Friday, September 21, 2018

Who or What is God?

Every small town paper has a religion column, usually written by a rotation of local clergy regurgitating old sermon notes.  Sans sermon notes, I take my place on the rota of a weekly newspaper in a sparsely populated county where most are nominally Christian, hard core Republicans, and self proclaimed conservatives.  It’s unpopular to be anything else, so don’t be too public about it if you are.  On the other hand, it’s a community comfortable with gays, open to outsiders (if they don’t stay too long), and generous in giving to those in need.

My turn came up this week, and I thought, Oh what the heck, I’ll share it with you also.  The question I decided to ask was, Who or what is God, and how do we know?

“Immortal, invisible, God only wise, in light inaccessible hid for our eyes,” so wrote Walter Chalmers Smith in his well known hymn.  Medieval mystics talked of the “Cloud of Unknowing” in which the closer one got to God, the less one knew anything about God.  There’s a bible story about the man Job who demanded a face to face meeting with God so he could demand justice from God.  When he got it, all he could do was say “Oops!  This was more than I bargained for.”  So how are we supposed to know God?

In a sense, we never do, but what we do know is this, God has chosen to incrementally reveal God’s self to us, step by step as we are able to grasp it.  With each step God moves in the direction of greater love with fewer boundaries separating us from all the others whom God loves.  For Christians, the record of God’s self revelation is found in the Hebrew scriptures of the Old Testament, and the Christian scriptures of the New Testament.  In them, the fullness of God that can be revealed in human form is displayed in Jesus.  Think of it as the flowering of a tree we have been watching grow from a seedling.  

Oddly enough, that flowering deepens the mystery.  Jesus may have restored many to wholeness of  life while teaching that God’s ways were ways of love and peace, but he also violated most of the social norms of the day, associated with social outcasts, welcomed aliens, and dared to challenge the authority of established religious teachers.  For that he was executed as an enemy of the state and the people.  The story would be over if it ended there, but it didn’t, and the mystery of God deepened again.  

We Christians are convinced by the testimony of those who followed Jesus that he rose from the dead, not as a resuscitated body, but as “the Word of God made flesh.”  It forces us to go back and take a harder look at the record of what Jesus said and did because it’s no longer just good advice for a better life, but the way of life itself from the very mouth of the one who created life.  How hard could that be?  Well, two thousand years later we’re still working at it; largely for the same reasons that got Jesus into trouble in the first place.  

Men and women, whoever they and wherever they are, are inclined to attach more authority to socially acceptable norms, political affiliation, and the life styles they’re accustomed to, than they do to what God has instructed.  They get around it by twisting scripture to fit what they want it to fit, and by following teachers who appeal to their prejudices and selfish desires.  What’s the cure?  It lies in what knowing the history of the Church can teach about errors made and corrected?  What light does that shine on our own errors in need of correction?  What does our God given gift of reason enable us to discern?  What does a deeper, more challenging investigation of scripture reveal?   Asking hard questions is OK.  Having doubt is OK.  Not putting up with easy answers is OK.  God can take it, even if pastors and bishops can’t.  Just ask Job.  After a long time of complaining, questioning, and demanding answers, he got his face to face meeting with God.  Oops!  Maybe he shouldn’t have said so much.  Yes, God chastised him for his audacity, but then commended him for the courage of his faith to ask hard questions in full expectation that God would listen.  You can do the same.

Wednesday, September 19, 2018

Called to be an Ambitious Competitor

When the gay issue hit my church not so many years ago, the complaint from many was that church leaders were following social trends in the way of the world, and not following Jesus.  Years later their reverberations still pound back and forth.  As I reflect on them, it seems to me that the “anti gay” forces were solidly locked in the secular social standards of their day, while church leaders were straining to hear what God was saying, no matter how counter cultural it might be to the established ways of the church.  My denomination survived, even prospered a bit, as did my own parish, but it wasn’t comfortable.

