Saturday, February 28, 2009
Thursday, February 26, 2009
Wednesday, February 25, 2009
No doubt like you, I have a couple of friends who insist on forwarding all kinds stuff they think are cute or humorous. I got one this morning including a citation from Peanuts saying something like, “If it’s raining, learn to dance in the rain.” Yesterday and today have been like that with storming seas, high gusty winds and occasional fits of sunshine. It has not stopped our morning walks along a rocky trail above cliffs being pounded by the North Pacific. It’s not the same as similar trails on, say, the Oregon coast. The same waves with the same violence crash high on the rocks and sometimes overwhelm the land behind, but there is a certain comfort in knowing that an entire continent is backing you up. Here there is a certain awesome wonder that a small group of islands over two thousand miles from any continent can exist at all.
Ordinarily that would give me fodder for an Ash Wednesday meditation, but this morning I got an e-mail from a friend who spent yesterday in Honolulu waiting with his partner to testify in favor of pending civil union legislation. He wrote that he has never experienced such blatant hatred, abuse and physical assault (requiring police intervention) from anyone, much less the crowd of rabidly anti-gay protesters. These protesters were not the nut gang from Topeka. They were so-called Christians from local churches whose presence and behavior had been well organized by their pastors.
As I prepare to attend Ash Wednesday services this evening I will have my own struggle with some of the prayers such as these in our Litany of Penitence:
“Accept our repentance, Lord, for the wrongs we have done; for our blindness to human need and suffering, and our indifference to injustice and cruelty.”
“Accept our repentance, Lord, for all false judgments, for uncharitable thoughts toward our neighbors, and for our prejudice and contempt toward those who differ from us.”
I will be deeply conflicted as I approach the altar rail to receive my ashes. I will be filled with the anger of Peter, the doubts of Thomas and the confusion of Nicodemus, but I will go nevertheless in the sure and certain hope that in whatever state I approach him, Christ will be there to calm me, guide my hand to touch him and reveal to me yet more about what is true and good. Maybe I will learn something about dancing in the rain.
Sunday, February 22, 2009
So, we have the dividing of the waters with Moses, Joshua, Elijah and Elisha. That dividing is always God’s work, but completed through human hands. For Moses and Joshua it was a part of taking a people out of slavery into their time of formation, and out of that time into the promised land. For Elijah and Elisha it was about a more individual encounter with God. For one, his time of departure from this world to another. For the other, his time of transformation from a man servant to a God servant. I wonder what you make of these water crossing events? What metaphorical meaning might they have for the momentous transitions in your own life where the waters parted and you were able to cross to another place on dry ground?
What if we add the water crossing events recorded in the gospel accounts? In them there was no parting of the waters, but the presence of the Christ who had authority over the waters, indeed, who could transform their threatening chaos into a blessed calm and bring all who were with him to the place where they were going. How much is that like the Spirit of God wafting over the waters of creation? Maybe there are times when all we can do is yell out, “Hey God, can’t you see what’s happening here; my boat’s about to sink.” Maybe there are times when we even dare to climb out and take a step or two on the water before being pulled to safety by God’s outstretched hand.
Tell me more about water crossing events.
Morning Prayer today began with a reading from Deuteronomy 6 that included these words: “Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God is one Lord…And you shall write them on the doorposts of your house and on your gates.” These are the words of the sh'ma that are written on a small scroll enclosed in a mezuzah to be attached to the doorframe of a home. What a wonderful way to be reminded in our coming and in our going that we are to love God with all our being, that it should be a part of our conversation whether at home or away, and that our particular household is intentionally cognizant of that. Observant Jews always do that. Maybe we Christians should take up the practice as well.
During my years at St. Paul’s I had one class of Cub Scouts whose parents wanted their boys to get the Cub Scout version of the God and Country badge. I worked with one of the parents who organized craft projects for the boys that were connected to each of the lessons. One of those projects was to make homemade mezuzahs out of empty prescription bottles and fill them with hand written strips of paper that included the sh'ma according to each boy’s own interpretation of it. Most took theirs home, but one boy’s parents objected for whatever reason. I taped his prescription bottle mezuzah to the doorframe of my office, and there it stayed for the duration.
