Thursday, April 17, 2014

Fron Page News: Armored Personnel Carrier Invades Town; Population Under Martial Law!

The front page article in the local paper was about a surplus armored personnel carrier the city received from the Army to transport SWAT teams throughout a two county region.  No one anticipates a lot of use for it, but we have had a couple of armed standoffs in the last few years where protecting officers was a high priority.  It will make its appearances mostly in parades and at fairs.  The kids will love clambering over it, and veterans will tell stories around it. 

You would think it would not be controversial, but among more than a few letter writers and commentators on the Internet, it has become a symbol of the militarization of our police forces orchestrated by a government bent on stripping us of our freedoms and turning the nation into a totalitarian state.  

One hardly knows what to say.  They can’t be dismissed as just so many nuts because they have such a loud voice, and, for some reason I fail to apprehend, that voice has captured the imagination of tea party types who seem to live in constant fear of the very government that is the foundation of the nation of which they say they are patriots, and that is now their enemy.  As a minor aside, those same voices seem unaware of the differences between local, state and federal governments, but that’s another issue.  

I visited with a friend on our local SWAT team who, being politically conservative himself, could not understand it.  He is not, he said, the government, and besides, the job of the SWAT team is to protect the public from really bad guys, not confiscate guns or enforce martial law.

Apparently he was confused.  As far as the loud voices are concerned, you are the government, I said.  You are the very image of everything they are afraid of.  If you are not in on the plot to enforce martial law, then you are being manipulated by those who are.  That’s the (tea) party line, no deviation from it is allowed, and no evidence is required to support it.  He just looked at me. 

In my lifetime I have never seen so many otherwise normal people so steeped in fundamental ignorance about American history, civics, and economics, nor so convinced of what they believe that it’s not possible to engage in open conversation.  The truly sad part, to me, is that we have serious issues that need the benefit of honest, well informed debate, and we’re not getting it.  Instead we get Faux News and company, with modest competition from the ever rambling CNN and hyperbolic MSNBC.  When they fade out, the banner is taken over by a small army of Internet commentators who are very good at reaching a very wide audience.  We are not bereft of quality news sources in print, on the Net, and over the air, but who wants calm reasoned thinking when demagoguery is so much easier and more fun?

For what it’s worth, there are other voices that are heard in our community: conservative, liberal, and in-between.  But they tend to talk mostly among themselves, not too loudly, and generally quite polite.  Me among them.

OK, rant over, for the time being.

Friday, April 11, 2014

Fear, Intimidation & Preaching the Gospel

I had a nice long, pleasant conversation yesterday with a friend, mostly about the bible and what it means to be saved.  At one point she observed that preachers who throw a little fear of hell and damnation into their listeners have been successful in turning people to Christ.  She’s absolutely right.  Some have been successful, but it makes me very uncomfortable.  Why is that?

Part of my discomfort comes from the secular world.  Management researchers, teachers and consultants have known for decades that using fear and intimidation to motivate workers is counter productive, even destructive.  That has not stopped the practice by those who believe that the only alternative is to be weak and disrespected by subordinates.  It’s another example of how some people are unable to think in terms other than black and white, this or that.  In the corporate world, the masters of fear and intimidation have sometimes been able to build hugely successful organizations, but I cannot think of one that has not crumbled in the end.  Fear and intimidation can achieve momentary success, but it can’t sustain it because it sows the seeds of its own destruction. 

In like manner, I can’t see how scaring the hell out of people in order to drive them to Christ can be a source of life giving hope and joy.  Keeping them, it seems to me, can only be achieved if they are continually beset by fear and anxiety that any slip up will cast them into hell, and there is nothing life giving and joyful in that. 

Secular experience aside, it just doesn’t seem Christ like.  How does fear and intimidation square with “Love one another as I have loved you?”  How does it square with Jesus’ unwillingness to condemn anyone with whom he came in direct contact, no matter what their condition in life may have been.  In every case he sought healing and reconciliation for them.  Now and then he came close to condemnation of vaguely identified groups, except that his words implied their own self condemnation for their unwillingness to recognize and participate in God’s reconciling love.  A few of the Pharisees, temple leaders and some Galilean towns come to mind.

A few of my fundamentalist acquaintances would counter argue that they are simply warning others about the consequences of not accepting Jesus as their personal Lord and Savior, and how is that different from what Jesus did?  It’s a good question.  The answer, I believe, is that it is God in Christ Jesus, and only God, who has the authority to make a decision about that, and we are not permitted to put limits on, or establish formulae for, God’s salvific intentions.

