wrong, that you do not know the scriptures or the power of God?

The religious leaders failed miserably in their efforts to trap Jesus. The dialogues only revealed the truth about who they were, and who He was.  And the huge crowds in the courtyard heard or heard about it all.   It only made leaders more fearful, and more angry.

Then Jesus began to tell parables.  He told of tenants who had been entrusted with a vineyard, but had murdered the owner's servants and son instead.  He told of well to do folks who had been invited to a wedding feast by the master but did not RSVP nor did they come, so the invitations were sent to ordinary street folk. Story after story, dialogue after dialogue, Jesus' condemned the actions and failures of the status quo religious structure in carrying out the will of God and elevated the powerless.

And then he said it out loud. Many times. In different direct ways.  But a couple of the briefest and most pointed were,

"Therefore I tell you, the Kingdom of God will be taken away from you and given to a nation producing the fruits of it."


"Beware the scribes, who go about in long robes, and love to have salutations in the market places,and the best seats in the synagogues,  and the places of honor at feasts, who devour widows' houses and for a pretense make long prayers.  Theirs will be the greater condemnation."

And then he heard a sound. The clank of a small coin being dropped against stone. At first all He could see were apparently rich people, dressed in their finery and enlarged phylacteries, proudly placing large sums into the temple treasury.  But then he saw the source of the sound that got His attention .  .  . a poor widow who had dropped two small copper coins into the pile of money.  It was worth about a penny.

"This poor widow has put in more than all those who are contributing to the treasury. For they contributed out of their abundance, but she, out of her poverty, has put in everything she had, her whole living."

The temple court was buzzing. The religious leaders were fuming. And all were wondering, more than ever before, is He the Messiah?

And the buzz echoes even now.  Is He the Messiah?

 Who is a Pharisee?.

Oh crap. Here we go.  Another question I probably shouldn't ask.


Tuesday, March 26, 2013

Holy Week, episode 2, Spring cleaning . . .

So like I said yesterday, Jesus the Messiah rode stately into Jerusalem on the back of a donkey which had been reserved for a couple hundred years. But the Grand Marshall of this parade was not here for the palm frond ticker tape parade.  Some of my United Methodist pastor friends are anxiously awaiting appointments, or not, to new churches,  new lives, within a few days.  Perhaps they can appreciate more than most  the chaos and upheaval of Jesus' final week in His current appointment.  Perhaps they understand how it feels to look at the congregation you were sent to serve, to teach, to lead, and wonder what went wrong, why they didn't get it. Perhaps they weep over the place they are leaving behind, even as they are honored at a covered dish supper.  But not for long. There is too much to do to prepare for the future.

And so it was for Jesus.  There was so much to do. So little time.  But the time had come.

Jesus' and my mother's  first step in preparation for Easter Sunday were the same.  The first priority is to clean house.

Jesus  went directly to the Temple, the Holy place where the Jewish people gathered to worship God, a tradition and command born of centuries of Jewish history with God.  In the courtyard of this Holy place there were vendors' booths set up.  The vendors were selling doves or whatever animal was appropriate for sacrifice, to those who had none.  The mark up on the prices for the offerings would have made Pay Day Loans or Cash Advance proud.  Poor folks and travelers, who had no animals, seemed to have little choice. God required a sacrifice after all.  It was a sellers' market.   Obscene profits were being made in the name of God.  But there was no profit for God.

It was a dirty business.

And the House had to be cleaned before Easter.

So Jesus began to scrub.  And he got angry. (Another thing he and my mother have in common when cleaning up the mess created by others right before a holiday). His house of prayer had become a robber's den.   Jesus turned over the tables of the profiteers in the Holy Courtyard and ran them out with a rope whip.

Sometimes you have to make a mess before you can get things clean.

Don't get me wrong.  My mother is a dear, sweet woman.  But  her house needed to be clean.  And sometimes, if those who had made the mess were slow to help in correcting the situation, perhaps continuing to watch TV while eating chips and spilling Coke on the floor while she attempted to clean around that person, or persons, she might lose her temper.  She might even start pushing people out of the room with a broom.

It seemed unlike her. Out of character.

But, she got our attention.

And that's how this week was suddenly different.

Jesus' got their attention.  All of Jerusalem's attention.  Our attention.

And that was just the beginning.


Monday, March 25, 2013

Jerusalem was already crowded for spring break . . .

Jesus had a long to-do list stuffed in his cloak pocket, or perhaps tucked in his tefillin, as he triumphantly entered Jerusalem on the back of a donkey.  Only a true Messiah could look triumphant riding on the back of a donkey, but there He was, huge crowds lining his route into the City, laying palm branches in the pathway and shouting "Hosanna, Hosanna."  "Save Us, Save Us."  They were hoping, longing for a Messiah.  Times for the Jews had gotten tough under the rule of the Romans.  Only a people desperate for a Messiah could believe He would ride into town on a donkey. Except they were Jews, and the prophets had told them hundreds of years before this is the way it would be.

