Monday, August 31, 2009

Liturgies, Ritual and Idolatry

From time to time Jesus had some pretty harsh things to say about interposing human traditions between God and his beloved creatures. He could get really peeved when he encountered human precepts that established elaborate liturgies and ritual to identify who was in, who was out, and what one had to do to stay in or be kept out. Lest we Christians get too self satisfied about our freedom from all those rules, it’s well to be reminded that it was not just a problem for first century Jews living in Israel. The Church has struggled with the same thing for two thousand years.

Reformations come and go, new denominations pop up, congregations split apart, and every time in every place new liturgies and ritual come into being to more clearly define who is in, who is out, how to stay in and how to keep out. It sounds terrible and if often is. I believe it is one of the primary reasons that people give up on Christianity, or at least give up on the Church. Having said that, there is more to be said because not all human tradition or precepts are bad. Some are very important to opening up and clearing the way for human intimacy with God in “holy communion.” Liturgies and ritual are two aspects of that.

One way or another, liturgies and ritual are ways of acting out beliefs whether about God or something else. As has been said of we Anglicans, if you want to know what we believe watch how we worship. Our liturgies, and the ritual through which they are articulated, reveal what we believe about God and our relationship with God and one another. They are a part of our tradition, not the whole of it, but an important part just the same. The same is true not only for the so-called liturgical churches, but also for non-liturgical churches. Just go to one and see for yourself how the non-liturgical service takes on an expected order repeated more or less intact each week, how spontaneous prayers tend to be repeated in hardly varying words, and how standards of what to believe and how to believe are expressed and enforced.

Liturgies and ritual serve an important purpose in the Christian Church. They are conduits through which one enters into holy time and holy space for an intimate encounter with God. When liturgies and ritual will not or can no longer serve that function they become useless, or worse, become an impediment to communion with God. And that is what got Jesus so riled up. We surely do not want to get Jesus riled up so is there a correct liturgy or ritual that will always meet with his approval?

I, for one, am deeply wedded to and moved by the liturgies and ritual of the Episcopal Church. They lead me into the inexplicable profundity of God’s imminent presence in Christ. So I’m pretty sure ours are the ways that Jesus likes best. But my friend Jeff, a local Pentecostal preacher, is dumfounded at that and finds our way of worship to be so quietly boring that God must fall asleep waiting for us to arrive. I find his services so noisily rattling that God must be hiding until the din is over. And isn’t that a part of the great good news of Christianity! There is a place for everyone, and Jesus seems to show little partiality for one over the other.

The problem comes when we take those ways and place a heavier burden on them than they can carry. I’ve experienced Episcopalians up in hysterical arms because the candles were lighted in the wrong order, the gospel book was set upright or laid down flat, the Sursum Corda was said and not chanted, incense was used or not used, the acolytes were not wearing black shoes or folding their hands incorrectly, and so on. I have no idea what might set off people in Jeff’s congregation. Maybe the drummer didn’t show up one Sunday and how can you worship without a drum? I don’t know. The point is that this is where human precepts become more important than the worship of God to the point that liturgies and ritual are undermined and their values collapse. It’s something we have to guard against at all times, and it’s very difficult to do. There are always demands from some people who desperately want to know what the right way to worship is, and there are others who are quite sure that they know what the right (and only) way of worship is. Failure to do it right might invalidate everything and make God really angry. That’s the point when we might as well start tossing virgins into the volcano for all the good our liturgies and ritual can do. At the same time, it is important, truly important, to be faithful to one’s tradition. That means knowing and understanding what that tradition is and how it is employed for the fullness of life with God through Christ. It means acting out our beliefs through liturgies and ritual with holy intention and respect, but not with idolatry.

Tuesday, August 25, 2009

Sins of the Heart

Ah, it is good to be back in Mark, and for the coming Sunday we have his dandy list of no-no’s that have their origins nowhere else but in our own hearts: fornication, theft, murder, adultery, avarice, wickedness, deceit, licentiousness, envy, slander, pride, folly, these come from within and they are what defile us. Oddly enough I have a few friends who have claimed that it’s all God’s fault. He was testing them with these temptations and they were just too weak to refuse. They wonder why God would do such a thing, but they have no doubt that it is God’s doing. I think maybe we see a bit of that with more than a few politicians as well. I recall trying that excuse myself in younger days, but was fortunate to have some stern voices advising me otherwise.

