Saturday, December 31, 2011

Enemies; what are they good for?

What is it about enemies that make them so necessary to us?  We have them in a variety of ways expressed through the nasty edged gossip about others that we share with one another, the life long grudges that separate family members, the blood feuds between neighbors, and, most of all, the national enemies that inspire large armies with the latest weapons.  
I wonder about all of them, but most of all about national enemies that inspire large armies with the latest weapons.  Even small government conservatives and fringe libertarians agree on one essential role of government - the national defense.  If nothing else, they want a big, strong national defense establishment to protect us against our enemies.  It’s ironic, considering that many of the so called founding fathers feared a standing army more than anything else as a threat against the young republic. 
The key to understanding this is the concept of enemy.  There is no point in having beefy armed forces if there is no enemy against whom they can protect us.  The issue isn’t about defense at all, it’s about the need to have an enemy.  I’m convinced, in spite of border clashes all over the place, that large scale acquisition of empire by conquest is  a thing of the past.  The 20th century put an end to that.  That doesn’t keep significant members of the public, including some leaders, from raising the specter of WWII all over again in the form of a revitalized Russia or greedy China as they do their best to scare the hell out of us.  It takes only a moment of casual observation to learn that the big nations now know that building empire has little to do with territory and everything to do with market share.  
If not invading armies of major powers, then who?  We have a number of useful candidates.  Hordes of illegal aliens, meaning Mexicans, invading us from the south.  That’s a good one.  Terrorists, meaning Muslims of any stripe but especially Middle Easterners, is another good category of enemy.  What exactly a large nuclear tipped military is supposed to do about that is unknown, but it doesn’t really matter, because what we need is an enemy, and these two are adequate in the absence of anyone else. 
Why?  Is it that we need an enemy to more clearly define who we are as Americans?  Is that what enemies help us do?  Maybe we need them to give us a way to flex our muscles and prove our national manhood.  I don’t know about groups of women getting together for general conversation, but in any sizable group of men there will always be a few who only speak in a pugilistic tone of voice, accompanied by fist thumping and finger pointing, because its the only way they think anyone will take them seriously.  North Korea does that a lot.  They just look like idiots.  Do we Americans act that way too?   
Jesus Christ, Carl Jung, Rene Gerard, Pogo, Luke Skywalker and Harry Potter all have one thing in common.  They recognized the role of enemy as an expression of our own “dark” side that must be recognized and faced if we are to be made whole and healthy.  Externalizing the role of enemy the way we do, both as persons and as a nation, is a psychological (and political) recognition of that truth, but one that, by keeping its locus external, enables us to avoid recognizing it as a truth about us.  A window through which we can see our enemies is so much better than a mirror reflecting our own image.
In the meantime, the news isn’t all bad.  We’ve got the biggest military establishment in the world, which means we also have a very profitable military-industrial complex, underwritten by the taxpayer, and providing the best in killing power to buyers in every jerk water trouble spot with enough money to pay for them.  For special friends, we’ll even throw in “foreign aid” in the form of chits redeemable for armament.  It’s a living.

PS  Some of my military friends will take offense, claiming I'm ignorant and disrespectful of the service to their country to which they have dedicated their lives (literally).  They would be wrong about that.  That's not what I wrote about.

Thursday, December 29, 2011

Getting back to the Basics

I don’t remember exactly when, but a very long time ago, in my formative youth, I listened to the Easter story of the resurrected Christ walking with two disciples on the road to Emaus as he explained to them how both Moses and the prophets spoke clearly about the Christ.  I thought it would be terribly useful for him to repeat that to me in person because it wasn’t clear at all that the Old Testament had much to say about the Jesus I knew.
Of course there were the Advent, Christmas and Easter readings from Isaiah.  Very poetic about the suffering servant and all, but not persuasive in explaining Jesus as Son of God and Messiah.   
It took years, but one day while reading in the 59th chapter of Isaiah, it occurred to me that God was saying, in fairly clear language, that God in God’s self would be the Messiah.  I started looking for other references in scripture in which God declared that he, himself, would be the long awaited savior.  Not that there were not many other Messiahs, anointed by God to perform some saving function in a particular place at a particular time: Moses, Joshua, Gideon, Zerubbabel and Cyrus to name a few.  But time and again, in the Psalms and through the prophets, God declared that it would be by his own arm, his own strength and his own presence that the people of God would be fully and eternally rescued from destruction and death.  
I’ll leave it to you to do your own searching in scripture, and hope that you find it rewarding.  The point is that in Jesus, God was fully and materially present in our world to do exactly what God said that he would do.  I think that’s probably what Jesus explained to those two disciples on that road to Emaus.  I think that’s what Peter and Paul finally understood.  It’s what makes Jesus different from any other prophet.  He was not a man especially blessed by God’s Spirit to proclaim a greater truth.  He was God incarnate doing what God always said he would do when the time was right. 
Theologians reading this post are likely to mutter something like, ‘yeah, so what’s new about that.’  But I think the average Christian has not been exposed to that line of thinking, and I’m going to test it out this spring when I start a new mid-week bible study for a group that has not had one for many years.  We shall see. 

Wednesday, December 28, 2011

The Feast of the Holy Innocents

It’s the Feast of the Holy Innocents, a troubling “feast” if there ever was one.  
How is it that this horrid event is not cited elsewhere in non-biblical literature?  Maybe it never happened.  Why would God, who engineered his own Son’s escape, not do something for all those other children in Bethlehem?  Who wants a God like that?  Luke’s infancy narrative knows nothing of this event.  Was he wrong?  Was Matthew?  In any case, how can we call the slaughter of toddlers and infants a feast?
Whether the event, as described by Matthew, happened or not, the fact remains that Bethlehem was not a large town.  I don’t know what its size would have been in Jesus’ day, but certainly not over 500 or so.  There would not have been a large number of infants and toddlers.  Their slaughter by the notoriously blood thirsty Herod, whose record of killing enemies, friends and family knew no bounds, might not have even been noticed.  
As gruesome as the story is in itself, it should also remind us that within the freedom God has given us is the freedom to act in the most despicable of evil ways.  It should call to mind our own culpability in the slaughtering of innocents today through domestic violence; sexual, psychological and physical abuse; the horrors of child soldiers molded into amoral killing machines by ruthless adults; withholding of necessary and available health care from those in need; and so it goes. 
We cannot blame God for what Herod did any more than we can blame God for what we have done, or been tolerant of.  We can be thankful that not even the evil darkness of Herod’s violence could overcome the light of Christ, infant though he was.  From that flickering infant light has grown a greater light of triumph over all death.  If, on the one hand, we have shared some degree of complicity in the slaughter of innocents, with the other hand we are given the opportunity to witness to that greater light through the words and deeds of our lives.
I wonder what that would mean for ordinary Christians leading ordinary lives of relative comfort and safety?

