Sunday, May 31, 2009

Country Blessings

Each Wednesday evening a small group from rural Grace Church in  Dayton, Washington assembles for Compline, usually at a ranch house about five miles out of town.  It sits in a fairly narrow valley along the Touchet River where it comes down out of the Blue Mountains.  I don’t think there can be anything as pleasant as praising God and giving thanks at the end of the day while gathered at a ranch on the banks of a mountain stream surrounded by evidence of God’s blessings.  Just down the road toward town are fields of orchards.  Their fruit will be on tables before the year is out.  Out in front the pastures are dotted with cattle.  A three day old calf explores her new world, bounding from place to place with tail held high.  She will be butchered one day.  Her life will nourish our lives.  Wheat fields roll up the hills across the road, the grain they produce will most likely be exported to feed the hungry in lands that cannot raise enough for themselves. 

A friend raises wheat on a couple thousand acres of rolling foothill land.  He’s got a spot up on top of one of the hills that he calls his church.  Looking out in one direction are mountains and in the other are the treeless, rolling hills of the Palouse.  In one direction it’s national forest, and in the other it’s dry land wheat, cattle and horses.  He says that prayer is mostly a matter of worrying with God: worry about whether the seed will germinate, whether the rains will come when they are needed and stop when they are not, whether the grain will ripen, whether the harvest will go smoothly, whether the price will be good, and then start the prayerful worrying over again.

None of it happens all by its self.  It takes more than hard work, it takes intelligent, well educated hard work, but it’s hard work that engages at a very basic level with God’s creation.  It’s hard not to recognize the holiness of it that affects the blessing we say at meals.  It’s not just the food on the table for which we give thanks.  There is a certain Eucharistic quality to it.  Not only is God’s spirit of creation present in all that lies before us, but so also is the creative work of human beings who have labored to make it possible. 

I wonder if those who have never spent time in the country can truly appreciate that?  What do you think of when you say grace?  Do you say grace?

Thursday, May 28, 2009

Perception is Reality is Truth so be Afraid, be VERY Afraid

Yesterday’s mail brought a solicitation from some left of center group screaming bloody murder that, if we didn’t act now, the ultra religious right bigots would take over government and shove their brand of Christianity down everyone’s throats.  Our liberty would be lost forever.  This morning I got a fear mongering call from the NRA warning that the “gun hating Congress” would soon pass HR 45 (a bill that would require a license to own a gun) and our liberty would be lost forever.  Those are only two examples of a very common propaganda tactic that uses extreme political hyperbole to do nothing more than incite fear, suspicion and hate.  I’m really fed up with it.

For the first thirty years of my career I was employed in local and state government and by a large association representing business interests.  The lobbying I witnessed and engaged in was, on the whole, a vigorous representation of what each participant saw as important to the overall well being of the community and the nation within the context of what was also important to the well being of particular communities, industries and companies.  The intent was always to reach a workable compromise that everyone could live with. That started to change somewhere in the 80s. 

First came new colleagues who quickly revealed themselves to be primarily interested in their conservative evangelical Christian agenda, and considered the job to be a conduit for working on it.  Then came political strategists claiming that the ‘other side’ was staking out such an extreme position that any compromise would only end with ‘our side’ losing.  Therefore, we needed to stake out an equally extreme position in order for fair negotiations to take place.  It made a certain amount of sense as long as it wasn’t examined because that would reveal that the ‘other side’ was not very extreme at all, and ‘our side’s’ defensive tactic simply tilted all the weight in our direction with no intention of fair negotiation. 

To be sure, it was a tactic employed both on the right and the left, but the right had it down pat and did it better.  Truth became a matter of perception, or, as the popular phrase goes, perception is reality.  Who cared what the facts revealed as long as there was at least some evidence or argument that could be twisted to form a perception that could be sold as truth, the scarier the better.   The selling of the Iraq war was, perhaps, the epitome of that art, but not the end of it.  We are seeing some of that tactic being used in the Sotomayor nomination, and certainly in the two knucklehead communications that have come to our house in the last few days.  I believe it’s a dangerous game to play.  It’s a game that is potentially destructive of liberal (in the traditional sense) democracy.  I’m not sure how to put a stop to it except to encourage as many as possible to stand up and say “knock it off” every time a call or solicitation comes their way, even for causes with which they might otherwise agree. 

