Monday, December 8, 2014

Reflections on an Odd Relationship

I’m an old Episcopal priest steeped in Anglican tradition.  My friend is a young minister who describes himself as a pentecostal, charismatic, evangelical.  We might seem an odd couple, but we get together regularly to talk about various aspects of what ministry means. He’s the youth pastor at a local non-denominational church, and he’s got a large, growing, enthusiastic youth program that should be the envy of every other youth pastor in town.  So far, so good.

The thing is, he was ordained in the Church of Somebodyorother after a couple of years in a fundamentalist bible college, the only college education he’s had.  A lot of what we talk about has to do with the basics of Christian history and theology that he’s never heard before.  He’s not going to become an Episcopalian, but it’s great fun to explore with him some of the basics that many of us take for granted.  

The other day he wondered about the problems that pop up when Christian youth are submerged in forceful lessons about their sinfulness, the dangers of backsliding, and the wrath of God that could lead to eternal hell.  At what point does a message like that push them out of the church instead of guiding them toward a more mature faith?  How might they be more inspired by God’s reconciling love?  Somehow that led to hymns, and I brought up an old gospel favorite, “Just as I am without one plea,” that could offer the answer he was seeking.  He’d never hear of it.  No idea at all. 

It seems that his church relies on a rock band and contemporary praise music, which, I might add, is not as bad as the praise music of the previous few decades, but I still can’t stand it.  That’s not the point.  He’s the main light and sound board guy for the show, running something out of a little booth that looks like a professional studio setup.  That’s not the point either.  It’s what he knows about church liturgy and music: sound boards and rock.  That’s the point, or at least one of them.  

The church he serves is growing, one of the few in town than is.  It is spreading wide and fast, but not deep.  It proclaims the message of Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior, and opens the bible to many who have never before heard the Word.  It does it with an enormous display of energy in a weekly stage show featuring rock music, a short speech about Jesus, and a few prayers.  But it does so without any connection to or awareness of two thousand years of Christian practice prefaced by more millennia of Hebrew heritage.

It brings to mind what it might have been like for Paul to set up new churches in places such as Corinth and Thessalonica, but I digress.  

He loves what he’s doing but wants more.  As a young, mostly uneducated minister, he may be unaware that the questions he raises have been asked before, but I’m delighted that he wants to learn.  For the time being, that means coffee with an old Episcopal priest.  It’s  not enough, but it’s something.  We make an odd couple.

By the way, he is coordinating a youth gathering to be held late in January.  It will attract around 400 kids, plus chaperons, from a half dozen other churches similar to his.  We stodgy old Episcopalians might want to pay attention.

Monday, December 1, 2014

Incidents and their Context

One of my young conservative friends copied a post onto Facebook wondering where the outrage was when a black cop shot a white teen in Mobile, Alabama.  You may have seen something of the same circulating on the Internet from conservative sources complaining that liberal and/or mainstream media ignored the Alabama incident, thus exposing their reverse bigotry.

It’s not a bad question once you ignore the propaganda style hyperbole.  I’m not interested in media baiting, but I am interested in what differences there might be that are worthy of examination, and I think there are differences.  There is a difference between an incident that may involve a serious injustice and a climate of systemic injustice in which an incident occurs that may not have involved an injustice.

In a case where an incident involving police results in an injustice that is not otherwise associated with a climate of systemic injustice, the likelihood is that the matter will be resolved locally, attracting little wide spread media attention.  Such incidents are not uncommon.  Each of our communities has them, and for the most part we see no reason why someone hundreds of miles away would or should be interested.  In the Mobile case we have to admit that black cops are not normally seen as agents of systemic oppression against white teens, and so the incident can be resolved within the context of local protocols.

The Ferguson case occurred within the context of a pattern of systemic injustices in which an incident involved a white cop, widely understood by the black community to be an agent of those in power, fatally shot an unarmed young black man.  It turned out that the black teen who was killed was not an innocent young man, unarmed though he was, and that his death was probably the predictable, if tragic, result of his own behavior.  That doesn’t matter  because his death was seen by many as symbolic of a culture and wide spread pattern of injustices in which blacks have been systematically treated in a hostile, oppressive way by the police and others in power.  The right incident at the right time ignited nation wide interest.

Maybe nation wide interest would have been enough, but I believe that the nonstop media frenzy, especially from cable news networks, added the necessary heat and fuel for a few sparks to ignite violent protests.  More on that  in a minute.  