Contemporary social norms and mores, defined in large part by the middle class, too often firmly anchor Christian understanding more than does scripture, tradition, and reason.  Those three are a combination always ready to challenge the accepted way of things.  If nothing else, the gospels reveal a counter cultural Christ who ended up on the cross as an enemy of the people, not because he did something wrong, but because he challenged the accepted standards of the day.  Throughout the Hebrew and Christian scriptures, the word from God is strongly counter cultural, challenging the easy way, which was always the socially acceptable way.  But be careful.  It’s not the same thing as saying anything counter cultural is OK, any new social trend is godly, or that accepted social norms are always wrong.  They aren’t.  That’s what prayerful discernment is about.

I was thinking about it while reflecting on the lectionary readings for September 23.  In them Jesus called his disciples into servant leadership, while James challenges the glorification of ambition.  Two social norms cherished by Americans are ambition and competition.  People with ambition are celebrated, the more ambition the better.  To say someone has ambition, especially if combined with gumption, is to award them a gold star of approval.  In like manner is established faith that competitiveness in private enterprise will always be good for the economy.  Simply claiming it is sufficient, no evidence needed.  Men, especially, take pride in being competitive and love boasting about it over a few beers.  Boys are taught that being competitive is essential to their maleness.  The same is increasingly true for girls raised to become strong minded, independent women.  Oddly, it’s often defined not as being the best you can be, but as defeating the other (seem my previous column on The Prisoner’s Dilemma).  The old adage, “It’s not whether you win or lose, it’s how you play the game,” has never been taken seriously.  What’s taken seriously is the citation attributed to UCLA coach Henry (Red) Sanders, “winning isn’t everything, it’s the only thing.”   

It’s not just an American thing, although it may be strongest here where radical individualism is celebrated as one of our civic religions.  Two thousand years ago, Jesus followers, young men all, jostled each other to see who would be the top dog, the one closest to the Messiah, the one who would be better than all the others.  It’s the old pecking order thing that appears to exist throughout the animal kingdom.  But in humankind it finds its most creative, constructive, and destructive expressions.  

Jesus would have none of it.  If you want to be first, you have to be last, the servant of all.  You have to be willing to welcome a child rather than defeat another for a better position.  James, in his letter, made the point that envy can become bitter and ambition selfish.  Envy of place in the hierarchy, and ambition to be a winner by causing others to lose, easily becomes, has become, a desirable social standard to live up to.  Be competitive. The more the better.  Take pride in it.  Never let the other guy win if you can help it.  Push, push, push, and never give in.  The difference between Churchill’s “never give up,” and Trump’s “never give in,” is as wide as the Atlantic.

Those who are peaceable, gentle, willing to yield, full of mercy, without a trace of partiality or hypocrisy are labeled the wussy doormats of society, easy to tromp on, and they probably deserve it.  That these are the very qualities God requires of those who will follow Christ is deemed irrelevant, something that can be laid aside as soon as one has left the church.  The preacher can say whatever he/she wants – the real world is different.  It’s difficult to explain that following the way of Jesus endows one with strength and courage to face adversity, stand tall for justice, defend those in need of defense, and challenge the socially accepted status quo when God is calling to go in another direction.  From a secular perspective, it’s Churchill’s “never give up.”  

Contemporary social mores are strong.  Whether adhered to or not, they define what it means to be an accepted member of society.  Being accepted is a powerful incentive.  I want to be accepted.  You probably do too.  Jesus says, “follow me.”  In the way of the cross is none other than the way of life and peace.  

Monday, September 17, 2018

Interpersonal Boundaries: setting and observing

Interpersonal boundaries are the subject of academic study, reports and articles, and not enough honest conversation among ordinary people.  Writing not as an academic, which I am not, but as an ordinary person, which is also open to debate, this column is dedicated to promoting more conversation about interpersonal boundaries.  It comes not without the wisdom gained in the usual way.  

