Sunday, February 28, 2010

The Curmudgeon Opines on Allergies, Wimps and the Tea Party

Home from a month on Maui.  The dogs greeted us with some reserve, sniffing every article of clothing and every item in our luggage.  But they soon returned to familiar habits with their favorite toys and anxious barking about anyone using a bathroom without their assistance.  It took us years to discover that my deep melancholy beginning shortly after Christmas might not be entirely due to the heavy holiday schedule.  A February break in warm air, warm water and sunshine makes all the difference.  We are fortunate to be able to do that.  What happens when one can’t.
There was a time when we couldn’t, and the gloomy part of winter became and endurance test for me, but one I always survived.  My guess is that over decades and centuries past there were more than a few cases of seasonal mental illness, odd behavior and excessive time in the pub that were attributed to a variety of eccentricities but never understood.  Now I have a good excuse for my seasonal mental illness, odd behavior and, no never mind.  No doubt the same is true today, except that those of us privileged with discretionary time and money can do something about it.  Just the same, Seasonal Affective Disorder appears to have become the disorder du jour among those in the know.
All of this reminds me of allergy fads.  It seems that someone is allergic to something every time you turn around and it’s easy to get a bit suspicious about all of that.  Not long ago it seemed to be the in thing to be lactose intolerant.  No matter where we went or who we were with, all the talk was about lactose intolerance.  That really got under my skin because I am one of those for whom a little bit of lactose causes tremendous discomfort, a little more causes tremendous pain, and a little more sends me to the ER, so I didn’t much appreciate having it become the fad allergy of the moment.  
I truly do not understand why a disorder of any kind would become a social fad, but there it is.  One might reasonably ask why there seems to be so much of this going around.  My guess is that there were just as many people legitimately affected by disorders such as these years ago when life expectancies were a good deal less, and many of those who died early died of complications arising from them.  Medicine can do something about that now.  To be Swiftian about it, maybe it was better back then.  The weak and maladaptive died young allowing the stronger and more adaptive of the species to propagate.  What do we have to look forward to now?  A population of nerdy, disorder prone, medically sustained wimps?  The tea party movement is right!  What we need are more guns and less health care.  

Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Surfing as Evangelical Metaphor

We spent yesterday floundering on surfboards.  Over the last few years we’ve taken lessons and even surfed a few waves with the help of instructors and on boards the size of small aircraft carriers.  So yesterday we rented boards and took off on our own for a beach with dependable but small waves.  It was a day of laughter and giggling, swallowing more salt water than is recommended, with a few waves surfed in the prone position.  The really good surfers we met were laid back and kind hearted, and, while finding us comically entertaining, were nothing but encouraging.  We asked them about the beach.  They welcomed us, pointed out where beginners might be most comfortable.  Warned us against the part of the beach that was more dangerous.  They made us feel comfortable in a strange environment that was clearly “their” beach. 
In a sense it was a return to the childhood experience of learning to ride a bike.  It was a bit scary and wobbly, but as long as dad or mom was running along beside giving us a gentle push to get us started and keeping us from falling too hard it was OK.  Then we went out on our own for the first time of testing all the skills of balance and movement needed to stay upright and go somewhere.  It took some practice and a few skinned knees to get it down.
Too often we older folks forget both the excitement and difficulty of learning something new like that, so I heartily recommend taking up the surfboard for every senior citizen.  In fact, every landlubber Christian should do the same because it will also teach you something about what it is to be new to our faith.  How, you ask, can you get from surfing to the pew?  Isn’t it obvious?
Someone new coming in the door on a Sunday morning looking for something but not quite sure what that something is, is about to get into the water and take up religious surfing.  It takes courage to even begin.  Will there be knowledgeable and skilled instructors ready to outfit her with the basics needed to get started?  Will they stand beside him helping him get up and going and not letting him fall too hard?  When she is ready to go it alone will there be veteran Christians providing welcome and encouragement?  Will he be subtly ridiculed for dressing wrong, not being the right age, speaking a different language, demonstrating comic ineptness at the way we do things here?  Worst of all, will she encounter a bunch of Christians who have sat around on the beach guzzling liturgical beer for so long that they no longer know how to surf, but who are exceedingly proud, confident in their ignorance, and more than willing to offer an abundance of advice, snide and otherwise?
Think about it.

