Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Journalism or Gossip

My Lenten news fast has been only a partial success, but it has reinforced an observation I made some months ago.  Cable and many of the Internet news sources spend more time speculating on what the news could, should, might be than on what has actually happened - unless it involves a shooting or high-speed chase.  

I sat down for a quick bite a few minutes ago and watched the President's plane landing in London.  There it sat with nothing much happening, but the on air commentators went on and on about what the next few days might bring including their instant foresight analysis of what all that will mean if it does or doesn't happen.  For Pete's sake, even the Hebrew Prophets, who were prodded along by God himself, got their prognostications only partly right, and then missed a good many of those by a couple of centuries.  This isn't journalism.  It's barely one level up from middle school gossip.

And that's my humble opinion about that.  It's time to get back to theology.

Boat Illegally Sinks

I generally rely on the BBC to be a quiet and reasonable voice of the news with that peculiar British penchant for grammatical correctness.  Which left me wondering at this morning's unpunctuated headline:

"A boat packed with more than 250 migrants heading for Europe illegally sinks off Libya, reports from Libya and Egypt say."


I had no idea there were legal and illegal ways for a boat to sink and hope they say more about that.

Sunday, March 29, 2009

John or Melchizedek?

Not an especially nice start to the day.  We had a couple of inches of unexpected snow down in the valley and a foot or more of it in the foothills.  The thirty mile drive to Dayton, WA was an adventure to say the least.  Little Grace Church has a small congregation as it is, so the combination of weather, travel and illnesses meant an even smaller gathering of just eight, including me and my wife.  My brilliant exposition on John's gospel was received with warmth, if a bit on the luke side.  What they really wanted to know was who the heck was Melchizedek, and how did he relate to Jesus?  See, they really were listening to the lesson from Hebrews.  It was a very sensible question, and it goes back to the obvious fact that we have a tendency to stop serious teaching after confirmation, if we were serious about it even then.  They really do want to know.  Our job is to find the right means and venue to meet that need.  In a small rural congregation we can just switch gears in the middle of the service and do that, but it brings to mind that the greater church simply must pay more attention to adult Christian education.  

Saturday, March 28, 2009

The Fallacy of Church Growth - Or maybe it's a heresy

For a decade or more there has been way too much angst over the question of church growth.  Unless a congregation was growing Sunday by Sunday it was deemed to be symptomatic of a dying Christianity.   It seems to me that there are two things wrong with that.  First, above all, we who are called to be leaders in the church are given the duty of boldly proclaiming the Good News of God in Christ Jesus.  That, and not counting, is our primary obligation.  Having said that, I confess that I’m just like anyone else and like to look at the number the ushers give me, dutifully enter it in a book, and report on it to the diocese at year-end.  The second problem has more to do with local demographics.  For instance, the community I live in has grown very little over the decades.  It’s a slow moving river of new arrivals barely outpacing recent departures.  But two things have changed.  The dominant ethnic influx is Hispanic not Anglo.  The choice of denominations and congregations has exploded.

In past generations there were a handful of congregations representing the main American denominations of Protestants and Catholics.  Everyone was expected to affiliate with one of them, just as everyone was expected to also join a local service club or fraternal organization.  It’s just what one did.  Now we have a multitude of congregations representing not only the old, but also whatever new twist or opportunistic endeavor can be imagined.  The same number of people are given an enormous choice of worship opportunities in more varieties that Campbell’s has soup.  On top of that is the absence of any cultural expectation that anyone must affiliate with any religion or belong to any civic organization in order to be an acceptable citizen of the community.

Boldly proclaiming the Good News of God in Christ, and in my case, according to the Anglican traditions of the Episcopal Church, is the appropriate response.  Growth may come or growth may not, but the Word will be boldly proclaimed.  But what bold proclamation means needs further examination.  Of course it has to include bold, effective preaching, as well as comprehensive Christian education.  However, it also has to include bold use of the best and most effective vehicles of communication with congregants and the broader community.  That does not have to mean throwing hymns up on a projection screen.  It does have to mean knowing how, where and through what the emerging majority get their information, how they process it, and how they make decisions using it.   It also has to mean that clergy, and other congregational leaders, cannot be egotistically stubborn about not knowing or using those vehicles.  And maybe that’s enough to get some conversation started.