However, self satisfaction has to be placed very deep in the back of a closet on a high shelf. How many ways are there to commit fornication? Put another way, how many ways are there to sell one’s self for a few bucks, and how many ways are there to try to buy the favors of another? How many ways are there for us to apprehend for ourselves something, anything, that is not ours to have or use? How many ways are there to murder another in small bits and pieces with our words and actions? How many ways are there to “cheat” on our friends, co-workers, neighbors and loved ones? You get the idea; I don’t have to go through the whole list. The point is that these are very common sins of which we are all guilty in one way or another.

Isn’t that what James is getting at in his opening words, that we have to be a lot more intentional about being doers of the word and not just hearers who deceive ourselves?

Thanks be to God that it’s not entirely up to us. A bit later on in Mark we will come to those wonderful words of reassurance that if it was up to us we would never make it through that narrow gate: if it was up to mortals, no one would make it, but with God all things are possible.

I don’t have to be perfect, but I do have to be intentional. As a practicing curmudgeon, that is not always easy, but I shall try.

Sunday, August 23, 2009

Olan Mills?

Tell me about your Olan Mills experiences over the lat few years, and in particular whether you have had any feedback on satisfaction with their style of photography, the poses they use, the background screen colors and patterns and the like. Thanks.

Saturday, August 22, 2009

Prayer Warriors?

Prayer warriors. What exactly is a prayer warrior? I hear it all the time and often think it is one of those catch phrases people use without thinking much about what they mean. Years ago, some well-meaning person donated a very large mural to the primary meeting room in our cathedral. The smiling prayer warriors, all dressed in medieval crusader armor (the Errol Flynn Robin Hood version) are on the hilltop just outside Jerusalem ready for the charge that will free it from the infidels who most surely are the agents of the very devil himself.

Having taken a quick look at a few of the prayer warrior entries on the Internet, I find my self more confused than ever. I’m relieved, on the one hand, to discover that most introductions about how to become a prayer warrior emphasize that it’s not about trying to change God’s mind or instruct God on what to do. It’s more about being at one with God’s will and interceding on behalf of another in the context of that oneness. On the other hand, there seems to be plenty of blessed assurance about what God’s will is that is more connected to the cultural values of particular warrior groups together with their sure and certain understanding of what it means to have a biblical world view. Moreover, there appears to be an underlying current that in these desperate times of the last days we are at battle with the wiles of the devil and the cosmic powers of this present darkness along with the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places, the outcome of which is by no means certain. Finally, there is a sense that we are battling for the souls of those who have not yet accepted Jesus as their personal lord and savior. Without prayer warriors God might lose.

These are precisely the issues that many of us will address on Sunday, August 23 in the reading of Ephesians 6:10-20. But we will also be coming to the conclusion of the bread of life passages in John, and in that light I wonder if Ephesians might be read differently. Fed with the bread of life one no longer need fear death, and that means that evil itself, whatever else it may do, cannot conquer. Consider that the armor we are to put on is truth, righteousness, the gospel of peace, faith and the word (Word?) of God. To me these are words that conjure up an irenic, humble and supremely self-confident image of one who is prepared to follow where Christ has already led, not as a warrior but as a bearer of light. Whatever the present darkness may be, it is made less dark by the light of Christ brought into it by those who follow him. Earlier this week a colleague pointed out that Paul does not request that prayers be offered up for his freedom from chains, nor does he desire the defeat of his enemies, but only that he be given power to proclaim the Good News of God in Christ in the place where he is and among the people with whom he is in contact. That is the prayer of one who would rather “light a candle than curse the darkness.”

We cannot adopt warrior language without having enemies we are willing to kill, and we cannot be willing to kill until we have dehumanized and demonized them. I confess that, in a lifetime of learning how to follow where Christ has led, I remain largely ignorant of God’s will and mostly have to just “let it be” as I experience the wholly unexpected along this most amazing journey of adventure. But this I know, I am not called by God to dehumanize, demonize and kill, spiritually or otherwise. If I had my way I’d get rid of the warrior language altogether. We are not wise enough for it, and I doubt that there is enough wisdom for it. And I’d get rid of that mural in our cathedral.

