Monday, May 31, 2010

An American Hero

On Memorial Day I go to the cemetery and place a flag and a few roses from our garden on the grave of Harlan Miller.  I was his pastor, and the church was his only family for the last few decades of his life.  Here is what I wrote about Harlan several years ago and post again on this Memorial Day.
Harlan Miller, Mr. Miller to most, was something of a hermit. Raised on a farm in the early 20th century, self-educated in the classics and the modern world up to but not much past the 19th century, he was badly wounded in North Africa during WWII.  After three years in Army hospitals, he learned to survive on a tiny pension and SSD while doing a few odd jobs here and there. Whatever family he had died somewhere along the way, with the exception of one distant cousin. The church became his family but in a way that kept intimacy at arms length.  His weekly dime or quarter, or maybe penny, filled the offering plate to over flowing.  Now and then he’d make a gift to someone of a special tea he liked, or maybe gladiola bulbs from his yard. One year the youth group fixed up his shack for the winter, but it wasn’t quite enough to fill all the cracks. He never missed an adult bible study if he could help it, and would occasionally offer his well educated 19th century wisdom as a guide for our lives newly arrived in the 21st century. He was lovingly tended in his final months by a retired Seattle Fire Department EMT who had moved to our town, and I think he liked it even as he complained about his keeper. After his death we found his daily diary going all the way back to high school, all written in Latin. Only the war years were missing. Nothing exciting, just the record of an orderly, simple, impoverished life.He left everything to the church. It wasn’t much but those who knew and loved him each took a little something. I have a roughly carved hooded monk holding a prayer book. The folded American flag normally given to the nearest of kin rests on a bookshelf in the rector’s office. 
He lived in the wrong century, but he was somehow a link to the dogged tenacity of those who came to settle here; not a link to those who made it and for whom streets and buildings are named, but to those who worked and lived hard lives that saw little reward. Empires are built on such as these and without them no greatness is possible. Who will remember Harlan Miller? Who remembers any of the millions and millions of Harlan Millers?  Will a president point up to the gallery during the State of the Union and introduce Harlan Miller? “He farmed, he learned what he could, he served his country, he got shot, he survived, he lived a long time and died in poverty; let’s all give a hand for Harlan Miller.” 
I believe that God remembered Harlan and laid out a feast to welcome him home. His shack and land was deeded over to Habitat for Humanity. The day the shack was torn down people with metal detectors searched the back yard for the fortune he was said to have buried. No one found a thing. A brand new house has been built on that property. I helped lay the sub-flooring. Some family, maybe not so very different from Harlan Miller, lives there with, perhaps, a little better chance and a little more opportunity. May God bless and prosper them.

Saturday, May 29, 2010

A Proverbial Pauline Plan

Until I ran across it this morning in Morning Prayer, I had forgotten that Paul’s injunction for treating enemies (Rom. 12:20 “if your enemies are hungry, feed them; if they are thirsty, give them something to drink; for by doing this you will heap burning coals on their heads.”) is a citation from Proverbs 25.  While it’s likely that the writer of Proverbs and Paul had in mind individual persons as enemies, the saying is consistent withe the ethical prophets through whom God ascribed the starvation of peoples and the destruction of their means of livelihood as sins of society.  It is also consistent with the beatitudes recorded in Matthew and Luke, which I take to be more prescriptive than descriptive.  
If that is a reasonable argument, then it has something important to say about any government’s international and defense policies.  The only example we have of something like this at work is the Marshall Plan of the post WWII era.  Of course, it will immediately be pointed out by someone that the Marshall Plan came into existence only after we unconditionally defeated the Axis powers and utterly destroyed everything that could be destroyed.  
I wonder what would happen if we diverted some of our customary military endeavors and defense oriented foreign aid to a proverbial Pauline plan of action that did not require total destruction followed by unconditional surrender.  Would it be a more effective policy vis a vis “enemies” than the our usual practice?  Would it be any worse?  I don’t know.  I do know that simply calling the idea naive would be naivety itself.  

Friday, May 28, 2010

Dissatisfaction with the State of the Church

I serve a small rural church in my retirement, and have become marginally associated with the local ministers group that represents the more conservative/evangelical congregations in their area.  That they have included me is in itself something of a holy mystery, but I digress.  They have lately expressed a sense of dissatisfaction with what they call the state of the church in their valley, which is just on the other side of the ridge from the valley in which I live.  However, I don’t think their sense of dissatisfaction is much different from that expressed by clergy from many denominations in many parts of the country.  