Sunday, February 21, 2010

Glorify the Lord O Whales and All that Move in the Water

A prayer of gratitude for the wonder of all creation is embedded in the Song of the Three Young Men and reads, in part, “Let the earth glorify the Lord, praise him and highly exalt him forever.  Glorify the Lord, O springs of water, seas and streams, O whales and all that move in the waters.  All birds of the air, glorify the Lord, praise him and highly exalt him for ever.”
I rise early most mornings to sit in the dark and watch the dawn creep over the West Maui Mountains shedding light across the sea, illuminating the pali of Molokai across the way, dispersing the clouds and awakening life.  Whales are everywhere this morning.  Excited voices from the lanai next door shout “There it is; see it; there; it’s a breach; wow!”  Five or six whales, at least one a new born, laze a few hundred yards off shore.  The sea is calm to it’s easy to see many more as far as five miles out.  I am surrounded by birds, mostly mynahs and sparrows, in heavy conversation about something.
By this time next week we will have returned home to Walla Walla.  I’ll rise early and sit in the dark to watch the dawn creep over the Blue Mountains shedding light across our valley, and the Three Young Men will sing, “Glorify the Lord O beasts of the wild, and all you flocks and herds.  O men and women everywhere, glorify the Lord, praise him and highly exalt him for ever.”

Friday, February 19, 2010

Castles in the Sky

AP writers Michelle Roberts and Michael Tarm wrote an article claiming that the recent small plane suicide crash in Texas exposed a gap in U.S. air security.   The Texas incident was sad, tragic and evil, no doubt about it.  But it would be a shame if America succumbed to closing this newly discovered security gap out of fearful hysteria.  However, since fearful hysteria seems to be the stuff of some elements of society, I do have a suggestion.  
Important government buildings are protected from car and truck bombers by concrete barricades, and they do a pretty decent job of it.  So all that is needed is a slight extension.  Build up the barricades to just above the height of each building, with additional roof mounted barricades extending a hundred feet or so into the sky.  Basically it’s a technologically up to date version of the castle with outer walls, turrets and an inner keep.  Think about it.  Not only safe but, when finally handed over for private sector use, they would make terrific theme parks and resort hotels.
Yes, I know I’m supposed to be a theologian and it is Lent, so I should be writing something of pithy theological value, and I’ll get back to that soon before they kick me off the Christian Century Network.

A Tricky Performance

My member of Congress, Cathy McMorris Rodgers, is one of those John Boehner minions who had nothing but utter contempt for the stimulus legislation, has voted no on almost everything, and frequently offers public statements sympathetic to some of the goofiest tea party allegations.  But she was thrilled to send out a news release announcing a $35 million competitive grant from stimulus money for highway construction near Spokane.  Vote against it.  Ridicule it.  Take credit for it.  That’s a trick.
She is also articulate, attractive, smarter than some, reasonably good at constituent relations, and knows when to flash her conservative Christian credentials, so she can stay in congress as long as she wants given that her opposition will be the product of an inept and flaccid district Democratic organization.
Lest you think that I am making overly harsh judgements unbefitting a priest, especially in Lent, there are no judgments here, just observations.

Thursday, February 18, 2010

The Iao Valley As Theological History

In recent posts Sunrise Sister and Lucy (my wife and her sister) thanked me for a tour of the Iao Valley on Maui, a narrow, steep and lush valley of unsurpassed beauty.  It’s an important historical site for many reasons, the most famous of which is the 1790 battle in which Kamahameha I defeated the forces of Maui to begin the march toward an islands wide consolidated monarchy.  On the one hand, it was the triumph of tactics, discipline and modern technology over traditional means of warfare.  On the other hand, it was the brutal slaughter of human life in which the bodies of Maui’s warriors damed the streams flowing down from Pu’u Kukui.  One cannot leave that aside, but there is more, enough that, for me, the valley is also a microcosm not only of Hawaiian history but of humanity itself.  
The Iao Valley channels streams of seemingly inexhaustible clean fresh water from the rains of Pu’u Kukui.  Produce grown in it was able to feed many villages without fear of famine.  Its upper reaches were (are) sacred ground once reserved for the burial of the elite.  In some ways it could be as close to the Garden of Eden as one might get, but the bloody battle of 1790 destroyed whatever pretensions of innocence to which it may have aspired.  Waves of immigrants and plantation farming of sugar cane and pineapple resulted in the abandonment of the valley as an agricultural site.  The inexhaustible supply of clean mountain water proved to be both exhaustible and easily polluted.  The growing town of Wailuku encroached on it with uncontrolled development.
I don’t know when, but the state stepped in to preserve the valley as a historical site and state park.  Today concrete trails take tourists up, down and through it with stops along the way for incredible views and signs describing historical events.  Taro and other crops are grown in miniature patches to remind people of what was once there.  Sacred grounds are kapu, kept off limits, but one can see into them from a distance. The stream runs free and clear, if not altogether clean.  A heritage park displays near life size models of buildings and decorations from each of the  major immigrant communities, and from several vantage points one can look down at the industrial harbor of Kahului in the far distance.  From nature no longer touched by human presence to shoreline compounds of petroleum tanks and big box stores, it’s all present.
When I am there I cannot help but meditate on how almost every historical human impact on the goodness of God’s creation is present  in such a compact space of great beauty: the good, selfish, evil and redemptive work of human being all there and on display for the thousands who come to marvel at its beauty with unseeing eyes and ears that cannot hear the voices in the wind.

