Friday, April 29, 2011

Daniel: Can you keep a Secret?

“But you, Daniel, keep the words secret and the book sealed until the time of the end...[g]o your way, Daniel, for the words are to remain secret and sealed until the time of the end.”
The community is inundated about once a year with newspaper ads, television spots, mass mailings and door hangers promoting the ONE DAY ONLY appearance of some world famous expert on prophecy who will unlock the secrets and unveil the meaning for us in our day in order that we might be prepared for That Day, which is upon us.  The book of Daniel will be a prominent feature of the talk.
It is blatant carnival hucksterism, but it works.  The room will be packed and the people mesmerized.  The out of town preacher will stitch together a very believable and apparently logical story.  He will do it with energy, flourishes, a backup band, terrific terrifying slides, and an altar call. 
Some local clergy will seize on the momentary outflowing of emotional turmoil over the imminence of the Last Judgment to beef up worship service attendance as well as, perhaps, tithing.  Others will be confronted by a few parishioners wanting to know if maybe this guy really does know what he’s talking about, and why have they never heard that sort of truth telling from their own pulpit.
In a few weeks he will have been all but forgotten but for a core of true believers who will already be working on next year’s performance.  It’s not a bad thing.  Among those who pay any attention at all will be some who want to know more about God and Jesus, about faith and atonement, and about what this Last Day stuff is all about.  They may not go to the nearest church to seek out the clergy, but they will ask their questions at coffee, over a beer or in a conversation with friends.  Will they encounter well formed and well informed “ministers” among the baptized when they ask those questions?  I hope so.
Lord Jesus Christ, you stretched out your arms of love on the hard wood of the cross that everyone might come within the reach of your saving embrace: So clothe us in your Spirit that we, reaching forth our hands in love, may bring those who do not know you to the knowledge and love of you; for the honor of your Name. (BCP)

Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Is Life Planned by a Heavenly TripTik?

A portion of Isaiah’s 30th chapter reads, “...your Teacher will not hide himself anymore, but your eyes shall see your Teacher.  And when you turn to the right or when you turn to the left, your ears shall hear a word behind you, saying, ‘This is the way; walk in it.’”
I once dealt with a young man who was so convinced of a particular meaning of the literal truth in these words that he would wait for holy inspiration to tell him which way to walk to work.  Oddly enough, he went on to a successful career in a field rife with ethical ambiguity.  More common is the assertion that God is in control of everything that happens, and that God’s plan for one’s personal life is something like a heavenly AAA TripTik complete with turn-by-turn directions to a final destination, including all the stops along the way.  For those of you unfamiliar with the ancient technology of an AAA TripTik, it’s something like a paper version of a talking GPS guiding you from point A to point B with many stops in between.  The main difference is that the Triptik also describes all the details of points of interest along the way.  
That view of what it means to say that God has a plan for your life, it seems to me, misses the whole point of everything God had to say through the prophets.  The holy voice that says, “This is the way; walk in it,” is not talking about sidewalks or roadways.  It is talking about the moral choices one makes in one’s life.  God’s plan, both personal and corporate, is all about what it means to live together ethically.  The prophets, illuminated by Christ’s teaching, provide challenging standards for what that means.
One of the temptations we embrace is how much easier t is to ignore God's moral imperatives while pestering God for detailed instructions on important life decisions as well as on the minutia of daily life.  It’s so much easier to assert that God is in control of everything while we go about the business of screwing things up with our ego driven selfishness.  It’s a win-win for us.  We can avoid taking responsibility for ourselves and our communities while boldly asserting that whatever crackpot idea we’ve come up with is a part of God’s plan.  We can confidently rest in the blessed assurance that we have accepted Jesus Christ as our personal savior while ignoring most of what he, and all of scripture, have to say about the ethics of life together.  Moreover, we can arrogantly assert that our culturally formed way of life is from God himself, and, therefore, is the way of life everybody else should adopt.
It must drive God crazy to have to put up with us.  Frankly, I’m amazed that God can love us so much that he would send his only begotten Son.  That his plan for salvation somehow includes the whole of creation is what gives me hope.  It certainly won’t come from our end.

