Tuesday, December 30, 2008

A New Economy?

In spite of the economic downturn we continue to be a consumer driven economy.  Most of the Washington pundits and pols can think of nothing other than doing what it takes to get consumers to start buying again.  What if we stop being a consumer driven economy?  What would we become then?  What sorts of jobs would have to be created in order to maintain economic well being, and what would economic well being be?  Frankly I have no idea, but I do know this; we cannot imagine, plan for and then create that new economy.  We can’t because we are unable to imagine the unknown and unexpected.  What we can do is imagine, plan for and create the conditions under which desirable and productive unknown and unexpected developments can take place.  The incoming administration and some in Congress seem to be thinking in that direction in the sense that they know we need an efficient national infrastructure, a highly educated population, proficiency in technical skills at every level, comprehensive health care for all, and a fair and equitable tax system.  What will that produce?  Who knows?  But it will create the conditions under which worthy things are likely to occur.  The problem is that simplicity gets distorted by greed.  The need for an efficient infrastructure becomes funding for pet projects of no real value.  Education and skills training become regulations and sanctions.  Health care becomes fodder for insurance company profits.  Multiple attempts at tax reform speak for themselves.  Our nation faces a huge test, and our track record is spotty at best.  It’s going to be one heck of a ride.

Monday, December 29, 2008

Home Again on the Fifth Day of Christmas

Home again, home again, jiggidy jig.  Although we did not buy a fat pig, we did have an amazing week with grandchildren and their family.  I will admit that with airline travel as unpleasant as it is under normal circumstances, it’s a madhouse at Christmas.  Once airborne the planes are as one would expect.  It’s the airport scene that reminds me of some of the scariest parts of Dante’s work.  I half expected to see that sign over the entrance, “Abandon all hope ye who enter here.”  Surrounded by thousands of people desperately trying to get somewhere, anywhere, in the face of missed flights and cancellations, we were a little surprised to have made it without any serious hitch.  Some might be inclined to say that God smiled on us, but I doubt it because that would mean God was not smiling on all those thousands of others, and that’s just not the way God works.  We are thankful to God, however, for the blessings of life, home and family, and for the joy of celebrating again the Incarnation of God in Jesus Christ.  The great mystery of this event, the birth, life, teaching, death and resurrection of Jesus, is the source of all hope that does not disappear in the trash with ripped wrapping paper and denuded trees.  We don’t have to wait another year for another brief moment of saccharine desire for a better world.  The salvation of the world is with us now, it has been accomplished, it is finished, and on that I have staked my life.  Merry Christmas!

Saturday, December 27, 2008

The Parable of Lucy

This is Lucy (no relation that I know of to the blogging Lucy).  She is an object lesson of what transformation can mean when one of God’s creatures is immersed in an environment of love.

Lucy is eight or nine years old, and, until two years ago, was owned by a family that either ignored her or teased her and finally got two other dogs on whom they lavished attention.  She was well fed and not physically abused, but an environment bereft of love and tainted with disrespect is still an abusive one.  The conditions under which she lived were not unlike the conditions of far too many humans, so it’s no surprise that many of them, like Lucy, become skittish, untrusting, prone to acting out, and inappropriately defensive.

Two years ago Lucy came to live with new family of mom, dad, two girls and a big, very active dog, named Jack.  She left a city apartment for a house and yard in the suburbs, so it had to seem both strange and frightening to a little dog like her.  What she fell into was an environment of acceptance and love that tolerated her bad habits, giving her time to learn new and better ones. 

It took a while, but Lucy now sleeps curled up beside Jack, leaps into anybody’s lap confident that she will be petted in just the right way, welcomes all (well maybe most) strangers as new opportunities for more loving, and gives much joy to her human companions.

The more than obvious point of this story is that Lucy’s second home is exactly what each Christian congregation should be like.  A place where all are accepted with godly love, and transformation from whatever to discipleship in Christ’s love can and does take place all the time.  But are they?  Or are they apt to be more like Lucy’s first home?  That’s part question and part accusation.  You know the answer.  I don’t.

