Sunday, June 29, 2008

Preparing for the Fourth of July

As we approach the Fourth of July, I wonder what the future holds for the nation.  What would it be like for Americans to simply get on with the business of being Americans without paranoid fear of terrorists, illegal immigrants and national security; without feeling the need for hyper-patriotism celebrating our place as the rightful and only super power in the world; but with a deep recommitment to the ideals and values we treasure in our founding documents and find so easy to ignore or give away?

We are going through a difficult period of retrenchment that will change some of the fundamentals of our economy and our politics.  On the economic side it will not take long for China to surpass us as the world’s largest, most powerful economy, and she already owns a huge portion of our national debt.  For that reason alone China cannot allow America to fail, and I imagine that many will find it more than humiliating to discover that we have become so beholden to another.  But there is more than a silver lining to this scene.  Indeed it can be a golden lining. 

Without the burden of world leadership resting on our backs alone, even if that was never more than an egotistical delusion, just think of how we could redirect our political energies.  Remembering our Declaration of Independence, we could renew our commitment to building a nation free of oppression whether from unjust government policies or unjust personal actions.  We could become rededicated to equality of justice and opportunity for all. 

Remembering our Constitution, we could renew an effective balance of power between the branches of government with a special emphasis on the restoration of Congressional powers that have so easily seeped into the executive branch. Perhaps we could begin seeing the Bill of Rights as principles to be lived into with integrity of heart and mind rather than as political bludgeons with which to hammer one another into submission.

With conservation a priority, and easy credit a thing of the past, we could rediscover the joy of living as Americans in a society not consumed by out of control consumerism subsumed under piles of products and services of marginal value or utility.  It does not mean becoming a poor nation or anything like that.  It means being able to live responsibly into our wealth and abundance with a more equitable sharing of both with all.  It could mean a much freer free market economy rather than current system that seems so dangerously close to corporate socialism. It could mean a nation so confident and content with its place in the world that it would have no fear of living and working compatibly with as many others as are also so willing.

The problem with this vision is that it will anger those who can only envision America through the lens of pugilistic patriotism that hankers for a fight and suspects anything less as being un-American.  To put it bluntly, that kind of right wing nationalism has been the death knell of many an empire.  I’d not like to see that happen to us.  I prefer that we live into and up to the highest standards of our founding documents and become a bright, and highly respected, beacon of freedom in the world.  

Thursday, June 26, 2008

Centering Everything On God

I should be spending the early part of summer reading a fascinating and cutting edge thesis by a religion honors graduate whom I had the privilege of knowing and working with during his undergraduate years.  Instead, on something of a challenge from a friend of mine, I’m wading through Charles Taylor’s A Secular Age (Belknap Harvard 2007).  A passage caught my eye this morning that I think speaks directly to the current internecine warfare within the Anglican Communion.  About the various hard-core reformists and their opponents of centuries gone by he writes:

The tremendous investment in reform and hence discipline, which inspires such a sense of their spiritual superiority in the breasts of Latin, and ex-Latin Christians, when they contemplate those of other faiths, or even other Christian churches, this immense effort seems itself to have obscured the essentials of the faith, and to have led to a substitution of something secondary for the primary goal of centering everything on God.

I follow a number of Anglican blogs and news sites. Most of them are consumed with demonstrating that they are the first to know and know the most about what is going on with Lambeth, GAFCON, Pittsburgh or any of a dozen other flashpoints in the world of Anglicanism.  I follow them because they are informative, and the occasional appearance of wry wit has some entertainment value.  But Taylor is right not only about the Church of past centuries.  In our own day we have “substituted something secondary for the primary goal of centering everything on God,” and that is to our shame.

Tuesday, June 24, 2008

Culture Crashing

I’ve been exchanging e-mail with a friend who is leading the anti-racism training in the diocese. As she has become more and more aware of the Indian culture that surrounds us and infuses the very character of the Inland Northwest she has wondered about how it is that we have such a history of crashing into and trampling down any culture that gets in the way of our own.  The “we” in this case would be the European based culture of that has been popularly understood as the normative standard for America.