For almost three years Jesus had held back, ministering in a strange secrecy, or at least as much secrecy as can be maintained when you run around healing, multiplying fish and loaves to feed thousands, walking on water, and yes, even raising the dead. Often the miracles were followed by a Messianic shush.  "Shhhhh, don't tell anybody about this . . ."  Okay, that's not really in the gospels anywhere, but before entering Jerusalem,  Jesus often gave similar post-miracle instructions. (His patients were about as obedient as I am with those post doctor visit instructions, but like my doctor, he tried)    He had spoken in parables, almost in riddles,  about who He was.  When things had gotten too dangerous, He had slipped out of towns, mysteriously unseen by the crowds.  When his own Blessed Mother simply asked for a little wine,  He responded  "Woman it is not yet my time."   And after her long hours of labor in a cattle stall, and on Christmas Day, no less.

For almost three years, this had been Jesus' response. It is not quite time.

But this week things are different.   The time had come.  Jesus' time had come.

All of creation was waiting.

And there was much to do to get ready for Easter Sunday.


Thursday, March 21, 2013

Thurvey 3/21/2013

It's Thurvey time again.  The Thursday Survey. It's spring and the sap is rising, so join the natural course of things and let your sappiness be heard.  Just enter your responses in the comment box below, click on anonymous, then publish. If the comment box does not appear below, click on the tiny "comments" below this post.  Never surrender. The sap shall rise again.

#1  Roy Moore is again Chief Justice of the Alabama Supreme Court.  The Alabama Legislature is considering legislation to allow displaying the ten commandments and other religious documents in public buildings.  As a criminal defense lawyer I would prefer a different scripture passage on the courtroom or jury room wall.   "Judge not lest ye be judged."  Yea, Jesus said that.  Anyway, if you could put any religious scripture, or if you prefer to be secular in this exercise, a poem or quote, in any public place, what would it be, and where would you put it?

#2  If guns don't kill people, then what's all the fuss about?

#3  The Alabama Accountability Act has been in the news this week.  Who in Alabama is accountable?  Who is no accountable?

#4  In a startling move this week Auburn,Alabama and Israel announced they would be playing next year's football rivalry game in Israel in an indoor arena.  It will be called the Iron Dome.  You don't have to comment. I just thought it was funny and had no where else to use it.  Of course, you can comment if you want to.

#5  This year Alabama leaders are encouraging the import of toxic, hazardous waste into the state, after encouraging the deportation of valuable migrant laborers last year.  How do you feel about either or both or about the leaders that are accountable . . . or no accountable?

#6  What do you like or dislike  most about Spring? 

#7  What question do you want answered this week?


Wednesday, March 20, 2013

Hot smoke and Sassafras . . .

I went to the farm last week-end.  The farm is not really a farm anymore.  It is just a beautiful hunk of land that is surrounded on three sides by the Locust Fork of the Warrior River close to beautiful downtown Snead, Alabama.  We call it the Bend of the River.

It was a beautiful spring week-end and I enjoyed spending a little time with Tommy, Betsy, Erin and Gus as they bravely camped out.  It was the kind of week-end that many have spent at the farm over the years, a time when memories are created that will never be forgotten, only embellished.  Memories of walking to the river, through the woods and fields,  sitting around a campfire, fishing, playing guitar and singing, flying kites, making s'mores,  catching critters, collecting treasures, trying to sleep amid the strange sounds of coyote howls, beaver slaps, and other permanent residents of the area, and mostly just enjoying time spent with others, or sometimes, time spent alone.

It being spring, a particular memory caught up with me as we sat and talked.


My grandmother, Ma Ma (pronounced Maw Maw) Bentley, served us hot sassafras tea every spring.  Not at the farm around a campfire.  By that time I think she had done enough "roughing" it during her younger days.  No, she would serve us sassafras tea in china cups set in deep saucers.  If the tea was too hot you were supposed to pour it out into the saucer and let it cool a little. She said it was a tonic. That it would thin your blood.  I didn't know whether my blood really needed thinning or not, but it tasted wonderful.  Sassafras tea is a sensory experience.  It is a beautiful rose petal pink, and smells of licorice and root beer.