Monday, April 25, 2011

A Brief Reflection on the Passing of Lent

I am one of those who look forward to Lent as a season for quiet reflection and a slower pace of life.  It always comes as a surprise how quickly it passes, how soon it’s over, how little time I devoted to quiet reflection, and how unchanged my pace of life remained during those few brief weeks.  
Maybe that’s why I treasure Holy Week and the Great Vigil of Easter so much.  It captures the essence of Lent in seven short days.  It is not simply a matter of attending a quiet Eucharist each day, or the very intentional remembrance of the gift of holy food and drink on Thursday, or the vigil at the cross on Friday.  I also do my best to drop out of normal obligations and civic duties during Holy Week.  The United Way, Housing Authority and Diocese all get along without me.  On Saturday evening, at the Great Vigil, the darkened church offers few distractions.  The long series of lessons are given opportunity for reflection by the offering of canticles and hymns between them.  Almost too soon comes the announcement that He is Risen and Easter has arrived. 
I rejoice at the return of Alleluias, which, rather stubbornly, I will not give up after Pentecost as is the practice of some.  I rejoice at the renewal of life and hope that never died and never will.  I rejoice at the good news we are called to share.  But a part of me misses the Lent in which I did not fully participate.  And I give grateful thanks for the Holy Week that prepared me for Easter’s joy. 

Friday, April 22, 2011

Preserving State Wealth by Preserving the Wealthy? I've got a better idea.

My wife says that I get really morose on Good Fridays, and that probably explains this post.  Why else would I be writing about state finances instead of atonement?
I’ve been involved in an interesting exchange of e-mails with my state senator, a Republican who used to be centrist but has tilted farther to the right in recent years.  The issue pivots on how to restructure the state’s budget to be more fiscally responsible. It’s pretty much the same set of problems facing most states these days.  The State of Washington has a long history of significant operating fund deficits as measured by tax revenue against expenditures.  They have been financed, and the budget balanced, by a combination of federal monies and fund transfers.  With federal money on the decline, something has to be done to bring expenditures closer to locally raised revenues.  The last time they met was in 1997, and I haven’t checked to see if that was just a one time event.  
Washington does not have an income tax, so state revenues are dependent on sales taxes, a gross receipts tax on businesses, and various fees.  The state portion of the sales tax is 6.5%.  The gross receipts tax rate is around .005% except for services at about .02%.  No doubt someone will correct me if I'm wrong about these rates.  Anyway, buried in the tax code are a number of credits and exemptions enacted over the years to benefit particular industries and companies.
Washington also allows for initiatives and referenda, and an ultraconservative, small government character named Tim Eyman has mastered the art of authoring initiatives that not only cut taxes and fees, they also shackle the ability of local and state legislators to raise taxes except by super majority votes or public referenda.  His initiatives were an easy sell for several years.  As one of my friends once said; “Lower taxes? Who wouldn’t vote for that?  It’s a no brainer.”  He has less success these days, now that some of the effects have begun to show themselves in declining levels of service and maintenance.
Obviously it’s a tough issue that cannot be resolved without pain.  My argument has been that, unless the legislature is willing to look at both revenue and costs, the outcome is likely to lead the state down a hill that first hurts those who are least able to defend themselves, and then heads toward a lower standard of living for all.  My senator’s argument has been that our tax system is just fine, we raise enough money, and the various credits and exemptions are all job creating incentives that are working the way they are supposed to, so our entire focus must be on reducing expenditures.  I don’t know enough about the credits and exemptions to judge with certainty, but my guess is that’s a lot of baloney.  He’s also begun to spout the Wisconsin line that greedy, uncooperative public employees are the cause of our problems.  I guess he figures that will appeal to the right wingers, and he’s right, but, I think, morally wrong.
There’s a line going around on Facebook that nails it well.  It reads: Remember when teachers, public employees, planned parenthood, and PBS crashed the stock market, wiped out half of our 401Ks, took trillions in TARP money, spilled oil in the Gulf of Mexico, gave themselves billions in bonuses, and paid no taxes? Yeah, me neither.
Of course we need to rein in spending and use our available resources in a more efficient and intentional way.  It’s not that the state has wasteful programs.  To the contrary, it’s hard to find anything that is not contributing to essential needs.  But the legislature enacted too many good ideas with no clear idea of how they would be paid for over the long term, and with too much faith in a booming economy and federal revenue sharing.  
We also need to take a hard look at revenues.  I am among the few in Washington who favor an income tax as a far more equitable way to raise public funds.  It seems unlikely that will happen anytime soon.  But we could make an audit of the various exemptions granted to businesses with an eye toward making the wealthiest and most powerful interests participate with the poorest and least powerful interests in the restructuring of the state’s finances.  We could, but we won’t.  The legislators don’t have the courage to do it.  
What it all comes down to is that we are banking on the return of booming economy driven by Boeing, Microsoft and high wheat prices to raise revenues.  It’s worked before and it might work again.  In the meantime, small government right wingers are rejoicing in their opportunity to return the quality of life in the state to where it belongs, the late 19th century before radicals like Teddy Roosevelt started messing things up.
I’ve got an idea.  Why don’t we take all the sales tax revenue and bet it at the roulette tables in the Indian casinos!  Better yet, we could go down to Oregon and invest it all in Power Ball tickets!

