Thursday, March 31, 2011

Blind Beggars Faking it

Considering Sunday’s lectionary, our clergy study group focussed discussion on the drama that unfolds between Jesus, a blind beggar and the supporting cast that gives both depth and meaning to the story.  Dorothy challenged each of us to take the point of view of one of the actors, excluding Jesus and the beggar.  It wasn’t easy, and the conversation quickly moved in another direction. 
Bill, our classics professor, wouldn’t let it drop.  What if the guy never was blind, he asked?  That’s what some of the supporting cast believed.  It reminded me that during our years in NYC my wife and I encountered several blind beggars almost daily.  After a hard day of work begging (and begging is not easy work), they could often be spotted walking briskly toward the subway with no apparent problem.  The same for a few who were wheel chair bound or even "legless."  There were, of course, beggars who really were blind or wheelchair bound.  Therein lies the question.  Hard hearted skeptics only want to see the fakers.  It's a great way to deny a problem while assuaging personal guilt at the same time.
It’s not a new question.  Obviously it’s a part of the biblical story, and Bill reminded us of the statute passed by the English Parliament during the reign of Henry VIII against “so-called false Egyptians (Gypsies), mountabanks (street entertainers), and sturdy beggars (those who are able to do manual labor but refuse to do so)...”apparently passed by parliamentarians who were, in effect, “conservatives” indignant at “welfare cheats”!
It’s not only easy to dismiss blind beggars if one is a skeptic who can only see fakers, it’s just as easy to dismiss Jesus as a sentimentalist who has a naive understanding of the way the world works.  That’s not an accusation to be self righteously leveled at the skeptical neighbors and Pharisees found in John’s narrative.  It’s an embarrassing and probing question that needs to be a part of our own Lenten discipline of self examination.

Sunday, March 27, 2011

Aha! I know what Liberal means!

I’ve been wondering about the logic used by my very conservative friends when they assert one of their “facts” about the liberal media, or anything else they label as liberal.  For what it’s worth, my very conservative friends come in two boxes and a small sack.  Box one contains friends from the parish from which I retired.  I know them well.  Box two contains friends from the locker room at the Y.  I know them less well but they are more colorfully vocal about their beliefs.  The small sack includes a handful of local elected types with whom I work on several community projects.  I know them even less well, but their operating assumption is that ‘progressive’ is a bad word that nobody wants as a label, and ‘liberal’ is so pejorative as to require confession and repentance.  
In any case, I have finally figured out that, for them, liberal simply means all that is not overtly right wing conservative or whatever Limbaugh and gang are ranting about at the moment.  There is no rational political litmus test, nor means test, nor even a DMV eye exam.  If it’s not right wing it must be liberal.  If Limbaugh and associates are savaging something, it must be liberal.  Consistency is not required.  Analysis is not required.  
The peculiar mantra of coming back to the center means sliding over to the edge of the right wing.  They remind me of some of my more radical friends in the 1960s and ‘70s who were on the far left at the time.  Come to think of it, those old radicals are now about the same age as many of these hard line conservatives.  Maybe there is some truth in the adage that today’s radical is tomorrow’s stuffed shirt.  

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Let Them Go with Prayers of Blessing