Tuesday, December 27, 2011

What Are Supply Clergy?

What are supply clergy?  Are they merely ordained persons who are authorized to use the costume, magic words and hand motions needed to legitimize  an hour of worship while the life of the congregation goes along without them quite well, thank you very much? 

That appears to be the way they are seen and used by more than a few small congregations without regular clergy.  I think there are several reasons for it.  First, some supply clergy, mostly retired, see themselves that way.  They are disinterested in the pastoral care of the people whom they serve for a few hours, and maybe never again.  The life of the congregation is of little concern to them.  A bit of extra income and a chance to exercise their rights of ordination are what it’s about.

That fits in well with congregations who need a clergy person from time to time, but have no interest in letting some stranger into the intimacy of their lives together, and, perhaps, some resentment toward larger congregations with beloved full time pastoral leadership.

It isn’t always that way.  Along with two others, I’ve been supply clergy for a small, rural congregation for eleven years.  Before I retired, I celebrated an evening service once a month, but another retired clergy celebrated a morning service with them twice a month.  She moved away, and now I’m the one who is retired and serve them twice a month, sometimes more.  Two other retired clergy each serve once a month as available.  I am very fond of this little congregation.  Their spiritual, emotional, physical and economic welfare is important to me.  Home visits, hospital calls, funerals and just hanging around with them are an important parts of my life.  The thirty-mile drive is a breeze on country highways where ten or twelve other cars are heavy traffic.  With a little effort, we will start a midweek adult bible study this spring.

It still does not make me their pastor.  I think it has to do with the idea that, as supply clergy, I could walk away tomorrow.  Indeed, I am free to travel at my convenience, even over major holidays, something I would never have done when serving as a full time pastor of a congregation.  It also has to do with their recognition, maybe embarrassment, that they can only afford to pay for an hour a Sunday plus travel, and anything else they receive from supply clergy is a gift that they might hope for but cannot ask for.

It’s a tricky place with a lot of psychology wrapped around insecurity involved.  I wonder if there is a better way to do it?




Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Psalm 72

Throughout scripture God reveals what it means to be a good ruler of people.  Psalm 72, for instance, says these are the characteristics of a good king who has been filled with God's righteousness: 
  • Rules with righteousness
  • Gives justice to the poor
  • Defends the needy among the people
  • Rescues the poor and crushes the oppressor
  • Delivers the poor who cry out in distress and the oppressed who have no helper
  • Has pity on the lowly and poor
  • Preserves the lives of the needy
  • Redeems the poor from oppression because their blood is precious in his sight
My ultra conservative friends, Christians one and all, object saying that “you just want to take our money and give it tot he poor.”  That common and simplistic answer is dead wrong, but widely believed.  
A few days ago Mr. Romney made a $10,000 bet about something.  I think it had to do with health care.  I can’t make a bet like that, but I’ll give a nickel to anyone who can find  passages in scripture suggesting that God would like us to:
  • Eliminate almost all government
  • Do away with regulations
  • Offer enormous financial incentives to those who are already quite wealthy
  • Give corporations all the rights and privileges of personhood.
  • Invade other nations for specious reasons
  • Live in fear of anything and anybody that is not like us
  • Let the poor sink or swim, it’s up to them

Friday, December 16, 2011

Bultmannia

I ran into a local acquaintance the other day, a very conservative Presbyterian certain that his denomination is going down the tubes because it no longer respects the authority of scripture.  What it’s really about is homosexuality.  It’s a sin.  He’s against it.  The Church should not tolerate it.  It’s been a driving issue in his conversation for at least ten years.  His arguments were tightly formed, legally impressive, academically well researched and morally certain, at least to him.  I say were because the tide of theological opinion seems to be turning against him, and I’m guessing that a tide that is turning, in spite of his unassailable arguments, must be driven by heretics.
Indeed, said he, a majority of the Presbyterian leadership are followers of Bultmann.  They all studied him in seminary, and now they are following him down the path of extreme demythologizing to the point of denying the Resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth.  Bultmannia has consumed the Presbyterian Church.  It’s not really about homosexuality, it’s about the authority of scripture, and this is the proof.
I had no idea Bultmann was a Presbyterian, or even a Scot for that matter.  We Episcopalians certainly read bits and pieces of Bultmann in seminary, but I don’t recall him being the center of our studies.  I guess Princeton was different.  Oh well, I hear much the same from some Anglicans.  It’s not about homosexuality, it’s about the authority of scripture.  
I asked my acquaintance if it could be that the other side takes the authority of scripture just as seriously as he does, but hears the Spirit speaking through it in different ways.  Not if you’re following Bultmann was his reply.  
We wished each other a blessed and merry Christmas as we said goodbye.

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

It Came Upon A Midnight Clear, but we were not listening

Carol singing is popular this time of year.  Maybe door-to-door caroling not so much, but the familiar tunes echo through every store, mall and gathering place.  Christmas pageants are filled with them.  They’re on the radio nonstop.  Even we Advent observers are itching to sing them, and do.  There is one in particular that haunts me each Christmas season because it speaks such an uncomfortable truth.  If I am ever forced to live on a desert isle with only one Christmas carol, this would be it. 
It Came upon the Midnight Clear
Edmund Sears (1810-1876)
It came upon the midnight clear, that glorious song of old,
From angels bending near the earth to touch their harps of gold”
Peace on the earth, good will to men, from heaven all gracious King.  The world in solemn stillness lay to hear the angels sing.
Still though the cloven skies they come with peaceful wings unfurled, and still their heavenly music floats o’er all the weary world;
Above its sad and lowly plains the tidings which they bend on hovering wing,
And ever o’er its Babel sounds the blessed angels sing.
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 human kind hears not the tidings which they bring;
O hush the noise and cease your strife and hear the angels sing!
For lo! The days are hastening on, by prophets seen of old, 
When with the ever circling years shall come the time foretold, when peace shall over all the earth its ancient splendors fling,
And all the world give back the song with now the angles sing.

Saturday, December 10, 2011

Are Ya Ready for Some CHRISTMAS!

