Wednesday, July 30, 2008

The Psalmist and the President

No doubt you have already heard that we are in a presidential election year.  It happens every four years, and in spite of anti-doping initiatives, we have been known to nominate and elect them anyway.  What if we raised our standards a bit?  What should we expect out of our next president?

Why not look to scripture for guidance, and, just to keep it simple, let’s turn to Psalm 72.  From the psalmist’s prayer we might expect a next president to:

Judge people with righteousness and the poor with justice.

Offer economic policies that will yield prosperity for all.

Defend the cause of the poor, deliver the needy, and be the help of those who have no help.

Defeat those who oppress others.

Be an agent of abounding peace in whose sight the blood of our people will be precious.

As our representative to the world, become a symbol of great respect and honor.

Perhaps that’s too much to expect, but it’s not too much to pray for.

Monday, July 28, 2008

Real Coffee Hour Questions

A friend  of mine recently sent me the following note:

Since you explained the whole purgatory locker room concept so well for me I thought I’d let you take a stab at this one. For 2 weeks in a row the Sunday paper has had a Q & A with a rabbi that referred to the subject of tattoos and how they are sinful.(No I don’t have one – but my son does) Yesterday they actually cited the verse. So here it is in Leviticus, but look at the verse before it! Yikes – I sin every 5 weeks without fail! What do you make of this?

Leviticus 19: 27-28 Do not cut the hair at the sides of your head or clip off the edges of your beard. 28 Do not cut your bodies for the dead or put tattoo marks on yourselves. I am the LORD.

Here is my off the top response.  How would you like to add to it, correct it, or offer something entirely different?

Good grief you ask hard questions.  My first suggestion would be to read the whole of Leviticus.  It contains dozens and dozens of laws and rules instructing the early Hebrew nation in how to become Jews.  The first thing you will notice is that we routinely ignore a great many of them because it is obvious that they have no application in our day and place, so it's always problematic when someone goes back into Leviticus and hauls out some particular verse demanding that it be obeyed because it's God's law.  The one I've thought about keeping is the one about stoning disobedient sons (just a joke).  Orthodox and some Conservative Jews do make a very determined effort to obey each and all of them, which is why you see Orthodox men with long sideburns and fringed garments poking out under their regular clothes.  Reformed and Liberal Jews rely more on the judgment of a very dyamic rabbinical conversation to guide them in which of these laws are meant to be observed in the modern world and how.  Most all Jews agree that the prohibition of tattoos is important even today.  Given that both Jesus and Paul taught that to follow Christ frees us from the law, and, somewhere around the time of the Reformation, Christians more or less decided that O.T. laws dealing with rites and rituals were no longer binding, but laws dealing with morality were, we were left in a state of some perplexity.  That’s when the arguments about which was which began and continue to this day.  

Frankly, I like Leviticus.  The form in which we have it comes late, after the Babylonian exile, probably not more than four or five hundred years before Christ, but no doubt it transmits far more ancient law to us.  Consider then how a nomadic people loosely related by kinship and sort of following a God they knew very little about would be formed into a nation.  These laws provide the framework for a community of ordered life with very high moral standards and set pretty far apart from the surrounding religious practices.  It's really quite remarkable. But it is also not the last word.  Deuteronomy, which may be a much older book and yet a more recent revision of the laws of Leviticus, makes some changes and eases things up a bit. God, through the prophets, dramatically changed more of them and added new dimensions that I think are valid still today.  Jesus redefined all of them in dramatic ways, especially in his Sermon on the Mount, and Paul was adamant that the old laws had no dominion over gentile Christians. 

So, the next time someone starts raging about illegal immigration, ask them if they are bible believers.  I'll bet the answer is yes. Then ask them to read and comment on the meaning of Leviticus 19:33-34.

 

Can We Talk Politics About Health Care?

I don’t know why, but I’m on a lot of Republican mailing lists and get a lot of their “surveys”, which I am happy to fill out and mail back in the prepaid envelopes sans contribution.  For whatever reason the Democrats have never sent me a thing so I can’t comment on their propaganda. 

One of the big scare issues on a Republican survey is whether we want to turn over our health care to federal bureaucrats who will dictate to us how, when and where to get our health care. 