It also comes from experience in the parish from which I retired.  Some years ago it offered a workshop on setting and observing interpersonal boundaries because it was apparent that many adults were unskilled at it.  They were accustomed to operating out of habit according to old social norms tolerating degrees of racism, sexism, and the privilege of class.  That was then.  The sexual abuse issues that have recently become widely exposed in the media probably make it necessary to do it again.  Although my denomination mandates sexual abuse training for all persons having church related contact with youth, and for clergy and others who meet privately with adults, understanding interpersonal boundaries isn’t the same thing.  It’s related, but different; understanding them is essential to maintaining a safely congenial environment in which issues of sexual abuse are less likely to arise. 

Although issues of sexual abuse have the public eye, there are other forms of abuse of power and position that can be mitigated through a better understanding of boundaries, and developing the skills to assertively maintain them.  Assertiveness training was vogue a few years ago.  It was marketed mostly as a way for women to make their voices more clearly heard in a business world dominated by men who didn’t want to hear them.  As with many self help fads, it faded away, but as an element in setting and observing appropriate boundaries, perhaps it needs to come back.  But I digress.

If setting and observing interpersonal boundaries was easy to understand, they’d be easy to teach.  They’re  not.  The difficulty lies in the nature of boundaries.  Some people have little skill in setting them for themselves.  Others seem unable to recognize or respect boundaries they shouldn’t cross.  Different cultures have different understandings of appropriate boundaries.  What may seem perfectly innocent to one, may be deeply offensive to another.  From family to family standards differ.  Moreover, boundaries are permeable, and knowing when, how, or why to let someone cross yours, or for you to cross another’s, is governed by complicated, unwritten rules, social norms, experience, law, emotions, intent, and a hundred kinds of circumstances.  Sadly, there are also power predators who intentionally cross boundaries to intimidate and subdue others into subordination.   They have no intention of allowing others to set or observe their own boundaries.  Their boundaries are barriers behind which they hide as they subdue those around them.  It’s a form of evil that sometimes wears the mask of strong leadership.

If that wasn’t enough, the climate of polarized politics has complicated it even more.  It’s created barriers out of boundaries, not in the way of power predators, but out of fear.  They’re fortified barriers separating people who believe one way from all others who believe in any other way.  When interpersonal boundaries become barriers, they shut off the possibility for relationships to develop in constructive ways.  So the question is, how are we to understand appropriate ways to set and observe permeable interpersonal boundaries?  

Getting personal about it, I have a personal boundary of a little less than an arm length.  Consider it handshake distance.  Inside it is my personal space.  It makes me uncomfortable for others to enter it without my permission, which I offer in obscure ways not easy to understand, even by myself.  I dislike receiving hugs from people I don’t know well, yet have learned to tolerate the huggers in my life, one at a time, depending on who they are.  Social kissing is out.  I enjoy giving hugs to my loved ones at the right time in the right place, and, with some reluctance, to a few friends who seem to expect it.  There is a kind of gentle side hug that can be comforting and reassuring for some from whom I’ve learned it would be welcome when comforting reassurance is needed.  As a pastor, I never touch someone for a prayer or blessing without asking permission, and telling them what I am going to do.

Those are my physical boundaries.  You have them too.  What are they?  We also have emotional boundaries, the parts of our lives not open on demand to public discussion.  Language boundaries set limits to the vocabularies we deem appropriate in different circumstances.  Moral boundaries establish limits to what we believe is right or wrong, good or bad.  Remembering that boundaries are always permeable, what are they for you in each of these areas?

Describing in a few words what your boundaries are is a good way to start.  There may be several sets of boundaries important to you depending on circumstance: family, close friends, acquaintances, business, strangers, dates, defined moment of intimacy, etc.  Don’t make it too complicated, but once done it’s less awkward to let others know what they are.  Not that it always works.  A woman I’ve known for twenty years insists getting her face as close as possible to mine whenever she has something to say.  She does it to everyone, oblivious to how uncomfortable it is for others.  And, as we’ve learned from the #MeToo movement, there are many men, and some women, who take liberties where liberties have not been granted, because they think they have the right and power to do it.

