Saturday, October 31, 2009

Saints Galore

I’ve got a little paperback book, “Saints Galore” – can’t put my finger on it right now so I can’t tell you who wrote it – but it offers something of an offbeat slightly irreverent look at saints. That’s not a bad idea for an age, ours, in which saints have been made into rigid stained glass figures of improbable holiness or demoted to everyone without distinction.

Most Protestants will emphasize Paul’s assertion that all who are baptized into the Christian faith are saints, at least in a generic sense. What we need to do is move from the generic to the particular. One duty of a pastor is to participate in guiding the formation of his or her flock toward a more particular sainthood, but that too often is turned into a pursuit of sentimentalized and saccharine goodness challenging reality.

Many Catholics simply cannot get around the idea that unless the pope canonizes there is no saint, and so saints become so particular and so remote that they enter a realm of otherness not open to ordinary human beings.

I wonder if we can accommodate two ideas at once. First, that each of us is called to sainthood, which can better be understood as a process of learning how to become a follower of Jesus Christ rather than one who simply accepts him as her or his savior. Second, that there are among us certain persons, flawed persons, whose lives and words have exemplified what it means to become a follower. They are worthy of being remembered, and honored in special ways because they are our elders in the faith and have helped make the path more clear for us.

Two of many examples come to mind right now. My dad was one such person for me. His politics were way too conservative for me, and some of his social attitudes and practices were straight out of the ‘30s and ‘40s. How could it be different? Those were the decades of his growth to the fullness of adulthood. But he was also a man of strong faith, committed to live in the community of the Church, and he struggled throughout his life to better understand what the bible was trying to teach him. It was a fine legacy to leave to his children and grandchildren. In a different way, so were the monks of the Anglican Benedictine Order of the Holy Cross who, though I doubt they would know it, taught me enough of the Benedictine way to have formed the way I have approached my preaching and teaching, and my own spiritual disciplines. These then are saints, and we are called to become bearers of their legacies in the name of Jesus Christ for the generations yet to follow.

Where do you find saints?

Friday, October 30, 2009

College Education For What?

Hilda Solis, Secretary of Labor, was interviewed on NPR yesterday. Among other things, she promoted the value of education as a way toward a higher standard of material well being, pointing out that she was the first in her family to go to college. She was challenged by a caller who complained that the only thing her college degree produced was a heavy loan she could not repay because she couldn’t find a job. What good is a college education if it can’t produce a well paying job, or any job at all?

That’s a pretty good question, and I’ll add one more; Is that what a college education is supposed to do?

We talked about that during the years that I had weekly meetings with a few students at one of our local liberal arts colleges. My counsel was that they were there to learn to become educated persons and not to get a job ticket. Our conversations about what it might mean to learn to become an educated person turned on acquiring the basics for life-long learning and the ability to think critically on the grounds that a democratic society cannot long exist without a critical mass of educated citizens.

That smacks of bit of elitism, and my politically liberal students would bring that up as an objection. Well, it is elitist. These students were of the elite. They were very smart: the few out of many selected to go to a college not all that easy to get into. Their curriculum was very challenging. They were receiving an education that relatively few others would ever attain. It does no one a favor to pretend otherwise. The more important question had to do with what might that mean for their future role in society.

None of that would guarantee a job of any kind. If getting a job ticket was a goal it would have to come through some other kind of technical training either in graduate school or a local community college. Most went on to graduate school somewhere and I lost track of them. A few went to local community colleges to become chefs, mechanics, machinists and so on. More than a few spent the next year or two working for AmeriCorps. Now and then I run into some working locally as secretaries, waiters and retail clerks. In every case they are educated persons able to take up the role of informed citizen. Perhaps they will.

Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Big Bad Boeing, and the union too

The big news in Washington today was the Boeing announcement that they would move the second 787 production line to South Carolina, a state well known for its high standards of political ethics and concern for labor. What is wonderful news for South Carolina is devastating news for Washington. Several thoughts come to mind.

