Monday, April 22, 2019

Sen. Warren’s Ideas Fly High - Way Too High

Friends of Senator Warren have pegged their hopes on her aggressive menu of policy initiatives.  They’ve been widely touted in the media, with one problem: few popular sources have said much other than there are a lot of them.  Coffee conversations with progressive and conservative friends alike indicate that laundry lists of proposals have the impact of Nerf balls.  They can be tolerated for awhile, not taken seriously, and quickly become nuisances.  It’s partly because few know what her proposals are, and partly because even fewer have confidence they will ever get beyond the campaign stump speech stage.  In that sense, Warren and Sanders have a lot in common.

Because I know you’re interested, Warren’s proposals fall into six broad categories, as far as I can tell: 1) Lobbying reform; 2) Corporate governance reform; 3) Tax reform; 4) Election reform; 5) Criminal justice reform; 6) Foreign policy 

She wants members of congress to be prohibited from ever serving as lobbyists, and from engaging stock trading while serving.  I wonder if mutual funds would be OK? 

Forty percent of corporate board membership would have to be elected by  workers.  I presume she means major corporations, ones at least in the S&P 500.

Top marginal income tax rates would be increased substantially.  An additional excise tax of 2% would be levied against estates greater than $50 million.  I’m assuming it means the first $49 million would not be subject to the excise tax.  For estates greater than $1 billion, the tax would be 3%.

Elections would be made more fair by eliminating gerrymandering, reauthorizing the Voting Rights Act, and finding a legislative way to overturn Citizens United.  

Other than legislation banning private prisons, her criminal justice reform package seemed vague to me.  Maybe there’s more.

The same with foreign policy.  She wants NAFTA to be renegotiated to provide more worker protection, and the same for all other bilateral and multilateral trade agreements.  Add to that adequate funding for the military, and that’s about it.

I admire her passion, and believe her proposals are each worthy of consideration.  More than that, they’re worthy of enactment in forms that can make it through to signature.  But they’re not going to inspire voters to rush to her side.  For one thing, they’re way up in the stratosphere, and voters are more focussed on potholes.  If her rhetoric can’t make her ideas look and sound like practical ways to fix potholes, they don’t have a chance.  For another, voters, at least informed voters, are more aware that the president doesn’t have much power to push things through congress.  Even Trump’s bombastic attempts at authoritarianism only block and throttle.  When he tries, he flops.  

Warren is a powerful and needed voice in the senate.  That’s where she should stay.  Same for Bernie.

Thursday, April 18, 2019

The Holy Mystery of Easter

I’m a little naive about the secular value of Easter, especially to candy, card, and flower shops.  Holy Week is not normally a time for me to wander into stores, except when absolutely necessary.  This afternoon it was, to the local candy shop known for its chocolates hand made on site.  The place was jammed.  I was overwhelmed.  People were picking out bunnies, eggs, baskets, and, oh, as long as they were there, a few other things chosen slowly after much deliberation without the slightest bit of concern for others waiting to be served.  

I waited my turn, idly wondering if anyone else in the shop was also overwhelmed by the plethora of essays on the meaning of Easter that pile in clergy mailboxes this time of year.  Probably not.  Chocolate bunnies and eggs more or less sum up the meaning of Easter for many.  Anyway, the theme of this year’s essay crop appears to be about the mystery of Easter, and how trying to solve it deprives it of the power of mystery that’s essential to apprehending Easter without comprehending it.  I have found them appealing.

Easter needs to be illuminated on Sunday with words that guide worshipers toward the mystery in ways that invite them to consider what it means for them.  As a reasonably orthodox Christian, that meaning has constraints.  It’s not anything goes.  Easter is about resurrection, not bunnies, decorated eggs, and warm fuzzy feelings.  Moreover, resurrection is incomplete without the cross: you can’t have one without the other.  Setting the parameters is particularly important for those who seldom attend church, and know little about Christianity.  On the other hand, dedicated regulars, content with well established ways of believing bereft of surprise, need to be shaken into the disorientation of holy mystery. 