Wednesday, December 24, 2008

Tuesday, December 23, 2008

The Curmudgeon Reflects on Christ's Mass

The blogosphere is filled with posts meditating on Advent and Christmas in the most joyfilled way. My spouse among them. Her daily posts as Sunrise Sister on Mind Sieve are rich with well thought out reflections based on the several books she has been reading these last four weeks. I, however, seem to be stuck in something of a curmudgeonly mood. My friend Deirdre Good asked if some of that might be brought on by my heart attack a few months ago. I don’t think so, but part of it may be due to the weather, or my need for more sunshine and daylight hours. Some may be due to the decompression of not having to plan, worry about and delight in a slew of Christmas services and events. I think most of it has to do with my own reflections on our annual remembrance of the birth of the Prince of Peace in the midst of a world that talks about peace but really doesn’t give a damn about it. In Christ we have all that we need to live with one another in ways that do not engage in violence to each other and tear at the fabric of society, but self-professed Christians leading powerful nations are among those who are most violent.

Some of my evangelical brothers and sisters would attribute that to the fallen nature of humanity from which there is no earthly recourse while they gather together to sing, praise and petition God for better times for those who are saved and have faith. As an Anglican (a progressive Anglican), I have a more hopeful sense of what humanity can do, and am therefore more disappointed when it doesn’t. And it saddens me when the overwhelming mystery of the Incarnation that simply leaves me breathless looses its mystery and magnificence in tepid celebrations of superficial worship led by wishy-washy clergy.

It’s in these moments when I feel a strong kinship with Luther in his darker moods, though I have yet to throw an inkpot at anything.

Maybe that’s why, among all the Christmas carols, I so often find myself turning to “It came upon a Midnight clear.” (The formatting below may be a little odd. It’s what happens when you copy something off the web.)

It came upon the midnight clear,
 That glorious song of old, 
From angels bending near the earth, 
To touch their harps of gold: 
"Peace on the earth, goodwill to men,
 From heaven's all-gracious King.” The world in solemn stillness lay, To hear the angels sing.

Still through the cloven skies they come,
 With peaceful wings unfurled,
 And still their heavenly music floats
 O'er all the weary world;
 Above its sad and lowly plains,
 They bend on hovering wing,
 And ever o'er its Babel sounds 
The bless├Ęd angels sing.

Yet with the woes of sin and strife The world has suffered long;
 Beneath the angel-strain have rolled
 Two thousand years of wrong; And man, at war with man, hears not
 The love-song which they bring;
 O hush the noise, ye men of strife,
 And hear the angels sing.

And ye, beneath life's crushing load, Whose forms are bending low, Who toil along the climbing way With painful steps and slow, Look now! for glad and golden hours come swiftly on the wing.
 O rest beside the weary road, And hear the angels sing!

For lo!, the days are hastening on, 
By prophet bards foretold,
 When with the ever-circling years 
Comes round the age of gold
 When peace shall over all the earth
 Its ancient splendors fling,
 And the whole world give back the song
 Which now the angels sing.

Monday, December 22, 2008

Christmas Travel

During my years in parish ministry I was always a bit surprised when friends, even parishioners, would ask if we were going away for the holidays.  It really didn’t matter which holiday.  Every year I’d get the same question around Thanksgiving, Christmas and Easter.  You and I know, of course, that clergy don’t go anywhere for the holidays; they are too busy conducting services. 

But now, in my first year of retirement, we are doing just that.  We spent Thanksgiving with family in Seattle, and we are spending Christmas with family in New York.  It’s kind of an odd feeling, sort of like playing hooky.  Besides, I’ve never traveled at Christmas time before, and only knew about airport crowds by reports on television.  Now I’ve experienced the thundering herds of families toting very young children along with a couple of tons of car seats and strollers, all trying to jam themselves into cramped airline seating.  Provided that their planes were not delayed, canceled or rerouted, all of which appears to be the norm. 

As for us, we are having a wonderful time with our grand daughters and their parents, worshipping in a congregation whose clergy are former classmates of mine, reconnecting with a favorite nephew (one of four favorite nephews out of the four nephews we have), and relaxing with books and music.  My prayer is that all those other families headed this way and that are not engaged in acts of endurance, but acts of love and joy graced by remembrance of the Holy Family and enriched by God’s presence in their lives. 

Talk Radio

America prides itself on it’s First Amendment right of free speech.

Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the government for a redress of grievances.

Among other things, that provides a legitimate place for conservative talk radio, which, at least in our part of the country, is extremely popular.  Now and then I’ll listen to a bit of it just to hear what’s going on.  For the most part it appears to consist of sarcastic bombast thinly disguised as informed political commentary.  Harmless enough, I guess, if you don’t take it too seriously.  But I was distressed to read in the paper that radio hosts the likes of Michael Savage continue to be among the most popular.  He, and a few others, are blatant in their racist hate mongering in ways that can do nothing but incite conditions of intolerance, even for our Constitution and First Amendment rights.  It isn’t that he, and some others, are on the air, but that they remain popular, that there are people eating up that stuff because it’s their stuff, they like it. 

What really discourages me is my suspicion that many of their listeners would also proclaim themselves to be Christians.  I don’t see how the gospel of Jesus Christ can be reconciled with a mindset based on fear, intolerance, hatred and ignorance.  Maybe my suspicion is wrong, but when I look at Barna Surveys on the politics of so-called born again Christians I wonder. 

Thursday, December 18, 2008

The Secret of Evangelism Revealed

A friend has been struggling with his faith. He grew up as a solid Christian in the Assembly of God tradition, but something went awry as he matured. He tried a number of other denominations but none seemed to fit. He even tried to start his own house church. The other day he made his confession; he is studying to become a Roman Catholic. Why? It's pretty simple. His most trusted friends and colleagues have been richly nourished by God's word in their local parish, and they have invited him to be nourished as they have been in companionship with them. That's what evangelism is about. It's as simple as that. There ain't no more!

The Value of Special Interest Group Lobbying

The Obama team promised a more transparent administration.  How long they can keep that up, I’m not sure, but for the moment they are publishing all the papers submitted to them from various special interest groups.  I roamed through them the other day, and there are hundreds representing every conceivable voice of public interest with, what looked like to me, a heavy emphasis on early childhood health and education, environmental protection, and technological innovation.  Missing from the lineup were proposals from conservative business interests such as the U.S. Chamber, NAM and NFIB.  More focused groups like the bankers and realtors also seemed to be silent, as well as the operatives from the very large “K Street” lobbying firms (except those working for Boeing). 

One thing we tend to forget when we rail against the voice of special interests is that we are a part of at least some of those voices because they do represent what we believe and the policies we would like to see enacted.  We need organized special interest groups.  Getting the ear of a member of Congress is not all that easy.  I write letters to mine all the time, and what I get back are generic boiler plate responses sent out by some over worked and bored staffer or intern.  The weight of my opinion is measured in pounds, as in:  “Boss, you got ten pounds of mail against and five pounds for.”  It helps to get our voices organized, coordinated, focused and forcefully represented to our representatives, and that’s where all the associations and lobbying organizations come in.

What I see right now is that the powerful voices of the less wealthy and less well funded interests are making the biggest impact early in the game.  No doubt the big money types are biding their time until all the little people get tired and go home so they can resume operations as usual.  If Obama sticks to his commitments, and we stick to making our voices heard early and often, that will not easily happen.  

Simon and the Woman who was a Sinner in the City

A friend is writing a lengthy analysis of Luke 7.36-50, the story of Simon the Pharisee, a symposium he hosted, Jesus his guest, and a Woman who was a sinner in the city.  As I have read his daily drafts, another direction of interpretation started to form in my mind, and it goes something like this:

Most of us are Simon, and it is unlikely that we will ever not be Simon.  If we receive Jesus at all, it is most often in a casual sort of way that is either reserved for an hour or so on Sunday morning, or as an exaggerated emotionalism that is a bit hard to take seriously.  To be harsh about it, they are both pretty superficial.  We see and hear the lessons of the Woman who was a sinner in the city from arm’s length with an appropriate degree of interested disinterest.  After all, she is really not the sort with whom we associate in our normal daily lives.  We may be aware of her, take pity on her, and even contribute a few dollars to some organization that may help her, but she is essentially from a world other than our own.

To be sure, some of us are the Woman, living in fear of others and disgust with ourselves, always finding ourselves being confronted by the condemning and condescending Simon.  But I think most of us are more Simon than the Woman.  That is true in the ordinary sense of daily life, but it is also true in a much more threatening way, an almost Jungian way.