 

Thursday, March 26, 2009

What is Fascism

In spite of my Lenten news fast, word has seeped through that some on-air personality has announced that the Obama administration is leading the country to fascism.  Tonight I overheard a Newt Gingrich claim that the current administration is engineering the biggest power grab in American history that could lead us toward a dictatorship.  Apparently he doesn’t like the idea of regulatory standards for non-bank financial companies.  Refraining from any kind of rant, I thought I would simply offer a portion of one definition of fascism from Wikipedia.  I’m sure there is room to argue with it, but it’s close enough. Take a look and then ask yourself whether any of it sounds familiar to you, any echo of recent political leadership perhaps?

Fascism is a radical, authoritarian nationalist ideology that aims to create a single-party state with a government led by a dictator who seeks national unity and development by requiring individuals to subordinate self-interest to the collective interest of the nation or race.[1][2][3][4][5][6][7][8] Fascist movements promote violence between nations, political factions, and races as part of a social Darwinist and militarist stance that views violence between these groups as a natural and positive part of evolution.[9] In the view of these groups being in perpetual conflict, fascists believe only the strong can survive by being healthy, vital, and have an aggressive warrior mentality by conquering, dominating, and eventually eliminating people deemed weak and degenerate.[10][11][12][13]

Fascist governments permanently forbid and suppress all criticism and opposition to the government and the fascist movement.[14] Fascist movements oppose any ideology or political system that gives direct political power to people as individuals through elected representatives rather than as a collective nation or race (individualism, liberalism, representative democracy); that is deemed detrimental to national identity and unity (communism, laissez-faire capitalism, non-nationalist and class conflict oriented labour movements); that protects and empowers people deemed weak and degenerate (egalitarianism) and that undermine the military strength and military ambitions of the nation (pacifism). They also oppose traditionalists and conservatives who may seek to preserve any of the privileges, institutions and cultural values that fascism seeks to overthrow.[15][16][17][18][19][20][21][22][23][24][25]

 

Weeding in the Gospel Garden?

"Almighty and most merciful God, we remember before you all poor and neglected persons whom it would be easy for us to forget: the homeless and the destitute, the old and the sick, and all who have none to care for them. Help us to heal those who are broken in body and spirit, and to turn their sorrow into joy. Grant this, Father, for the love of your Son, who for our sake became poor, Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen."
-The Book of Common Prayer

Here are reflections on three encounters I had yesterday in my community.  To be sure, there were other more encouraging encounters as well, but these are common enough.  Perhaps they are in your community as well.

A middle class wage earner with a safe job is upset that some working poor can claim income tax credits that not only eliminate their federal income tax obligations but provide a refund as well.  That they are poor, working, paying a host of other state and local taxes as well as FICA, and that this refund might make the difference between just being poor and absolute destitution does not seem to enter into the conversation.

A local convenience store clerk, himself among the working poor, has Mike Savage turned up so loud on the store radio that everyone can hear him.  He thinks this extreme bigot, who deliberately incites as much internecine hatred as possible, is very intelligent, someone who really knows what’s going on and is telling the truth about America.  Now he knows who to blame for this poverty, and it includes the Asians who own the store he works in.

Local conventional wisdom believes the stimulus package is only and nothing but pork-laden earmarks.  The economy could be fixed just by getting rid of all that pork.  But the news that stimulus funds will help rebuild some local infrastructure, a VA facility and solve some long standing pollution issues has been greeted with joy as receiving, at long last, what we have always deserved.

Any argument to the contrary is certain to be rejected as nothing but more of that vast left-wing conspiracy leading us toward either Socialism or Fascism (take your pick).

Does the Gospel have anything to say to this?

Where does the Sunday sermon come into any of this?

What prophetic boldness is required of faithful preachers?

What would be the cost of that boldness?

What does Holy Week and Easter have to say to any of this?