I’ve been wondering about the same thing.  There can be no excuses, but it might be worthwhile to recall that it is only in the last 100 years or so that the world has come to a more or less common understanding that territorial expansion by conquest (and genocide in many cases) is not morally acceptable.  The first half of the 20th century gave us two world wars at untold cost in lives and suffering to drive home the point.  Before that the question about the morality of violent conquest was simply not much of an issue.  

Sometime in the last year or so the Christian Century featured several essays recalling the pre Civil War argument of the plurality of Christian writers that slavery was endorsed by the bible and those who opposed it were heretics who were twisting the clear and obvious meaning of God’s holy Word.  

It was not until the early 1950s that the armed forces were integrated and then not very well.  The 1964 Voting Rights Act was, for all practical purposes, the true end of the Civil War when the nation came to a grudging agreement about a new moral standard for what it meant to be an American.  This slow and often painful transition is not an American phenomenon.  Every tribe and nation on the face of the earth is in the same boat.  The fact is that the last 100 years have been, perhaps, the most revolutionary in the history of humanity and we have still not got it sorted out.  

So I think the answer to my friend’s quandary is that we are in possession of a new moral standard that says it is sinfully wrong to crash through other peoples' cultures demolishing them as we go, but we do not yet possess the know how or habits of the heart to stop  doing it.  The anti-racism training being conducted in our diocese is part of the process of bringing us another step or two along the path.

The big stumbling block at the moment, it seems to me, is that our early efforts at integration assumed that everyone wanted to and would become a white middle class American.  That didn't work.  Now we are trying to figure out how to live with understanding and respect for one another's ethnicities and cultures in a way that will lead to a synergistic melding in a new normative America.  That scares the living daylights out of some.  It was hard enough crafting the synergistic American out of Northern European immigrants.  Doing that with people from other cultures and ethnicities looks harder and more dangerous because it means that the old “we” will drift farther away from the European ideal.  Obama’s candidacy is, if nothing else, going to a major test of that fear.  

James Michener had hopes that a new “golden man” would become the normative American and saw glimpses of that in post-war Hawaii.  Arthur Schlesinger lectured that lust, love and sex would eventually make progress where legislation could make little.  My own family is a good case in point.  My spouse and I come from good Celtic, Anglo, and Norman stock, with the occasional sneaky Saxon thrown in as well.  But some of our grandchildren, nieces and nephews are a mix of European, Asian and Pacific Islander.  Our two Anglo grandchildren are being raised in Taiwan speaking Mandarin and English.  We may not be synergistically melded but I suspect that we are on the way.  I can’t quite see the “golden man” of Michener, but Schlesinger sure got it right.


Saturday, June 21, 2008

Talking to Teenagers

Have you ever read one of those how to talk to your teenager articles in magazines of dubious editorial content?  Ha!  What a lot of nonsense!  Who are those writers?  We drove one of our goddaughters to camp today, not to be a camper but a counselor.  She is a delightful seventeen year old full of spirit whose ability at non-stop talking with her friends is without parallel.  We began and ended the trip with happy hugs and words of love you.  In between, with her iPod firmly embedded deep in her skull, we got two hours of occasional one word mumbles about something unintelligible to our attempts at conversation.  Now and then I'd turn around to see if she was still breathing.  In contrast, I got a phone call the other day from her sister  asking for my immediate if not sooner response to her important question that she rattled off at tongue tripping light speed.  I have no idea what she said.  I saw her the next day and whatever it was had been long forgotten and of no further consequence.  We have a niece who is 200 to 400% better, which is to say that she has been known to endow us with two to four words spoken in succession under the glare of her mother's encouragement.  We love them dearly and look forward to resuming conversation in another couple of years.  At least that's the way it worked with our own children.  (We shall see if SS let's me keep this post up)

Friday, June 20, 2008

Walking In The Way Of The Cross

It’s Friday.  Our Office of Morning Prayer has two collects for Fridays.  One asks that we, walking in the way of the cross, will find it none other than the way of life and peace.  The other asks that we be empowered to reach forth with our hands in love to embrace those who do not know Christ.  Each of them is easily misunderstood and more than difficult to actually do.

