Friday, January 29, 2010

A Well Armed Theology

Is a funeral the time or place for a thundering sermon on the need for repentance?  Is it the time or place to confront the alleged unbelievers who will be present with the reality of their mortality and God’s demand that they accept Jesus Christ as their personal savior or risk eternal punishment in hell?  One member of a recently deceased parishioner’s family thought so as we sat around the table planning the funeral.  A look of astonished disappointment crossed his face when I said that I would be preaching a message of God’s abounding and steadfast redeeming love, and that, in the midst of our tears, we would be celebrating resurrection life.  
I found a similar theology at work a few nights ago at a community wide prayer meeting in the small rural town where I serve a congregation several times a month.  There were fifty or so gathered from most of the nearby churches.  Many prayers offered up pleaded with God to flood the valley with his Spirit to drive out the devil, who had so obviously taken over the lives of almost all the young people and many others as well.  More prayers asked for strength as believers “stood in the gap” fighting against the onslaught of depravity in all its evil forms.  There seemed to be little recognition that Christians might be the bearers of the light of Christ who, as members of the Body of Christ, might continue Christ’s work of forgiveness, healing and reconciliation.
I think I understand where this kind of theology comes from, and there is no question that it can be constructed from biblical sources.  But it also seems to me to be a theology of fear rather than hope, a theology that cannot hear the angel’s message “fear not,” and is therefore armed to the teeth to do battle with the devil, constantly expecting the devil to win if anyone lets down their guard for even a second.  One product of that kind of theology is the extension of fear driven, battle oriented thinking into other realms of life: family, politics, the work place, relationships of every kind.  It can suck the joy of living right out of one’s soul, and sometimes it can generate physical danger for others. 

Thursday, January 28, 2010

Apple iPad

I want an Apple iPad!  I don’t need one.  I can get along very well without one.  But I want one just the same.  It’s not a matter of conspicuous consumption.  No, it’s entirely different.  It’s just such a cool toy, and, at my advanced age, it resurrects the same feelings I had as a little boy paging through the toy section of the Sears catalogue to find the one special toy that lit up my imagination and fantasies.  The iPad is that toy: an absolutely unnecessary gadget to be had for no other reason than the fun I can anticipate, in spite of the wisdom of age that reminds me that toys seldom deliver a full measure of anticipated fun.  I want an Apple iPad.  The big problem is, who can I go whine to until they either give in or send me to my room?  I could talk to God about this, but I already know his answer.  Maybe I could ask Joel Osteen.

Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Obama Score Card

There has been a lot of rational debate, speculation and blithering idiocy out there about whether Obama has lived up to his campaign promises, as if he he hasn’t he’s the first president in history to have let us down that way.  Today’s Washington Post has a pretty good score card on his performance to date, and I encourage those who are interested to take a look at

Sunday, January 24, 2010


I started observing how people exhibit awareness of their surroundings years ago during a midwinter consulting trip to Alabama where I was picked up at the airport by clients and driven into town.  It was cold and rainy.  The car was full.  The driver was undeterred by the rain and saw no reason to use the wipers.  It didn’t take long for the windows to fog over as well, but that didn’t bother him either.  With near zero visibility, he sped down the road as if he had x-ray vision.  I asked him about it.  He was a bit surprised.  He simply hadn’t noticed.  That started my informal decades long study of environmental awareness, by which I mean awareness of the environment in one’s immediate vicinity.

I saw some of that yesterday.  It was raining hard, but more than half of the cars coming from the other direction were not using wipers at all.  The ditches are sometimes filled with cars of drivers who were unaware that the roads were icy, and multi-car accidents are caused by drivers unaware that they cannot see in the fog.  But the roads are only one venue.  Consider the loud cellphone users who are not rude people but simply unaware that they are intruding on the environment around them.  The same goes for those having conversations in quiet places such as the theater or church.  Speaking of church; good, friendly, hospitable folk express total surprise that someone new was there.  They are simply unaware.  My work means that I sometimes go into the homes of others at unexpected times where I encounter residents who are simply unaware that the floors are dirty, the garbage is spilling over, or the tub has needed cleaning for at least a year.  We can be mindlessly unaware of the poverty in our own community, the abuse going on in the house next door, the hurt in a friend's voice, the child’s cry for help, or someone’s desire to know more about God.

The examples seem endless, and I don’t think it has to be a matter of rudeness, ignorance or stupidity.  It more often has to do with a simple lack of awareness of one’s surroundings.  That lack of awareness is the preface to the age old question: What were they thinking!?  Surprisingly enough, there is a theological point to all of this. 

Being aware of your environment, of what is going on around you, is a part of what means to follow Christ.  Jesus led a life of awareness.  He was always and everywhere fully present to those around him and to the place where he was.  It is part of what enabled him to bring the kingdom of God into the lives of others.  We can do that also, at least some of the time.  None of us can be fully aware all the time. but we can do a good deal better than we do.  I have a reputation for being a bit absent minded, but it has more to do with where I left the keys or a book.  Now and then, deep in thought about something, I’ve found myself walking a block past the place to which I was going.   Eyesight and hearing can set limits on how much awareness is possible.  So can cultural myopia and lack of education.  We have our limitations and moments, but, as disciples of Jesus Christ, we can be, we must be, more intentional about being aware of what is going on around us, more aware of the nearness of the kingdom that is at hand, more aware that it is through us that the kingdom is made known to others.  

