Ed Briggs

Apr 252015
 

Numerous U.S. State legislatures have passed or are considering what are termed "Religious Freedom Bills." These exempt the owner of a business from liability for refusing to do business in cases where the owner has a religious objection. When asked what problem these bills seek to address, the example often given is that of a Christian cake baker who is requested to bake a wedding cake for a same-sex couple.

gayweddingcakeIt is assumed that the cake baker will gladly bake a cake for John and Mary, but objects to the wedding of John and Jim, or of Mary and Sally. The cake baker considers these relationships immoral and does not wish to be associated with them. Providing cake-baking services might be construed as giving approval to a sinful act. Apparently, in this person's church, you do not want to become known as a friend of sinners.

"Friend of sinners" . . . I remember that phrase from somewhere. Actually it was a term used against Jesus by his self-righteous critics (Matthew 11:19 and Luke 7:34). Jesus was known to associate with the most despised people of his day: prostitutes, tax collectors, lepers, adulterers, Samaritans, thieves, Roman occupiers, and street beggars. Jesus was also known to suggest that these friends of his had higher moral standing than his self-righteous critics. Which brings us back to the sinner-avoiding Christian cake baker.

Really? If you are in the cake baking business, you want to pick and choose your customers? You want to focus your moral judgment on each person who comes to the counter and consider if you should be associated with him or her? Maybe you don't want to serve Muslims or Buddhists or Jehovah's Witnesses? You don't want anything to do with sex offenders or former prison inmates? What about "sinful" (your judgment) women who have had abortions? Why not screen for use of contraceptives or foul language or immodest dress habits? When you aim to create a legal protection for moral judgments, the list goes on and on.

In the days of start-up Christianity, believers would not have turned to the State to enforce their morality. They would have baked their cake, or not, and accepted the consequences. Only now, in America, where professed Christians are 85% of the population, do they seek support of the State, affirming that they are, indeed, the State religion and deserving of special treatment. This is historically interesting in that a formally despised religious minority is now exercising its muscle as the religious majority. The persecuted have evolved to become the wielders of power, despite their roots.

I have a dear gay friend who recently married his same-sex partner of many years. As a confirmed heterosexual, I admit that to some confusion of feelings about homosexuality. I was not born to that lifestyle. But I acknowledge that my friend was, and I wish him well with his partner. I feel this is a Christ-like position to take on the matter. I also do not consider my heterosexuality to be morally superior to his. Apparently god creates some of us one way and some the other. I accept this.

That Christian heterosexuals will turn to government legislation to enforce their moral judgments on others is troubling to me.

Why not just bake the damn cake for whoever needs one?

Apr 252015
 

As a former Southern Baptist myself, I was much interested in President Carter's reaction to recent actions by the Southern Baptist Convention. The SBC is the the largest protestant religious body in the U.S. 

450986231-8aa3bc9064417c9c4b78ddfdb32837aa3eb8e7e0-s800-c15I have been a practicing Christian all my life and a deacon and Bible teacher for many years. My faith is a source of strength and comfort to me, as religious beliefs are to hundreds of millions of people around the world. So my decision to sever my ties with the Southern Baptist Convention, after six decades, was painful and difficult. It was, however, an unavoidable decision when the convention’s leaders, quoting a few carefully selected Bible verses and claiming that Eve was created second to Adam and was responsible for original sin, ordained that women must be “subservient” to their husbands and prohibited from serving as deacons, pastors or chaplains in the military service.

This view that women are somehow inferior to men is not restricted to one religion or belief. Women are prevented from playing a full and equal role in many faiths. Nor, tragically, does its influence stop at the walls of the church, mosque, synagogue or temple. This discrimination, unjustifiably attributed to a Higher Authority, has provided a reason or excuse for the deprivation of women’s equal rights across the world for centuries.

At its most repugnant, the belief that women must be subjugated to the wishes of men excuses slavery, violence, forced prostitution, genital mutilation and national laws that omit rape as a crime. But it also costs many millions of girls and women control over their own bodies and lives, and continues to deny them fair access to education, health, employment and influence within their own communities.

The impact of these religious beliefs touches every aspect of our lives. They help explain why in many countries boys are educated before girls; why girls are told when and whom they must marry; and why many face enormous and unacceptable risks in pregnancy and childbirth because their basic health needs are not met.