So often it seems that walking in the way of the cross is seen as enduring some self-imposed martyrdom such as putting up with nasty old Auntie and all her demanding ways.  Even worse, it is sometimes used to mean passive submission to a constant state of abuse at the hands of another.  Walking in the way of the cross is to engage with faith in the work God has given us to do, and that work is most often not a particular task but a way of life following the teachings of Jesus applied to whatever we may be doing in any place and at any time.  That is hard.  It’s so much easier to be a self-righteous or self-pitying martyr.

It is just as hard to reach out our hands in love to those who do not know Jesus as the Christ.  It’s so easy to make a show of it in a patronizing way that is just barely short of insulting.  It’s so easy to offer up our “testimony” and then demand to know if the other is willing to accept Jesus as their personal lord and savior.  It’s so easy to sift out those to whom we are unwilling to extend our hands in love because they are poor, rich dirty, low class, smart, dumb, conservative, liberal, foreign, of the wrong color and any of a thousand other filters that are always at work in our minds.  But Jesus on the cross reached out his arms of love to thieves, family, soldiers, the wealthy, bystanders, and you and me.  So how do we reach out our hands in love in ways that clearly shows honest respect for the dignity of the other, not implying superiority but simply inviting the other to share the road as a fellow traveler?   That is really hard work.  I don’t know anyone who is good at it. 

Yet each Friday, as we remember the crucifixion, these are our prayers, and maybe, with God’s help and even a little bit of effort on our part, we might do a little better in the days to come.

Wednesday, June 18, 2008

Politics and the Pulpit

Take a look at Wiley Miller's cartoon "Non Sequitur" for June 18.  Most parishioners I know would agree that politics has no place in sermons.  Insofar as that means keeping endorsement of candidates or parties out of sermons, I agree.  But to be faithful to the gospel and follow where Christ has led requires every preacher to address the conditions of society that fly in the face of God's redeeming love.  Every one of the 8th century prophets, the whole of the Sermon on the Mount, many of the parables and a good part of Paul's writings attest to that.   It means that the Christian life is also a life that is politically aware and engaged.  

Certain elements of the greater Church have long recognized this in ways that have been sometimes helpful and sometimes harmful.  In America the Catholic bishops have often led the way with reports on economic and social justice that have helped form the public debate and strongly influenced Christian leaders in other denominations.  At the same time, some others have been so single minded and rigidly obsessed with abortion and homosexuality that they have ignored the broader, deeper and more important social/political imperatives that Christ has laid before us.  Sadly, there are even a few who have corrupted and distorted the Christian Good News for their own personal aggrandizement and the benefit of policies and positions that have no foundation in scripture and no place in God's scheme of justice.

Rather than getting as far away as possible from politics, it is time for Mainstream denominations and their pastors to encourage engagement.   I'm a Niebuhrian realist, so I have no illusions that engagement will bring the Kingdom of God to perfection in our time, but it can make our lives and the lives of those who follow us better and with, oh what is that phrase that I hear so often?  Oh yes, with liberty and justice for all.

Tuesday, June 17, 2008

Three Men and Four Planes

Four fully restored WWII planes were flown into a neighboring city’s airport for a three-day display. A B-17, B-24, B-25 and a P-51 were available not just to look at but to get close to and experience inside and out. Three of us drove over to take a look for ourselves, something of an old boys’ day out.  The planes were frighteningly magnificent.  There is a certain deadly beauty to implements of war.  These bombers, the biggest of their day, are, truth be told, small, cramped, noisy, cold, slow and strictly utilitarian.  The three of us who went are all over 65, and it was our fathers who flew in these things.  Here and there among the crowd were other men in their 80s and 90s.  A few wore caps attesting to their old units.  Limping on a cane, an old man gained the strength to stand erect, his eyes became clear and bright, and the life he led over 60 years ago came flooding back as if it was almost here again.  It wasn’t that he was proud of those days or that there was something heroic to tell, he just wanted to talk to anyone nearby and tell them the stories of England and weather, flak and machine guns, of his coming home and others not.  There is nothing romantic about war, and no one could have delighted in flying in these things.  But to have done it and lived is a story that needs to be told and honored. 