Friday, January 22, 2010

A Few Thoughtletts on the Stock Market

How is it that the Dow can fall 400 points on such threatening news such as the president could get tough with banks?  Are hundreds of thousands of investors like you and me calling our brokers demanding to sell, sell, sell because we are worried that the big banks might be reined in a bit?  Of course not.  But these big swings are not all that irrational.  The really big money managers, the ones managing the trading for pension funds, mutual funds and large corporations know that any little bit of “bad news” is a perfect opportunity to do two things.  Go short on some futures and then dump huge volumes of stock into the market.  The first in can sweep the profits out from under everyone else.  Then it’s a matter of deft timing to start buying back at bargain prices to start the cycle all over again.  Other than the thrill of the game, what else do they get out of it?  They get bonuses based on the money they made on the way down and the money they made on the way up, with a little pocket change thrown in from fees on each trade.  In the meantime, what happens to your pension fund, 501k or IRA?  Ah c’mon, get serious, who cares?

At the same time there are authentic trends at work that are influenced by real corporate profits, employment, weather, global economic conditions and the like.  The problem for you and me is telling the difference, trying to stay focussed on the fundamentals, and investing our funds through people we can really trust.  Who to turn to?  Well not me, that’s for sure.  Just because I write on this stuff now and then doesn’t mean I know what I’m talking abut.  I offer my commentary with no more competency than Glen Beck (I can’t think of anyone with less competency than Beck.  When it comes to blithering idiocy, he’s my idol).  I have a couple of trustee responsibilities, which means that I have had to find the people I think I can trust.  I feel comfortable with what I’ve done and hope you can feel that way too.  Good luck.

Thursday, January 21, 2010

A Morally Bankrupt Court

Is it possible to be stunned but not surprised?  I was stunned by the recent Supreme Court decision on corporate and union political expenditures, but not surprised.  It was not surprising given the makeup of the majority on the court, but just the same I was stunned at the blatant immorality of it.  

The Supreme Court has not always made good decisions.  During its history it has made abominable decisions that undermined our most treasured constitutional rights.  In time those decisions were corrected, but not before doing their damage.  It’s one reason why overturning 60 year old laws and previous court decisions is not unheard of.  But for the most part the court has overturned old laws and previous decisions in the direction of correcting egregious violations of civil liberties and human rights, and of providing greater protection for those at greatest risk of suffering abuse and injustice.  

Those kinds of decisions have often irked some conservatives who have long railed against “activists judges.”  In truth they love activist judges, just not judges predisposed to protect our civil rights and the most vulnerable among us.  What they have wanted are judges predisposed to protect the interests of large corporations, the wealthy and others wielding power and authority that is held to the exclusion of lesser mortals.  Now they have five of them on the Supreme Court and they love them.  The ruling today that unleashes unlimited corporate and union political spending is morally bankrupt, shameful, reprehensible, and one more attack on the integrity of the political process (which has precious little integrity as it is). 

Oddly enough, many of my conservative friends who are so delighted with the Republican Party as it exists today, and thrilled with the five conservative members of the Supreme Court, are the very ones most likely to be harmed by their policies and actions.  They are retirees, small business owners, farmers and workers in large companies.  They remind me of chickens inviting the coyote to protect them.  With pleasure gleaming in their eyes they look forward to celebrating:
  • Lower taxes on those many times wealthier than they as long as a pittance is dropped in their cups.
  • A health care system ruled by corporate greed and misfeasance so that is has become the world’s most expensive, least efficient and overtly abusive to those in greatest need.
  • Corporate (and union) control over political campaign advertising, and the elections that follow, for candidates bought and paid for who will enact anticompetitive policies benefitting corporations while limiting consumer protections.
  • Erosion of civil liberties in the name of security.
  • Economic policies advertised as conservative but leading to the same old recessions and depressions. 
  • Open season on rapacious use of land and resources.
  • Promises of reduced deficit spending and national debt while implementing policies aggravating both.
It simply boggles my mind.

A Godly Menagerie

My friend is not a wealthy woman.  In fact she has lived most of her life teetering on the edge of poverty.  She’s been a social worker, owned a restaurant, tried to make a go in the antique business, and now serves as the Christian education director for a local church.   Last year her hours, and income, were cut in half.  When you cut a church salary in half there isn’t much left.  However, she has been able to live at below market rent in a church owned house, and that helps.  

What I find most interesting about her is her natural ability to attract a ragtag community of misfits for whom she provides a home.  I don’t mean a place to live, although every bed in her house is always filled; I mean a place of warm welcome for those who are not warmly welcomed in polite company.  Her household is a menagerie of characters that would stretch Damon Runyon’s imagination.  Yesterday I visited one of them in a local nursing home where he is probably dying of esophageal cancer.  A brilliant man whose depth of knowledge encompasses most of the ancient philosophers, a few of the more recent ones and a smattering of theology from a dozen religious traditions.  He’s also struggled with drugs, mental illness and life just barely off the street.  A little later I got a call about another one.  He had just died after a difficult life of early promise, personal failure, drug abuse, prison, homelessness, rehab and kidney failure.  In the last six years or so he reestablished his sobriety, hoped for a transplant and began to enjoy the beauty of God’s creation.

I got to thinking about where my friend’s human menagerie might fit in God’s household and was struck by two episodes in John’s gospel.   One is Nicodemus’ nighttime visit with Jesus and the long conversation they shared.  The other is Jesus’ midday visit to the well of Jacob and the long conversation he had with the Samaritan woman.  In a metaphorical sense they establish boundary markers for God household.  One end is anchored by the educated, wealthy and powerful elite.  The other end is anchored by the most public sinner among those who are the most reviled.  Both are included in God’s household.  Neither would be welcome in the other’s household.  