Something odd happened this year.  Maybe it’s been this way for a while and I just didn’t notice it, but around here stores went from Halloween directly to Christmas.  Thanksgiving was a momentary blink in the sales aisle displays of Safeway.  Christmas music has been playing over loudspeakers since November 1, and I wonder if anyone ever stops to listen to the words of old favorites.  I wonder if they inspire anyone to wander into a church just to see what’s going on.  It could be less than enlightening. 
Some congregations are so intent on preserving the solemn tone of Advent that they not only eschew any hint of Christmas joy to come, but wallow in the awfulest Advent hymns ever written on the grounds, I guess, that a little aural discipline is good for the soul.  Something like self flagellation with whole notes in a minor key.  Others seem to have no idea at all of a season of quiet, reflective preparation for the coming of the Christ child.  They just leap into Christmas along with the stores and it’s all over by noon on the 25th of December.  No preparation, no explanation, but probably a nasty sermon or two about how we get it but Macy’s doesn’t. 
In one church a newcomer discovers that something is about to happen, and whatever it is does not look like a good thing.  In another she finds that it has already happened but has no idea what or whether it has any real importance.
In the meantime, the true meaning of Christmas is explored in depth through a hundred television specials with such a plethora of characters that none can be taken seriously: Kris Kringle, Santa Claus, St. Nicholas, the Grinch, Baby Jesus meek and mild, the true story of Mary and Joseph (many of them), drummer boys, herds of widowed parents finding new love, Jack Frost, Rudolph of course, and a couple of dozen others bring all down to the lowest common denominator, which is very low indeed.
Maybe I’m just getting grumpy in my old age.  I’m not one to go about trying to get the Christ back into Christmas.  It began as a festive pagan holiday long before we invented Christmas, and has successfully remained so for thousands of years, spreading throughout the world, regardless of religion, without the aid of a single missionary.  
I am interested in the strangers, newcomers or long lost returning “members” who, for whatever reason, decide to step into a church just to see what’s going on.  It seems to me that this is the one season in the year when a loving, gentle hand might be most needed to guide them, not only to the manger, but to the greater presence of God that is symbolized by it.  How?  By special efforts to use simple liturgies, accessible language, adult classes on the history of Christmas and the development of our faith, familiar music of excellent quality, informative sermons and a willingness to live peacefully with the rowdy secular holiday going on outside.  

Saturday, December 3, 2011

Ponderings while suffering a cold and thinking about ringtones

Remember the movie “You’ve Got Mail” in which romance bloomed through annoying computer beeps announcing incoming e-mail?  Cute movie.  
The other morning, as I was deep in Morning Prayer, my collection of electronic gizmos began their serenade of beeps, whistles and chirps announcing incoming mail and the occasional text message.  The odd things was that I felt almost compelled to put aside scripture and conversation with God in order to find out what it was that Staples, Land’s End and Orvis had to say.  Then there was the suspense of wanting to know the latest headlines from Yahoo News, Washington Post and New York Times.  Besides, who knows, someone might have sent me a real message.
My cell phone sits beside me in the car.  It’s illegal to talk or text while driving.  The darn thing beeps to announce a text message.  Now my curiosity is working overtime.  Maybe I could just sneak a quick look.  Why?  How important could it be?  Not very!
What is it about us that entices many of us to treat every buzz or ringtone as a sign of urgency demanding our immediate response lest the universe cease to function?  I remember writing about something like this a year or two ago, and wondering the same thing then.  More particularly, why do we feel an urgent compulsion to respond to beeps heralding junk mail, jokes and spam when we seldom feel the same sense of urgency or compulsion to respond to God’s invitation to prayerful conversation through which the truly important is present?
Members frequently confess that, no, they don’t have a dedicated time for daily meditation in God’s presence, they just don’t have time for it, anyway they don’t know how, and besides there are things to do, and meditation in God’s presence is as close to doing nothing as possible - uncomfortably close to laziness.  What if someone sees them just wasting time reading a bible and talking with an invisible God when there are chores to be done? That is a very screwed up way of looking at daily priorities, but a common one.  Curious, is it not?
I have no illusions about reversing the order of things so that time with God is an urgently felt need while electronic dings and dongs are relegated to the “when I get around to it” pile.  For one thing, I’m not so sure we can blame it on computers and phones.  I suspect that something else took their place before they came along. But I do think that we pastors can do more to discipline our own lives in a more godly direction.  I also think that we can do more to guide our flocks toward the same thing.  
I’m on a committee that, a couple of years ago, messed around with developing a survey instrument that would help reveal congregational core values and desires.  We came up with a dandy and tried it out in a parish we knew to be healthy, growing and imbued with a culture of generous giving.  We felt we knew this place well and could easily guess the survey results.  We were wrong.  What was most desired, what was most lacking in congregational life was well informed, competent guidance toward a richer, deeper life of prayer and meditation.
We only used the survey instrument that once.  It was too complicated and expensive to replicate.  Never ask a bunch of academics and academic wannabes to do something like that.  They always overdo it.  Now we have much simpler, more pragmatic instrument purchased from a trusted church consultant. 
Nevertheless, I think the point was made.  In spite of all the excuses, there is, at least among regular church going folk, a hunger for prayerful communion with God and a desire for guidance in that direction.  They may still be tempted by the siren call of “You’ve got Mail,” but they really do want to make authentic prayer a higher priority in their lives.  I suppose our first step would be to ask if God has a distinctive ring tone app we can download and distribute.

