Friday, August 15, 2014

How Important is a Personal Relationship with Jesus?

How important is a personal relationship with Jesus?  Some of my evangelical friends define Christianity as a personal relationship with Jesus.  Everything else is adiaphora, except maybe the worship leading praise band.  Even some of my Episcopalian colleagues argue that a personal relationship with Jesus should be the aim of growth in Christian faith.  My problem is that I don’t know what a personal relationship with Jesus is.  

Apparently it has a substantial, perhaps essential, emotional content, but that’s not much to go on.  I have a personal relationship with my wife, children, grandchildren, friends, acquaintances, and, if emotions count, even with writers of silly letters to the editor.  Each of them has an emotional content, but each is not  just different, each is unique.  With that in mind, is there a standard for what a personal relationship with Jesus is suppose to look or feel like?  I am unaware of one.

When asked if I have a personal relationship with Jesus, I demur.  I am, I say, a follower of Jesus whom I believe to be the Christ, the Word of God made flesh.  I am a disciple, although not a very good one.  It’s a journey of one step at a time.  I’m in frequent conversation with God, sometimes in formal prayer, and sometimes in more informal give and take, but I don’t spend a lot of time worrying about which person of the Trinity is in on the call.  From time to time God feels very close to me.  At others I realize that knowing that God is present does not require feeling it.  God can feel very absent, but I know that God is there just the same. 

I think it is a disservice to nascent Christians to require of them a manufactured personal relationship with Jesus in order to meet the requirements of membership in the club.  My guess is that some who say they have one are just parroting a formula to avoid controversy while feeling guilt at having lied about it.  And I wonder if some who do claim a personal relationship with Jesus have sentimentalized him into a personal fairy godfather who bears little similarity to the Jesus of the gospel records.  A few others seem to claim ownership, as in this is my Jesus, not your Jesus, but I might share him with you if you are worthy.  I expect there is real authenticity among yet others.  Good for them.

For my part, I want people to know Jesus, to follow Jesus, and to worship God in Christ Jesus, but having a personal relationship with Jesus is just not that important.  What’s your take?

Thursday, August 14, 2014

A Community in Transition

A recent letter to the editor in our local paper expressed concern that the burgeoning wine industry and influx of wine tourists was threatening the historical culture and values of our community. 

I don’t know that it’s a threat, but the culture and values of the community are changing, and the wine industry has something to do with it.  Having said that, I suppose the historical culture and values of the place depends on what era one wants to draw from.  In the early and mid 19th century we were an army fort and trading post amongst the resident tribes with whom we lived more at war than in peace.  Not too many years later we were the supply center for prospectors headed into the gold fields of Idaho.  Successful miners were separated from their take on the return trip by the bars and houses of prostitution that lined the main drag.  Law enforcement in those days was problematic, often by vigilante guns and ropes.  

Becoming a civilized town of farmers and ranchers in the late 19th and early 20th century, we also acquired the new state penitentiary as the consolation prize for not being chosen as the capital.  Churches, schools, two new colleges, and other signs of respectfulness did not, however, push out all the whore houses.  The last one didn’t close until the early 1960s.  WWII brought an Army Airforce Base and everything that goes along with it.  Downtown prospered, yet only a few decades later businesses had closed and it took on a shabby appearance.  A new mall on the outskirts threatened to kill it altogether.

A few forward thinking people turned that around about the same time the wine industry began to take hold.  The mall no longer exists, and the award winning downtown is booming.  Yes, there are wine tasting shops all over the place.  There are also a variety of terrific places to eat, interesting boutiques, and several new hotels as well as a beautifully restored old hotel.  B&Bs have become big business for some people.  So what exactly is being threatened?

A generation of farmers, ranchers, bankers and other established community leaders have been displaced by a new generation that is no longer under their benevolent, patriarchal control.  Residents that do not trace their lineage to pioneers outnumber those who do.  Church attendance is down, and they are no longer the center of social life.  The country club struggles to recruit new members.  In migration is almost all Hispanic, and many are now well established second and third generation.  Very little of the 1950s remains, but I suspect that is the era to which many turn to to find what they call historical culture and values. 

It is true that we are a community in transition, but a quick tour of our history illustrates that we always have been.  What will the future hold?  I’ll hazard a few guesses.  Population will grow slowly, if at all, because we do not have enough water to supply a large and rapidly growing city.  Some working class folks will be forced to find housing in surrounding towns because they will be priced out of the local market.  We will learn to tolerate frequent wine tourists and seasonal residents in their McMansions.  The colleges and hospitals will increasingly influence public policy.  Farmers and ranchers will continue to be respected and honored as the backbone of our culture, even if most of us have never been on a farm or ridden a horse.  The rodeo and county fair will celebrate them with more popularity than ever.  Finally, our Blue Mountains will begin to attract a greater number of urbanites who want an accessible wilderness like experience for a weekend or two each year.  