Perhaps we pass too easily over some of the psalms of David, or try too hard to make them over into paeans to Christ.  More often they are the remembrance of the horrific experience of battle, the cost and waste in human lives, and surprise at having survived to tell the tale.  I suspect that it is human nature first to give thanks to God, then to ponder the question of why others did not survive to give the same thanks, and then to find a way to attribute the whole thing and our part in it to the will of God for the good of the whole.  To do anything else would be too awful to contemplate.  But maybe later, much later, in the remembrance of old age, there are those don’t thank God, don’t blame God and don’t claim to have done God’s will.  They just need to tell the story, and that is enough because it is everything.

Saturday, June 14, 2008

More Thoughts on the Cult of Individualism

Anyone who has read more than one Louis L’Amour novel knows that there is only one plot, and that it always has the same set of sub themes.  One of the sub themes is the hero’s recognition that the way of life of extreme individualism that makes room for him to be the hero and the villain to be the villain is coming to an end. The future belongs to the polis and the rule of law. 

It might be good if more citizens recognized something else the hero comes to understand, and that is that those who insist on adhering to the cult of extreme individualism become little more than parasites living off the structure of society that provides him or her with the freedom, protection and resources needed to act as if one was truly the lone, self-sufficient individual.  None of that is particularly harmful in and of itself.  In fact it gives us interesting, romantic characters to enjoy, a picturesque life-style that can give us vicarious satisfaction, and sometimes the hero really does save the day.  It also gives us villains of one sort or another. 

But if the cult of individualism becomes too dominant there may not be enough left to hold a democratic society together.  That is when it can be most easily manipulated by those who are not afraid to seize the reigns of power.  Promising security from “enemies,” stripping away freedoms in the name of preserving them, and perverting justice in the name of justice is simple if you can convince all the complacent (or angry) individualists that they need not worry about such matters and can go about their own self-centered lives because the important things are being taken care of for them.

That is why politics is important. It is why every citizen needs to know how government works at every level and be willing to stay informed on issues, candidates and platforms.  It is why we cannot afford to be misled by bumper sticker mentality or television personalities working off of Orwellian scripts.  A democratic society requires community, and community requires an engaged electorate committed to the ideals of the common good. I’m not sure what the critical mass is for that.  I know not everyone will participate, but these last eight years have frightened me with how easy it is for a few well organized people to corrode the underlying principles of American democracy while convincing a majority of those voting that they are the ones who can be relied on to protect them.  And the majority of those voting have increasingly become a worrisome minority of those eligible to vote.

Finding a New Church

Among other things, I'm the local Fire Dept. chaplain.  I responded to a house fire last night.  It was not big, and except for the smell of smoke and the need to turn off power until an electrician can do some rewiring, not much harm was done.  Just the same, it was a traumatic experience for the elderly couple who live there.  I've got a routine at these scenes:  find out where the family is, check on how they are doing starting with the those standing closest to the action and moving back to the those farthest away.  As I go I ask questions about their well being, is everyone accounted for, do they need to contact anyone, are they on any medications or under a doctor's care.  I answer their questions about what is going on, why is this or that happening, and what will happen next.  Eventually I ask if they have a pastor or are a part of a faith community that would be of help.  The answer I got last night was fairly typical.  
"Oh yes, we're believers.  No we don't have a church or pastor.  We have not found a church since we moved here."  
"When did you move here?"
"Forty-one years ago."
What do you make of that?

Thursday, June 12, 2008

The Cult of Individualism

Mainline churches have struggled with the slow downturn of membership for many years, and it was often believed that they had somehow lost out to the more conservative Evangelical denominations. So it is not surprising that there have been subtle tones of gloating from them over recent news that Evangelical churches are also in decline and none more so than the Southern Baptist Convention. Before that gloating gets too out of hand, I want to suggest that there is something else at work here. For lack of a better word I’ll call it the cult of individualism.

Oddly enough, the cult of individualism is a shared value between the most conservative and most liberal of the population. We see it very clearly here in the Inland Northwest where our politics and the popular mythology of our style of life are loudly, proudly and frequently proclaimed to be the result of our treasured individualism. Conservatives desiring the most limited government possible and the absolute rights of individuals also favor the strict interpretation of laws, hardheaded enforcement, and every conceivable government program that is touted to be helpful to agriculture and business. Liberals favoring expansive governmental action to provide for the needs of the poor, better healthcare and the environment declare their resentment of governmental interference with their individual rights to live in any way they like and claim they have no need for anything other than whatever temporary association of persons might be of interest at the moment.

