Tuesday, December 1, 2015

Was John just a loony nut case?

What was it that John the Baptist did that fulfilled Isaiah’s prophecy that valleys shall be filled, the mountains and hills made low, the crooked straight, and the rough ways made smooth?

There he was living a bizarre life style and offering water baths in the Jordan River that he said would open the way to a new life, free of the taint of sin, to any who would come to him.  By what authority?  There already was an established authority for doing that, so who did he think he was? 

A well institutionalized system for becoming free from the taint of sin had been in place for a long time, a system clearly authorized in scripture that was available in the proper place for such things, the temple in Jerusalem.   It may be that poor people living in the countryside, the sick and the maimed, and a slew of others whose ways of life were on the fringe of acceptability, were in a constant state of ritual uncleanliness that made it difficult, if not impossible, to take advantage of temple resources.  Besides, it was’t cheap.  One had to pay for the privilege.  If you couldn’t?  Too bad.  All of that was irrelevant.  The approved system existed, and there was no other.

So along came this disreputable mess of a so called prophet, who claimed to be of the priestly class, offering to ignore every requirement of temple ritual, indeed of the need for the temple at all.  He provided a ritual bath that he said would clean them of sin, and set them on a new life in companionship with God.  There was nothing subtle about it.  If that was not making the rugged path to God smooth and straight, what was it?  Moreover, he had chosen the Jordan River as the site for his water bath, the very river ancient Israelites had crossed over as they entered from wandering in the wilderness to occupy the new land God had promised them.  The symbolism of that could not have been lost on those who came to John. 

Still, the question remains; by what authority did he do it?  Isn’t that what the Pharisees and temple priests asked when they came to see what was going on?  John never did give them a good answer.  But I think we get one when, a little later on, Jesus came to him to enter into the water bath of the Jordan.  Jesus became the imprimatur when he recognized John’s authority by entering the water through which he left his old life as a carpenter and entered his new life as the Christ.  

If it had ended there, the legitimacy of John’s ministry, even his sanity, would still be suspect.  In fact, Jesus’ ministry would also be suspect.  But it didn’t end there.  The beginning of the end was experienced in Jesus’ death and resurrection through which all that went before was affirmed by God.  It was the beginning of the end because we are still trying to figure it out. 

Saturday, November 28, 2015

How was your Thanksgiving?

After a long day of flying, we made it home late last night from a wonderful Thanksgiving.

How was your Thanksgiving?

Ours was spent in Florida visiting our son while staying in a "classic" Florida hotel that was once the retreat of the wealthy, and is now the retreat of folks enjoying the Florida equivalent of "The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel,"  which was not a bad thing.  One should experience a "classic" hotel now and then, and look forward to the next time.  But I digress, how was your Thanksgiving?

It's an odd holiday.  Secular, but tinged with anonymous religiosity.  Once we trotted out stale images of Pilgrims giving thanks to God for the bounty shared with them through the generosity of nearby Indians, although I think we implied that it was the Pilgrims who were generous.  We conveniently ignored, or perhaps never knew, that the Pilgrims had a mind to convert or kill any natives they could find, and that their form of religious faith was unforgivingly stern.  These days we mostly put Pilgrim hats on turkey figurines, and get on with eating and football.  Is that because we know more of the history than we used to?  Or is it that we have forgotten whatever history we once knew?  Could be either one; but there was something redemptive in the Thanksgiving myth.  It celebrated an attitude of gratefulness to the Almighty for bounty that could not be claimed as solely the work of one's own hands.  It celebrated friendship between peoples who would otherwise be enemies.  It celebrated the happiness of fellowship with families, friends, and neighbors.  It celebrated celebration itself.  Those are not bad things, and we could use more of them. 

So, how was your Thanksgiving?

When we moved to Walla Walla and had no nearby family, we decided to invite anybody and everybody to join us for a Thanksgiving feast in the church fellowship hall.  We provided the turkeys.  The rest was pot luck, but with a request to bring the best dish possible.  It was an amazing experience.  Some came who would otherwise have been alone.  Some brought entire families.  Some were in between.  Everyone came because they actually wanted to come.  Never was there such a feast, and we continued it every year until I retired.  At first it seemed strange.  Now I miss it.  It came close to fulfilling the mythology of Thanksgiving.

