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August 2013

Joint filing!

Strange to be excited about a tax ruling, but I am.  The Treasury Department has announced that married same-sex couples can now file jointly, even if they reside in a state that does not recognize their marriage.  Read about it here.  

While I'm excited, I'm also nervous.  I so used to doing my taxes the same way every year, and now they will change.  Plus, I get mine done like two months before Michael usually does.  So, this will be a new source of anxiety.

And, we'll still have to file separately on the state level, so I guess we'll have to prepare individual federal returns that we'll have to use for the state filing?  What a pain in the ass.

Will on Obama & Syria

There is much I agree with in George Will's criticism of the President and the administration and its handling of Syria, the rest of the Middle East, and the use of military force.

Words, however, are so marvelously malleable in the Obama administration that the Oxford English Dictionary’s definition of “coup” (“a change in the government carried out violently or illegally”) somehow does not denote what happened in Egypt. Last week, an Obama spokesman said: “We have made the determination that making a decision about whether or not a coup occurred is not in the best interests of the United States.” So convinced is this White House of its own majesty and of the consequent magic of its words, it considers this a clever way of saying the law is a nuisance.

The World Crisis: 1915

The World Crisis, Volume II: 1915The World Crisis, Volume II: 1915 by Winston Churchill
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

1915 was the year of Gallipoli, and Churchill was one of the architects of the Dardanelles strategy. When the campaign failed, it led to his fall from government, from which many thought he would never recover. So, I was intrigued to read his account of that year and the decision-making processes involved.

And this book should be read by people in government and bureaucracies, as it is a textbook in how poor decisions can be made and then have devastating consequences.

The basic strategy of the campaign, as Churchill relates it, was bold and could have dramatically changed the course of the war, possibly ending it more quickly. And, it could have been successful, according to Churchill, who quotes extensive from the record, including Turkish and German accounts of the enemies strength. But the Allies' tactics were deeply flawed, never sending enough troops until after the enemies armies had been reinforced and never exploiting the opportunities which they could have.

You could chalk all this up to hindsight, but as the record of memos makes clear, at every turn someone was advocating for the tactics which would have been successful. And the government or the military superiors made the wrong decisions.

Even if Churchill's account favours his perspective, the book still reveals how flawed thinking can occur.

And Churchill is a master of prose, which is one reason he won a Nobel Prize for Literature. His accounts of battles and government committees are filled with suspense and eloquent descriptions. His characters, all real people of course, come alive in his descriptions of them.

And his analysis is perceptive. The final chapter of the book is his reflection on the consequences of failure. Among his conclusions is this one, prescient for 1923:

The abandonment of Gallipoli dispelled the Russian dream. In her darkest hours, under the flail of Ludendorff, driven out of Poland, driven out of Galicia, her armies enduring disaster and facing death often without arms, the cost of living rising continually throughout her vast, secluded Empire, Russia had cheered herself by dwelling on the great prize of Constantinople. A profound chill spread through all ranks of the Russian people, and with it came suspicion no less deep-seated. England had not really tried to force the Straits. From the moment when she had conceded the Russian claim to Constantinople, she had not been single-hearted, she had lost her interest in the enterprise. Her infirm action and divided counsels arose from secret motives hidden in the bosom of the State. And this while Russia was pouring out her blood as no race had ever done since men waged war. Such were the whispers which, winged by skilful German propaganda, spread far and wide through the Tsar's dominions, and in their wake every subversive influence gained in power. Lastly, the now inevitable prolongation of the struggle was destined to prove fatal to Russia. In the war of exhaustion to which we were finally condemned, which was indeed extolled as the last revelation of military wisdom, Russia was to be the first to fall, and in her fall to open upon herself a tide of ruin in which perhaps a score of millions of human beings have been engulfed. The consequences of these events abide with us to-day. They will darken the world for our children's children.

