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.

Tuesday, January 13, 2015

Can Anything Good Come Out of Nazareth? What a Funny Question!

I was in a museum not long ago gazing at a painting of Jesus washing Peter’s feet, a familiar scene to most of us, and wondering why it seemed very wrong.  What was wrong was that Jesus was pictured as a mature but young man while Peter was very old and gray.  We forget that, if Jesus was in his early thirties, it is likely that his disciples were no older and probably younger by several years.  

Page down FaceBook until you come to the inevitable shot of a group of young adults in their mid to late twenties having a good time, and that’s more like it.  Which brings me to the lesson from John that many of us will hear this Sunday.  It’s the one where Philip takes Nathaniel to meet Jesus.  Nathaniel wonders if anything good can come out of Nazareth.  Jesus allows that he’s finally met an Israelite without guile.  Nathaniel wants to know how Jesus knows him.  Jesus says that he saw him sitting under a tree.  Nathaniel announces that Jesus must be the Son of God and King of Israel.  And Jesus ends it by saying he hasn’t seen anything yet.

You know that story.  The thing is, we take it so seriously.  I just don’t see it that way.  To me it’s a play between two young men feeling each other out through humor.  I hear a good natured smirk in Nathaniel’s question about whether anything good can come out of Nazareth.  His announcement of Jesus as Son of God and King of Israel has all the earmarks of something Shakespeare’s Puck might say as an aside to the audience.  Moreover, I hear Jesus playing along in the same good humor, yet with a note of authority that cannot be escaped.  Yes, there is more to come.  You have not seen anything yet, but you will.  Come along with me.  

I have my own wonder about things.  Why do we find it so hard to let Jesus and his followers be young men and women who can be playfully serious or seriously playful?  Why do we so often insist on such a heavy handed reading of scripture that we can’t see the humor and laughter that surely must have been a part of their lives?  I tried that thought out a couple of years ago on a small group of older Christians, including a couple of fundamentalists, who were horrified that I was not showing proper respect for Jesus, and not giving God’s Word the weight it deserved.  

Jesus is cited as saying that he came to give us life in abundance.  I can’t imagine life in abundance that isn’t rich with laughter.  Most Saturday mornings I have coffee with a friend of mine who teaches philosophy at a local college.  There we are, surrounded by familiar acquaintances and friends, having a good time laughing at the nonsense of life that surrounds us every day, and rarely saying anything important about either theology or philosophy.  To be fair, we sometimes comment on the sillier aspects of each.  It’s a few moments of an abundant life lived the way I think Jesus and Nathaniel lived it so long ago.

Friday, January 2, 2015

Muddling Through

I recently wrote about rereading David Riesman’s 1950 book, “The Lonely Crowd.”  In that brief essay I noted that he was unable to see the enormous societal changes about to take place in America, and finished by noting that we are not good at anticipating the future.  The best we can do is muddle through.  

That brings me to the gospel stories, and the perennial questions about why the disciples were so dense, so unable to understand who Jesus was, or what was about to happen in Jerusalem even as he told them.  They are questions that always come up in adult bible study classes, and they have been the subject of whole libraries of books and articles.  For my part, I also have a few thoughts on the matter.

I think it is a sign of honesty that the gospel writers portrayed the reality of disciples who knew no more about what tomorrow would bring than you and I know about our own tomorrows.  Moreover, each of their todays brought wholly unexpected new teachings, events, and unheard of interpretations of scripture.  Trying to assemble all of it in any meaningful way must have seemed impossible.  The best they could do was muddle through.  What Jesus did and said could only make sense in the light of the crucifixion and resurrection experienced as events that had passed so that in their light all that preceded them could now make sense.  Before that, how could they have made sense?  They couldn’t.  The problem for us is that we know the end of the story as told by the gospel writers. 

One of the things I like about the abrupt end of Mark’s gospel is that it leaves us in the same position as the disciples.  We have to figure out for ourselves what it all means because the narrative leaves us where the events of the day left them - unable to anticipate what would come next.  It’s an uncomfortable place.  What can you do except take another step into the next hour, and the one after that, and see what happens?  Even John’s gospel, the one in which Jesus both knows and controls what will happen next, ends with his command to feed and tend his sheep without ever saying what that meant, how to do it, or what would happen if it was done. 