Thursday, August 20, 2009

Integration of Life as Discipleship

I’m taking one of my own comments from a conversation on the recent post about the Constitution and reworking it a bit as a post of it’s own. What got me started down this path was a cogent point made by my friend Bruno about the linkage between claiming the Christian faith and the responsibility of citizens to take seriously the highest ideals of our Constitution that inspire us to become a nation of justice for all.

The problem, as I see it, is that it is a very difficult thing to do. It’s not just a matter of differing political viewpoints. It has more to do with contradictions between the teachings of Jesus and secular political views that cannot be easily reconciled with them. In my experience, a great many of us are able to compartmentalize our claims of being Christian on the one hand and our daily secular lives on the other. I’m reminded of a Truman economic advisor named Carr who held that private morality and political and business practices should have no connection. As long as an act was not blatantly illegal, one could and should use any stratagem to win regardless of what happens to he loser.

That is a very extreme example and Carr was not lauded for it. But in fact we are able to compartmentalize more than that, and find ways to live in little boxes labeled home, spouse, work, church, friends, etc. We easily find ways to rationalize their separation, but this dis-integration of one's life inevitably leads to problems of all kinds including physical and mental illnesses that, grouped together, can become social pathologies.

I think it also leads to extraordinary attempts to create the illusion of integration, and am reminded of very wealthy friends who live in neighborhoods designed to create little integrated worlds catering to their needs and tastes but physically and visually isolated from the less attractive realities surrounding them. Oddly enough I have other friends of very modest means who try to do the same thing by living in remote paces isolated from whatever it is that they fear. I also think that the inherent conflicts in this sort of dis-integration contribute to the fear and paranoia of the current "tea bag" kinds of protests.

To be a Christian is to enter into a process of formation as a disciple of Christ, and that formation requires the re-integration of the various elements of our lives. That is always what is at the heart of the healing acts of Jesus and most profoundly proclaimed in the picnic on the beach scene in the closing paragraphs of John’s gospel, but for many it is a painful process that requires a lifetime of baby steps. Jung, for example, may not have understood Christ very well, but he fully understood the need for that kind of re-integration as an essential part of mature emotional well being.

We are not required to be Jungians, but we are required to understand a fundamental element of our Christian faith to be a transformation in which the totality of our lives become integrated into, with and by the teachings of Jesus. Consider the words of St. Patrick’s Breastplate as a model for what that means. What follows is a the familiar Cecil F. Alexander version:

I bind unto myself today
The strong Name of the Trinity,
By invocation of the same
The Three in One and One in Three.

I bind this today to me forever
By power of faith, Christ’s incarnation;
His baptism in Jordan river,
His death on Cross for my salvation;
His bursting from the spic├Ęd tomb,
His riding up the heavenly way,
His coming at the day of doom
I bind unto myself today.

I bind unto myself the power
Of the great love of cherubim;
The sweet ‘Well done’ in judgment hour,
The service of the seraphim,
Confessors’ faith, Apostles’ word,
The Patriarchs’ prayers, the prophets’ scrolls,
All good deeds done unto the Lord
And purity of virgin souls.

I bind unto myself today
The virtues of the star lit heaven,
The glorious sun’s life giving ray,
The whiteness of the moon at even,
The flashing of the lightning free,
The whirling wind’s tempestuous shocks,
The stable earth, the deep salt sea
Around the old eternal rocks.

I bind unto myself today
The power of God to hold and lead,
His eye to watch, His might to stay,
His ear to hearken to my need.
The wisdom of my God to teach,
His hand to guide, His shield to ward;
The word of God to give me speech,
His heavenly host to be my guard.

Against the demon snares of sin,
The vice that gives temptation force,
The natural lusts that war within,
The hostile men that mar my course;
Or few or many, far or nigh,
In every place and in all hours,
Against their fierce hostility
I bind to me these holy powers.

Against all Satan’s spells and wiles,
Against false words of heresy,
Against the knowledge that defiles,
Against the heart’s idolatry,
Against the wizard’s evil craft,
Against the death wound and the burning,
The choking wave, the poisoned shaft,
Protect me, Christ, till Thy returning.