My friend’s is a household of cultural lepers.  It is often noisy, chaotic and lacking in social graces.  It’s also a beacon of God’s redeeming love.  Thanks be to God.

Wednesday, January 20, 2010

God's Plans and Apostasy

I met today with a friend whose beloved died in a terrible accident.  She’s a life long Christian of substantial faith and well indoctrinated with a particular way of understanding how God works in the world.  She explained that she knows God has a plan for each of us, and it must have been in God’s plan for her beloved to die on that day, but why did God have to plan for it to be such a terrible death?  The idea that God has a plan for each of us who claim the name of Jesus has a natural corollary: God’s plan for those who do not or will not claim the name of Jesus is that they are destined for hell.  It’s a way of thinking that makes it natural for one to assume that God’s plan has been executed in Haiti, or in any other massive disaster.

That is not how my tradition understands the way of God’s planning, but I have heard it articulated without the slightest doubt by life long Episcopalians.  Who knows where they picked it up, but they have it more firmly cemented in their minds than anything they ever learned in Confirmation, adult bible study or from the pulpit.  I wondered with my friend if she would consider the possibility of chance conspiring in a sequence of unpredictable events that had little to do with any plan of God's.  That novel idea offered a glimmer of hope for her but also teetered on the edge of blasphemy.  It seemed almost a temptation to doubt the omniscience of God, and that would be apostasy, the very sin from which there is no hope of redemption.  

Where would anyone get that idea?  Out of the bible of course.  Consider the Letter to the Hebrews in the 6th chapter.  The writer plainly states that “ is impossible to restore again to repentance those who have once been enlightened, who have tasted the heavenly gift,...if they then commit apostasy.”  It is impossible!  Not even God can do it!  Apostates are doomed and that’s all there is to it!  I enjoy studying the Letter to the Hebrews and believe there is much wisdom to be mined out of it, but I am perfectly willing to argue with its writer and demand to know how on God’s green earth he can reconcile that view with the God's faithfulness demonstrated over and over again in spite of Israel’s unfaithfulness or with the weight of the teachings of Christ as recorded in the gospels.

On the other hand, if one has been brought up to never question the bible in any way -  to never, like Job, confront God with one’s own hard questions, then it is a truly frightening prospect to enter into any territory that might possibly come too near to apostasy.  One’s eternal life is at stake.  Given the propensity of certain people to yell out charges of apostasy at the drop of a hat (or the appearance of a homosexual), a fence of fear is easily constructed around Holy Scripture that prevents the full intimacy of communion with God that I think God desires.  Oddly enough, it is that very scripture that is filled with stories of God’s people who dared to live into that intimacy, and whom we remember as heros of the faith.

Perhaps there is a conclusion to this brief essay, and maybe you could write it.  I’m going to bed.

Monday, January 18, 2010

If I Only Had Enough I Could Be One Too

The Wit & Wisdom column in the January 22 issue of “The Week” magazine cited economist Howard Scott as having said: “A criminal is a person with predatory instincts who has not sufficient capital to form a corporation.”

OK, it’s a horrible exaggeration, but it’s also funny and certainly seems to fit the mold of the gang on the top floors of Wall Street these days.

Silencing the Past

I commend to your reading the 1995 book by Michel-Rolph Troullot, Haitian born professor at John Hopkins, titled “Silencing the Past: Power and the Production of History.”  Among other things it provides a brief but well written account of the early history of Haiti, but more important, it explores how the academy in dominant cultures silences the past in the process of writing their own histories.  No doubt every culture, whether dominant or not, practices silencing the past, but it is the academy in the dominant western cultures that has written the authoritative story of civilization.  In view of all the Haitian commentary surfacing these days, it will be worth your time. 

What I Have in Common With Pat Robertson

According to the CIA fact book, 80% of Haitians are Roman Catholic and over 50% of Haitians also practice Voodoo.  Why would I bother to look that up?  I wondered what Pat Robertson was blathering on about this time, but it raised another question.  The only thing I knew about Voodoo was learned from really, really bad movies, something I apparently have in common with Robertson. 

So I also looked that up on good old Wikipedia, and one must always take Wikipedia with a healthy degree of skepticism.  In any case, the author described the Haitian form of Voodoo as a syncretic combination of West African religion with Roman Catholicism that involves a universe of greater and lesser gods along with a belief in the presence of many spirits, including those of the dead.  One might even be able to draw some interesting parallels with the Christianity of mediaeval Europe.  I also learned that all those cool Voodoo dolls tourists can buy are used mostly to lure money out of gullible tourists, and if conjuring up zombies was ever practiced, it seems to have become a lost art.  What a disappointment!  What will become of B movie plots?

We, of course, are far too sophisticated for that sort of nonsense. Right?  I certainly hope so, knock on wood.

Saturday, January 16, 2010


I note the headlines declaring that looting in Haiti is now rampant.  Is that what it is?  At least to me, looting is what happens during riots when people take advantage of the chaos to steal and plunder.  What's going on in Haiti looks more like scavenging.  Seeing what can be salvaged from the wreckage that might provide some food, water, or something else to aid the survival of life.  No doubt there are those in the crowd, perhaps many of them, with criminal intent in mind, but if I was there as a survivor trying to survive I would be foraging for whatever I could find. 

A Look In A Mirror?

Over the past few weeks I’ve had a vigorous e-mail conversation with Brad, a determined atheist who is not so much angry at the God he does not believe in as he is at the Church, especially the old Mainline Church, that purports to believe in and follow God in Christ Jesus.  For what it’s worth, he holds the “fundiegelicals” in even greater contempt. 