What were you thankful for on Thanksgiving?

I'm sure you recall that the Pilgrims were refugees from persecution in England, and stoic toleration of their temporary presence in Holland.  On the whole, their persecution was not that big a deal by modern standards, but it was enough for some of them to risk their lives on small boats as they crossed the Atlantic for a foreign land.  Today the nation is is an uproar over a few Syrian refugees, and ten thousand is a few, who have not even arrived, nor are likely to anytime soon.  They have endured everything from brutal dictators, mass bombings, and merciless terrorist gangs, to sinking overcrowded boats and long walks through inhospitable lands.  Are the few innocent ones among them just cover for the many who are secret terrorists?  You would think so from all the caterwauling going on.  FB and coffee shops are filled with anxious conversation demanding that not one refugee be admitted until we have a system in place to examine each one.  This from people who have not bothered to find out that we already have such a system, and a very thorough one at that.  They seem to the be same people who believe that they are safer being armed, that the economy is in the tank, and that a scary black guy is president.  

I wonder what they were thankful for?  A sale on ammo at the local gun shop?

I know a better place to start.

In the midst of it all let us give thanks for our creation, preservation, and all the blessings of this life; and above all for the redemption of the world by our Lord Jesus Christ, for the means of grace, and the hope of glory (adapted from the BCP).  To me, the means of grace is more than anything else like the gift of a complete set of tools for us to use.  Maybe I’m a closet semi-Pelagian; who knows?  Anyway, being thankful for them means that we can do something with them, but what?  The Sermon on the Mount might be a good place to look for an answer.  To keep it basic for beginners we might try to:
  • Hunger and thirst for righteousness
  • Be merciful
  • Be a peacemaker
  • Be willing to be ridiculed for righteousness sake
  • Be trustworthy and honest
  • Let your light so shine that others will give glory to God because of you
  • Let your yes be yes and your no be no
  • Confront violence in radically peaceful ways
  • Pray for those who persecute you
  • Don’t act too pious, especially in public
  • Give anonymously and generously
  • Talk with God using simple words and short sentences

Saturday, November 21, 2015

Packing and Manhood

The men’s locker room at the local Y is the pond from which I draw the water of life according to at least some men.  It comes mostly in the form of overheard snippets of conversation.  Guns have been a popular topic of late, or more particularly, the packing of side arms.  Today’s snippet: “Do you pack?”  "Oh yeah, all the time, never go anywhere without it.”

From what I can tell there are three types of men who pack.  For some it is a part of their job or way of life.  They don’t think about it much one way or the other.  It’s just a tool they carry, know how to use, but seldom do except for practice.  

A second type has been frightened into believing that there is a robber, armed intruder, rapist, or terrorist around every corner and behind every bush.  To me they seem awfully gullible and a little unstable.  Barney Fife was a comical version, but they are the real thing.

A third talks tough, and believes that his ‘piece’ is a sign of his masculinity.  He is almost hopeful that someone will challenge him so that he can draw, and at least threaten if not fire.  He fantasizes about saving others cowering from the terrorist who has invaded Home Depot or Walmart.  Dirty Harry is his hero.   

My offhand guess is that two of these types are not the sort of men you would want to count on in difficult circumstances.  They appear to lack the maturity, self assurance, composure, and good judgment to be reliable.  Other overheard snippets of conversation from the same men reinforce that thought because they tend in the direction juvenile humor; aggressive talk about their favorite teams as if accomplishments on the field were their own; the joys of asserting authority over kids, spouses, employees, etc.; and Fox news inspired world views.  Oddly enough, some of them claim to be Christian.  I don’t know how many of them are walking around, but I wonder when one of them is going to start blasting away.  

Don’t get me wrong.  The men’s locker room at the Y is not filled with these characters.  It’s just that they tend to be the loudest and most easily overheard.  

Monday, November 16, 2015

No More Prayers for Paris! Let's Start Bombing!

