Tuesday, November 25, 2008

The Curmudgeon Consider Myopia, Social Change and Hope

I have come to believe that social myopia is one of the genetic diseases of humankind. We are eyeball deep in a lousy economy, but the price of gas has come down, so the SUVs are out of the garage and rumbling about the countryside with no memory that the issue was never about price, it was about need, environmental responsibility, and senseless conspicuous consumption. The nation went through two excruciating financial system breakdowns in the 80s and one in the 90s, and here we are again assuring ourselves that this time we’ve learned our lesson and will reform our ways. What on earth makes us think we have changed when we've proven ourselves time and again to be so short sighted?

This is not a problem for America only. I think it is a problem for all humans in every culture throughout all ages. For my primary example I give you the people of Israel. Throughout their forty years in the wilderness, the centuries of judges and then of kings, no sooner had God bailed them out of some disaster than they forgot all about it and went right back to the very behaviors that got them into trouble in the first place. Ezra, Nehemiah and Third Isaiah are each troubled by a people who have finally come back from years of exile in Babylon, rebuilt the temple and Jerusalem (sort of) and are now drifting off to their old ways. They made a great start but could not maintain it.

Good Lord, no wonder God hides his face from us. My guess is that it takes enormous and sustained social pressures for there to be anything like a fundamental change in direction. Those Second Temple Jews did eventually become the fertile ground of both Rabbinic Judaism and Christianity. Our own nation has been fundamentally changed by The Revolutionary War, the Civil War, the Great Depression, World Wars, the Civil Rights Movement, and maybe now. Somehow all that hate and violence seems very wrong as ways to “force” social change, and there are alternatives. Remember Bronowski’s The Ascent of Man? He saw fundamental changes coming through the advent of new technologies such as the domestication of animals and grains, the invention of writing and such – a much more hopeful way of looking at things.

One thing I do know, in each stage of fundamental social change there were a few persons who acted as agents of God’s grace and love, and, like the small rudder of a great ship, were able to make small deflections in the rush of events to accomplish a bit more of the presence of the Kingdom here among us. There were not many of them. After all, we the people who claim the name of God tend to be a very complacent and myopic group as a whole. But there were enough of them. Moreover, in my tradition we give daily thanks to God for the redemption of the world through our Lord Jesus Christ. So for some reason I do not fully understand, I have both hope and faith, and maybe that’s enough. A little optimistic joy thrown in would be nice too.

The Curmudgeon Offers Profound (and boldly ignorant) Economic Advice

We are spending an unprecedented amount of money to save, or prop up, the financial system of our nation, and thus the potential for financial viability of every household and business. We may do something similar for the Big Three Auto makers, although the advantages of reorganization under bankruptcy may be a better alternative for all of us. Will it work? Who knows? We've never been this way before, and comparisons to 1932 have only tangential value. Can we find humor in any of this? I find a bit of dark humor in every evening news broadcast when representatives of the conservative right keep asking, "Where will the money come from?" It amazes me, and I find it darkly humorous, that it was never a question asked as we spent $10 billion a month on a war we should have never started while simultaneously lowering taxes on those most able to pay, and who were not being over taxed in the first place. The answer for both is, of course, deficit spending, and I defy an person on the conservative right to look shocked or utter any condemnation. They got us into this mess through their profligate ways.

Some years ago an economist named Kendrick said that if you want a healthy, productive economy then work on Education, Public Health, R&D and Infrastructure (taken from my memory of something said 35 years ago). That goes for the use of public funds at the governmental level, and private funds at the corporate level. All other kinds of things such as innovative products and services will be the engines driving the creation of new wealth, but education, public health, R&D and infrastructure are the necessary elements of the conditions under which that can happen. Right now we are working on the financial infrastructure, which has all the structural integrity of the former Minneapolis I 35w bridge. It appears that the incoming administration intends to focus on the rest of it. I hope they have the fortitude to stick to their intentions, and not be driven off by a handful of analysts obsessed with quarterly results.

Sunday, November 23, 2008

Christ the King? Who Needs a King?

