Friday, January 30, 2009
Wednesday, January 28, 2009
Republican congressional leaders are calling for substantial changes to the stimulus package. They want to put the emphasis on lower taxes and not on infrastructure spending, which they have conveniently labeled as pork. Minority leader Boehner alleged that lowering taxes to put a large amount of cash into the hands of consumers is the only tried and true fix. I don’t think he actually said ‘fix’ but that’s what it would be.
It is a tried and true method to fail under conditions such as the ones we have now, and I’m surprised he hasn’t figured that out. That kind of cash infusion would cause a spurt in consumer and small business spending of one sort or another that is not altogether different than a quick fix for an addict. A moment of euphoria, and then nothing but crash.
The kind of spending the administration seems to have in mind would form the backbone of investment in reconstructing the national infrastructure on which and through which long term economic prosperity depends. The jobs that will be created, along with requirements for machinery and materials, will have long term, multiplier effects enabling the national economy to achieve some solid footing. There are problems. Members of congress, governors and mayors will still try to get funding for projects that may have popular political appeal but add little to substantive economic health. The same goes for thousands of small special interest groups who see a chance for their long held pet project to at last get some money. For instance, we have a local museum that would love to get in on some of that, but, as great an asset it is to our community, that is not what this work is about.
Finally, there are those incredibly disingenuous, shortsighted politicians who keep whining about what this will mean to the deficit and national debt. These are the very same whiners who did not blink an eye to fund the war in Iraq with heavy borrowing. They didn’t care a bit about going into debt for a phony war whose primary long term return on investment can only be counted in the lives of the dead, but they whine about deficit spending to rebuild the foundation of our economy.
Sunday, January 25, 2009
We’ve now had two Sundays exploring what it means to be called by God into service. I’ve discovered over the years that there are two misconceptions about that, and they both have a certain basis in scripture. The first is that God has a particular plan for our lives, and that finding and living into that plan is one of the primary tasks of a Christian. One never hears if God has a particular plan for non-Christians, but that’s for another time. The second is that a call to be of some special service to God, as the disciples were called by Christ to follow him, must mean a dramatic change of life in almost every way. Do you realize how many otherwise good people have agonized themselves into a paralyzing tizzy over that stuff?
It never seems to occur to those seeking God’s plan for their lives that what God might actually be saying is that wherever you are and in whatever you are doing, there is a more Christ like way to be, and that that is what God’s plan is all about. It’s not about finding the right path so much as being more Christ like on the path you are already on.
The same goes for the apparently more explicit call to follow Christ into some kind of specially assigned service. Didn’t Jesus say to his disciples something like, “Look around you. The field we are standing in is the one ripe for harvest.”? There are, to be sure, those who are called to extraordinary work in extraordinary places, but it seems to me that God most often calls us to do particular work in the places we already are among the people we already encounter.
In fact, I think that what God most often does is give us the work of opening our eyes to a larger horizon of more opportunities to be accomplished in new ways that challenge us to actually become that new creation we keep hearing about. I just don’t think God tells us to do it his way or walk the plank. I think he lays before us opportunities without number, and, if we let him, engages with us, participates with us, in the decisions we are perfectly free to make.
You might wonder if I, as a priest, am not waffling a bit on this. After all, was I not called to the particular ministry of ordained clergy? Yes, I think I was. Being the slow learner that I am, it took me a long time to become prepared for that call, but even then, I don’t think God said, “OK here’s what were going to do. We’re going to start you off in one of the largest churches in one of the largest cities and then work your way down to a congregation of 20 in rural Washington. How’s that for a plan?” Rather, I can hear God saying, “Steve, you have made some unusual choices in your ministry, not quite what one might expect, but it’s been fun hasn’t it, and we’ve had a great time doing it together. I’ve got some ides about what you might do next, but you haven’t done too bad making your own decisions. Let’s see what you have in mind and we will keep working together.”
Friday, January 23, 2009
Thursday, January 22, 2009
The market is taking another out of control hit today. It’s a volatile market, some say. Others call it erratic. A couple of days ago it took a big hit on news that some banks were doing worse than expected. Wow, who would have suspected that? In spite of the euphoria of the inauguration and reassuring news from some sectors of the economy, the entire market fell like a rock. Then, for no really good reason, it rose the next day to recovery most of the loss. I guess the inauguration euphoria kicked in. Today, it’s another free-fall on news that Microsoft may cut 5,000 jobs. It’s hard to know exactly what is going on with the market because it appears to behave in totally irrational ways.
It reminds me of a grade school recess soccer game with thirty kids on each side all trying to chase a ball in uncontrolled pandemonium. But it’s not even that. The big time market traders who initiate these wild swings are nothing but hyperactive, amateur gamblers rushing about from rumor to rumor hoping to place their bets before someone else does with absolutely no idea of what game is being played. They would object, of course, after all, they have their MBAs and advance degrees in economics. I think that’s nothing but a thin cover for their ignorance. In the meantime, those of us who are relying on our investments to fund our retirements are getting pretty tired of being jerked around by people who treat our savings as if they were their own poker chips to play around with.
