Sunday, July 26, 2015

Advice to Prudent Preachers

Max Stackhouse, in his essay on “Public Theology and Ethical Judgment,” asks, “What allows human life to flourish so that the common life can flourish?”  If it is a question that is ever asked in the congregational setting, it will drive teaching and preaching toward other questions, and some answers, in the political realm of the life of the community.

Therefore, the prudent preacher who treasures his or her place will do whatever he or she can to prevent the question from ever coming up.  Why?  Because there is nothing prudent about wading into issues of civil politics with questions like this one that demand an honest examination of one’s own political views at the very place where following Jesus will lead right into the temple and confrontation with conditions of community life and political power.

That doesn’t mean preachers can’t be political in the pulpit and be prudent at the same time.  In fact there are two paths to take.  The first requires an ability to read the political drift of the majority of those sitting in the pews, and offer appropriate biblical platitudes that appear to endorse it while assuring everyone that Jesus approves.  OK, really there is only one path.  The other is to be deliberate in promoting one’s own political views, adorned with appropriate God talk, with the intention of building a congregation around them.  The prudent preacher will, of course, choose the first path.  The second can lead to great success, maybe even a hit television show, but it’s very risky, and prudent preachers avoid risk. 

Honestly asking what allows human life to flourish in one’s congregation, community, state, and nation is also risky because good answers can only rise through conversation that may generate conflict and expose irreconcilable differences.   Moreover, there is a prickly ‘so that’: so that the common life can flourish.  There may be any number of ways in which the individual human life can flourish if it is disinterested in how it inhibits a flourishing community life.  Contributing to a flourishing community life may limit some ways of maximizing a flourishing individual life.  You can see how complicated this can get.  Who can count the number of career gallows or opportunities for congregational disintegration?  The prudent preacher is well advised to steer clear. 

What if one does not want to be a prudent preacher, but does want to be serious about asking the question in the context of preaching and teaching?  The gospel is a good place to start.  What a novel idea that is.  A particularly good place to begin is with Jesus’ new commandment to love one another as he has loved us.  It compels the famous prior question: How has Jesus loved us?  That’s what the six months of ordinary time are about.  They are six months of wading into the gospel narratives to examine what Jesus said and did that demonstrate love for us, so that we might incorporate at least some of it into our own lives, individually and corporately.  Maybe the reason that we dedicate six months every year is that we are not very good at it.  It’s a slow process, at least for me.

And, it’s a slow process that always leads in one direction.  Whatever Jesus said or did always affected the conditions of life that enable it to flourish, individually and in community.  Paul, whatever his many limitations, well understood that as he bent to the task of bringing healing and reconciliation into the lives of individual persons, and into the communal lives the congregations under his care, so that they could flourish.  Peter did the same as he worked to build bridges between observant Jews who followed Jesus and non-observant, uncircumcised gentiles who also followed Jesus.  But it cannot stop with persons and congregations.  If the gospel is to spread throughout the world for the salvation of the world, then how societies are governed must also be engaged.  

Some engage boldly and are ignored until decades have passed, Augustine for instance.  Others engage boldly and pay the ultimate price, Martin Luther King, Jr. for instance.  I’m not that bold, but I’m not all that prudent either.  The question is ever present in my preaching and teaching, and I always ask those who are listening to meditate and pray about what the answers might mean for them in the way they lead their daily lives, with the intention that the question will be revisited in a new way each Sunday for six months every year.  Has it changed anything?  I think so, at least for me and the few who have been listening.  Of course I’ve gone from a large congregation in a major city, to a medium congregation in a small city, to a tiny congregation in a rural town.  Prudent preachers may not want to follow my lead.

Saturday, July 25, 2015

The Blessing of Family Stories

Walla Walla is a fairly young city.  Most western towns are.  Its adolescence came in the early twentieth century.  Many of the families who immigrated here in those days are still present, having multiplied and intermarried over the last hundred years to create a spider web of relationships.  Family reunions can number in the hundreds of people who all live close by and grew up together.  