 

Turning, Turning We Come Round Right

The Shaker hymn “Tis the gift to be simple” ends with the phrase, “Till by turning, turning we come round right.”  I don’t know what inspired those words, but I think of them every time I come across the 18th chapter of Ezekiel where God puts to rest the idea that it is God who visits the sins of the father on generations of sons yet to come.  In that same chapter God twice declares that God takes no delight in the death of anyone, not even evil persons, and only desires that each turn away from death and toward God who is the only source of life.  The chapter is filled with turning: the turning of good persons who end up doing bad things, the turning of bad persons who end up doing good things, and the turning of each again.  It is that turning and turning again that is my life, and undoubtedly yours also. 

Ezekiel can be read to imply that one’s turning away from evil and toward God must coincide with one’s death if there is to be hope for salvation.  It almost sounds like a roll of the dice, and I don’t think that is what God meant.  It seems to me that the entire passage opens the door for us to begin apprehending God’s desire for a universal salvation that will be realized centuries later in Christ Jesus.  In our turning, turning, it is God in Christ who will see that we come round right.  The author of Hebrews envisioned that as happening through the constant intercessions of the resurrected Christ whose saving act was accomplished once for all.  At the same time, I am convinced that God never takes away our free will, so that it is possible, and perhaps probable for some, having been turned round right, to choose one last turn and go head long into the darkness of that which is not life.  It is the last turning that C.S. Lewis imagined so well in The Great Divorce. 

Questions yet remain.  For instance, is it in this life only that we make that last fateful turn, or, as Lewis imagined, is that last opportunity in another time and space when one confronts the reality of God in Christ?  As followers of Jesus, how can we best share that good news with those who have not heard it?  How essential is baptism and/or a confession of Jesus as one’s personal savior to that final turning?  How essential is church membership and attendance?  Is the word ‘essential’ appropriate at all?  Maybe we would be better served talking about the role of Christian discipleship, the sacraments and membership in dedicated assemblies, and leave the question of essentiality behind.

Tuesday, May 26, 2009

I Favor an Empathetic, Activist, Strict Constructionist

I didn’t have much time for TV news today, but it took less than half of the twenty seconds I devoted to Wolf Blitzer to hear a commentator bring up the boogeyman of the virtues of Supreme Court justices who are strict constructionists as against the loose cannons who are (empathetic) judicial activists.  I wonder if someone can explain to me what a strict constructionist is?  I know some conservatives claim that activist judges are those who legislate from the bench.  Help me understand how any Supreme Court decision is not a form of legislation insofar as the very act of interpreting various laws and lower court decisions in the context of the Constitution must always turn the law, at least in some small way, to a meaning it did not have before.

Now and then I hear someone bring up the issue of original intent, which is patently ridiculous on the face of it.   However brilliant our founding fathers were, their intent had to be limited, and was limited, by their own time and culture.  As I recall from my undergraduate courses, that matter was decided in Marbury vs. Madison way back in 1803.  So why is that old hoax still be floated around?

I’m really looking forward to seeing if the current GOP leadership can come up with something new and creative this time, but my guess is that they are in mortal fear that we may get a justice who is actually committed to upholding the highest values of our nation as expressed in our Constitution.  

Sunday, May 24, 2009

Why do I write? Darned if I know.