Sunday, January 18, 2009
Some recent blog conversation elsewhere in the CC network focused on the question of the authority of scripture, with some concern about whether there is any left. I’ve been thinking about that, and it seems to me that in recent years, perhaps each of the last two thousand years, there has been a large group of Christians who have been tethered by twin assumptions. The first assumption is that the authority of scripture is both clear and trumps all other authority. The second assumption is that that same authority of scripture is most clear in underwriting “my” worldview, cultural norms and moral judgments.
When “my” particular worldview, cultural norms and moral judgments are called into question, then the authority of scripture that underwrites them must have been eroded by those who question “me,” and therefore at best they must be heretics, but they’re probably apostate.
I have a very high regard for the authority of scripture, but I don’t worship the bible. It’s not my God. I love studying it. Every word seems to reveal and illuminate God’s truth in ever new ways. Like the old proverb about not being able to step in the same river twice, it is a moving, living thing so that the same verse says something different each time I read it, and I become changed so that something of a new person meets something of a new word with each reading. In my classes I have taught that our (not very exclusive) Anglican way is to wallow around in scripture letting it wash over and through us, always remembering that the voice of God speaking through these words may be saying something entirely new.
In a sense that’s a problem. It sounds too much like relativism. For some people, who are not fond of a world where nothing is certain and nothing can be relied on as a safe and solid place on which to stand, scripture, at least, should be unchanging, clearly revealing the plain and obvious absolute truth.
The current pope certainly seems to feel that way as long as the absolute truth of scripture is consistent with Catholic doctrine. Closer to home, our local paper featured a Sunday pastor’s column written by another who apparently also feels that way. He stated that Christians believe this and materialists believe that. Those are the two options, and by his argument, if you are not a Christian who believes what he believes, then you must be a materialist, or fellow traveler, and therefore both godless and damned. Perhaps he would reject that reading of his article, but that sure the way I took it. That saddens me. I think it strips scripture of too much of the riches God with which God has endowed it.
Thursday, January 15, 2009
Sitting down for an afternoon snack, I decided that the hardest thing to do in life is make a piece of cake and scoop of ice cream come out even at the last bite. But that’s not what’s on my mind. Earlier today I heard a portion of an NPR program featuring a couple of atheists talking about their beliefs. What struck me is that the most important thing in their lives is the God in whom they do not believe. They spend their days thinking about God and planning how to convince others that God does not exist by doing what they do – think about God a lot. I think their problem may have more to do with religion than with God, and more particularly with what they see as dangerous fundamentalists, wussy Mainline Protestants, and superstitious Catholics. Being Episcopalian myself, we can accommodate all three images without too much difficulty. In the end, I’m not too worried about it. At least they are making more people think about God and faith, and besides, as I recall, this is God’s world and what God purposes to do, he does. We do not need to enter into battle with atheists, we need to be more bold in proclaiming the good news of God in Christ.
Wednesday, January 14, 2009
Tuesday, January 13, 2009
Sunday, January 11, 2009
This is a quote from someone offering her opinion to the Obama transition team:
I do not believe in family immigration. Just because one person comes to America does not mean that the whole family belongs here. Immigrants should be educated and speak english (sic) to be in this country. We have enough people in this country who are not educated and can not (sic) afford higher education, so we must take care of the citizens of this country before we can take on more. We do not need to (sic) world’s poor in this country.
While I can understand the angst about losing our American character to a foreign invasion of poor, illiterate strangers who do not share it, it also betrays a deep ignorance of how America developed in the first place. It is also consistent with the ethnic paranoia expressed by every generation of Americans about new arrivals. I guess it’s human nature, but it’s terribly sad and worse, it’s the feedstock that fuels bigotry, violence and the corruption of our highest civic ideals. I’ve done some traveling about the globe, and I know what it’s like to be the one who is illiterate and uneducated, and who, like dear old Blanche Dubois, had to rely on the kindness of strangers to get by. Of course, I was “rich.” What if I had been poor? But even more important, what kind of connection might you make between this brief article and the several that precede it on the subject of radical welcome?
Friday, January 9, 2009
Regular readers, if there are any, will note an occasional reference to a friend who is writing a commentary on a portion of Luke. I’m a little vague about what I say about that since his daily drafts are intended to end up as an edited whole ready for publication one of these days. But I’m going to borrow one of his sentences from this morning’s draft because it speaks directly to a couple of previous posts about radical welcome.
“At the root of anticipatory welcome is confidence in God’s gratuitous generosity.”