I see by the March 22 edition of The Christian Century that the Presbyterians are now coming to terms with the gay issue, and with the usual results.  One group of leaders who cannot reconcile themselves with the acceptance of gays (by whatever acronym) as full members of the body of Christ with all the rights and privileges thereof, have formed a Fellowship to chart another course.  The same pattern has emerged among Lutherans, Methodists and Episcopalians.  
It doesn’t take long for the so called conservatives to recognize that defining their faith by what they think of homosexuality is not very rational, and it gives the appearance of displacing Christ from the center of the Christian faith.  That cannot be tolerated.  So the next step is to claim the mantle of orthodoxy by asserting that those who favor full inclusion of gays have also abandoned the authority of Holy Scripture and are suspect of not believing in the virgin birth or bodily resurrection.  It’s a much more comfortable position, and it sets up the possibility of a school yard argument consisting of “Am Not” and “Am Too” ad nauseam until the teacher puts an end to it.  
The key for those of us who believe that we are following where God is leading, with full honor given to the authority of Holy Scripture, as we humbly repent of the sins visited on our gay brothers and sisters while opening long shut doors, is to ignore the invitation to a school yard argument by continuing to proclaim the gospel with Christ at its very center. 
It’s a lesson I learned many years ago while serving as a seminarian in a largely gay parish in New York.  No one was shy about acknowledging the sexual diversity of the congregation, but it was never the center of conversation or worship.  Christ was always at the center.  God was always the object and subject of worship.  The greater question was always who and how are we called to be as Christians at this time and in this place?  
My advice, unasked for and no doubt unwelcome, to my Presbyterian friends is the same that I would offer to any denomination.  Let the Fellowship go their own way without hinderance.  Let them go with prayers of blessing for God’s grace to lead and guide them.  They have some serious demons to deal with.  We have our own demons to wrestle with, and it makes no sense getting involved with theirs.  In the meantime, we also have get one with the important work of proclaiming the gospel by word and deed. 

Sunday, March 20, 2011

The Flicker's Revenge, part whatever

Regular readers will recall that The Flicker and I have had a difficult relationship over the years. Newcomers can check out the sidebar on the left for entries under the heading “Flicker.”  When The Flicker (hereafter known as TF) returned last fall and ignored my pebble throwing, I bought a cheap spring loaded ‘soft’ BB handgun at K-Mart to add a little oomph to my encouragement.  It took just two shots, both missing by many feet, to get the message through.  TF left for who knows where, but it wasn’t the siding on my house.  
TF came back last month with a couple of friends.  I was ready.  Out to the garage to lay  my hands on the long dormant weapon.  I guess cheap plastic ‘soft’ BB guns don’t do so well in cold garages.  I yanked back on the cocking action and the whole thing disintegrated.  This was an unexpected fulfillment of a prophecy foretold by vehement pro TF factions whose theology I found highly suspect at the time.  In any case, pebbles in hand, I did what I could and the gang left, not without screeching threats of counterattack. 
This morning, 32 miles away, at tiny little Grace Church, not more than thirty seconds into my sermon, TF started his extended drum solo on the wall behind me.  I stopped.  I looked out at all thirteen worshipers.  My wife was giggling.  Two friends who know about TF were smirking.  “Is that a Flicker,” I asked?  “I hoped you wouldn’t notice,” giggled my wife.  My two friends were now laughing.  
“The key to understanding Nicodemus,” I continued, “is... ratatatatatatratatatatratatatatratatatatratatatat...
I know the wind and Spirit will come and go from and to where we know not, and that somehow they are connected to the kingdom of heaven.  The text is, however, silent about TF, whom I suspect is an agent of another destination.  I spoke on, but in my head I was wondering where I could find a few pebbles.  At coffee I asked my wife how the sermon went.  “I don’t know,” she said, “I was a little distracted, what did you talk about?”  I asked my two friends.  “We couldn’t say,” they chortled with a couple of yucks thrown in.  Humbled by a flicker!  Even Paul didn’t have to put up with that. 