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Julian Bond: LGBT rights are civil rights

Here is the e-mail Julian Bond sent out via the Human Rights Campaign, commemorating the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington:

Thousands are in Washington, D.C. today to re-create something so powerful and so vivid that it still plays on loop in my mind. They're here for the 50th anniversary of the 1963 civil rights March on Washington.

We are returning amidst a newly reinvigorated fight for civil rights that has grown rapidly to include lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender Americans.

After all, LGBT rights are civil rights.

No parallel between movements is exact. But like race, our sexuality and gender identity aren't preferences. They are immutable, unchangeable – and the constitution protects us all against discrimination based on immutable differences.

Today, we are fighting for jobs, for economic opportunity, for a level playing field free of inequality and of discrimination. It's the same fight our LGBT brothers and sisters are waging – and together we have formed a national constituency for civil rights.

And while we haven't fully secured Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.'s most remarkable dream, we are getting closer every single day.

Julian Bond Then and Now
Julian Bond with Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., and more recently at an HRC event.

In August 1963, I was the Communications Director for the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), led at the time by John Lewis, the march's youngest speaker that day.

A gay black man by the name of Bayard Rustin was one of the chief organizers – an early embodiment of the unity and commonality that bonded the movement for LGBT equality with the fight for equal treatment of African-Americans.

In his honor, HRC will help lead a commemoration of Bayard's incredible contributions to the civil rights movement on Monday. And it was recently announced that President Obama will posthumously award Rustin the Presidential Medal of Freedom – the highest civilian award in the United States.

Fifty years later, I can still feel the power of that noble, August day. Its weight is what drove me for years – from founding the Southern Poverty Law Center, to overseeing the NAACP as Chairman, not to mention the ten terms I served as a member of the Georgia legislature. And later, that exact same commitment to achieving equal rights is what convinced me to stand with the Human Rights Campaign in endorsing marriage equality.

Together we have marched millions of miles to land on the right side of history, and today we stand firmly planted, hoping only that more will join us, one by one, until everyone in this nation is truly free and equal. I know you are with the marchers today – in spirit and in solidarity – and I hope you'll follow the news coverage of today's powerful events.

Thank you for being part of the historic struggle for civil rights.


Julian Bond
Chairman Emeritus, NAACP

Last year at an Judiciary Committee hearing here in Omaha, a black pastor said that he was tired of hearing gay people say their movement is like the Civil Rights movement.  Afterwards, I went up to him and said, 

"I've never heard any gay person say that our movement is like the African-American struggle for civil rights."

"Well, good."

"Do you know who I have heard make that comparison?  Coretta Scott King, Kweisi Mfume, John Lewis, and the President of the United States.  You should listen to your own leaders."

The Spectacular Now


This well-reviewed film captures the angst and awkwardness of adolescence without some of cliches that these films often succumb to.  The leads, Miles Teller and Shailene Woodley, deliver strong, compelling performances.  Shailene's innocence and earnestness infect you, while also inciting your pity -- she is too vulnerable.

I knew the film would be dramatic, but I expected a little more humour.  I wonder if it will enter the pantheon of teen films for this current generation of teens, or if it is too heavy to do so?

3 1/2 film reels
3 1/2 popcorn kernels 

Like People in History: A Gay American Epic

Like People in HistoryLike People in History by Felice Picano
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

An epic story of gay life spanning the late twentieth century from a childhood in the 50's to the days of AIDS activism in the early 1990's. An early chapter left me wanting to be an adolescent in Southern California in the early 60's, though that would make one the right age for Vietnam and the full onslaught of AIDS. Along the way the novel touches on San Francisco opera queens, the glory days of disco on Fire Island, New York bathhouses, and hospital rooms with dying loved ones.
While some parts of the story made me want to be part of it, others clearly did not.

The novel focuses on Roger Sansarc and his cousin Alistair Dodge as their lives intersect through all those periods, events, and phases, as they acquire and lose lovers, friends, and jobs.

Picano tells a good story and writes well, though some paragraphs I thought were a little over-written (I did actually have to look up a few words). The final pages are beautifully, powerfully written and left me stunned.