Thursday, April 21, 2011

Easter at Grace

I failed to line up a musician for Easter Sunday at little Grace Church in Dayton, WA.  Our singing is normally led by a member of the congregation who noodles out an approximation of the tune on the organ, but she’s on vacation.  Easter has often been adorned by music majors from one of the colleges in Walla Walla, but my contacts there have dwindled to nothing.  Nevertheless, we will rejoice in our celebration of the Resurrection.
We, borrowing a suggestion from the Methodists, will lustily sing a cappella in our usual multipart, multi keyed harmony.  The church will be overflowing with flowers brought in by the arm load by a ninety year old member who will have “borrowed” them from her neighbors’ yards.  Amid the solemnity of an Episcopalian Eucharist, we will shout out our Alleluias, and not take ourselves so seriously that it prevents us from breaking out in spontaneous laughter at almost anything.  The blessing and dismissal will have been offered, but the Eucharist, the celebration, will continue, possibly in the church, but more likely down at the Country Cupboard bakery, as is usual on Sundays.  
If you have ever wondered whether Grace is a real place, look it up on the web.  It’s not fancy but they do have their own website: www.gracechurchdaytonwa.org.

Tuesday, April 19, 2011

He is Risen? Who Cares!

Interesting conversation in our Tuesday morning lectionary group.  It began with the usual quandary about how best to preach to those who come only once or twice a year. One of our group enthused about how when they hear that Jesus rose from the dead it will, or at least can, change their lives forever.  He’s seen it happen.
I doubt it.  Once upon a time, when I was a child in the 1950s, it could be assumed that most Americans were nominally Christian in the sense that they had been exposed to the basic words and images associated with Christianity that were a part of everyday life.  It was also assumed that the large numbers of Sunday school graduates who failed to show up for church the Sunday after Confirmation would return again in a few years with their own children.  That did not happen, at least not in huge numbers.  In any case, the Easter sermon could assume a shared base of knowledge upon which a greater understanding could be built. 
I suppose I could do a little research and tease out the numbers.  I’ll leave that up to you if you’re interested.  What you will probably find is that we have a couple of generations who know little of Christianity, other than the dribbles they get from the media, because they have never been part of a church community.  Others may know slightly more but were so put off by childhood experiences that it all seemed pointless.  Some of them will come to church on Easter, as they might on Christmas, not to touch something familiar from their youth, but as a kindness to a well meaning relative insisting on their presence, or, perhaps, as an interesting adventure not unlike attending an obscure off Broadway show just for the fun of it. 
In other words, we cannot assume anything about what they know or don’t know about Christ.  We can assume that they are well informed about Harry Potter.  The astounding announcement that He is Risen! is just as likely to have no meaning whatsoever.  Their lives seem to go on just fine without whatever it is that Christians say is essential to life.  A couple of hours in church to satisfy grandma or enjoy the music is not a lot to ask or give, so why not, at least this year. 
If we are going to be serious about bearing the Good News of God in Christ. then, I think, we need to put ourselves into the shoes of Peter, Paul and others who took it into unfamiliar territory.  Like Paul, we are addressing a bunch of Athenians who have hundreds of gods, none of which they take seriously, but of whom we are certain they are seeking something that can only be answered by Christ.   Who is Christ?   That may be one question in need of answer.  More important is, Why should they care?  What possible difference can it make?  And there had better be a better answer than if you don’t believe you’ll burn in hell.
Crafting a sermon to meet conditions such as these is difficult.  If there is a really good one around, I haven’t heard it.  Fortunately for me, I don’t have to do it.  The little, rural congregation I will lead on Sunday may have as many as 25 in the pews, an amazing 78% increase over normal attendance (eat your heart out mega-church), but most will be life long Christians.  We will celebrate the Resurrection with all the vigor we can muster.  Our greater problem is how to equip these saints to go out into the community to address the Easter and Christmas crowd over the next 363 days.  We Episcopalians seem to have a problem with that other E word.