One is that more than a few parochial opinionators in eastern Washington will smugly celebrate the comeuppance of those rich liberals on the other side of the mountains. I’m always a little surprised over their lack of awareness of how economically interconnected we all are.

Another is about corporate arrogance that operates with little or no sense of moral responsibility toward the communities in which they operate or the least concern for what their leaving will do to the social fabric of the place. Boeing, by the way, is not leaving – yet. Overpaid CEOs feel free to move corporate headquarters to locations close their homes or some other place that massages their egos. Corporate location managers feel free to move plants around based on deals for tax and labor cost breaks they know full well will never produce dividends for local jurisdictions, but they are such an easy sell to na├»ve local politicians. They remind me of the evil railroad and land barons in the old time westerns. You remember; the ones that were always grabbing the settlers’ land in underhanded ways.

Finally, and this may come to a surprise to some of my readers who know I tend to be pro-union; intransigent, pugilistic unions, such as the Machinists in Washington, would rather fight than get serious about negotiating. The climate for economic well being is poisoned whenever a union insists on presenting management as the bad guys while ignoring their own over the top demands.

OK, I think I’ve offended just about everyone. Now it’s time to sit back and see what fish the lure attracts.

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

The Flicker Returns!

The Flicker is back. Aarggggh! I am prevented by the law, popular opinion, my place in the community, God and Dianna from buying an air rifle, so it's on to plan B. Rocks. For those who have followed the flicker saga you know that this spring we repaired the holes, cleaned out the nest and took away any place where it could perch to peck. Ha! It's clinging to a chimney brick and taking pecking shots at the siding. Bolder than ever, it just sits there staring at me when I come out to yell at it. However, I've got pretty good with a small supply of pebbles and a decent right arm. Haven't actually hit it yet, but come close enough to make it fly off to a tree in another yard where it waits for me to go back inside. I'm trying to train the dogs to go out and bark at it but they seem disinterested. Unless it's a squirrel, Riley could care less. Andy only barks at imaginary ax murderers and Riley. I'm sure there is a theological lesson in here somewhere that explains All Saints Sunday and the doctrine of transubstantiation, but I haven't found it yet.

Monday, October 26, 2009

My Magnolia

Around here the tree outside my study window is called a magnolia. I doubt that any southerner would recognize it as such, but that’s beside the point. In the early spring it is covered with beautiful, large pink flowers that quickly come and go. By late spring it has leafed out with such enormous overlapping leaves that it forms an impenetrable canopy letting through mere dapples of sunlight and sheltering the birdhouse from wind and midday heat. I love having that tree outside my window. It frames the garden below, which, because of its shade, needs little watering and is always lushly green. All summer long the sparrows in the birdhouse produce nest after nest of little birdlettes. A lone resident squirrel patrols the perimeter with one eye watching for Riley the Westie and another for encroaching squirrels from foreign lands on the other side of the house. In autumn its leaves never turn color; they just slowly fall, one-by-one, until the whole is denuded. The last of them can sometimes hang on until December. Not so this year. The wind came up last night and roared through the day encouraged by heavy afternoon rains. By evening the tree was all but bare. I know it’s all part of the great ebb and flow of nature’s self renewing cycle. Spring will come again. But just the same it makes me a bit sad.

Friday, October 23, 2009

Getting Jesus Back Where He Belongs

An acquaintance of mine has a habit of forwarding sentimental postings, often with a religious theme. She sent one a few days ago with a cute little set up leading to the punch line: “When we get Jesus back where he belongs, our country will come together.” Now how would you interpret that?

One thing is clear; the original writer believes that Jesus is not where he belongs, at least in our country. I wonder where he is, and if he was where he belonged, where would he be? Another thing is clear; it is our responsibility to get him back where he belongs, wherever that is. I wonder how we are supposed to exercise that responsibility?

I suspect that the original writer of that little ditty was headed in a direction I would prefer not to go. Of course I don’t really know that, it’s just a suspicion. So, giving him/her the benefit of the doubt, I’ll offer my own interpretation.

If the Christians in this country would act more like Christians by following in the way of Christ, this would indeed be a better country, albeit not altogether together.

