Saturday, December 22, 2007

Measuring a Candidate's Policy Platform

Since we have an abundance of candidates running on the faith platform, it seems reasonable to measure their positions on public issues against the biblical standards they are so quick to claim as their own. A close examination of scripture reveals quite a list, although it will disappoint some to discover that abortion, homosexuality and gay marriage are not on it. It’s not like God laid it out just once and then let it go. Not at all, almost every one of the 8th century prophets, and those who wrote in their names, had the same things to say. I’m particularly fond of Amos, maybe because he was a farmer from a small rural town, but I also think that God used him to provide the most comprehensive list against which to judge candidate positions, which he did by articulating the failings of a people and its rulers who bear a remarkable similarity to our own. So here goes. Will the candidate:
• Even for enemies refuse to use the food of the people as a weapon
• Oppose all forms of ethnic cleansing
• Display integrity in international dealings
• Foster civil harmony
• Provide for security of persons and possessions without discrimination
• Respect legitimate civil authority
• Initiate economic policies and practices that are fair to all
• Promote fair and honest dealings in all areas of trade, commerce and personal relations
• Assure that interest rates on loans, especially to the poor, that are not confiscatory
• Demand equal justice for all, especially for the poor
• Initiate policies and practices that remove barriers to success in life for all persons
• Show awed respect for God’s holy places
• Show and promote a holy respect for all acts of (sexual) intimacy
• Be sober and promote sobriety
• Allow God’s servants to speak freely as God inspires them
• Engage in constructive work that shows respect for all
• Be personally honest and intentional worship of God in heart, soul and mind
• Have humility in God’s presence and eliminate conditions or behavior that oppress others
• Provide for honest courts and judges
• Assure fair taxation of all
• Promote policies that encourage economic well being for all
• Respect the dignity of all persons
• Lead a government that is generous in its compassion for those in need
I imagine that some will wonder how all of that comes out of Amos. It’s really quite simple. Just take a look at what God has condemned. Wouldn’t the reciprocal of that be what God approves? I think so.

Friday, December 21, 2007

Measuring a candidate's faith

We are entering an odd presidential campaign in which the acceptability of a candidate is measured in part on how well they can express their faith, preferably their Christian faith. It’s not exactly a litmus test, but it is an indication of how fearful the candidates are that they might alienate the Christian Right if they don’t say the right things about their faith. Debate moderators aid and abet by peppering their questions with references to faith. As a Christian I realize that one of our treasured mantras is that we are saved by grace through faith, but I fear that it has become almost meaningless through unthinking and often hypocritical overuse. Proclaiming belief in God through Jesus Christ or claiming that “the day I gave myself to Jesus is the day I was saved” is one thing, but following him is an entirely different thing. I think James had it right: faith without works is dead. If (Christian) faith is to be the measure of a candidate's character then I want to know how closely the candidate’s platform conforms to Christ’s teachings, and I suggest a place to start is a close examination of the Sermon on the Mount as found in Matthew’s gospel. Using that as my template I want to know if a given candidate:
• Is humble in spirit and demeanor
• Mourns for this fallen world and the role of our nation in it
• Hungers and thirsts for righteousness
• Is merciful, pure in heart, a peacemaker
• Is willing to be persecuted for righteousness sake
• Is a person of worthiness, which is to say a person of honest integrity
• Can let their light so shine that others will give glory to God because of them
• Understands the spirit and depth of the Ten Commandments and not just their words
• Seeks reconciliation with those whom they and our nation have injured
• Lets their yes be yes and their no be no
• Is able to confront violence in radically peaceful ways
• Is willing to learn to love their enemies
• Will pray for those who persecute them and our nation
• Doesn’t act too pious, especially in public
• Gives anonymously and with generosity to those in need
• Prays with simple words
• Serves God and not wealth or earthly riches
• Trusts God and doesn’t worry so much about this life
• Isn’t quick to judge others recognizing that they are not very qualified to do it anyway
• Respects and honors that which is holy
• Asks, knocks and seeks knowing that God who loves all of us will answer
• Aims for the narrow doorway – the wide one leads to hell (Iraq perhaps)
• Can discern and beware of false prophets (especially the ones who seek to be closest to them)
• Builds their life on the solid rock of faith in God through Christ
So much for the character of a candidate running on the faith platform. It seems to me that God also has a pretty clear cut political agenda, and that might be a platform plank for another day, but if you want an advance clue take a good hard read of Amos.

Saturday, December 15, 2007

Children's Christmas Pageant


It may still be Advent, but tonight we had our Children’s Christmas Pageant complete with an informal Eucharist. The script allowed everyone, including adults, to participate in one way or another. Dozens of sheep, a bevy of angels complete with wings, animals of every kind and shepherds of all sizes and ages gathered about the manger. Seven or eight youth offered their musical talents, and many carols were sung. Most everyone in town will attest that our “Midnight Mass” on Christmas Eve is the best that Anglican tradition, liturgy and choral music have to offer, but for the sheer joy of celebrating the Nativity there is nothing that can compare to the children’s pageant. This semi-rehearsed and often spontaneous event is filled with laughter and tears of joy and is the best, the very best. In the light of the pageant I really don’t care what the Archbishop’s Advent letter says or what Kendal Harmon thinks. It’s all marginal drivel in the light of children telling the Christmas story.