Sunday, April 17, 2011

Religion as Faith and Faith as Completion

Carl Jung reported on many dreams told to him by his patients.  In one of them the dreamer is told that, “religion is no substitute; it is to be added to the other activities of the soul as the ultimate completion.”  Leaving Jung’s own analysis aside, it seems to me to be an important point.  Religion, in this case, is not limited to the creed, rituals and polity of one’s tradition, but extends to the broader matter of the faith that is represented by them. 
There are some professed Christians for whom religion is not only a substitute, but an essential replacement for all other activities of the soul, however the soul is understood.  There is an old joke in which a Sunday school teacher asks a complicated question.  A child raises her hand and says she does’t understand the question but the answer must be Jesus.  For many, Jesus, and, more particularly, the correct formula for Jesus, is the answer to every question.  The world itself, in their understanding of it, is ruled by a God who is in control of every event.  Almost any reasonably good idea is justified with words such as, “The Lord has laid it on me to...,” or “It has been given to me to...”  I recall counseling years ago with an extreme case in which I finally demanded of the person, “Don’t you ever have any ideas of your own?  Is there nothing for which you are personally responsible?”  Maybe I was a tad more diplomatic at the time. 
Although that is often presented as a sign of a deep and trusting faith in God, I’m more inclined to think it is a sign of a insecurity about, and lack of trust in, one’s own God given abilities to have thoughts and make decisions.  It can be a refusal to take ownership of, and responsibility for, one’s own self.  If we are to take Jesus seriously, then we must take seriously his earthly ministry of healing that restored people to wholeness of body, mind, spirit and place.  That wholeness included faith in God through Jesus as essential to the completion of the self.  He did not always say that faith is what made one well, but it was always implied that faith was an essential component of wellness.  Spiritual wellness is one modern way to put it, and that can sound like a tepid faith so watered down that it has no meaning.  But Jesus never demanded a formulaic affirmation faith, and he was known to heal persons who had not asked for it, persons of no known religion, and persons who had been rejected by the religions of their community.  However faith was understood, it was not a substitute for everything else that contributes to a healthy self.  It was added to the other activities of the soul as the ultimate completion.  Persons healed by Jesus were sent on their way as responsible adults.
The opposite side of the issue illuminates a similar problem among self proclaimed atheists.  They also see religion as a substitute for every other activity of the soul and, therefore, reject it.  For whatever reason, they apparently cannot envision religion, as faith in God, as an essential component of human wholeness.  If some professed Christians are afraid to put any distance between themselves and God, these religious skeptics are afraid to enter into any intimacy with God.  One is afraid of their own God given independent agency.  The other is afraid that God might control everything they want to claim as their own.  They are both suffering under illusions that feed each others' fears.

Saturday, April 16, 2011

Unbinding the Dead for a New Life

I’ve been working as a consultant to a congregation that has faced a combination of issues: structural problems with the building, a declining average Sunday attendance, clergy burnout and turnover, and the need to restructure debt. 
A few days ago we had meeting with the leadership to establish a new direction that involves the restructuring of the congregation as the cost of restructuring their debt and completing needed repairs.  With it came the “planting” of a new mission for a new congregation.  On the one hand it was an encouraging moment.  There is a future, a very hopeful future for this church, in this place, at this time.  The current members of the congregation will be the seedbed for what is yet to come.  The majority of current leadership looked forward to a new future and expressed enthusiasm for the hard work ahead.
On the other hand, it was a sad moment.  Several of the old time leaders, the ones who have always been able to call the shots no matter who the elected leadership were, finally realized that their time was over.  Control had been taken away from them.  As we talked at length about a new mission in a revitalized congregation, one of them said, quite honestly, “I don’t want a new church, I want the old church.”  His heart was broken.
However much he, and some others, want the old church to come back, it is gone for good. What will be remains to be seen.  Whatever it is to become, it will include persons participating in and leading worship for whom Christianity, church and our denomination are likely to be a new experience.  Like the new Christians of Corinth and Ephesus, Phillipi and Thessalonica, they will come from other traditions or no tradition at all.  They will learn by practice and teaching what it means to be Christians within our tradition, but in new ways that will be unfamiliar, even off putting, to more than a few of the old timers. 
A building that had become a sanctuary from the outside world will become a place of worship that leads to, and cannot be separated from, engagement with the surrounding community, not as a social service agency, but at the body of Christ continuing his ministry of healing and reconciliation in the community.  