The attacks in Paris have unleashed a flood of reactions, many infused with rage and a desire for immediate vengeance.  They have also reminded some of us that similar attacks have taken place in Beirut and Kenya, places generally out of our European oriented line of sight.  They have raised for me a series of observations and questions. 

One of my young friends fired off a FaceBook rant demanding that we stop messing around with useless prayers for Paris and start dropping bombs.  No more ‘huggy’ words of sympathy, let’s get tough an start shooting.  What is it that makes prayer seem like nothing, but bombing seem like something?  One part seems like a theological question while the other seems psychological, but more than a few of the Psalms put the two together, more or less as my young friend has.  Consider Psalm 89 for instance.  It professes faith in God, but goes on to accuse God of not following up on his commitments, and demands that God wreak revenge on the enemies of the nation.  There is something in human nature that distrusts God to actually do anything.  There is something in human nature that triggers a visceral desire to escalate the violence through retributive vengeance.  If God won’t do it, then, by god, we will!  You hit me and I will obliterate you.

Are prayers so useless? Are they only the tools of spineless pacifists and milquetoast pastors who don’t understand the realities of the world?  It would seem that way not only to many contemporary Americans but to a good many ancient Israelites as well, and, considering the centuries of wars, to most human beings in between.  Following Jesus is a great idea for an hour on Sunday morning.  After that, maybe not.  Discipleship, it seems, is for the few, not the many, because it just doesn’t make sense in a dangerous world where looking out for number one is what does make sense.  

So what about dropping bombs?  On who?  Where?  What would it accomplish?  It takes only a brief review of past military actions in the Middle East to learn that a part of what we are facing today was sown through our own actions in the region.  We cannot undo the mistakes of the past, but we can stop repeating them, and it seems to me that knee jerk demands for military revenge are exactly that, a repeat of bad decisions.  

It is time to stop and rethink things a bit.  Let’s drop the idea of being in a war that can be won in the sense that WWII was won.  Historically speaking, that was an anomaly anyway.  Most of history’s wars have ended with a shaky suspension of hostilities until the next spark lit fire to another one.  Wining has never been complete, nor has it been permanent, but losing has been permanent for the casualties of war.  Moreover, the current enemy is not a nation state.  It’s more like one of the notorious drug cartels, a criminal enterprise, well funded, with a presence in many places, willing and able to enact unspeakable violence as it chooses, not really caring if the immediate perpetrators are killed in the process.  If you don’t like the drug cartel analogy, consider it like one of the many enemy organizations James Bond has had to face.  It’s motivation is not religious.  It is psychotic, xenophobic hatred.  Keep that word xenophobic in mind.  It will come up again shortly.

The appropriate response, it seems to me, is a police action, not a war.  Taking out key strongholds, capturing as many leaders as possible, and systematically disrupting networks of operatives is one part of that kind of response.  Another is to engage vulnerable populations in ways that can inoculate them from gang influence.  That’s a little harder because it means opening avenues of progress and prosperity to people who are strangers to us and whom we, out of our cherished xenophobia, do not trust.  In like manner, they have little reason to trust us, so the standoff is tense.

Back to the question, are prayers so useless?  I guess that depends on what you think prayer is.  If prayer is a form of rubbing the magic lantern and asking the genie to do you a favor, then it is probably useless.  There is a big difference between God and a fairy godfather, but it’s a difference I think many are unaware of.  If prayer is the folly of naive believers in a god that doesn’t exist, then it is probably useless.  On the other hand, if prayer is conversation with the One through whom all things were created and have their being, then prayer is probably still useless, if by useful we mean something we can use like a tool to accomplish what we want.  Prayer with God is an intentional respectful engagement with God as we seek to walk in God’s ways.  Prayer is  how we allow God into our lives to engage with us in whatever way God chooses to do so, trusting that God loves us, and knowing that our lives are ultimately in God’s hands.  

Prayer is what informs us about what God has made abundantly clear: that human wellness and prosperity cannot reach fullness except through work that builds up community, tears down barriers between communities, respects the dignity of every human being, and seeks to heal the divisions between peoples and nations.  God has said that repeatedly through all the prophets, and most powerfully through the Word of God made flesh, Jesus who is the Christ.  There is no ‘but’ about it.  To get real, to get practical, to get serious, is to recognize (at long last) that what God has said outranks anything and everything that anyone else has said. 