Friday, December 14, 2007

Visions of Reality

How do visions become reality? At this time of year we have an abundance of them read to us mostly from Isaiah, and an even greater abundance of them from sentimental holiday films and music. Is it all just wishful thinking? I keep going back to the gospel stories to be reminded of how Isaiah’s vision of the kingdom of God kept breaking into this world in startling reality with every word and deed of Jesus. That breaking in did not flood the entire globe, but it did bring the renewing water of life into the parched places of a person here and a person there and sometimes to whole crowds and villages. It was, it seems to me, the necessary, sure and certain sign that the visions of Isaiah, and even those of rank Hallmark sentimentality, are visions of a reality that is already partly here with more to come in God’s good time. I am also reminded that it is the gathered church that is to continue as the body of Christ going about the business of bringing reality to the visions in the places and among the people where we live. We are not called on to bring the reality of the kingdom of God to the world. We are called on to bring it into the places that we touch and the places that touch us. If every follower of Christ did that, the whole world would indeed be touched by the inbreaking of the kingdom of God.

Saturday, December 8, 2007

A Confession of Faith

Looking back on recent posts, I suspect I might be considered a rather curmudgeonly sort of Country Parson. I prefer to think of myself as a Christian realist firmly rooted in a classical Christianity that takes the Bible as progressively revealing the Word of God in truth without having to be taken as inerrant or literally and historically true in all things. That same classical Christianity honors thousands of years of tradition, recognizing that those who have preceded us and dedicated their lives to better understanding God may have some important wisdom to share with us. We, in our own generation, will become the next layer of tradition to help guide the way for generations yet to come. Whether our contribution to tradition is wise or foolish depends a lot on us, and there is a lot of foolishness out there. As a classical Christian I fully embrace the Nicene Creed, and delight in worship rich in liturgy that helps to create holy time and holy space. Setting all other things aside, I am convinced that the heart of Christianity is to follow as disciples where Christ has led. That means that we are to: love the Lord our God with all our hearts, bodies and minds; love our neighbors as ourselves; and love one another as Christ has loved us. As priest and pastor a part of my job is to help those in my care to come to deeper understandings of what all of that means and how it might be lived out in practical everyday ways. Finally, the right-wing challenge is always: yes, but do you believe that Jesus is the only way to salvation? The answer is an unequivocal yes, but probably not a yes acceptable to them because I leave all of that entirely in God’s hands and am unwilling to insist on certain human formularies as a test of whether one is saved or not.

Thursday, December 6, 2007

More On Popular Hysteria

I continue to run across conservative Christian blogs and websites decrying the fact that the Supreme Court has banned the recitation of the Pledge of Allegiance in public schools. Where do these ideas come from and how do they get so firmly stuck in the psyche of some people? As far as I know the last Supreme Court decision on this matter was in 2004 when the justices in a majority of eight dismissed a case brought by a man in California who objected to the pledge. The pledge, whether one likes it or not, is still recited in public schools just as it has been for decades. This sort of "Chicken Little The Sky Is Falling" stuff distracts us from more serious issues facing our nation and the important work Christ has given us to do.

Tuesday, December 4, 2007

Niebuhr's Warnings

I’m generally not fond of simply republishing something someone else wrote, but after listening to and then reading a recent lecture by Prof. Andrew Bacevich of Boston University, I’ve been rereading Reinhold Niebuhr's 1952 book The Irony of American History. His comments on a certain na├»ve idealism he saw in the American foreign policies of his day seemed to offer some startling illumination for the policies of our own. He wrote in part that…
We might be tempted to bring the whole of modern history to a tragic conclusion by one final and mighty effort to overcome its frustrations. The political term for such an effort is “preventive war.” It is not an immediate temptation; but it could become so in the next decade or two. ….Nations find it even more difficult than individuals to preserve sanity when confronted with a resolute and unscrupulous foe. Hatred disturbs all residual serenity of spirit and vindictiveness muddies every pool of sanity. …Our foreign policy is thus threatened with a kind of apoplectic rigidity and inflexibility. Constant proof is required that the foe is hated with sufficient vigor. (Niebuhr, 146)

Tuesday, November 27, 2007

War and Peace - A Utilitarian Partnership

Not long ago my very conservative friend, who gets all his news from Fox and the Washington Times, asked if war is necessary for peace to happen. A few days later I read a column by James Pinkerton entitled “Give war a chance: Sometimes it works,” which seemed to be a slightly tongue in cheek (I hope) take on what the long dead Prussian war geek Carl von Clausewitz might have to say about the various wars being waged today. The two go together and demand something of a response. To my friend, and with Clausewitz to back me up, the answer is Yes, war is necessary for peace to happen if…

It is necessary if the leaders of country A are convinced that peace is possible only on their terms, and that if the unreasoning and obstinate leadership of country B opposes their terms, then the only way to peace is to eliminate the leadership of country B and establish the terms of peace on the remaining people. If some, or all, of the remaining people of country B are unwilling to accept the terms of peace, then, for the sake of peace, they also must be eliminated. It’s as easy and utilitarian as that. No serious moral questions need be asked. Jeremy Bentham would love it, and every empire worth its salt has practiced it. Of course bigger, badder empires always seem to come along to disrupt the hard won peace, but, hey, that’s life. That’s why guys like Clausewitz are still studied for their mastery of war.

If you don’t like the notion of country A and country B just substitute corporations A & B, or gangs A & B, or family members A & B. It pretty much works the same for all.

I wonder what would happen if the leaders of the nations, or corporations or gangs or you and me, ever took God seriously? We are entering the season of Advent, which starts us off with reflections on the last judgment before it brings us to the cradle in Bethlehem. Now would be a good time to reflect a little on these things.