My role, my time, with this congregation is coming to an end.  What began as an assignment to help them with a building problem became something else altogether.  Now they will be served by others well trained in congregational development, but they will remain close to my heart and in my prayers.  I will pray for courage, strength and patience for their new leadership, and I will pray for consolation for the former leaders who are just now grieving a death that happened a decade ago but went unrecognized.
There are, I think, parallels with the raising of Lazarus.  Beloved of Jesus, yet dead just the same, his corps had become a decomposing stench.   But what looks dead to us is not dead to God.  Although Jesus called him from the grave, it took human effort to roll away the stone and unbind him so that he could freely enter into a new life, his by the grace of God.  The resurrection of this congregation will be like that.  Although Christ will call them forth, it will take human effort to roll away the stones that have sealed them in a tomb of their own making.  It will take human effort to unbind them from practices and attitudes that have kept them from freely following Christ into the world.  Christ has called.  The stones have been removed.  We shall see how the unbinding goes.

Tuesday, April 12, 2011

Are We Going in the Wrong Direction?

What percentage of the people believe the country is headed in the wrong direction?  What percentage of your denomination believe the church is headed in the wrong direction?  How did we get on the wrong track?  Sound familiar?  I have encountered countless friends and bare acquaintances who, with moistened eyes, trembling lips or glaring anger have made these bold assertions.  Maybe you have also.
I have some questions of my own.  What direction is the wrong direction?  What would be the right direction?  What track are we on, and where does it lead?  No one ever seems to know.   Lately I’ve been asking the direct question; exactly what is the direction we are headed, where will it take us and why is it wrong?  The general response is a blank stare, a few mumbled er, ums, and a change of subject.
I have no doubt that those with a quick “wrong direction” answer really are feeling some social or political unease, even anxiety.  But that doesn’t say much.  My guess is that there are a couple of things going on here.  One is the ease with which generic wrong direction assertions can be used to cover up socially unacceptable prejudice and bigotry.   Another is that there are many who cannot articulate what they mean because they are too lazy to think it through.  Others may simply be too ignorant.  It’s a tempting answer because it’s a simple answer.
Are we on the right track?  Which track?  The nation, the church, our families, even our selves are all on many tracks going in many directions.  The right direction?  We are going in many directions with many intended destinations, and experience suggests that most likely we will end up somewhere else.
When asked if I think the nation is going in the right or wrong direction, my answer is that I haven’t a clue, but I do have some anxiety about America’s future.  Pushed too hard to the right and we could end up a picturesque economic backwater with large population of marginally educated poor people dominated and ruled by a small population of the wealthy.
When asked if I think the Church is going in the right or wrong direction, my answer is a confident both, and at the same time.  About the Church I have no deep anxiety.  It is, after all, God’s Church and I think she can handle it. 

Sunday, April 10, 2011

Coffee Hour Questions: Where does anti-Semitism come from? A mostly true answer, give or take a few exceptions. It is coffee hour after all.