Thursday, October 22, 2009

Progress of Sorts

It's hard to think of this as progress, but it is:


UGANDA: Bishop supports jail for homosexuals, opposes death

By Fredrick Nzwili

[Ecumenical News International, Nairobi] An Anglican church leader in
Uganda has rejected proposals that homosexuals should face the death
penalty for sexual assault in some cases, but says that prison terms
should remain as a deterrent.

Boundary Questions

Breaking down boundaries that separate us one from another is an important teaching of Jesus and an essential ministry of the Church. But it’s a very complicated matter, or perhaps I should say that we have made it a complicated matter. And I think that our complications come in two primary forms.

On the one hand, we build up boundaries that separate us from unbelievers and believers who have not yet attained the truth and wisdom that we have attained. We are very proud of these boundary fences. Fence building is something we do best. Robert Frost wrote “Something there is that doesn’t love a wall.” We are not among that ‘something’; we love those fences. The more the better. Of course that is not what we preach, but it is what we tend to practice with considerable skill.

On the other hand, we tend to fumble quite a bit when it comes to setting appropriate boundaries. The recent exposure of Roman Catholic sexual abuses is simply the most public face of abuse and betrayal issues that have infected a multitude of congregations and denominations in many ways throughout the world. We are obsessed with skin color, ethnicity, race and sexual identity. We have tolerated the oppression of women and children. We have salivated over the sexualization of contemporary American lifestyles that dehumanize women and men as mere objects of desire.

There are appropriate boundaries that protect the integrity of human relationships. But what those proper boundaries are and how to teach them has been an elusive target. Appropriate boundaries between parents and children, teachers and students, husbands and wives, bosses and subordinates are important but indistinct. We tend to deal with them on a case-by-case basis because we don’t have an adequate shared set of standards generally acceptable to society as a whole. Zero tolerance policies have been tried and found wanting. They don’t stop predators, but they do stop appropriate expressions of Christ like love for one another, and everyone is left more confused than ever.

However, we are not without trustworthy guidance. God has actually had quite a lot to say about these matters. For instance, I’m inclined to think that the last half of the Ten Commandments points us in the right direction. I suggest that they might be read this way:

  • Our relationships with one another are to honor the legacy of repenting, reforming faith bequeathed to us by the generations that preceded us.
  • We have no right to kill, whether through word or deed, any part of another person whether in body, mind or spirit.
  • We have no right to introduce any word or matter into the life of another that jeopardizes that life’s integrity and wholeness.
  • We have no right to appropriate to our use, whether by word or deed, anything that is not ours to appropriate.
  • We have an obligation to respect the privacy of others and to refrain from bearing unsubstantiated or hurtful tales.
  • We have no right to become angry or envious of another’s good fortune, or to assume a right to our own good fortune at the expense of another.
Or, to paraphrase scripture even more: Love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, mind and might; love your neighbor as yourself; quit making it harder than it is and get on with life.

What do you think?

Sunday, October 18, 2009

Thoughts on Diocesan Conventions

I have mixed feelings about diocesan conventions. We just got home from one, and, on the whole, it was a wonderful weekend. By weekend I mean a convention that begins early on Friday afternoon, continues all day Saturday, has a gala banquet Saturday evening, and ends with yet another general session on Sunday morning followed by the Holy Eucharist and final adjournment about Noon or a bit later. Our custom is to alternate sites between the cathedral in Spokane and some other community in the diocese. This weekend we met in Lewiston, Idaho, and the parishes of the region did a terrific job of making arrangements and offering hospitality. I love the fellowship and worship, but I’m less enthusiastic about the formality of our processes. I very much enjoy reconnecting with clergy and lay leaders all across the diocese, renewing old friendships and making new ones. As a high index introvert, there are limits to how much mingling appeals to me. As much as possible I prefer quiet conversations in small groups, but I’ve learned the skills needed to survive in large venues. However, I wonder if a small, rural diocese such as ours needs all the formality of our processes that include chairs of dispatch and credentials making their frequent but generally unnecessary reports. I wonder if we need to set aside hours for proper Robert’s Rules organizing when we get it all done in forty-five minutes and then sit around for an hour or so wondering what to do until the next scheduled session. I suppose it would be different if we had thousands of delegates and many controversial issues to debate. We have neither. As it is, when one counts all the clergy, lay delegates, spouses, visitors and staff there might be two or three-hundred of us – maybe. As a practical matter, we could get all our business done in a single day with a lot of time left over. As a matter of fellowship and worship, we need more time to gather in community. Maybe we should give up on credentials and dispatch and spend more time in community. It’s a curious problem.