In the meantime, my young conservative friend wanted a definitive answer.  Who was right?  Who was wrong?  Put the blame where it belongs and walk away.  It isn’t that simple.  One must examine the context within which any incident of injustice may, or may not, have occurred.  The problem is that it requires slowing down, not leaping to conclusions, and being willing to address issues on several different levels at the same time.  Moreover, the examination will probably show the messiness of more than a few individual decisions that helped or hindered.  Not many people on either side are willing to do that.  They’d rather operate by the good old American dictum: Ready, Fire, Aim, and they are more than wiling to leave off the aim part unless it favors their political prejudices.  Let me put it this way.  This isn’t a football game.  You don’t get to throw the flag, review the call up in the booth, show the whole thing in slow motion on the Jumbotron, and play the down over.

Now then, back to the violent protests, as opposed to the many others that were not violent.  I’ll offer three thoughts.  First, some of the instigators were ideologically driven persons who believe that violence in protest is the preferred way to bring down the oppressors.  Oddly enough, those on the far left and those on the far right are in agreement on this.  Second, some of the instigators enjoy the violence, especially for the opportunities it offers to act out their anger, take revenge, and loot for their own personal gain.  They turn up whenever violence is an option.  Third, the cable news networks thrive on the mayhem, doing what they can to inflame and sensationalize it, pandering to the lowest common denominator of their viewers.  I find each of them repulsive, and am not interested in what they have to say in their own defense because I believe it to be hypocritically self serving.  Other than that, I have no strong opinions on the matter one way or the other.  Well, I do have a few thoughts about a couple of newspaper columnists, but that can be for another time.

Saturday, November 22, 2014

And a Civil Thanksgiving to You

I’m looking forward to Thanksgiving as a holiday of friends, family, and food.  It’s a civil holiday, not a religious one, although in our house we do give thanks to God for the abundance of blessings we have received.  It helps to be in the rural west where the harvest has been lately finished, and the fields of newly planted winter wheat are showing green.  The wild turkeys that roam our neighborhood remind us that the turkey on the table was once a living creature whose life we have taken to nourish ours.  The same might be said for the sheep, goats, cows, and chickens we see around here.  Saying grace before meals has got to include intentional thanks for their lives.

It’s a time of greater awareness of the cycle of life and seasons, and our dependence for our sustenance on the good earth and those who work it .  In Morning Prayer we often close by thanking God for all God’s goodness and loving kindness to us and all whom he has made.  We thank God for our creation, preservation, and all the blessings of this life; but above all for his immeasurable love in the redemption of the world by our Lord Jesus Christ; for the means of grace, and for the hope of glory.  Thanksgiving seems a good time to take that more seriously. 

I resist the pressure to romanticize a first Thanksgiving of peaceful rapport between pilgrims (Or was it Puritans?) and local Indians.  It seems an ingenuous prelude to the wars that followed.  And  I’m not fond of those who use it to expound reactionary nationalism, thanking God that we, alone among all nations, are both favored and exceptional.  I’m happy to simply enjoy what we are able to enjoy in the company of family and friends we enjoy being with.

Thursday, November 20, 2014

The Sounds of Silence

I probably wrote about this some years ago, but it’s back on my mind.  When I was a boy visiting my grandmother’s house in rural Kansas, I was always struck by the quiet.  No television.  No radio.  A clock ticking  in the dining room.  The quiet sounds of whatever was going on outside.  The banging of the kitchen door.  Crickets at night.  Mourning doves at dawn.  Cows mooing in the distance.  Grandma clattering around in the kitchen making breakfast.  The phone ringing now and then, it was always somebody wondering who was visiting.  It was very odd.

My days were filled with louder sounds, city sounds, mostly the radio tuned to a favorite cutting edge top forty station.  If not that, the T.V. was on, and maybe also a record player stacked hight with 45s.  With groups of friends we didn’t just talk, we talked on top of each other, over each other, and always with music or T.V. blaring in the background.  The presence of all that quiet on our annual visits to grandma’s seemed strange.  I thought it was boring; it was a sign of how disconnected she was from what was happening in the world, what was new, exciting, interesting, moving.

Now I’m the old one and treasure the quiet.  It’s a different kind of quiet because times have changed, but the sound of the ticking clock in the den is comforting.  Television seems intrusive except for the rare occasion when there is something on I actually want to watch.  The kitchen door doesn’t slam.  No one has ever called to see who is visiting.  The radio, when on at all, is usually tuned to NPR.  My little boy self would wonder what happened to me, and what could possibly occupy my mind without some outside noise to do the job.

What occupies it is seventy years of memory, knowledge, questions, hypotheses, and plans for possible futures ranging from tonight’s concert, an adventure somewhere in the world next year, or the new restaurant opening this weekend.  In the silence, my head is filled with conversation, images, notes on sermons to be given, lists of things to do, music, and long searches in the library of my mind for that misplaced name or trivial fact.  