Unfortunately, it’s the one thing that we seem unable to comprehend, or even take seriously, except as an abstraction for theologians to argue about, or as the subject of sentimental wall hangings for the naive to decorate their homes with.  I don’t know what to do about that.  What I hope is that at least some world leaders are deep in authentic prayer that will lead enough of them to engage in actions that will forcefully confront terrorist gangs while they simultaneously work for a world in which we can live in peace with one another. 

Friday, November 13, 2015

Leaving Comments

It appears that linking to my site through stevenwoolley.com does not allow comments to be made. I don’t know why. If you want to leave a comment, please link through countyparson.blogspot.com.

Thursday, November 12, 2015

Freedom of Speech, but not of consequences

College protests have risen in Missouri, at Yale, and elsewhere in response to systemic racism and racist language.  Other protests have led to the cancelation of speakers whose political views were objected to by vocal groups of students and faculty.  Not to be outdone, counter protests have risen to assert the overriding right of free speech.  In the meantime, various pundits have sat on the sideline making catcalls about political correctness run amok.  

Well, what the heck, I might as well wade into the fray along with the others.  

The Constitution protects the right of free speech by way of the First Amendment which says that “Congress shall make no law…abridging the freedom of speech… .”  That hasn’t stopped Congress from doing just that through laws as the Sedition Act of 1798, a law that expired a few years later.  The courts have also constructed fences around freedom of speech through a long series of decisions in case law that I am not competent to review.  The point is that freedom of speech is not unlimited freedom, and the limits generally have to do with speech that has or is likely to cause serious damage to others, either directly or to their other legally protected rights.

Right now we seem to have several free speech arguments afoot.  One says that I can say whatever the hell I want and you can’t stop me.  Another uses ‘politically correct’ (PC) as a derogatory accusation that someone is overly sensitive to and easily offended by common words that are derogatory and insulting but shouldn’t be taken seriously.  And still another says we’ve had it up to here being subjected to language that is deeply offensive and does cause damage, and we’re not going to take it any more.  You can see where this could lead, indeed has led. 

The pen is mightier than the sword, at least according to Bulwer-Lytton’s play about Cardinal Richelieu in which the cardinal is given these lines:
True, This!
Beneath the rule of men entirely great
The pen is mightier than the sword. Behold
The arch-enchanters wand! — itself is nothing! —
But taking sorcery from the master-hand
To paralyse the C├Žsars, and to strike
The loud earth breathless!
Take away the sword,
States can be saved without it!
Some small inclination toward honesty compels me to admit that I have never read the play, but I love these lines.  Anyway, if that’s true, then words are more powerful than all the bullets the NRA can pack into any weapon.

That’s one reason why freedom of speech is not entirely free.  There are limits.  It also means that speech, freely  made, will have consequences, powerful consequences, and in the cases now before us, they are the arch-enchanters’ wands being aimed directly at elements of systemic racism that have long been tolerated as just good fun, just the way it is, and don’t be so PC about everything.

When I was in high school, many decades ago, we loved the word semantics, as in it’s just semantics.  It’s what we said when we realized we were on the losing end of an argument, and we thought it meant something like, oh, it’s just words, they don’t really mean anything, get over it.  Obviously we had no idea what semantics meant.

Words have meaning, powerful meaning.  In casual talk we splatter them all over town without much thought about where they will land or what impact they will have.  It doesn’t matter most of the time.  It’s just talk.  But when we lie, say something mean, spread a rumor, disparage another's good name, or a multitude of other verbal sins, we can and do cause great harm, sometimes more than can ever be healed or repaired.  

When talk is not casual, when it is planned, calculated, and intentional, it becomes not just an enchanter’s wand; it can become the wand of Lord Voldemort capable of destructive evil, or it can become the wand of Harry Potter capable of defending that which is righteous and good.  The line between the two is thin.

We are guaranteed freedom of speech because it is such a powerful tool.  We are not guaranteed freedom from the consequences of our speech.