Friday, December 2, 2011

Learning to Let God Lead

I was standing in the parking lot of the Mamaroneck, New York train station on a warm September afternoon in 1982.  How I got there, and why, and how God had something to do about it is what this story is about.  In the meantime, how I was going to get back to New York City was the more important question.  The time table was indecipherable, and I had no idea which side of the tracks was city bound and which side went somewhere else.  
It started months earlier when I was rather forcibly offered a promotion I did not seek that meant a move I did not want to make to New York City.  I liked my life long home in the Twin Cities of Minnesota.  I liked my job, my friends and the options open to me for a good future.  That I was mired in the emotional mud hole of a divorce, with two young daughters caught in the middle, was the only drawback, but one big enough to shove me into the unfamiliar darkness of depression.  Contradictions abounded, and the question of New York was an unwelcome addition to them.   Should I go and at least look it over, or should I stay and look for another job in another arena?
Who to talk to?  How about my pastor?  Nice guy, about my age, the pastor of a small Lutheran Church out in the suburbs.  Men my age were supposed to have ducked out of church shortly after confirmation to return on the rare occasions of marriage, baptism, Christmas and Easter.  We were disinterested in funerals, death being a figment of our imaginations in the far off land of old age.  For whatever reason, I was not one of them.  My church and my somewhat juvenile faith were important to me, and always had been.  But I digress.  What he said was to go ahead and scope it out, but try to let God do the leading this time.  He knew me well.  I generally did all the leading and hoped God was following.  Who could possibly know what he meant by letting God lead this time? 
Anyway, a few weeks later I arranged an early morning flight to NYC.  I’m an early riser, but not an early morning person.  It takes hours for me to be presentable in public.  Sitting next to an elderly couple, I needed a few cups of coffee and something to eat before even saying hello.  Turned out that they were also going to New York to scope out a job.  He was a linguist and professor of theology deciding if he would take on the job of translating portions of the bible into some of the dialects used by Amazonian Indians.  It would mean living in the Amazon for a time to become more familiar with their languages.  He didn’t know if he would take the job, but was determined to let God do the leading.  That’s what I learned from him.  What he learned from me was the story of why I was going to New York and why I had severe doubts about it.  Somewhere along the flight he asked me what church I attended.  I told him that he wouldn’t know it, it was just St. John’s, just a little congregation out in the suburbs.  “Indeed I do,” he said, “I was once an interim pastor there.”  “And, since you seem to be full of anxiety about all of this, why don’t you let God lead for a change.”  Apparently that was the standard line for Lutheran pastors from Minnesota.
It turned out that the office I would be running would require serious remedial attention for at least a year.  That I could handle, but not the rents in Manhattan, even for the smallest and shabbiest of walkups.  Do you know how little extra money a newly divorced man with two children has?  It’s not much even on a good salary. Someone suggested Mamaroneck, a close in suburb, a little on the blue collar side, with less expensive housing.  That’s how I ended up out there, where, as a matter of fact, I found a sublet in a co-op development that would be adequate for the short term.  Of course, as co-ops are, they wanted me to go through all kinds of interviews with the board and subject myself to background checks just shy of clearance for entrance to the White House.  I didn’t have time for that.  I had to get back into the city for an evening meeting,  another few days in the office, and then back to Minnesota where I belonged.  
That’s when this guy tapped me on the shoulder and said if I was going to the City I’d better hurry.  The train was coming soon.  So I followed him (and his wife?) across the parking lot, up the stairs and onto the platform.  He turned around.  He was wearing a clerical collar.  “Hi,” he said, “my name is Bill and this is my wife Sunny.”  
“OK, I can see you are a minister of some kind, what kind are you,” was my undiplomatic reply.  “The rector of St. Thomas’ Church in Mamaroneck,” he said, “and who are you.”  We got on the train, settled down in facing seats, and my confused story came tumbling out in the thirty minutes it took to reach Grand Central Station.  As we parted ways he told me to take the job and not worry about the housing question because he would take care of it.  
He did.  The next day I got a call from the real estate agent saying that Fr. Bill had vouched for me and that was good enough for the co-op board, the sub-let was mine for a season.  
I took the job.  Bill, being the only person I knew outside the office, and him for only a few weeks, became my only friend and confidant as we sipped beers watching football in the rectory living room.  He pointed out that I needed a long range plan, a place of my own, and, since I was both ignorant and naive about renting in the New York area, he had an idea.  There was a woman in the congregation who knew quite a bit about rentals in Westchester County.  She worked in the city and I should call her for some advice.  A week or so later I did.  
Her name was Dianna and she worked for a guy named Lauder who ran a little cosmetic company of some kind. That’s all I knew.  We arranged to meet for lunch.  Me, being on Minnesota time, made the reservations for Noon when all normal people eat lunch.  New Yorkers, not being normal, eat at One or later, but I didn’t know that yet.  I looked around the vestibule of the restaurant for the gray haired church lady whom I was expecting to meet.  No one was there but me, the maitre ‘d and a very attractive blond about my age.  Since I was ignoring her, she finally asked if I was Steve.
We talked about real estate.  One thing led to another.  Two and a half years later Bill officiated at our wedding.  We are still on our honeymoon, only slightly interrupted by the complicated merging of four teen agers into a new household.  Each had their own particular issues and aspirations of being an only child.  They are all in their forties now and doing well.  How I became an Episcopal priest is another story for another time, but it is the continuing tale of learning, however slowly, what it means to let God do the leading. 

Thursday, November 24, 2011

Prepare to Meet Your Maker

So, Isaiah says, it’s God’s fault that we have made such a mess of things.  If he would just make himself more known, “...open the heavens and come down, so that the mountains would quake at your presence...” then we would behave better than we do. 
God appeared to have done something like that in the Exodus stories, and it didn’t make much of a difference.  Maybe God’s timing was off.  The people just weren’t ready for it.  After all, they did complain that they didn’t want anything like that to happen again, and would be much happier if God would confine himself to speaking through Moses from now on.  
We are reminded, during this season of Advent, that God did open the heavens and come down, not with quaking mountains, but with angels singing across the skies to an audience of a few ignorant shepherds to herald the Christ coming humbly as a baby born in rude circumstances and of doubtful parentage.  Why won’t God do it the way we want God to do it?
During the first few Sundays in Advent we give thanks for the birth of Jesus while boldly asking that he come again soon to do it right this time, to come in glorious majesty to judge the living and the dead.  I wonder.  I wonder if Christ’s second coming will be just as unpredictable as his first?  The various apocalyptic writings in scripture describe, in great conflicting detail, what the second coming will be like, and centuries of interpreters  have made their living off assuring us of their accuracy.  My bet is that they are all wrong.
I wonder if God might be waiting around to see if we will ever learn from what Christ has already taught.  How long will it take for us to begin living daily lives more in tune with Christ’s teaching?  Maybe, as the rabbis say, if there is ever a single twenty-four hour day in which genuine peace is enjoyed throughout the earth, the Messiah will come.  In the meantime it might be prudent, in the words of the theologian Rooster Cogburn, to “prepare to meet your maker,” because the greater probability is that you and I will go to him through the humiliation of death before he comes to us through ripped open heavens in the glorious power of quaking of mountains. 