In some Islamic nations, women are restricted in their movements, punished for permitting the exposure of an arm or ankle, deprived of education, prohibited from driving a car or competing with men for a job. If a woman is raped, she is often most severely punished as the guilty party in the crime.

The same discriminatory thinking lies behind the continuing gender gap in pay and why there are still so few women in office in the West. The root of this prejudice lies deep in our histories, but its impact is felt every day. It is not women and girls alone who suffer. It damages all of us. The evidence shows that investing in women and girls delivers major benefits for society. An educated woman has healthier children. She is more likely to send them to school. She earns more and invests what she earns in her family.

It is simply self-defeating for any community to discriminate against half its population. We need to challenge these self-serving and outdated attitudes and practices – as we are seeing in Iran where women are at the forefront of the battle for democracy and freedom.

I understand, however, why many political leaders can be reluctant about stepping into this minefield. Religion, and tradition, are powerful and sensitive areas to challenge. But my fellow Elders and I, who come from many faiths and backgrounds, no longer need to worry about winning votes or avoiding controversy – and we are deeply committed to challenging injustice wherever we see it.

The Elders are an independent group of eminent global leaders, brought together by former South African president Nelson Mandela, who offer their influence and experience to support peace building, help address major causes of human suffering and promote the shared interests of humanity. We have decided to draw particular attention to the responsibility of religious and traditional leaders in ensuring equality and human rights and have recently published a statement that declares: “The justification of discrimination against women and girls on grounds of religion or tradition, as if it were prescribed by a Higher Authority, is unacceptable.”

We are calling on all leaders to challenge and change the harmful teachings and practices, no matter how ingrained, which justify discrimination against women. We ask, in particular, that leaders of all religions have the courage to acknowledge and emphasise the positive messages of dignity and equality that all the world’s major faiths share.

The carefully selected verses found in the Holy Scriptures to justify the superiority of men owe more to time and place – and the determination of male leaders to hold onto their influence – than eternal truths. Similar biblical excerpts could be found to support the approval of slavery and the timid acquiescence to oppressive rulers.

I am also familiar with vivid descriptions in the same Scriptures in which women are revered as pre-eminent leaders. During the years of the early Christian church women served as deacons, priests, bishops, apostles, teachers and prophets. It wasn’t until the fourth century that dominant Christian leaders, all men, twisted and distorted Holy Scriptures to perpetuate their ascendant positions within the religious hierarchy.

The truth is that male religious leaders have had – and still have – an option to interpret holy teachings either to exalt or subjugate women. They have, for their own selfish ends, overwhelmingly chosen the latter. Their continuing choice provides the foundation or justification for much of the pervasive persecution and abuse of women throughout the world. This is in clear violation not just of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights but also the teachings of Jesus Christ, the Apostle Paul, Moses and the prophets, Muhammad, and founders of other great religions – all of whom have called for proper and equitable treatment of all the children of God. It is time we had the courage to challenge these views.

Dec 182014
 

Years ago I knew an elderly couple living on a large farm near Winchester, Kentucky. The house was old and run down, the dairy was unkept, the car was old and smoked, and their clothes were plain and worn. To see them, you would never have guessed it about this couple, but they were worth a fortune. The owned a large tract of prime land that was smack in the middle of plans for a new interstate highway. They were cash poor but land rich. Very rich.

79292_Front_3-4_WebThe couple had a number of children, all grown up, around six as I recall. The couple was strong minded. They argued among themselves and with neighbors, and they argued with their children. The children fell into two categories: those in favor and those not. Those in favor would come around and visit now and then. The others never came around.

The mother died first, and the father soon afterward. 

When the will was read, it left $25 each to the out-of-favor children, and the fortune to be divided among the in-favor children.

The out-of-favor children took their money and went out to dinner together. There is no record of their discussion that evening, but one can imagine. Word of all this was out and about in the town and discussions took place in barber shops, beauty parlors, Sunday School classes, and whenever people met up on the streets. Some people laughed about it, others shook their heads. All wondered what would happen next.

None of the in-favor children had been very prosperous . . . until now. The cars they drove, the clothes they wore, and the houses they lived in were similar to those of their parents. But things began to change, and fast. Shiny new luxury cars replaced their old ones, new homes were built on estate size lawns, trips were made to Louisville to buy stylish cothes. A lot of showing off took place. It was the talk of the town, how the old couple had lived like poor folks all their lives, and now that they were gone their children were living like kings and queens.

Some of them, that is.