Easter sermons doing both don’t come easily.  At least mine never have.  One obstacle is that few in the pews on Easter Sunday will have invested in Holy Week time and prayer that opens the door to holy mystery.  Nor will they have participated in the hard work of Good Friday observances where the event is brutally obvious, but its meaning elusive.  Another is the abundance of bad theology decorating poorly constructed Easter pageants.  I’m not a fan of Easter pageants: the worst of them being Gibson’s 2004 “The Passion of Christ,” but I digress.

Maybe the best we can do is help Easter Sunday worshipper see the disciples as women and men who could no more easily make sense out of the resurrection than we can, even though they were Jesus’ closest companions.  They could no more anticipate what would come next than we know what tomorrow or next week will bring.  It took them the rest of their lives to fully grasp that, in the resurrection, the rabbi they had come to trust and love is fully revealed as God incarnate.  What he said and did was not just wisely instructive, it was the authoritative demonstration of what God’s commandments are, and what living into them means.  

The passion narrative from cross to resurrection is a holy mystery profoundly filled with ultimate truth.  It’s wrapped in a greater reality than any ever to be experienced in this life.  Those who apprehend it would not trade it for anything.  As St. Paul wrote, everything else is rubbish.  How can that be?  It’s a mystery.

Sunday, April 14, 2019

Christianity 101 for Atheists

One of my favorite atheists likes to post Facebook memes about magical thinking and fairytale stories that gullible Christians eat up without question.  Some of them are quite funny because they contain an element of truth.  Magical thinking is a hole some fall into.  Treating scripture too literally can lead to interpretations that sound like fairytales.  On the other hand, fairytales retain their place in history because they reveal real truths about human nature, and our collective fascination with magic unveils a deeply held sense that we are connected to spiritual realities in ways we don’t understand.  

Knowing that doesn’t help explain Christianity to fairytale loving atheists, but it might create an opening.  Among other things, the fairytale god they don’t believe in is one I don’t believe in either.  But I do believe there is a God, and that God has revealed God’s self to us in many ways.  I also believe in spiritual reality that is not the same as biological reality, although biological reality is one way through which we can experience spiritual reality.  

There are a variety of ways people believe in any religion, and some of them leave us scratching our heads, but each religion has its own foundation for how some people believe or don’t believe in it.  One problem with today’s Christianity is that many believers quit learning anything about it back in church school.  A juvenile understanding of one’s faith is not adequate for the adult world, but we seem to be stuck with it.  Maybe that’s why so many Christians appear to believe in a fairytale religion.

At its core, Christianity can’t be adequately understood without first understanding its Jewish roots, and the story scripture tells about it. Sometimes literal, sometimes poetic, sometimes polemic, but always metaphorical, the Hebrew texts, covering 2,000 years of experience trying to understand God, unveil a deep understanding of the human condition and divine intention.  If you have trouble taking some of it seriously, ask yourself how it can be understood metaphorically.  As rabbinical literature attests, there is no end to how metaphorical reading sheds new light on old questions.

By contrast, the New Testament of Christian scripture covers a mere 65 years, with its greatest emphasis on only three.  There are some basics.  The Word of God became flesh and lived among us in Jesus of Nazareth.  Jesus established parameters for understanding divine intent by defining what the commandment to love means, declaring that God’s love extends to all people, everywhere, in every time, and by demonstrating that life, as we experience on earth, is not the whole picture.  He made it clear that to believe in him meant to follow him, and not something else.  

What Jesus isn’t is just another good teacher of love and morality.  For Christians he is the living presence of God dwelling among us.  Therefore, he has ultimate authority.  We have no king but Jesus was a threat to the rulers of his day, and still is to the rulers and bosses of today.  His death and resurrection are understood by different people in different ways, but all agree it was, and is, the definitive demonstration that there are no powers of any kind, however brutally applied, that can force God into submission.

Jesus said he came that we might have life in abundance, and he interpreted the ancient scriptures to more fully explain what that means.  He laid out the path, led the way, and invited all to follow him on it.  He is not a best friend, spiritual teddy bear, magical healer, fairy godmother granting wishes. He is the Word of God made flesh.  In him all humans are made worthy to stand before God as one of God’s beloved.

You may not buy it, but I hope these few words have offered a bit more understanding for you.  Feel welcome to contact me with any questions you may have.             