I find it ironic that there is any pretension that we have any freedom, choice or control now.  Consider that most persons who have insurance have no choice in who they get it from, what it costs or what it covers.  Persons who buy their own insurance, if they can afford to buy any at all, are at the mercy of insurance companies that show little compassion and have no reason to do so.  Once in an insurance program, consumers have little control over what doctors they can see, what procedures are covered, where they can get their medication and what medications are or are not covered. Uninsured persons are just at the mercy of the communities in which they live and the largesse of local hospitals.

My friends in medicine tell me that enormous amounts of their time, energy and money are spent on insurance company bureaucratic paper work nightmares.  A recent Diane Rehm show on NPR was dedicated to the ways that Medicare rules have severely distorted the ways in which compensation is distributed in medicine, not only for those on Medicare but for all insured persons of any age.  Moreover, the panel said, that distortion has also distorted the distribution of doctors and specialties to the detriment of over all health care services.

Is this the freedom of choice the Republicans want to preserve?  All their talk about reforming the system looks to me like a map for making the whole mess more complex and wasteful than it already is.  Their big scare piece is to allege that we will end up with the dreaded Canadian system.  For all of its faults, it’s not nearly as bad as what we already have and would be a huge improvement, but the fact is that no one is proposing the Canadian system for the U.S.

What does any of this have to do with God, Christ or theology?  Everything, because it is all about creating a more just society that provides conditions for the flourishing of life for everyone.  I don’t really know what the answer is, I just know that as Christians we have got to demand better and not be intimidated by hysterical, sensationalized scare tactics.

 

Saturday, July 26, 2008

Get Over It and Deal With It

A commentator on another site suggested that we did not have to take seriously Jesus’ statement that he is they way, truth and life (John 14.6) because Jesus may not have actually said it.  It was most likely, he said, a gloss added by a later redactor.  My response was that we have to deal with the text as it is and not try to dodge around it by treating it as it might have been or we wish it were.  That seemed to upset somebody writing as “anonymous” who immediately assumed that to deal with the text as it is means to fall into the literalist camp of the inerrancy crowd. 

That kind of knee jerk reaction gets us nowhere. 

As pastors and teachers we must address the text as it is presented to the people in the pews as well as those who have no exposure at all to Christianity or the bible.  One of the things I like about being Anglican is our preference for wallowing around in the text, subjecting it to close examination, questioning not just each other but God as well about its meaning.  In the end it is the text that we have that bears the illumination of God’s truth and provides the tools for receiving revelations yet to come.  That is why we are willing to call it holy and name it the Word of God.

Dealing with the text as we have it forces us to deal with uncomfortable questions, and not just about the red herring of homosexuality, but of the ongoing questions of good and evil, theodicy, the nature of the human condition and the meaning of salvation.  Dealing with the text as we have it forces us to address its relationship to non-canonical books.  Dealing with the text as we have it forces us to address its relationship to the oldest known texts in Greek or Hebrew – neither of which I am competent to do.  But most of all, dealing with the text as we have it forces us to address the same questions and concerns that are present in the minds and hearts of those in our care.

So don’t just blow off John 14.6, or any other passage, because it’s difficult.  Deal with it.

Friday, July 25, 2008

God without Religion

A friend of mine is a gruff, but very funny, old goat who has, from time to time, dared me to make him religious.  That’s just before he nails me with all the sins of religions to which he attributes nearly all of the world ills.  I’ve struggled with this for a couple of years and even wrote out a letter that turned into an essay, and then I stopped and looked back at the record bequeathed to us from Jesus and Paul.

Neither of them tried to make someone else become religious, or at least they didn’t try very hard.  The discourses and parables of Jesus are all about coming to know God and the nearness of the kingdom of heaven, but not about being religious.  Paul’s letters certainly deal with the problems of newly formed Christian congregations, but once more their power comes from his words that draw the people back from religion and toward a fuller knowledge of the presence in their lives of God in Christ Jesus.