Welcome to Christ the King Sunday.  OK, so it's a modern holy day with not much theological precedent, but it does say something audacious about our faith.  In the midst of a democracy that prizes (at least in theory) individual freedom and initiative in all things, we proclaim primary allegiance to an absolute monarch.  How's that for anachronistic thinking?  

I was counseling a prospective Christian years ago back in NYC.  She liked everything Christianity offered, but bolted when we got to the idea of a God that was not democratically elected and periodically subject to individual review and approval.  It was more than she could take.  It's more than a lot of regular pew sitters can take as well.  They are content with a God preached to them in terms they agree with, and that's all.  And they are very uncomfortable with a God who is our absolute monarch but insists on remaining a holy mystery, and a faith that requires us to muddle through, following as best we can where Christ has led, even if we don't fully understand where we are going and are not entirely sure that our own judgments are correct.

To me, all of this is the great and good news, but I am witness to how that is not always the case.  I find the alternative unpalatable at best.  I don't understand a religion built around the idea of a democratic God of my choice in whom I can place my clear, definitive, black and white ideas of good and bad and call it orthodoxy.  

Thursday, November 20, 2008

Immorality and Capital One

Immoral economic enticement is at least one cause of the economic debacle we now find ourselves in.  What do I mean by immoral economic enticement?  Today’s mail brought a solicitation from Capital One informing me that I have been pre-screened and approved for a $10,000 loan at 7% APR – just sign here and send back in our handy self addressed stamped envelop and the cash is yours.  I didn’t ask for it.  I have no immediate need for it.  Capital One is not the place I would go for a loan if I did need one, but gee whiz, for only $198 a month for 60 months why not?  I’m sure I could find something to spend it on.  Right?

This is not all that different than the drug pusher hanging around outside the school giving away free samples, and discounts on future purchases with referrals.  It is immoral!

Capital One – Shame on you!

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

The Gingrich Plan Meets Ezekiel

I just got a call from Newt Gingrich.  Well, not exactly from Newt.  First there was this woman with a charming southern voice who asked if I would stay on the line to listen to Newt’s recorded message, then there was another woman with an even more charming southern voice who asked if I heard it OK and would I like to support the Gingrich Ten Point Plan for restoring America’s good fortune.  Just as they had garnered over a million signatures for his famous Drill Here Drill Now campaign, they hope to do the same by opposing the bailout, eliminating the estate and capital gains taxes, establishing a flat income tax, eliminating the IRS and one or two other things that add up to ten. 

I opined that the Drill Here Drill Now campaign was one of Newt’s dumber ideas but had to admit he had topped it with this new plan that surpassed any adjective I could think of beyond dumb that would be suitable language for clergy.  I’m not sure why, but the woman with the charming voice hung up on me.  I guess she didn’t want to talk policy.

I might have suggested that Mr. Gingrich take a look at one of the readings for the coming Sunday:

Ezek. 34:11   For thus says the Lord GOD: I myself will search for my sheep, and will seek them out.  12 As shepherds seek out their flocks when they are among their scattered sheep, so I will seek out my sheep. I will rescue them from all the places to which they have been scattered on a day of clouds and thick darkness.  13 I will bring them out from the peoples and gather them from the countries, and will bring them into their own land; and I will feed them on the mountains of Israel, by the watercourses, and in all the inhabited parts of the land.  14 I will feed them with good pasture, and the mountain heights of Israel shall be their pasture; there they shall lie down in good grazing land, and they shall feed on rich pasture on the mountains of Israel.  15 I myself will be the shepherd of my sheep, and I will make them lie down, says the Lord GOD.  16 I will seek the lost, and I will bring back the strayed, and I will bind up the injured, and I will strengthen the weak, but the fat and the strong I will destroy. I will feed them with justice.

Ezek. 34:17   As for you, my flock, thus says the Lord GOD: I shall judge between sheep and sheep, between rams and goats:  18 Is it not enough for you to feed on the good pasture, but you must tread down with your feet the rest of your pasture? When you drink of clear water, must you foul the rest with your feet?  19 And must my sheep eat what you have trodden with your feet, and drink what you have fouled with your feet?