You asked about why there has been so much antisemitism in the world and even in the U.S. 
A very good question.  So here goes.
First a word of clarification. When you asked about antisemitism I believe you were really asking about anti Jewish prejudice.  Semites, technically speaking, are all people who share in a common language root, the semitic languages of the Middle East, notably Hebrew and Arabic plus a bunch of ancient languages no longer spoken.  But let’s go on and talk about anti Jewish prejudice.
Relations between Jews and Gentiles were tough from before the time of Jesus.  The main reason was their insistence on worshiping an invisible God while denying that any of the other gods were even gods at all.  Moreover, Rome had a law that all people under its rule could go on worshiping their own gods in their own ways, but they had to worship Roman gods also, at least in a superficial way and on major holidays.  Herod the Great was a friend of Caesar and managed to lobby through an exemption for Jews.  That did not sit well with other occupied nations who were denied such a deal.
Then along came the Christians, who were seen as some sort of weird Jewish sect, but one that actively tried to convert good, honest pagans, which regular Jews would never do.  Things were getting out of control.  At about the same time the Jews of Palestine began a series of wars against Rome.  It did not go well for them, and in 70 A.D. the Romans had had enough.  They destroyed the temple right down to its foundation and burned Jerusalem to the ground.  Just to put that in perspective, it was about five years after Peter and Paul were executed in Rome which is about where the New Testament story ends.  Anyway, with the temple gone along with all the priests and Sadducees, the only Jewish religious leaders left were the Pharisees.  They got together to decide about the best way to go on being Jewish without a temple and all of its rituals.  What they came up with eventually matured into modern day Rabbinic Judaism.  At the same time they decided on a final break with the Christians since most of them were gentiles and not proper Jews.  They didn’t want them worshiping in the synagogues along with real Jews anymore.  Over time they prepared a prayer to be recited at each worship service that included a request that God punish all slanderers, and the wording of it was such that any Christian would recognize it as against them.  That pretty much ended the Jewish-Christian link. 
Remember that I said that the New Testament story ends about the time when Peter and Paul were executed around the year 65 A.D.?  Most of the writing of the New Testament, except for Paul’s letters, came after that.  John’s gospel, the last of them, was written well after 70 A.D.  The split with Judaism had already occurred when John wrote, and you can see it in the words he used.  John was a Christian Jew who was ticked off about it. 
Now we need to leap forward a couple of hundred years to the early 300s when the emperor Constantine legalized Christianity.  Not long after, it became the official religion of the empire.  Once again the Jews stubbornly refused to do what Rome demanded.  They would not become Christians.  That was more or less tolerated until the Roman empire fell apart, the Middle Ages had begun, and poverty, disease, wars and superstition ran rampant all over Europe.  Even the Church was increasingly corrupt, and many priests were almost as illiterate as their parishioners.  Whose fault?  Had to be somebody’s fault!  The Jews, those Christ killers, it must be their fault!  Look at them!  They dress funny!  They talk funny!  They refuse to worship Jesus, and they do strange secretive things in their services.  I’ll bet it’s devil worship!  And John’s gospel had a lot to do with that idea. 
Jews were prohibited from living where they wanted. They were rounded up and forced to into ghettos.  They were prohibited from most ordinary occupations, but, since lending money at interest was prohibited to Christians, and Jewish practice allowed them to lend money at interest to gentiles but not to other Jews, banking became one way to earn a living.  That led to making money in other kinds of trade.  Since most Jews were literate in at least two languages, it opened up work in medicine, chemistry and other related fields.  Tailoring and sewing were also possibilities.  Being educated didn’t help.  Educated people are often the object of contempt by the ignorant.   
During the crusades Jews were randomly slaughtered by Christian crusaders who, on their way to liberate the Holy Land from Muslims,  got rid of a few Christ killers along the way.  England banned all Jews from living in the realm.  Spain and Portugal demanded that they convert or be tortured and executed.  Sometimes they got the order mixed up and started with torture before going on to conversion.  Jews moved from place to place trying to find a reasonably safe place to live.  Poland and Russia seemed like a good bet because there they could also be farmers, and farming was in their blood.  That didn’t last long (watch Fiddler on the Roof).  
So where did antisemitism come from?  From superstition, the need humans have for a scapegoat enemy, the Gospel according to John, ignorant Christian teaching, and the deliberate marginalization of a people forced into roles that could then be demonized.  That’s where it came from.
It is shameful.  There is no way around that and no excuse to be offered.  At the same time, it is important to recognize that any people, nationality, ethnic group or religion can fall into the same trap.  We confess that we are a fallen race, and that shows its ugly head anywhere you go.  It can be seen in the way Islamic fundamentalists hate things Western.  It can also be seen in the caste system of India, the way the Han Chinese marginalize and oppress non-Han Chinese, and, in our own country, how the dominant white population has treated blacks, Indians and other minorities. 
What can we, as Christians, do about it?  We can love the Lord our God with all our heart.  We can love our neighbors as ourselves, remembering especially the significance of the parable of the Good Samaritan.  We can love others as Christ loved us.  It’s that simple, and it’s the hardest thing we will ever learn to do.  