Thursday, October 15, 2009

The Curmudgeon Opines on Television News

While on our recent trip we got most of whatever news we got from the international channels of CNN and BBC. They offered what might be called boring but important programming. Non-US, and often non-British, personalities offered in-depth reporting on important goings on around the world in social, political and economic arenas from the point of view of the nations being covered. I was made more aware of how different that is from domestic US television news when we got home and clicked on our favorite news channels. With a few exceptions, social, political and economic news seemed to have merit only if tainted by scandal, outrageous behavior or purported conspiracies. Tabloid quality reporting pivoting on ad hominem attacks presented itself as courageous journalism. Mundane banality about celebrities coupled with trivial drivel about local ‘news’ of human interest filled in the gaps. Important events around the world got mention only if US should pay attention for economic or security reasons, and then only from a US point of view, which, depending on the reporter, could sound rather smug. That, of course, does not rule out the possibility that we might get a peek at naked girls at one of Berlusconi’s parties.

I’m sympathetic. The international channels of CNN and BBC would probably have an audience of a few hundred if aired domestically. I doubt that there is much advertising value in their product. As one of my old ‘run it up the flagpole’ acquaintances would have said, “we don’t sell steak, we sell sizzle.”

I’m sure that it will all rub off in a few weeks and I’ll be back to my usual junky news junky habits. I’ll be entertained by the humorous oddity of Maldivian ministers having a cabinet meeting underwater while continuing in disinterested obliviousness to the issue of global climate change that is subsuming their country. I mean, if they go under we’ve always got the Seychelles.

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

If it Floats

If it floats I like being on it. I don’t know why. I knew it the first time I paddled a cement-mixing tub on the creek where I grew up. Anything will do. I don’t care if it’s a rowboat or an ocean liner. I had a boat of some kind from the time I was in high school until my late 30s when I moved to the east coast and it was too expensive to own one. The best thing about NYC was an occasional ride on the Staten Island Ferry. Visiting Seattle or heading off to Vancouver, BC is most fulfilling when celebrated on a ferryboat. That may have something to do with why I enjoyed our recent cruise as much as I did. The sounds and movement of the ship rejoiced my whole being. Maybe it helps that I never served in the Navy. My dad did, and it took him close to fifty years to decide on a cruise. It helped that the liner was not a destroyer and the likelihood of being attacked was slight, but it brought back memories just the same. As it turned out, he and mom went on to other cruises and enjoyed every one of them. As for me, if we ever live close enough to the water again I’d like to have a little sailboat, maybe around 19ft., just to go out and mess around in the late afternoon on a summer day. In the meantime it’s ferryboats and cruise liners.

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

It is not true

The anti-racism training I attended last week did not live up to my expectations, and I offered my editorial opinion about that in my previous post. However, our times of prayer and meditation were filled with spiritual meaning, and I was most appreciative of a litany taken, as I understand it, from The Iona Book of Worship (Wild Goose Publications). I think it’s worth sharing:

It is not true that this world and its inhabitants are doomed to die and be lost;

This is true: For God so love the world that he gave in only son to that everyone who believes in him shall not die but have everlasting life.

It is not true that we must accept inhumanity and discrimination, hunger and poverty, death and destruction;

This is true: I have come that they may have life, and have it abundantly.

It is not true that violence and hatred shall have the last word, and that war and destruction have come to stay forever;

This is true: For to us a child is born, to us a son is given in whom authority will rest and whose name will be prince of peace.