In any case, I had some questions about what they are thinking and how they are feeling that might resonate with others as well.  They went something like this.
Can you say more about the state of the church that has caused this sense of dissatisfaction?  How would you describe it to someone who has no knowledge of the church or the valley?  You have said that the church seems to have little impact on society, and that you want to see more of the power of God and the fire of God’s Spirit in people’s lives.  What would it look like if the church did have the impact you think it should on society?  What would be different?  Would your vision of that impact include, at least in part, some public recognition of the importance of the various churches as influential in the life of the community and the decisions that are made in it?  Would that also mean that the various ministers of those churches be seen as important to the life of the community?
In like manner, if the power of God and the fire of God’s Spirit were seen in persons’ lives, what would that look like?  How would it be different from what you see now?  Do you have particular persons in mind?  For instance, is it in the lives of your congregants that you desire to see this power and Spirit at work, is it in the lives of others, or is it both in some way?
You have said that you see the church losing ground.  In what way do you see the church losing rather than gaining ground?  If it was gaining ground, what would be different?  I imagine that some part of that answer would be a higher percentage of the population attending church and making a mature commitment to follow Christ within the various traditions of what that means in each of our denominations.  If that is true, what else would it look like?
You have wondered if it is possible that God is doing a new thing through this sense of dissatisfaction.  I doubt that you really mean to ask if it is possible, but rather wonder what God is already doing.  Oddly enough, you may not know.  God does not seem to be much interested in whether those called to ordained ministry understand what he is up to.  It can be very frustrating.  To that end I am reminded of a portion of Isaiah’s 55th chapter in which God, speaking through the prophet, says:
6 Seek the LORD while he may be found,
call upon him while he is near; 
7 let the wicked forsake their way,
and the unrighteous their thoughts;
let them return to the LORD, that he may have mercy on them,
and to our God, for he will abundantly pardon. 
8 For my thoughts are not your thoughts,
nor are your ways my ways, says the LORD. 
9 For as the heavens are higher than the earth,
so are my ways higher than your ways
and my thoughts than your thoughts.
10 For as the rain and the snow come down from heaven,
and do not return there until they have watered the earth,
making it bring forth and sprout,
giving seed to the sower and bread to the eater, 
11 so shall my word be that goes out from my mouth;
it shall not return to me empty,
but it shall accomplish that which I purpose,
and succeed in the thing for which I sent it.
   
For what it’s worth, my argument within the Episcopal Diocese of Spokane has been that for several decades we clergy have allowed our congregations to become comfort stations for the faithful rather than places of formation for discipleship.  We are working on that.

Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Spring Bird Report

I have not written much about birds lately, but it’s spring and time.  Both our bird houses are occupied.  Three rafters supporting our large overhang have sparrow nests in them, and we have a variety of other birds doing the same in nearby trees and bushes.  The first fledglings have already been kicked out of the nest, and we’ve learned something new (for us).
Fledgling sparrows flit about the back yard occasionally bouncing off a window or tree trunk.  Their landings on the ground under the bird feeders are little more than soft crashes, and their attempts at landing on the feeders are hilarious.  But here is what we did not know before.  The parent birds are always near.  They appear quite deliberate about teaching the chicks how to eat natural foods, but now and then one of them will hop over to put a seed into a chick’s open mouth.  I did not know that there was parental aftercare once the fledglings were out of the nest.  I thought is was sink or swim and good luck.  
As for the flicker, it is nowhere in sight.  I guess it finally got the message.  Our usual gang of healthy, noisy crows assure us that West Nile has kept its distance.  Some sort of small blackbird we can’t identify has moved into the neighborhood.  I have no idea where the finches nest but they come here by the dozens for their meals.  The resident squirrels have made peace with the birds and seem happy to join them in poking around the yard for fallen seeds.  They are bold enough to scavenge a few feet from the patio door with a hysterical Riley the terrier on the other side yelping to get out.   Once he’s out and the squirrels are safely up a tree, the birds seem content to resume ground feeding without fear while Riley patrols or dozes. 
And that’s the bird report for now.  