Monday, April 8, 2019

Christians, Christianity, and Weaving Community

The importance of community has been the subject of several recent Country Parson columns.  I’ve taken up the cause because popular right wing media has distorted the American myth of rugged individualism, making community subordinate to it, even attacking it as the enemy.  Individualism has become an idolatrous religion sometimes vested in Christian garb, which is as heretical as it gets.  Country Parson objects.

Anything intended to strengthen community, particularly if related to social welfare, gets labeled progressive or liberal, and is suspected of being an entrĂ©e for socialist government control of every aspect of life.  Those who stand against systemic racism, systemic economic inequalities, and for higher standards of restorative justice have become “snow flakes” who threaten the American way of life.  Curiously, the same people who distrust everything governmental also support a president who behaves like a petty dictator, and favor a Republican party refusing to do anything about it.  When the obvious threat of creeping fascism is called out for what it is, the GOP and Trump supporters shrink from recognition or responsibility, claiming it’s all fake news.

What’s enabled the American experiment to endure until now, in spite of everything up to and including a civil war, has been an underlying commitment to the rule of law in a representative democracy through which governments have been established at every level to build and sustain community.  Before the Civil War, there was a move to let states nullify federal laws they didn’t like.  It was a cruel effort to protect the institution of slavery, but at least it recognized the importance of community, the rule of law, and the obligation of the people to obey the laws of the jurisdictions in which they lived.  The war may have confirmed the supremacy of the Constitution and the federal government as the agencies setting rules of law for the entire nation, but it didn’t stop the fight for state’s rights.  Nevertheless, it was a fight conducted within the context of respect for the rule of law as defined by our constitutional democracy.

Now, it seems, we are beset by nullifiers who, in the name of individualism, declare their right to decide for themselves what the rule of law means, and to obey or not as they choose.  Curiously, a number of conservative thinkers in the public forum have become alarmed at the trend to disunite the fabric of community through the incautiousness of this extreme nullifying individualism.

In keeping with their distrust of government, they want to reweave the fabric of community through voluntary work and local non governmental organizations.  They want to reestablish shared moral values through revitalized religious orthodoxy of an acceptable Christian sort, yet a sort that other religions would endorse.  It’s all very worthwhile, but it skirts the role of government at every level, and it assumes things about religious plurality that are unlikely to stand.

David Brooks, conservative NYT columnist, is on a campaign to encourage what he calls “weavers.”  They’re people who do the work of reweaving the fabric of community in the places where they live.  The stories he tells about them are uplifting and encouraging.  May there be more of them.  They’re reweaving because, says Brooks, the fabric has been torn to shreds by the excessive individualism of our times.  For him, the process of reweaving is exemplified by individual volunteer effort to build relationships that strengthen the bonds of community.  It takes place at the local level with government, from Brooks’ point of view, simply hovering in the background, providing the basic structure within which community building can take place.  It’s a rather vague understanding of government’s role, but at least he recognizes there is one.

The key ingredient to reweaving the fabric of community is a shared moral culture he believes the nation once had, and needs to regain.  It’s needed to act as a restraint on laissez-faire capitalism run amok, and pretend meritocracy that exacerbates extremes in economic and social inequalities.  They are the playgrounds of excessive individualism that destroy the fabric of community.  He would not abandon the virtues of individualism, but they must be subordinate to the virtues of relationships in community that are at the center of the American ideal.   It’s a center historically defined by The Federalist Papers, the Constitution with all its amendments, and a nostalgic sense that there was a time,  not long ago, when America had a united moral culture.  There never was such a time, but the nostalgic sense of it endures.

Brooks recently shared a piece by Lee Drutman showing a scattergram of 2016 voters according to whether they were more liberal or more conservative on social and economic dimensions.  From it, Brooks asserted that what will define a shared morality will be moderately liberal economically, and moderately conservative socially.  Perhaps he’s right, at least in the sense that center-right to center-left is where aggregate public sentiment tends to fall, even if what is liberal or conservative is poorly understood.  The extremes seem to get all the publicity, and political leaders, clearly moderate in their views, are nonetheless caricatured as extremists by those who disagree with them.  It’s the trumpian way, and many have adopted it as their own way of attacking others.