I've been thinking about why I write this blog at all.  I'm not sure I remember why I started except that I think it had something to do with my wife suggesting it.  It began mostly as a writing exercise without much interest in who my readers might be or what they might think about it.  It's not really a personal journal.  I'm not much interested on line group therapy, and I'm not very good at telling pithy stories with a great moral at the end.  For me it has become a platform for sharing ideas on things theological, economic and political with an eye toward developing something like a conversation with anyone who might be interested.  My only disappointment has been the discovery that none of the other clergy in my diocese read, or are even slightly interested in reading, what I have to say.  But then, why should they?  I'm sure that what I have to think and say is of no more value than what they have to think and say, and invitations to log on and wade into online conversation around the subjects I choose can appear, if nothing else, presumptuous in the extreme.  On the other hand, I've been blessed by several regular readers who have had important, insightful things to say, and if I ever get to Southern California or up into Manitoba I'd like to meet a couple of them face-to-face.  

Saturday, May 23, 2009

Ethics, J.S. Mill and a New Hit Musical

I taught a short introductory class on ethics for my firefighters a couple of weeks ago.  I guess they enjoyed it because they’ve asked for more, but it was a bit of a rocky start.  It seems that people who rarely think of anything in the abstract, think of ethics as something that is just a way of sort of somehow knowing the difference between right and wrong, good and bad.  So considering various ways of talking about ethics from descriptive, normative and critical points of view was a new experience.  It also came as a surprise that ethical thinking has had a lot to do with the kind of political system we’ve crafted for our nation and the political views we hold for ourselves. 

When we covered the basics of utilitarian ethics I figured that at least one historical name would sound familiar, if nothing else.  How, I thought, can one get out of high school without reading at least something from John Stewart Mill?  What a silly idea that was.  But it also occurred to me that I hadn’t actually read any Mill in almost fifty years so who was I to talk?  So here I am, deep into “On Liberty.”  I’m struck once more by how fresh and contemporary he is, and never more so than in his advice about what makes for a “healthy state of political life.”

In politics, again, it is almost a commonplace, that a party of order or stability, and a party of progress or reform, are both necessary elements of a healthy state of political life… Each of these modes of thinking derives its utility from the deficiencies of the other; but it is in a great measure the opposition of the other that keeps each within the limits of reason and sanity.

Our current problem, it seems to me, is that the Republicans have lost their identity as true conservatives who are intent on conserving the trusted means of order and stability within our society.  Their leading public voices yelp angry, reactionary words that bear very little similarity to anything like our treasured heritage and national values, but do sound dangerously close to the Argentinean ultra-nationalism of the not too distant past.  The only good I can see coming out of that is that, in another fifty years or so, someone will produce a hit musical featuring Dick Cheney in the role of Evita.

 

Friday, May 22, 2009

Funerals and the Love of God

I wonder if you have noticed a trend that has been building in our area over the last several years?  The obituary pages of the local paper report an ever increasing number of persons who have requested that there be no service of any kind following their death.  I think that is very sad and very hurtful.

A few, not many, of my former parishioners had talked to me about not wanting a service in order to spare their loved ones of yet more grief.  There seemed to be three reasons most often offered.  One was the memory of some horrific funeral they had attended that was an overly long combination of inappropriate eulogies or preaching of condemnation to hell for almost everyone present, sometimes including the deceased.   Another was an overwhelming sense of guilt about their failures as a member of their family, failures that had been left unreconciled and unredeemed until too late.  The third was a genuine desire to relieve their loved ones of the burden of yet one more event of sadness and grief.  It was as if they thought they could just sneak unnoticed out the back door in order to let the party of life go on without them being missed. 

They always changed their minds after a little conversation, but I see by the paper that that doesn’t happen always and everywhere.  Moreover, I’m convinced that some persons make that decision out of spite and long held grudges.  They can leave this world inflicting one last deep wound that gets even with a last act of revenge.