Friday, March 18, 2011

The Sure and Certain Meaning of Nicodemus

On Sunday many of us will hear the story from John about Nicodemus’s night time visit to Jesus and the ensuing conversation about wind and Spirit and being born from above, or perhaps again, and the possibility that one might not make into the kingdom unless on is tapped for salvation by the Spirit.   
It’s a story that has long fascinated me, partly because it cannot be understood by the casual reader, and scholars have been debating its meaning for thousands of years.  The multiple word plays in both Hebrew and Greek, as well as the disjointed syntax of the conversation itself, simply leave one’s head spinning.  It is in that environment that the preacher is expected to make some sense of it that will help ordinary Christians come to a more profound understanding of their faith.  
Dave has a way to do that.  In fact he is quite sure about the meanings embedded in this passage and wonders at my confusion.  Dave was raised in a fundamentalist church where he memorized huge portions of scripture, and was taught their absolute and indisputable interpretation.  For him the story is perfectly clear.  Nicodemus, a creature of the dark, epitomizes the stiffed necked, closed minded and ultimately damned nature of Pharisees and all their fellow travelers.  The need to be born again of the Spirit establishes the threshold that separates would be Christians from real Christians.  That’s what Dave says and he sees no reason for further discussion.  Moreover, he’s a little worried that I am some distance from being saved.  As you can imagine, Dave is not comfortable with Anglican theological ambiguity and inconsistencies.  
Those who worship with me in the tiny rural church I serve in my retirement will be looking for a more Dave like answer to their questions.  How comforting it would be.  Instead, we will explore together the limitations of a gospel writer who could capture only a few core pieces of a much longer and more complex conversation, what it might mean for us to join Nicodemus in coming out of our own dark place into the light of Christ, something of the mystery of God’s presence that flows where it will, and some reassurance that being born of the Spirit from above is function of God not of a particular human experience.  Maybe the wind will blow.

Sunday, March 13, 2011

Apocalyptic Anxiety

A few days ago one of my wife’s buddies asked her if all the wars, volcanoes, tsunamis and earthquakes might be the biblical signs of the end times.  I liked how she answered.  All of these things, and more, have been going on for thousands of years, but because we see them now in our own time, they appear to us as if uniquely ours.  We can be tempted to read into them more than they deserve.  
Many of the churches in our region thrive on the apocalypse.  In the scary language of B horror movie promotions, they hype out of town prophets coming (for one night only) to tell us the true meaning of scripture and warn us of what’s to come.  Routine sermons are rich with the threatening imminence of the last day and final judgment.  Some local pastors seek battalions of prayer warriors to stand in the breach between the Devil and the God’s people on That Day.  No wonder some folks are stoked with anxiety, ready to see the end approaching in every headline and breaking news interruption.
It’s great theater, lousy theology and fully understandable.  This kind of religious thinking, with its accompanying social anxiety (even hysteria), has ebbed and flowed throughout history.  I suspect that it reaches its high points under three conditions.  First, the political and natural world seems out of control.  Second, there is a critical mass of individuals who believe that their personal lives are also out of control and in serious jeopardy of losing life continued in comfort and safety.  Third, and oddly enough, these conditions, however catastrophic they may be somewhere, are not catastrophic in the lives of those anxious about the apocalyptic end of time.  
I doubt that persons living through the London Blitz, Japanese earthquake, Hurricane Katrina, Gettysburg, or similar catastrophic events, give much thought to the apocalypse or hysterical prophecies.  They are too busy surviving.  The same may be true in times of great national striving in times of urgent need.  For apocalyptic anxiety to find its moment there must be a certain distance from which unfolding events can be observed and interpreted according to whatever prophecies have had time to be raised to awareness.  
I wouldn’t mind so much if those convinced of the imminent end of time would also use their remaining days to live in peace with one another, seek reconciliation for injustices done, and be agents of God’s love throughout the community.  So far I haven’t seen much evidence of that.  More often it takes the form of crowing about the salvation of some over the well deserved damnation of others, or hiding from any social engagement, or stockpiling for survival. 
When is that last day?  For my friend Helen it was about three hours ago.  For thousands in Japan it was a few days ago.  For millions around the globe it’s an everyday occurrence.   