Tuesday, March 24, 2009

It's that Time of Year when John gets Wierd

Let’s face it, as we get into these last days of Lent moving toward Holy Week and Easter we also get into some of the most obscure parts of John’s gospel.  Congregations are left with heads spinning, and, even if they read along, have got to wonder what on earth he was talking about.  This coming Sunday is a good example.  Some Greeks (Greek speaking Jews?) want to see Jesus, and Philip and Andrew go off to find him.  We never know if they got to see him because as soon as the two found Jesus and told him about the Greeks, Jesus launched into a discourse on an hour that has come, grains of wheat,  his troubled soul, glorifying this and that, and a sound that might or might not have been thunder.  Gathered around a table with a half dozen other preacher/theologians I can rejoice in plowing through the fertile soil of every word, but try to wrap it up in a sermon that doesn’t sound like a lecture and tell me what you get.

Maybe that’s the point.  We are on the cusp of the single most impenetrable of holy mysteries.  It is the very hinge of history and the center of our faith.  But it absolutely refuses to be confined by our limited powers of logic or words of philosophical understanding.  It can be captured better in a child’s coloring book than in a hundred tomes of erudite study.  Yet, once planted, it can grow into the most profound of shared faith able to endure thousands of years of abuse and nay saying.  We are the planters.  The seed is of incalculable worth.  With it we need to be both bold and careful, risky and gentle, and ever awed by the power that lies within.

Maybe I should just keep quiet this Sunday and hand out coloring books and crayons.

Monday, March 23, 2009

Health Care Pondering

Health Care reform is going to be a hot debate, so here are few warm up facts to ponder:

2007 (source: National Coalition on Health Care):

Total cost of American health care: $2.4 Trillion or 17% of GDP

46 million uninsured

Average premium for family coverage: $12,700 (think of it as a tax)


2003 (source: OECD):

Total per capita cost of health care and % of GDP

Country

Per capita cost

Percent of GDP

Canada

$2,998

9.9

France

$3,048

10.4

United Kingdom

$2,317

7.8

United States

$6,711

15.2

 

Saturday, March 21, 2009

Does God Suffer Fools Gladly?

Did you have a catechism class on how to pray?  I did.  I don’t recall much of it now, but it was very formulaic: just the right combination of praise, adoration, intercession and thanksgiving using God appropriate language.  I think it came just after we were supposed to have learned the Ten Commandments and all the ‘omni’ attributes of God.  We teenagers took that to mean that we had to pray, but be sure to do it the right way, and Be Careful!  I suspect the same is true for more than a few who sought a few moments with me to ask about praying.  Some wanted to know the right format, others the right language, and still others were terribly fearful that their messed up lives and ways of thinking would not be acceptable to God.  After all, it’s a fearful thing to fall into the hands of the living God.  And didn’t he kill a bunch of Israelites just for swinging a little smoke in his direction?

It makes sense to wonder.  In my life, perhaps in yours also, I’ve had more than a few face-to-face visits with persons of high office and tremendous financial or political power.  It can be a little intimidating.  The right protocol must be observed, the right things said, and more than one sycophantic aide cautioned that “the big man” did not suffer fools gladly (which was a blatant lie given the presence of the aide).  If that can be one’s reaction to a mere human being, what about daring to address God?

My counsel to those who asked these questions was to consider the psalms and how they offered up to God prayers expressing every conceivable human emotion from the best to the worst.  My guess is that God was not overly impressed with the best and cleaned up the worst to be sent back as blessings.  Consider the conversations between Jesus and his disciples, but, even more, between Jesus and some of the people he encountered such as the woman at the well, Zacchaeus in the tree or blind Bartimaeus.  Jesus listened.  Jesus responded, not necessarily to what they said, but to what they needed.  Finally consider my favorite example of all, Tevia in Fiddler on the Roof.  He never quit talking with God, and it was always from the heart in the ordinary language of ordinary people.

I love the Lord’s Prayer.  I love all the canticles, collects and suffrages of my Anglican tradition.  I love our liturgy of prayer.  But those old catechism lessons did a lot of people no favor, stifling their prayer life by stuffing it into little boxes.  Prayer, in the end, is just a conversation with the God who loves us, knows us, cares for us and wants to be a part of our lives.  For some, that is almost unbelievable, but what great good news when we begin to dare to believe it.  Puck smirked “Lord, what fools these mortals be.”  If that be true dear Puck, God suffers fools like you and me gladly and delights in conversation with us.  Having said that, there is one last thing.  Many years ago my then spiritual director observed that the one thing wrong with my prayer life was that I didn’t shut up long enough for God to get a word in edgewise.  How true for me.  Could it be true for you also?