Christ be with me, Christ within me,
Christ behind me, Christ before me,
Christ beside me, Christ to win me,
Christ to comfort and restore me.
Christ beneath me, Christ above me,
Christ in quiet, Christ in danger,
Christ in hearts of all that love me,
Christ in mouth of friend and stranger.

I bind unto myself the Name,
The strong Name of the Trinity,
By invocation of the same,
The Three in One and One in Three.
By Whom all nature hath creation,
Eternal Father, Spirit, Word:
Praise to the Lord of my salvation,
Salvation is of Christ the Lord.

It’s been made into a very long hymn, and with a couple of changes of tune and pitch, it’s not all that easy for some to sing. Its strong message of the integration of one’s life with Christ is an even harder thing to accomplish. I suspect a lot of pastors just skip it and congregants are happy to avoid it. Obviously more to be said.

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Psalm 119 - An Adventure in Faith and Life

There was a time when I found Psalm 119 to be the most boring of psalms as it droned on and on about the law in such obtuse ways that I lost all interest in reading it. I’m not sure when that changed. But somewhere along the line I began to sympathize with its author (or authors) because I saw in it a very genuine struggle with what it means to live in harmony with God.

The psalmist loves God’s law but does not understand it. He has studied it all his life and does not know it. It helps him through every day but troubles still overwhelm him. Enemies of God’s law prosper and oppress while those who follow it suffer. He knows more than all his teachers and knows nothing at all. He is afflicted and prays for healing yet proclaims his afflictions as the gateway to understanding. His lips are filled with praise, adoration, supplication, complaint, desire for revenge, thanksgiving for intimacy of life with God and confession that he has wandered away from God to become a lost sheep.

It portrays a life filled with contradictions that could tear it apart, but it is held together by the over arching and underlying presence of a God who lives in an intimate relationship with the psalmist, and whose ways provide unlimited trustworthy mid-course corrections amidst the confusion of daily living.

Skeptics no doubt would label it as a life held together by delusions and childish fantasy. Such lives have a very hard time dealing with reality in any form, but the psalmist seems to have a firm grasp on his own character and the conditions that surround him. I see him as one for whom the ultimate reality, the “ground of being”, has thrust through ordinary character and conditions to open a pathway toward a different way of being, one that is able to live in harmony with itself and the conditions that surround it because it is in harmony with ultimate reality. In that sense it sounds almost Buddhist, and that may not be all bad. The ‘almost Buddhist’ ends with the recognition that the psalmist is very aware of the presence of injustice and understands that to live in harmony with God is to seek justice not only for himself but for the whole of his community because justice is God’s way.

In short, I have come to treasure Psalm 119 as an adventure in faith and life. Reading and meditating on it has become a joy.

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

The Whole Constitution or Only A Part Of It?

A number of gun toting protesters at presidential events have made the public eye, along with the rancher from Montana who announced that he was a proud member of the NRA and believed in the Constitution (he was not carrying a firearm and asked some very good questions). My question is, does he, do they, believe in the whole Constitution or only the NRA version of the second amendment? It’s an important question. After all, the Constitution contains seven articles and twenty-six amendments (keeping in mind that one enacted prohibition and another repealed it) interpreted by over 200 years of Supreme Court decisions. Some protesters have yelled out their fears that the current administration might be stripping away their constitutional rights. I don’t recall them yelling that out when the previous administration actually did strip away rights. Perhaps I just wasn’t paying attention.

Monday, August 17, 2009

I Don't Want Government Messing With My Health Care!

“I don’t want the government messing around with my health care.” That’s the most reasonable of the rallying cries against health care reform legislation. Oddly enough, it frequently comes from those covered by Medicare, which is most curious. But yesterday I was thinking about government messing around with health care from a different point of view. In our community, as in many others, government already messes around with health care through the provision of emergency medical services.

More than half of our fire department personnel are paramedics fully trained to provide the best in on-the-scene emergency medical care. I thought about that yesterday because in our small city we had a lot of afternoon calls. Two were bee stings resulting in anaphylactic shock. A small child fell from a horse and was unconscious. Someone with a back problem could not move. Another had a heart attack. A motorcycle accident victim was badly torn up. Skilled paramedics treated each one of them at the scene. On top of that, we had number of transfers to larger hospitals in places like Seattle and Spokane. The department’s front line ambulances are go anywhere rigs fully equipped for everything up to, God forbid it, minor surgery. All the up front costs were paid for by taxpayers. Insurance will reimburse the city for a lot of it, but not all.