Tuesday, May 25, 2010

It's That Darn Trinity Sunday Again

The advantage of serving a church in New York was that Trinity Sunday could usually be dumped off on a seminarian.  The advantage of being retired is that Trinity Sunday can usually be ducked.  There were many years in between where I had to face it dead on.  What do you suppose inspired the Church to dedicate a Sunday to a doctrine, especially one as squishy as this one?
Our regular Tuesday morning lectionary study group met this morning to work over the lessons for Trinity Sunday, and, as usual, each of us fell into one heresy or another trying to find the right way to explain the Trinity to congregations in a variety of denominations.  I doubt that any of them will care very much what any of us has to say, nor will they remember it as one of the great sermons of the year.  
To be sure, we Christians know and understand God as Father, Son and Holy Spirit.  Scripture, tradition and our own experiences reveal God to us in just these ways.  At the same time, the Church has never been able to pin down the doctrine of the Trinity in such precise language as to satisfy everyone, or even anyone.  Glimmers of brilliantly illuminated insight quickly dissipate.  The Nicene Creed is all but incomprehensible to the average person sitting in the pew, and in many denominations it is not known at all.  The Chalcedonian definition reads like a Jackie Mason monologue.  The Holy Spirit is an afterthought in one and ignored in the other.  No wonder other religions accuse us of being polytheists.  
One of the problems is our hubris at not only trying to define who God is but of insisting that God be bound by our very human constructs of what a Trinity should look like and how it should behave.  We would be better served by simply declaring that, through Christ, God has been made known to us as Father, Son and Holy Spirit, without trying to define it any farther than that.  Speaking for myself, I like to think that I am a rather orthodox Nicene Christian whose understanding of the Trinity was more fully informed by the late Katherine Mowry LaCugna (God for Us: The Trinity & Christian Life; 1991, Harper Collins).  The fact is that orthodox as I might claim to be and try as I might, I cannot hold a comprehensive unified view of the Trinity in my head.  One “person” or the other keeps popping out as a rather unique individual existing within a hierarchy at that.  How embarrassing!  And so it gratifies me when LaCugna writes: “The doctrine of the Trinity is more like a signpost pointing beyond itself to the God who dwells in light inaccessible. ...Ultimately, the only appropriate response to the mystery of God revealed in the economy is adoration.”

Therefore, my recommendation for Sunday’s sermon is to joyfully sink into the mystery of God that has been made known to us as Father, Son and Holy Spirit: ever with us, ever for us, ever in us.  Try not to explain too much.  By all means, avoid attempts at profundity.  Some apocryphal bishop is said to have been asked by a young priest what he should preach about on Trinity Sunday.  The answer was to preach about five minutes and sit down.  Good advice.

Wednesday, May 19, 2010

Great Balls of Cotton

We have a lot of cottonwoods around here.  They grow along the creeks or anywhere they can get at some water.  Considering the ancient leaky water system that serves our town, that’s just about everywhere.  But I digress.  It’s cottonwood season in the valley.  Female cottonwoods produce a seed surrounded by a tuft of fluff that looks like a cotton ball, and in cottonwood season the air is full of them, millions of them.  They drift about on the wind hoping to land on a male cottonwood’s pollen.  You can think of them as the cougars of the tree world.  But again I digress.  The point is that in the blink of an eye they can cease drifting about, coagulate into a single vortex of cotton balls traveling at warp speed with only one goal in mind.  That blink of an eye happens when I open my garage door.  That single goal: to fill my garage.  At that moment, every cotton ball in Walla Walla County travels directly into it at the speed of light, there to remain in hiding from the evil ShopVac monster until, at last, they have each been captured and terminated, sometime around mid September.  No doubt there is something theological about this, but I have no idea what it might be.