Sunday, November 8, 2015

Carson, Trump, and Hard Working Americans

I have acquaintances who like Ben Carson and Donald Trump.  I think they speak for many of the traditional conservative voters in our region.  It’s refreshing, they say, to hear someone tell it like it is.  

The ‘it’ that they tell is a fascinating bag of miscellany.  
  • He will seal the border, and stop the flood of violent illegals who are committing crimes and taking our jobs.
  • He will make us great again, like we used to be.  No one respects the USA anymore because Obama is weak.
  • He will make it better for people like me who are struggling to stay in the middle class.
  • He will get us out of this horrible economic recession that has lasted for so long.
  • He will do away with big government interference in our lives.
  • He will assure that gays and illegals will not be the favored class like they are now.
  • He will rebuild our military so that it is once again the best in the world.
  • When we go to war we will go to win.
  • Putin won’t push us around.

One of the oddest claims came from a friend who looks forward to getting rid of the “Unaffordable Care Act” so that he can buy decent insurance at a decent price after he retires.  A firefighter, he will retire long before he is eligible for Medicare, and so is searching the private market for insurance as good as his current union negotiated package that covers everything at city expense.  He won’t find it at an affordable price, and somehow that’s Obama’s fault.    

They like Ben and Donald more than the other umpteen Republican candidates because they don’t look or sound like politicians, and their lack of government experience, or even knowledge about government, is seen as a big plus.  If they don’t know much history, well, most Americans don’t either, so what! 

These unreflective preferences say a lot, and it needs to be taken seriously.

Many of my friends and acquaintances get their news from Fox, right wing talk radio, or conversation with others of like mind.  They have been fed a constant barrage of propaganda that the southern border is a sieve and almost deliberately left unprotected.  That the economy is in the tank and getting worse.  That Obama is not respected by world leaders.  That the federal government is intent on invading and controlling every aspect of their lives.  That the poor are lazy.  That those on welfare are drug users, street gangers, and living as well on tax payer handouts as hard working Americans do on hard earned paychecks .  And that the last eight years have been an unmitigated disaster on every front.  Of course the unstated problem is that Obama is black.

Apart from that, they are convinced that Democrats are the party that believes you should not be held responsible for your own well being, that government can make better decisions for you than you can, and that every problem can be solved if enough  money is thrown at it.  Democrats are the party of takers and taxers, not hard working earners.

In one sense they have a point.  The economy has recovered from the mess that existed in 2007-08, and which had been long time coming, but it has done so very slowly, and in a way that has not benefitted most of them.  They have not seen their paychecks rise, their jobs are always in jeopardy, and they are vaguely aware that there are others making huge profits and enormous salaries, so something must have gone wrong somewhere.  Moreover, the social fabric is changing very quickly.  It’s not just that gays of one stripe or another can get married.  The superior place of a white majority is being threatened by blacks, Hispanics and Asians to the point where there will soon be no majority race.  That’s a very real threat to a certain kind of self identity.

My point is this.  These are assumptions, beliefs, and attitudes that have been annealed by the heat of public rhetoric (read propaganda) and salted with just enough truth to become a very tough, inflexible world view.  It cannot be ridiculed out of existence.  It cannot reasoned into greater flexibility.  And it must be taken seriously by any progressive party or candidate that wants to win an election.  Is there any workable way to approach them?  I think there is.

What they lack, and what they want is hope.  They want candidates and parties to take their fears and beliefs seriously.  They want to know that a better life for them is not only possible, but that candidates and parties have a plan that makes sense and can work.  In the end, I think most are sufficiently good hearted to want to share the reality of a new hope well beyond the social environment in which they feel most comfortable.  Obama’s “change we can believe in” was seen by them to be the threatening kind of change that has actually come about.  It was threatening because it was the promise of a change calculated to not only exclude them, but penalize them in the process.  What they want to know for certain is that the changes yet to come will not leave them behind.  Hope is what they want.

That will take a message from Democratic candidates that is quite different from the usual appeal to liberal voters.  Exactly how to craft that message is for others to do.  But whatever it turns out to be, it must be believable because it is authentic.