Ezek. 34:20   Therefore, thus says the Lord GOD to them: I myself will judge between the fat sheep and the lean sheep.  21 Because you pushed with flank and shoulder, and butted at all the weak animals with your horns until you scattered them far and wide,  22 I will save my flock, and they shall no longer be ravaged; and I will judge between sheep and sheep.

What do you think?  Could Newt craft a better ten point plan?  Maybe one that would follow along with something God had in mind?


Corporate Anxiety and Prayer

Let’s see now, what do we have to be anxious about?  The economy is in the tank.  My retirement funds are worth 30% less than they were last year.  Congress doesn’t have a clue what to do about it.  The current administration has a clue but can’t find it.  The new administration can find the clue but isn’t in office.  Racist hate mongers have captured the imagination of a news media bored without an election to cover.  Our two lovely little wars seem to be stalemated.  Violence in Africa threatens peace everywhere.  We owe our soul to China.  Russia doesn’t love us and France does.  We are addicted to Corporate Socialism but scared to death at the thought that government might help the little people.  Maybe we could gain relief from Habakkuk.  You think?

Though the fig tree does not blossom, and no fruit is on the vines; though the produce of the olive fails and the fields yield no food; though the flock is cut off from the fold and there is no herd in the stalls, yet I will rejoice in the LORD; I will exult in the God of my salvation. GOD, the Lord, is my strength; he makes my feet like the feet of a deer, and makes me tread upon the heights. (Hab 3.17-19)

Sunday, November 16, 2008

Business Ethics

Years ago I taught a class called Management and Society to aspiring MBA students.  It was a course that combined an introduction to ethics with tenth grade civics as applied to the business community.  Lest you wonder about the tenth grade civics part, most of my students had not studied anything remotely close to American history, culture or government since junior high or high school.  They were technical types well versed in the mathematics of making money.  Toward the end of each semester I had the class work together to come up with a code of ethics they thought appropriate for the business community as a whole and their own prospective careers.  To say it was a struggle would be an understatement.

One class was simply unable to do it.  Their collective attitude was that if wasn’t blatantly illegal then anything goes to outsmart, outfox, out negotiate, and out flank the competition to get ahead.  I’ve often wondered what happened to them and figure they all went to work on Wall Street.  Most classes did their best with a variety of results that, I suspect, were presented mostly for my benefit without much ownership on their part.

But one class did a pretty good job of it.  Here is what they had to say:

1.   Be legal within the letter and spirit of the law

2.   Do not allow yourself to be compromised by vendors or customers.

3.   Maintain integrity and respect in dealings with customers, suppliers, employees and citizens.

4.   Do ethical benchmarking.

5.   Be consistent across all lines.

6.   Provide value to customers first and then shareholders.

I often wonder what happened to them as well.  They probably all got fired and are teaching school somewhere in New Jersey.

Saturday, November 15, 2008

Hear, Read, Mark, Learn and Digest

Once a year, if the date for Easter falls right, we Episcopalians get to start our worship this Sunday with my favorite Collect.

Blessed Lord, who caused all holy Scriptures to be written for our learning: Grant us so to hear them, read, mark, learn, and inwardly digest them, that we may embrace and ever hold fast the blessed hope of everlasting life, which you have given us in our Savior Jesus Christ; who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever.

It dates to 1549 when the English Church finally started to get its act together.  For me it is an invitation to wallow about in scripture reading it, testing it, doubting it, praying it, meditating on it, and learning from the wisdom of ages past and ages present in full confidence that these words reveal and illuminate God’s truth in an abundance of ways that can never be exhausted to the end of time. 

I feel sorry for those who have been taught the exact and invariable meaning of the text, and for those who reject it all because of that.  How ill-nourished their lives must be.

During Morning Prayer today I got distracted by “the law of freedom” in the Letter of James.  Wandering away from the liturgy of the office I spent time in conversation with Ray Brown, Luke Johnson and God about that idea, and I have a many more questions to ask at another time.  But a good hour had passed on that alone and it was time to move on.  To be so richly fed so early in the morning is one of those blessings that are hard to explain, and I hope ones like it fall into your life also. 