I’ve gone through our correspondence and pulled out his main arguments, not always in his exact words but close.  Take a look.  There is some truth in them, and the image in the mirror is not an attractive one.  To be sure, you and I can easily come to a quick defense, but that’s not the point. The point is that our defenses, however brilliant, are not believed because too many of our own public actions have got in the way.  I wonder how you might consider using some of Brad’s objections to underwrite a renewal of spiritual strength lived out in our cities and towns by congregations of intentional discipleship?

  1. Preaching one thing but living another makes it legitimate to call you a hypocrite.
  2. Churches are the most segregated institutions in the country so how can you say you are antiracist.  You lie.
  3. You support equal rights for everyone else but belong to exclusive clubs and send your kids to private schools.
  4. You cheer the revitalization of the inner city but live in the suburbs, as far away as possible from the poor and minorities.
  5. You preach family values but have higher divorce, alcohol abuse and domestic violence rates than atheists.
  6. Look at the poor sections of cities with store front churches in every third building.  What good to they do?
  7. The inherent ambiguity of Christianity is a programming bug, not a feature to be proud of.
  8. Churches listen to the poor except for their theology, lifestyles, and views on the roles of the sexes.
  9. If you are so sure you are on the “right road” why have you made so little progress?  Shouldn’t I be able to see a difference in who you are?  It looks to me like you are running twice as fast as atheists but going backwards.
  10. The Mainline churches are a bunch of out of date leftists.
  11. If one’s own politics are discoverable without he aid of revealed texts or any sort of hierarchy, what good is religion in the first place?
  12. Nobody listens to you anymore.  You do not represent the majority of Americans.  You just dress people up in fancy costumes and pretend.
  13. You are arrogant beyond belief.  Butler Bass recently wrote that the Mainline is the conscience of America.  Does that mean no one else can be trusted?
  14. I don’t believe in religion because its adherents don’t.
  15. Religion (Christian) is most clearly defined by its vitriol and self-absorbed idiocy.
  16. If a goal can be reached without religion, what good is religion?  
  17. Why should I pay money every week to support someone when I’m perfectly able to be moral without his help?
  18. What religions assert without proof, I will ignore without hesitation.

Friday, January 15, 2010

A Tea Party Governmemt

I heard some Tea Party types interviewed on NPR the other day.  Very calm, very rational, very scary to me.  What would a Tea Party government look like?  I don’t think it’s much of a threat, but advance guards currently serving in congress such as John Boehner and “fellow travelers,” offer a bit of insight.  So do the demonstrators at various Tea Party related events and some of the more notorious, foxy, media commentators.

What comes to mind is a nation that would be controlled by a small, angry elite espousing extreme nationalism and restoration of a hierarchical racial equilibrium.  Constitutional guarantees that were seen to undermine security would be trampled underfoot.  Vigilante justice meted out by a well armed public would result in violence beyond any imagination.  Federal programs, particularly social programs, would be reduced or eliminated to drastically reduce the tax burden.  The result would be an even more dramatic shift of wealth to one end of the population spectrum, an immediate deterioration of the national infrastructure, an end to academic freedom and research, and, perhaps much to their surprise, an enormous increase in poverty, poor health care and lack of education among the very people the Tea Party movement seems to appeal to.  In its place would be a privately owned corporate superstructure working each for their own purposes in an environment of cross manipulation with each other and those representing government.  It would be a form of corporate socialism far beyond anything we might think exists today. In short order America would join the ranks of other corrupt and struggling nations.

Fortunately, I have enough faith in the American electorate to believe that is an unlikely scenario.   What really troubles me is that the advocates of that sort of thinking don’t seem to recognize how much they have in common with people such as Mussolini, Peron, and the petty dictators of the infamous “Banana Republics.”

Thursday, January 14, 2010

Retired Clergy Must Learn to Accept Their Limitations

Moses, Miriam and Drowning

Morning Prayer on Thursday is a bit of a problem for me, a very small bit to be sure, but it’s always there.  One of the Thursday canticles is “The Song of Moses,” also called “The Song of Miriam.”  I find it impossible to incorporate into my morning conversation with God.

The song in canticle form consists of selected verses from Exodus 15 including 1-6, 11-13 and 17-18.  Together they sing praises to God for delivering the people of Israel from the pursuing Egyptians at the Red Sea.  The song cheers the sight of Pharaoh’s army being hurled into the sea, drowned in the Red Sea, overwhelmed by the fathomless deep, sunk like stones, swallowed up, and all because of God’s love.  Most others seem to be able to read the canticle as a celebration of deliverance from evil, metaphorically represented by Pharaoh’s army, and it doesn't trouble them.  

Perhaps so, but I am more taken by the rabbinic story told in some Passover Haggadahs.  An angels standing next to God urges him to celebrate the great victory of deliverance as the sea washes over the army.  God hushes him saying: “Be quiet, my children are dying.”  I think I’ll take my stand with the rabbi’s story of God on his one.  I just cannot “sing” this canticle with any sense other than profound sadness and disappointment in the folly of humankind.  Don’t get me wrong, I can understand Moses and Miriam cheering and singing.  They had just escaped by the slimmest of margins, and there would be no further threat from the Egyptians.  Had I been there, I would have joined in the singing.

But I am not there.  I am here, some 3,300 years later (give or take), and from that distance I can both be grateful for Israel’s deliverance and horrified at the fate of their oppressors.  Moreover, it symbolizes for me the unending centuries of class, clan and racial feuding that seem to have taken us nowhere, in spite of the Incarnation we now celebrate.  I’m reminded of a verse written by Edmund Sears in the mid 19th century.
Yet with the woes of sin and strife the world has suffered long; 
Beneath the heavenly hymn have rolled two thousand years of wrong;
And warring humankind hears not the tidings which they bring;
O hush the noise and cease your strife and hear the angels sing!
It’s the third verse of the popular Christmas carol, “It came upon the midnight clear.”