It was a constant, and often much needed, reminder of who I am and where I was, and what that was supposed to mean for the way I behaved. The allegorical meaning of that little scrap of paper in a prescription bottle was not lost. Now and then I was tempted to add a label: No. of refills: unlimited. I miss that little bottle. Maybe I should add a mezuzah to the doorframe of our house. Maybe you should too.
Saturday, February 21, 2009
The local paper on Maui published an op. ed. piece by a local developer a few days ago. His basic argument was that local planning and zoning laws interfered with the organic development of communities that they enjoyed in the old days, which was the very thing that gave older towns so much character. The natural operation of a “free market” is what makes that character building organic development possible. Free markets make good decisions. At least that's the way I read it.
It probably comes as no surprise that the residents of one of those older towns opposed his plans for developing a huge mixed use project on top of them. What amused me by his letter was his supremely self-confident abundance of ignorance about urban development and planning, and his faith in the “free market.”
It doesn’t take much study to discover that most old communities, both here and on the mainland, did not develop spontaneously with some unstated collective sense of place. They were settled by people, or chartered companies, that had definite plans for what would go where. The Europeans who flooded across North America were seldom without a well thought out plan for what their communities should look like. Where do you think all those town squares came from?
Europeans brought that same thinking to Hawaii, but found themselves confronted by even more well thought out urban and rural plans already in place. The kings and ruling elite of Hawaii had at least one thing down pat, and that was land use planning.
Modern urban planning simply codified what preceded it in ways that could more effectively accommodate changing conditions, including problems of developer greed that didn’t really care very much what was good for the greater community, and often caused almost irreparable harm to people and property. My guess is that the driving force behind the need to codify land use planning was the downside of the industrial revolution combined with the unrestrained growth of private enterprise based industrial/commercial development. I think we can see some of the same thing happening right now in places like China. In any case, our own treasured, and truly worthy, system of private enterprise has become enshrined as a “free market” that must somehow be embedded in the Constitution somewhere. But it’s become a bit idolatrous, and any criticism of it is too often rebutted by shouts of “communist,” “socialist,” or at least “radical left-winger nut.” It tends to shut off reasonable debate.
The problem is that it is a very misleading myth. The myth that a free market can somehow make sound land use decisions makes two egregious errors. The first is that there is a free market. There isn’t. All markets are defined and regulated, at least in some sense, by government policy. That definition and regulation may give extraordinary privileges to developers, but those privileges come from government policy just the same. The second is the personification of that non-existent free market as a decision maker. The market is not a person and does not make decisions.
There is a second myth that is very strong in America, and that is the idea that “a man’s house is his castle” and that he, or she, can do whatever they want with it. Our ownership of property, and the rights that go with it, have limitations. We live in community and whatever we do with our property affects our neighbors. Likewise, whatever they do with theirs affects us. So communities need to come to some sort of agreement about the way they are going to live with one another. Moreover, we are never really the absolute owners of any property. We are merely the temporary stewards of it. Someone else owned it before we did, and someone else will own it after us. Regardless of whatever deed or paid off mortgage we may have, we have a greater responsibility to recognize our short time of possession as one of stewardship, and that means being responsible to the community and to those who will come after for how we exercise our stewardship.
I’m sure that the developer who wrote the op. ed. piece already knows all of this and was simply a bit careless in what he wrote.
Wednesday, February 18, 2009
The gospel reading for Morning Prayer yesterday was that little passage from Mark 11 where Jesus cursed a fig tree that had no figs, even though it was not the season for figs. His disciples passed the tree later in the day and saw that it had withered and died, and, being a bit curious asked Jesus about it. I’ve wondered about that episode. It seems so out of character for Jesus. The tree was just being a tree. Figs were not in season. Why would Jesus curse it to death in what looks like a rather childish fit of pique?
