February 2012

I’m taking a short break of a couple of weeks or so. Please check back later. And thanks for reading.

(In the meantime, please visit my sermon blog at http://drtomsermons.wordpress.com. My Ash Wednesday message will be posted later this morning.)


We had for years a great little toaster oven that finally gave up the ghost a few months back. We bought a new appliance, but, while just fine for small baking jobs or browning cheese toast, it fell down in the toasting department. That task involved turning a dial past 10 minutes, then back to your preferred toast darkness mark; setting the oven temp at 450; and making sure a switch was set on “bake/toast” rather than "”broil.” Even after all these steps, and putting the dial where we thought we wanted it for perfect toast, the bread or bagel always came out either too light or too dark. And worst of all, it took forever to make toast, since the coils did not heat up immediately as in a conventional toaster.

We finally gave up on toasting in the thing and bought a traditional toaster. Wow! Simple. Fast. It does one thing and does it well. No menus or steps or confusing settings.

I like simple. Life is too complicated to have to fool with applicances that give you fits. I guess that’s why I don’t have a smart phone. (I saw a “For Dummies” book about the iPhone 4S in someone’s home Wednesday that was as thick as one of my Bible commentaries!)

There’s an old saw we all know called “Occam’s Razor.” It’s stated a number of ways, but the version I know is “All other things being equal, the simplest solution to a problem (or the simplest answer to a question) is likely the right one.”

In these days when faith is clouded by arguments on hot button issues, debates about standards, and on and on, I like to think that Jesus would have liked Occam’s Razor. And he would also have liked toasters. Both for their simplicity. After all, did he not sum up the gospel like this: “Love God and love your neighbor as yourself”?

What would happen if all the preachers, politicians, and pundits today remembered and practiced that simple summons?

© 2012 Tom Cheatham. All rights reserved.

We must not allow governments to impose Christian faith by legislation, nor should we demand undue advantages for the church. The church must be free to speak to civil authorities, neither claiming expert knowledge it does not have, nor remaining silent when God’s Word is clear (A Declaration of Faith, a document commended to the Presbyterian Church [USA] for liturgy and study).

…[W]e consider the rights of private judgment, in all matters thst respect religion, as universal and inalienable. We do not even wish to see any religious constitution aided by the civil power, further than may be necessary for protection and security, and at the same time, be equal and common to all others (Presbyterian [USA] Book of Order F-3.0101b).

As I thought about what I wrote yesterday, I realized I may have left the impression that I wanted politicians to leave the Church alone , that the Church or more broadly, religion of whatever sort, could demand for itself the privilege of special attention by government to its viewpoints. That was not my meaning. I want to clarify with this postscript that I also believe the Church/religion needs to keep its collective nose out of the government’s business.

I mean that while religion in our nation can and should be a partner in conversations, it cannot expect that its viewpoints will be more respected or put into practice in legislation than any other sector of society, like science or medicine or the military or  those who are thoroughly secular or the individual exercising his or her right of conscience free of religious dictates. Any attempt to control, not merely speak to, the actions of government, such as we have seen in the past week about certain health programs, is to me is the height of arrogance.

Maybe because I’m a freedom-loving Presbyterian and American, but I don’t want some church hierarch dictating my actions. “For freedom Christ has set us free” and”God alone is Lord of the conscience.” Religion can and ought to speak, sometimes with a loud voice, on matters of justice. But what has happened in the national conversation recently sounds to me more like the arrogant demand for unwarranted and undeserved power.

© 2012 Tom Cheatham

“We do not even  wish to see any religious constitution aided by the civil power, further than may be necessary for protection and security, and at the same time, be equal and common to all others” (Presbyterian Church [USA] Book of Order F-3.0101b, stating an historic principle guiding Presbyterians).

Probably the sole reason I remain a Presbyterian (the mainline/oldline kind) is our commitment to freedom. Freedom of conscience, with God as its only Judge and Lord. Freedom from tyranny, which led Presbyterians to participate actively in the American Revolution. Freedom in liturgy, which means that while we have an official guide, the Directory for Worship, that very standard gives me a great deal of latitude.