Saturday, November 24, 2007

The Dreaded "D" Month


The dreaded “D” month is upon us, at least that is the semi-humorous way a good many clergy and church staff look at it. It marks the confluence of three mighty rivers of tradition and custom in a narrow place of churning conflicts. The first river is the secular mid-winter Saturnalia of rampant consumerism, partying and accompanying anxiety that has been with us at least since Roman times. The second river, at least for some Christians, is the four week season of Advent, a season of patient waiting in anticipation of Christ’s coming while we prepare with humble and penitent hearts for the annual celebration of his incarnation. The third river is the activity, some of it quite frantic, to prepare for all the events that will occur in the church: Advent Festival of Lessons and Carols, Formal Teas, Children’s Pageants, Midnight Masses not to mention special events celebrated by our Youth Group, Scouts, AA, AlAnon and other groups that also use the buildings. It seems that it’s also the time for electrical, heating and plumbing goblins to act up. Pastors also know it a season for some of their flock to suffer deep depression, debilitating anxiety, domestic conflict and life threatening physical illnesses. The trick, believe it or not, is to relax and just let it happen knowing that in, with and through these weeks we are gathered to give glory to God’s name and rejoice in the redemption of the world through the incarnation of Word of God in Jesus Christ. Being even more deliberate about setting aside adequate time for silence, conversation with God, reflection and study brings a certain calmness in the midst of chaos that enables one to truly enjoy madness of the season.

Tuesday, November 13, 2007

Spiritual Hyperventilating Does Not Solve Much

A fellah came into my office the other day. He represented one of the newer evangelical house churches in town and wanted some help completing a list of all churches and pastors. He, along with some others, are doing their best to make weekly presentations to every church men’s group in order to give new life to a local Promise Keepers movement through which to address some of the pressing ills of the community. His main point was that our community is under attack by Satan and unless something is done soon Satan will win. It was clear to him that the community was just sitting idly by while drugs, family disintegration, homelessness, hunger and more were growing unabated in the face of public apathy. I helped him with his list but suggested that we leave Satan out of it. Blaming the devil did little more than absolve us of our own culpability. Maybe it was time that we took responsibility on ourselves for ourselves. I don’t think he liked that answer. We also had a few moments to talk about how the many social service agencies in town, many of them church affiliated, are working together in a coordinated way to not only talk about these problems but actually do something about them. That also seemed to be unsettling news to him. He finally asked if we had any kind of men’s breakfast group that they might make a presentation to and was truly disappointed to learn that our 35 year long group that meets each week preferred to devote their time to bible study and spiritual development. I tell you there is nothing sadder than a semi-hysterical the-end-is-coming would be Christian warrior discovering that the veterans in the trenches are way ahead of him.

Sunday, November 11, 2007

Christianity under attack! Oh no!

With pugnacious tenacity some of my more conservative parishioners have expressed frustration over what they believe to be a concerted media attack on Christianity. I can’t find it but since they only watch or listen to right wing news commentators, I figure that’s where they got this idea. They are also loathe to give up their firm belief that America was primarily founded on Christian principles and continues to this day as the last best hope for a better world. The media attack on Christianity is none other than an attack on America itself. In other words, their concern is not so much about doctrines of faith as it is about politics. Socialism is, of course, what ruined Christianity in Europe, and so any form of it, especially the creeping socialism of the left wing, must be opposed by all right thinking Christians. Their level of anxiety is very high, and grows higher as they scan the list of leading Republican candidates who seem only marginally better than the horrifying specter of godless Hillary the Hun. In all of that muddy water there is something to celebrate. Christianity has had a tremendous influence for the better on Western civilization in general and America in particular. I agree with a number of scholars that the presence of a strong Church in Europe provided the necessary checks against unbridled secular political power and the ground upon which democracy could come into being. It was the Church that, however imperfectly, challenged society to meet Christian moral standards as revealed in scripture and understood in each time an place. As Europeans began to settle in America it was the Church that established colleges and universities where future democrats would learn how to build an entirely new kind of nation. Christian moral values did have an influence on the founding documents of our nation, although I do not believe anyone can seriously make a case that they were foundational themselves. As Europeans moved westward so did ministers of various denominations who became symbols and teachers of the moral order needed for towns and cities to grow. Even today it is the Church, at least some part of it, that is brave enough to call our leaders to task and remind believers of the greater law of Christ that always takes precedence over nation and politics. Out of the Church have come our greatest voices for civil rights, justice for the poor and oppressed, economic equity and more. That’s he good news. If I get around to it, I’ll work on the bad news another day.

Friday, November 2, 2007

Retirement Enigma

As I get within a couple of months of retirement I find myself in the awkward position of becoming more of a consultant than a player in planning for the year and years ahead. That's added to the odd sense that I would like this somewhat uncomfortable time to come to an end more quickly while not wanting it to pass too fast. I wonder if it would be possible to transfer these months to right after I retire rather than using them up now. We do that with Saint's days all the time.

Thursday, November 1, 2007

Evangelsim: Who Needs It!

Why is that such a difficult word? Is it because many of us have had bad experiences with “evangelists”? I think that has a lot to do with it, but perhaps there is something more intimate than that. In fact I suspect that intimacy is at the very core of it. Religion of any kind does its best to probe at questions of ultimate truth and reality in the context of the very center of what it means to be a person. We Christians have discovered a truth about the revealed nature of God in Christ Jesus and our own identity as beloved of God who are already living into our eternal lives. Those of us sharing in the Anglican tradition also believe that this is a truth for all people everywhere and in every time. That is great good news and worthy of being shared, but it is also very intimate. It touches on the very core of our being and, if taken seriously, challenges and changes the very essence of who we are as persons. That kind of intimacy is hard to share, as hard or harder to share than details of our sex lives. I suggest that we back out of this quagmire and start over. First, as disciples of Christ we are called to follow him, which is to say that we are to follow his teachings and continue his work. That is what it means when we say that the church is the body of Christ. As disciples we can more easily respond to questions by saying that we are followers of Jesus Christ and try, through our own limited abilities, to continue in his ways. That in turn gives us an opportunity to talk, if asked, about what those ways are and what difference they might make in one’s own life or the lives of others. What does that have to do with salvation, being saved and whether or not one must be a believing Christian in order to be saved? Possible fodder for another post if anyone is interested.