Jesus knew, and gifted bosses in the secular world know, how to be firm, set standards and explain consequences, and how to do that without using fear and intimidation as their method.  Those who do use fear and intimidation are nothing more than bullies who have more interest in their own prestige, power and position than they do in the well being of others, and I will lay that at the feet of preachers who rely on threats of eternal damnation in hell.

Saturday, April 5, 2014

The Discipline of Forgiveness

Over the years I’ve led a few classes on forgiveness, counseled a few people struggling with how to forgive, read the usual array of articles probing the issue, and had a few problems of my own with it.

In the end, I think forgiveness is the act of not perpetuating violence.  It’s a discipline, not an emotion, although the later may be the result of the discipline.  

Perpetuating violence begins with holding a grudge  because it does real injury to the holder, something psychologists and spiritual directors have known for a long time.  The grudge holder might object that I don’t understand the depth of violence or injustice inflicted on them, and they would be right, but holding that grudge is a form of violence committed against the self, and thus a perpetuation of the violence and injustice.

Expressing it outwardly takes on some form of revenge, even if it’s cloaked in the language of justice, in which case the violence perpetrated in the first instance has been used as an excuse, or justifiable reason, for perpetuating violence on the rebound that has a high probability of rebounding again.  That is not to say that acts of injustice and violence should be without consequence.  They always have consequence, but holding grudges and acts of revenge need not be among them.   

Looking at it another way, we condemn gang turf wars and senseless shootings, but, if we are honest about it, they are magnified images of our own, more civilized, turf wars and senseless shootings as we continue the cycle of violence in our families, among our friends, and at our places of work.  We are accomplished at a less visible form of violence because we inflict it with words, and acts of interpersonal sabotage, behind which we can easily hide.  When we inflict physical abuse, we do what we can to shroud it in secrecy, or claim it as an act of self defense.  It’s not uncommon, but it’s crude.  Most of us are far better at inflicting psychological abuse in ways that are harder to detect and easier to cover up.

The excuses don’t matter.  What matters is the continuation of the cycle of violence.  Forgiveness, then, is not an emotion in which the violent act ceases to have psychological power over us.  It is a decision made to not continue participating in the cycle.  It’s what Jesus did, what Mandela learned to do, and what Girard has written about in our own day.  It seems so simple, but when it’s brought up in conversation it tends to elicit one of three responses:  a blank, uncomprehending stare; a “yes but not me”; or a “you don’t understand.”

It's time for us, you and me, to comprehend, to admit that sometimes we are the perpetrators, and to recognize that others can understand and help.

“Let no evil talk come our of your mouths, but only what is useful for building up."  So says Paul in his letter to the Ephesians.  Good advice.

Wednesday, April 2, 2014

Truth vs. Culture

A Facebook friend recommended reading Pat Schatzline’s book, I Am Remnant: Discover the power to stand for truth in a changing culture.  I’ve done what I can to learn more about it, and, having learned, it’s probably not a book I will choose to read.  

I do not disbelieve in truth, nor do I disbelieve that God’s truth is revealed in scripture, and it is obvious that culture is changing.  I don’t even have a problem with the existence of certain absolute biblical truths that stand against the equivocations of whatever culture one happens to find one’s self in.  God has revealed those truths over and over:  love God; love neighbor; be a person of integrity; be an agent of healing and reconciliation; walk humbly; do justice, and so on. 

What I do have a problem with is this.  When I hear people talking about the horror of our changing culture, meaning American culture, there is an unspoken assumption that not long ago we had it right, and now we don’t.  There seems to be no recognition that culture is not a thing, but a collection of things that are hard to harmonize and always changing.  There never has been a time when it stood still, or was right.  Culture sort of lurches along responding to social, economic and technological changes in ways that seem predictable only in hindsight.

I only have anecdotal data to work with, but I’ve got seventy years worth from experiences gathered throughout North America, so I feel provisionally safe in making some observations.  One is that many of the acceptable cultural standards being abandoned by the libertine forces of Satan are most often nothing other than whatever felt comfortable and safe in a time that exists mostly in memory and is often fenced in by varieties of prejudice and ignorance.  I can’t help but hear Professor Harold Hill singing about trouble right here in River City whenever the bogey man of cultural change is brought out on stage. 