Dec 122014
 

I was approaching the handicapped entrance to the pool, and I saw her rushing to open the door for me. Rushing like it was urgent. She saw I was a man with a bandaged foot riding a scooter thing. She saw a tube connecting the foot to a shoulder bag. She took all this in and spoke five words:

"I hope you get well."

451px-Handicapped_Accessible_sign.svgAs soon as she spoke, the slur of her voice told me she suffers from a neurological condition of some sort. Her voice felt of some pain, but for me and not her. It said the woman identified with me as a fellow sufferer. 

I was drawn in by her words, as in the four months since my first surgery-gone-wrong, I have sometimes wondered if I will ever get well. Again and again I have hoped to get well. In four more days I will have yet another surgery trying to bring that about. 

She asked was I going to swim in the pool, somewhat disbelieving, I thought. She was wondering how someone in my condition could get in the water. I explained about the device that waterproofs my wound in a vacuum sealed covering and allows me to swim.

Her words—"I hope you get well"—stayed with me throughout that day, and are with me still.

A few words from the right person can mean a lot.

Our Military Heroes

 Posted by at 5:46 am  No Responses »
Oct 302014
 

No, I'm not speaking about the Army or Navy or Marines or Air Force. I'm speaking about those who are waging the fight against Ebola, especially our fellow country men and women who volunteer to fight it at its source in West Africa.

Is it stretching a point to speak of their efforts in military terms? I think not. On our behalf, they are fighting a deadly enemy that could destroy us all unless stopped. Those who know about such diseases tell us that Ebola must be fought and defeated at its source, and that trying to hide from or evade the disease, while letting it spread, will be self-defeating in the end. If we stand off and let the rest of the world perish from the disease we will join them eventually.

140801-ebola-doctor-5a_d8ef47b6ea1f911e2c99e137ac2b60dd.nbcnews-fp-1040-600Working directly to save Ebola patients and protect others from infection is dangerous work. It is especially hard in poor countries where the medical infrastructure is lacking or inadequate. It is especially hard in places where ignorance and prejudice add to the risks and burden of fighting the disease. Some are saying that Ebola is a plague God has sent to punish homosexuality. Reportedly some Evangelical Christian missionaries have joined in this assertion. And by this bizzarre logic, to fight against the disease is to fight against the plan and will of God. This, then, would make the task not only dangerous but thankless.

The man or woman who performs a dangerous task but with the gratitude of others is in one situation. These include our war heroes. But the man or woman who performs a task that is both dangerous and thankless is in another situation entirely. And there can be heroes in either situation, but it seems to me that the greater heroes are those who risk and sometimes give their lives with little thanks and sometimes even blame.

If Ebola is to be defeated, we need to admire, respect, and support the heroes who volunteer to fight it. How many American doctors and nurses would volunteer their time to do this work in West Africa? How many? Surely not a very high percentage. If that is true, then it should increase our appreciation for those who are willing and brave enough to do so, 

They are military heroes. They are fighting for us all.

Jun 202014
 

He had made an appointment to see me at 1:30 to "catch up." When I looked up and saw him walking in, I saw there was an HR person following. Inwardly I said, "Oh Shit!" Verbally I said, "Looks like I'm in trouble."

2014-06-20_05-40-29So yesterday I went to my local Social Security office to apply for Medicare to replace the company health plan I'll be losing soon.

The SSA office opens at 9:00 a.m. and I arrived right on time so I could get this done promptly. Instead, I found there were 50 people already there and lined up ahead of me. The guard opened the door on schedule, and we were all assigned a number and told to wait for our number to be called. Others kept arriving and all the seating on the hard steel rows of benches was taken and newcomers began standing around the walls. It seemed to take about 5 minutes for a new number to be called. That was not encouraging.

retirement250-70My number did get called a little over 2 hours later. A young man standing behind me said that yesterday he had waited three and a half hours without getting his number called. He had to leave to go to work, and so he was back for a second day.

When I finally got to the window and stated my business, I was given a form that my company needed to fill out and sign. When I returned with the form that afternoon, conditions in the office were about the same. I spent another 2 hours there, with plenty of opportunity to reflect.