At no time, contrary to the claims of some politicians these days, have I felt such religious liberty threatened. Are there IRS regulations forbidding me, as part of a not-for-profit, from endorsing candidates from the pulpit or on church letterhead? Yes, and I respect and obey those rules as good and proper. Must my congregation, in personnel matters, follow the laws concerning fair employment (Book of Order G-3.0106) or must I, as well as my ruling elders, report abuse, neglect and/or molestation (Book of Order G-4.0302)? Again, yes, and we do this not simply because the law requires it, but as a theological commitment. I don’t feel that following the law oppresses me or my church.

When these politicians scream about religious liberty being attacked or curtailed, so often it’s a smokescreen to draw attention away from other issues or else they mean that the bigotry and fear-mongering of their particular brand of “Christianity” is  being exposed for what it is. Do you see these same people worrying about the freedom of expression or inclusion of Muslims, Wiccans/pagans, atheists or even other Christians, in national life or local decision-making? No. More likely they are promoting suspicion and hatred against people who do not share the beliefs of their fundamentalist supporters, with their checklist of hot-button, litmus-test issues.

The real threat to religious liberty is when government makes one brand of faith of any stripe and anywhere along the conservative-liberal spectrum, the de facto national/state/local official religion. That’s done when the leaders use their offices as bully pulpits to promote their own denomination, rather than values that may be common to all. It happens when there is no religious diversity on boards and in cabinets or when governments adopt one religiously-influenced viewpoint as the official one.

I’m glad there is no religious test for “any office or public trust under the United States” (Article VI of the Constitution). I wish there were no such test, implicit or explicit, at any level of civil leadership. And the Bill of Rights protects government from religion and religion from government. That “wall of separation” (Thomas Jefferson) has served us well these many years.

Politicians, whoever you are, leave religion to the church, the synagogue, the mosque, and other bodies equipped and called to promote and practice it. Do your job, which is to govern with justice and promote the common good.

© 2012 Tom Cheatham

A recent article in The Huffington Post cited findings by the Corporation for Enterprise Development that “echo other recent studies showing that many Americans are ill-prepared for financial emergencies. Analysts said the reasons include flat wages, the high cost of medical treatment and the nationwide drop in housing values leaving homeowners with less wealth than they believed they had.”

Andrea Levere, the president of the organization, says that “greater financial literacy might have helped prevent the current situation.” She noted how people can “‘graduate high school and not know how to write a check,’” and added that, along with public policy changes, “an increased emphasis on personal responsibility for budgeting and spending should be an important part of any step forward” (see endnote).

After reading that article, my wife and I began to wonder what other life skills might also be lacking among many today that would improve the general situation in our nation. And we wondered whether there were any required courses in high school or even earlier that taught people how to manage money, communicate, do everyday tasks, and so on.

We made a list of the things we felt everyone should know. I cited problem-solving strategies, writing a resume, searching for work, and communicating well. She noted that everyone should also be able to make a menu and shop at a grocery store, as well as cook several simple breakfasts, lunches, and suppers on their own (not just microwave something). They should know how to pump gas and check basic fluids. They should be familiar with basic hardware tools. Everyone should be able to read a news article and then summarize it.

This exercise brought to mind Jason Boyett’s book A Pocket Guide to Adulthood: 29 Things to Know Before You Hit 30. In a humorous, but helpful, way, Boyett lists such skills as how to cook eggs, being wary of the “credit card debt monkey,” “how to speak good…er, well,” changing a flat tire, living beneath your means, stocking a medicine cabinet, buying groceries “like you own the grocery store,” asking for a raise, and even how to play poker and do card tricks.

If an educated populace is necessary for the functioning of a democracy, I wonder if teaching such skills in school, and not so much impractical stuff that will never be used, would improve our national situation. I have in mind how different things might be if people were taught how to make good choices about everything from their leadership to their purchases to their meals. I’m also thinking about the peace that might prevail if folks were to learn how to express viewpoints without polarization or coming to blows, how to listen, and how to be a “non-anxious presence” when everyone else is fighting and fearful.

I’d like to hear from any readers about what is taught in your community. Is there any requirement in high school for any such class(es)? If not, is there some other way people can learn what they need to know to get along in the world? Thanks for any insights you have.

© 2012 Tom Cheatham

Endnote. See  http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/01/31/working-poor-liquid-asset-poverty_n_1243152.html?ref=daily-brief utm_source=DailyBrief&utm_campaign=013112&utm_medium=email&utm_content=NewsEntry&utm_term=Daily%20Brief