Monday, February 15, 2010

Comprehending Sight

Gospel healing stories amaze me, especially the ones where the blind receive their sight.  Consider, for instance, the story in John where the man born blind and earned his living as a beggar was told by Jesus to go wash in the pool of Siloam.  To be sure he received his ability to see, but what is more amazing is that he could see with comprehension.  There is no indication that he had any trouble recognizing people or places; he had no difficulty adjusting to his new world of sight.  He could see with comprehension, and I wonder if that is what we need to focus on.
Is that what Paul was getting at when he wrote about seeing in a glass dimly now but once fully in God’s presence seeing clearly?  It’s not about seeing but about comprehension.  The man born blind could see with comprehension once he had been touched by Jesus, but he could not comprehend everything.  Places and people were no problem.  He knew that the man Jesus was the one who had given him the gift of comprehending sight.  He could even engage in sophisticated argument with the Pharisees.  But he did not recognize Jesus until he heard his voice, and even then had to listen again to begin to comprehend who Jesus really was.  He had much to learn. He had to learn who he, himself, was called to really be.  Who do you suppose he became?  Did he become one of the 120 or so who formed the nucleus of the early Church?  Was he one of those who carried the gospel abroad to make more converts and travel farther than Paul?
What about us?  I have no doubt that we were born blind, but what sort of comprehending sight do you and I now have? Any?  Where did it come from and how did we get it?  How much have we learned and how much do we yet have to learn?  Who have we been, who are we now, and who yet are we called to become?  

Saturday, February 13, 2010

In Preparation for Ash Wednesday

Remember that you are dust and to dust you shall return.  Ashes to ashes, dust to dust.  Yet even at the grave we make our song Alleluia, Alleluia, Alleluia.  These familiar lines from services for Ash Wednesday and Burial drive home an essential point in Christian doctrine.  Human beings are creatures not gods.  In spite of our meager abilities to transcend the limitations of nature, we remain finite creatures who are born, live and die with few of us leaving more than fading memories to mark our passing.  And yet we are creatures in whom the image of God is present, creatures beloved of God, creatures who, though judged by God, are also redeemed by God for life eternal, not as disembodied spirits but as unique human beings.  It is what allows us to sing Alleluia, Alleluia, Alleluia even at the grave.
Ash Wednesday reminds us of our creatureliness, our finitude.  It is an important reminder because our original sin is to assert self assumed divinity.  Because we are able, in some degree, to transcend the limitations of nature, because our ability to reason takes us far beyond our own time and space, we too easily assume our own godliness.  The ashes on our foreheads remind us that we are but creatures formed of the dust and to dust we shall return.  At the very same time, in this moment between the incarnation and resurrection, we are also reminded that, in Christ and through Christ, our creaturely finitude is given new meaning, new purpose and new life in the eternity of God’s kingdom.  
That is what gives life purpose and meaning and why human history is not without intention and direction.  We are sinful yet forgiven, finite yet redeemed into life eternal, unworthy yet loved by our creator, broken yet called to be bearers of God’s light.  The ashes of Ash Wednesday are a lessons in the humility of divine self confidence that is ours as beloved of God through Christ.