For a person used to being around people with good jobs and lives in reasonable order, this experience was a sad one. The many pictures on the walls and on the Social Security literature show healthy, smiling, happy people from all walks of life. But the people waiting in these lines and on these benches were not smiling. Almost all appeared to be among Mitt Romney's 47%. The "takers" as he described them. They were people struggling to make it: elderly, immigrant, sick or disabled, mothers with small children restless or crying, young people needing a social security card to work at low paying jobs. I felt strange in this place, as if I was out of place. And yet this is now my place. I will need to come back here.

medicare250-70A friend who cares for a disabled child wrote me: "It’s a sad state of affairs at SSA and Medicare.  I can’t tell you how many times my daughter gets updates on payments, gets payments, and then gets billed for the same amounts–all within a day or two. it’s definitely human error, and I can understand your concern about your info getting entered correctly.  Sad indeed."

I found myself thinking that if FedEx or Google or Amazon were running this operation it would be much different. I even ventured that if I was running it, it would be much different. But then I considered that likely the funding for this operation has been cut again and again, and maybe they are doing the best they can with what they have to work with. I do recall that recently the VA administrator was fired for not getting our veterans served properly. But then the politicians turned right around and appropriated large sums of money to hire more doctors and build more hospitals for the VA. This suggests that the agency was under-resourced and under-funded and that the administrator had been made the scapegoat. 

Oh well, as long as I get my Medicare, I'll be happy. Or sad.


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Jun 132014
 

Would an Amish man kick his horse right out in public? I would never have believed that until I saw it happen. It was on the Eastern Shore of Maryland. The horse was hitched to his Amish carriage in the parking lot of an Amish farm market. I believe the man may have wanted the horse to back the carriage up, and maybe the house had been slow or even reluctant about doing that. So the suspendered, straw-hatted man hauled off and kicked his horse. And I mean a hard, nasty kick. A God-fearing Amish man. Really??

Pennsylvania, Lancaster County, Amish Horse And Buggy.Would the man driving his hot car with the power of 200 or more horses gun his engine like a race driver in order to surge pass me and my bicycle, which do not have the power of even one horse? Really??

Would someone explain why college football coaches are paid way more than the college president, any of the teachers, and very often the governor of the State? Really??

Would conservative people who deny a woman's right to the abortion of an unwanted pregnancy also try to deny her the right to contraceptives to prevent unwanted pregnancies in the first place?  Really?

Would people readily believe things published in gossip tabloids, but flat deny things published in scientific journals that deal with climate and environmental issues? Really?

Would politicians with premium health care coverage provided at taxpayer expense be opposed to providing affordable health care for Americans who have none at all? Really??

Would someone explain why rich and for-profit religious broadcasting companies are allowed to be classified as churches, thus paying no taxes and obliged to no auditing or accountability? Really??

Would a woman deliberately buy a tiny bikini bathing suit that does not cover much of her butt, then spend half her time at the pool or beach tugging and trying to get it to cover? Really??

Would a country whose military budget is six times that of China, eleven times that of Russia, and 27 times that of Iran have leaders who argue that we still are insecure and need to spend more? Really??

When the Amish man kicked his own horse, I was amazed and didn't know what to say. It was hard to believe.

Those other things you get used to.

Jun 092014
 

Today was my fourth completion of 4.4 mile Great Chesapeake Bay Swim. I’ve described this event is previous articles and won’t repeat the details here, except to say that it continues to be, for me, a thrilling and satisfying thing to do.

Other people do not always understand this.

Bay Swim rescue boat with swimmerI came out of the water near a woman who told me that she thought she may have saved someone’s life during the swim. A man near her was suddenly in distress and she motioned for help and assisted in getting him into the boat. This event has something like 80 boats standing by to assist if needed, so help is never far away from anyone. Sadly, we later learned that the swimmer’s distress was due to a heart attack and despite the emergency responders’ efforts he was dead on arrival at the hospital.

Robert Matysek from Bay SwimsHis name was Robert Matysek and he was 58 years old. A native of nearby Baltimore, he came from his home in South Carolina to attempt this swim for the 20th time. Several of his family members were also swimming. His family testified that “This weekend was always like Christmas, Fourth of July, and his birthday all rolled into one. He passed doing one of the things he truly loved.”

I was reminded of my East Tennessee hometown days. One of our local physicians loved the hike to Mt. LeConte in the nearby Great Smoky Mountains National Park. He had a ritual of making this hike on New Year’s Day with friends and family members. He had done is for years, when one year he had a heart attack and died on the trail. “He passed doing one of the things he truly loved.”

A high school classmate of mine started and owned a large and successful business. But his passion is hiking and climbing mountains in the Sierras. That is the thing he truly loves.