None of that was up there when I was a boy.  It was mostly empty, though I didn’t know it at the time.  It wasn’t childish or teenage hubris.  I was just ignorant of the fact that I was ignorant.  All the new things I was learning seemed to be private information shared only between teachers and my friends as if for the first time in the history of the universe.  It was not a question of thinking my grandmother or parents didn’t know anything, because the question itself never occurred to me.

It never occurred to me that my grandmother’s quiet was filled with the noise and excitement of a childhood on the Kansas prairie, with the struggles of a large family living through the Depression, of the anxiety of seeing her boys go off to battle in WWII, of the relief of their safe homecoming, of the ebb and flow of visiting grandchildren, and of the hours of small talk that only small town rural folk can master.  I imagine that my own grandchildren wonder the same about me.

Tuesday, November 18, 2014

A Few Thoughts on Keystone That Might Surprise You

The Keystone Pipeline project is drawing heavy opposition as it draws toward a possibly decisive vote in Congress, and for good reason.  It’s an environmentally filthy product: heavy oil the consistency of road tar dredged up from Alberta tar sands. The pipeline is an environmentally iffy way to transport.  It won’t do anything to make us more energy independent, whatever that means.  It will make the (evil) Koch bothers richer than they already are.  On the other hand, it’s not that simple. 

The basics of the issue?  An 875 mile long pipeline from the Canadian border through Montana and South Dakota to Steele City, Nebraska where it would connect with existing pipelines.  From there the oil would flow to gulf coast refineries.  The final product would be sold on the open market with the likelihood that some of it would be sold in the U.S.

Will it create jobs?  Sort of.  Construction would take a couple of years and create up to 40,000 temporary jobs.  Communities along the way would enjoy a momentary infusion of cash.  Experience indicates that they would spend it faster than they get it.  Boom-Bust is not a viable plan for sustained economic development.  No more than fifty permanent jobs would be created by everybody's count.

If we stop it will it stop the transportation of the stuff?  No.  A lot is being shipped by rail right now.  More will be shipped that way if the pipeline is defeated.  Shipping by rail is even more environmentally damaging than pipelines.  The record of railroad spills is not a good one, and railroads add more cost and pollution just because they’re railroads.  Of course shipping by rail would add more permanent jobs in many sectors of the economy.  Think about that!  But I digress.  Other pipelines are in the works to move it across the Rockies to ports near Vancouver, BC. where the, as yet, pristine waters of Puget Sound and the Inside Passage remain relatively free of environmental threats of such magnitude.  Plans are being made to expand the capacity of yet other existing pipelines to our own gulf coast. 

In Dr. Pangloss’s world, stopping Keystone would stop Alberta tar sands oil altogether, and maybe that would be a good thing, but this is not Dr. Pangloss’s world.  So my reluctant advice is to approve Keystone as the least damaging alternative amongst a host of damaging alternatives.  I’m prepared to change my mind, but it has to be on evidence, and not on wishful thinking or left leaning Fox News style propaganda.

In the meantime, if we had the political courage to do so, we would be wading into solar, wind, and geothermal as viable alternatives that could put a good chunk of these kinds of projects out of business.  However, considering the shameful voter turnout in America, it’s obvious that we lack political common sense, much less courage.  We’ve given over control of the nation to Ezekiel’s fat sheep and Matthew’s goats.

As for me, I enjoy my gasoline powered cars, natural gas fired furnace, and the privilege of travel on planes, trains and ships.  What about you?

Monday, November 10, 2014

Well, here we are again with the talents thing

Well, here we are again at the parable of the talents so conveniently located in the customary fundraising season for both churches and non profits.  It’s hard to know how to let these words speak with a fresh meaning.  I wonder if it would help to begin the passage with the closing lines of the previous parable of the ten bridesmaids: “Keep awake therefore, for you know neither the day nor the hour.”  Or  maybe it would be better to begin with Pay Attention!

What have we been talking about since Pentecost if not what it means to be disciples of Christ?  Has that made any difference in your life, or did it just pass through leaving almost no wake?  This parable and the one preceding it are not about lamps and talents; they are about paying attention to what Jesus had been teaching all this time.  And like any good teacher, he’s going to give a final exam.  How have you loved God?  How have you loved your neighbor?  How have you loved each other as he loved you?  The how of how we have done these things is not so much about what we believe, but what we have done with our lives in relationship with all the lives around us, and I often think that we make that both too hard and too easy because we are not paying attention.

