Monday, February 23, 2015

The Prophetic Voice and Politics

I spotted a letter to the editor in our local paper that chastised a pastor for writing a Sunday pastors’ column that commented on the national debt.  The writer believed that it was out of line for a pastor to comment publicly on political matters.  He abused the privilege of writing a column that is supposed to be about religion, not politics.  I didn’t read the column in question, and knowing the pastor, I doubt that I would have agreed with much of what he had to say.

However, and it’s a big however, I cannot imagine how it would be possible to follow Jesus Christ, especially as a pastor, and not have a great deal to say about politics.  On Ash Wednesday many of us heard a passage from Isaiah in which God called on his people to: “…to loose the bonds of injustice, to undo the thongs of the yoke, to let the oppressed go free, and to break every yoke;…to share your bread with the hungry, and bring the homeless poor into your house; when you see the naked, to cover them…”  Luke writes that Jesus, reading from the same prophet, announced that he was the one to “…bring good news to the poor,…proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”  My favorite ethical prophet, Amos, wrote at length about the political sins that made God angry not only of Israel, but of all the surrounding territories.  They are not so different from many of our own behaviors.  If you haven’t read Amos lately, you might be surprised that God has something to say about taxes, housing, income disparity, wealth, international relations, civil behavior, etc.  All familiar ground. 

God is not disinterested in how we organize our communal lives, and doing that is politics.  There is no way around it.  I’d like to offer up a series of pithy quotes from Martin Luther King, Jr., or maybe one of the Niebuhrs, but you can do that for yourselves.  The point is that Christianity is a religion that has a lot to say about politics, and pastors are called upon to do a lot of the saying.  

It does raise a problem.  We are called to speak, with a provisional level of confidence, from what we know of God as revealed in scripture, to the political environment in which we live.  It is a prophetic voice that can only be uttered after prayerful confrontation with God, honest confrontation with self, and a serious time of reflection.  We are not called to speak from our own deeply held political ethos that we have decorated with scriptural citations.  More important, we may not speak with absolute certainty, nor may we attribute to God the certainty of our own political values.  Getting that camel through the eye of the needle is not easy.  Nevertheless, it is something we are called by God in Christ to do.

Wednesday, February 18, 2015

Loving My Neighbor, but only for forty days in Lent

Loving the people I don’t like.  That was my lenten discipline last year, and it is again. I’ve not made much progress in the last twelve months.  It started with some prayerful reflection on what it means to love God and neighbor as the most important part of fulfilling the deepest intention of the law.  Neighbors are not always easy to love, especially if you don’t like them.  The generalized Christian claim that “I love everybody” just doesn’t cut it.  It’s easy enough to love the people I like.  Anybody can do that, says St. Paul.  So my original idea was to learn to love the people I don’t like who inhabit various parts of my life.  It’s more complicated than I expected.  

It turns out that disliking someone is a variable that ranges from “I can tolerate you except for these two or three things you do/are that really get under my skin” to “What you say and do borders on the despicable and I really don’t like you at all.”  None of the people within that range are enemies as such.  I’m not trying to learn to love my enemies.  I’m just trying to learn to love the people I don’t like, and it’s hard.  Some I’ve learned to tolerate in reasonably good humor.  Some I prefer to avoid except when socially or professionally required.  Some I keep emotionally and physically as far away from me as possible.  Oddly enough, it seems these are the very people Jesus would have me learn to love.  

Continuing prayerful reflection on this problem, I had to face the unpleasant fact that many of them don’t like me either, and I find that very hard to believe.  Me?  A gentle priest of the Church?  How could that be?  How do you bridge the gap of mutual dislike?  It also brings into question the meaning of what it is to love.  I know all the Greek words for it.  I’ve read Lewis’s The Four Loves.  I can recall a bit of Plato, though not much.  As a practical matter, they don’t help.  Love has become a catchall that hovers somewhere between erotic passion and tepid, unfocused affection.  The love of God as revealed in Christ Jesus seems to embrace all of that and so much more that I have no words of understanding to give it. 

You can see how this gets complicated, and why it continues to be my lenten discipline.  If it would just hold still for a while, maybe I could get a grip on it.  But we have added a new dimension popularly known as the polarization of society.  Extremist camps throughout the world, every part of our own nation, and my own community have made it very difficult not to affiliate with at least one of them.  The guiding principle of each is that any deviation whatsoever from their adopted ideology is not to be tolerated.  The only goal of each is to obliterate all others by whatever means necessary.  It makes conversation very difficult, and if we can’t have conversation, how can we learn to love each other in spite of not liking each other very much?