Saturday, May 15, 2010

Reflections on Arizona

Like many of you, I’ve been reflecting on the Arizona immigration law while reading editorials and posts from every side.  The point has been made that foreigners in any country are always supposed to carry appropriate identification, so what’s the big deal about a state law that simply authorizes local enforcement?  The issue is complicated by rapidly changing demographics, the highest percentage of foreign language immigrants ever, drugs, gangs and violence.  
That we have a very porous border with Mexico is obvious, and the influx of undocumented persons coming across does create problems.  No doubt about it.  But in the end I believe this law, and the attitudes behind it, are more about race and fear: classic xenophobia. I have heard the public denials, the assertions of horror that anyone would think this law is racist, even a little bit. I have also heard the sidewalk and coffee shop conversation in my little mountain valley 1200 miles north of Arizona.  It is conversation rich in unverified assumptions combined with racial prejudice.  It makes me wonder if there is anything in the Arizona law that is different from the anti Chinese and Japanese laws of the late 19th century and the blatant racism from which they were born and that they fostered.  Nevertheless, good may yet come from it.  Perhaps the pundits are right and the Arizona law will prod Congress into appropriate action on immigration reform.  I hope it does, but I also hope that it is not reform that panders to our worst fears and prejudices.  
Apart from what happens in Washington or what the polls claim, we who follow Christ are under a greater obligation to seek God’s will, and God seems to have had quite a bit to say about aliens.  Consider, for instance, the following taken from the Law. 
Ex. 22:21   You shall not wrong or oppress a resident alien, for you were aliens in the land of Egypt. 
Ex. 23:9   You shall not oppress a resident alien; you know the heart of an alien, for you were aliens in the land of Egypt. 
Lev. 19:10 You shall not strip your vineyard bare, or gather the fallen grapes of your vineyard; you shall leave them for the poor and the alien: I am the LORD your God. 
Lev. 19:33   When an alien resides with you in your land, you shall not oppress the alien34 The alien who resides with you shall be to you as the citizen among you; you shall love the alien as yourself, for you were aliens in the land of Egypt: I am the LORD your God. 
Lev. 23:22   When you reap the harvest of your land, you shall not reap to the very edges of your field, or gather the gleanings of your harvest; you shall leave them for the poor and for the alien: I am the LORD your God. 
Deut. 1:16 I charged your judges at that time: “Give the members of your community a fair hearing, and judge rightly between one person and another, whether citizen or resident alien
Deut. 24:17   You shall not deprive a resident alien or an orphan of justice; you shall not take a widow’s garment in pledge. 
Deut. 24:19   When you reap your harvest in your field and forget a sheaf in the field, you shall not go back to get it; it shall be left for the alien, the orphan, and the widow, so that the LORD your God may bless you in all your undertakings.  20 When you beat your olive trees, do not strip what is left; it shall be for the alien, the orphan, and the widow. 
Deut. 24:21   When you gather the grapes of your vineyard, do not glean what is left; it shall be for the alien, the orphan, and the widow. 
Deut. 26:5 you shall make this response before the LORD your God: “A wandering Aramean was my ancestor; he went down into Egypt and lived there as an alien, few in number, and there he became a great nation, mighty and populous. 
Deut. 27:19   “Cursed be anyone who deprives the alien, the orphan, and the widow of justice.” All the people shall say, “Amen!” 
The Law, standing by itself, can be argued with on the grounds that it applied only to the ancient Israelites, but when the prophets waded in on the sins of Israel, these were among the issues that God addressed as hallmarks of societal injustice.  The prophets’ words were a strong preamble to Jesus’ work that took him deep into the lives of gentiles, his parables, and his teaching, none of which gives room for the justification of xenophobia.  
Allegations abound whether illegal aliens add to the economic well being of our communities or cost them money.  There seems to be plenty of evidence on both sides, but at its heart this cannot be an economic question of advantage but a moral question of godly justice.  It’s not an easy question to answer.  Approaching it means that we have to be serious about other questions as well:
  • What has caused our failure to curtail drug use?
  • What is our complicity in enticing illegal workers into a life of underpaid subservience?
  • What, if anything, can we do to influence a change in the Mexican culture of corruption and graft?
  • What interdiction can be placed on gangs?
  • How can we assist Anglos to ease into their new role as one ethnic identity among many, none of which is a majority?

As it is said, we live in interesting times.

Monday, May 10, 2010

Confirmation?

We're on the East Coast to celebrate with one of our granddaughters her Confirmation. For some, perhaps most, it's a right of passage forced on young teens by parents, but endured because it is their get out of jail card. Once confirmed they are liberated from the childishness of Sunday school and free to decide for themselves whether or not to attend church ever again. There is a certain ironic truth to the old joke that the way to get rid of the bats in the belfry is to confirm them.