I’m not sure why it has taken me so long to notice, but instead of explaining the fig tree to his disciples, Jesus talked more about the nature of prayer and it’s power, and Mark ended the passage with these words: “And whenever you stand praying, forgive, if you have anything against any one; so that your Father also who is in heaven may forgive you your trespasses.” (RSV) Consider that the innocent fig tree was an object lesson pointing to our thoughts, words and even prayers that condemn and damn rather than forgive and bless.
How often have we heard, or perhaps said, words of damnation in God’s holy name? How often have our thoughts of getting even, taking vengeance, taken on the form of prayer? Do we think they just bounce off the ionosphere and fall back as harmless syllables? It’s not that I think God hears our prayers of damnation or vengeance and gives us our desire. Not at all. But those thoughts and words do have the power to kill, if not our intended victim then us, slowly at first, but like a cancerous parasite deep inside, killing bit by bit until there is nothing left.
Late in the afternoon I was on the beach near a man who brought the whole thing home. He was on the phone and cursing whoever was on the other end with his heartfelt enraged desire that they be goddamned. His grandchildren and adult kids showed up after a while, and his behavior toward them became a combination of affection, overly harsh kidding, and bursts of cursing. Now it may be that he was rightfully anxious about some difficulty in his life, but I wonder if a lifetime of curses has effectively killed whatever budding figs may have been growing on his tree. As the psalmist said, “He put on cursing like garment, let it soak into his body like water, and into his bones like oil.” (The psalmist was on pretty thin ice himself, don’t you think?)
I don’t think that’s an extreme example. Think about it; it’s a fairly common one. But how often do we do the same, maybe not just that way, maybe in smaller thoughts and words that still mean the same? Maybe that’s why Jesus said that we should pray that we be forgiven our sins as we forgive those who sin against us. Maybe that’s why Jesus was so insistent that we learn to love our enemies, that we bless and not curse. This is not about bad language; it’s about the power of evil that lies within that language just as much as the power of God’s love lies within the language of forgiveness and blessing.
Monday, February 16, 2009
Sunday, February 15, 2009
Friday, February 13, 2009
There are such things as thin places, especially in the ethos of those of us who have been fed by some of the traditions and prayers of Celtic Christianity as it has come to us through some parts of the Anglican tradition. Those ancient thin places tended to be associated with rocks, or groves of trees, or certain springs that had some connection with the pagan gods of former times. So a rational and perhaps cynical mind might wonder if they are more the stuff of fairy tales and maybe even a bit heretical for a believing Christian. I wouldn’t know about that, I only know about my own thin places, and they have nothing to do with Ireland, Scotland or Wales. They do have to do with places filled with the memories and holy places of pagan gods.
Right now we are on our annual vacation in Hawaii. We’ve been coming to one or more of the islands once, or even twice, a year for twenty-five years. But my own first time was in 1968 on, of all things, a business trip. Like most first time visitors, I was mesmerized by the aroma of the breezes and beauty of the land and sea, but there was something more. It was the inexplicable feeling that my heart and soul had come to their place of physical, emotional and spiritual refreshment and renewal. In all the years that have passed, that sense has never waned but only grown stronger. There is something compelling in the history, culture, myths, land and sea that meld synergistically into moment after moment of thin places for me.
That’s not to say that we have not experienced more than a few really bad worship services in places where God was proclaimed but the Spirit was most definitely absent, or that we have not been caught up in all the touristy things that other tourists get caught up in. After all, in the end we are only tourists. Moreover, one ought not to romanticize Hawaii too much. There is a deep sadness and much tragedy in the history of these islands, not the least of which was the coup d’etat of 1898 when the rightful monarch was overthrown by business interests who then engineered a transfer of the kingdom to the U.S.
All of that is beside the point. There is just a lot of “mana” around, some good and some bad, but the power and presence of God’s benevolent love overwhelms them all. Gentle breezes, fierce winds, glass smooth seas and raging storms, blustering volcanoes, barren desserts, soggy rain forests, beaches, mountains, warm and cold all live in tension filled harmony. They all combine to embrace me with a sense of the totality of God's creation.
Some have asked why we don’t move here. I don’t think that would work. I don’t think you can live in your place of refreshment. It needs to be a place you visit. At least that’s the way I see it.