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Flying First Class

The New York Times recently featured an article on the transformation of first class air travel, especially on overseas flights, from roomier, more comfortable seats and better food, to the luxury of flat beds, privacy screens and an over abundance of service.  I have no problem with that, and have enjoyed several flights up front with grateful thanksgiving for the ability to do so.  
What does trouble me is the other end of the plane, especially on domestic flights, where every effort has been made to stuff as many passengers as possible into the smallest tolerable space while removing any sign of hospitality.  I see no reason to treat people like animals, stripping them of almost all dignity.  I’ve heard the arguments about maximizing seat mile revenues while pleading corporate poverty and find them wanting.  One airline marketing VP was cited as saying that coach travelers were only interested in the lowest fare, and creature comforts are costs that can be shaved to keep fares low.  There may be some truth to that, but for many travelers that cheap fare is dear.  Money for it has been saved up for a long time, or it’s been financed by credit card debt that will be paid off over many months at high interest.    Dehumanizing one's customers with utter contempt for their well being may be a plan for profit but it is immoral, and I cannot help but believe that there is a better way.  
A few airlines have made modest accommodations for their coach passengers.  Hawaiian serves a well prepared complementary hot meal between the mainland and Hawaii.  Alaska offers meals for sale that appear to be nutritious, as opposed to the fat, carb and salt mix of processed junk food sold on some other airlines. We flew coach on EVA to Taipei a few months ago.  The seats were comfortable.  There was enough room between rows to recline a bit without slamming into the person behind.  Food and drinks were more than adequate.  The same cannot be said for many American airlines on international routes, and domestic flying in coach is simply a painful experience to be endured with as much tolerance as possible.  
I’m always struck by the quarterly news reports on airline performance and customer satisfaction.  The criteria are limited to on time takeoffs and landings and how much luggage is lost.  I’ve been on the receiving end of those questionnaires.  Not a single sign of interest in whether my seat was comfortable, was there enough room between me and the guy in front of me, was food or drink of reasonable quality offered at a reasonable price, was I treated like a valued customer or a cow on the way to slaughter.
I don’t imagine that much can be done about it.  Airlines have proved, at least to themselves, that they can be successful without paying much attention to customer comfort, except in first class.  They deal with declining passenger numbers by reducing fleet size and making remaining planes as spartan as possible for the majority of their occupants.  I’m not sure how that can contribute to long term growth in passenger numbers.  As for me, I remain grateful for the ability to fly up front whenever I want to but resent the corporate thinking that makes it so hard for everyone else.   

Sunday, November 20, 2011

Kicking Against the Goads

Like many others, I had something to say this morning about fat and skinny sheep and sheep vs. goats.  I also had something to say about God’s concern for economic justice, and that it cannot help but take us into the realm of politics whether anyone likes it or not.  
Although I stressed that there was nothing wrong with being a fat sheep, there was something wrong with butting and shouldering other sheep out of the way to keep them from getting a share of the good grass and clean water.  Although I stressed that there was nothing wrong with being a goat, there was something wrong with failing to address conditions of homelessness, hunger and healthcare.  Although, I said, that whether we like the analogies or not, we must be mindful that the issues are dear to God who emphasizes them frequently through the prophets and speaks to them directly through Jesus Christ.
Although I said those things, the congregation still got hung up on the critter and not the deeds.  Some took offense at being compared to sheep, dumb sheep.  Some praised the intelligence and courage of goats, and noted that we raise more goats than sheep around here.  It’s a price to be paid when preaching in farm country.
Some, cleverly reading between the lines, were a bit nervous about an implied political message that might appear supportive of those radical, lazy misfits occupying Wall Street. 
The after sermon conversation went on for quite some time, and I suspect it was because these lessons hit close to home.  Better to deflect them than to let them invade our private places.   We prefer God’s word to endorse what we already believe, not challenge it.  It’s a perfectly normal reaction, one common to us all.   What was it that our Lord said to Paul on the road to Damascus?: “...It hurts you to kick against the goads.” 
I don’t think it was a bad thing that we had that extended after sermon time to talk.  It was, to me at least, a sign that God had penetrated more than a few defenses, my own included.  

Saturday, November 19, 2011

Closerup and Letumdie

From time-to-time I’ve commented on the dominance of a very conservative political ethos in our region, and wondered about its internal inconsistencies.  After all, the region was settled with the aid of the Homestead Act, the protection of the army and transportation made available through subsidized railroad construction.  Dams paid for with federal money damed up the Columbia and Snake for water, electricity and barging.  The REA extended the benefit of that electricity to remote areas.  And so on.  Be that as it may, it has not stopped the majority opinion from electing hard core right wingers to congress and cheering on Tea Party lunacy.
A few days ago The Times, the local Waitsburg weekly, and a fine one at that, headlined that state cuts could close Dayton Hospital.  Dayton, Washington’s General Hospital is a small hospital and nursing home providing solid basic health care to a large rural area.  Larger hospitals offering a full range of health care services are 35 miles away.  The much needed and highly valued Dayton General is able to exist in part through state grants, and that’s the problem.  The state has its own revenue problems and intends to cut funding to rural hospitals by enough so that Dayton General would have to close.  Its board of directors has said they are unwilling to go to the voters for even higher local taxes to make up the pending shortfall of something over $400,000, and they want folks to petition the legislature for relief.  
A true blue Tea Party conservative would have none of that.  If the local people cannot afford, or choose not to afford, the cost of their little hospital, why should taxpayers on the wealthier West Side of the mountains, or those from ritzy Spokane, fork over their hard earned cash to pay the bill?  The best government is the least government, right?  Smaller is better than bigger.  Lower taxes are better than higher.  People have to learn to take care of themselves and not rely on government handouts.  Isn’t that right?
So I figure that the honest conservatives of the Dayton General Hospital catchment area will not only refuse to petition their legislators, but rise up in righteous indignation against this blatant appeal to nanny state socialism.  If the local people won’t pay for it, then let it close.  Who knows, maybe the locals will loosen their pocket books and pony up another $400,000 a year in taxes to keep it open.  It’s their choice.

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Occupy Wall Street? Who Cares?