I didn’t grow up in that kind of family.  My folks left rural Kansas as soon as they could, and summer visits in their home town did not produce the lasting friendships that many cousins have.  Ours was an archetypical nuclear family of dad, mom, and three kids – me and my two sisters.

I’m a little older than they are.  Enough older that I paid almost no attention to them when we were growing up.  It wasn’t just that they were younger.  They were girls.  Many years have passed.  One sister went away to college, and, except for short visits, never came back.  Hawaii became her home, and there she married and raised a family.  I went the other way to NYC, and seldom returned to our home state.  Getting together for three of us meant occasional reunions at the Florida retirement home of our parents, which were always enjoyable, but that is not what his article is about. 

After forty years on Oahu, my Hawaii based sister moved to Walla Walla a couple of years ago.  She lives within walking distance of our house.  It has been an enormous blessing.  With plenty of time on our hands, we have come to know each other in new ways, some surprisingly so, that have filled in many gaps, gaps I didn’t even know existed.  It turns out that I really like her a lot.  She is an amazing and very talented woman, and it doesn’t hurt that she and my wife are great buddies.  Moreover, we have got to know our parents in new ways as well, and that has been very surprising.  

It turns out that although raised in the same household by the same mother and father, we had quite different parents.  Part of it, I’m sure, had to do with how girls and boys are treated differently.  Some had to do with my status as the eldest.  Some had to do with our parents’ changing economic fortunes that provided additional opportunities to my sisters.  What all of this means is that the stories we tell each other about what it was like growing up, and what our parents were like, are often quite different.  Those differences continued into our adult experiences of our parents as they aged, including how we experienced their deaths and the grieving that followed.  Mom and dad, it turns out, were far more complex than either of us imagined, and that new complexity has made them ever more interesting persons.  

Many of the people we know seem to enjoy telling stories of the family disfunction they had to endure growing up – the darker the better.  Maybe because it’s the stuff of novels and movies.  I don’t know.  Those are not our stories.  With few exceptions, and in spite of all the normal mishaps and tragedies of daily life, ours was a reasonably healthy family that had more good times than bad, and got through the bad with affection and good humor.  As my sister and I talk, I’m learning, and I’m sure she is too, about those times in ways that open doors and shine new light on things that were known to one of us but not the other, as well as shared events that were experienced through very different eyes.  It’s good to discover old events taking on new life that way. 

I wonder what stories our four adult children will tell when we are gone.   We are a blended family of two kids each who did not come together until their teenage years.  I guess, in our own way, we are the archetypical nuclear fusion family of the late twentieth century, and nuclear fusion is never cold.  It’s always hot.  But aside from that, I think we have become a healthy family, and maybe the becoming of that will be reflected in the stories they will tell.  They live in various corners of the continent so they rarely see each other.  It could be  that someday, in their old age, two or more of them will find themselves living within walking distance, and find sharing stories with each other to be a blessing.  I hope so.

Friday, July 24, 2015

Whatever it is, get over it!

Few people know the breadth and scope of a congregation’s programs. So began a note from Church headquarters encouraging congregations to say and do more to let people know what’s going on behind those closed doors.

It grabbed my attention because I was at a community wide meeting on homelessness where one well meaning citizen implored the churches to open their buildings to people needing a place to sleep and clean up. After all, he said, you use them only one day a week, and then for only a few hours. Clergy reading this will grimace and admit they’ve heard the same from time to time. Even some parishioners are clueless about how much church buildings are used as gathering places for the community.

Recovery groups, scouting and other youth organizations, day care centers, classes of one kind or another, community meetings, and small group gatherings, they are the norm. For most congregations the only requirement is that the use be related in some way to Christian ministry, or at least not inconsistent with it. The parish from which I retired is open all day to anyone who wants to come in, hosts up to three recovery groups a day, is busy most evenings with various meetings, serves a free lunch twice a week, not to mention a half dozen other ministries that take place each week. I don’t think they are unusual.