The idea is that young teens are old enough to make a mature and informed affirmation of their faith according to the traditions of their denomination. Now and then it happens. I reveled in my own confirmation process, and took special delight in arguing with the catechism whenever I thought I knew better. Maybe that's what started me on my path to seminary. On the other hand, few of my fellow confirmands ever considered it more than an irrelevancy to be endured. That is one reason why I always held adult confirmation classes each year. They became popular sessions for adults to learn again for the first time what they had ignored as teens.

I don't know why, but we seem to expect adult Christians to have a sophisticated and well informed understanding of their faith with no more than a poor sixth grade education. How dumb is that? Not so long ago I attended my in-law's Methodist church where adult Sunday school classes are very popular. Enthusiastic as they were, each class seemed to me to be led by the ill informed teaching the less Informed.

However, back to this weekend, I am pleased to say that my granddaughter has taken confirmation seriously and I have confidence that her affirmation will be as mature as any young teen is capable of making.

Wednesday, May 5, 2010

Let's Hear it for Mediocrity

I’m nearing the end of a committee led community study project that began with high expectations for developing imaginative, creative and challenging proposals to revitalize an important segment of our regional economic base.  The initial weeks spent planning the study process were filled with enthusiastic energy, and the first public committee meeting started that way.  But it soon became obvious that dogged adherence to the process template was more important than imagination, creativity or challenging thinking.  The weeks and months have gone by.  Worthwhile information from reliable experts has been gathered, tabulated and summarized to prepare a final report that will be a model of plebeian mediocrity, exciting few and initiating little response. 
What is it about adults that so easily stops us from unleashing the creative power of imagination?  Have we been so thoroughly taught to always color inside the lines that anything else would be unthinkable?  It’s not like the question has not been asked before.  I know a half dozen people who make their living inspiring others to relearn how to free up their creative spirit, but even those efforts seem to be limited to isolated elements of individual personal lives or securely filed in a cabinet marked Art & Culture.
When it comes to broad questions of public policy, even at the local level, I guess the best we can hope for are ideas that are not all that bad, likely to do at least some good, avoid doing too much harm, and which, we are led to believe, will offend the least number of people.  Yippee and Woo Hoo.

Sunday, May 2, 2010

Shutting Down Conversation - Or a Mea Culpa Post

Normally I’m pretty adept at asking non judgmental questions and waiting for answers that may lead to conversation, but for some reason there are a couple of triggers that stop me dead.  It happened twice this weekend.  
The first was on Main Street.  Several people had set up a political kiosk with literature demanding the impeachment on President Obama, declaring, among other things, that he had sold out the country by giving away our nuclear capabilities.  I was surprised that most of the literature on the table was under the name of Lyndon LaRouche.  I thought he was dead, or at least his movement was.  More than that, the several people handing this stuff out were young adults in their early to mid-twenties who showed some evidence of being reasonably well educated.   What I would like to have done is visit with them enough to find out what inspired them to follow a man like LaRouche who is, if nothing else, strange.  It’s not just that he is affectionately regarded by Maoists and Tea Party types alike, but neither seems to see the irony in that.  I would like to have patiently asked questions and listened, but I didn’t.  Instead I challenged with the unanswerable question; Why would you follow a nut like LaRouche?  That pretty much ended it. 
The second was equally cold hearted on my part.  An elderly man and his wife stopped me, and many others, in the grocery store.  He was handing out his own non denominational religious tracts.  I took one to be polite.  Glancing at it, one sentence  caught my eye:  “Your standing before God depends on your acceptance of Jesus Christ.”  He said, hopefully, “I see you are interested.”  What I should have done was ask him to tell me more about what inspired him to hand them out and what he hoped might happen as a result.  What I said instead was, “I think you need to rethink your theology a bit.  This sentence puts all the burden of our salvation on us.  My standing, and anyone’s standing, before God is dependent on God, not on me.”  Now let’s face it, not only did my rudeness stop any useful conversation, but my own sentence needs more than a little unpacking to hold any water as a theological position.  
The point is that I shut down two opportunities to learn something from people whose world views are vastly different from mine.  I don’t think I’m the only one who does that.  I suspect it’s a common fault.  If I am to be an effective minister of God’s grace it might be helpful to know how to talk to a follower of LaRouche or exchange the peace of God with someone whose understanding of salvation is so very much at odds with my own.  It’s getting a little late in life to work on that, but I’ll give it a shot.