Maybe that is a part of what Bonhoeffer was driving at with his appeal for a religionless religion.  Which is not at all to say that I think religion and denominations are unimportant.  Just look back at several posts on that subject written months ago.  Religion, in the form of the particular practices and teachings of denominations, is what gives shape and meaning to worship, a place in which to grow in knowledge, wisdom and faith, and the community of support and fellowship into which Christ has called us.  But before any of that can have meaning in someone’s life there must first be an engagement with God, and, as a Christian I assert that that engagement is best and most fully experienced through Jesus Christ.

So now I no longer want to make my friend religious.  I would rather explore with him his questions about God and life, introduce him to Jesus, and be his companion on a journey toward an engagement with them that will have meaning for him.  Maybe after that, if he lives long enough, we’ll talk about church, Sundays and the sacraments.

Thursday, July 17, 2008

A Brief Hiatus


I'm in Honolulu for a niece's wedding.  Right now I'm looking out my hotel window overlooking Kaimana beach.  It would be a great view of Waikiki if not for the waving palm trees in the way.  Frankly, I cannot think of a single important thing to write about.  I'm just sitting here tasting the breeze, enjoying the sun, relaxing in the water.  I'll get intelligent again, maybe, on my return.  

There is one thing.  We took in an exhibit at the Honolulu Academy of Arts featuring the work of Chinese artists during and just after the Cultural Revolution.  It was one of the saddest and yet inspiring displays ever.  These artists risked everything to say in their art what could not be said out loud, but some of what they had to say expressed a deep disappointment and distrust in anything, past, present or future, that implied a wisdom they no longer believed existed in any form.  It reminded me of the 14th Psalm.  Look it up.

Saturday, July 12, 2008

Learning English

I've been reading some posts on the Washington Post pages about Obama's recent speech on the importance of learning a second language and urging less anxiety about immigrant children learning English.  Many of them echoed local comments about Mexicans refusing to learn English.   I wonder where that comes from if not from fear?  Our valley is pretty well populated with immigrants, mostly from Mexico, and I have run into very few who are not doing their best to pick up enough English to get by.  More important.  There are few immigrant children who are not learning English and quickly at that.  Admittedly that's all anecdotal, but where is the evidence that "they refuse to learn English."  We've been through this before with the Italians, Germans, Poles, Japanese and all other non-English speaking immigrant groups.  Eventually it passes but not without causing a lot of unnecessary hurt and humiliation.  As for me, English is the only language I need.  I'd write more about that but a padre friend just called saying he's RSVP'd to an invitation to a fiesta out at the ranch.  Everyone is supposed to wear a sombrero and be ready to play a pinata game.  Should be fun, so sayonara for now and mahalo for reading today.

Tuesday, July 8, 2008

Liturgy and Liturgists

What follows is something I posted on Simple Massing Priest’s site and I want to re-post it on my own because it’s part of a conversation I’m having with myself and need to air it out a bit more.

I want to make a couple of observations. One has to do with the role of liturgy and liturgists. The other has to do with the visceral importance of having something in one’s life that will not move.  However, this post is long enough as it is so I’ll skip the second point for now.

Before I go on I want to cite a portion of something I wrote a few weeks ago because it always has to be a check on where we are going:

A passage from Charles Taylor’s A Secular Age, caught my eye 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, 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.

As Chris (another posting on that site) has pointed out, there sometimes appears to be a disconnect between what liturgists give us to be the words guiding our worship and the theology that expresses the content of our faith.  But when I look back on the evolution of our own BCP it seems even more evident that the liturgists are often engaged in a difficult balancing act that attempts to accommodate a nexus of the prevailing thinking in the pews and the competing demands of very serious theologians.  Consider the prayer books of 1549, 1552, 1559 and 1662.  It’s a pretty remarkable evolution that worked hard to preserve our catholic heritage without being Roman while incorporating important Lutheran reforms, picking up a bit of Calvin here and there, mediating with Puritans and finally with Presbyterians.  It took a brutal war, years of dictatorship and too many deaths on both sides to bring it about.  At least we have not gone that far yet. 