I’m not sure Brooks is ready to accept a pallet of shared moral cultures that integrates new understandings from a variety of ethnicities unwilling to be subordinated to the white middle class, yet willing to live in cooperative accommodation with others not like themselves.  I’m not sure he’s ready to firmly reject shared moral values that have used oppression and injustice as tools for maintaining individualistic rights of some while denying them to others.  It’s just a guess.  I’ve never met the man.  I could be wrong.

Brooks’ theme of weaving community reminded me of three books from the first decade or so of this century: Prothero’s on Religious Literacy; Haidt’s on The Righteous Mind; and Douthat’s on Bad Religion.  Each of them seems to believe that the dissolution of an American shared morality, more or less based on Protestant orthodoxy, has contributed to the overall decline in American political and social moral standards. 

Prothero is disturbed by religious illiteracy that is a common denominator of believers and unbelievers alike.  It makes it difficult to give meaning to history, and to the development of democratic political thought.  He would like bible studies, but not evangelism, to be a part of public education from kindergarten through college.  Other religious texts should be included, but it is the bible that would restore a shared vocabulary of moral values, so he says.

Haidt appears to have a Hobbesian view of human nature, and so favors strong institutions to curb our “unruly wills and affections.”  Religious institutions with well defined standards could do what government never can, but government can provide the structure in which religious institutions can prosper.  It’s a sort of weak government with strong churches thing.  A 21st century version of Plymouth Plantation?

Douthat believes we’ve become a nation of heretics, adhering to everything but orthodoxy, which he finds in the pre Vatican II Catholic Church and old time mainline Protestantism.  Our floundering disunity and divisive politics are a function of wandering heresies at war with each other.  Recovering a shared sense of Christian orthodoxy is the key to reweaving a shared moral culture.

All the nones, spiritual but not religious, and followers of other religions would, in their collective view, find a more secure place to live if religious institutions were once again the arbiters of a shared American morality.  If we weren’t so paranoid about separation of church and state, government could help make that happen –– again.  They are never explicit about favoring Christian institutions, but the bias is always there, and there’s always a sense that they have in mind a certain brand of Christianity that doesn’t include others (Douthat, at least, is up front about his bias).

It’s a romantic notion, and as much as I treasure romance, when it comes to this I favor more realism that is unafraid to use government as the appropriate tool for addressing community wide issues, at every level of community.  Religious or not, we need an informed and involved electorate  willing to engage in political life as the defenders of the rule of law according to our constitutional form of government.

More especially, Christians, well versed in historical development of the faith, are obligated to exercise their civic duties first as followers of Christ Jesus, and secondarily as political partisans.  Yes, absolutely, they’re to do what they can to influence public policy in a Christlike direction, which is not the same as a direction favoring Christianity.  Moreover, and this is the really hard part, they’re to try as best they can not to confuse their treasured social values with what orthodoxy means.  What Jesus commanded must inform social values, not the other way round, and Jesus commanded very few things.   

Wednesday, April 3, 2019

Is Abortion a Sin?

Some time ago a fellow I know, but not well, sent me a text asking me, as an Episcopal priest, if abortion is a sin.  I don’t know what prompted the question, but he comes from a conservative background, including a number of family members adamantly opposed to abortion in any form. 

It’s a complex question not given to easy answers, and given the Georgia “Heartbeat Law,” it’s become a more frequent topic for virulent arguments.  All I could offer at the time were some starters for conversation that never happened.  They remain all I can offer.  Is abortion a sin?  Yes, but probably not in the sense that will satisfy those who are unalterably opposed to it.

Every abortion is a tragedy.  Something in a woman’s life has gone terribly wrong, running counter to the abundance of life’s blessings that God would have for all.  In that sense, it is a sin.  But what has gone terribly wrong?  I’ve counseled several women who’ve had abortions, and several who were contemplating it.  Each presented unique problems: rape, incest, physical and mental illness, and sometimes the foreknowledge that the developing baby wouldn’t survive birth.  No two were alike.  For what it’s worth, none who were contemplating an abortion had one.  