The political danger, it seems to me, of the cult of individualism is that it exposes the individual to coercive manipulation by well organized elites who know how to exploit it. I think we have seen that in action throughout the Reagan-Bush era where right wing elites have highjacked traditional conservative ideology under the noses of conservative individualist who cheered them on not suspecting that the result would be the antithesis of everything they believed in. The same autocratic, authoritarian tactics would work just as well from the liberal side of things.

It is also the mythology that is used to explain the decline in all denominations of the Christian Church. The Church as the body of Christ is, by definition, an organism in which each part lends itself to the making of the whole and no individual part can exist by itself and remain a part of the body. Moreover, it is a body under the authority of God through Jesus Christ. That is not acceptable in the cult of individualism. In that cult each person has the right to be his or her own “church” with his or her own “religion,” and the truth of each individual church with its individual religion is claimed to be at least as true and valid as any other. It is precisely that characteristic that makes its adherents susceptible to manipulation by unscrupulous others.

While I believe that this explains something of our current condition, I’m also not sure what to do about it. On the political side I might suggest reenergizing education, in its broadest sense, about the value and importance of community, society and politics. On the religious side I might suggest a reorientation of evangelism toward congregational community as the most sure and certain means to achieving satisfaction for the God driven hunger that exists in each one of us. Within the Church I might suggest a much more assertive effort to form disciples who are not only taught what it means to be a Christian but also how to think critically as Christians. But I also suspect that we have to find a way to replace the fear of authority over us with an ability to discern and trust in the legitimacy of appropriate authority – on the one hand, a governmental authority that can be trusted to work for the good of society; on the other hand the authority of God who so loved us that he has redeemed the entire world through his Son Jesus Christ. I suppose another possibility could be that the American Age is ending, and so, picking up the pen of Jeremiah, we must simply get on with the business of being faithful Christians while “Jerusalem” crumbles about us and wait patiently to see what happens next.

In any case, this is a line of thought that I’m only just starting on and it might be a dead end.

Tuesday, June 10, 2008

Can A Parishioner Be Fired?

Is there such a thing as an abusive parishioner?  Recently I got involved in a conversation about abusive patients and whether a doctor could, or should, fire them. About the same time a young colleague in his first solo pastorate brought up the question of when and how it’s time to tell a parishioner that he “is a jerk” and to knock it off because he is making worship and congregational life unpleasant for others. 

The church is working hard these days to learn how to break down barriers, be more extravagantly welcoming to all, and to reach out to those who have been marginalized by society in order to proclaim the good news of God in Christ and invite them into the fellowship of the body of Christ.  That puts a pretty heavy burden on pastors, and it calls into question the exact role of boundaries. In the days of Christian Europe, and to some extent in the more imaginary Christian America, persons who were known to be “notorious sinners” were excommunicated with the intention that they might be led to penitence and reconciliation.  Vestiges of that kind of congregational discipline continued well into the last century.  But today, with a few exceptions, that kind of boundary enforcement is not only unknown but even abhorrent to some.

So what are the proper boundaries?  Who should be the judge and enforcer?  Can a pastor “fire” a parishioner?  In my lifetime I’ve heard of it happening only twice, at least in any public way.  What is the right way to do it?  How about the chicken’s way out?  Before my retirement, and in the recent upheavals in the Episcopal and Catholic Churches, several of “my” parishioners started attending a local Catholic Church while several of theirs were showing up in our place on Sunday mornings.  We two pastors talked it over and toyed with the idea of a prisoner exchange except that we each got to choose the ones we didn’t want back. 

Saturday, June 7, 2008

Unhappy Customers (Parishioners?)

Not long ago I wrote a letter to the editor at the NYT about airline service.  It didn't get published.  No surprise there, but I'm going to share it with you anyway because I think it speaks to something important not only about airlines but about any form of engagement with customers, clients or worshipers.  So here goes.