Restoring the Republican Soul

I heard a commentator for the Republican Party on NPR this morning.  He, like most others interviewed this week, explained what the party needs to do to regain its soul.  His solution?  Concentrate on the basics as the party of business fighting for lower taxes, especially on businesses, less regulation, and free trade without all those unpleasant conditions regarding fair labor standards and such.  The only thing wrong with that is that it is an agenda that belongs to a trade organization such as the U.S. Chamber, NAM or NFIB.  It should not belong to a broad based political party that is supposed to at least pretend to be interested in the well being of the nation as a whole.  If that’s his idea of a party’s soul, it’s a pretty small thing of no real consequence, and I suggest they just go ahead and lose it.  So far the only thing I’ve heard from Republicans is a series of attempts to restore the country and the party to an imagined golden age that never really existed and the corrupt ideas of Gingrich and his Contract with America.  I think there is such a thing as a responsible conservative voice to be heard in American politics, but until the Republicans get rid of Harding, Hoover, Limbaugh and Hannity, they are not the ones to speak it.


Friday, November 14, 2008

Farming, Faith and Hope

The family that owns my local dry cleaner also farms a couple of thousand acres of wheat and beans. You can’t be a farmer without having gone through hard times. Today, while in picking up a few things, one of them started talking about what it takes to get through today’s hard times. “Faith,” he said. “That’s how you get through hard times. What else is there?”

What faith was he talking about? You can have faith in a lot of things, and the sort of generic unfocused faith in God that some people express doesn’t carry much weight. I have a feeling that the faith some people cling to is more like a wishful expectation that sooner or later the dice will roll in their favor, and hopefully that will happen before there is nothing left.

I think my wheat farming, dry cleaning friends have something else in mind. I know a little about them, and when they say faith, they mean a deep and abiding trust in God, even if they don’t understand much about God’s ways or whether God much cares how the dice roll.

They probably could not cite the verse, but they are among those who know “…that all things work together for good for those who love God, who are called according to his purpose.” (Rom. 8.28) I doubt they would be so na├»ve as to think that means that all things turn out just peachy. No farmer would. But they live in the day-to-day knowledge that however bad things might get, and they do get bad, God is always present to provide some opportunity for good to happen. If we spend our time in miserable despair we probably will not see that opportunity come and never take advantage of it. They are fortunate to belong to a parish (R.C.) led by a vigorous young priest where the gospel is proclaimed in a responsible and joy filled way, and where the 2,000-year-old tradition of the church is applied flexibly. I think this is doubly important for them, and many like them in our valley, who are “rock ribbed Republicans” who have eaten nothing but right-wing drivel for twenty years and are very suspect of the incoming administration. It makes a difference that their parish has not aided and abetted that, but has remained steadfast in Jesus’ teachings and life. The same cannot be said for all the congregations in our valley. In fact, I think that is a large part of what has made Christian evangelism so difficult. But that is a subject for a real rant at a later time. I need to get the curmudgeon to write about that.

In the meantime, get up each morning. Give thanks to God for the beauty of the day. Go out and do the needful work of the day. Give thanks to God for the blessings, however small, that salted it. Prepare for the next day and sing Alleluia.

Obviously this is an unfinished essay, and I invite you to complete it in your own way.

Wednesday, November 12, 2008

Know Nothing Luddites

What brought the following thoughts to mind was a widely distributed editorial by Wesely Pruden in The Washington Times (I have not checked to verify and am referring only to the copy distributed via e-mail), e-mails sent to me by a few acquaintances, a number of letters to the editor in our own daily paper, and radio commentary that I pick up when I hit the wrong button on the tuner.

In the early 19th century, England was the scene of internal conflict generated by their industrial revolution.  Traditional weavers and their supporters organized as Luddites to fight automated weaving and the elimination of fixed prices.  The term evolved to mean those who reject new ideas and are anti-intellectual.  A few decades later, America saw the rise of Know Nothings who formed, among other things, The American Party, to oppose the unchecked immigration of Irish Catholics in the east and Asians in the west.  The opposition to Irish Catholics was based on the paranoid belief that they were part of a secret plot by the pope to take over the U.S., and I guess the opposition to Asians in the west was just plain old fashioned racism.