Saturday, March 5, 2011

Cowboys and Firemen

I used to conduct workshops and seminars for community leaders, almost always men, working together for the long range betterment of their cities and towns.  It didn’t take long to discover that these assembled leaders did not know each other very well, could work together only in the most superficial way, and had brought to the table a variety of unstated personal needs and anxieties, all of which inhibited the work they had intended to do. 
A one or two day workshop is not the place for group therapy, but I did stumble on one exercise that got things going.  Each participant was asked to think back to an age around ten or so and write down what it was they wanted to be when they grew up.  The usual cowboy and fireman always topped the list, but the discussion that followed unleashed two things.  First, there was a general opening up of accountants revealing their love of music and desire to have been a concert violinists; bankers who always wanted to run a social service non-profit; retailers who had great ideas for manufacturing a new product; auto dealers who would much rather be mechanics, and so on without limit.  That alone helped the group begin to appreciate each other as individuals who had dimensions other than what was seen on Main Street between 8 and 5, or at carefully orchestrated social functions.  
The second thing unleashed was creative energy in wholly unexpected directions.  I think it came from a combination of remembering the childish delight in imagining what one might become as a heroic cowboy or fireman, and the adult but childlike hope for the realization of possibilities yet to come.  
That was a long time ago, but I’ve been reflecting on congregational leadership and wondering if the same dynamic might apply.  Apart from church, how well do parish leaders really know each other?  Do a few personal friendships tend to cut off genuine engagement with others outside that friendship?  Have leaders become sated in the dullness of churchthink?  Have possibilities been restricted by conventionally imposed limitations?  
Breathing new life into congregational planning and decision making most certainly requires the presence of the Holy Spirit, but perhaps the Spirit’s presence can be made known through some fairly simple work.

Friday, March 4, 2011

From Jung to Jesus

I have been using Jungian inspired tools for most of my working life.  In the 1970s I read most of the published material in Jungian inspired Organization Development.  I’ve attended workshops and seminars conducted by Jungian inspired teachers.  Parenthetically, most of my undergraduate teachers were Skinner people.  I thought they were goofy then.  I have more respect for them now.  
But I digress.  Now in my dotage, I am actually reading Jung.  As a philosopher of psychology, I doubt that he can be surpassed, yet he is the product of his time and culture as are we all.  I expected that, but what I did not expect was how self confidently blind he was to all of that even as that blindness fits so nicely into his own theories.
He makes bold assertions about the truth of human consciousness, unconsciousness and mental illnesses based in large part on what is normal for German middle class life in the early part of the 20th century.  Children have parents, a mother and father, who raise them in the context of a household that falls within a range of norms that are commonly understood.  Men have certain roles in society and family life that are theirs because they are men.  Women have theirs also and they are very separate.  Men think in a certain way that is typically and rationally male.  Women think in a certain way that is typically and emotionally female.  And so on.  I was particularly amused at his assertion that homosexuality is caused by some foul up in the relationship of a boy with his mother.  Yet it was the undisputed cause that was taught in my own youth.  Well, that and Satan of course.  Actually that’s a more compassionate answer than the popular accusation of it being a deliberate life style choice in rebellion against God, but again I digress.
If a mind as brilliant as Jung’s could be so blind to the cultural assumptions (not archetypes) built into his own thinking, what about us?  As we ponder the future role of the United States in a world that no longer pivots around it.  As we struggle with the implications of the rapidly changing demographic characteristics of our society.  As we try to accommodate new findings in science and technology before they become obsolete.  As we debate the proper role of a modern government.  As we probe farther and farther into the brain, mind and soul.  As we ask ever deeper questions about the meaning of self.  As we do all of these things, how blind are we to our own cultural assumptions about the way things are or should be?
My guess is that it runs deep.  Many, I suspect, defend what they believe the world to be with such explosive force because if it changes there will not only be no place in it for them, there will be no them at all.  Others believe that there will be no place for them to exist until it does change: change according to their assumptions about what a world should be like.  We hear it articulated in such phrases as “Our (my) way of life is threatened,” or “I haven’t left the church, the church has left me.”   It isn’t just about social, political or institutional change, it’s about knowing who the self is and finding an acceptable place for the self to be.
I’d like to think that, being the sophisticated, intelligent world traveler thatI am, I am capable of breaking through those barriers, and not be like everyone else.  The problem is, like almost everyone else, I don’t know where or what the barriers are because there are certain unchallenged cultural assumptions about the way of the world that are so much a part of how I see things.  Those assumptions are not Jungian archetypes, but they are a part of the unconscious.  I think that is why we hold people such as Jung, Einstein, Augustine and others in such high regard.  They were able to ask the unknown question and seek answers to it.  What strikes me most is that each time I am surprised by a new answer to a previously unknown question, Jesus already seems to be there.  I have no idea how it was that Matthew, Mark, Luke and John (Paul too - maybe) went about recording the story of Jesus the way they did, but somehow it thrusts itself through, not just the veil of the temple, but the veil of history yet to be unfolded, and meets us on the other side.  