Once again the airline industry has been taken to task by yet another release of poll data (Peter D. Hart Associates and the Winston Group) representing the views of travelers who are deliberately foregoing travel that they might otherwise be expected to take.  According to what has been reported, it adds up to billions in needless airline revenue losses.  But like other reports of late, this one also blames "the system," whatever that is.  I think they are only partly right.  The problem ignored by the polls is the on board treatment of customers.  Cramped seating bordering on torture, dirty equipment, poor quality food products (for sale yet), and unhappy flight attendants will continue to make flying unattractive and raise customer ire no matter what kind improvements are made to "the system."

Tuesday, June 3, 2008

The Election and Race

Here is a letter to the editor I just sent off to our local paper.  See what you think.

The long primary season is over, and the nation is about to enter into an unprecedented general election campaign for the presidency.  There are many legitimate reasons to consider voting for one candidate or the other, and they will, no doubt, declare their differences in strong enough language to give each of us enough fodder for decision. But troubling issues are raised in this first ever election in which one candidate is of mixed race and commonly labeled as an African-American.  Media election analysts have made a big deal out of the difficulty that Sen. Obama has had, and will have, in attracting voters in the “white working class,” and that smacks of racism pure and simple.  We’ve seen it raise its ugly head in a couple of the primary fights between Sen. Obama and Sen. Clinton in places where it was commonly understood that few “white working class” persons would vote for a black candidate no matter what he stood for.  And it also cuts the other way.  Who exactly are the members of the “white working class?”  Just on the surface it sounds contemptuous and demeaning of some part of our population without actually saying who they are but leaving it up to our most prejudicial imaginations to put them in a pigeon hole.

I don’t know what will happen throughout the nation, but I am deeply concerned about our own community.  Whatever our politics and however we decided to vote, race has no place in it.  We have many churches in this town attended by thoughtful believers, so to put the seriousness of this into perspective, let me share with you a statement from the National Council of Churches adopted forty years ago, which, I believe, applies to everyone of every religious faith and to those who express none at all.

Racism is a blatant denial of the Christian faith. (i) It denies the effectiveness of the reconciling work of Jesus Christ, through whose love all human diversities lose their divisive significance; (ii) it denies our common humanity in creation and our belief that all men are made in God's image; (iii) it falsely asserts that we find our significance in terms of racial identity rather than in Jesus Christ. 

Let us make our political decisions in any way we want but not on the basis of race, and if we do then shame, shame on us.

Sunday, June 1, 2008


A 2007 Canadian study (Canadian Journal of Higher Education, Feb., 2007) reported that 53% of undergraduates confessed to at least some cheating in class, and 73% of them said they cheated in high school.  Two years earlier an ABC poll reported pretty much the same for American students.  The business school community, spurred on by the 2007 Fuqua scandal at Duke where 34 MBA students were caught cheating on an exam, is beginning to look at the quality of the product they are producing.  But it doesn’t end there.

David Calahan wrote The Cheating Culture in 2004 and has managed to parlay it into an entire business devoted to uncovering and teaching about cheating in our society.  Uncovering is not that hard to do.  Noted journalists see their careers extinguished over plagiarism.  Each spring the IRS tells us again how much tax cheats cost the rest of us.  The sub-prime mortgage debacle was brought on by a ponzi scheme of enormous proportions reaching into the very centers of the American financial industry.  The current administration has revealed itself to have been built on deception and lies, and the previous one certainly played fast and loose with the truth. 

It is not a pretty picture, and so it should be no surprise that the Democratic parties of Michigan and Florida felt no compunction about flouting the rules of the game to do what they wanted to do, the way they wanted to do it, and when they wanted to do it.  Now, having cheated the system at the start, they are without guilt or remorse in demanding that their cheating be honored by the full counting of their votes, and that those who obeyed the rules be, in effect, penalized for having obeyed them.  The Rules Committee compromise is probably the best that could be expected, but it also sends a signal of toleration for cheating.  I am afraid it is a toleration that pervades the American psyche to the point where we don’t really see much wrong with the sort of cheating that has become an everyday affair.  To be sure, we will get on a variety of high horses over some aspects of sex, reproductive rights or the environment, but when it comes to the ordinary events of everyday life we are curiously silent.  Is that because we don’t even know when we have crossed the line into unethical territory?

What does the Church have to say about that?  What do you have to say about that?