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Paul Among Jews and Gentiles and Other Essays

Paul Among Jews and Gentiles and Other EssaysPaul Among Jews and Gentiles and Other Essays by Krister Stendahl
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Stendahl's book helped to pave the way for new perspectives on Paul, as it questioned many of the traditional readings of Paul deeply influenced by Augustine and Luther, particularly rejecting that Paul was concerned with the problem of introspective conscience. Instead, he was among the first to frame that Paul's major concern, with the doctrine of justification, was explaining the relationship between Jews and Gentiles.

As such, Stendahl's book underpins those works on Paul which have been deeply influential on my in the last seven years. So, reading this book at this time was more confirmation of already held ideas, but it was still a joy to read.

Primarily a joy because Stendahl is such a good writer and a joyful, playful, generous personality comes through in his writing.

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Ask Questions

Ask Questions

Colossians 3:1-4:6

by the Rev. Dr. E. Scott Jones

First Central Congregational UCC

18 August 2013



    I had lunch with Jim Ogden a week and a half ago. It was long overdue and good chance for us to get to know each other better. At one point our conversation turned to this sermon series on Colossians and our denomination's approach to scripture and faith. Jim said that he believes we have a "sacred responsibility" not to simply accept what we are taught but to think about it for ourselves and to make up our own minds. I really liked that phrase "sacred responsibility." One thing I value about this church and our denomination is that we by-and-large trust people with this sacred responsibility.

    Which we can put to practice with today's passage. Most of us, hearing these words about women and slaves are troubled. It is difficult after hearing such words to say "The word of God," as we do every week. Can we make any sense of what bothers us in this passage? Or not? Can we make any use of it in our own context? Or should we just reject it altogether? Those are important questions. Let me first say something about the thrust of this entire chapter.


    In light of the resurrection and our commitment to the way of Jesus, how should we live? This is the question facing the author of this letter. He is concerned with more than doctrinal or spiritual discussions, but with everyday issues of life. Household relationships. Conversations with those who believe differently than we do. Sexual behaviors. Economic behaviors. Practicing forgiveness and gratitude. How we treat each other and talk to one another. He wants us to avoid anger, slander, abusive language, and lying. He wants us to embody the virtues of kindness, humility, and patience. To encourage one another with wisdom and song. And to love one another.

    Lists of vices and virtues are common in the New Testament and in ancient literature. They themselves are not unique to Christianity. But our author does believe they have a unique authority and relationship once they are rooted in the story of Jesus and his understanding of God and humanity.

    And we like everything in this passage about love, thanksgiving, and kindness. What troubles us are those verses about household ethics, especially what this letter says about the role of women and the obedience of slaves.


    Attitudes toward this passage, and similar ones in the New Testament, are diverse. There are, clearly, those denominations who believe that these household arrangements remain the authoritative, God-inspired vision binding upon current families. While others reject this text altogether. For instance, Thomas Bohache in his commentary from a queer perspective writes:

It is unhealthy for queer people to view Colossians as God's revealed word to humanity, then or now. Any 'scripture' whose message is 'keep on being passive!' is not only dangerously anti-human; it is also seriously anti-divine, since it perverts the image of God contained in each of us.


    Even among those who don't reject the letter outright, many approach it with skepticism and suspicion. Most mainstream scholars do not believe Colossians is written by Paul, but was instead written in the second generation and that the letter, much more than any undisputed letter of Paul's, affirms patriarchal authority within the household. This could be the result of a more radical Christian message being watered down in the next generation. Or it could have been a survival strategy.

    Some scholars still look for redeeming features, despite the patriarchy. They contend that the author of the letter couldn't have publicly called for the freeing of slaves or full equality of women without risking his life and the life of everyone hearing the letter read. They point out how the letter actually mitigates social norms by calling for better treatment of women, children, and slaves and removing the patriarch's ultimate authority by investing it in Jesus Christ. Others remind us that even if the goal was to mitigate the worst abuses of the time, the result of the letter was to inscribe the slave relationship into the relationship with God [Dale Martin].