Boundaries can expand and contract.  In crowds, physical boundaries can contract to almost, but not quite, nothing.  They can be expressed formally in business settings, but looser, more relaxed in social settings.  When in places where the dominant culture is alien, adapting as you are able keeps boundaries from becoming barriers.  Fortunately, there’s a rule of thumb that makes all of this easier: respect the dignity of every human being, and expect respect in return.  At a minimum it means doing no harm to another’s well being.  Mistakes happen.  When they do, it means apologizing.  Not the, “if I offended you,” non apology, but the more honest, “I offended you and am sorry.  What can I do to make it better?”  In the Church we call it it confession, repentance and restitution.

More, perhaps, at another time.

Friday, September 14, 2018

Anti Tax, Pro Tax, Taxes as Investment?

In my part of the country there’s a strongly held belief that lowering taxes is always a good thing.  It’s attributed to the Western ethos of rugged individualism, suspicion of the federal government, distrust of anyone on the other side of the Cascades, all wrapped in a conservative blanket.  It’s unclear what conservative means, but lower taxes always have something to do with it.   

The lower tax mythology is one reason Washington doesn’t have an income tax.  There’s a treasured illusion that folks get to keep what they earn. The government isn’t stealing it.  On the other hand, there’s a demand for quality public services, so Washington has a complicated tax structure of sales and business taxes hidden in the price of things.  Add to them the usual property taxes with an added menu of special levies for various special needs: education, emergency medical services, fire, mental health care, affordable housing, etc.  Every community is different, and so are their tax structures.

Put it all together and Washington is about in the middle when compared to tax burdens in other states.  The most recent ranking I can find from the Tax Foundation shows Washington’s over all 2012 state and local tax burden of 9.3% (on average)  was #28 among all states.  Anderson Economics lists the 2016 Washington business tax burden at an average of 9.2% ranking it #27.  It may be a sloppy system, but fitting in the middle is not a bad place to be. 

The disconnect comes with the inability of voters to understand taxes as investment in current and future quality of life.  It’s an inability with consequences.  Infrastructure installed years ago, sometimes on the cheap, followed by years of deferred maintenance, have meant system failures requiring the enormous cost of reconstruction.  There are the usual letters to the local paper and coffee conversations complaining that “they” didn’t do the job right the first time.  But is there a willingness to invest now for the future?  No more than there was in previous generations.  

As a friend said when a state wide initiative was proposed a few years ago, “It’s a tax cut, who wouldn’t want a tax cut?  It’s a no brainer.”  In another conversation about specific dollars for specific projects, it was claimed that local government didn’t need more money; it was just a question of better allocation of what they already had.  Another asserted that projects could be completed for 10 to 20% of estimated costs because, outside his own life, he had little understanding of the current cost of things.  Yet another demanded to know why millions were being spent on planning?  Why not just build it?  Building it where, according to what specifications?, was met with a blank stare.  

Undergirding it all is the old bugaboo of distaste for lazy people being coddled by the social services of a nanny state.  It’s a way of thinking built on belief in personal responsibility that gets by with what it has, doesn’t rely on government handouts, and expects others to do the same.  It’s not a bad belief.  It has merit.  But it can’t stand by itself. 

Today’s Intermountain West would not exist without massive public sector investment.  Its foundational infrastructure includes dams, rural electrification, railroads, highways, military bases, airports, and coastal ports, all financed by government investment underwritten with broadly levied taxes.  It remains economically viable thanks in part to farm subsidies, and subsidies for river transportation, highway maintenance, cheap electricity, and systems for educating our youth.  All of them are made possible through taxation. 

Understanding taxes as investments isn’t easy to sell.  Too many years have been consumed selling the idea that the government is stealing your money, money you could spend more wisely on your own, and for what?  For socialist welfare programs making life comfortable for lazy people. Overcoming that momentum is difficult.  So I was heartened when a local candidate for the state legislature said she is “pro tax, not anti tax” because she believes taxes are investments in quality of life.  There is hope.