Monday, August 11, 2014

On Having Enough

I was talking with some younger friends a few days ago, and the subject of having enough came up.  They have young families, mortgages, some loans to repay, college tuition to look forward to, their own so recently paid off, and a certain middle class life style to which they’ve become accustomed.  When, they wondered, would they have enough?  Enough to not worry about money.  Enough to pay all the bills, have enough left over, and be reasonably certain in the security of their financial future.  It was not a matter of wanting to be rich, whatever that means, or to win the lottery.  It was a question of what it might be like to have enough.

I remember those days.  The days of my young family happily unaware that I had some anxiety about whether we would make it to the end of the month.  Robbing Peter to pay Paul while syphoning some off to buy this or that that was what everyone else did for their families didn’t work well at all.  It was not a comfortable time because whatever enough was, it was not what we had.  Enough was not just about money.  It was also about possessions.  Friends had newer stereos, better furniture, took more exotic vacations, went out to dinner more often, bought their kids better things, and so on, and so on, and so on.  It was also about competitive career growth and social standing among our group of friends.  It was enough that it looked like there would never be enough.    

I’m not sure when that began to change.  Somewhere, even before my children were out of college, it did begin to change.  I became more comfortable with the idea that what we had was enough.  Oddly enough, it was also a time when we began to tithe, and not just give what we could when we could.  Maybe it had something to do with enough years as an adult to see that God had always been walking with us, even through the darkest and dumbest places, which, in turn, became a deeper trust in God’s benevolent presence in the future of our daily lives.  Maybe it takes that kind of distance in time to gain a decent perspective on things. 

There is a danger in that.  It can come close to the gospel of prosperity nonsense that has become so popular these days.  It can come close to the ‘God loves me more than he loves you because see how well I’m doing’ kind of hubris masquerading as piety that is so obnoxious to others, and is such lousy theology.  

I think what happened is that I quit feeling that I was in competition with my friends and neighbors.  I could be more content with what I had, and enjoy it to the fullest.  I began to develop new friends.  Some of them wealthy, but content and grateful for what they have.  They delight in enjoying it, and part of their enjoyment is giving money away.  Some of them are poor by most standards, but content and grateful for what they have.  They delight in enjoying it.  Part of their enjoyment is sharing their life and labor with others.  Some of them are good old middle class who exhibit the same contentment and enjoyment.  Contrary to the pop psychology of success, contentment with what they have discovered to be enough is not a second rate coping mechanism for not having reached ‘the top’.  Rather, it is a genuine enjoyment of life lived fully within the means available. 

Here and there this odd lot group of friends mix together, enjoying each other in ways that have nothing to do with money or possessions, as such, and everything to do with what they share with each other.  One thing they have in common is an unwillingness to live beyond their means while not begrudging the means of others.  More often than not, they also share a profound sense of gratefulness for all that God has meant to them in their lives, and an equally profound trust in God’s presence.  They have enough.

Wednesday, July 30, 2014

When to talk about death and dying?

A friend chastised me for being too quick to bring up the subject of death and dying with people who are suffering from a terminal illness.  “Here they are, dozens of friends and loved ones, encouraging hope for recovery, and the first thing you do is ask them what they think about dying.  That’s not helping!”

She had a point.  When it is clear to me that someone under my pastoral care is approaching the end of life, I am not shy about bringing up the subject of death and dying with them, but she wonders how it can be clear to me if the doctors are still offering options for treatment.  What gives me the right to bring up a subject that no one else wants to bring up?

It’s a ticklish question, and a good one.  I’m not sure what makes an approaching end of life clear to me.  It may have to do with how well I know the person and his or her family, the history of their illness, and the content of our private conversations during times of pastoral care and prayer.  There is a sense that they know what others don’t, and that they have urgent questions about the path they are on, questions about God and faith that have been rattling around in their minds for decades and are only now being formed into words.

They are not the questions that theologians have batted about for centuries.  They are more likely questions formed in their Sunday School years, from conversations with friends in daily life, from long suppressed anxieties and guilt, or just plain curiosity.  They are not questions that are given a chance to be expressed in an environment of decisions that have to be made about treatment, or with friends and loved ones who seem to seesaw between optimistic talk of recovery and overbearing sighs and tears of sympathy.  Among them, the most sincere and least helpful are good Christian souls who enthusiastically endorse a cheerful hope in miraculous healing in the firm belief that, for faithful Christians, there is no such thing as a terminal illness.

I certainly don’t go barging in where I have not been invited, and I try to deal with the questions and concerns they have, and not the ones I think they should have.  While I always offer the sacraments of the church as a part of whatever time we have together, I’ve also come to recognize that sacramental moments are present without the presence of liturgy or prayer book, most often in what we might otherwise call ‘reconciliation of a penitent.’  In the context of Christian ministry, It seems to be important to some people, as they approach the end of life, to know that another human being is there to walk in hope with them a part of the way, someone who will introduce them to the nearer presence of God in Christ as the one who will walk with them all the way.  It's a time salted with tears and laughter, often more of the latter.  So there you have it.