Anticipatory welcome is the feeling, or at least hope, that I will be warmly welcomed by the people I am about to meet, perhaps for the first time, in the place I am about to enter, perhaps for the first time. Anticipatory welcome is hard to come by. The more likely expectation is of anticipatory rejection. “I don’t really know this place; I don’t really know these people; I know I was invited but I don’t know the local rules of the place, it’s culture, it’s practices; What if they don’t like me?
Anticipatory welcome, as least in terms of the radical welcome I believe is the primary tool of evangelism, is all about confidence in God’s gratuitous love. But that confidence has to come from somewhere. Congregations and individual Christians need to be bold in talking about that gratuitous love when the opportunity arises, and develop habits of being that reflect it in some way, so that when that hopeful, but skeptical, person finally decides to find out if it might be available to him or her, she or he will find an abundance of it during worship and fellowship. But let’s be clear about it, an abundance of God’s gratuitous love as expressed by you, me, or our congregations is not the same thing as fawning, smothering, and obviously phony welcome that many of us have experieinced. It is the genuine willingness to touched by the stranger who is a sinner as by our brother or sister. There’s more, but I’d like to hear your take on it.
Let's set theology aside for a moment to ponder a truly important question. What do dogs think? My Andy is a close observer of clothing. He watches me take it off and put it on, every item, some with close inspection. Does he wonder why humans put their fur on and take it off so often? Does he wonder why they keep changing colors, textures and smells? Does he find the human behavior in our household acceptable if extremely odd in every way? I know he thinks we are not too bright. For instance, we cannot be allowed to go to the bathroom by ourselves, and we are totally ignorant of the obvious fact that there is more chicken on the kitchen counter just barely out of his reach. These are weighty matters, are they not?
Thursday, January 8, 2009
Does the Church have anything useful to say about the economy? The eighth century prophets certainly had a lot to say about it in their day, and now and then we’ve seen a contemporary stab at it as in the Social Gospel movement. But what about today? I’ve got my own guesses. You might wonder what they have to do with theology or the Church, but they all come from my meditation and prayer about God’s words as expressed by those old prophets, the Ten Commandments and the teachings of Jesus.
My first guess is that there is no such thing as a free market or free market system. All markets exist within an environment established by governmental policies, and those policies, no matter how arrived at, create boundaries, rules, exceptions, and biases. So the American myth that we should get government out of the way and let business do its business isn’t even a decent myth. It’s just blatant silliness.
My second guess is that the most important question American’s can ask right now is; what policies are best for a democratic nation that values private enterprise and private initiative, and that must live and compete within a global economy?
My third guess is that speculative greed and corruption will always be a disruptive element in any economy. To what extent can it be contained without depriving the freedom to experiment and take risks?
Based on these guesses, I would like to consider some possibilities. What about economic policies based not on consumer credit but consumer savings? That would not mean the elimination of credit, but the emphasis and rewards would be tilted toward savings. What about policies that encourage manufacturing for a world market according to international standards of measurement and quality? What about policies that eliminate subsidies for most crops but keep crop insurance and environmental sustainability incentives? What about a tax system that does not deliberately exacerbate the widening gulf between rich and not rich? What if our highest national priorities were health care, education/skills training and infrastructure? That would require a politically risky change that would dramatically reduce our investment in traditional preparations for war. Finally, what if the investment markets could be cured of their addiction to quarterly results, which, in the long run and the short run, leads only to playing craps with loaded dice?
I’m not sure what the results would be, but my guess is that they would include a larger number of somewhat smaller corporations, more small business start-ups, a greater number of jobs requiring certain skills and offering decent pay, a lessening of the gap between rich and poor, opportunity for the creation of wealth for the lucky, and a pattern of international economic integration that would greatly reduce the likelihood of major war. It would not eliminate the presence of greedy speculation, but it would frustrate its practitioners enough to make them work extra hard for ill-gotten gains.
Wednesday, January 7, 2009
Tuesday, January 6, 2009
Epiphany is a season of signs and symbols, and I want to reflect on that in some pretty down to earth ways.
“Welcome one another, therefore, just as Christ has welcomed you, for the Glory of God.” (Rom. 15.7) Jesus gave us a new commandment to love one another as he loved us, and, while I believe that remains our highest goal, it also seems to me to be out of reach even for the best of us. But what we can do is to welcome one another, just as Christ has welcomed us. The record of Jesus welcoming is somewhat alarming in that he didn’t seem to have very high standards. Just about anyone who came into his presence was welcomed: lepers, tax collectors, notorious sinners, elite scholars, lawyers, good friends, total strangers, even the crowd that came to arrest him in the garden. Not everyone accepted or responded warmly to his welcome, but all were offered it nonetheless. Maybe we are unable to love as Christ loved, but we can welcome as he welcomed. So now the questions becomes, what signs and symbols do we erect that say You are Not Welcome!?