Wednesday, March 18, 2009

Another Political Rant - Do Not Read if Easily Offended

I got into a conversation with a couple of other retired guys who lamented a bill they heard had been introduced by the governor of our state that will require every person to register with a particular gas station, be allowed to buy gas only from that station, and will limit how much gas can be purchased in any given month.  Sound a bit unlikely to you?  Not to them.  They knew it was true because they heard about it on one of the talk radio stations.  I wondered if they had verified that by checking some other sources.  No need, they said, the radio commentator said it was true so it must be true.  Now I have got to tell you that these two fellows are not dummies.  They each had long successful careers and continue to be active in retirement. 

They seem to be members of a fairly large group that gobbles up political rumors mostly generated by talk radio hosts.  Preying on the public’s growing anxiety over the state of the economy, they can come up with some of the screwiest of screwball rumors anyone can imagine, each joyfully hyped by a variety of talk radio nuts who, I suspect, half-way believe it themselves. 

Where is all this leading? To Socialism of course.  And what is Socialism?  Apparently it’s anything real or imagined that is not consistent with a right-wing agenda.  The government will own everything, control everything and all our liberties will be lost.  Living in a nanny state will strip us of all incentive to excel, and we’ll all end up like those wussy Europeans.  Back in the McCarthy era (Joseph, not Eugene) we used to get these little red pamphlets warning us of this very thing, and now here it is in all it’s scariest worst.  Oh, if only Senator McCarthy were here today.

To Thine Own Self Be True

Comments on another blog considered the partial line from Hamlet, “to thine own self be true.”  In the context of the larger speech/poem from which it is drawn, it bears a remarkable kinship with selections from biblical proverbs and psalms.  Those who commented on the line, taken by itself, seemed to imply that within each of us there is a certain true self that is a self of integrity and inherent goodness, and that being true to that self is a defense against the falsehood and hypocrisy that surround us.  There seemed to be other implications in those comments.  That true self lives deep and must be discerned by honest introspection.  The self that appears on the surface is often a false self of accommodation to “the slings and arrows of outrageous” conditions around us (sorry about that Wil).

I wonder.  I wonder if there are not among us more than a few who, digging deep into their deepest self, find that whatever is there is not very admirable, or, perhaps, find nothing at all.  I wonder if our surface self is, in fact, very much a part of our real and true self, just as much as whatever may lie deep.  I wonder if a thief is being true to his own self by stealing (Shakespeare suggested that the French elite might be especially gifted that way).  Luther and Calvin seemed to feel that, surface or deep, all was corrupt.  Or, as I like to remind my Presbyterian friends, they belong to the church of the utterly depraved, which is a joke that doesn’t always go over well.

One comment reflected on institutional Christianity as a religion of condemnation that probably needs to be avoided if one has any hope of living joyfully into one’s own true self.  Elsewhere, another blogger cited editorial opinion that the major product of American evangelicalism is atheism.

Having considered all that, I am reminded that Jesus engaged with people as they were in the conditions of their lives as they presented themselves.  The gospel record suggests that he took in the whole person, deep and shallow, and treated them with respect.  Stories of healing were not just about bleeding or blindness, leprosy or lameness.  They were about wholeness, and not just the integrative wholeness of Jung, but of physical, emotional, spiritual and social wholeness in intimate communion with God.

It is just exactly this that suggests to me that whatever our true self might be, in Christ it can experience a transformation so incredible that nothing is impossible.  My public self, my private self, my secret self, my self unknown to me, all is made new and whole, a new creation.  Speaking only for myself, that transformation is a slow one with plenty of missteps along the way, but the way, however painful at times, is one of great joy. 