What I never encountered was abortion as a form of birth control, or abortion just because having a baby would be inconvenient.  There was one young woman, counseled by a colleague, who was ignorant of the causes of pregnancy, had no idea what abortion meant, and only a vague understanding of what parenthood might mean.  She was the exception, and her level of sheer ignorance was an indication of how important sex education is. 

This may come as a surprise, but no man has ever been pregnant, nor has the power of the state been used to prevent a man from having a medical procedure he otherwise might have, on advice of his physician and conscience.  It means, as a man, I’m unwilling to support the power of the state to do the same to a woman.  Are there exceptions?  I think there are, although agreeing to what they might be is not easy to come by.  Screaming about late term abortions is not helpful, nor is it truthful.  Neither is yelling murder whenever abortion is mentioned.  Pro life and pro choice need not be mutually exclusive terms.  

Abortion cannot be eliminated, but it can be reduced to the medically necessary.  What has been proven to work is sex education, birth control, and prayerfully wise counseling.  What continues to help are policies that assure new mothers and their babies will not be abandoned by society.  Pro life sentiment cannot end at birth.  It has to include all that is needed to aid a child toward successful transition to adulthood.  For the same reason, pro choice sentiment cannot end at rallies.

What doesn’t work is the state using its coercive power to force its will on the most intimate, sacred, and painful decisions that must be made between a woman, her physician and her God.  I’m always puzzled by conservative friends who demand that government stay out of their private lives, but are OK with state coercion stripping women and their care givers of the right to make a critical decision involving their own bodies – compounded by enthusiasm for policies endorsing use of lethal force against real or imagined threats from persons who are not infants.

I wonder what would happen if we held men criminally liable for abortions of embryos fertilized by their sperm from rape, incest, STD infections, etc?  Let not the woman, but the rapist who caused a pregnancy ended in abortion, be found guilty of murder.

Is abortion a sin?  Yes.  Something has gone terribly wrong that should not have gone wrong.  When Jesus healed women rejected by society because of sin, he restored them to wholeness of life not only in body, but in their relationships with others.  Their sin had something to do with their condition in life, and much to do with guilt adhering to the society that accused them of sinfulness.

Thursday, March 28, 2019

Baffled by What’s Become of the GOP

It’s increasingly difficult to understand what being a conservative means.  I live in a rural congressional district that takes great pride in being conservative.  Around here, claiming the conservative label is to claim status as a sober, morally upright, no nonsense, small government, low tax citizen.  At least that’s the way it used to be, and for some mainline conservatives it still is.  For them, liberals were tolerably picturesque, if slightly daft.  It’s changed.  There was always a smattering of far right wingers tagged onto the local Republican Party, but they didn’t have much influence.  For a multitude of reasons, they’re no longer on the fringe.  Intimidated by Obama, fueled by tea party rhetoric, and emboldened by Trump, they’ve forced the  meaning of conservative to be more strident, less tolerant of others, more motivated by fear, and deeply suspicious of anything marked progressive.  Formerly tolerated in good humor, liberals are now characterized by GOP activists as dissolute, morally corrupt socialists intent on imposing government control over every aspect of personal life: a dangerous threat to entitled rights and the American value of rugged self reliance.  

Oddly, the rightward shift among local hard core conservatives has come as demographic changes in our region are slowly eroding their political strength.  From what I can tell, it’s from in-migration from more urban areas, rising levels of education, greater racial diversity, and growing political awareness among formerly disinterested citizens.  How that will work out in future elections remains to be seen.  

So what about the national level?

Once upon a time not long ago there were mainstream conservatives who dominated the Republican party; a few even found a comfortable place amongst Democrats.  When in the majority, they made progressive legislation difficult to pass, but didn’t block it altogether.  When in the minority, they were a restraining force on liberal enthusiasms that could exceed the ability of society to absorb new ideas and new ways, forcing agents of change to prove their case.  Yes, there were a few fringe characters fulminating against extending civil rights and programs to help the poor, but conservative leaders were always at the table willing to talk. 

That changed with the election of Obama, and the rise of tea party type members of congress who had no intention of negotiating with anyone about anything.  Under the umbrella of Trump’s teflon coated corruption, the picture has become even gloomier. 