I suppose we could get government out of messing with our medical care and go back to the days when I was young. Then I was among the first responders with nothing more than basic first-aid, and the privately owned ambulance was just a white hearse whose driver didn’t know any more than I did.

Sunday, August 16, 2009

James and Paul - Works and Faith

I may be an Episcopal priest, but I grew up a Minnesota Lutheran, and that meant a healthy suspicion of James and his emphasis on works. As an adult, and having actually read and begun to absorb James, it occurred to me that he was right all along. Faith without works is a dead faith.

What good is it, my brothers and sisters, if you say you have faith but do not have works? Can faith save you? If a brother or sister is naked and lacks daily food, and one of you says to them, “Go in peace; keep warm and eat your fill,” and yet you do not supply their bodily needs, what is the good of that? So faith by itself, if it has no works, is dead. But someone will say, “You have faith and I have works.” Show me your faith apart from your works, and I by my works will show you my faith. You believe that God is one; you do well. Even the demons believe—and shudder. Do you want to be shown, you senseless person, that faith apart from works is barren? Was not our ancestor Abraham justified by works when he offered his son Isaac on the altar? You see that faith was active along with his works, and faith was brought to completion by the works. Thus the scripture was fulfilled that says, “Abraham believed God, and it was reckoned to him as righteousness,” and he was called the friend of God. You see that a person is justified by works and not by faith alone. Likewise, was not Rahab the prostitute also justified by works when she welcomed the messengers and sent them out by another road? For just as the body without the spirit is dead, so faith without works is also dead.

I admit there is more than a bit of hyperbole in those words, but the point is made. If we are to be followers of Jesus taking up the earthly ministry of Jesus as the body of Christ, it has got to mean that our faith cannot be expressed without continuing the works of Jesus. Faith and works adhere one to the other, yet in a bond that can be broken, and therein lies the problem. Why should one bother with everything that defines the Christian faith? Isn’t it good enough to go about doing good works for the benefit of others without having to bother with the Church and everything that goes with it? Or to put it another way, if I have accepted Jesus as my personal savior isn’t that enough? Why should I change the way I lead my life?

Breaking the bond between faith and works breaks the bond of wholeness of person and community that was at the core of the healing acts of Jesus. But our efforts to prevent breaks in that bond can be very flawed. We get ourselves into deep trouble when we begin to set up rigorous rules to prevent it and end up like the strictest of strict Pharisees, and there is more than too much of that among too many churches today. That is what Paul kept driving at as the inability of the law to be a source of salvation, and therefore our freedom from it. “Do not go back to slavery under the law” was his constant warning.

We get ourselves into equally deep trouble when churches treat that bond as nothing more than a peripheral matter of little consequence, or ignore it altogether, and there is more than too much of that as well. That is what concerned James. He was right then, and he is right today also.

James and Paul; I don’t think you can separate them without doing serious damage to the Christian faith. The wholeness of being that is central to the fullness of the Christian life cannot be manipulated by rules (laws). That wholeness of being is something organic that grows out of the infusion of God’s Spirit into lives that are compelled by that Spirit to share with one another in community, that is the Church, and with the world through works; that is, through lives that are in engagement with the world as a continuation of the love and healing ministry of Christ in the ordinary events of daily living.

Saturday, August 15, 2009

What Relationship with Jesus is the Right One?

Two things continue to amaze me about Christ and Christianity. One is the idea that there is only one right relationship with Christ that entitles one to be called a Christian. The other is the enormous variety of relationships Jesus had with those he encountered. Some were healed and sent on their with instructions to tell no one. Some were healed and sent on their way with instructions to tell everyone what God had done for them. Some were called to follow as disciples and some were told not to. Some were intimate friends and others informal acquaintances. A few were enthusiastic and apparently spontaneous followers while others were most reluctant.

The continuity that binds them all together is the radical hospitality with which Jesus engaged each according to their particular needs and circumstances. They were insane maniacs, blind, physically crippled, powerful, wealthy, poor, educated, ignorant, Jews, gentiles, Roman soldiers, anti-Roman zealots, country bumpkins, city elite, male, female, free and slave. There was something about their encounters with Jesus that inspired them to enter into a trusting relationship with him, but each in a unique way that was appropriate for them in a fashion determined only between themselves and Christ.