A funeral, memorial service or interment is a time not so much for closure as reconciliation.  Some non-religious families understand that and do what they can with backyard celebrations of life, or something similar.  For Christians it is also, and much more, a holy time of recognition that, in Christ, reconciliation also means redemption and new birth into new life.  That’s what makes it so rewarding to celebrate as we grieve, laugh as we cry, and tell stories until there are no more stories to be told.  The prayers and blessings offered invoke the power of God to flood this particular time, place and gathering with his abounding and steadfast love.  It is in the context of this Christian love where healing can begin to take place that will allow us to honestly confront and forgive the sins of omission and commission of the deceased, our own failures in our relationship with them, and discover anew the opportunities for love that had always been there and often experienced. 

Oddly enough, there is a prayer in the marriage service of our Book of Common Prayer that, I think, is even more profound for moments like these.  Amended slightly for funerals, it would read:

Eternal God, creator and preserver of all life, author of salvation and giver of all grace: look with favor upon the world you have made, and for which your Son gave his life, and especially upon this family here gathered.  Make their life together a sign of Christ’s love to this sinful and broken world, that unity may overcome estrangement, forgiveness heal guilt, an joy conquer despair.  Amen.

 

Thursday, May 21, 2009

The Holy Spirit and Dick Cheney

I was thinking of writing something about the Holy Spirit when I caught a few minutes of the Dick Cheney speech to the American Enterprise Institute.  It gave me a frighteningly clear picture of what the antithesis of the Holy Spirit might look like in human form.  I took a couple of extra-strength Tums to settle my stomach and a walk around the block to clear my head. 

But the point was made.  We have plenty of ways of visualizing evil, but for most Christians, the Holy Spirit has no representation except as a somewhat vague notion that preachers go on about each year around Pentecost, or as a deeply felt emotional experience of what is taken to be God’s presence.  We talk about being Trinitarians, but as a practical matter the two persons of Father and Son absorb all but a fraction of our attention.  The Son is revealed in the very human person of Jesus.  Although the Father, apart from Michelangelo, is not to be represented visually, we fully understand the idea of father, and besides, the Hebrew Scriptures are loaded with physical images and visions representing his presence.  But the Holy Spirit?  I don’t think a descending dove offers much help.  The Holy Spirit remains a ghostly figure.  The creeds, for example, seem to have tacked on a few brief mentions of the Spirit almost as an afterthought, and even there the Eastern Church has accused the Western Church of downgrading the Holy Spirit to God second class by amending the creeds to assert that she flows from both the Father and the Son as senior to her.  Perhaps the Eastern Church is right.

On Pentecost we do get the powerful image of the Spirit as wind and something that reminds those present of tongues of fire.  The effect was amazing.  A rather timid and fearful gathering became a courageous band of committed followers of Jesus Christ who were able to proclaim that good news in an enormous variety of languages.  Acts reports that, for some period of time, those who were baptized in the name of Jesus received a palpable in-pouring of the Holy Spirit in much the same way.   There are some Christians today who believe that that is still a requirement for the completion of baptism and is the only certain sign of one’s election to salvation.  My tradition holds that there is indeed an in-pouring of the Holy Spirit in baptism, but that there is seldom a particular outward sign of that apart from the priest anointing the forehead with holy oil and announcing that it is so.

The point is that, apart from these moments, the Holy Spirit is mostly symbolic and lacking in any real presence in the life of most Christians.  That changed for me in 1991 when Catherine Mowry LaCugna, then a professor of systematic theology at Notre Dame, wrote God For Us: The Trinity & Christian Life.  It had a huge impact on my understanding of the Holy Spirit as the power of God with us.  That, I think, is what we have taken too much for granted.  The power of God with us is not a ghostly power, but the very real power of God’s love with us.  It is not necessary to feel it, or have some emotional response to it, it is only necessary to know it and trust it. 

At the same time, it is a power that we can neither manipulate by magical incantation nor honest prayer, and it is a power that can easily be ignored if one chooses to do so.  On the other hand, as one grows into the maturity of Christian faith, it is a power that, while never coercive, has an attractive force that cannot be ignored.  It is the seductive power of God’s love.  What contemporary analogy can I use?  How about if the tractor beam on the starship Enterprise was powered by divine love, it would be like that?  Perhaps it can be manifested in some ‘slain by the Spirit’ experience, but I don’t think that is either necessary or common.  My own experience is far subtler than that.  