Monday, September 10, 2018

Kneeling vs. Patriotism: A conversation

I had an extended FB exchange about kneeling athletes with people I know well.  All good men in their 30s and 40s.  One of them had posted a photo of several people, hands over hearts, saluting a flag while in front of them President Obama stood without his hand over his heart.  Next to it was another photo of kneeling football players, all black. The caption was, “This is where it started.”  My response was, “Yes, it started with a black president and black athletes.”  It did not go down well. 

It was eventually a productive exchange.  Mutual listening took place, but it got off to a rocky start.  The issue, they said, is about unpatriotic disrespect for the flag and nothing else.  To suggest that racism or issues of racial injustice have anything to do with it is personally offensive, and ignores how deeply important respect for the flag is to them.  Quit trying to change the subject, they said.  It’s about respecting the flag, that’s all. 

Of course patriotically honoring the flag is not what it’s all about.  Race, racism and racially motivated systemic injustice is at the core of the matter.  Kneeling in protest upset a social norm that offered a momentary appearance of unity before the game.  Was standing for the anthem a genuine show of patriotism?  For some, yes.  For most I suspect it was an absentmindedly observed social ritual?  Either way, upsetting it illuminated the uncomfortable reality that a significant portion of the population still doesn’t enjoy all the freedoms symbolized by the flag and anthem.  Whose fault is that?  Obviously, if blacks are protesting, it must be whites who are guilty, and no one likes accusations of guilt thrown at them in a public arena supposedly free of that sort of thing.  

Unwilling and unable to admit the validity of the protest, for them it had to be about disrespecting the flag, and only about disrespecting the flag.  To admit anything else would be to admit there is something seriously unjust in the way many Americans are treated by the justice system.  To admit that would mean having to pay attention to people we don’t want to pay attention to.  It would mean having to examine our own share of responsibility, and if we are honest, admitting that so call white advantage is a real thing.  A thing we don’t want to admit we have, don’t want to give up, yet know has to go anyway.  It’s better to pretend it doesn’t exist, and stick with patriotism.  Add a little self righteous anger at overpaid, privileged players, and the book is closed.  

Hotheaded liberal response on social media, mostly from hotheaded white liberals, as been epitomized by broadsides of equally inflexible vehemence, accusations, uncharitable commentary on character and pedigree, sometimes ending with a token shot at a coherent argument.  It’s an effective tactic for cementing the other side in their conviction that they were right all along.  Radical liberals are out to destroy everything good about America, starting with the flag and anybody who is patriotic.

I’d like to offer Country Parson’s Miracle Elixir guaranteed to open doors to a national conversation of a more adult nature.  I don’t have one.  Given the current administration, it seems unlikely anyone else does either.  Maybe the best we can do is to continue exchanges in small groups, by whatever means, where established mutual respect creates opportunity for mutual listening to take place.  

Friday, September 7, 2018

Notes from a Grumpy Country Parson

Now and then I write down interesting phrases picked up in the news or a magazine that, taken entirely out of context, lead me to reflect on them as inspiration for a column.  Two came to mind recently.  Attributed to the Notre Dame sociology department was the phrase, “moralistic therapeutic deism.”  The other was from a book review written byJason MIcheli in the August 29, 2018 issue of The Christian Century: “We are playing chaplain and cheerleader to people whose faith is being formed elsewhere, shaped by another who just might be the enemy.”  

What I think they add up to is pandering to those remaining in the pews, hoping they won’t leave.  Is that too harsh?  I don’t think so.  It’s pandering to the people in the pews so as not to upset them lest they reduce their tithes or leave.  It produces a kind of ministry ridiculed in the novels of Jane Austen.  If it doesn’t abandon the gospel altogether, it results in weak preaching of little consequence. I’m reminded of a popular preacher, now deceased, of whom it was said by his many admirers that he always left them laughing and feeling good about themselves.  It was “moralistic therapeutic deism” in the flesh.  Momentarily uplifted egos is not what the gospel is about, but that preacher packed the church.  In the face of declining church attendance, is that the answer?  Is playing chaplain and cheerleader what we need to do to keep those whose faith is being formed at work, over beers, or by media personalities?  