Maybe we have it backwards. It’s not the character of our relationship with Christ that counts, but Christ’s relationship with us. That can make it a bit awkward because it strips us of our ability to judge, and we so love to judge. There is only one requirement, and that is to have some minimum degree of willingness to accept the radical hospitality that Jesus offers. But even that is not always open to our discernment. The rich young man whom Jesus loved, but who went sadly away because he would not give up his wealth, did he return another day? I wonder if far too often we do not give God enough credit for knowing how and having the ability to handle the job of salvation without the benefit of our critical advice and assistance.

I think that what Jesus said to Peter at the end of John’s gospel was very telling. “Pete, don’t worry about that other disciple. You tend my sheep. What I have in mind for him is none of your business.” What Jesus said to Peter should be understood to be what Jesus says to each one of us, and what we need to understand about others.

Wednesday, August 12, 2009

Tea Party Invitations

What an interesting day! I seem to be on a Tea Party e-mail list and have received invitations to attend Town Hall meetings with members of congress in Grand Junction, CO and El Dorado, AR. Both invitations emphasize that HR 3200 would enable massive federal tax subsidies for abortions and demand that members of congress who have not been listening will be forced to listen now. I'll say this for them, they have thoroughly read and learned well from Saul Alinsky (that nasty old South-side Chicago Socialist), and they just might pull off killing this legislation. It will be a shameful moment and drive America further toward becoming a former great power, but they will have won.

Monday, August 10, 2009

Cannibal Sundays

For those of us using the lectionary, the next two Sundays are what I call cannibal Sundays. They are Sundays that I hope we get few visitors coming in to see what Christianity is all about. Let’s face it, John’s language about Jesus requiring the eating of his flesh and drinking of his blood seems pretty strange. Even otherwise loyal disciples couldn’t take it and turned away. What could possibly have been more repulsive to them? The devil himself was sometimes known as “the flesh eater.” Moreover, the laws of Moses were clear – no blood is to be eaten under any circumstance. The blood of every living creature was sacred to God. Why then would it be surprising that early Christians were sometimes accused of cannibalism, as in this famous citation from a Roman commentator on the new religion:

Now the story about the initiation of young novices is as much to be detested as it is well known. An infant covered over with meal, that it may deceive the unwary, is placed before him who is to be stained with their rites: this infant is slain by the young pupil, who has been urged on as if to harmless blows on the surface of the meal, with dark and secret wounds. Thirstily - O horror! they lick up its blood; eagerly they divide its limbs. By this victim they are pledged together; with this consciousness of wickedness they are covenanted to mutual silence.

From Minucius Felix, Octavius, R. E. Wallis, trans. in The Ante-Nicene Fathers
(Buffalo, N. Y.: The Christian Literature Publishing Co., 1887), Vol. 4, pp. 177-178.

I’ve experienced a few visitors who loved everything about Christianity but this part of John’s gospel sent them running for the exit. Even life long members of the church wonder at the language of these passages. For the most part, they hope the preacher focuses on the Epistle reading, or simply close their ears and wait for the return of sensible, no-nonsense Mark. I’m supposed to be a reasonably well educated and well read theologian of some kind, and I wonder what the heck John was thinking.

Ray Brown, among others, believes that John 6:52-59 is authentic Eucharistic Jesus language associated with early traditions of the Last Supper dialogue. But John does not have a Eucharistic scene in his recollection of that last meal, so it is likely that a later editor, not wanting to lose it, stuck it into the bread of life dialogue of John 6. Considering that John 6 makes perfect sense without 52-59 lends considerable credence to that idea. So the language of 52-59 is really Eucharistic not cannibalistic. Try to work that into a teaching sermon for wannabe Christians if you can!

It brings me back to my question. What the heck was John, or a later editor, thinking? Didn’t he recognize right away how difficult this would be to explain? Maybe it was just ordinary editorial incompetence. I certainly see enough of that in our city’s local daily. Maybe there were local conditions among John’s people that made this passage easily understood. After all, they already had at least one of the synoptics, and maybe all three. They already knew the story of Jesus quite well, including the setting of the Eucharist. John’s gospel had no intention of repeating all of that, being more focused on demonstrating Jesus as Word of God made flesh.