So what about us?  We are not quite as ignorant about tomorrow as the disciples were.  For one thing, we don’t live with the incarnate Christ surprising us at every turn.  Moreover, holy scripture gives us some reliable signposts, although we have more than proved our ability to misread them.  Like others, we mostly look in the rearview mirror and hope that what lies ahead will look a lot like what lay behind, and we muddle through.

If we are serious about following Jesus, that rearview focus may not be all that promising.  Most of the disciples got murdered.  But we are a long way from that time, so maybe following Jesus is not as dangerous as it once was, at least where we live.  Nevertheless, while walking in the way of the cross may be the way of life and peace, it is also a perilous one, and always has been.  Why would anyone walk that way if there was another, easier one?  Our only answer is that God has commanded it because it is the only way to life and peace, and not  for us only, but for the whole world.  What does that mean in practice?  It means pretty much the same thing that it meant for the disciples, we muddle through not knowing what surprise tomorrow will bring.

I’ll offer a couple of observations about tomorrow that will not be surprising, or at least they shouldn’t be.  Tomorrow will bring us face to face with people who are not interested in the way of the cross, or our invitation to join us in worship, because they don’t know what we have to offer, they don’t know that they need it, and we don’t know how to tell them what we have to offer and why they need it.  They are not interested because they have heard what some who claim the name of Jesus have advertised very well what they offer, and it’s not something anyone wants.  

We could fix that problem in two ways.  First we could provide entertainment and the promise of prosperity.  That’s a grabber.  Second, we could provide entertainment and threats of hell.  In a strange way that works too.  In either case, and to my mind, they are each like dressing up the old time carnival side show ,with its fortune tellers and death defiers, in more dignified religious garb and tacking the name of Jesus over the tent entrance.  

I’m going to suggest something else, at least for those in my tradition.  Proclaim the good news of God in Christ Jesus as the source of life and the way of life.  Feed and tend the sheep regardless of the flock they are in.  Prepare for leadership whoever may be willing to carry on when we are gone.  Let God worry about what happens in the future.  Let us be as responsible as we can be for what happens today and boldly proclaim the Triune God in whom and through whom the past, the present and the future will be.

Thursday, January 1, 2015

The Lonely Crowd

I’m enjoying rereading David Riesman’s (et al.) “The Lonely Crowd.”  I read it, or maybe quickly scanned it, back in college.  Published in 1950, it purported to examine the changing character of America’s dominant culture, the white upper middle class, that Riesman seemed to take as normative for America, and rightfully so.  More particularly, his subject was the male white upper middle class: women, i.e., housewives, serving in support roles.  Those in the lower classes, working classes, members of racial minorities, and those living in rural areas were not so much dismissed as taken for granted.

It doesn’t appear that he meant it to be good or bad.  It’s just the way he and his team saw America and reported on it.  At the midpoint of the century, an almost peaceful nation, not yet fully embroiled in Korea or jittery over Russian nuclear bombs, was turning to a more passive go along to get along way of life in which individual success depended on one’s ability to blend in, leaders leading of course, but not too much.  It was a different place than the no holds barred Robber Barron era, or even the driven striving for a piece of the action of the early twentieth century, or  the striving for survival of the Great Depression years.  

Although he didn’t say so out loud, it appears that he saw a nation of returning service men who were tired of that kind of striving and comfortable with a uniform life under orders where promotion could be planned and predicted.  His narrative wanders and wobbles all over the place, so it’s hard to figure out if he was predicting a future, describing the present, or making any kind of value judgment.  As one who grew up in those years, that itself seems to be telling.  He wrote as a man lost, fussing with maps and compasses, and probing in this way or that for a clear sense of direction without ever finding one.

I don’t think he was wrong about what he saw, but he was like the apocryphal frog in the stew pot who didn’t recognize the water was about to boil.  It appears that he ignored signs pointing to massive societal changes about to erupt in civil rights and women’s rights because populations concerned with them were not important to the white male upper middle class he assumed to be normative for America.  They could be ignored because they had no significant role in making important decisions for the nation.

I wonder what a contemporary David Riesman might say about America today?  Would he or she be equally blind to what is just over the horizon begging to be recognized?  For instance, our local newspaper reflects well the character of our area, even as its faithful readers make fun of it.  I think it views the future mostly by looking in the rear view mirror, which is, I suspect, the same posture of those who believe they are key to community decision making because, well, they are, and that’s the way it is.  Here and there across the nation astute observers, some of them journalists, report on signs of major societal changes about to force their way onto the stage, but they are seldom picked up by editorial boards or agents of the “popular media,” whatever that is. The fact is, we are not very good at anticipating the future, even at close range.  Muddling through is what we do best.  