Will occupy Wall Street make a difference?  To who about what?  Most people seem to be more aware of the pathological disparity of wealth and income.  Some appear to be aware that it is not a matter of some people doing well in the old fashioned American way while others are just not trying hard enough, or, perhaps, not lucky enough.  Something has happened that has tipped the table, rigged the game, so to speak, so that some have the opportunity for enormous profits while most do not.
So is that it, awareness?
If the intent is to force a change on Wall Street it will fail.  Wall Street doesn’t even have to wait them out.  Wall Street just goes on about its business as it always has knowing that the large pension and investment funds, major corporations and world wide bond traders are the ones who count, and no one else.  The occupiers are little more than an annoyance, and not all that inconvenient at that.
It would help if Americans would get over the idea that major corporations headquartered in America are somehow American.   As one corporate representative said on NPR recently, if we don’t get the government subsidies we want we will move our production overseas.  Corporations began as creatures of the state, authorized to do business deemed in the public interest.  Now, with the ability to incorporate anywhere, produce anywhere, sell anywhere and buy anywhere, they are creatures unto themselves with no national loyalty.  Their only loyalty is to the bottom line and Wall Street analysts, both of which they are perfectly willing to manipulate.  The question is, who are “they.”  They are not the investors, of which I am one.  They are not the board of directors, at least not often.  They are not even the overpaid, marginally competent executives.  They are some undefinable combination of all of them that the Supreme Court has the audacity to proclaim is a person.  It’s like something out of a bad science fiction movie.
The only pressure points that might result in useful change are located in D.C. and the several state capitals.  It is public policy and only public policy that establishes the conditions under which wealth and income are generated.  The makers of public policy alone are able to shine the uncomfortable light of public scrutiny on corporate practices that may be harmful to the well being of the community.  The Occupy movements across the nation may be able to make that happen.  It all depends on the 2012 elections.  Two things must happen.  The adherents of Tea Party ideology have to recognize that what they truly desire cannot be found in right wing policies, or they have to be outnumbered at the polls.  If candidates championing the far right can be defeated, if representatives who are willing and able to take a more pragmatic view can be elected, if classic American liberality can prevail, things might change for the better.  We shall see. 

Friday, November 11, 2011

Deborah, Barak, Jael and Me

Our little lectionary study group got hung up on a reading from Judges.  I don’t think it would matter which reading because almost everything in Judges is something to get hung up on.  But in this case we were wrestling with the story of Deborah, Barak and Jael.
The question: if you were going to preach a sermon on this story only, what would you say?  The point of asking it as conditioned by preach and sermon is our automatic assumption that preaching a sermon and giving a lecture are dramatically different things, and I’m not so sure that they are, at least not necessarily. 
A recent column touched on the problem Christians have of not knowing the story of their own faith and denominations well enough to tell it to others.  The same holds true for the story of God’s people as recorded in the Hebrew Scriptures.  Judges, for all of its violence, helps tell the story of the struggle to become a people of God.  I see no reason why a sermon, even a short Episcopalian sermon, cannot be used from time to time to teach the story without trying to draw it to a close with a clear Christian moral conclusion.
When we left Joshua, it appeared that the promised land had been fully conquered and settled, all was at peace, and the only thing left to do was to get the Israelites to give up their household gods in favor of worshiping the Lord God only.  It didn’t work out that way.  The Israelites turned out to be a rough federation of sometimes cooperating and sometimes waring tribes.  The land they occupied was also occupied by Canaanites who refused to leave.  They were surrounded by other kingdoms lusting after their newly acquired lands.  Local gods, partifularly the gods of agriculture, appeared to offer more than Jehovah could, especially for men who stumbled across a temple where fertility was celebrated through the services of temple prostitutes.  
Judges records it all with no apology for how brutal it could get.  
One obvious possibility for preaching on the Deborah story would be to concentrate on the primary roles of Deborah and Jael as early feminist models of courage, leadership, faith in God, and the ability to commit cold-blooded murder.  I am more inclined to focus on the issue of just how hard it was, scratch that, how hard it is to become a people of God.  They, and we, live in a hostile world.  It is not hostile toward us because we are followers of God.  We, and they, are not subject to violent hostility because of God, but simply because we, and they, are in the way.  Moreover, as Judges fearlessly reports, they, and we, are just as active participants in violence as anyone else.  Get in our way, whether fellow believers or not, and it’s war.  
The truly amazing thing about Deborah’s story, and all the stories in Judges, is that God did not give up on them, does not give up on us.  Why, I do not know!  I would.  Think about it, what story in the Book of Judges is not a contemporary story, not about others only but about us also? Many years ago I taught a Wednesday morning bible study for homeless men in lower Manhattan.  The group was solid.  They were dedicated in gathering each week and diligent in their study.  Judges was one of their two favorite books.  The other was Revelation, and that was mostly because they had personal experience with visions like those visited on St. John the Divine.   But I digress, what appealed to them about Judges was that if God could do something worthwhile with people such as Ehud, Samson and Jephthah, then they also were not out of God’s reach.  Those men were at least honest about being no better than Ehud, Samson and Jephthah.  I think it’s a harder for you and me to admit the same thing.  We identify with Deborah and not Barak, and certainly not with the heathen Sisera.  We are Gideon and not his son Abimelech.  And on it goes.  
In the end, I’m not sure how I would preach a single sermon on the Deborah story, but I would take a shot at teaching the Book of Judges not as their story but as our story also in all of its brutal grittiness.

Tuesday, November 8, 2011

A New Farm Insurance Program

Law makers have been threatening to eliminate farm subsidies for years on the grounds that most of it goes to large, corporate style farms that make plenty of money without government help.  According to AP reports, existing farm support programs cost taxpayers between $7 and $8 billion annually. The new plan is to replace direct payment subsidies with a form of free insurance against losses due to price fluctuations which would supposedly shave $23 billion off costs over ten years.  There is not a lot of agreement on how solid that estimate is.  Savings are always calculated as coming mostly in the out years when a new congress, administration and world conditions will have made current projections meaningless.
American industry receives many kinds of tax breaks and production incentives from federal, state and local governments while its executive leaders and board members scream for smaller and less regulatory government: a few of them, such as the infamous Koch brothers, underwriting extreme right wing movements in favor of almost no government at all.  However, no segment of American industry is coddled as much as agriculture where subsidies of one kind or another have become an essential part of farming’s revenue stream.  Talk about welfare addicts, agriculture wins the crown with no second place in sight. 
Perhaps this new idea is a good one in some way.  Maybe it’s needed to preserve and protect American agriculture.  I live in the rural west. We depend on a profitable agricultural economy to drive everything else.  I want our ag. industry to prosper.  So I’m open to hearing the case for it.  What distresses me is the predominant far right wing political culture of our region that despises government and delights in the most goofy of the right wing candidates and their policies.  There seems to be no recognition that the only reason agriculture flourishes is the support it receives from government through direct payments, crop insurance, cut rate electricity, diverted water, and marketing assistance.  A little recognition of that, and some gratitude toward the American taxpayer for making it possible, would be appreciated.
The petulant side of me thinks maybe we should start downsizing government by eliminating all farm support programs in their entirety.  In the meantime, I find the politics of the region’s agricultural interests to be naive, terribly disingenuous, and frankly disrespectful of the value of government in general.