And so on Thursday, I tend to skip by that canticle, but not without remembering why.  I started this brief walk through a week of Morning Prayer last Thursday.  This brings me full circle.  We shall see what happens next.

Wednesday, January 13, 2010

Earthquakes and Prayer

I always look forward to the Wednesday Morning Office because one of my favorite prayers is normally used on that day.
Lord God, almighty and everlasting Father, you have brought in safety to this new day: Preserve us with our mighty power that we may not fall into sin, nor be overcome by adversity; and in al we do, direct us to the fulfilling of your purpose; through Jesus Christ our Lord.
It’s a prayer I most often say early in the morning, sitting in my study with a cup of hot coffee at hand.  But I have also said it from a hospital bed hooked up to a variety of tubes and monitors.  It’s been a prayer said as a litany while on a walk, naming each of our children, grandchildren and godchildren with each iteration.  It’s been a prayer said for friends and enemies.  It is a prayer, my prayer, of great thanks and great hope.

This morning, January 13, 2010, sitting in my cozy study and comfortable chair, surrounded by books and icons, coffee cup at hand, two dogs sleeping at my feet, grateful for yet another day that has safely arrived, I wonder.  I wonder about an impoverished Haitian, for whom life has always been hard, sitting homeless in the debris of a rain soaked street with the bodies of family, friends and strangers for company.  The earthquake that struck last night and this morning’s aftermath present an image that is another sort of icon, one through which the complexity of natural disaster and human moral evil come into sharp focus.  That sharp focus sheds momentary light on conditions like it elsewhere in the world, and reminds us of events and conditions in our own communities where personal safety arrives with no new day.  What then of this prayer?

The key is the last petition; “direct us to the fulfilling of your purpose through Jesus Christ.”  In whatever way we are able, let us be this day agents of God’s redeeming grace in places where that grace is most desperately needed.  That might be Haiti or Sudan or some other far off place, but it might also be in the house next door.

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Be Not Afraid

“Be not afraid.”  That’s the angels’ message.  Be not afraid when God comes near.  Be not afraid of the conditions you must endure.  Be not afraid of the task that is before you.  Be not afraid for God is with you.  Be not afraid is never a promise that tough times, danger or deadly confrontation with enemies can be avoided.  Be not afraid is always a promise that God has something in mind for the welfare of the world.  Be not afraid is encouragement not to fall victim to manipulating intimidation.  

How different that is from the message often heard in daily life, “be afraid, be very afraid.”  Be afraid of the boss, of life, of others who are different, of security, of almost anything.  The warning to be afraid is often used as an intentional tool of intimidation in order to manipulate the behavior of another.  Fearful people manipulating fear in others can be a powerful motivator, but seldom for good in any form. 

In the tradition of the Episcopal Church, Tuesday’s morning meditation focuses in part on fear, as we pray to God that we recognize that in serving God we will experience perfect freedom, and that “...we, surely trusting in your defense, may not fear the power of any adversaries...”  Think about what it would be like to live without ever being intimidated through the intentional manipulation of fear by some other person.  How freeing would that be?  Our prayer this morning is exactly that.  By fully accepting who we are as beloved children of God we have no need to be intimidated by anyone, nor do we need to engage in the cruel act of intimidation. 

If on Sunday we prayed for an entire week lived in God’s favor, this is one of the ways to  experience that. 

Monday, January 11, 2010

King Arthur's Lessons on Manhood

On Christmas Day, 1952 I unwrapped a gift from my grandparents.  It was a book, Howard Pyle’s 312 page “The Story of King Arthur and his Knights.”  I cannot imagine what made them think that a ten year old boy would want to read a tome written in imitation Ye Olde English, even if it was about King Arthur.  The book got put away somewhere, and maybe that was a good thing because it is the only one of my childhood books to survive.  I picked it up a few days ago and started reading it,  fifty-seven years later.  

Pyle meant it to be both entertaining and a form of instruction for young boys that would lead them into the proper sort of manhood.  He interrupts the narrative now and then with a few paragraphs of instruction to the reader about the moral lesson they should have learned from the story just told.  But the stories are odd.  Pagan magic and Celtic fairies and enchanted places are mixed in with well populated towns, elegant cathedrals and an Archbishop of Canterbury well in control of all things religious.  The land of England is everywhere clean, neat, orderly and richly adorned.  The weather, of course, is perfect.  A knight’s manhood is authenticated by his “adventures.”  Adventures involve deliberately seeking out some other knight to fight with, always with the intent of causing injury or death, and it matters not whether one’s opponent is friend, enemy or unknown.  The whole point is to fight.  Good grief, even Louis L’Amour gunfights were prefaced by a moral reason that made some degree of sense.  

Pyle also populates his tales with women of striking beauty and sexually enticing demeanor who are constantly leading knights into their adventures, and yet who must always be “held unto the knights as sacred.”  Even a ten year old boy would know that was crazy.  This one had the experience of sisters who easily led him into all kinds of trouble and there was nothing sacred about them.  Good and practical lessons for the years that would be forthcoming, but I digress. 