That’s partly why I deplore the popularity of demeaning the value of church buildings. Moreover, they are not simply community gathering places for worship and service. They are also powerful symbols, but of what? What is it that church buildings symbolize, because whatever they symbolize, they do so powerfully. There’s the rub isn’t it? For the well meaning person at the community meeting on homelessness they symbolize large wasted spaces maintained for the occasional use of rich, privileged people who claimed to follow a religion of no real importance or purpose. Whose fault is that?

At least locally, it’s not unusual for congregations that do the most to make their gathering place available to the community do so without the slightest effort to connect it with the Christian faith. What is it that keeps them from making use of appropriate opportunities to use the gathering event as a time and place to also proclaim the good news?

Is it because they don’t want to be like the local gospel mission where folks are coerced into attending prayer services. Do they not want to fall into the “accept Jesus or go to hell, and please have a cookie” message that some inflict on strangers? Maybe the clergy and leaders are afraid that old time members will not like the idea that the building is heavily used by persons not usually seen on Sunday. Well, whatever it is, get over it!

Having said that, I am retired and out of the loop, so it’s easy for me to stand on the sidelines and make pithy observations. I guess this is just another one.

Saturday, July 18, 2015

Life on the River, or I'm Not a Christian

We are home from a three day trip on one of the nation's “Wild and Scenic Rivers.”  One night in a decrepit motel, but clean and functional.  Two nights in tents.  A wonderful adventure in every way.  However, this article is not about life on the river.  It’s about “I’m not a Christian.”

There were twenty of us on the trip.  We got through one full day before someone finally asked, and I admitted to being an Episcopal priest.  It created a little confusion.  Some couldn’t pronounce Episcopal.  Some had heard of such a thing but were unsure what it might be.  One was proud to explain her non-denominational fundamentalist affiliation.  No one was very interested in pursuing the matter, mostly for fear of being evangelized in a place where there was no escape.  But that’s not what I want to talk about either. 

“I’m not a Christian,” was said by one of us in a gentle but firm voice.  It was neither offensive nor defensive.  What he meant was that he was not a right wing religious bigot, and to him being Christian and being a right wing religious bigot were the same thing. 

An evening gathered with others on the banks of a river is not the time or place to dig into it, but I got the impression that he had experienced some of that in his life, and had certainly been exposed to it in the town where he lived.  No doubt he had also seen evidence of it on television or radio.  How did we get to a place where being Christian could so easily be taken that way?  Moreover, it’s not the only distortion popularly held to define Christianity.  High on the list is the assumption that Christianity is a religious fairy tale with no more authenticity than any other made up religion.  Or it is a set of beliefs contrary to and in denial of scientific fact and reason.  

Stomping around like Rumplestiltskin asserting that the bible is the Word of God, literal or otherwise, only lends credence to the distortions already in evidence.  I wish I knew what the solution might be, but I don’t.  However, I do think that the Churches of the Reformation, including Roman Catholics and Anglicans, have to be more vigorous in publicly asserting the faith that has been inherited through two thousand years of success and failure yet working hard to follow where Christ and the Apostles have led.  

That’s easier said than done.  I was at a clergy meeting recently where a couple of seminarian summer interns spoke about their experience going door to door to share, if they could, the good news.  What little success they had was minuscule.  More often it was a slammed door or curt cold shoulder.  Why?  Probably for the same reason you behave that way when a couple of missionaries call at your door.  And probably also because the reputation of Christians as right wing bigots who believe in fairy tales and deny reason has spread more broadly and deeply than we like to think possible.  

I suspect that spread is aided and abetted by market driven media that understands that the more bizarre and abusive a representative of anything can be portrayed as being, the more appealing it can be to an audience that wants to be entertained and outraged at the same time.  The calm, reasoned voice has so little going for it.  It’s best left to PBS or C-Span.  I think it is also aided and abetted by the lukewarm, weak tea that has been passed off as mainline Christianity for far too many recent decades.  