Monday, December 29, 2014

It's a Triple Today

It’s an interesting day.  A few days ago we were knee deep in sentimental hope for a better future as we celebrated the wonder of baby Jesus, or perhaps the more common Hallmark Channel Christmas specials manufactured to say something magically wonderful about love conquering all.  Sometimes we combine the two with deft ease.  

In any case here we are today on December 29, the Feast of the Holy Innocents transferred from Sunday, the Feast of St. Thomas Becket displaced by the children of Bethlehem, and the memorial of the Massacre at Wounded Knee.

The Holy Innocents are the children of Bethlehem killed on orders from King Herod who was suspicious that among them was a new born king destined to destroy all that he had built up.  Considering the hundreds of others he had killed during his life, it was a small thing of no real consequence.  Just a cautionary measure in the name of national security.  Thomas Becket was the Archbishop of Canterbury who, on December 29, 1170, was assassinated at the presumed urging of King Henry II in the name of national security.  On December 29, 1890 at Wounded Knee in South Dakota, elements of the 7th Cavalry massacred 200 Lakota women, children, elders, and men.  Of course it was in the name of national security.  Twenty soldiers were awarded Medals of Honor for it.  

It’s a stark, humbling reminder that we are not so different from Herod.  Nevertheless, the light that was born in Bethlehem cannot be extinguished by the darkness of evil we so easily embrace in the name of selfish interests.  That light will triumph over all, and in it we are invited to live into a sure and certain hope that lasts for eternity, not for just an hour of television holiday reruns.

Saturday, December 27, 2014

Renewing The Church. Forget About It!

Here goes a very short article.  I'm speed reading yet another book about renewing the church by a respected author with his heart and pen in the right place.  It's all good advice, and very well intended.  If pastors and parish administrators paid any attention to it, they would probably reap the benefits, but, of course, they won't.

I think we ought to dump all of it, and just get on with the business of proclaiming the gospel day by day.  Everyone who enters the church door should be told about God in Christ Jesus as if they had never heard of him before.  Those who are new to their faith should be introduced to it in simple but not unsophisticated terms.  Those who are further along should find their education about Christianity, and their development as disciples, advanced step by step. That's it.  Amen!

Forget about most everything else.  Focus on that.  There is one caveat.  Be loyal to your tradition.  I am an Episcopalian, a little on the high church side.  It's important to me that I proclaim, without apology, the gospel within the context of our Anglican tradition.  

That can be a problem if people in the congregation don't know what the denomination stands for, and what it stands for counts.  It's important.  Some years ago we had a few active members in a congregation I served who were determined to make it into a conservative evangelical place.  Why?  I never knew, but it was wrong.  It's not that we have only one way of doing things.  Here and there we Episcopalians tolerate congregations that enjoy living in the make believe world of medieval Salisbury England, and that's OK as long as they keep it to themselves.  Others are so self righteously open minded that it's hard to know what their theology is, and that's OK too in its own place and time.  What keeps it together is the center that wobbles around Virginia Seminary Protestantism and General Seminary Catholicism, both firmly rooted in Anglican tradition.  

Having said that, the Episcopal Church's triennial convention, charged with maintaining the center while it evolves under the guidance of the Holy Spirit to speak to a changing world, vacuums up enormous amounts of energy and cash.  For the most part it's an exercise in futility enjoyed to the hilt by select minions who revel in bureaucratic, quasi legislative, minutiae that, in the Bard's words, amount to sound and fury signifying nothing.  Only infrequently does anything that happens there have an impact on what goes on in the daily life of an average congregation.  It's not that the institution is unimportant, it is very important.  We need it, and we need it to be as tidy and efficient as possible, doing what it can to provide a forum for theological conversation, and to create helpful resources for local use.  Sometimes it does that, but not often.  Mostly it's just in the way. 

So back to the book, and almost all other books like it.  It wants to speak to the whole church, but it speaks mostly to urban - suburban congregations, many with multiple staff.  That's nice, but most of our congregations have ASA of under fifty served by one clergy who may not be full time.  What help they need with institutional renewal can be provided best informally by qualified persons giving on site counsel.  Even more than that, they need a little guidance on ways to better proclaim the gospel, educate new and veteran believers, and stay out of trouble over the basics of church administration.  

Proclaim the gospel from within your tradition and don't worry so much about the rest of it.