What happened?  The other day I listened to a BBC interview with a life long Tory who was baffled at what had happened to his conservative party.  Baffled, that’s the word I was looking for.  I’m baffled by what’s become of congressional conservatives in the Republican party, indeed of the party itself. 

Long before they endorsed a wall along the Mexican border, hard core conservatives built a congressional wall preventing any movement from one side to the other.  McConnell set the tone with his public announcement that he would make Obama a one term president by shutting down any, every and all consideration of plans the administration put before congress.  Boehner was moderately less recalcitrant, but Ryan went all the way with McConnell.  Then they fell into lock step with a corrupt wannabe political Godfather who sets policy by Twitter, doesn’t know how to negotiate in good faith, is delusional about his diplomatic prowess, incessantly lies about everything, and has a life long track record of cheating.

Conservatives used to talk about fiscal restraint and individual responsibility, even if they didn’t practice them.  With some reluctance, they supported social programs that helped people help themselves.  They were strong supporters of education, the sciences, and free trade.  They even acted to protect the environment.  One way or the other, their intentions were for what they believed to be in the best interests of the people and nation. 

Now what’s on the agenda?
  • Doing away with the Indian Child Welfare Act
  • Engaging in voter suppression and outrageous gerrymandering while complaining about non existent illegal voters
  • Easing regulation of dangerous pesticides, and other environmental threats
  • Winking at white supremacy movements
  • Providing cover for executive branch corruption
  • Undermining public education
  • Blocking release of the Mueller report
  • Stripping citizens of health care
  • Confusing support for Israel with support for Netanyahu
  • Tolerating Saudi crimes
  • Engaging in politics by insult
  • Ignoring environmental science
  • Continuing disproven economic policies
  • Ignoring the need for immigration law reform
  • Engaging in xenophobic, isolationist rhetoric
  • Pandering to a trumpian base of fascist leaning populists

That’s only a partial list drawn from a few days of front page news.  We need conservatives.  We don’t need these conservatives.  We need thoughtful, cautious people offering their sober judgment based on intellectually sound study of the issues.  I’m simply baffled by what’s become of the GOP, and the good name of conservative.

Tuesday, March 26, 2019

Going Home, Going Home, I'm Just Going Home

Small rural congregations served by retired clergy often find themselves without one on Sunday mornings.  Then it’s up to the congregation to worship in Morning Prayer, hearing a sermon delivered by one of their members.  This coming Sunday is one of them, so I wrote a homily that may suffice.  It contains little original material.  The Tuesday morning ecumenical lectionary study group I belong to had a lot to say about the prodigal son, and the homily reflects more than a little of their conversation.

It begins with the observation that there may be no parable more familiar than the story of the prodigal son, which is a problem because familiarity ceases to surprise, and this is a very surprising lesson.  Maybe there will be a few surprises for the congregation to consider.

As Luke tells it, the driving question for Jesus’ listeners was: Is there a limit to how far God will go to forgive and embrace sinners?  So Jesus told three stories.  The first was about a hundred sheep.  One was lost and the shepherd dropped everything to go find it.  The second was about a woman who had ten coins, but one was lost, and she turned the house upside down to find it.  Neither of them are in the lessons for Sunday, but they should be because they set the agenda for the third parable about the prodigal son.

The shepherd and the woman in first two stories did all the work to find and restore the lost sheep and coin to their proper places, and that says a lot about how God works.  But neither the sheep nor the coin could do anything to help, nor could they be held accountable for their lostness or repent of the difficulty they caused their owners.

But the prodigal son?  That’s another thing altogether.  We humans have at least some free will, are said to be accountable for our behavior, and expected to show some responsibility for the consequences of our decisions.

The prodigal son failed at all of it.  He was a self centered, entitled kid from a rich family who had no intention of doing honest work for living.  His indulgent father set him up with more than everything he needed to make a life for himself, and he blew it – in every way possible.  He left home as a rich young man, squandered the whole fortune, and ended up hungry, homeless and destitute.  