It is not true that we are simply victims of the powers of evil that seek to rule the world;

This is true: To me is given all authority in heaven and on earth, and lo, I am with you always to the end of the world.

It is not true that we have to wait for those who are specially gifted, who are the prophets of the church, before we can do anything;

This is true: I will pour out my Spirit on all people, and your sons and daughters shall prophesy, your young people shall see visions, and your old folk shall dream dreams.

It is not true that our dreams for the liberation of humankind, our dreams of justice, of human dignity, of peace, are not meant for this earth and this history;

This is true: The hour comes, and it is no, that the true worshippers shall worship God in spirit and in truth.

Monday, October 12, 2009

Anti-Racism Training

I attended an anti-racism workshop held at my former parish last Saturday. The curriculum was well structured, a very model for adult education. The instructor was a pro, well versed in the subject and obviously gifted in teaching adult groups. For all of that I found it stale and vaguely offensive. There was little about it that was different from similar workshops I’ve attended over the last twenty or thirty years. The working assumption of the curriculum was that we are all white, mostly male, and largely ignorant of the systemic racism built in to our beliefs, attitudes and behaviors. As it turned out, we were mostly white, female and, with a few exceptions, reasonably well informed. The usual gang attended. Those who, perhaps, should have been there, were not, as usual. What was once fresh and challenging now seemed more like rubbing one’s nose in one’s inherent racism as a congenital disease more rampant in Northern European white Americans than anyone else. The instructor ended with the nationally prescribed conclusion that to really do something about our racism we needed to get more black members to join our church.

It seemed a little silly considering the very few who live in our community. It conjured up an image of trolling for a dark skinned persons and dragging them in to sit with us in our rather traditional Episcopalian congregation so that we could congratulate ourselves on our fine catch. The words rude and arrogant came to mind.

On the other hand, our community is ethnically and economically diverse with a considerable amount of shared ignorance and prejudice spread among us.

Maybe I’ve been thrown off track by attending too many Eric Law workshops and reading too many of his books, but it does seem to me that, at least for us, the issue has more to do with the need to learn about, learn to respect and learn from the cultures, traditions and ways of living in community that are represented in the diversity of our valley. I also think that any congregation desiring to welcome that diversity into its midst must do so through the humility of radical hospitality. Radical hospitality is difficult because it means that power relationships within the group will be changed, and giving up the systems of power with which we have become comfortable is very threatening.

If my former congregation became a congregation of radical hospitality serving the neighborhood in Christ’s name, it would look a lot different. The church is surrounded on two sides by low income rental housing – some with younger, often non-traditional, families and some limited to the more mature in age. The younger families tend to be among the working poor. The more mature tend to be the retired working poor. Up and down the adjacent streets are the homes of the solid middle class and a few of the wealthy. If the congregation was radically welcoming it would be filled with people new to Christianity, new to Anglicanism, but rejoicing in ‘their church’ as a place that is truly theirs, and not a place where they were simply welcomed as visitors. They would not be big pledgers. They would take up residence in pews ‘reserved’ for old timers. They would assume a variety of leadership roles and do new things without the advise and consent of the patriarchs and matriarchs.

Would we be worshiping in Spanish? Probably not. Would there be dozens of dark skinned persons in the pews? Probably not. Would the elders of the congregation still be respected and have a voice? Yes. Would the current ranks of extremely well educated upper middle class members still have some important role in decision making? Yes.

Sunday, October 11, 2009

Moral World Leaership

Editorial comments abound on Obama and the Nobel Prize. The usual sneering from the right has been joined by disbelief from some of the more pacifist elements on the left. The president's own most gracious words of self deprecating acceptance seem to have been lost in the babble. My own take goes in another direction. We just returned from several weeks traveling about Italy, Greece and Turkey, quite luxuriously I might add. I tried to poke my nose into the news about local politics and world opinions in the places we visited, and we found ourselves in the company of other tourists mostly from England, Canada and Australia who had a lot to say from their perspectives. Apparently the sun still never sets on the British Empire if one thinks of it as a river of English speaking tourists flowing around the world. But I digress. The point is that in every place there was renewed confidence in the United States as a respected nation of moral world leadership - not of world dominance but of moral world leadership. Obama is for them the symbol of that restoration. Whether earned or unearned is irrelevant. Our nation had become despised as just another corrupt super power. All of that has changed in slightly less than a year. To be sure, public opinion is fickle and all could turn again in a moment, but I believe that it also indicates how important moral world leadership is.