Friday, October 26, 2007

Goodbye Sweet Summer

Summer has finally left. I’m always reluctant to say goodbye to it, but there is snow in the mountains, last night was our first freeze down here in the valley, and the trees are giving up their leaves, so I guess that summer really has gone. It is not easy for me. Fall and winter have always been times of endurance and symbols of sadness. All Saints, Thanksgiving, Advent and Christmas are times of joyful celebration, and I celebrate joyfully with all the rest, but by the end of January I find myself in great need of warm sunshine, blue skies and outdoor living. Thankfully, spring comes early to our valley. By the end of February there will be new growth showing in the garden, and with a certain eager anticipation I will await the too slow return of green leaves on trees. Winter, like New York City, is something to be tolerated in good humor, even enjoyed a bit, but I don’t have to love it.

Monday, October 15, 2007

Being Bold in Christ

The Barna Group is a well Christian survey firm that is respected for the quality of its work while, at the same time, strongly endorsing a conservative Evangelical approach to the faith, particularly among those whom they call “born again.” So it was a bit of a surprise to receive their latest update on September 24 revealing that a growing percentage of young people between the ages of 16 and 29, both Christians and others, have a negative view of Christianity. Only 16% of non-Christian youth have a positive view of Christianity, according to their findings. And only 3% have a positive view of Evangelicals. They are joined in that attitude by church going youth; apparently 80% of them agree that Christians are judgmental, hypocritical, too political and obsessed with being anti-homosexual. On our local college campus Christians (as represented by a very conservative campus fellowship once a part of the Intervarsity Christian Fellowship) are caricatured as being dull, dense, narrow minded, rude, holier-than-thou, bible-thumping jerks.

For the most part, these attitudes can be laid a the feet of the so-called Christian Right epitomized by a few well known televangelists and certain church related organizations promoting what they call “family values.” I believe that we Episcopalians, and most other “main-line” churches that have been faithful to the classical and progressive traditions of the Church, offer a far different approach that is more deeply rooted in the gospel message and Christ’s commandment to love one another as he loved us. But we have been miserable failures as bold evangelists willing to proclaim that with power and conviction. We have been too much concerned with defending ourselves against fundamentalist accusations or wringing our hands at the daunting tasks that confront us. We have been too easily distracted by a few dissenting voices determined to wreak havoc on our unity in Christ.

The same Barna Group has time and again confirmed that there is a desperate spiritual hunger out there, especially among young people. We know what will satisfy that hunger. We know where to find it. We know how to serve it up in generous proportions. We can assert with all integrity that through Scripture, tradition and reason we offer an intellectually valid and exciting engagement with God in Christ Jesus that encompasses the wholeness of God’s love for all persons. Respecting the dignity of every human being and doing our best to seek and serve Christ in all persons, we recognize that we are but jars of clay full of our own cracks, leaks and limitations. We have no warrant to be judgmental. But we do have a warrant to be bold in proclaiming the gospel of Jesus Christ that opens all of life, now and to eternity, to all persons at all times in all places with no exceptions.

Friday, October 12, 2007

Al Gore, Peace Prizes & Stewardship

Al Gore won the Nobel Peace Prize today. It seemed but a nano second before a multitude of so-called conservative pundits criticized it, and him, with harsh ridicule. It wasn’t just that they condemned everything he, or anyone, has said about global warming on the weight of nine, according to a British court, factual errors in the film “An Inconvenient Truth.” One noted economic wizard seriously proclaimed that it was not worth being conscientious stewards of God’s creation (my words but his meaning) if that would jeopardize the economic might and wealth of Americans here and now. Others complained that Gore should not receive a prize normally given to scientists, apparently not recognizing that he received the peace prize not a scientific prize. Senator McCain opined that Gore was not worthy to receive such an honor but that it should have gone to the Burmese monks who have stood with such courage for reform in their country. Those monks may well deserve such an honor, and perhaps Senator McCain will offer a nomination on their behalf, but I cannot understand how he connected one with the other. Hysterical fear mongering seems to be the weapon of choice for far too many people engaged in just about any debate on public policy. Have human beings caused global warming? Probably not. Are we in a time of change in a normal cycle of nature? Probably so. Have human beings exacerbated the effects by their greed, corruption, ignorance and thoughtlessness? You bet! I have no idea whether we humans can do much to change things by changing behavior. As Christians that is hardly the point. As Christians we are required to be stewards of God’s creation, doing what we are able to do to provide for the well being of countless generations yet to come. As Christians we are to honor the holiness of all creation and to use it with care and grateful thanksgiving. That is what we are required to do. Whether that does or does not fit well with somebody else’s political agenda is not our concern. We are simply called to be obedient as stewards of all that God has given into our care and keeping.

Sunday, September 30, 2007

Holy Suffering

I posted a portion of what follows as a response to something said on another site, and, on reflection, think it and a little more needs to be said here. It has to do with the idea that there is something inherent in the authentic Christian life that requires personal suffering. What could be more unappetizing than that? In fact, there is a principle in pastoral psychology of maintaining a calm, non-anxious and "disinterested" presence in order to be of greatest help to those who come seeking it while also maintaining one's own well-being. It means that the pastoral care giver is to be empathetically present to another's suffering without embodying it himself or herself. It's a great idea, and it works most of the time, but embodying suffering cannot be avoided altogether when you are being the light of Christ in another person's broken and dark world. It is a holy suffering in which you may become a conduit through which that person's suffering flows to God and God's blessing flows to them. The problem comes when you are overloaded and the embodiment of suffering has a very real, painful and sometimes quite dangerous physical and emotional effect. There comes a point when the pastor has to say NO for his or her own well-being and in faith that there is someone else not far away with capacity to say yes. I have not learned where that point is and sometime suffer the consequences. But I am very good at advising others about it.