And so here I am at the start of Lent once more.  Once more I will take up the forty day challenge to be intentional and diligent about learning to love the people I don’t like.  I think I will work on two dimensions.  One, letting the light of Christ shine through me into the lives of those I don’t like.  In other words, getting out of God’s way and letting him do what I can’t.  Second, doing what I can to allow Christ’s light to flow into my life from people I don’t like.  That could be very hard for me.  We shall see.

Monday, February 9, 2015

Stingy, Cheap, or Just Thoughtless?

We worship at a small church on Maui for a few weeks each winter, and have for over twenty years.  I’ve written before about it: its near demise, its resuscitation, the vital ministry it offers to tourists and seasonal visitors, its participation in important work providing needed help to the homeless population that hovers about, almost invisible to most of us. 

On most Sundays the small nave is comfortably full.  I would guess a little over a hundred.  But the core congregation, the members who live here full time, who pledge and serve in all the ways a congregation requires, that core congregation is very small, a few dozen.  That means that funds to support ongoing ministry must come from tourists and seasonal visitors.  And therein lies the problem.  The congregation struggles from month to month to cover the bills.  Somehow they do it, but always with a certain degree of trepidation.  

You would think that a full church almost every Sunday would not have a problem like that, but the simple fact is that the visitors who fill it are stingy.  Stingy may be a bit harsh.  How about cheap?  They would be offended to hear it put that way.  After all, they are on vacation and have given up an entire Sunday morning to worship.  They didn’t have to.  They wanted to. These are the faithful back home, and they are the faithful here too.  Most of them are older rather than younger, and I have no doubt that they are  mainstays of their home congregations.  And yet the offering plate is filled with small bills when, in my not so humble opinion, it should be filled with fifties and hundreds.  

Fifty, that’s about the cost of lunch for two.  One hundred, a not too expensive dinner.  How much is it worth to have a well managed place for worship, a worship experience that is well planned and conducted with welcoming grace?  How much is it worth to know that the gift one offers to God will go beyond an hour on Sunday to continue Christ’s healing work for others in the community?

I don’t think these faithful people give it much thought.  They don’t mean to take this place for granted, and they would take umbrage if someone accused them of taking God for granted.  They’re not mean spirited, they just don’t give it much thought at all.  Add to that the fact that Episcopalians break out in hives at the mention of money and church, and you get offering plates filled with small bills. 

Well, like I said, we’ve been here a few weeks each winter for over twenty years.  The place is still here.  One way or another God’s Spirit keeps rejuvenating it, but it would be nice to have visitors give with joyful generosity one of these days.

Monday, February 2, 2015

World Class Floundering

Have you considered the meaning of the word technology?  After all, we live in “the technological age,” or so I’m told.  So what is technology?

Many years ago, a great many, I was working for a state planning agency as a very young community development type person.  The agency got a grant for a lot of money to engage in some kind of planning involving the application of technology to economic development.  I had one inappropriate suggestion, and one inappropriate question.  The suggestion was that we could incorporate the required work plan into our existing work plan and staff.  What a silly idea that was.  The grant included funds for a director, assistant director, and a couple of staffers.  Of course the fiefdom would be enlarged.  Anything else would have been crazy.  

The question was, “What is technology?”  I got long meandering, nearly incoherent, rambling non answers from my seniors, and rolling eyeball smirks from my colleagues.  Really, what is technology?  Everybody knows what technology is!  What a dumb question!  Don’t ask it again!

That was sometime in the late 1960s.  I still haven’t heard a good answer.  

These days I think we speak of technology as if it included only things electronic, especially things that are related to computers, tablets, and smart phones.  But my neanderthal brain believes that technology is the application of any sort of tool that helps a human being modify something, anything, so that the thing will be useful, or more useful, in the doing of some activity.  If that’s true, we have never not lived in the technological age.

With that thought in mind, I go back to that old state planning agency grant and wonder if it would have been helpful to use the money to examine local economic impacts of technological applications over, say, the last century, asking questions such as: Who benefitted and who was hurt by them?; Who opposed them and why?; Who favored them and why?  How long did it take to recoup initial investments in them?; What cultural changes resulted?; What was anticipated accurately and what inaccurately?  That might have been followed up with examining short term emerging technologies on the horizon, and asking the same questions about them.  