The well rehearsed American creed declares that he should have pulled himself up by his bootstraps, and made something of himself the old fashioned way, but he didn’t.  A little hard work never hurt anybody, and if he had a mind to he could have worked his way into a decent life.  Instead, he crawled back to his father’s estate, begging for a job.  Why?  Why endure the humiliation of going home?

There is something deep in each of us that hungers for home.  It’s like a magnet.  No  matter how self sufficient we make ourselves out to be, no matter how wonderful every other place can seem, home calls – it’s where the heart is, and that’s where we yearn to be, even in humiliation.  There is a hole in our hearts that can be filled only by knowing where home is, and finding a way to get there.  And so he went home.

Where is home?  There’s a gospel song that begins: “This world is not my home I'm just a passing through.  My treasures are laid up somewhere beyond the blue. The angels beckon me from heaven's open door.”  I’m not keen on the theology, but the point is well made.  There is a home calling us that is deeper and more compelling than anything on earth.  One of my most important spiritual mentors, Phil Lane, called it the other side camp.  It’s just over the ridge, and everyone is there waiting for us to come.

A poem by William Fisher has been set to music from Dvorak’s “New World Symphony.”  It goes:
Going home, going home
I'm just going home
Quiet like, some still day
I'm just going home
It's not far just close by
Through an open door
Work all done, care laid by
Going to fear no more
Mother's there expecting me
Father's waiting too
Lots of folks gathered there
All the friends I knew

Our hearts know where home is.

Unlike the lost sheep and coin, the prodigal son could participate in his own salvation simply by going home.  He could make the choice and take the journey.  It's hard to know how repentant he was of his moral shortcomings.  Did he really change?  We're never told.  We're only told he went home.

And his father ran to greet him, embrace him, clothe him and celebrate his return.  

Let that sink in.  The father ran to greet him.  The father embraced him.  The father clothed him.  The father celebrated his return.  

Is there a  limit to how far God will go to forgive and embrace sinners?

Not far a way was the prodigal’s elder brother.  He was the good son: worked hard, helped run the estate, didn’t get into trouble, kept his nose to the grindstone, and obeyed his father’s rules.

Boy was he ticked off.  

To help the deserving poor is one thing, but his younger brother was anything but deserving.  What he deserved was everything he got from being a lazy, self centered, entitled brat.  Why is he the center of attention?  How come he gets a party and I don’t?  It’s hard for us to understand.  Our ideas about what’s fair and right are not wrong, but they’re not God’s ways.  The mystery that is God’s abounding and steadfast love is deeper than we can imagine.  Try as we might to make God play by our rules, God has other ideas and other plans.

Is there a limit to how far God will go to forgive and embrace sinners?

In Luke’s telling of the crucifixion, Jesus, hanging on the cross, said: “Father forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing.”  Of whom was he speaking?  The soldiers who drove the nails, the jeering bystanders, the Sanhedrin, Pilate, Judas, who?  Could he have meant each and all of them?

One of the two criminals being crucified at the same time admitted his guilt, his well deserved punishment, and asked Jesus to remember him, to which Jesus said, “Truly I tell you, today you will be with me in Paradise.”  Think about it.

Not many of us are the prodigal son.  If we’re honest, we may not be as bad as the younger son, but we’re not the obedient elder brother either, even if we act like it when we rudely judge those who don’t live up to our standards.  Too often we want it both ways.  We want God’s forgiving grace for us, but think other sinners only get what they deserve for their sinful ways.

Jesus, we are told, ate with sinners (the prodigal poor) and tax collectors (the prodigal rich).  It turns out that Jesus is the welcoming outstretched arms of the father.  Jesus is a sinless elder brother who not only celebrates the return of all who had been lost, he went out to find them, point toward home, and walk with them on the way.  God knows no limit to how far he will go to forgive and embrace sinners.  And, like the prodigal son, we can turn to head in his direction.  Jesus will point the way.  We can go home; he’ll go with us.

Saturday, March 23, 2019

Atheists, Lent, Fasting & Mystery

God speaking through Isaiah (Isa 58) says, “Is not this the fast that I choose: to loose the bonds of injustice, to undo the thongs of the yoke, to let the oppressed go free, and to break every yoke?  Is it not to share your bread with the hungry, and bring the homeless poor into your house; when you see the naked, to cover them, and not to hide yourself from you own kin.”