A few weeks ago I did an open water swim across the Tred Avon River from Oxford, Maryland. The distance across the river was only a mile. But “only” is a relative term. As the group of us were walking along the street in Oxford to begin the swim, we passed some local residents standing in a yard and eyeing us curiously. One of them solemnly pronounced: “You people are crazy.”

“Crazy” is also relative. Diana Nyad, who swam from Cuba to Florida, sounds crazy to some. NFL linebackers and Navy Seals and skydivers and Mt. Everest climbers are only a few of those whose passions are far out of line with those of “normal” people. Just riding a motorcycle is judged to be crazy in some estimations. Riding one is okay with others, but riding without a helmet is not, or riding one up steep rocky hillsides is crazy. All is relative, and we each make up our own minds about adjusting the balance of risk and reward.

I do take risks, but not unmeasured ones. I drive my car carefully and avoid crazy drivers if I can. I get health checkups. I do not want my life ended by doing something stupid if I can help it. I started preparing myself to swim across the Chesapeake Bay in early January and kept at it religiously. Robert Matysek had also prepared, being a veteran of this event. He had completed a demanding open water swim in South Carolina just weeks before.

The bay swim was tough for me this year, tough as always. It took me almost three hours to finish. The waves kept pounding in my face and I swallowed no telling how much bay water. Toward the end, where you have to turn directly toward the incoming tide flow I could barely make progress to get past the bridge and around the jetty to the finish. I finished in position 551 out of the 628 of us who started.

I may never do better than this, but I will likely keep trying.  It’s like Christmas and July 4th and my birthday all rolled into one.

Jun 062014
 

I would love to have been at Omaha Beach today for commemoration of 70 years since D-Day. Instead I will look over old letter and pictures and perhaps watch “Saving Private Ryan” or “Band of Brothers.”

47832-004-557D0F4BMy brother’s landing on Omaha Beach was not in the first wave or on the first day, but on the following day, June 7th, tomorrow. It was far from safe and orderly on the second day. Although the beach had been secured, the enemy was close by and rushing reinforcements to join its defenders. Dead bodies still lay where they had fallen. Roads held undiscovered land mines. The situation was one of great peril.

Younger people today who know of World War II only through studies at school understandably fail to appreciate the peril faced by everyone in those days. Had Hitler and his followers had their way and prevailed, the world would be a much different place today. Had Germany been just a little further along with its development of long range rockets and nuclear weapons, Hitler’s vision of world conquest could have come true.

My brother fought in Normandy for 70 days before he was killed in battle. The devotion and sacrifices of those American and Allied soldiers secured the freedom we take for granted today.

 

Mar 272014
 

Our men’s locker room at the county swim and fitness center is the old-fashioned kind. It’s an open, communal space. Unlike the trendy commercial fitness centers there are no private dressing rooms or privacy screens. We see each other and hear each other. And the locker room sometimes takes on a social media aspect. The extraverts talk out loud, even to total strangers, as the introverts listen and analyze. It was that way this morning.

imagesThere was a man slumped down and panting on the bench in front of his locker. He was a large and overweight man with an alcoholic appearance. Even though he’d been sitting for some while, he was still breathing heavily. The locker room was quiet except for this loud breathing.

A nearby man spoke up then. “You must have had a tough workout, huh?” he said to the slumped man. “Not really,” the man said, “I feel so bad I don’t do that much. I have a lot of pain.”

“Well, every little bit helps. The main thing is that you’re staying active,” the other man said cheerfully. He was obviously trying to be positive about the situation. But his effort was in vain. Everyone in the locker room heard the next thing the slumping man said.

“I’m ready to just go to sleep and not wake up.”

The words hung heavy in the air and seemed to last on like an echo. There was a silence in the room that also seemed to go on for longer than it actually did. What are fellow humans supposed to feel or say when one of us speaks of wishing to die? What would it take for others of us to want to die in our sleep? Did the slumping man really mean this, or what? Should someone be notified?

Another man spoke up then. “Things can’t be that bad,” he said, “what kind of pain do you have?” The man on the bench said he had back pain and his knees hurt. It was easy to look at him and imagine that being the case. “Well, lots of people have those things,” he said. “Just think about those people on dialysis or who lie in a bed and get fed through a tube.”

And the first man put in that dying in your sleep is certainly a good way to go, but he wasn’t ready to schedule it any time soon. Then he laughed and said, “I think you’re just talking trash with us anyway.”

I wasn’t so sure.