The entire pericope is, at least in part, about finding the conditions needed for integration centered on Jesus, and it is only by Jesus’ presence that integration might be achieved.  There must be a form of integration between Simon and the Woman in order for each of them to stand in holy relationship with each other.  There is a wholeness of self that cannot be otherwise achieved.  Whether intentionally or not, Luke has made it clear that the story is not so much about Simon and the Woman as it is about you and me, and that both Simon and the Woman reside in us, the symposium resides within us, and our own healing to wholeness requires the holy integration of Simon and the Woman within us.  The odd thing is that it appears that all of the Woman that needs for healing to wholeness, all that she needs that is of Simon, has been given her through Jesus alone.  Simon himself has not (yet) shared in the integration, thus, for the moment, making him the greater and more broken outsider.  But Jesus has not left the symposium and the conditions have been clearly set for Simon also to be healed and made whole by the integration of that part of him who is the Woman into a healthy and holy self-relationship.

Of course, the other guests are an obstacle to that, and we well know who they are in our own internal symposium. 


Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Our Unusual Usual Weather

There are many ways in which a small rural city can be amusing. Local lore plays a big part in that because so much of it remembers a time that never quite was. Weather is one of those things in our community. It’s always “unusual.” Whether a hundred above or ten below, raining or dry, cloudy or clear, it’s always “unusual.” We bought into that for a while, but it didn’t take long to wonder, “What is usual?” It’s always hot and dry in the summer, cool and foggy in the late fall, spring always starts in March and doesn’t end until mid-June, but none of that is “usual.” One thing that does not happen very often is a lot of snow two or three days in a row with really cold temperatures. Something like that happens maybe two or three times a decade, and it happened this last week. Sure enough, I got in the middle of a conversation with an old timer assuring me that this was “usual” for our valley. That we might go five consecutive years without a white Christmas – that’s most unusual. That we might actually have one at last – that’s usual for us. Go figure.

Sunday, December 14, 2008

Flicker, Part Two

That flicker (see previous post) has now created a place of rest for her/himself in the side of my house about twenty feet up under the eaves and out of my reach. My wife considers him/her a blessed Christmas guest. She spelled it wrong; it’s pest. I wonder what the temple priests thought when the psalmist waxed poetic about the sparrow and swallow?

Even the sparrow finds a home, and the swallow a nest for herself, where she may lay her young, at your altars, O LORD of hosts, my King and my God. (Psalm 84.3)

The next line is: “Happy are those who live in your house ever singing your praise.” Is RAT-A-TAT-TAT a form of singing God’s praise? I’ve got a feathered Gene Krupa living here. Couldn’t I have Benny Goodman? Sorry kids – look’em up. Oh well, might as well get used to it, and thanks be to God for strange things in my life.

The Bumbler vs. The Professional

There is an interesting moral judgment phenomenon going on in the news these days.  On the one hand we have Governor Blagojevich who, if nothing else, is a real slime ball – almost a caricature of some South-side second-rate racketeer out of a B-movie.  But has he, in fact, actually done any serious damage?  It looks more like a pile of bungled attempts at extortion than anything else.  Be that as it may, this incompetent would-be political gangster has all the headlines.

In the meantime, we have nice, polite, well educated and highly respected Mr. Madoff who has stolen billions from a huge variety of investors, and ruined the fortunes of untold others.  All he gets are a few brief reports on the business pages and a big ho-hum from a public that is simply not entertained very much by a thief of monumental proportions that are all but impossible to comprehend.

We are outraged by the bumbling boob and bored by the sophisticated big time thief and killer of hope.  What gives?  Why are we not all the more outraged by Mr. Madoff?  Why do we not think of him as a greater slime ball than Blagojevich?  I find the press and the public most puzzling.