That is why I keep coming back to the idea that it is not just scripture than must be interpreted by the two Great Commandments and the New Commandment, but life itself, and especially my own assumptions about life, must be tested and judged by them.

Wednesday, March 2, 2011

A Few Thoughts on Teachers and Teaching

Teachers are having a rough time of it these days.  Thanks largely to Governor Walker, the public now knows that they are responsible for the poor financial condition of most states, and probably for the recession itself.  And here we thought it was Walla Street greed, the bumbling management of such icons as General Motors, unwise and unpaid wars, and irresponsible tax cuts.  Who knew?  Well, apparently there were quite a few judging from the commentary on certain cable news channels and in letters to the editor in local papers throughout the nation.
Teachers, with their super high salaries, short work days, three month vacations, frequent school breaks, golden benefit packages and all the rest have ruined the nation.  Moreover, they are mostly incompetent and cannot be fired for poor performance.  At least that’s what I hear and read.  
When I was growing up it was common knowledge among the adults around me that those who can do, and those who can’t teach.  Men, and even women, who went into teaching lacked the ambition and intelligence for more demanding careers.  They were poorly paid and deserved no more.  If they had to take on second jobs during the summer, it was the price they paid for being teachers. 
How odd that we would trust the education of future generations to such as these.
I didn’t think much about it in grade school, but as I awoke to the gift of learning I also started paying attention to my teachers.  Most of them were teachers because they loved teaching, they loved knowledge and learning, and they loved the subjects they taught.  Pushing facts into empty heads was certainly a part of it, but more so was teaching us how to think critically.  I was a little surprised to learn that critical thinking was not much appreciated by many of the adults around me.  They seemed threatened that anyone would question the standard beliefs and values of our kind.  In my case, our kind were all white middle class midwesterners, most with rural roots.  I’m certain that the same was true elsewhere in the country, each, as scripture might say, according to their kind. 
Even now I am sometimes surprised at how thorough was the foundation of learning I received in the public school system of Hopkins, Minnesota.  Every now and then I feel a tinge of shame when I  remember how I successfully avoided taking advantage of even more learning opportunities that were there for anyone who wanted them.
Teaching is not work that many are suited for.  It takes special talent and, I believe, a sense of vocational calling.  I’m impressed that in my community the standard is for teachers to have their masters degrees, quite a few have doctorates and many are awarded national certification.  Classroom hours are prefaced by uncounted hours of preparation, followed by more uncounted hours of followup work, and supplemented by constant continuing education to stay current in rapidly changing fields. 
I have no idea what Wisconsin teachers make.  I know that around here a newly minted teacher makes enough to live in a decent apartment and drive an inexpensive used car while struggling to pay back student loans.  Experienced teachers can do fairly well, earning in the low range of what one would expect of a highly educated professional charged with the effective preparation of the next generation of American leadership.  The entire range is from the low $30s to the low $50s.  Those huge retirement benefits?  A quick look suggests an average of around $1,600 a month.  No one is going to get rich off that.  If the public employee retirement funds are in trouble it’s because legislatures have been irresponsibly and deliberately underfunding them for years.  
It is true that teachers, administrators, and school boards have not come up with a good way to audit teacher performance, but it always seems to be high on everyone’s agenda.  It is also true that some teachers’ unions have been intransigent in their bargaining to the detriment of education.  The same can be said for some school boards and communities.  In the heat of the current recession, anti teacher forces argue that communities cannot afford to be held by collective bargaining agreements, and therefore, collective bargaining must go.  Since collective bargaining agreements are exactly that, both collective and agreements, they are never cast in stone and always open to renegotiation.  
So what is the vitriol all about?  A recent letter in our local paper was from a man who was simply irate about teachers, other public employees, and their easy life.  He described himself as a retail salesperson who has never had a raise, has no retirement, no benefits, must work most holidays and has no job security.  Gee, what a goal to aim for, serfdom.