That is not the same thing as saying that I approve of, or am indifferent to, cultural change in any form.  Some of it, like the ascendency of Tea Party type movements, are frightening.  Other changes baffle me, and I have to withhold judgment.  For instance, our state’s decision to legalize limited recreational use of marijuana bothers me a lot, but I also don’t know what it means in the long term.  Sometimes it takes time to recognize God's truth in the context of cultural change.  It took me over thirty years to discover that God’s truth as revealed in scripture rejoices in gay people who desire to live into the fullness of sacramental marriage.

What really troubles me is that the absolute biblical truth that some people want to stand for in a changing culture is what they have cherry picked from some highly debatable piece of scripture that they have clothed in their own prejudices, and hold with such ferocity that any deviation is attributed to the devil and condemned to hell.  Homosexuality is the current bugbear, followed closely by women’s rights, abortion, and race, although the later is usually cloaked in some other language.  Last week I was confronted by a man who defended God’s absolute truth against evolution, global climate change, and, of course, homosexuality.  He attributed unsavory cultural change and the satanic direction of the church to one or two people I had never heard of, and asserted that Episcopal priests don’t believe in Jesus.  It’s amazing what forms absolute biblical truth can take.

Here’s my take. God knows what absolute truth is.  You and I don’t, but we are not without direction.  Jesus did what he could to guide us toward it.  It looks a lot like a cross and open tomb.  What gets in our way is how easy it is to for us confuse our own biases, and the comfort of imagined cultural equilibrium, as truth. 

I don’t know much about Mr. Schatzline.  Maybe he’s a really nice guy, a fine Christian, and open to honest conversation.  My own prejudices and suspicions, which I must acknowledge,  incline me to want to pull back the curtain and see what is hiding behind that smile and those kind words.  Maybe it’s Harold Hill.  Maybe it’s Bp. Tutu.  I’m pretty sure it’s not Jesus.

Monday, March 31, 2014

Alle Menschen werden Bruder (sorry, no umlaut available)

Not long ago I read an article about a man who spent several months getting away from it all by living in a remote fishing village in Southeast Asia.  He said that he didn’t want to be just another tourist day tripping through the land not really absorbing the true meaning of local life.  It was about the same time I had finished reading a few English murder mysteries in which life in the charming village was sprinkled with tour groups parading through, gawking without the least bit of understanding of what they were gawking at.  

The locals, it seems, tolerate the tourists for their money, but generally consider them to be two dimensional, none to bright, and having no lasting reality.  They are just plastic figurines passing through, led by a loudmouth ignoramus holding an umbrella.  On the other hand, tourists are presumed to see locals as yokels who strut their stuff on the stage until closing time when they are trundled off to someplace out of sight, while the tourists return to the real world.

We have been tourists in many places, sometime staying a few days, but more often only a few hours.  Sometimes those places have been in remote foreign countries, and sometimes in towns a few miles away.  They have even been in local neighborhoods not our own.  Just the same, we have discovered that a few days, or a few hours, of close observation can open whole new worlds of experience that broaden our understanding of who we are as persons, especially in relationship to others who live in other places under other conditions so unlike the ones we live in.  It does bother me a bit to be herded off to a venue clearly designed for tourists to get a taste of local culture, a taste no local would ever recognize.  But that’s also a part of the experience.  It tells me something about what the locals think we are like.  The point is, even our momentary exchanges with the people of a different place and culture changes something of who we are, and, I suspect, does something of the same to them.

Our little city is becoming a destination for wine tourism.  Many weekends, especially those featuring some wine event, bring in hordes of tourists who spend a few days, a lot of money, and go home.  They walk down main street with the usual semi-lost look of tourists everywhere, and it can easily be said that they are not really part of our community.  They didn’t homestead here.  They don’t care who the mayor is.  The big debate over a new high school is of no interest to them.  When they leave, they will cease to exist, from our point of view.  Except that they are a part of our community.  They are a part of our livelihood.  They influence the crops that are grown, who the mayor will be, and whether we vote for a new school.  They don’t cease to exist when they leave.  They take something of us with them, and they leave something of themselves behind.  

What all of this adds up to is the recognition that the person serving me pizza in Pisa, and the tourist I greet on our own main street, are a more intimate part of my life, and I of theirs, than I can fully appreciate.  One way or the other, it’s true for all of us.  But appreciating it at least a little can change the way we look at others, perhaps enabling us to sing along with Friedrich Schiller:

Joy, beautiful spark of the divinity,
Daughter from Elysium,
We enter your sanctuary, burning with fervour,
o heavenly being!
Your magic brings together
what custom has sternly divided.
All men shall become brothers,

wherever your gentle wings hover.