I wonder if we could work on those first, and I don’t think we need to get overly theological about it. These are ordinary, practical things. For instance, some years ago on our annual sojourn to our favorite winter retreat we decided to look for the Episcopal Church in a nearby community. We had the address and new the town, we could even see the building sitting back in a small grove of trees, but there was not the slightest hint about how to actually get to it. Obviously only those in the know were welcome there. A nearby SDA church, on the other hand, had a large inviting driveway framed by a large, but tasteful, sign of welcome. I have no idea what went on in either one of those places. The point is that signs and symbols of welcome are a first step and we can all take it. I know there is a lot more to it than that, but why not start with the simple basics and go from there.
Sunday, January 4, 2009
My friend is hammering his way through Luke 7:36-50 attempting to resolve issues of love, repentance, forgiveness, and prevenient and cooperative grace. He seems to be especially interested in getting us out of the logic of the exchange/debt rut in which things are exchanged between God and humans to even out the score. Exchange is required in order to settle accounts in our world. It’s a very powerful force. Quid pro quo, isn’t that a phrase we all know even if we can’t translate it? I give you something, you owe me. I say it’s a gift, but I expect at least some sign of gratitude in exchange. The best sales persons know how powerful the exchange principle is and use it with skill to deprive us of our cash. The exchange principle is at the heart of our criminal justice system, and at the heart of all the little “you owe me’s” that we collect and treasure.
I’m fascinated with his work, which is far beyond my abilities. But as I’ve been reading each day’s piece I keep coming back to the observation that we humans (or at least this human) have severe limitations to our thinking that is bound to our dimensional world, and especially to the linear nature of time. I know there are lots of very sophisticated arguments about the non-linear nature of time, but let’s face it; our daily lives are lived out in very linear way with one moment following another like “clock work.” We are accustomed to a world of cause and effect or event and consequence, and that’s not bad. It keeps us sane and allows us at least some ability to make moral decisions and plan ahead.
That means that questions like the following make perfect sense to us. Does repentance come before forgiveness? Is repentance a precondition of forgiveness? Does God’s steadfast and abounding love for us offer forgiveness for things not fully repented, or even known? Does God require full payment for sins through the death of Jesus before full forgiveness is given? Is there anything we can give God in recompense for our sins? Can my free will ever make a holy contribution to my relationship with God? And so on.
To be sure, Jesus came to live in our world as one of us, and it is through him that we can apprehend, but not comprehend, an accurate but very limited picture of God’s intention, love and grace. Thanks be to God for that, but what if God exists in another kind of world altogether? What if God’s environment is omnidimensional with no outer limit? That would mean that all things could be going on at the same time in any direction and in any relationship. Theologians have sometimes talked about perichorisis as a way of describing the internal relationship of the Trinity as something of a holy dance – I always seem to picture it as a traditional Jewish wedding dance. What if this perichorisis is the dance of Grace that God has with all of creation so that there can never be an answer to the proper sequence of things in order for God’s grace to be encountered, received or have effect?
That sort of environment would not make any sense to us. It would be totally incomprehensible, yet passages in Scripture such as Luke 7:36-50 push us in that direction. In that case, most of the traditional arguments from Luther, Calvin and most of the rest of us, about what is required for eternal life and what it means to say that Jesus died for our sins are nothing but wild shots in the dark. The best they can do for us is satisfy our need for God’s actions to make some sense to us as being at least a little bit the way that we ourselves would act if we were truly good, loving and pure in heart. When someone comes to me asking about how they can be saved, they want an answer that makes sense in human terms, and that is almost always based on the exchange principle somewhere along the line.
I love this stuff, and I can’t wait to see where my friend comes out on all of it. But I also think it’s tangential to what it means to be a follower of Christ. I think the core to what it means to be a Christian has a lot more to do with discipleship. Anyone want to take a shot at that?
Saturday, January 3, 2009
There is nothing like coming home from a wonderful Christmas holiday and then developing a bad cold. It takes the steam out of everything and reduces IQ by about half. At this point even Square Bob Sponge Pants (or whatever he's called) looks mildly interesting. Fortunately, I’ve got a friend slugging his way through a deep commentary on a portion of Luke, and each morning he sends me a new entry to read. If nothing else, it keeps my mind occupied trying to decipher it enough to make sense to my cold addled brain. The fact is, I’m not a good patient. I’m tired, cranky, bored and dumb all at the same time. And, if I hear one more person tell me I should have taken Airborne, I’ll poke’em in the eye with a Zicam stick. So the most interesting thing I can think of right now is how long it will take a metaphor like “take the steam out” to loose all meaning for generations that have never known a steam engine? For that matter, I wonder what metaphors from the first half of the 20th century are already lost. I should be close to the end of this adventure by now and so look forward to church tomorrow, and it’s a good thing I’m not the one preaching.