The recent presidential campaign saw the public emergence of the worst of both in a revised early 21st century edition. While the so called mainstream media was said to be overly pro-Obama, the Internet, certain television hosts, right-wing radio and some newspapers were filled with the most outrageous accusations of Obama as an agent of every element of radical, racial and un-American activity possible.  They were aided and abetted by people whose obsession with “Our Broken Borders” fueled rabid anti-immigrant attitudes.

The election is over, but echoes of those sentiments are streaming into letters to the editor and talk radio commentary all across the country.  Many people were sold, solidly sold, on all the fear mongering accusations poured out on Obama.  They really believe they are all true; they have no doubts.  They are unwilling to examine their fears, beliefs and attitudes through any lens other than the one they already have.  They have become modern day Know Nothing Luddites who cannot be persuaded by any argument that their beliefs and attitudes are not only wrong but add up to nothing but bigotry.  They are convinced that America, their America, has been taken away from them and handed over to the powers of everything they have always hated and feared.

What is the proper Christian response?  Well, we have a problem with that.  A good many of those modern day Know Nothing Luddites are Christian and profess their attitudes in the name of Christ.  A good many of those who oppose them are also Christian and react with un-reflective, self-righteous outrage, also in the name of Christ.  Can we learn anything useful by examining the record of Jesus walking among the warring factions Sadducees, Pharisees, Zealots, Roman Auxiliaries, and ordinary villagers?  Can we find some way to, individually and collectively, become agents of healing and reconciliation in the name of Godly love?  I know I’m not very good at it, but it seems to me that that has got to be the path upon which we walk, even if not very well.  My guess is that if there is any contemporary guidance to be had, it is probably King’s “Letter from Birmingham Jail.”  So, got any thoughts on this?


Sunday, November 9, 2008

The Emergent Church As Fad

The emergent church is the current phenomena in the church world these days. It is not exactly the sort of thing that can be easily pinned down but it seems to involve the creation of new communities of worship and the revitalization of existing ones with a combination of four things:

1. Bring into worship the Spirit filled enthusiasm of the evangelical and Pentecostal traditions.

2. Develop a profound respect for the sacraments through liturgical practices from the Anglican tradition.

3. Emphasize the importance of individual commitment to contemplative practices exemplified by many religious orders, especially the Benedictines.

4. Recommit to the gospel as primary with a special emphasis on socio/economic issues.

As usual, I may be wrong about that, but it will not keep me from plunging ahead.

What happens with really worthwhile movements such as this one is that clergy, and other church leaders, eagerly adopt the language and attend all kinds of workshops, but seldom do he hard work of implementation. They just slather the new words over the same old way of doing things. In the end, the whole thing can come to nothing more than anti-clerical complaining, a rejection of the institutional church, an excuse to be unfocused, and a sort of know-nothing suspicion of serious, informed theology and well educated clergy theologians.

What the emergent church movement is really about is evangelism, pure and simple, and evangelism is what we are supposed to be about. But evangelism takes courage, daring, risk taking and all the other things we would rather avoid. It’s so much easier to talk about it than do it. And that, my brothers and sisters, is the failure of the main-line church. To use the oft-cited words of Pogo, “We have met the enemy and it is us.”

Saturday, November 8, 2008

Archie Bunker Lives At The Diner

Awake early, I checked out and drove up the street looking for a diner before getting on the road for my long drive back home.  Only one was open and it was busy.  I sat in a booth way in back and right across from four guys dressed in clothing that said they worked very hard to make a living just barely adequate for them and their families.  One did most the talking.  They weren’t so sure about Obama, and here’s why.

These addicts and people like that.  They’re just lazy.  They’d rather get high than work and don’t care enough about anything to even get out of bed.  They figure the taxpayers will pick up their tab for living a good life, and Obama is probably a guy who will just go along with that.