When I was young, probably a little older than Erin, maybe about seven or eight, I was at the farm with Ma Ma.  She taught me about sassafras.  We were walking down the sandy ruts of the farm road when she saw it over by a fence row.   She showed me the leaves. There were three different shapes of leaves on the same tree.  Even I knew that was a little odd.  Then she broke off a small twig and let me smell it.  The twig smelled like lemon and cinnamon, or at least that's the way I remember it.  Then she told me that the roots of the sassafras tree were what you made the tea with.  You just had to dig them up in the spring, wash them off, and boil them in a pan of water.  We did it.  And we drank the tea. Back at her house in cups and saucers.

That is a memory I have never forgotten.

And it is a memory that I have re-lived often throughout the years.

But it had been awhile. Tommy had a shovel. Truthfully, Tommy had just about anything I could have asked for in his camping equipment, including a new Taylor six string which I covet, but that's a different story.  But all I needed was a shovel.  I had only walked about twenty yards when I spotted sassafras.  It spreads with a root system, much like my nemesis, Privet.  But sassafras is much less aggressive, and much more useful.  I shoved the blade deep beneath the sapling and turned up the roots. It was a good find.  My harvest effort took only a few minutes.

And now I have enjoyed sassafras tea for three nights in a row.  Not in my coffee mugs.  I retrieved cups and saucers from the top shelf of my cabinets, rinsed off the dust (and a couple of dead bugs), and poured the boiling pink tonic. First into the cup.  Then into the saucer. Not so much to cool it off.  Just for the sake of a sweet, sweet memory.

Sometimes its healthy to get back to your roots.


Wednesday, March 13, 2013

Black belt, red light, and green (money, not environment)

In Alabama, it is long-settled that we are prostitutes.  

And to make matters worse, we may lower our prices.

For a few decades an industry has sprung up in Alabama.  Disposal of deadly, hazardous, toxic waste that other states do not want to store in their homelands.

In Alabama, we have decided we will do anything, if the price is right. 

And so we are number one. Or we were.  Younger, cheaper competition presents a challenge to Emelle, 2700 acres of fertile Alabama black belt soil dedicated to the storage of material so toxic that nobody else would allow it on their soil, close to their children, or near their water sources.

The thing about the prostitution.  For the John, it's just a short visit, followed by a speedy return to a safe, clean home.   For the whore, it is a deadly, demeaning way of life  from which it is almost impossible to escape, and often ends in death.

A bill came out of committee in the Alabama House of Representatives today that would reduce by more than half the state and local fees charged to dump deadly, toxic, hazardous waste in the State of Alabama, to encourage more business from traveling, out of state clients. (For a real newspaper report, click here.)

I thought about using a rape metaphor. You know, something like," our beautiful land is being raped . . ."

But it is clear we are giving our consent, taking the money.

But first the money is collected by an out of state corporation. Then they let us have a little bit for our trouble.  

And now we're left to just haggling over the price.


Tuesday, March 5, 2013

An Accountability Act

Governor Bentley had planned to sign the Accountability Act this afternoon (see the last post if you haven't read the news for a few days).  He proclaimed it to be a victory for Alabama's children and their parents.  The victory signing is on hold as the matter is tied up in a Montgomery County Circuit Court, which issued a temporary injunction preventing the bill from progressing to Governor Bentley's office for signing. If the Circuit Court makes the injunction final, the matter will be decided by the Alabama Supreme Court.  The legal question has nothing to do with the substance of the law, but rather the allegation that the procedure used in passing the law violated Alabama's sunshine law, which requires that certain governmental functions be done in full view of the public.

I don't know how that will turn out, but I suspect it is just a temporary bump in the road for the Accountability Act one way or the other.

I hope the Accountability Act, if it becomes law, turns out to be the great thing the Governor believes it to be.  My original opinion hasn't changed, in fact, my skepticism has grown.  On the other hand,  if it is the law of Alabama, I want it to work.

But, I cannot see how the Governor, or the legislature truly believes it is a victory.

It appears to me they have admitted defeat.

Some public schools are failing.  It seems the logical thing to do would be to address the problems at those schools with some intensity, additional resources,  perhaps with some of the innovation that was to be made available by the original "Flex" bill.

But the Governor and the legislature hoisted the white flag and surrendered, without consulting the people they appointed to handle such matters, and the people that are employed by the state to address such matters.

And turned the matter over to private schools, or other non failing public schools.

But, maybe it will work out.  I am serious about that. I hope it does.  There is more than one way to solve this problem.  Maybe this one will work better than what I would have proposed, if I had any knowledge at all of how to go about it.

And there is another bright side.

A real money making opportunity.

Hundreds of students in Anniston attend schools projected to be "failing."  Hundreds, maybe thousands of students in Huntsville and Madison County attend schools projected to be "failing."  Thousands of students in Birmingham, Bessemer and Jefferson County attend schools that are projected to be "failing."  Same for Mobile and Montgomery.  The act says that all those students have a right to go somewhere else, and get paid to do so.