As brilliant and bloody as it was, nothing epitomizes the sort of waffling stance of Anglicanism more than the words, “The Body of our Lord Jesus Christ, which was given for thee, preserve thy body and soul unto everlasting life.  Take and eat this in remembrance that Christ died for thee, and feed on him in thy heart by faith, with thanksgiving.”  On the one hand it proclaims the real presence of Christ in the Eucharist while on the other articulates the Reformed understanding of the bread and wine as a memorial in which Christ is present only spiritually.  Is it either/or and we cannot make up our minds, or is it both/and and a holy mystery?  In any case, the whole effort was little more than dressing up medieval theologies of worship in the acceptable Reformation language and thinking of the day.

It seems to come as a surprise to many, but Christian worship did not start with the Reformation.  It did create a new direction for the greater Church but it did not establish a new foundation for Christianity.  Skipping forward to the 20th century, and all the theologians aside, it was the liturgical renewal movement that brought together the churches of the catholic tradition (and others who were willing) to dig back through the modern language of the post-Elizabethan and post-Tridentine periods to rediscover the theology inherent in the earliest prayers of the church and incorporate them into contemporary worship in contemporary language.  To be sure, various alternative services have also popped up with some pretty goofy language in them, but how is that all that different from the experiments between 1549 and 1662?

So it seems to me that the role of the liturgist is to put into the popular practice of worship the best of what the theologians have to offer in a way that achieves some sort of acceptable balance that speaks to the people of a certain place, culture and time.

Sunday, July 6, 2008

A Peachy Thought

It's time for a little home town type bragging.  It goes without saying that our valley produces the finest wines in the world.  No one disputes that. I say this, of course, with all due humility.  But now, this very week, the season of peaches has arrived.  In all my years of living in Minnesota and the NYC area I had heard of really good fresh peaches but never tasted one.   What was sold as a peach in the stores was a mealy, almost tasteless, orangish colored blob.  What we get, inexpensively, out of local orchards is the most heavenly fruit God put on earth.  I have no doubt that it is exactly what tempted Adam and Eve.  Softly firm and juicy, both sweet and peachy tart at the same time, the local peaches are beyond wonderful.  It's true that our valley also produces cherries, strawberries, apricots, pears and apples of exquisite quality, but the peaches, oh the peaches.  

Saturday, July 5, 2008

Lambeth & the Internet

A few months ago I offered a brief workshop on the Lambeth Conference for a small rural church that I serve in my retirement.  To prepare, I read through each of the 1500 or so resolutions considered by the conference since its inception as a way of learning more about the issues that have been raised, the voices that have been heard, and the changes in “orthodox” theology that have been experienced.

For instance, one might take the issue of polygamy among the laity, clergy and even bishops of certain parts of the church in Africa.  It was an issue hotly debated over multitudes of decades during which bishops of Europe and European cultures had very strong things to say and demand about the need to stop this abominable practice.  Still, no one ever suggested a divorce, and in the end there were a number of accommodations allowing African leaders to work things out within the context of their own cultures.

What kept an issue like that from becoming a threat to communion was, I believe, the lack of an Internet.  Look back in the local church publications, city newspapers and radio, or even television, broadcasts of the times.  You will find little or nothing about the problem for Anglicans of polygamy in Africa.  It meant that there was room for a very difficult issue that raised all kinds of emotional responses to be aired in an environment that permitted plenty of time for reflection and among those whose patient, prayerful and considered judgment might eventually find a path forward illuminated by a subtle re-understanding of orthodoxy.

The Internet, for all its good, including this post, has deprived us of an environment rich in time for prayerful reflection.  The instantaneous communication of news, gossip and hysterical rumor mongering has deceived us into thinking that there is an ultimate imperative for our immediate decision on complex issues because the very fate of the church hangs in the balance.  The argument rages with almost no concern for wandering off and taking the time, like Balaam, to find out what God might have in mind.  Because of the Internet we have the impression of being surrounded by a herd of Balaks stomping up and down in juvenile tantrums demanding curses, and demanding them right now!  C.S. Lewis’s Wormwood could not have come up with a better plan A.