Tuesday, February 9, 2010

Humiliation and Humility

Humiliation. Why are we so easily humiliated?  Of course we don’t show it, but we feel it.  Why is that?   Humiliate is derived from the root that includes humble, but in its fullest meaning humbleness is a strong sense of self confidence while to be humiliated is to be degraded, to be made to feel ashamed or silly.  Why are we so easily humiliated and, perhaps, find is so difficult to be humble?
I suspect that part of the reason is that most of us are not very confident in either our place in society or the most intimate of our relationships.  In society we do not want to be made to feel foolish.  We do want to be appreciated for who we really are and what we really do.  Yet I have often heard the most powerful of executives admit that if “they” ever find out who I really am “they” would never let me be here.  For many reasons most adults are not all that confident about their place in society.  They can fake it by being blustery or arrogant, but it’s mostly a pretense.  A recent Baldo cartoon had teenager Baldo wondering why he ever wore what he had on today and was certain that everyone was looking at him.  The next scene pulled back to reveal a school cafeteria full of teenagers all thinking the same thing.  Most of us gain more self confidence than that as we mature, but it takes almost nothing to send us back to those times.  We do not want to be made to feel foolish.  Who is that makes us feel foolish?  Mostly we do it to ourselves.  
Our intimate relationships share some similarities.  It’s not that we are unsure of our closest friends and dearest loves, but because they are so close to us and mean so much to us, we do not want to appear foolish in their sight.  It’s humiliating presume upon a friend or loved one’s availability or interest in some particular thing only to discover how wrong we were in our expectations.  There are dozens of usual responses to our humiliation ranging from petulance, abusive behavior, and stoic silence to obsequiousness.  I tend to favor petulant grumpiness myself.  Whatever, they all come from our feelings of humiliation.
So what are we to do about that?  I suppose the first order of business is to do a reality check.  What is it that has led to these feelings and is it real?  As my grandfather often said, “I’ve faced an awful lot of problems in my life, most of which never happened.”  I’m told that originated with Mark Twain, but grandfather made it his own.  The second step is more difficult, and that is to more authentically take on our identity as beloved children of God in Christ Jesus.  That identity allows, indeed demands, that we be honest about four things.  First, our fallen and sinful nature that is constantly tripping us up through our own fault (mea culpa, mea culpa, mea maxima culpa).  Second, the forgiveness that is ours in Christ that wipes the slate clean in God’s eyes despite the consequences we may have to endure in the meantime.  Third, our commission to go forth as agents continuing Christ’s ministry in our own way and according to our own abilities.  Finally, the fullness of our ability to be so completely self confident in who we are that we need not embarrass, humiliate or degrade anyone, including ourselves. 
If we can accomplish these things we can exchange our humiliation for humility, and that would be good. 

Sunday, February 7, 2010

Loving The Spirit Back Into The Church

A few days ago I said I might write about Holy Innocents in Lahaina.  Here it is.

Holy Innocents, Lahaina.  We’ve worshiped here off and on for twenty years or more.  It’s an old parish with a rich history.  Once it had a large and vibrant congregation.  In time it began to flounder, at least in part because it couldn’t decide what it was besides a good solid Episcopalian church.  Why was it here and who was it to serve?  After a while it began to depend on a succession of six month interim clergy, which was an easy sell. The church is not only in an attractive location, Maui, but the rectory is a beautiful manse sitting right on the beach.  Six month clergy were not hard to find.  Who wouldn’t want a six month vacation with free rent?  I’ll leave it to your imagination to consider how that went.  
What changed was Bill.  He came on vacation; they asked him to come back for six months; he did.  But he also fell in love with the people of the struggling congregation.  They asked him to stay another six months and then another and one thing led to another.  Bill stayed, and he loved the spirit and the Spirit back into Holy Innocents.  That was five years ago. This month the congregation will cease being a mission of the diocese and resume it’s place as a full parish; Bill will become its rector instead of it’s priest-in-charge.  
The story of Holy Innocents illuminates several of lessons for clergy and congregations.  First, in an age where we sometimes celebrate the priesthood of all believers by denigrating the role of clergy, Bill’s experience says something about the importance of clergy leadership.  Second, no one ever accused Bill of being the world’s greatest preacher or finest liturgist (although he’s good at both), but his love of the gospel, and through it his love of the people of God in that place, illustrates the power of what it means to be bearers of the light of Christ, regardless of imperfections and limitations.  Third, Bill immersed himself in the history, culture and language of this place to become a kamaaina, a person of the land, who belongs to the land, who treasures the land.  That’s a good word, kamaaina.  Wherever clergy find themselves, in what ever part of the world and in what ever culture, one must become kamaaina if there is to be any authenticity in one’s ministry.  What does it matter if the congregation is mostly Anglo?  The point is to show respect for the history and culture of the land and to remember that we are “guests” in it.  Isn’t that true for every place?  There’s another local word, malihini.  A malihini is a a newcomer, a stranger, a foreigner, a short time visitor.  How many clergy can be in a place for years and still be a malihini? 
Love God, love the people, love the land, and see what happens.