Saturday, September 22, 2007

Post a photo?

I've been trying and trying to post some addtional photos from my i-photo collection and blogspot.com doesn't favor that idea at all. Does anyone know how to do that? I can post photos from my old pc but would rather not have to do that.

Tribalism, Pluralism and Respect

We live in a pluralistic society, the most pluralistic in the world, and it always has been. It’s been hard work to keep it going on an even keel, and failure seems close at hand in almost every age. Some two decades ago Arthur Schlesinger wrote about what he saw as the tribalisation of America. He recognized a trend in which the elders of various ethnic groups would, in the name of ethnic pride, set up barriers to engagement with one another that might lead to the dilution of ethnic identity. The largest and most frightened ethnic group was white European America, but others were not far behind, he suggested. The myth of American homogeneity had always been hard to maintain. That explains at least some part of why we’ve had such a history of blatant racism. The separation of black and white is the most obvious to us, but hidden in the back pages of history books are stories of national hysteria over Irish, Jewish, Italian, Chinese and Japanese invasions that would overrun us and destroy our traditional values. Those of northern European (Protestant) heritage did their best to demand that all others become as they were at the same time that they raised the frightening specter of out-of-control immigration. The full integration of all European immigrants took time, but it did happen. Ethnic pride and holidays still get celebrated but they are no longer seen as symbols of separation. The same is happening, more of less, with most Asians. But the black-white issue still haunts the nation, and we have a new target for irrational fear mongering - Hispanics, Mexicans in particular, especially illegal ones.

So how are we to learn to live with one another in peace? Schlesinger thought language and sex would do the trick. Every immigrant group, sooner or later, learns to get along in English, and there is nothing like a common language to link various ethnicities and cultures. But sex is even more important. Sooner or later young people fall in love outside the restrictions established by their elders and begin to produce a new “race” of men and women. Michner, in Hawaii, called this new race “the golden men.” All of that takes generations, generations often filled with hate and violence, so what can we do in the meantime? I think it has to do with understanding and honoring the cultures of those around us without the necessity of trying to make them our own. As Christians in the traditions of the Episcopal Church we take as a part of our Baptismal Covenant that we will “respect the dignity of every human being.” That does not require us to take on the traditions of another culture just to be nice. That never works. It’s always phony and is usually insulting to the other as well. But it does require us to do our best to know and honor those traditions, just as we desire that our own cultural traditions be known and honored. There is nothing like respect for setting a tone of civility that leads to conversation that ends in friendship. I wonder why we find it so hard to try?

Wednesday, September 12, 2007

The Case Against Christ

I ran across a blog the other day that was dedicated to building a case against Christianity. The writer was not endorsing some other religion in its place. As far as I could tell he was interested only in exposing Christianity as a myth of gigantic proportions with little or no historical substance to back it up. I wonder what is so important to him about Jesus that he would dedicate a substantial portion of his time and energy to him? I was reminded of a few self-proclaimed atheists I’ve met who are obsessed with the idea that God does not exist and are therefore obsessed with God himself. God as become the center point of their lives and haunts their daily thoughts. Likewise the crafter of the case against Christ. It could be that he is far closer to Christ than most Christians. At least Jesus is important enough to him for him to engage with him on a daily basis. I fear that the average Christian has very little concern for Christ, seldom thinks about him, rarely studies what he taught, and makes little effort to follow as a disciple where he led. I imagine that God is far happier with those who for whom he is so important that they will dare to question his existence than with those who trivialize him by a faith lacking substance.

Monday, September 3, 2007

Does God have a Political Agenda?

A parishioner recently complained that he did not want any social agenda preached from the pulpit. That’s why he left his last church. That could make preaching very difficult because the gospel message is ripe with social teaching. With some small knowledge of his last church, I think that what he meant was that he did not want preaching that advocated a particular political party, legislative agenda, or that made social issues into an object of worship instead of God. There are churches that are quite free with the names of God and Jesus along with carefully selected citations from scripture to underwrite what is essentially a well defined political agenda that has little to do with God. There are also churches where you are unlikely to hear God’s name at all, but you will hear a constant harangue on popular social issues of the day flowing from the pulpit. Both fail to understand the nature of God’s revelation as received through Holy Scripture.
Where might one start to learn what that is? Consider all of the stories of miraculous healings in the gospels. They are not so much about the medical healing of an individual as they are about restoring that which had broken the wholeness of the community. They are about restoration and reconciliation. Healing at the hands of Jesus restored right relationships with God, with families and friends, and with community. The restoration of right relationships brought with it a reconciliation in which past wrongs were made right and new beginnings made possible. But if it was left there the question would remain: What do right relationships look like?
That question is answered by a theme that runs throughout the story of God’s engagement with humanity, and it is most brilliantly illuminated in the Ten Commandments, the words of the ethical prophets, and most importantly in the life and teaching of Jesus, whom we Christians recognize as the very Word of God made flesh. It is the theme of how God has revealed to us a pattern of life together in community through which humanity might live well, rich with God’s blessings, and in harmony with one another. Moreover, as even a superficial reading of the prophets will demonstrate, it is a pattern that has deep and serious political intent. God has made very clear that living in a right relationship with God and one another requires both individual and community policies of social justice that are well articulated through God’s own self revelation. They are not Republican or Democratic, they are not liberal or conservative, above all they are not American; they are the revelation of God’s earnest desire for humans to live well together in a rich and blessed life. It is a desire that transcends both history and nationhood. To be a faithful preacher of God’s Word requires preaching that faithfully and fearlessly proclaims what looks an awful lot like God’s “political” agenda. Where can you find a copy of this agenda? It takes some prayerful discernment, but I suggest beginning with a careful study of the depth of meaning found in the Ten Commandments and not just their words, in an equally careful study of my favorite prophet, Amos, and in long prayerful meditation over the words of Jesus as reported in Matthew 5 through 7. They are, I believe, the very core of God’s agenda, but I must warn you in advance. You will find nothing there about homosexuality, gay marriage, abortion or evolution. God seems to have other things on His mind, and we should probably pay some attention to that.