I’ll close with this.  During Lent, our tradition of Morning Prayer calls for a recitation of the Prayer of Manasseh several times each week.  Manasseh was the worst of the worst kings of Judah.  There was nothing cruel, evil or sinful in which he did not immerse himself.  Legend has it that, late in life, he repented and lived the short time he had left as a holy man.  His prayer of repentance is recorded in the books of the Apocrypha, and we use it as a reminder that as unworthy as we (I) may be, God’s abundant mercy will forgive us and restore us to newness of life.

 

Tuesday, March 17, 2009

Spring May Come Afterall

We've had an exceptionally long, harsh winter for our little valley.  The snow is supposed to stay up in the mountains, but it kept coming down here.  The cold is supposed to stay up there too, but slid down into the valley as if no one cared.   This afternoon I looked out the kitchen window to rejoice in the crocuses blooming, with other spring bulbs not far behind.  Willows are starting to look like they are ready to turn, there are huge buds on our tulip tree, and both bird houses have prospective residents paying daily visits.  Spring might come this year after all. 

Sunday, March 15, 2009

An Incomplete Thought on Meaning in Life

I was recently visiting with a friend who has had a pretty rough year in a lot of ways and wondered, with some hint of anger, whether God ever listens to prayer, much less does anything useful when it’s really needed.  I managed to mumble out a few of the standard responses and make a few suggestions.  But I think I really tread on the conservative evangelical toes of his youth when I suggested that God probably does not control every event in our lives, and that although most every event has causes, that does not mean that God has a reason for letting bad things happen to us.

Over the years I’ve observed a lot of Christian teaching that leads believers to think that, if they can only confess Jesus as their personal savior with all their heart, life will be great from then on.  If something bad happens it must be due to some lack of faith, poorly worded prayers, sinful backsliding or one of God unfathomable reasons.  Where does this come from?

Even a cursory reading of scripture has got to reveal story after story of lives that endured extreme misfortune time and again. Where in the bible would you find the “I believed and lived happily ever after” story?  It is true that scripture goes to great length to describe a personal life and social fabric that will lead to a truly good life in every way, but we have not yet demonstrated that we are willing to live that kind of life.  We’d rather do it our way, suffer the consequences and blame God.

For all of that, scripture also reveals that, in spite of our human condition, life in companionship with God is a life of abundance and second chances (see Erick Kolbell).  Such a life has misfortunes, but it also has direction and purpose, and for those of us who follow Christ, it also means that we know that we are already living into our “eternal” lives.  And there is one more thing that I keep working on.  That is the idea that the more we open ourselves to God’s presence in our lives, the more God engages with us in them.  To be open is not to pray for this or that, but simply to be open.  A life of faith is not about an easy life, but it is a life of great adventure.  It’s a life growing in faith and communion with God.  How hard that can sometimes be, but, wow, what an adventure.

Saturday, March 14, 2009

Stewart, Cramer and Jeremiah

In spite of my no news Lenten discipline, I watched the Jon Stewart/Jim Cramer interview and was appalled.  First, I was appalled that the single best interrogative interview in years, whether t.v., radio or newspaper, was on a Comedy Channel fake news program that is up front about “selling snake oil.”  Second, I was appalled at the facile duplicity of Jim Cramer who clearly understood how to screw the investing public for his own benefit and did so, while, at the same time, doled out misleading, useless financial advice to millions of viewers, and continues to do so.  Third, I was appalled that this appears to be symptomatic of the ethos of an enormous sector of the media and corporate financial sectors of society, aided and abetted by twenty years of political leadership from the right, both secular and religious.

Today’s Morning Prayer including this reading from the 5th chapter of  Jeremiah:

For scoundrels are found among my people; they take over the goods of others. Like fowlers they set a trap; they catch human beings. Like a cage full of birds, their houses are full of treachery; therefore they have become great and rich, they have grown fat and sleek. They know no limits in deeds of wickedness; they do not judge with justice the cause of the orphan, to make it prosper, and they do not defend the rights of the needy. Shall I not punish them for these things? says the LORD, and shall I not bring retribution on a nation such as this? An appalling and horrible thing has happened in the land: the prophets prophesy falsely, and the priests rule as the prophets direct; my people love to have it so, but what will you do when the end comes?