The one bright spot, at least for the moment, appears to be Pope Francis.  He may be the  official leader of only a portion of the Church, a portion that is prone to claim more than it has a right to carry, but right now he is the de facto leader of us all, and more denominational heads would do well to be as bold.  

Thursday, July 2, 2015

Self Delusion and Self Deception, but well meant

I was taken by something M. Craig Barnes had to say in his Christian Century “Faith Matters” column of June 24, 2015.  He wrote in part that “no one in the pews is holding their breath to read the next position paper from the denomination…”  “It’s time for the denominations to get off the backs of their own pastors.  It is so easy for them to send their delegates to some distant city and delude themselves into thinking that voting, voting, voting without congregational accountability will bring about the kingdom of God.  It doesn’t.”

My own denomination, the Episcopal Church, is now meeting in its triennial convention.  Day seven is done. Day eight about to begin.  I’m home doing other things, but reports come daily about committee sessions lasting into the wee hours, of long, vigorous floor debates, and of momentous votes covering every conceivable issue that might tickle the interest of a denomination.  It is the very frenetic busyness of it all engaged in by nearly a thousand people following long tenured legislative protocols only a bureaucrat could love that infuse it with a sense of self importance that cannot be avoided.  Indeed one vote, the one codifying same sex marriages, did eke out a smidgen of national publicity.  The vote made official what we’ve been doing anyway for several years.   

It was a necessary and significant vote.  Just the same, those back home sitting in the pews and doing the work of being church through their congregations have relatively little concern for what is going on in that distant city.  They will offer polite interest when the bishop returns home to tell the story of all the that the convention did, and then go on their way with more important things to do and think about.  Even the clergy, except for a few diehard church politicos, will quickly shelve their collection of position papers, never to be looked at again.  

Having said that, I am not against these things taking place.  In fact, I have twice been a delegate (we call them deputies).  I just think we could be a little less self deceiving about how important they are, or we are for being there, or what effect convention decisions have on our congregations and the communities in which they are located.  Gather together for a few days, have fun, reconnect, network, worship, have worthwhile conversations about issues, discipleship, and God, especially about God, vote on the few important things that must be done, and go home.  As short, simple, and to the point as possible.

Then let us get on with the work of becoming a people who proclaim the good news of God in Christ Jesus through word and deed.

Sunday, June 28, 2015

Binary Politics with Dives and Lazarus

The news of the day has proclaimed victory for liberals and defeat for conservatives.  For the record, I'm a strong advocate of marriage equality and the Affordable Care Act, so I am among the happy ones.  That being said, I wonder about the binary characterization of contemporary politics.  One is either conservative or liberal.  Each side enjoys limited degrees of variation that range from far right or left extremists to just plain conservative or liberal.  Between the two is a chasm as deep and unbridgeable as that between Dives and Lazarus, so that none may pass over from one side to the other.  It's a rock solid article of faith for our most popular news sources echoed by Internet denizens and barstool pundits.  Any conversation begins with an unshakeable assumption that the other is a liberal or conservative; whatever is first said opens the door, shoves the other through to one side or the other, and slams it shut behind.  One side must be correct in its views or it must be wrong.  Which it is depends on which side of the chasm one is on.  There is no room for being anything other than right or wrong.

I tend to think of myself as more liberal than conservative, but I'm also a realist.  The world is not black and white.  It is a complexity of competing forces working their way out in an observable direction.  I prefer political options to be pragmatic and evidence based, but I recognize that political decisions are often neither.  There is no purity in politics, and those who think there is, or that there should be, are deluded.  Given opportunity they can be so unwilling to bend that nothing can get done.  At their worst, they are dangerous.