Thursday, December 11, 2008

Clergy Days with the Bishop

We had one of our occasional clergy days gatherings today.  Clergy days are held around the diocese to gather geographically grouped clergy together for a meeting with the bishop.  So we gathered, about fifteen of us, at a nearby church only 60 miles away for me, a bit farther for others and not even 150 miles for the bishop.  We talked about the recent diocesan convention, a meeting of the diocesan council, some reorganization of diocesan staff, what the House of Bishops might be up to, and a variety of other exciting and motivating matters customary to these sorts of meetings regardless of denomination.  But what we did most was laugh.  We laughed together about some of our own silliness, life in the church, and the ordinary events of our lives.  We laughed together about most everything, and that’s a good thing.  It’s good for us, good for the church, good for the bishop and good to know that we can be friends as well as colleagues in a diocese that can laugh.

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

The Dark Side of Christmas

As a Fire Chaplain maybe I see more of this than I should, but this is not a great season for a lot of people.  Anxieties about preparing in just the right way so no one is disappointed, family discord that has never been resolved touch very raw nerves, mental illnesses flare up under the pressure of Christmas expectations, loneliness, despair that can be suicidal, unexpected deaths brought on by too much food or booze or both, and the whole gamut of ordinary sickness seem to be more evident during these weeks.  In this season, when the abounding and steadfast love of God is so vividly manifested in the nativity of our Lord, how can we be alert and responsive to these issues in the right way?  There is probably a good psychological answer to that, but I think the right answer is in the gospel narrative itself.  The rejoicing we offer is a rejoicing that has no requirement but to receive the gift of God incarnate who came precisely for those who find this such a difficult time of year.  I think that’s the right answer, it’s just that we are not very good at doing it.

Sunday, December 7, 2008

Godly Generosity In Small Packages

Twice a month I serve a small rural congregation.  Average Sunday attendance is around 12 or so, but this morning we had unexpected largesse with a congregation of 23.  Is this one of those struggling congregations just barely hanging on in a country town with high unemployment and a dim future?  Not likely!  Over coffee and donuts after the service, the congregation gathered to acknowledge the over abundance of blessings that are theirs.  Each one took an envelop in which to make personal donations earmarked for particular needs in the community, hundreds of dollars from their outreach fund were dedicated to other needs here and abroad, two parishioners took on responsibility for outfitting the needs to two impoverished children, $500 from a discretionary fund was given to the local food bank, and a couple of hundred more was dedicated to the family of a minister whom they did not know, in another town, and from another denomination, whose house had burned down.  All this from a congregation that cannot afford a full-time pastor and worships in a tiny little hundred-year-old building in need of repair.  Driving up there twice a month to worship with them is truly one of the greatest joys of my ministry.

Saturday, December 6, 2008

The Curmudgeon Thinks About Prophets

A friend with whom I often share in bible study has a lot of trouble with the Hebrew Scriptures. For him the God of the Old Testament can be bribed by the right kind of sacrifices, is threatening and vindictive, and is seen by the people of Israel as their savior on the one hand, and as the immediate cause of their problems on the other. After all, if God doesn’t get his way he is going to do some real nasty stuff to them. I don’t think that’s an uncommon reading. I hear it now and then from the pews, and it seems to be something some people learned in Sunday school or really bad adult bible classes.

For Episcopalians this Sunday will begin with a prayer that reminds us to heed the prophets’ warnings and change our ways, and that always leads me back to look into exactly what those warnings were. Two things seem very clear when I do that. First, the prophets mostly warned about individual and collective behaviors that engage in social injustice, oppression and betrayal. Second, the natural and ordinary consequences of that behavior will be disastrous for the nation and the people. The object lesson that really brought this home happened a few years ago when my office looked out over the back yard of a family with two very active little boys. Sometimes I’d watch them play, and like little boys are wont to do, most every game sooner or later involved sticks as swords, and I’d think, “Well, I can see what’s about to happen,” and it always did. If I’d gone out and told them to stop before someone got hurt they might have heard it as, “Father Steve threatened us if we don’t stop.” I imagine that’s just the way the Israelites heard it

At least they heard something, not that it did them much good since they just kept at it. But what do we hear? Do we hear anything at all? Are we paying even the slightest attention? Those prophets had something important to say on God’s behalf, and I don’t think it was just to those old Israelites. And I don’t think it has anything to do with gay marriage and all the rest of that nonsense. I think it has to do with the very serious stuff about what kind of persons we ought to be in this life as we prepare for our own time of accountability before God. Oh, wait a minute. Isn’t that what Peter wrote to the early Church? Bah, just a bunch of ancient Greeks or something. I guess it doesn’t have anything to do with us after all, so put a buck in the plate and let’s get back to looking out for Number One. I wonder if they’ll have a Santa Claus at church on Christmas Eve?