It seems to me that we, and I mean we in every conceivable context, in a new age of instantaneous global communication, have got to learn a new way finding time and place for long, slow reflective prayer and discernment.  It seems to me that we need to learn that not every decision should be the product of an undisciplined shouting match unleashed in the name of democracy.  I don’t have a clue how we might do that.  How about if the bishops at Lambeth agree to go behind closed doors and offer not a peep of gossip about their discussions until the ecclesiastical paparazzi have given up and gone home?  A couple of them might have to be locked in solitary confinement for the duration.  We could bring back the iron mask.  It might work.  

Thursday, July 3, 2008

Silence

Some scenes in the movie Driving Miss Daisy depicted a household so quiet that the ticking clock was the most prominent sound.  I remember that sound from my grandmother’s house.  It is not that her house was always quiet. When I was a very little boy her house was filled with the joyous sounds of cousins gathered for their annual vacation reunions, and it never occurred to me that without our presence things might be different.  But later, as a teenager, I was stuck by the quiet.  Entering grandma’s house was eerily quiet.  The ticking of the mantle clock was the most prominent sound.  Sometimes a radio would be playing, but softly.  In the heat of the summer the whirring of a fan or two might be added, but that was about it.  It seemed both sad and boring to me.  I wondered how anyone could tolerate so much nothing.  Even into my adult years I wondered about the strange silence in the homes of the elderly whom I might visit.  Of course that excluded the Prescott’s whose deafness meant that we could hear their arguments and Lawrence Welk from two blocks away.  But I digress.  As I have begun my own evolution into the ranks of older people I’ve discovered something about the treasured value of silence.

There comes a time in every day when the sounds of radio, television, stereo or even human babbling do not provide entertainment, information or companionship but just noise.  In the summer time quiet of our house, with all the windows open, the sounds of birds, breezes in the trees, scolding squirrels, falling rain and the ebb and flow of the neighborhood become spiritual gifts of life and delight.  My mind becomes full of thoughts, both old and new, and the remembered presence of friends and loved ones with whom conversation has not yet ended though time, distance and even death have done their best to separate us.  What to my grandchildren and godchildren might seem like unbearably boring silence is to me filled with sounds, voices and images of resonant richness.

Wednesday, July 2, 2008

How to Win Friends and Influence People

A few years ago our annual clergy conference was devoted to the theme of clergy wellness.  For several days we heard from experts and talked in our small groups about clergy wellness.  Almost all of it centered on spiritual and psychological practices intended to prevent burnout while strengthening our spiritual competencies as priests and pastors.  I offered up a comment on the last day during the wrap up session that got me into a lot of hot water then, and is still remembered by those whom I offended. 

I certainly don’t remember exactly what I said, but in general it had to do with the observation that we, as “embodied souls,” had only to look around the room to see that we had ignored an important element of clergy wellness, and that was physical well being.  As important as spiritual and emotional well being is, so is physical well being, and maybe we ought to spend a little time on that as well.

I might as well have shouted out “the seven words you can’t say on television” while tossing hand grenades into the group.

One offended colleague shouted that she already had enough to feel guilty about so what right did I have to add that to her burdens, and I think she spoke for many others.

I’m not exactly the paragon of physical fitness.  I hate exercising at the gym and more or less force myself to go a couple of times a week because if I don’t the pain in muscles damaged by accidents and surgery would be excruciating.  It’s my loving spouse who keeps us both on a diet high in vegetables, low in fatty meats and almost no high calorie low nutrition things like sweet rolls.  I have, however, been known to sneak over to the 7-11 for a Hostess Cupcake on occasion. 

The point is, we cannot achieve wellness in any sense if we don’t take on the task as a comprehensive whole.  A life of prayer, spiritual direction and psychological therapy does not add up to clergy wellness if it is practiced in the context of daily habits that destroy the body through muscular atrophy and caloric poisoning.

What brought all this to mind was a meeting held yesterday where I was reminded of that day.  Apparently the spear struck deep and stayed there.  Sometimes I feel like Jeremiah, but without his virtues.

 

Tuesday, July 1, 2008

July 1

Today is Canada Day.  I wonder how many Americans know that.  At least those of us in the northern tier should, especially if we tune into "As It Happens" from time-to-time.  I learned to lustily sing O Canada before the start of more than a few games in my younger days back in Minnesota.  It wasn't until I moved away that I learned the last stanza was not "Let's Play Hockey!"