Wednesday, November 2, 2011

I'd love to tell the story, but I don't know it

Once again, while at an ecumenical clergy gathering, I heard the call for the Church to become missional, this time from a Presbyterian.  It’s the theme of the year I guess.  The call to become missional is usually prefaced by the assertion, without fear of contradiction, that the Church and its congregations have spent decades focussed on themselves, turned inward to the exclusion of a world in need just outside their doors.  
I don’t think that’s true, at least not in the way it seems to be said.  The Church, in all of its institutional manifestations, has been exceedingly aware of and responsive to the world in need, whether local or overseas.  The same cannot always be said of those who sit in the pews.  My experience with them indicates that most are so burdened with the issues of their own lives that they give only passing thoughts to other matters.  Their passing thoughts tend to be cast in the form of a check and some hope that someone else in the congregation is paying attention to them and doing something about them on behalf of all.  Thankfully that is often the case.  
However, I think there are two other more serious problems that get buried under the rubric of becoming missional.  One is complacency and the other is the lack of a story to tell.  
I worked for over a year with a congregation that had serious structural problems with their building.  The majority of its leaders just wanted their church to get back to the way it used to be so that they could be the congregation they used to be.  They were fairly honest about it.  They wanted to return to a place of comfortable complacency and away from the anxiety of a troubling future.  Complacency seems to set in whenever a congregation feels comfortable that at long last all their major concerns have been met.  The sermons are good, pastoral care is competent, the music is just right, the roof no longer leaks, the budget is almost balanced, the few kids in Sunday School seem happy with it and there are enough teachers, coffee hour has been taken care of, the congregation gives a tidy sum for outreach to the poor and needy.  Aah, we can sit back and relax.  That’s complacency, and it’s a congregation killer.  It is not to say that congregations must always be on the edge, driven by organizational adrenaline to a constant state of agitation.  It is to say that doing the work God has given us to do in the name of Christ Jesus cannot end with self satisfaction that, having built our bigger barn to house our stuff, all is well and we can comfortably eat, drink and be merry.
The second problem, not having a story to tell, is more difficult because solving it is the antidote to complacency.  If being missional has something to do with proclaiming the good news of God in Christ through word and deed, it can only be done by having a story to tell.  It has to be a story that anyone and everyone can tell, and it has to be a story that speaks of and about the community, not just individuals.  
Unfortunately, having that story has often meant some kind of personal testimony about how I once was blind, but now I see and you can be too if you only accept Jesus as your personal savior.  I’m not opposed to that kind of testimony, although, and as a personal matter, I find its practitioners to be off putting.   The story that needs to be told is the story of our people, our shared faith, and our struggles with what it means for us to be followers of Jesus Christ.  That’s a corporate story, the story of community, and it’s learned within the boundaries of our denominations with their traditions and teachings.  If one knows the story it’s much easier to tell and probably more effective than the more commonly understood personal testimony of how one was saved.  In fact, telling the corporate story makes it possible for there to be more conversation about how that corporate story has become your personal story, or mine.  
Sadly, few members of our congregations know the corporate story, the story of our community of faith.  I suspect that for most what makes a Presbyterian different from an Episcopalian is that the Presbyterians are located on Birch at First while the Episcopalians are on Catherine at Birch.  Our traditions and teachings are important.    We cannot have a story to tell if we don’t know the story of our people and our shared history and traditions.  We cannot tell that story if it is not also our own story.  
If we are to become truly missional, whatever that means, then we must do something to teach our story better than we do so that our members know it and make their own.  I think we might be amazed at how easy it would become for our members to tell that story in any place at any time, and how powerfully it would encourage missional discipleship.

Thursday, October 27, 2011

Let Them Eat Cake

Over the last decade or so major corporations in every industry improved productivity and the bottom line by eliminating jobs and forcing down rates of pay for employees other than those at the top.  At the same time, the American economy was driven partly by unthinking consumer spending spurred on by sophisticated marketing techniques.  And I don’t think we can overlook that it was also driven by spending required to sustain two inane but unfunded wars.  The combination of consumer and national deficit spending was a bubble bound to burst, and it did.  
Oddly enough the current, and no doubt brief, joy over modest improvements in GDP growth rates is the result of increased consumer spending while consumer income and levels of unemployment have remained stagnant.  We need to get something straight.  A nation cannot simultaneously force middle and lower incomes to remain stagnant (or decline) while encouraging greater savings, paying down on consumer debt and building a revitalized economy on consumer spending.  
An unnamed wire service reporter wrote today that, “Economist believe that growth in consumer spending, which accounts for about 70 percent of economic activity, will be restrained until incomes start growing at healthier levels.  That is unlikely until hiring picks up.”  At the same time, Census Bureau data show that between 1979 and 2007 the top 1 percent of households saw their incomes rise 273 percent while middle income households saw theirs go up 40 percent and low income households 18 percent.  It looks like a systemic problem, and maybe it is in one way or another.  The greater reality is that it is an ethical problem that lies squarely in the laps of boards of directors and senior management in major corporations and investment funds.
For the economy to truly recover we must adopt a new ethic, one in which low and middle income wage earners are enabled to see their incomes rise while top earners see theirs level off.  The likelihood of that happening is not great.  The government has little power to change things except through tax policy, which is not a very effective tool for things such as this.  Where the problem lies is from where the solution must come, but human greed is such a strong and seductive force that I don’t think it will.
The more likely result will be for income inequality to continue to grow.  The economy will enter a years long period of tepid growth fueled more by selling whatever we can over seas than anything else.  And most Americans will see their standard of living slowly deteriorate.  It may not be all bad.  Average Americans will learn that there is a limit to how many flat screen televisions, boats, pickups and ATVs they really need.  They will discover the benefits of community colleges and inexpensive entertainments.  Incomes will slowly catch up to declining home prices for some, and others will find the life of a renter not all that bad.  The rich will still be rich of course, and behave more and more like oligarchs, but as I have written before, oligarchies are inherently unstable.  Who knows, maybe we will become something like the French of the early 19th century with the lower classes periodically rising up to depose the wealthy for a season.  I hope not.  Perhaps the raggedy moral force of the Occupy Wall Street demonstrations will make a difference.  We shall see.

Friday, October 21, 2011

Becoming Missional. Is that a new Ben & Jerry's flavor?