Friday, March 28, 2014

What is Redemption

(Note to academics: this brief essay is intended to be helpful to ordinary people who have heard the word but not given much thought to what it means.)

As we approach Easter there will be a lot of talk about redemption, but what does redemption mean? 

If I redeem coupons at the grocery store, I get to trade something of little value (the coupon) for something of greater value (a food item).  It may still cost me something, but less than it otherwise would.

In some states I can take my soda cans and bottles to a redemption center and get paid for them.  Like my coupons, I trade in something of little value for something of greater value, with little cost to me, just the time and effort required to collect and deliver the can and bottles. 

Redemption centers are also where I can take recyclable trash, stuff that has no more value to me, but, in the hands of the recycler, may be turned into something entirely new and of significant value.

Redemption, then, seems to have to do with trading something of lesser value for something of greater value at little or no cost to us.

Yet sometimes we speak of redemption as having an enormous personal cost.  When we have really messed up, recognizing that what we have done has caused real damage to things and people, we wonder what we need to do to redeem ourselves. How can we restore our reputation?  How can we fix what we have damaged?  How can  we put things back to the way they are supposed to be?  What do we have to change to avoid future failure and save future success.  The emotional, physical, and spiritual cost can be very high, higher than we can pay.

In like manner, we are happy to talk about how others have messed up even more than we have, and what they have to do to restore our trust in them.  The costs we impose on them can be unbearable.  Some people, we say, are beyond redemption.  

So, from the point of view of the consumer, redemption appears to be a two edged sword, at least in common usage.  On the one hand, it’s a really good deal that costs us almost nothing; on the other, it’s very costly, perhaps more costly than we can manage.  

Redemption has other meanings, at least as it is used in scripture.  It can also mean something like liberation or restoration.  What does it take to liberate someone from slavery or an abusive environment?  What would it take to liberate us from guilt and shame?  What would it take to liberate us from the limitations of our human condition: illness, disability, injury, etc.?  What would it take to restore someone bruised and broken to pristine, like new condition?  Whatever it takes, that is what Jesus came to do, and he had the power to do it.  

Redemption, then, is a complicated word with a range of complicated meanings.  Jesus was, and is, the agency of God’s redeeming power, in all of its forms and meanings, for all of humanity and all of creation.

Maybe that’s why, when we talk about being redeemed by the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, or by the blood of Christ, there isn’t just one definition on which to hang everything else.  Anything we say, any doctrine of atonement, can grasp only a portion of what, in the end, is far too big for human comprehension.  It is a holy mystery.  Speaking for myself, I don’t have to know how it works, I only have to know that it does. 

Tuesday, March 25, 2014


The clergy from the seven Episcopal churches in our area gather about once a month for prayer and fellowship that includes a check in with each of us about what is new or changing in our lives.  We met last week, and when it was my turn to say something, I talked about my growing recognition of how disconnected I have become from the day to day life of the diocese.

Retired for over six years, no longer serving on diocesan boards or committees, and never having felt the need to be in on every tidbit of news and rumor that floats around, I have discovered that I also don’t know some of the new clergy, and am not a part of the circles of friendship into which they have entered.  Oddly enough my absence has not been missed.  Whatever leadership or wisdom I once offered has been easily replaced by very competent others. 

For example, I spent a good deal of my adult life as an expert in organization development, leading workshops and offering courses to help congregations through difficult times.  A whole new cadre of well trained folks have taken over with their own way of doing things, and it’s a good way.  They are better organized and have a better plan for getting things done than I ever had.  Moreover, they are living into the now of what for me are mostly memories. 

Once in the center of things, I now observe them from the fringe, if not the outside.  It’s a little disorienting.  It is a loss and I do feel it.  I don’t want it back.  I want to stay involved, but not plugged in. 

I may be disconnected from the daily life of the diocese, but not disconnected from life, just plugged in somewhere else.  I serve on boards and commissions here in town.  An important part of my ministry is working with the fire department and coroner’s office.  The little parish I serve is pure joy.  We travel more than ever, and stay away longer.  We take delight in the music and art that surrounds us in our home and in the community.  I take pleasure in being helpful to the trickle of clergy, and a few others, who seek me out.  My wife and I play a lot more, often together, sometimes on our own, and always taking delight in what each other is doing. 

I wonder what it’s like for others.  How hard is it to become disconnected from what was once the core of every day life?  How hard is it to discover that, yes, you can be replaced, and not only replaced but improved upon?  How hard is it to become connected in new ways and in different place?

As for me and my house; we have places to go, people to see, things to do.