I have a friend, an ernest Christian honestly anxious about what it is that God might be calling him to do.  He is among those who make it too hard.  While spending time in enquiring prayer, and hoping for a flash of insight into something special that is out there for him, he is reluctant to look around and see that where he is, and what he does day in and day out, is the mission field begging attention.  It makes sense.  I think we’ve been misled in too many ways about what it means to be called by God.  We expect it to be special in a way that ordinary daily life is not special.  My friend knows he has been given his talent, but what is it and what should he do with it?  That’s the question, and the answer must, according to what we have all been taught, be something extraordinarily different than the contents of our ordinary daily lives.  

Why?  Why would our talents not be what we already have, and know that we have?  Why would we not be called to employ them in the ordinary affairs of life?  I think we look too far afield and thus miss the obvious.  My friend is honestly seeking what he might be called to do, but in the meantime he might be said to be hiding his talent until the right thing comes along.  How many of us do the same thing?

What about those who are self satisfied, and don’t give this parable another thought after they’ve left the building?  They are among those who make it too easy.  They don’t let what Jesus taught interfere with their political beliefs, economic behavior, or social life.  If they bother at all, they have comfortably harmonized whatever the preacher says, and what they are sure the bible teaches, with the way they live their lives.  If judgment is in the offing, it is others who are likely to be damned, not them.  

These parables are, at least in part, about the seriousness of following Jesus as a disciple, and the accounting we must one day give.  My guess is that those who will fare the worst are those who just didn’t care much one way or the other, yet claimed the name of Christ.  Indifference has got to be the worst accounting one could give.  Right behind them are likely to be those who confidently gave themselves passing marks.  That could be my group.  I think my friend who is cautious about investing his talent will fare much better.

Friday, November 7, 2014

OK, One more time and then I'm finished

For nearly two decades I worked on behalf of conservative pro business issues as one part of my portfolio.  As time went by it became increasingly clear to me that conservatives in general, and ideological conservatives in particular, were not very good at governing.  When in power, what they believed to be true about the best environment for business, and thus for the nation, often ended badly.  In the face of repeated poor results, faith in their thinking never wavered.  Part of that might have been due to business and industry interests on issues of public policy that resemble conservative ideology but are entirely selfish, and not always in a bad way.  The thing is, ideological conservatives seem to be blind to that, and the amalgamation of particular business friendly positions into generalized policy has not proved out very well for business or the nation.

On the other hand, and there is always an other hand, conservatives, in general, were very good at being the loyal opposition serving as a check against the extravagances of ideological liberals.  At the national level, liberal ideologues tend to identify problems and then throw money at them hoping for the best.  A loyal conservative opposition tends to rein that in by demanding evidence and accountability.  Some liberal ideologues, well meaning in their heartfelt desire to help the poor and oppressed, can become overly patronizing, acting as if the poor and oppressed are not capable of helping themselves, and with the assumption that moving into a white dominated middle class culture and standard of living is what everyone really wants.  A loyal conservative opposition can be just as patronizing, but they assume that everyone can at least tug at their own bootstraps.  More conservative ideologues are happy to let others live whatever life style they like as long as they do it without government intervention, and don’t try to move into their neighborhoods.  The effect is to balance the drive to do good with a healthy dose of pragmatism. 

Until midway through the second Clinton term that fluid balance, and an unstated acceptance of what loyal opposition meant, usually resulted in a willingness to find a place of agreement that tended to be labeled as center left or center right under the leadership of people who knew how to negotiate, and who knew how to keep the ideologues under control.  That was true even in the Reagan years, and I am no fan of Reagan.  Ideological conservatives remember them as golden years but forget that Reagan was a master negotiator who irritated the living daylights out of true blue (or red) conservatives because he spoke the dogma but negotiated pragmatically.  

That began to crumble toward the end of the Clinton presidency, and when the conservative ideologues took the reins under Bush II, it collapsed altogether.  The idea of a loyal opposition was rejected, ejected, and decapitated with ridicule.  The last six years have seen the fruits of a disloyal opposition that has poisoned the well of American politics, at least for the time being.  Against all odds, the economy has dug itself out of the pit it had fallen into during the Bush II years, and yet the conservative ideologues lust after the opportunity to implement their agenda more fully this time in the firm belief that it will create an environment richer in jobs, profit, freedom, and happiness for all, while lowering taxes and reducing government spending on everything but defense. 

We’ve always had ideologues of one kind or another.  Mostly they have been irksome pests.  Now and then, on either side of the ledger, they have come up with a good idea or two, and, given time to moderate them, some have been profitably enacted into law.  What we have at the moment is a dreadful lack of pragmatic political leadership in the congress who are capable of negotiating in good faith.  Instead we have conservative leadership pandering to the ideologues on their side, and progressive leadership that muddles through while exhibiting a public image of cluelessness.  Other than that, I have no strong opinions on the matter.