Saturday, August 25, 2007

God's Warriors

I watched a portion of “God’s Warriors” on CNN and was suitably dismayed and saddened at the fanaticism of so many religious believers around the world. But I was most disturbed by the Christian fundamentalists who appeared to me to be little different than the extremists of Islam and other religions. It seems to me that they are constrained only by laws and an American patriotic ethos. I have no doubt that, if they could figure out a way to do it and still call it democracy, we could easily be living in a theocratic dictatorship. Disturbed is probably the wrong word; frightened might be more like it. I was most disturbed by them because they are supposed to be my brothers and sisters in Christ. After all, we are both supposed to be under oath to serve God as faithful ministers of the gospel: to proclaim the good news of God in Christ. But in these “Christian” extremists I see an abhorrent distortion of the bible and Jesus’ teaching that misleads their followers, and the general public, about what Christ and Christianity actually stands for. What makes it so scary is that there is just enough hint of truth in their propaganda to make it believable to a gullible people. They claim that the popular American culture has become steeped in moral depravity, and in a sense they’re right. Violent entertainment, both live and in video games, “reality” shows that encourage selfish gain through deceit and betrayal, toleration of corruption in government, government policies that endorse injustice and play games with the poor, corporate greed, rampant consumerism and more than that are all indicators of growing social toleration of destructive values and behavior. Those are things that really got God’s dander up as seen in the words of the prophets and Jesus. But these things don’t seem to bother the fundamentalists very much. They are consumed with other things that exhibit their own sort of depravity. All they can think about is sex, abortion, homosexuality and the proper role of women. Their new addition is a move toward a gospel of greed that promises material wealth to right believers. They wallow in this stuff day and night. They thunder about it with words intended to elicit hate, fear and anxiety. With threats and promises of hell and damnation on the one hand and a uniquely American version of “virgins in paradise” on the other, they acquire their followers. But where is Jesus in any of it? Apart from thumping the bible and using his name a lot, he is nowhere near. This is not good. As for me and my household, we will serve the LORD (look it up).

Thursday, August 23, 2007

The power of the enemy

The need to have an enemy is, I suspect, both seductive and addictive. It is so for both individuals and community. Having an enemy, especially one that can be de-humanized and demonized, gives us, a sense of place, a sense of moral superiority, and a way to more clearly define our own identity and that of our community. Living in a world without enemies is very difficult. It demands a high level of humble self-confidence, something most of us lack. It demands a high level of responsibility for our own actions and their consequences. It demands an accountability to our neighbors for the welfare of our neighbors. And all of this is mixed up in a jumble of complex relationships with competing and sometimes conflicting interests. A clearly understood enemy relieves us of so much of that. We can subordinate all those moral demands to the expedient need of fighting our enemy. In that way we can delude ourselves into thinking that enemies help us keep our bearings. If you and I were the only ones who suffered from this weakness, we could do something about it and all would be right with the world. But as it is, this seems to be a widely shared human trait and a characteristic of almost every culture and government. As a Christian, I believe that God in Christ Jesus has an answer for that, but it’s a very hard sell because it takes us back to the very things we tried to escape by having our cherished enemies in the first place. Nevertheless, because I think that is God’s answer, it is the one I must stick with and work on for myself and those whom I serve.

Saturday, August 18, 2007

Bloggy Conversation

I had hopes that my occasional posts might result in genuine conversation with at least a few others. Now I think this is mainly an exercise in cataloging a few thoughts for my own future consideratiion. Now and then I've waded through a few dozen other blogs by clicking on the "next blog" button. Apart from the intruding porn sites, I've been impressed by family albums celebrating life together, bored by dreary diaries of dreary lives, frightened by the implied violence of hate poitics, but I have seldom come accross invitations to conversation. If blogging was a sport I think it would be called Ego Bumper Cars competing for the famous Hubris Cup. I may be able to make the semi-finals.

Friday, August 17, 2007

Mother Earth

It is not uncommon, at least in North America, to think in terms of Mother Earth. Influenced by Native American spirituality, we Anglicans are comfortable with the idea of God our Father and Earth our Mother. Rejecting that image as coming too close to polytheism, Rabbi Abraham Heschel asserted that we can only refer to the earth as our sister since we are both creations of the one God. I understand his desire to protect the oneness of God, but think that he was unnecessarily fearful of the metaphor. For one thing, the very word for humanity, Adam, means something like “child of the (red) dirt. For another, sister is far to weak to serve as a useful metaphor. I may deeply love my sister and feel a very close kinship with her in every way, but my individual well-being is not dependent on her well being, nor does she have anything to do with my coming into this world. In fact, mother is an apt metaphor for earth. For human life to enter into this world it must be nurtured and sustained by the fecundity and resources of its mother through gestation, birth, weaning, even to young adulthood. A mother who is too ill or ill equipped to provide for the wellbeing of her offspring sets a condition under which the life of generations yet to come may be in jeopardy. How like the earth. Earth is literally the ground from which comes all that we need for physical nourishment, and much of what we need for emotional nourishment. The resources of the earth sustain our lives in every conceivable way. An unhealthy earth with waning resources jeopardizes our lives and the lives of generations yet to be born. I cannot think of a more apt metaphor for earth than mother, and it seems to me that God has poured an abundance of His divinity into Her without diminishing the oneness of God in the slightest. For us, earth is the greatest of God’s creations and worthy of deepest reverence. How sad it is that, through incremental matricide, we fail to honor both God and Mother Earth.