We reject the idea that the Bible is an answer book where we can turn to find clear advice for every one of the problems we face in our daily lives. This is because the Bible was written in a very different historical era and cultural context. The prophet Isaiah doesn't directly tell us whether or not we should invest in fossil fuel companies in light of global climate change. St. Paul never wrote a letter giving us instructions on the Christian use of Facebook. The gospels don't address that one thing you and your spouse have been arguing about every time you've argued year in and year out. Revelation does not reveal whether you should accept that job offer or not. This is not the best way to use the Bible.

Sitting in a church committee meeting more than a year ago, we were discussing the identity of our congregation and our approach to the Bible came up. Someone said, "The Bible is just the beginning of the conversation. It doesn't end it." I really liked that idea and think it is a great way to identify our approach. We think it is okay to ask questions. We even prefer it. We like learning something new and hearing a different perspective. We even believe that the path to spiritual growth and maturity, to being our best selves, is opened up to us when we ask our questions.

The Bible roots us in a shared story – the story of God with us in the life of Israel, Jesus, and the early church. It bonds us to a community of other people who commit to the same way of life. And it engages us in conversation which leads to new insights and spiritual growth.

Brian Walsh and Sylvia Keesmaat, in their commentary on Colossians, write that "If we are to faithfully live out the biblical drama, then we will need to develop the imaginative skills necessary to improvise." They describe this skill as "a dance between innovation and consistency."


Our serious reading of scripture must be characterized by fidelity to the thrust of the narrative and thus provide our life with a consistency and stability, a rootedness. At the same time, however, the Bible as an unfinished drama gives us freedom for . . . innovation and thus a creative and imaginative flexibility in our . . . responses.


I like this approach, because it invites us to engage the Bible in an imaginative activity, dancing between fidelity and innovation.


So, I cannot accept this letter's views on women and slaves. I must reject them. I do so not because of any disregard for the Bible, but precisely because the on-going conversation of which the Bible is a part has taught us that slavery is wrong and that women must be treated with full equality.

But this conclusion also doesn't lead me to reject the Letter to the Colossians and never read it again. Because while I do not admire the answers given, I do admire that this author was attempting to give practical, everyday advice to this congregation in an effort to help them lead better, more faithful lives.

We should also be courageous enough to engage the political, economic, cultural, and household issues of our time, offering practical options for how to lead better, more faithful lives. And, you know what, our efforts to deal with all those issues will, just like this author's, be conditioned by our own context and dominated by cultural influences we are unaware of. Will later generations view our efforts to live faithfully as shortsighted or lacking in significant ways? Probably.

I am proud that this summer, at General Synod, the United Church of Christ engaged in robust discussions of important topics – immigration reform, climate change, voting rights, marriage equality, bullying, and more. Did the resolutions we passed answer authoritatively these issues for all time? Likely not. Did we get some things wrong? Probably so. Did we even fail to see an important issue or an ethical failing that will become apparent later? Very likely.

Despite those limitations, what we did do was extraordinary. We believed that a group of people rooted in this Biblical story could take what we had learned here and apply it to the concerns of our time. Asking those questions is an incredible act of faith.


The theme which our church selected as a motivating, focusing, and united message is "Open Doors Wide." The screen doors on the chancel the last month or so have been a visually suggestive representation of that message, and it has been my goal in this series to explore more deeply the meaning of the phrase "Open Doors Wide." And, so, I hope our time in Colossians has been profitable, encouraging you to open yourself in new ways, so that you might grow spiritually and move closer to becoming your best self.


Open doors to conversation. Invite people in. Invite light in. Gain confidence. Grow roots. Live free. Open doors within yourself. Extend yourself. Think about the big picture. Ask questions. Be open to possibilities. Welcome new ideas. Push the envelope. Grow. And keep growing.


    For we are a spiritual family with open hearts, rich traditions, and curious minds.