I say short term because I don’t think we are very good at guessing about the long term.  Who, in 1968, would have guessed about laptops, smart phones, and tablets?  The short term is what we are good at.  At the same time we can open our minds to the expectation that “the future” will come with technological changes we were not able to predict.  We can, however, predict that the unknown changes will come, and we can predict something about the dynamics of the social changes they will bring with them.

We can prepare by asking questions like the ones above.  They are not about technology per se, but about people, cultures, and historical dynamics.  We can even make guesses about general areas in which technological change might occur.  What’s in surplus, what’s in short supply, where do things itch, and what would be fun or interesting?  That old state planning agency might have done something like that, but it didn’t.  In fact, I don’t think it did anything worth remembering.  But why pick on a nearly fifty year old incident.  We could be preparing for our own near term future now.  It looks like some people have.  We might not know what a new technology will be, but we do know that some will be helped, and some hurt.  Maybe we could be better at understanding the dynamics of help and hurt.  In fact, we might pay more attention to understanding the full range of technological impact on social change.  What is it that evokes strong, gut level, opposition?  What is it that evokes unreflective enthusiasm?  How can we better tolerate the impact of early financial losses?  Can the stress of cultural change be a positive force?  We can ask those kinds of questions, and, perhaps, not be caught so flat footed in the future.  I don’t think we will do it.  That kind of community thinking requires too much hard work, and it always punches holes in whatever we think is right and good.

Oh well.  Why should we be different from any other generation.  Floundering is what we do best, and maybe that’s the way it should be.  I just wish that we would be more honest about what we are: world class, very smart, flounderers, who have not yet destroyed the world we hope to improve.   

Saturday, January 31, 2015

The Cab Driver and the Devil

We had a cab driver a few days ago who had a little to say about God and Jesus, and a great deal to say about Satan and the rotten state of affairs in America.  He was born and raised in Russia, son of devout Orthodox parents, but since coming to America almost thirty years ago he has become a Baptist.  Not, he said, that denominations really mean that much.  

He ranted about the lack of civility among the young, the failure of public schools to teach about God and Jesus, and Satan, he had heard, was considered a legitimate religious figure by the courts, and, therefore, worship of him was constitutionally protected.  The devil was capturing the youth, and both they and the country are going to hell, literally.  It was only a half hour cab ride in rush hour traffic, but he packed a lot into it.

I took a stab at asking him what he thought about God’s reconciling love as seen in Jesus’ life and work.  It didn’t slow him down.  He was a believer for whom the devil was at the center of everything, the ruler of this world (or at least of America), and we were in deep, deep trouble.  We had a local pastor like that a few years back.  For him, standing in the breach to wage war with the devil was everything, and it made everybody, and everything in society, God’s potential enemy.  He and his followers would be God’s staunch defenders against the onslaught.  The rest of us were either weaklings, or, possibly, on Satan’s side, not to be trusted.

It must be a miserable way to live, filled with never ending fear, anger, and distrust of God’s ability to be God.  What is going on in the mind of someone who claims to have accepted Jesus Christ as their personal Lord and Savior, but whose life, death, and resurrection has only limited one-on-one efficacy, having surrendered all else to the devil.   That’s it isn’t it?  Jesus is is a one at a time savior who snatches the few out of the jaws of evil while leaving the rest to perish.  Because why?  Because he can’t do any better than that?  Because his power is limited?  Because the battle between God and Satan is not yet over, and the outcome remains in doubt?  How gnostic can you get? 

Not only is such a faith self destructive, it prevents its adherents from acting as agents of God’s healing, reconciling presence.  They cannot be Christ for others.  They cannot receive Christ from others.  It denies that the Church is the continuing body of Christ continuing the work of Christ.  Moreover, it rejects the possibility that society will, or can, do anything good.  That kind of nonsense has been around for centuries, but, when I am confronted with it by some “true believer,” I wonder if such a faith isn’t about as satanic as one can get while masquerading as a Christian. 

Monday, January 19, 2015

MLK? Who Cares?

It’s MLK Day and the news is filled with remembrances and articles on events honoring him.  For some reason it got me thinking about other holidays honoring the heroes of our nation, notably Washington and Lincoln.  We honored them on separate days when I was a boy.