For my part, I would prefer to introduce seekers to Christianity through a different door, and will spend the next few weeks explaining these peculiar passages to a very confused congregation of life long believers.

Friday, August 7, 2009

Town Halls and Health Care

I’ve been watching the news clips featuring the rampages at some Democratic town hall meetings. I also watched the Rachel Maddow interview with Tim Phillips, president of Americans for Prosperity, one of the leading organizers of opposition to health care reform. Two things struck me.

First, Mr. Phillips is quite proud of his organizing skills, and unabashedly asserts the evils of health care reform without the slightest embarrassment at the falsehoods used to make his argument. Claiming, without fear of contradiction, that the Democrats are out to ration health care, deny treatment, increase costs, mandate government care, put a bureaucrat between you and your doctor and so on, his self confidence is both impressive and, for some, persuasive. One is inclined to be speechless in the face of the brazenness of it all.

Second, I don’t think it took much organizing to turn out the hysterically anti health care reform zealots to try to shut down any form of democratic assembly at Democratic Town Halls. These are people who are truly scared, but of what? I suspect they are the same ones who participate in tea bag parties, believe that Obama is not an American and are certain that the federal government wants to kill the elderly. They believe that “their America” is being taken away from them. The elderly among them railing against government health care insurance are happy they are on Medicare and have no idea what a contradiction that is. Those who claim to be happy as can be with our current health care system are like persons content with oppression because they have never known freedom from it. Those who are frightened that the Constitution is under threat by the Obama administration seem to have no recognition of the damage done to it by the Bush-Cheney gang and how close we came to De facto dictatorship. There is no more deadly threat to democracy than ignorance combined with a generous proportion of fear, and these are truly frightened people, but frightened of what?

Are they afraid of a “black” man in the White House? I’m not sure it can be reduced to something that simple, and yet I believe it does strike at the truth. A huge population shift that brings people of color and non-European ethnic heritage into positions of power and influence is threatening to those who never questioned their own exclusive right to power and influence. Or, having little of either, never questioned their superiority over those others who are not like them.

As one of my very conservative friends said the other day, “Everything I’ve feared about this president has come to pass; it’s even worse than I thought.” What is it that he feared? A recovery plan that prevented a depression and is slowly leading us out of the worst recession in history? Renewed respect for America in the community of nations? More support for troops in harms way and assistance to returning veterans? An effort to reduce costs and increase options for health care? Tax reductions for the middle classes? No, to the contrary, all of these things are seen as nothing more than cleverly designed camouflage for the real agenda of turning us into a socialist state ruled by people who are not like us.

I feel sorry for these people. I know that the fear they have is genuine and raises their anxiety levels of astronomical heights. On the other hand, if their fear is allowed to dictate public policy we will all be the losers.

Thursday, August 6, 2009

Jesus the Bread of Life. What's the Bread of Life?

Jesus said that he is the bread of life. No doubt John intended a strong Eucharistic symbolism, and I don’t think there is anything more important than that, but I also think there is something additional. It begins with a question: What is the source of foundational nutrition? Most cultures that are close to the land have a food that is symbolic of life itself, most often not bread. Whatever it might be, it is a food so basic to that culture that life cannot be imagined without it. Jesus as the bread of life is a perfectly understandable and instantly understood metaphor in those cultures. John goes on to make it not just a powerful metaphor but a claim on the reality of Jesus as the one on whom life itself depends and through whom life comes.

We Americans, and, for that matter, all of the OECD nations, have a hard time apprehending the power of John’s message because we have nothing that is culturally representative of life itself. Blessed with an abundance of inexpensive food in many varieties, there is not one that is the “bread of life.” To be sure there are foods that have powerful symbolic meaning for ethnic heritage and pride, but not as the very stuff of life itself.

However, what we cannot claim as a culture or nation, we can claim as individuals. I imagine that in each of us is something symbolic of life itself, something so basic that life cannot be imagined without it. Whatever that is, it is that which provides the foundational nutrition for our lives. I guess that was what Jung was after and sometimes thought he found. That’s what the advertising industry is after, what motivates fear driven politics, and probably what makes it so difficult for us to ‘sell’ the idea of Jesus as the bread of life to the skeptics that have occupied my thinking about evangelism. It’s why I’m inclined to believe that the best any national church evangelism program can do is to raise awareness and no more than that. I’m inclined to think that for Anglicans, and probably for most churches of the Reformation, real evangelism works best one-on-one or in very small groups. It works best when we take the time to get to know the other well enough to recognize that which is his or her own personal symbolic bread of life.