Admittedly I’m only up to his story of the death of Merlin, and it remains to be seen how he will handle Morgan LeFay and the affair between Lancelot and Queen Guinevere.  In any case, here are the rules of life I’ve learned so far:
  1. Pick as many fights as possible.
  2. Try not to get killed or hurt too bad, but do as much damage as possible to your opponent.
  3. Use your fighting skills to protect the non-fighters.
  4. Adore beautiful women but only kiss them on the cheek and then only if you intend to marry them.
  5. Magic is your friend but be careful with it.
  6. Beware of enchanted places.
  7. God is in charge of everything that magicians are not in charge of.
  8. A real man is a rich man.

Monday's Child Is Fair Of Face. Phooey, Don't Bug Me, It's Monday

Mother Goose says that Monday’s child is fair of face, which is so unlike the popular cartoon of Monday as the harbinger of another overbearing work week, and oh so hard to endure after a weekend of rest and delight.   Arrrgh, it’s Monday!

Whatever happened to the idea we considered just yesterday that the week ahead might be lived in God’s favor.  It didn’t take long to evaporate did it?  I wonder if that’s why the preferred Monday morning canticle has us singing along with Isaiah that we will draw water with rejoicing from the springs of salvation, that we will give thanks to the Lord and call upon his name, that we will sing the praises of the Lord and make his deeds known among the people (Isa 12.2-6). 

To be honest, anyone who expects me to sing praises of any kind, or even be civil, before I’ve had my coffee is expecting too much.  It’s why I spend my first hour or so in meditative prayer with God.  He’s the only one who can tolerate me in the morning.  But that’s not the point.  The point is that our Mondays, back in the routine of those we work with on a daily basis, is precisely the right time to recall our desire to live in God’s favor, and to do so by drawing water with rejoicing from the springs of salvation in the very place and among the very people of our ordinary daily lives.  That does not mean heavy handed proselytizing at the water cooler.  It simply means to let the love of God that washed over us in our worship yesterday flow through us into the lives of those we work with today simply in the way we treat them.  Nothing needs to be said.  In fact, words frequently create obstacles all but impossible to overcome.  Just let it be.  H’mm, that sure sounds familiar.   Where have I heard that before?

When I find myself in times of trouble, mother Mary comes to me, 
speaking words of wisdom, let it be. 
And in my hour of darkness she is standing right in front of me, 
speaking words of wisdom, let it be. 

Let it be, let it be, let it be, let it be. 
Whisper words of wisdom, let it be. 

Have a happy and blessed Monday 

Sunday, January 10, 2010

Bathed in God's Blessings

A portion of the prayers for Sunday ask God that we might receive such a blessing through our worship that the week ahead might be spent in God’s favor.  That raises some interesting questions.  If such a wonderful blessing is to be received through worship, what is the nature of that worship?  For that matter, what exactly is worship?  Common wisdom in Protestant thinking heavily influenced by Calvin holds that nothing we have done, are doing, or ever will do can be ‘good’ in God’s sight, so is it even possible to spend a week in God’s favor?  What would such a week be like?  How would it be different from other weeks you and I have experienced?  

For me, worship means to participate with God in the love of God that can surround and fill us.  The Sunday rituals of the Episcopal Church are holy vessels that can carry me, in the company of others, into communion with God in Christ Jesus leading to the intimacy of sharing with Christ in the Holy Communion of the bread and wine in which he is truly present.  I said can, not will, because I’m not always fully and intentionally present to all that God offers through worship.  I let little inconveniences and minor distractions get in the way.  Fortunately, God is fully present even when I am not, and that makes a difference.  But there remains one more obstacle to worship.  The moment our rituals cease to be holy vessels carrying us into communion with God, the moment that they become the object of worship, we have fallen into idolatry, and that can sometimes be an easy thing to do.  

But moving on; when Peter and the other disciples wondered about the obvious impossibility of living up to God’s standards, Jesus reminded them that through God all things were possible.  Bathed in God’s blessings, and contrary to popular Calvinism, I believe it is entirely possible to act in such a way as to spend time in God’s favor, and that it is engagement in worship through which such bathing may come.  I believe that I have been blessed to spend parts of some weeks in God’s favor: sometimes only a few moments, occasionally an hour or two.  I have yet to discover what it would be like to spend an entire week in God’s favor.  If I ever do I imagine that I will be so transformed that not a soul will recognize me.  Indeed, I may not recognize myself, and that’s a bit scary.  Our various flaws, insecurities, delusions and eccentricities give us more than a little of our character and identity.  Living an entire week in the fulness of God’s love by loving every single other creature as Christ has loved them would do some serious damage to my customary and recognizable behavior.  Think about it.  May you be bathed in God’s blessings this week and experience what it is to spend time in God’s favor.

Saturday, January 9, 2010

Today is the Sabbath. Are You Resting?

Sabbath rest.  We are commanded to remember the Sabbath and keep in holy.  What day is the Sabbath?  Around here that is a serious question.  With a local Seventh Day Adventist college we are heavily populated by SDA churches of all sizes and types.  Saturday is the only acceptable day for worship for them, it is the Sabbath.  A few old time Adventists are so convinced of the rightness of their day that they are equally convinced that we Sunday people are doomed to hell.  On the other hand, most Christian literature of the 19th and 20th centuries had no problem conflating the words Sunday, Sabbath and the Lord’s Day.  All one and the same as far as they were concerned.  Logically minded people like to stir the pot by reminding us that Saturday or Sunday are mere conventions for certain days assigned to the calendar of the Common Era, and given the many changes in the western calendar over the years, who knows when the real Sabbath might have been?  Wading in are certain biblical scholars contending that the original Sabbath was a bimonthly not weekly event, which is not what it says in Genesis but who cares.