Perhaps the hardest thing to convince a hurting and doubtful person to do is to trust in God’s power of love that is with them because there can be no promise that the effect of trusting will be what they expect or want, or that they will feel anything in particular at all.  Moreover, trusting in the power of God’s love that is with us is not the same thing as giving up free will or trying to figure out what specific plan God has for our lives.  It’s simply about trusting and then getting on with life as life comes.  I firmly believe that maturity in Christ means to recognize and allow the power of God’s love with us, God’s Holy Spirit, to be the most significant power in our lives.  I think that is what scripture means when it says that perfect love casts out fear.  I think that is what Jesus was talking about when he said that we were to love one another as he loved us – in the power of God’s love with us.  With that in mind, I think I’ll close this post and go say a prayer for Dick Cheney that he may come to trust in the power of God’s love that is with him.

 

 

Tuesday, May 19, 2009

An Age of Discontent?

This morning’s time of prayer got me thinking about contentment and discontentment in the light of how our economy might change American habits.  There has been a lot of talk about how the spending and saving habits of Americans have been permanently changed by the recession.  No longer will we be driven by obsessive consumerism, and isn’t that a good thing.  I think it is and I hope it’s true, but I have my doubts.

A permanent change like that would require a national ethos of contentment.  Americans would have to learn not simply to be content with a simpler, less frantic lifestyle that did not require the compulsive acquisition of material goods as symbols of well being; Americans would have to learn to truly appreciate such a lifestyle as a deliberate and joy filled preference.  Can we do that?  

If we can, can we do that without letting contentment become complacency?  That’s a problem also.  Contentment too easily becomes complacency because we have been so thoroughly taught that we are either winners or losers in life, and unless we remain competitive we might as well just role over and be satisfied to be the losers that we are.

We are certainly not a contented people now, nor has there been a period of national contentment for a long, long time.  We are in an “age of discontent.”  It’s a familiar phrase isn’t it?  It’s familiar because it’s been around awhile.  The author and historian James Joyce used it back in 1891 to explain the turmoil in Europe and the forces that drive a people either to self destruction or self improvement.  Thousands of years earlier, the psalmist understood that kind of human discontent and had something to say about it.  Consider a portion of Psalm 78 as translated in the Book of Common Prayer:  “So they ate and were well filled, for he gave them what they craved.  But they did not stop their craving, though the food was still in their mouths.”

The age of discontent appears to have started in the Garden of Eden and has continued unabated to this very day – unabated but not unchallenged.  God in Christ Jesus challenged it.  He gave, and Paul amplified, more than a little instruction about living a life of contentment that was not complacent.  James wrote that if we would truly experience life under the law of freedom (which I understand as the law of love), we would be doers of those words and not just hearers.  It makes for great sermon material and some very dramatic and well received preaching. 

Can those words, well preached, lead us to any kind of permanent change?  I don’t know, but we do have a moment of great opportunity to boldly proclaim the good news of God in Christ to a people who are more ready to actually listen now than they have been in years.  Our obsessive consumerism has not worked.  It has been one of the chief causes of our current situation.  The people know that, if somewhat begrudgingly.  They would like a better way. There is a better way and Christ has already forged that path.  If we are serious about God being God, and not just some handy higher power myth, then now is the time to throw as much light on that path as possible.  And if you are unsure about what that path is, I suggest Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount as recorded in Matthew and Paul’s letter to the Ephesians as good places to start.