Saturday, February 6, 2010

Wait and Watch

Waiting and watching.  I’ve written about it before.  A year ago this month, while snorkeling out over the reef, I spent time with an amazing octopus who didn’t seem to mind my presence as long as I just floated there keeping still.  Yesterday, as I was headed back into shore, a green sea turtle swam underneath me and the two of us simply wandered around for ten or fifteen minutes edging ever closer to shallow water and the splashing of swimmers and waders.  I’ve been around turtles before, but always out in places where there is less congestion, and I’ve gone looking for them.  This is the first time one came looking for me.  The point is that if you want to experience the world of fellow creatures in the wild it is a matter of waiting and watching.  As I write this morning I’m looking out over the expanse of the Pacific beyond the west end of Maui and east end of Molokai with Alaska somewhere in the far distance.  Nothing much out there to see; except now and then a whale breaches, a couple of surfers have come out to try the morning waves, a Mynah bird or two comes near to check me out, butterflies patrol the hedges, a spider is working on a web, a small sailing canoe passed by.
Today is Saturday, the Sabbath by our modern calendar.  It’s a good day to wait and watch, and be amazed.

Thursday, February 4, 2010

A Cockroach Question

It’s what we have experienced for several years now.  No geckos chirping around our rented condo.  Only a few sparrows begging for food at the lanai.  That means no bugs.  That means lots of pesticide spraying.  Hawaii is in the tropics, and that means bugs, especially BIG cockroaches.  But tourists don’t like bugs in their rented condos, especially BIG cockroaches, so that means lots of pesticide spraying, and that means no geckos and no birds except a few begging sparrows.  It’s too bad.  The beauty of these manicured grounds seem the worse for it.  Don’t get me wrong; I don’t much like cockroaches no matter what size they come in.  But I do like the diversity of nature that depends on a few bugs here and there to get things going.  And, I greatly appreciate that one of our favorite hiking trails now has an abundance of signs asking people to stay on the trail in order not to disturb the native ground nesting birds; that invasive species of shrubbery have been taken out to make room for native plants; that a popular trail trespassing on sacred ground has been taken off the trail maps.  It’s called stewardship.

Wednesday, February 3, 2010

Liturgy as Theater

I treasure our Anglican liturgy as expressed in the Episcopal Church, and I’ve rejoiced in  other liturgies in Lutheran and Roman Catholic churches as well.  I realize it’s not for everyone, but I find liturgy done well to be a sure and certain pathway to worship in all its complex meanings.  That’s one reason why I am so disappointed when liturgy is not done well.  It is not a matter of the candles being lit or the proper vestments worn.  It has much more to do with liturgical leaders, clergy and lay, engaging in it with care, dignity and reverence.  
Right away I know I’m in trouble because care, dignity and reverence conjure up images of stuffy, rigid, do it right or don’t do it at all, liturgical snobs and autocrats.  That’s not what I mean.  Liturgy done with care is liturgy that is not taken for granted.  It is liturgy treated as if it was being performed in God’s presence for God’s joyful pleasure because it is.  Obvious joy is a part of liturgy done with care.  Liturgy done with dignity is liturgy that recognizes that you don’t just drag in any old performance to lay before God.  This is time for the best that we can bring out.  Whether paper plates or fine china, it must be our best.  Liturgy done reverence is liturgy that honors all who are present in the pews, choir, at the pulpit, around the altar, God above all, and those who are not present for whatever reason.  
Perhaps that sounds a bit theatrical, and it is.  Liturgy is a form of theater in the sense that it is a performance before the congregation, and with the congregation before God almighty.  Think of it as a long running hit play on Broadway. How would you like to go for a performance where the actors performed with an air of boredom, going through the script by rote in monotone disinterestedness supported by a chorus that appeared to be searching for the right play to be in?  To put another turn to it, I like to think of liturgy done well as a friendly, relaxed dress rehearsal (if there is such a thing) than an opening night.  A friendly, relaxed dress rehearsal is full of anticipatory joy, and so should liturgical worship.  It assumes and trusts that everyone knows what to do and is eager to do it well.  If a little something goes wrong or someone forgets a line, there is no shame in making adjustments on the run or even stopping to get a better start.  And when the same liturgy is used to lead worship a few days later, it should be as if for the first time ever.
And that’s not all I have to say about that, but it’s all for now.     

Tuesday, February 2, 2010

Thinking Mindlessly

I’m on Maui trying to have coherent thoughts about theology, economics or politics but so far all I’m coming up with is sushi, whale watching and snorkeling.  However, I did bring along my ancient copy of The Nature and Destiny of Man that I last read in 1993 and intend to do so again over the next couple of weeks.  We’ve been coming to these islands for almost thirty years and, for me, it is my spiritual retreat, my place of restoration.  So maybe I’ll write about that.  Or maybe I’ll write about my favorite church here, Holy Innocents in Lahaina.  Not many years ago it was a struggling congregation limping along from one temporary clergy to another.  Today it is a vibrant, spirit filled and growing congregation.  The story of how that came to be is worth telling.  Or perhaps I’ll write about how I came to love a place and culture not my own and with which I can claim no kinship.  We shall see.