God must wonder how we can get so screwed up over one simple question.  Oddly enough, our Anglican tradition agrees, in part, with the Adventists.  Saturday, convention or not, is the Sabbath and is to be a day of rest in preparation for the celebration on Sunday, the Lord’s Day.  Of course that is not to say that we actually rest on Saturday to prepare for celebratory worship on Sunday, but that’s another story.  The point is that Sabbath rest is important for our spiritual, emotional and physical well being as human beings.  I’m not convinced that God cares very much which day out of seven is devoted to Sabbath rest, but one should be.  I don’t remember ever taking a real Sabbath rest during my secular working days.  I don’t recall ever giving it any thought at all.  During my ordained working days I tried to make Friday my Sabbath but with marginal success.  Now I’m retired and Sabbath should come easy, but it doesn’t.  

I’m on a committee that is grappling with how to improve the spiritual dimensions of healing in our local Adventist hospital.  A good question was brought to the table at our last meeting.  How can we make Sabbath rest a part of each patient’s experience while they are here?  I’ve been a patient (too many times for my taste).  Lots of things happen to patients.  Probing, sticking, moving, testing, feeding, visiting, IVs and drugs, half stoned semi-awareness, noisy halls, loud talking, unanswered calls for nursing help, boredom, restless sleep.  It’s quite a buffet, and Sabbath rest would be a delightful and healing addition.

I wonder how Sabbath rest could be introduced into other venues of ordinary life?  I wonder how Sabbath rest could become a treasured part of our weekly lives?  God commanded the Sabbath not because God needed it, but because we need it.  I wonder if we shouldn’t take God more seriously on this one.   Today is the Sabbath.  I’ve got coffee with a friend, dry cleaning to drop off and pick up, a stop at the pharmacy and a funeral to attend, then I’ll rest.  How about you? 

Friday, January 8, 2010

Walking in the Way of the Cross

My morning prayers are said while sitting in the chair in my study.  On the wall opposite is a treasured crucifix.  The image of Christ’s body hangs as if near death.  It is the cross of Good Friday.  Above to the left is a beautiful flowered Easter cross symbolic of the resurrection.  Underneath it are two icons.  One is St. Antony of the Desert who spent a good part of his life fighting his own demons until he came to the place of life and peace.  In the maturity of his old age and deep wisdom he helped guide the early church.  The other is St. Stephen whose lack of wisdom and youthful indiscretion led to his early martyrdom, and yet he has inspired generations of those who would follow Jesus.  Nearby is a black and white photograph of a sheet appearing to lift itself high into the air so that it can come down on a bed for a homeless person.  Behind it on the wall is the image of a backlit cross.  Hidden in the shadows is the hand of the man making that bed, a New York executive who will sleep along side the homeless that night, as he did each week.  A portion of the customary Friday meditation asks us to consider that we might find walking in the way of the cross to be none other than the way of life and peace.  So the question is, what is the way of the cross?

You and I have both heard that put upon sigh followed by a soulful “I guess it’s the cross I have to bear.”  In my experience that “cross” has most often meant some unpleasant burden or personal thorn to be endured, often with the hope of earning a sympathetic hearing and appropriate recognition of one’s patient holiness.  Sometimes it has been a more serious confession of living in conditions of abuse but under the illusion that it must somehow be God’s will.   I do not believe that these are the ways of the cross upon which we are to meditate.

Jesus’ own cross was not just the tree upon which he was crucified, but the whole of his redeeming work that led to it and through it to the grave and resurrection.  In other words, it was the whole of the work he was given to do.  To pick up our own crosses and follow him is not to find our way toward crucifixion, nor is it to label some petty irritant as a holy cross, nor is it to endure abuse and oppression as if that could be pleasing to God.  Walking in the way of the cross is to live intentionally as a disciple of Jesus through the way you and I treat each other and ourselves, and in doing whatever work is at hand as followers of Christ.  That intentionality is not a particularly easy way to live.  It requires vigilance, perseverance and a commitment to the basic principles that Jesus taught by his own word and example. 

In my tradition we try to illuminate what that means through our baptismal covenant that asks us to, with God’s help: continue in the apostles teaching, participate in communal worship, partake of the Sacrament, resist evil, repent and return to the Lord when we foul up, proclaim by the word and example of our own lives the Good News of God in Christ, seek and serve Christ in all persons, strive for justice and peace among all people and respect the dignity of every human being.  Those are high standards and not easy to live up to, but for me they define the way of the cross and it is none other than the way of life and peace. 

It is a worthy meditation for Fridays. 

Thursday, January 7, 2010

Always Walking in God's Sight

A collect normally used for the Morning Office on Thursdays asks God to help us remember that we are always walking in God’s sight.  I wonder what that would be like, to remember, never forget, be continually mindful that we are always walking in God’s sight?  Now and then I hear someone say that Jesus is their constant companion and, frankly, I don’t believe it.  My guess is that most of us, even those of us who are diligent about daily meditation and prayer, seldom give God a second thought as we go about our daily business.  

I imagine that constant remembrance that we are always walking in God’s sight could have dramatically different effects on different people depending, in part, on what they have been taught and come to believe about God.  More than a few Christians have been raised with a constant reminder that they are living on the dangerous edge of hell, ready to be toppled in by a wrathful God whose (abounding and steadfast) love for them can be accessed only through a confession of faith in Jesus Christ and subsequent amendment of life.  In counseling with some of them I’ve become aware of how scared they are of God and how frightening it is for them to think that they are always in God’s sight.  It conjures up images of certain doom no matter how often they hear the good news of Christ’s redeeming love. 