Monday, May 18, 2009

It's National EMS Week

Every week seems to be dedicated to some cause, and this is National EMS Week.  I don’t know what Emergency Medical Services are like in your community, but let me tell you something about ours.  The majority of our city Fire Department personnel are fully trained and certified paramedics, and the balance are all EMTs.  The city ambulances also serve the rest of the county when advanced life support is needed.  The rest of our rural county of 1,299 square miles is served by a patchwork of volunteer fire departments, each with a number of volunteer EMTs who work hard to keep up their training.  My guess is that 80% of our calls are medical.  Part of that is due to the aging population, part is due to the danger inherent in various work environments, and part is due to stupidity (as in the day I fell off a ladder and broke every bone in my right ankle).  We are half way through May and we are up to around 2,000 medical calls so far this year in a huge area containing no more than 55,000 persons. 

I know more than a few people who have not called 911 when they should because they figured they could get their loved one to the hospital faster than having to wait for the ambulance.  Our average response time within the city runs between three and five minutes, and when the rig pulls up the hospital has arrived.  Assessment, stabilization and treatment start immediately.  Now and then I’ve comforted hysterical family members wondering why the ambulance is just sitting there and not tearing off to the hospital, lights, siren and all.  The answer is that their loved one is already being treated and everything is under control.  Over this last weekend, along with the ordinary calls, there were overturned, hypothermic rafters plucked out of a freezing mountain stream, a hang glider retrieved from the canyon where he crashed head first, a young horse rider stabilized after being thrown onto her head and neck, and a couple of severe heart attack victims who were dead on Saturday but alive today.  As I write, my guys are being called out to a patient on blood thinners who has begun to hemorrhage.  Medic 2 is on the way, and she will be OK.

That’s a part of what happens in my small country town.  What goes on in yours?  You might want to take a moment to offer a sign of thanks to your local EMS providers, and remember to keep them in your prayers.

CP, Chaplain, Walla Walla Fire Dept.

  

Saturday, May 16, 2009

The Price of Sparrows and the Love of God

I have a birdhouse just outside my study window. It’s busy with the coming and going of adult sparrows laying, hatching and feeding chicks, and juvenile sparrows trying to discover life on the outside. Over the course of a summer a nesting pair in my birdhouse might hatch a couple dozen chicks. We have a second one on the other side of the yard, so one might expect that we would be overrun by Hitchockian swarms of sparrows. In fact there are quite a few for weeks at a time, but eventually they all fly off somewhere, and we are left with only a few from fall through winter. Where do they all go? I imagine that most of them die before spring comes again. A sparrow’s life can appear very cheap indeed.

Matthew said that two sparrows were sold for a penny. Luke waged a price war with five sparrows for two pennies. They were the cheap animals that the poor could afford as an acceptable substitute to the more expensive sacrificial lamb; the throw away animal for the throw away people. But not in God’s eyes. Matthew and Luke agree at least on this, that not one of them will fall to the ground apart from God, and that we are more valuable than many sparrows. We are not more valuable because of our faith or how we express it. We are more valuable because we are God’s beloved creatures. That’s all and that’s enough.

If God cares enough for the lives of sparrows that not one would die apart from God’s love, why do we find make it so difficult to accept how much God loves us? Time and again I have counseled with persons who were taught from childhood that they were sinners already condemned to burn for eternity in hell by a wrathful God, and their only hope was to accept Jesus Christ as their personal savior, yet constantly warned that they were always on the verge of losing whatever grace might flow to them through him. In trembling fear they are more certain of their damnation than their salvation. What rot! The damage done in childhood by incompetent preachers can take a lifetime to overcome, and it is shameful.

Jesus himself said that he did not come to condemn but to save, not to take life but to give it in abundance, not incite fear but to endow love. We are reminded that while were yet sinners knowing nothing of God’s intent, Christ was sent to us. We are sinners yet, and we are called to a life of confession, repentance and renewal through Jesus Christ, but it is not a life motivated by fear. It is a life motivated by the love that God has poured out upon us and continues to pour out upon us, undeserving as we might be.

I guess this sounds like a diatribe, and I guess it is because I’d like to see more energy put into sharing the good news of God in Christ with those who have never heard it than trying to heal the wounds of those who have heard it wrong.