Of course not, except that a lot of professional advice comes close to it.  The antidote for decline is better marketing, so we’re told by church growth consultants abetted by hand wringing peddlers of anxiety over the dying church.  Better marketing is not a bad idea, especially considering how well Christianity has been highjacked by those who’ve crafted a civil religion cloaked in questionable theology and phony patriotism dotted with frequent use of Jesus’ name.  

The question is, what are we marketing?  Are we missional enough?  Are we outward or inward?  What’s the best strategy?  The early church launched out into a hostile Roman Empire with but one offering, the good news of God as revealed in Jesus Christ.  Was it was easier for them because everyone already believed in a god of some kind, but not many do these days?  I doubt it.  Was there any real difference between them and our own pantheon of gods who take the form of sports, reality television, consumerism, wealth, and such?  Not much.  So what did the evangelists do?  They proclaimed the gospel.  That’s it.  No marketing gurus.  No “moralistic therapeutic deism.”  No feel good chaplaincy.  They just kept telling people about Jesus.

Advice to my colleagues, who seldom ask for it, is don’t worry about whether the church is dying, just preach the gospel, and keep preaching it.  You are the one who is supposed to be promiscuously sowing the word, so just keep sowing because the seed will never run out.  But what next?  A little gardening is always in order, but don’t get consumed by it.  Just keep preaching the gospel.  

Will it grow the church?  You’re not in the church growth business.  You’re in the gospel preaching business.   Paul’s work in Corinth involved a lot of sewing and weeding with few results, but here we are two thousand years later still learning from what he had to say to those Corinthian miscreants.  The seed took root, just not in his time. 

We all count heads, but in talking about ordination vows with colleagues from other denominations, none of us could find anything about counting heads.  Although the words differed, there was one central theme: we are called to make Christ known, teach, serve and care for all, declare salvation, and share in the holy mysteries as each of our denominations understands them.

I’m not demeaning concern over declines in church attendance.  We’ve made mistakes along the way that need to be addressed, not to restore the past, but prepare for the future.  First, foremost and always, our job is to proclaim the gospel.  Do that, and don’t worry so much about the rest. 

Here endeth the rant.

Thursday, September 6, 2018

You Got A Soul. I Got A Soul. What’s a soul?

Jokes by the dozens have been told about looking in the bathroom mirror and not understanding who is looking back.  I look in the mirror and see a 75 year old man staring back at me with a look of disbelief.  The “me” that is alive and ever present in me is someone other than that image.  The “me” that is alive and ever present is also present with the me who is still a child, teen, and young adult.  That “me” is always learning new things, becoming a more mature “me,” but it’s not an old man me.  

I thought about that when visiting an elderly woman dying of terminal cancer.  She would begin talking about her life, then lapse into long silences broken by sighs.  Her eyes betrayed memories of all the “me” that was in her, in every age, with every joy and regret.  The frail body lying in the hospital bed contained all that was “me” in her, and it was very much alive.

That, perhaps, is what is meant by the soul.  It is the essential “me” that lives regardless of the body that carries it.  Which is not to say the body is unimportant.  Without embodiment things get pretty airy-fairy.  We Christians believe the embodied soul is essential to our wholeness, which is why St. Paul said, “…Someone will ask, How are the dead raised?…With the resurrection of the dead, what is sown in perishable, what is raised is imperishable.  …It is sown a physical body, it is raised a spiritual body.” (I Cor. 15)  Was Paul just guessing, or did he have special knowledge?  We’ll each find out by and by.  One thing we know he had was first hand experience with the risen Christ.  It gave him confidence that whatever befalls human beings in this life, there is more life to come, and it’s embodied.  

Be that as it may, I remain stuck with the odd looking apparition that stares back at me from the bathroom mirror, at least for now.  Might as well make the best of it.