Now, here is the question. Why is the Christian Church not a symbol of moral world leadership? Why is Christianity, as an ideal, not a symbol of moral world leadership? Do we have to wait generations for the occasional Mother Teresa or Bishop Tutu to arise as moral world leaders? Are such Christian saints that rare? Is the institutional church incapable of that sort of leadership?

It Was All Greek To Me

My biblical Greek is lousy, but I thought I might be able to navigate at least some of the signage in the places we visited in Greece. It turned out to be all but impossible. For one thing, the Greeks, just as we do, use a lot of very stylized lettering in a variety of fonts to lend artistic expression or advertising zip to words. Moreover, since we were in areas haunted by tourists, many signs were in Greek looking letters that actually spelled things out in a variety of European languages using the Roman alphabet: sigma might be an 's' sound on one sign and an 'e' sound on another. I gave up and just allowed myself to enjoy the chaotic beauty of it all.

Saturday, October 10, 2009

Don't Spoil Them

One day on our Mediterranean sojourn I overheard a woman (American) instruct her husband not to tip the room stewards too much: "You'll spoil them if you tip too much." My own thought was that these persons work very hard to make your life, and mine, easy and comfortable, so who is being spoiled here? That was not the norm for most of the Americans and Canadians we fell in with, but it symbolized an attitude that we have been warned about since the days of Amos, Isaiah and Jeremiah. It's the seductive notion that somehow "we" are a unique species better than "them." My former parish is sponsoring a workshop today called "Hidden in Plain Sight." It's about exploring how that seductive notion can be a part of our own thinking without our knowing it. I, of course, do not need to attend since I am clean of the prejudices that infect those who need to be there. What about you?

Thursday, October 8, 2009

The Center of All Existence

We’ve just returned from a trip that took us to Rome, Athens and Ephesus. I had some doubts about spending too little time in each place, but it turned out that “sampling” was a pretty good idea, especially if one goes to the table having read up on what will be there. I may offer some reflections on what we experienced a bit later, but what’s on my mind right now is the Daily Office. My habit of spending time with God in Morning Prayer and meditation gets a little wobbly when we travel, but I stick with it as best I can. What struck me so often on this trip was a portion of the prayers that petition God to “keep this nation under your care, and guide [it] in the way of justice and peace.” ‘This nation’ turned out to be Italy, Greece or Turkey, and that gave me pause to think about each of them in terms well removed from daily life on the American media farm.

It probably doesn’t matter where one lives, one’s worldview is likely to experience one’s own nation or tribe as the center about which all else revolves. I’m not sure there is any other way because the only way that any of us ever see at all is from the center that is our own being in the place where we are. The words of the Daily Office, offered up in fullness of heart and mind, did what they could to remind me that God’s worldview, if there is such a thing, centers all existence on him, and that his grace extends without particularity to all who would receive it.

I imagine that this could come as quite a shock to some of my acquaintances who are thoroughly convinced that God’s presence on this earth flows directly into the United States as God’s chosen distribution center for the rest of the world. I have no doubt that the same thought occurred to Martin Luther when he first visited the Vatican where every stone, statue and painting intended to show that it was there, and only there, that God’s grace flowed through to the rest of the world. London assumed that mantle for a few hundred years. Who knows, maybe Beijing will wear it next. In any case, it has always been a mantle of hubris that never lasted and always melted away, leaving little more than a statue to look at or ruin to visit.

The Daily Office goes on to offer a petition that God’s ways may be known upon the earth and God’s saving health be present among all nations. I don’t think God needs to be reminded of that. I think we need to be reminded of that, and reminded daily.