We’ve had programs that were supposed to do that. Alpha was a program that got its start as a grass roots phenomena back in England and became very popular in the U.S. and Canada. It lost its way when it got packaged and merchandised with videos looking a bit too much like theological “Sham-Wow” commercials. Most of the people who attended congregation sponsored Alpha gatherings were already members of the congregation with a few strangers strong-armed into coming for the free meal and fellowship. As I think about it, they were more like AmWay parties than anything else. I wonder if that’s where the idea came from?

But I digress. For the time being I think I’ll stick to preaching and teaching with the aim of encouraging the formation of disciples who can be all but unconscious of their effectiveness as evangelists just in the ordinary ways they go about their daily lives.

Monday, August 3, 2009

One Reason Why the Episcopal Church will Always be Small

A local Four Square Gospel pastor was a recent guest columnist in our local Sunday paper. He posed a challenging question: Where do you want to spend eternity? And gave the options: heaven or hell. And gave the answer: only by accepting Jesus as your personal savior certified by your baptism in the Spirit can you qualify for heaven. That can be a very compelling argument for some people.

As an Episcopalian deeply rooted in our Anglican tradition, it’s not an argument I am much interested in. It’s been said that we have a tendency toward an incarnational theology, which means, at least in part, that we don’t worry much about where we will spend eternity. As followers of Jesus Christ we take that as a given. What concerns us more is a question such as: What does it mean to be a follower of Christ in this world and during our lifetime? The question itself implies that we are also not much interested in worrying about the Second Coming, the Rapture or Armageddon. For most of us, the end of time as we understand time coincides with the time of our own death, and there is not much point in worrying about what may, but probably won’t, come before then.

What is very important is to recognize that each of us who claims the name of Christ is a part of the continuing Body of Christ, the Church, commissioned to go on with the work of Christ healing, making whole, reconciling, and proclaiming the good news that the kingdom of God is near.

In the parable of The Good Shepherd, the sheep that was lost was searched for, found and restored to the flock from which it had strayed. However powerful that story is, it is about a sheep that was already a member of the shepherd’s flock and not a stranger to him or the other sheep. But when Jesus claimed the title of the Good Shepherd for himself, he also announced that he would gather other flocks of whom we know nothing, who are strangers to us, but who are known and loved by him. Both are important. The flock we know must be tended, but the flocks we do not know, the flocks that Jesus is off gathering by his own authority and power, the flocks Jesus never asked our permission to save, those flocks we cannot cast into the outer darkness or consign to hell. In the first place, we are utterly ignorant about the matter. In the second place, it is God and not us who has the authority to gather them in whatever way God chooses.

That forces a major change in the way we, or at least I, approach evangelism. It is no longer a matter of confronting someone with the challenge that if you want to avoid going to hell here is what you have to do. It is a matter of proclaiming that you are already saved by the power of God through the love of Jesus Christ, here, now, in this life and for all eternity. Accept this gift and join with us as disciples of Christ continuing in his work of bringing the light of the kingdom of God into our own time and place. Good grief, that sounds like work.

The problem, as I see it, is that the Four Square approach has more sales appeal through a really good and very simple scare message. It fits in better with contemporary political propaganda techniques and plays more effectively into anxieties about life sensationalized by talk radio, television and movies. It avoids all the difficulty of apprehending the central place and meaning of the Eucharist. It sidesteps the Greek gobbledygook of the Nicene Creed. It does not have to explain the role of tradition, especially the messy parts around the Reformation. It doesn’t care what makes an Anglican different from a Catholic or Lutheran (Garrison Keillor claims we are all Lutherans, just in different clothing). It’s more culturally relative even though that idea would be anathema to them. Either you’re in or you’re out, and here are the rules for getting in. It just makes a hell of a lot more sense to a great many people.

I think that means that we Episcopalians will always be a rather small denomination whose primary mission is the formation of disciples out of people who have no particular interest in becoming disciples but who stick with it anyway.