For others, the idea of always walking in God’s sight is an oxymoron since their understanding of God has him somewhere up there sitting on his throne in another world and not paying all that much attention to us.  Of course, all that changes in moments of desperate need.  Then it’s not so much a case of wanting to be in God’s sight so much as it is wanting God to be in their sights.  None of that belies  prayers offered up on a regular basis to lesser deities for boons such as a convenient parking spot, well sunk putt, or a touchdown for one’s favorite team.  

But let’s set all that aside and assume a reasonably healthy relationship with God.  What then would it mean to remember that we are always walking in God’s sigh?  How might that affect my behavior and yours?  Perhaps I would be more patient, less rude, more willing to take a risk on behalf of another’s need, more observant of and thankful for the many blessings that flow with abundance into my world.  Maybe I would not be so anxious about the vagaries of life, inconsequential deadlines or the discomfort of unimportant things out of place.  Perhaps I would become more confident of God’s patience with my many flaws and shortcomings, and his capacity to love me in spite of them.  Maybe I would become less egocentric and more willing to take an appropriate place in the company of all human beings, especially those who can so easily bug me and are always somewhere in my consciousness.  What would it be like for you?

Heavenly Father, in you we live and move and have our being: We humbly pray you so to guide and govern us by your Holy Spirit, that in all the cares and occupations of our life we may not forget you, but may remember that we are ever walking in or sight; through Jesus Christ our Lord. 

Monday, January 4, 2010

Gunnin' for Security

There’s a fellow at the Y who often uses a treadmill in front of the one I use.  His favorite  tee shirt announces that the Second Amendment was the nation’s first homeland security plan.  I’m not sure what an amendment adopted in 1791 has to do with homeland security then, now or in between.  I do know that a significant number of persons believe that the more guns the better in order for the good people to defend themselves against the bad people.  It just seems to me that more than a few of the good people turn out to be a bit hot tempered, trigger happy and actively looking for bad people such as ex bosses, cheating wives, nasty coworkers, rude drivers and government officials they don’t like.  I fail to understand their paranoia about such common sense regulations as registering guns and licensing those who carry weapons on a regular basis.  We register and license all manner of goods and services to enhance the public welfare, and most people, except extreme libertarians, rationally agree that society is safer and more pleasant as a result.  However, my greater concern is one I’ve written on before, and that is the obsession with one small part of the Constitution that appears to have become an idol of worship whose followers are not only disinterested in the rest of the Constitution, and the Supreme Court decisions that define it, but are enthusiastic about denigrating it.  For me, the best thing for homeland security is a well educated citizenry actively engaged in the public debate.  What seems to be taking center stage these days is a ranting gang of Luddites providing very scary political entertainment, with the usual cast of violent extremists trying to take advantage of it.  The strength of our democratic system is that it guarantees freedom of speech for the Klan, pro-Nazi America Firsters, Joe McCarthy, George Lincoln Rockwell, Earl Browder, Stokely Carmichael and the like.  So far it has also had the resilience to endure and prosper without incurring too much damage from them.  Let’s hope that we continue to have that kind of strength and resilience. 

Friday, January 1, 2010

Atheists on Parade

I’ve been in an interesting e-mail conversation with Brad, who commented on one of my posts quite a few weeks ago.  Brad is an atheist for whom the Church and Christianity stand for most of the things gone wrong in society.  That’s in part because the Church is phony, a bunch of self serving or deluded hypocrites, and God is either a handy gimmick or a figment of their imagination.  Those are not the words he used but the meaning he imparted to them.  It has brought to mind my experience with atheists.  Not the one’s writing popular books these days but real people I’ve known.

I’ve always been a bit suspicious that there are no genuine atheists because they all seem to fall into one camp or another that make quite a bit of religious sense.  The most common are those who don’t believe in a god that I don’t believe in either.  That god is branded by characteristics that range from bumbling incompetency to sadistic cruelty.  I agree: that god does not exist.  

Next on my list are those who disbelieve because it’s not a question they ever considered with any seriousness.  If they ever did think much about God or religion, they do so no longer.  God and religion are mere abstractions that may briefly intrude in their lives now and then through the news but are less important to them than the color of their next car.  That’s not real atheism.  It’s just spiritual laziness. 

Of greater concern are those who acknowledge God but trivialize him by their words and deeds.  Absent minded cursing, baptism as little more than a ritualized baby bath, using congregations as social clubs, and daily behavior that belies the way of Christ give Christianity a well deserved bad name.  More than a little of that is another form of spiritual laziness, but the lazy have an evil twin.  My friend Bruno uses the term Christianists, by which I think he means those who take on the name of Christian but use it for their own selfish ways and purposes.  They are the ones who have truly created a god in their own image. 

They have a less evil cousin who is spiritual but not religious.  I have no idea what that means, but it seems to be associated with following whatever religiousy feeling breezes through, or the illusion that eighteen holes of golf is a form of worship. 

Finally there are those who think of God all the time.  They deny the existence of God, but that non-existence is one of greatest realities in their lives.  They are fierce in their arguing with God that he does not exist or, if he does, he’s really botched the job.  God consumes their thoughts.  They will wade into the fight for any reason with anyone.  I think God must have considerable respect for those who refuse to disregard God, trivialize God or excuse Godless human behavior.  They would never want to admit it, but in many ways they are contemporaries of Job.  I don’t think they will be surprised on that day when they come face-to-face with the one in whom they don’t believe.   He’s been too close to them, too much an intimate part of their lives for them to be surprised.  

If I am there on that day, I expect one of them, maybe Brad, to turn on me with a triumphant smirk exclaiming “I told you God is not a he.”  To which I will respond, “Yep, but I needed a pronoun and that’s one I’m comfortable with.”