It seems unlikely that we will ever do away with binary political thinking.  It's been around too long, and it's spread too widely around the globe.  But it can be kept in check.  When nations have failed to do that they experience and the world suffers from Fascist, Stalinist, Islamist, you name it, violence, oppression, and authoritarian rule.  We have not been immune.  America has come close to succumbing from time to time through such movements as the KKK, America First, No Nothings, and the like.  Tea Party types, and their cognates, are not far away.

Conversation across the chasm is what can help keep binary political thinking in check.  Dives and Lazarus may not have been able to cross from one side to the the other, but conversation was possible, especially as mediated by Father Abraham.  We don't know how it turned out.  The parable ends without telling us, but it also ends with possibility.

The possibilities are there.  It can work.  One friend, for instance, claims to be a doctrinaire conservative who can't stand Obama.  We talk every week.  Listening to him and asking questions, I've discovered that he's not as doctrinaire as he claims..  He's committed to the preservation of the land in environmentally responsible ways.  He worries about the best way to help feed the poor, house the homeless, and care for the mentally ill.  He's asked enough of his own questions to discover that I'm not the far out leftie he feared.  I believe in the importance of personal responsibility, dislike government programs that do little more than throw money around, and have little patience with bureaucracy (corporate or public).  In our points of disagreement we can search for options.  Sometimes we find them, sometimes we don't.

The thing about conversation is that it requires listening, active, inquisitive listening.  There's the rub.  Active, inquisitive listening is what we want someone to do for us, not what we want to do for another.  Active, inquisitive listening is hard work, sometimes boring work, and often infuriating work.  Why should I have to be the one to do it, especially when I have so much to say?

Saturday, June 20, 2015


I’ve been thinking a lot about guns lately, maybe you have too.  When I was a boy and young man, guns were a part of most households, but not very important in the coming and going of daily life.  They were taken more or less for granted, and used used for hunting and target sports.  If they were admired, it was for their workmanship.  They were not privileged more than a good fishing rod or quality lawn mower.

My dad had a couple of shotguns that he took on his annual hunting forays.  Sometimes I went along.  Frankly, they were not that big a deal, just something one did each year in the fall.  As an older teen and young adult, I had a couple of shotguns and a rifle of my own.  Hunting didn’t interest me much, I discovered I didn’t like killing things and calling it sport, but I enjoyed trap, skeet, and target shooting.  The only “gun nut” I knew was a man down the street who was nationally ranked in trap and skeet, and overly proud of his Italian guns with their engraved metal and hand carved stocks.  A bit older, and as a sworn officer for a few years, I carried a handgun (or two).  They never made me or anyone else feel safer.  The possibility that I might have to use them was always present, but the probability was very, very low.

The point is that no one I knew thought much about weapons one way or the other except as a means to hunt and target shoot.  Hardly anyone was so frightened of potential intruders or armed robbers that they felt the need to be heavily armed for defense.  Cowards were the only ones who measured their manhood by the gun they owned.  Very few were paranoid about the need to defend themselves against invaders, or, heaven forbid, their own government.  And remember, some of this was amidst the paranoia of the McCarthy era, and all of it in the emotional heat of the Cold War and nascent civil rights movement.  

I gave mine up over thirty years ago. They just didn’t interest me anymore, and I saw no point in having them around.  If I lived out on a ranch or up in the mountains, I would have a weapon again, more to make a big bang than to kill anything like a prowling bear or mountain lion.  I don’t live out there.  I live in town.  All of this is to say that I do not understand the irrational gun fetish that defies reason and morality, but has energized a large part of our population.  Maybe calling it a fetish isn’t enough.  How about fear driven fixation, obsession, compulsion, mania, and object of idolatrous worship?

It’s time to stop this Second Amendment nonsense that shows no respect whatsoever for the rest of the Constitution, and to name the caterwauling about some government plan to take away our guns for what it is: bigoted, fear driven, cowardly insecurity.  It’s time to grow up and act like the civilized people we claim to be.  You want to own a gun?  Fine.  Get a license and register it just like you do your cars.  It’s OK, your rights are not at stake.