Friday, July 25, 2014

It's Nothing to be Proud Of

Instant nonstop television, radio and Internet news coverage seems to encourage a flood of equally instantaneous judgment from listeners and viewers.  At least that’s what it looks like to me when I look at the comment sections on Internet sources, read the letters page of the local paper, or, on rare occasion, listen to call in responses on radio.  

I try to keep up with the local news in two communities several thousand miles apart.  Recent tragedies in each have unleashed a blizzard of calls for heads to roll as commentators have asserted sweeping accusations of guilt based on a headline or two and a smattering of unverified third hand information.  Tragedies bring out the worst, but almost any event that reaches the public eye does the same.  

The same thing happens in the greater arena of national and international news.  The rush of juveniles coming from Central American across our southern border is an example.  As soon as reports were made public, comments and letters had, without fear of contradiction, analyzed the situation, assigned blame, and asserted their own brand of (often very mean spirited and selfish) righteousness.  Based on what?  Not much!  The curious thing is that most of the response seem to assume that someone has to be right and someone has to be wrong.  It’s a simple as that.  But complicated situations don’t have those kinds of simple I’m right and you’re wrong answers.  They have to be understood, and understanding doesn’t always bring definitive answers, only ways to move forward toward something better. 

Pick a situation anywhere in the world that has reached the public eye, and we will leap to conclusions of right, wrong and blame, thrust our collective chins forward, wipe our hands, and declare ‘So There’!  That’s too bad.  It’s nothing to be proud of.

Wednesday, July 23, 2014

Green Beans and Avoidance

I had an elderly friend some years ago who could make an entire day out of one small chore.  

“What have you got going today?  Think we have time to get together?”

“Oh, no.  I don’t know how I’ll get everything done. I have to go to the store and get green beans.”

It became catchword for us, green beans, whenever we found ourselves filling up time with small things of little consequence, or using the need to do minor errands as an excuse for not doing something else.  We laughed about it.  How silly to make a ten minute errand the center of an entire day.

Now I’m retired, among the elderly, and it doesn’t seem quite so silly anymore.  

“Have you got time for a beer tomorrow afternoon?”

“I don’t know.  It’s a pretty jam packed day.  I’ve got a haircut, and stuff.”

Green beans, it turns out, can take an awful lot of time.  You have to plan for them, set the alarm clock to accommodate them, modify the daily routine to fit them in, and the first thing you know, green beans have taken up the entire day.   They have to be fit in between the start of the day, which includes waking up sometime, leisurely drinking a couple of cups of coffee, Morning Prayer, breakfast, the paper (on the iPad, which, of course, means checking out Facebook too), maybe a little reading and then the necessary ablutions.  

Holy Cow!  The morning’s half gone.  Time to think about what to do for lunch.  Can’t let planning for that go to the last minute.  Oh, and the car needs gas, I’ll need to squeeze that in.  

OK, lunch over.  How about a little rest to get ready for a bike ride, some gardening, maybe a short workout at the Y.  You see?  The afternoon is almost shot, and there is still a haircut to work in.  

Oops!  It’s five p.m., and you know what that means.  And so goes another day of green beans.

Green beans are a wonderful tool for avoiding so many things, especially the things that truly need our attention.  Everyone uses the green beans excuse, but we of a certain age have often honed it to a fine art that can insulate us from all but the smallest sliver of the greater world about us.  Jesus chastised the Pharisees for straining at gnats.  I wonder what he thinks about green beans.   They serve pretty much the same function as gnats.  Maybe I’ll think more about that tomorrow, if I can work it in. 

Saturday, July 19, 2014

A very short rant about nullification.

The platform for a local candidate for the state legislature is based on lower taxes, less government, and more freedom.  I find that almost mindless, but it has attracted the tea party gang.  Her Facebook page includes comments from supporters urging a state statute to nullify ‘unconstitutional’ federal legislation, which is a strongly held sentiment I have often read and heard these days.  

Frequent readers of these occasional articles already know that nullification is not a new idea.  South Carolina passed an ordinance of nullification in 1832 in an attempt to overturn tariffs.  Nullification arguments were raised over the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850.  The Civil War itself was in part a struggle over nullification.  The issue was settled at the cost of 620,000 dead, and I have no idea how many non-combatants were killed, or how many lived the balance of their lives wounded in body, mind and spirit. 

At what point and at what cost will people understand that the issue is resolved?  We have serious matters to address.  It’s time to stop the silliness that, but for our constitution and laws, could become a violent tit-for-tat killing field such as witnessed in other parts of the world, and that sometimes has broken out in our own land.