Friday, December 5, 2008

Me And My Flicker

It’s Advent, and I am trying to be repentant of my sins and contemplative in my spiritual life. It’s nearing Christmas and I am trying to be joyful in all things. But I am being tormented by a flicker. My spouse, who has her own blog, thinks this is very funny and wrote about it not long ago with me, of course, being the bad guy picking on one of God’s cherished creatures. But I tell you this flicker is more than intentional about picking on my house out of all houses in the neighborhood, and is more than intentional about knowing when I’m home trying to be repentant and contemplative, and knows exactly what part of the house to hammer away on where he/she can get the biggest bang for the peck. I’ve gone outside to have marginally civil conversations with him/her, and all she/he does is move to a nearby branch and scream at me until I go back inside. Devious thoughts have entered my mind about possible solutions but each would require substantial penance later on, and word has it that sins committed with malice aforethought are not easily forgiven. So there you are, me and my flicker, and that’s the thought for the day.

Thursday, December 4, 2008

Ah, Christmas!

I love Christmas.  I love the joyful preparations and town wide decorations, both tasteful and tacky.  I can’t help but smile at the Sponge Bob Santa, the Pooh Bear Santa, and all the goofy stuff that has nothing at all to do with Christ’s Mass but is still good fun.  I love the quiet anticipation of Advent that calls me into a deeper contemplation that is adorned with Festivals of Lessons and Carols, Children’s Pageants, bell choirs and the Youth Group in the church kitchen preparing inedible stuff for sale.  I even get sentimental over a few of the television rebroadcasts of old Christmas specials.  I especially love it this year, my first Christmas in retirement, which means that I can sit back and really enjoy it.  In fact, we are going to do the unheard of and go to New York to spend Christmas with one of our daughters and her family.

Of course the majority of Christmas preparations have nothing at all to do with Christ.  But in every TV show, amateur Nutcracker, Mall display and non-stop holiday music on radio there is always the theme of “The Real Meaning of Christmas” that generally has to do with the fulfillment of real love and generosity.  All of it reminds me of just how much people yearn for what only Christ can give, and though they may be looking in strange places, the truth is not far away.  Although Christmas is not nearly as theologically important as Easter, it is still Christmas that gives us the greatest opportunity to open doors, and open them wide, so that those who are searching may find their heart’s desire within the worship of our congregations.  But how will they know where to look if no one tells them.  Rather than opening up a war with the secular holiday, we should be taking advantage of every opportunity to listen, engage, share and invite with plenty of Ho-Ho-Ho. 

Tuesday, December 2, 2008

The Incongruity of Advent

Conversation in another part of the blogosphere has been about the need to restore the idea of Advent as a penitential season.  Learned histories of Advent combined with erudite parsing of the meaning of penitential concluded with a call to restore Advent preaching to a bolder engagement with sin, repentance, death, heaven and hell.  Of course that engagement would be tempered with the joyful hope that is ours in Christ Jesus so that on That Day “we may without shame or fear rejoice to behold his appearing.”  As far as conversation among theologians goes, I thought it scored some very worthy points.   The problem, it seemed to me, is that ordinary Christians sitting in the pews would understand little of that.

To, in any sense, restore Advent as a penitential season, we cannot start where the 19th century church left off.  We have to start where the people are.  I suspect that if you asked a cross section of pew sitters to define what a penitential season might mean, they would come up with a season of dark, glum, foreboding, joyless people sitting around in self-flagellation over their sinfulness.  I could be wrong, but as guesses go I’ll bet I’m not too far away.

So the question becomes, how do we take that in a different direction so that we can understand penitence in the sense of an honest self-reflection calling us to joy filled repentance as ones forgiven by God who has given us new life and strengthened our renewed intention to grow in discipleship as followers of Jesus Christ?  That would make Advent a season of joyful solemnity, or maybe solemn joyfulness, which may sound like a tension filled oxymoron, but then that is exactly what Advent is.