Thursday, August 9, 2007

Turning from Sin to Politics

Summer Politics
A variety of interesting candidates populate the edges of the nascent presidential campaign. Congressman Ron Paul seems to have captured the hearts of the discontented libertarians with his platform of doing away with most of the federal government and retreating into an island America insulated from the global economy. It reminds me a bit of the “destroy the village in order to save it” mentality of the Viet Nam War. But more interesting to me is former Senator Mike Gravel who is running on a platform of returning the government to the people through some sort of grassroots process that sounds like a national initiative that would have to be authorized through a substantial rewrite of the Constitution. His complaint is a simple one, and one that many would agree with. Congress and the Executive Branch are broken and not likely to be easily fixed. Public policy is the playground of well-heeled interest groups and big business. So why not put the power directly into the hands of the people who vote. I live in a state that permits initiatives to be put before the electorate provided that enough signatures can be solicited. Does it work? I don’t think so for several reasons. Sadly, not that many people actually vote. That’s a serious problem. It’s also true that just about any crackpot idea can generate enough signatures to get on the ballot and then be publicized in a way to avoid close examination while appealing to the most selfish interests of those who do vote. The result can be, and has been, a succession of laws that cripple local and state government, short change those most in need of help, and impose on the community conditions that most would rather not endure. The genius of representative democracy is that it allows time for reflection, encourages a vigorous give-and-take between competing interests, and provides a filtering mechanism for crackpot ideas – not that some of them don’t sneak through now and then. If anything needs to be fixed, it is the American non-voting public through whose lack of “patriotism” we could lose everything.

Saturday, July 28, 2007

Sin

Sin,
Now there’s a lively topic. Over the years more than a few members of my congregation who were raised in conservative evangelical or fundamentalist churches have come to me with serious questions about sin. More often than not they carry within their souls a very deep sense of guilt about their own sin and their conviction that whatever “the world” is, it is irreparably contaminated by sin. They wonder why our church doesn’t do more to emphasize the corrosiveness of sin, call worshipers to repentance of sin, warn about the eternal damnation that is the reward of sin, and publicize the living hell that non-Christians are already in and from which they have no hope of deliverance. In spite of what the far right wing of our own denomination claims, that is not the Anglican way.
Reflecting on a growing awareness of God’s grace that has been developing over two thousand years, we are awed by a universe that was created out of love, sustained for love and redeemed by love. In it we discover ourselves to be the objects of God’s love, and fallen though we are, we are God’s children yet. However, our critics and my recovering fundamentalist parishioners have a point. In pushing against the evangelical obsession with sin we have often not given it enough airtime.
What exactly is sin? The simple answer is that it is to miss the mark, but what then is the mark? In the end I think it comes down to this. Sin is anything that brings hurt into our own lives or the lives of others; it is anything that diminishes or places obstacles in the way of receiving the fullness of God’s blessings. We are all and each sinners because we all and each engage daily in that which hurts others and us. Daily we diminish or trivialize the abundance of God’s blessings poured into our lives and the lives of others. Daily we create obstacles to and new ways of avoiding those blessings. And when I speak of others I mean not only our immediate neighbors, but also society as a whole. Is some particular act a sin or not? It depends not on the act itself but on the consequences of the act for self, others and society.
Sometimes we get ourselves into situations where painful choices have to be made. Abusive marriages, betrayed relationships of every kind, even pregnancies that endanger not one life but many require decisions that cannot be made without sinning. As often as not something sinful got us into these predicaments in the first place. We are not, it seems, wholly innocent victims. There are, of course, sins of great magnitude that bring enormous waves of evil into existence, cause unspeakable hurt and reverberate for aeons around the world, perhaps even throughout the universe. I suppose we could start making lists but I’m not sure it would do much good because most lists are made up to show all the evil and sinful things that someone else has done in order for the list maker to illustrate how sinless she or he is by comparison. Ah, how we love to judge others with the eye of a damning god!
Now here is where it comes down to for Christians. In Christ Jesus God demonstrated that “the world” was not lost but saved, and that, as Paul taught, we individually are saved by grace through faith. It is a gift given by God through Christ and all anyone has to do to get it is to receive it. The act of receiving changes everything. It takes away the guilt of ulcerous burdens that eat away at flesh and soul and opens a path to new life in which the abundance of God’s blessings increasingly floods into our lives. More needs to be said, but this is enough for the moment. Think about it.

Saturday, July 21, 2007

Victory and Defeat

I hear a lot of political talk these days about victory and defeat. What would victory look like if we finally won in Iraq or Afghanistan? Has anybody ever heard a member of the current administration explain what he or she means by victory? I don’t think these are rhetorical questions; I’d really like to hear an answer. After all, we are investing thousands of dead soldiers and more wounded ones, not to mention the financial cost to the taxpayers. I wonder what the Iraqis and the Afghanis think all this has cost them? What are we buying with all that blood and destruction of families? On the other hand, what would defeat look like? Defeat is both frightening and shameful; one has only to listen for a few moments to right-wing radio pundits to learn that. But on a more pragmatic level, what is meant by defeat? Does it include any disengagement from the field? Or does it, perhaps, mean the events that would follow in the lands left behind. What is it that we are so afraid of, ashamed of? I would like an answer that does not involve smarmy sophomoric sarcasm. Since it appears that the bulk of those still supporting the current administration label themselves as Evangelical Christians, indeed as does the president himself, I would also like to hear how their answers can be worked into the teachings of Jesus with an emphasis on his Sermon on the Mount.