Fewer students attend smaller failing schools in rural areas.  But they are scattered throughout the state.  Not close to any other schools, private or public. They have a right to go to a qualifying school.

Tens of thousands of students statewide, maybe closer to a hundred thousand, with a brand new right to a quality education, guaranteed by the State.

So, maybe it's time to get into the private school business.  The income is guaranteed by the State of Alabama.  Corporations are given huge tax breaks to contribute to the cause. Even more money.  And as far as I can tell the private school does not have to meet the same requirements as the public school:

But perhaps even sweeter is if you can get to be the administrator of the non-profit organizations set up to handle the contributions for the scholarships. An organization is required to pay ninety-five percent of receipts out in scholarships.  Five percent can be used to run the organization.  When corporations and individuals can get tax credits (not just puny deductions)  for contributions, the money could easily run into the millions pretty quickly. Five percent can be some pretty significant change.

So, the Accountability Act may work and it may be an economic benefit to many who have no students involved.

I'm still not quite sure who it is that is accountable.


Sunday, March 3, 2013

Impersonating an official . . .calling foul

An impersonator was able to take the court and referee a few minutes of a semi-final game of the Alabama 6A State Boys basketball play-offs between Mountain Brook and Blount last Thursday. Apparently the former Mountain Brook  student was able to take the court and officiate for a short while before the sharp three man crew he was working with wondered why there were four of them all of a sudden. He had a uniform, after all. If you get an outfit, apparently you can be a referee too.

But as bold as that was, it was not the biggest trick played in Alabama Thursday.  It is hard to get attention for acting crazy these days. The competition is stiff.

Republicans in the Alabama Legislature, in a move that would make junior high SGA political operatives jealous, pulled the old switcheroo.  The House of Representatives had been debating the "Flex" Education Bill,  House Bill 84,  for two or three weeks. It was an eight page proposed bill that allowed schools to request to be relieved of certain restrictions and requirements of the State Board of Education in order to experiment with new and hopefully better practices.  The bill was in committee for discussion on a couple of points of contention.  Four Republicans on the committee excused themselves from the meeting, leaving the two Democratic members behind, and returned an hour or so later with a 28 page bill that bore little resemblance to the one they left with, or to the one that had been debated for days, or the one that legislators had read.

It came out of committee immediately.  It was passed by the House within minutes.  The Senate quickly followed suit by passing the newly revised House Bill.  Governor Bentley issued a prepared statement while the lights were still on reflecting the votes..  All of this was done, over the wailing and gnashing of teeth by minority Democrats, in a period of two or three hours.  

I wonder how many legislators knew what they were voting on.  I still have not been able to read the bill that was passed.  The HB 84 I could find as of tonight was still eight pages. The one that came out of committee is unpublished.

But, according to a bushel of news reports, the act will allow parents of students who are attending "failing" schools to transfer their kids to another public or private school, and take a tax credit of up to $3500 for tuition paid to the new school.  There are other things in there too, I am sure.  I will read it as soon as I can.

I don't know whether the new law is good policy or not.  I hope it works out.  I do have some questions.  

Is it wise, when the education budget and state revenues are already in peril, to pass a new law that could quite reasonably be expected to reduce state revenue by millions of dollars?

What are "failing" schools?  The initial list, which is unofficial, circulated by Republican legislators last week, had about two hundred schools on it.  Two of them are in Blount County.  Some of those schools have shown improvement in the recent past and seem poised to make rapid improvement.  Improvement which will be wiped away with a reduction in students and loss of funds.

Was it wise to formulate and pass this major change in educational policy with almost no input from teachers and education administrators, including the State Board of Education?

Are private schools going to submit to State requirements for determination of whether they are also "failing"?

Are private schools going to willingly submit to the requirements that may be imposed on them by this subsidizing of their revenues by the State government?  That might be a little tricky for the private religious schools.  Maybe the legislature thought about it. Maybe they didn't.  But that's what we have courts for, unless they decide to continue to reduce funding for that as well.

One might ask why the Republican legislators moved so quickly, so secretly.  It was as if they were planning to go after Osama Bin Laden. Oh wait, that's been done. But the Alabama legislature has a knack for avoiding real present problems by revisiting the past.

The obvious answer was that they didn't want input.  Everyone familiar with educational legislative proposals knows that educators are one of the few groups who will get on the phone, or come to the capitol, to let their legislators know what they think about proposed legislation. Thousands of them.

And the Republican legislators did not have time to listen to that.  After all, they only had a couple of hours to get this done.

Before somebody found out.  Before somebody discovered they were impersonators, pretending to represent the people.

But it was quite a trick.   

If you're in junior high.  
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