And these immigrants.  Sure there were others before them who had it rough, and look at the Japanese, they even got put into those detention camps.  Maybe they were treated poorly, but they put all that behind them and made something of themselves.  This new batch just wants to be on welfare.  They work for almost nothing, and then quit and go on welfare, and that’s where they stay

Obama want’s everyone to get a free ride to college.  Well look at those college kids.  They graduate and then they think the world owes them a living. They don’t want to do hard work. They only want a cushy job for big bucks, and then they squander everything with big houses, cars, boats and all kinds of things they can’t afford.  No one wants a starter house anymore.  No, you gotta have one with a walk-in shower and media room.

We work hard.  We work our butts off.  We’re the ones keeping this place running, and nobody gives a damn.  We’re getting older, and none of those spoiled kids wants the jobs we do.  So what happens when we’re gone?  The place will fall apart, that’s what.

Sitting there in my loafers, tan cords, blue button down shirt and vee neck sweater, I figure I was meant to listen to what they had to say, or at least to what he had to say with the others nodding agreement.  Sure it sounded a lot like Archie Bunker, but it also sounded like four guys honestly worried about themselves, their families, their jobs and their community.  They didn’t like McCain, but they are not so sure that Obama, or anyone in power, even knows they are there and most certainly doesn't have respect for what they do to keep the fabric of society whole. Their refuge is reverse snobbery, and they’ve developed it to a fine, self-protective art.  I see the same thing around town.  If I go into certain stores in worn jeans, an old flannel shirt and the dirtiest cap I own, I’ll get waited on in seconds in a very helpful way.  If I go into the same place dressed like I was in that diner, I’ll get only the help I vocally ask for, and then in the least amount possible.  It’s reverse snobbery, pure and simple, from people who feel they are invisible to the rich and powerful, and are damn sure going to make them feel invisible in return when they are on their turf.

You want to be a real pastor?  Then learn how to bring the power of God’s reconciling love into the life of Archie Bunker.  I don’t think you can do it if you don’t know something about what Archie does, and show him a little respect while you’re at it.

Friday, November 7, 2008

24 Hour News

I can't help being something of a news junkie, and yet the 24 hr news channels are really annoying.  They've got 24 hours to fill up; they do it, in part, with creative repetition in which the same story is mined for increasingly irrelevant bits of information to the point of meaninglessness.  Having run out of current news they think will sell well, they turn to speculative news.  They speculate, in appropriately alarming tones of voice, about what the news might be tomorrow or next week.  The more frightening the better.  In voices as shrill as Billy Mays pitching OxyClean, they seek to raise our collective anxiety high enough to tune in tomorrow to find out if their dire prophecies have come true.  I guess they all went to the Chicken Little School of Broadcasting.  Maybe a good economic recovery plan would be to shut them down for a month or two in order to restore a sense of calm reason to the American psyche.  And that's my humble opinion on that.

Thursday, November 6, 2008

What Will Become Of The Religious Right?

What of the religious right?  What will become of it now?  For twenty years or more the religious right has been skillfully working to salt legislative, executive and judicial leadership with enough of their people to establish a new order in American society.  My own member of congress, Cathy McMorris Rogers, was first elected on a traditional conservative platform heavily undergirded by her religious right credentials.  As it has turned out, she had to struggle to actually learn something about traditional conservatism, especially in regard to the way the economy functions.  But, she will continue to be reelected many times over because she has learned to say the words that appeal to the aging conservatives of the district who don’t care very much what her religious beliefs and motivations are.  She is only one among many of the religious right who saw their fortunes peak in the Bush administration.

The 2006 election began to see the unraveling of their influence, and the 2008 election demolished it, at least in appearance.  But that does not mean the end of the religious right.  My suspicion is that their hard core leadership will simply assert that 2008 was proof that “the beast” of Revelation has been loosed on the earth, and that they will need to redouble their efforts as God’s warriors.  What that may mean in practical terms remains unknown.  Perhaps they will retreat back into the separatist faith fortresses from which they emerged. 

My real question is not so much about them as it is about us in the so-called Main Line churches (including R.C.s).  Will we be able to vigorously assert the gospel message of love, healing, reconciliation, justice and hope as Jesus has commanded us to do, not in opposition to the religious right, but in place of it?  We do an awful lot of talking to each other, but will we, at the local level, boldly proclaim the Good News of God in Christ to those who so very much need to hear it?