My young friend Paul is not simply an optimist.  He is a well educated, extremely bright optimist who is convinced that with the right structure, the right motivation and a little help from the Holy Spirit, the people who are elected and appointed to lead our diocese will transform the way things are done to fully accommodate the promises of a new and “missional” Church no longer turned in on itself but outward into a world hungry for the gospel.  Toward that end our large rural diocese of few congregations met recently in convention to make some significant changes to the way in which it is structured.  
Being a curmudgeon and realist, I have my doubts.  What is missing from the equation is a recognition of the pivotal role of personality in driving organizational change that will result in a new ethos.  Clergy, who are overwhelmed with the affairs of their own congregations, and lay leaders for whom the Church is just one of many obligations, are for the most part, supportive of the diocese as long as it doesn’t do anything to mess up their already messed up lives.  They’re willing to go along with any new idea promising a new and revitalized Church as long as being new and revitalized doesn’t actually change things too much.
Newton explained that inertia is a very powerful force.  Organizational inertia may be the most powerful of all.  It takes a powerful personality in leadership to bend an organizational ethos in a new direction, a direction that can outlast generations of personality changes.  Professional sports teams know this very well as they seek out the right combination of head coach and general manager who can and will create a sustainable “winning ethos.”  A few nights ago I listened to a half time panel of experts list the successful coaches who all came from the tutelage of one person.  That’s the power of personality in organizational leadership.  
That does not make organizational structure unimportant, nor does it take anything away from a transformational vision of the future.  It simply means that organizing for transformation requires bold and competent personalities in leadership.  Not to leave the power of the Holy Spirit aside, scripture is pretty clear on the Spirit’s use of human agency to provide the leadership needed.  Some take a long time to establish a new way of being God’s people.  Consider Moses and his forty year long basic training camp.  Some show great promise but can’t deliver.  Consider Zerubbabel.  Even God thought he could do it, but he couldn’t.  On the other hand, Ezra and Nehemiah set into motion the ethos that would guide Israel right up to and through the time of Jesus.  Personality in leadership counts.  For better or worse, we are still dealing with the fallout from St. Paul’s mercurial leadership personality.
In a more contemporary, secular setting, W. Edwards Deming refused to work with any corporation in which the CEO would not become the first, most ardent and most disciplined follower of Deming’s methods.  Why?  Because without the strong presence of a committed personality as leader, the best one could hope for is another puff of smoke, flavor of the month, buzzword burdened, time consuming distraction from real work. 
Episcopalians have decided they want to become missional.  OK, I think that’s a great idea.  Whatever missional means, it has not ever been a central focus of our denominational ethos.  We have supported many missionaries over the years and are justifiably proud of the relief and development work to which we have bent in every part of the world, sometimes bringing the gospel along with us.  But being a missional people has not been our identity.
Do I know a people whose central ethos is missional?  As a matter of fact I do.  I work closely with members of our local Seventh Day Adventist community through participation on a committee at our local Adventist hospital and friendships with faculty at the near by Adventist university.  A missional ethos is deeply embedded in the very soul of Adventism.  It has matured a lot from the days when Adventist leaders convinced their followers that unless they got out there to spread the gospel, all those heathen would burn in hell, especially Catholics.  Whatever its genesis, it is today grounded in continuing the work of Christ through healing the sick and educating the youth.  It’s a strong missional ethos that has survived many generations of leadership, some of it pretty goofy.  Moreover, Adventist congregations are just as complicated and dysfunctional as those of any other denomination.  That does not seem to affect the power of their missional ethos.  
I don’t want to be an Adventist.  I want to be an Episcopalian rooted in our Anglican tradition.  I think we have the leadership personality to become a missional diocese, and maybe even a missional denomination.  I’m not one of those leadership personalities, but if I was, I would take a hard look at the Adventists to learn how they have been able to maintain a missional ethos over such a long time.  I’d be especially interested in learning how a fairly small and not terribly wealthy denomination has managed to found so many hospitals, schools and colleges.  Then I’d look at the Packers to learn how a publicly owned team has been able to sustain its ethos of winning, even over years of losing seasons.  In both cases I imagine that the myths of personalities past and the realities of personalities present in leadership roles will be pivotal.
If I see our enthusiastic, optimistic leaders doing that, I may become less of a curmudgeon, at least on this issue.

Thursday, October 20, 2011

Hitting Raw Nerves with Thoughts on Sin

For some reason we seem to have a hard time talking about sin in helpful ways.  In some churches it is never mentioned.  In others it seems to be the only topic worthy of a sermon.  In all cases, at least in contemporary American culture, the word sin has taken on a hard to define meaning that teeters somewhere between biblically illegal and disgustingly immoral.  That is not helpful.
If love covers a multitude of sins, sin covers a multitude of behaviors that can be understood in many ways.  For instance, I am a man who was once divorced and have long been married to a woman who was also once divorced.  Is that sinful?  Yes, it is.  We were each married to other people under conditions in which we were not able to live into God’s promised blessings.  It’s the classic missing the mark kind of sin.  The bible says that divorced persons who remarry have committed adultery.  Is that true?  Well, I guess it is, and that also is a sin because something that God intends for the best in human relationships had not happened, or had it?  Thankfully, ours is a God of second chances.  Our marriage of over 27 years has been one of blessings without end from the very first day and through all kinds of weather.  When people ask us if a joyfully fulfilled Christian marriage is possible, we point to ourselves and say, “Just have a look.” 
When someone comes to me with a questions that begins, “Am I committing a sin if I ....,” I don’t even need to know the rest of the sentence.  The answer is almost always yes.  It’s what being human involves, and I don’t think that requires buying into the utterly depraved business so popular among some Calvinists.  It does require further exploration of how our behavior is so often an obstacle to God’s blessings, but an obstacle that can be overcome so that we are not separated from God’s redeeming love for us. 
Our sinfulness does not condemn us to eternal punishment in hell, and constant threats of that are, in my opinion, sins of great magnitude themselves.  Our sinfulness is what God in Christ came to redeem - once for all.  
There are, of course, sins of enormous immoral evil, and I am inclined to think that we are a bit to quick to apply our own prejudices in naming them for others but excusing them for ourselves, especially if they are corporate in nature, as in, say, the genocidal policies of our governments that erased enough Indians to make way for the European settlement of North America.  But that’s for another time. 
What I might close with is to touch on that very raw nerve, abortion.  Since pop culture demands that we be labeled either pro-life or pro-choice, I’ll claim the pro-choice bumper sticker.  But, is abortion a sin always and everywhere?  Of course it is.  Something has gone very wrong in the scheme of things that God would have it be for the best that life could offer.  That does not mean that abortion should be made illegal.  Abortion may be the least sinful and safest response.  It’s a tough decision best left to the woman, her doctors and people she trusts to offer sound spiritual advice in the sure and certain faith that God’s redeeming love will be present.  In the end, I have a great deal of faith in God to work it out.  I have very little faith in the legislature to do it, and no faith in people who are hysterically anti abortion while showing little interest in being pro-life.