Tuesday, February 10, 2009
I know there is a lot of consternation over the bloated salaries and golden parachutes on Wall Street and in some of the largest corporations. Why, we wonder, would incompetent failures be so handsomely rewarded for screwing up so badly? I don’t know why either, but my observation over the years is that a similar psychology is at work in congregations. A pastor who has served his or her congregation faithfully and well is most likely to get a potluck supper and a few best wishes cards upon departure. On the other hand, a pastor who has really messed things up and done a rotten job is likely to receive as much as the local congregation can possibly scrape together to get rid of him or her.
Now, that’s not true in every denomination. I never have figure out what logic inspires Methodist bishops to move people around the way they do, but I suspect there is something of a reward/punishment equation at work. Catholic bishops can do the same but are usually advised by a committee of senior clerics who take care to maintain the equilibrium as best they can. Until recently, they just shipped miscreants to some other diocese. And the revolving doors at many Congregational and Baptist churches simply baffle me.
Perhaps we Episcopalians do have the best way after all, no matter how messy it is. A rector cannot be called without a long involved process requiring the approval of dozens of committees, the bishop and God. It’s not all that hard to skip the God part, but that almost always leads to disaster. Moreover, the congregation cannot fire a rector. Only the bishop can do that. They can, however, make his or her life quite miserable and that usually does the trick. More often than not, it’s like a marriage. Since divorce is so unpleasant, it’s better to learn how to get along with each other in growing love for each other.
But I digress. The point is that there is something weird in our national psyche that will not or cannot connect performance with compensation in a rational way, and that’s most obvious when we over-pay goofy executives with big egos and little talent while being penurious about the rank and file who actually do the work. Doesn’t anybody ever read Amos or the Sermon on the Mount, or how about the entire letter to the Ephesians?
Oh, who cares! I’m retired. I’m on Maui on vacation. Let’em eat cake, or drink martinis, or whatever. By the way, it’s pretty evident over here that the big spenders are a lot fewer than in years past, and I think this is the first year that I have not seen a herd of private jets at the airport. And yes, we do come here often, and are very grateful for the ability to do so. I’d much rather write about the magnificence of whales and turtles, of ancient lava walls and wahi pana, and of whether the monarchy might ever be restored in a way that could recognize all “citizens of Hawaii” and not just the kanaka maoli. Seems unlikely doesn’t it? After all, we stole the place fair and square. But I digress again. Besides, I’m just another tourist.
Saturday, February 7, 2009
Friday, February 6, 2009
I am simply stunned by the behavior of the congressional Republicans who spent eight years blithely tolerating nominees for high office who cavalierly evaded pertinent questions about whether they would actually uphold the Constitution. They are the same congressional leaders who endorsed a cozy relationship between themselves and big wealth, corporate socialism and ranks upon ranks of lobbyists; who felt it perfectly appropriate to salt every regulatory commission with the very people that were supposed to be regulated. They seemed untroubled that the administrations under which they served set all time records for felony convictions of high government officials. They seemed unconcerned that our most recent president took unto himself the assumed powers of a near king with divine rights. They are the same leaders who presided over the astronomical explosion of the national debt to amounts that no longer make any sense to my limited math abilities, and happily authorized out of sight deficit spending for just about anything except that which would help rebuild America. They are the same leaders who refused any hint of bipartisan rapport with the minority at any time under any circumstance.
Now, over night, they have become the ethically pure minded minority, screaming bloody murder over every venal sin they can uncover, demanding limits to anything that might look like investment in America’s future (unless it involves tax cuts for corporations and the wealthy), and complaining that the current president’s unending conversations with them about needed economic legislation adds up to being ignored. All of a sudden deficits and debt matter, and yet they have no conception of what public investment actually means. They show every intention of sabotaging a stimulus package that might actually do something to help rebuild the basics of our economy and put in its place a namby-pamby piece of legislative sop so that at the next election they can wring their hands and say they tried.
Once I was a Republican. Yes, it’s true, and proud to be one. But if this party has any soul left at all it lies somewhere between the unredeemed Ebenezer Scrooge and Uriah Heep. And the worst part? The majority of them claim to follow Christ.