Lent is a time of fasting.  I believe it should be a time of rededicating one’s self to the fast that God has chosen for us, which also means disrupting usual routines.  The intent is to make room for the work of God’s chosen fast.

This year I’m fasting from Facebook for Lent.   It turns out to be a mixed blessing.  It’s a colossal time waster, and the local FB based news outlets are chaotic rumor mills run amok.  Giving them up has been a blessing.  But I miss handing out birthday greetings to friends; having long conversations with conservatives who take exception to me taking exception to their politics; and am unable to respond to a dozen or so brazen atheists who delight in poking fun at Christianity, and expect me to respond. 

It’s the latter I want to talk about today.  They have quite a hoard of memes, cartoons, off color jokes, and blatant insults to hurl at the magical thinking of Christians.  Some of them were raised in a branch of the church  that inflicted pain and suffering on them.  A few simply outgrew the juvenile storytelling imposed on them in Sunday School.  Facebook has become a place for them to ridicule the fools who still believe in a vile god who enjoys barbecuing sinners for eternity, a Santa Claus god who rewards with prosperity those who pray the right words, or an itinerant preacher whose message and purpose is undecipherable.  The improbability of a virgin birth and resurrection simply add incredulity to an already incredulous story.  Fundamentalism is the ultimate joke.   

Added to their company are assorted ‘nones’ who have never been exposed to religion in any form, other that what they’ve seen on t.v., and a few adamant atheists whose religion is atheism.

One obstacle to responding in a way that might open conversation is their assumption that fundamentalist evangelicalism of the Jerry Falwell variety or Joel Osteen’s prosperity talkathons are what Christianity is.  They don’t count the gullible pledging fealty to a pedophiliac Catholic Church, nor wimpy anything goes mainliners.

People such as these populate more than my Facebook feed.  They’re the subject of articles, books, and church workshops galore, each applying the latest in psychological, sociological and demographic research to probe for reasons; then use the best organization management tools to craft a forward looking strategy, spiced up with marketing pizazz.

I want to suggest an alternative. It’s nothing new, nothing never before thought of, and nothing digitally enticing.  I want to suggest taking up a version of God’s chosen fast as Isaiah described it.

Forget about calling them atheists. Call them anti religion, anti fundamentalist con artists, anti institutionalized abuse, but not anti Christian.  They, for the most part, desire spiritual truth and are angry at the church for not providing it.  Free of meaningless religiosity and away from damage churches have done to them, they wander the desert searching for what the church promised and didn’t deliver.  In a way they’re among the oppressed, yoked to beliefs about Christianity inconsistent with the core of orthodox faith.  They’re hungry for nourishment, but don’t recognize it’s theirs to have in the bread of life that’s ours to share.  They’re spiritually naked, tempted to put on whatever looks appealing at the moment.  They’re not enemies, unclean heathen reprobates destined for hell, or anything of the kind.  They’re our own kin, we cannot hide from them.

If our job is to break the yokes of oppression, feed the hungry, provide good homes for the homeless, clothe the naked, and not hide from our own kin in need, how do we do it?

My simplistic answer is to preach the gospel in word and deed, keep Christ at he center, and try to avoid confusing contemporary social values with Christian truth.  The last one is tricky.  God is always leading us away from where we are toward where we’re going, but we hold onto the comfortable social values of our times, claiming them to be gospel truths.  We twist Christ into a pretzel to keep our cherished ways from being changed.  On the other hand, where God is leading us is not entirely clear.  It takes time, prayerful discernment, and challenging conversation with others before we can be provisionally sure.  Following Jesus is to walk trustingly into the unknown.

For my part, when pressed for what I believe with absolute faith, my answer is; I believe that Jesus is the Word of God made flesh, in him I trust, everything else is provisional.  It leaves a lot of room for doubt and mystery, and I think we get into a lot of trouble when we try to impose too much rationally ordered structure on that which is holy mystery.  Naturally, I think Episcopalian liturgy is the best way to do that, but some think otherwise.

Can my erstwhile atheists be tempted to don cloaks of holy mystery and follow Jesus?  Maybe, if religion will make way for it