Thursday, July 12, 2007

The Gold of Summer

It’s mid-July here. The green fields of late winter through early summer have turned golden with the ripening of the wheat. If you drove into our valley today it might seem to you a dry and arid place, which in some ways it is. We are, after all, on the high intermountain plateau, and all around us are high deserts and the almost treeless hills of the Palouse. But that would only be a part of the truth. The mountain snows and big rivers provide the water needed to produce a land of rich fecundity. In these hot, dry and golden days we are sated with an over abundance of local peaches, plums, apricots, strawberries, watermelon, cantaloupe, sweet corn. Wheat harvest will be over by the end of August. Apples and pears won’t be far behind. With the planting of winter wheat the hills will begin to green up by November. The colors and textures of our fields, hills and mountains are in continuous change, and we never get tired of the great kaleidoscope of beauty that rotates through the seasons.

Friday, July 6, 2007

Our Immutable God?

As a young boy in confirmation class I learned that among the many attributes of God was God’s immutability. Basically that’s the idea that God, being perfect and whole in God’s self and the first cause of everything, cannot be moved or changed, because any change would imply imperfection of some kind. It is way of thinking about God especially popular among Protestant churches but it has its roots not in the bible but in Greek philosophy. I don’t think we can help it. Even though most of us have never read a word of Greek philosophy, that way of thinking is so embedded in the ethos of our western culture that we cannot escape it. Some early Christians tried to bridge the gap by incorporating the God of the bible with the Greek ideas of divinity through some fantastical weaving of what we call Gnostic myths that postulated two gods – one Greek and one Hebrew, the Greek god having superiority.
But if, as Christians, we believe that God’s truth is revealed through Holy Scripture, then it has got to be obvious that the one and only God has almost nothing to do with the staid, cold, distant and unchangeable Greek god of my confirmation class. The God of scripture is a God passionately engaged with humanity and all of creation. God loves, gets angry, can be persuaded, invites conversation, changes his mind, makes new plans, even wonders what will happen next. Make no mistake, scripture also reveals God as the creator and sustainer of all that is, whether seen or unseen. In the stories of creation, God speaks and the world comes into being. But, whatever that spoken word was, we hold that it also became flesh and lived among us as one of us in Jesus of Nazareth. God deigned to become, in some sense, human in a way so completely unlike any Greek, Egyptian or Hindu myth about gods taking on human form. God in Christ experienced the fullness of our human lives with all its possibilities and limitations. Out of nothing more than love for us, that of God through which creation came to be, also engaged in the reality of creation as a creature.
I’m not sure when that finally penetrated my mind, but I think it was through a more thoughtful reading of the Hebrew Scriptures to let them shine light on the texts of the New Testament. I feel very sad for those who still cling to a Greek idea of God because it is so lacking in life and wonder, so distant and so small.

Sunday, July 1, 2007

What is a Conservative?

I grew up thinking I was a conservative. I still do, and yet I can find almost no common ground with those who pass as today’s political or religious conservatives. For instance, I hear today’s political conservatives proclaim their belief in freedom and then engage in every way possible to restrict freedom for all and deny it to some. I hear them proclaim democracy and then concentrate as much power as possible in the hands of their few elite. I hear them rail against “activist judges” and then engineer the appointment of judges who set back the clock of civil rights by decades. I hear them condemn with contempt everyone who even appears to perhaps disagree with them in any way as effete left wing liberals at the same time that they espouse their commitment to the very Constitution that embraces a vigorous public debate in the context of an active government that provides for the welfare of the people. If that is what it is to be a political conservative, then I will have nothing to do with it. So let us turn our attention to religious conservatives, or at least to so-called Christian conservatives. If I understand correctly what I often hear on radio, see on television and occasionally encounter among folks around town, there are three tenets to their faith: acceptance of the sixty-six books of the standard Protestant bible as the literal and historically true Word of God; condemnation of homosexuality; and opposition to abortion in any form for any reason. It is a faith that seems to have precious little to do with understanding and living into the teachings of Jesus Christ. It is disinterested in the dynamic and progressive revelation of God’s self in the drama of the Hebrew Scriptures. And it dismisses the centuries of men and women who have given themselves to lives that shed yet a bit more light on what it is to be a Christian. It is unable to recognize the possibility that God’s grace might flood over those who do not confess Christ as Lord. Therefore, it cannot accommodate the moral ambiguity of our human condition, nor is it able to shine the light of Christ into the darkness. It seems to me to be an impoverished sort of religion at best. I believe that these two forces, if they continue to act in tandem, are the greatest threat to our nation, our democracy, our security and our freedom. Oddly enough I don’t see them as a threat to the Church or to God’s work among us. They are in irritant to be sure. They mislead and do much damage to the lives of many, but in the end God wins. That’s the way it is with God.

Saturday, June 30, 2007

The Western Myth of Independence

There is a living myth in the rural west. It is rooted in the stories of pioneer families, but it is manifested in contemporary life and politics in the form of a conservative self-reliant ethic expressed in a hearty dislike for big government, welfare and handouts of any kind. It is a myth believed in all honesty and without intent to deceive others or self. And it is utterly blind to the water made available for irrigation through massive diversion projects funded by the taxpayers of America. The same is true for rural electrification and the availability of abundant, reasonably priced electric power from great networks of dams, all built by the federal government with taxpayer money. The land the pioneers so stubbornly worked to transform from wilderness to farm and ranch land was made available by act of Congress through the Homestead Act. The railroads that permitted goods to be shipped to market, and the later roads and highways, were enabled and largely financed through governmental means. The story could go on and on making the same point over and over again. Nevertheless, the myth is a great myth. I does embody and glorify some of the most worthy attributes of the American character. It should be honored, but never taken too seriously. The simplest of facts is that the rural west exists as it is today largely because it was underwritten through the agency of the government by taxpayers who lived elsewhere

Wednesday, June 27, 2007

What is a Parson?

Parson is just an old fasioned word for an Anglican cleric in charge of a parish. It came to be used mostly as an informal and familiar term for any Protestant clergy in rural areas. Many people still use a variation of it when they call the minister's house the "Parsonage."