Thursday, February 5, 2009
In the years before seminary and ordination, I worked in mid-town Manhattan and Dianna worked a little farther up-town. One thing you learn from walking through Grand Central Station at rush hour and then to or from your office building is that the crowd is as intent as possible not to make any eye-contact or acknowledge the presence of another, even if that other is so close you can tell what brand of toothpaste they used (or didn’t). The same is true during the lunch crunch at the local deli. So we created a little contest between us.
How many people could we get to make eye-contact, smile and say something like “good morning.”
If you walk down the street deliberately trying to look into each person’s face and offering a big smile the reaction is likely to be unpleasant. Either you are a country bumpkin tourist who knows nothing about New York, or you are one of the local psychos dressed up in business attire.
It turned out that the trick was to summon up the image of yourself with a look of inviting kindness and then take it on. Making eye-contact had to be a natural thing appropriate to the moment, the sort of moment two friends might share. A gentle smile and briefly muttered greeting might be added, and the result was often an opening to that instant when the door of anticipatory welcome was opened and the other felt both safe and welcomed to respond with a smile and a word. A friend said that it sounded like turning on a light in a dark corner, but if that’s true it would be more of a nightlight, a gentle, warm, reassuring, and not too bright a light.
One thing we learned is that you cannot fake it. It has to be genuine. One way we worked on that was to imagine ourselves as filled with the light of Christ and allowing some of it to spill out onto the sidewalk around us. That imagining took on the form of something like an incoherent prayer that brought forth at least some of the real light of Christ. I cannot speak for Dianna, but that, in itself, often, but not always, transformed me from the early morning grump who had just battled his way out of the hordes of Grand Central into a person who actually approximated that which I desired to present as a part of our contest.
So, how did we do? Three or four “wins” in a day was a pretty good score.
We don’t keep score anymore, and it’s become something of a personal habit. Except for diocesan meetings where I can easily revert to New York style grump.
What on earth does this have to do with my post on prevenient grace? If we are the “body of Christ” then it is essential for each of us to take on as much as we are able of that aura of Christ that warmly and safely invites those who are anxiously seeking anticipatory welcome in the face of feared rejection. Maybe playing a silly game like the one we had back then is one way of learning how to do that, and in the process finding ourselves being changed from the inside out.
Wednesday, February 4, 2009
I’ve been talking with a friend about my own modified understanding of prevenient grace, which, in the gospel stories, is depicted by what might be called the magnetism people felt in Jesus' presence. There was something in his demeanor and “body language” that attracted people in a way that was rare if not unique. But more than mere attraction, there was also something that encouraged those in great need to anticipate, perhaps with fear and trembling, his welcome, so that they were emboldened to present themselves and their need under circumstances that would have otherwise sent them farther into exile or even death. Consider the woman who had been bleeding for years, the woman who was a well known sinner in the city, the ten lepers, the centurion whose slave was ill, the synagogue leader with a sick daughter, the widow of Nain, or the many others who were deaf, blind or lame.
Each of them was either caught in or dared to come into social situations in which they were not welcome and possibly subject to physical harm, and yet they had the anxious courage to present themselves to Jesus in expectation of welcome, love and maybe healing.
That sort of welcoming magnetism is, I think, strong but not compelling. There is plenty of room for free will to work. Perhaps not everyone can feel that magnetism, but I’m convinced that those who do are not compelled to be drawn in. Rather they experience the drawing power of God’s loving welcome that invites them to approach yet permits the free exercise of their own will to accept or decline.
Now the question is, what is the source of that welcoming magnetism in our day? It’s facile to say that it’s the work of the Holy Spirit and let it go at that. There has to be some material manifestation, and that has to come from you and me. We have to be the physical agents of that power, and I think, that for the most part, we are really lousy at dong that. That, more than anything else, is what I think is meant when we pray that we be sent out to do the work that God has given us to do.
I might add some more later on if there is any interest in this by way of telling about a little game we used to play on the streets of New York before I was ordained.