Anyway, we honored them for what they did, or were said to have done, that opened the door to the good things we enjoy today as citizens of a democratic republic.  We didn’t honor them with the idea that their words and deeds might have meaning for us as we addressed the issues of our own day, except, perhaps, through some vague encouragement to be courageous or honest or something.  That wasn’t bad, but it wasn’t very useful either.  In fact, it enticed us to be a bit complacent about ourselves and our country.  The same thing seems to be happening with the Rev. Dr. King’s day.  We increasingly honor him through the veiled lens of the passage of time that separates his day from ours.  We thrill to the inspired rhetoric of his speeches without being inspired.  That also is not entirely bad.  At least we pretend to honor him.  I was working for the State of Minnesota when he was at the height of his work, and I recall the depth of dread, and sometimes outrage, with which he was held by otherwise good, decent, white Minnesotans.  I remember one memorable gathering in the office of the then commissioner of public safety, whose name I have long forgotten, who went into a red faced tirade about that black, communist agitator King who should never have been let out of jail.  Now we honor King as a hero of our democracy.  It’s an improvement, but I think it misses an important point that all three, King, Washington, and Lincoln, would have said something about.

What are the conditions that surround us today that a Washington, Lincoln, or King would have taken up as a cause worth their lives?  What the three have in  common, it seems to me, is a commitment to issues of systemic justice that, in their day, were essential to the continued existence, growth, and prosperity of a democratic republic.  They didn’t, and couldn’t, address every issue of systemic justice that faced the country, but they could address the most important ones with the tools at hand, and within the limitations of their own human nature.  

Most of us don’t operate on the epic scale of their lives and work, nor do I think we are called to do so.  But we are called by their example to examine the issues of systemic justice that are right in front of us, and to act to do something about them.  For instance, around here it often appears that historical political conservatism of the region has been corrupted by a not so subtle racism compounded by an irrational fear and distrust of government at any level.  That is a real threat to the continued health and future of our democratic republic.  It needs to be confronted by each one of us as we are able, and we are able more often than we think.   Our local middle class is shrinking.  Our local impoverished class is growing.  We, who are somewhat wealthier, are mostly blind and ignorant to that.  That is a real threat to the continued health and future of our democratic republic.  What should we do about that?  I wonder what King would say?  What did he say that might give direction?  Whatever it might be, and as reminded by my bishop this morning, it must include the commitment and discipline to “strive for justice and peace among all people, and respect the dignity of every human being.” 

March in a parade if you want to, but tomorrow honor him more fully by confronting systemic injustice where you see it, and you will see it. 

Friday, January 16, 2015


It’s popular to assert that you have no regrets.  I’m not sure what that’s about.  As I continue to cruise toward the end of my 72nd year, I have a few.  Several come to mind right away, and they mostly have to do with education.

Somehow I got through grade school without memorizing the multiplication tables.  How is that even possible? 

In the 12th grade I decided math was beyond my ken.  At the time I blamed it on an incompetent teacher, but the fact is that I just gave up and went on to other things.  I wish I hadn’t.  Oddly enough, I spent many of the years following working on economic issues that required more math than I was comfortable with.  It’s a good thing the computer age had begun to dawn.  I’m not sure what I’d do with statistics equations or calculus, but it does seem to me to be a hole in my reservoir of acquired knowledge.

Several times in the past few months I’ve been shopping in stores where clerks seamlessly switch between English and Spanish as they work with different customers.  I had a decent knowledge of high school and college German, and as soon as the requirement was met, I stopped working on it.  Greek?  A tad.  Hebrew?  Not a chance.  In recent years I have struggled (but not too hard) to gain a foothold in enough tourist phrases to get around in several languages.  You know: yes, no, thank you, where’s the toilet, that sort of thing.  I’ve come to believe that everyone should be fluent in at least two.  I wish I was.  For what it’s worth, I recommend Spanish and Mandarin.

I didn’t really learn to study until I was teaching college level courses.  I didn’t want to be only a chapter ahead.  I was determined to know everything there was to know about what I was teaching.  My own undergraduate experience would have been so much more fulfilling if I had had better study skills.  My grandchildren have developed fine study skills and are absorbing so much more than I did at their age.  Now, can they think critically?  That’s what I do well, and I hope they do also.  

Curiously, by almost any standard I have had a very successful life.  What can I say except thanks be to God.