Friday, April 8, 2011

Frozen to Death? Maybe Not!

Seasons linger in our valley.  The cool but gentle weather of fall can last past Christmas.  Winters tend to be gray and foggy but with mild temperatures.  Spring begins to show itself by late February.  Just the same, we had a day or two of very deep freeze last fall.  Plants had not yet entered their winter dormancy.  Sap still flowing through them froze solid.  It was enough to kill some of them.  Roses and laurels were especially hard hit. All over town they are being dug up and tossed onto rubbish piles. 
Our friend Don, a landscape designer, came over to look at ours a couple of weeks ago, and they looked bad.  “These three are dead,” he said, “and they have to go.”  “But look here at all the rest; see down at the base where green shoots are barely visible; they will survive.  Cut them way back, gently care for them, and they will be OK.”
I wonder how often we see all the signs of spiritual death in those around us?  Fellow humans whose hearts have been frozen solid by the coldness of life, often a coldness experienced in church, an arctic wind that chills the soul blowing out of the mouths of pastors and teachers.  How often do we figuratively dig them up and toss them on rubbish piles destined for Gehenna, or maybe the Kidron Valley?  How many pastors and church leaders there are who say they are looking for signs of spiritual renewal, but all they can see is spiritual death.  It’s all around them, and it’s all they ever talk about. 
Why do we find it so difficult to look closer and see the barely visible green shoots of nascent faith emerging from roots that have endured the cold and refused to die?  They are small, tender and vulnerable, but they are there.  Digging around my dead hydrangeas, Don pointed to the all but invisible signs of new life.  “Prune these dead branches all the way down to the ground.  These new shoots will take their place.  They won’t bloom this year, but next year they will.”  


In a couple of weeks we will celebrate the drama of the Resurrection.  We ought not to forget that this same Jesus Christ never failed to see, nurture and strengthen even the barest signs of spiritual life in those he met.  To him, and in his presence, no one was ever dead.  “I am life,” he said.  As bearers of his continued presence, however imperfectly we bear it, no one should should ever be judged dead by us.  We are not agents of death.  We are agents of life who must be especially attentive to the barely visible and fragile signs of new life trying to grow where death had claimed its false victory.  Maybe some really are dead.  That’s not our call to make.  We do not have the competency to do it. 

Wednesday, April 6, 2011

Retirement: What Good is It?

Retirement.  It’s an odd condition of life.  I’m a little over three years into it, and learning something new about it each day.  With a little planning and a lot of dumb luck, I was ready to retire at 65 and did.
What first struck me remains the most unsettling part of it, and that is its irregularity.  Regularity, and you can skip the bathroom jokes, begins on our first day of school, with occasional breaks for holidays and vacations.  Like many others, as soon as I was able, my summers and winter holidays were filled with jobs.  I worked behind a drugstore soda fountain and then pumped gas at a Texaco station.  One year I was a recreation supervisor at a local park.  My last two undergraduate years combined a full class load with almost forty hours of work.  The day after I graduated from college was the day I began my career in government and business with more education thrown in.  Thirty years later I took a break to enter seminary and went on to serve congregations through ordained ministry.  Every one of those years was filled with days, weeks and months that fell into a more or less predictable rhythm of regular expectation.  Of course there were times away, unstructured times of rest, but even they were regulated by rules of one kind or another, mostly around how much vacation I had earned and when I could take it.
I didn’t mind that.  It was the rhythmic nature of it that gave me opportunity to plan for moments that were my own to do with as I pleased.  Retirement changed that.  One person told me that in retirement every day is Saturday.  It doesn’t really work that way, but it took some getting used to.  We can go out and stay up late in the middle of the week.  There are a multitude of days in which nothing particular needs to be accomplished.  I’m heavily involved in my community and the church, but as a volunteer, which means I can say no any time I want, and no one can threaten to take away my paycheck.  Just the same, and three years into it, I still feel that sense of urgency that Saturday is a day for errands and must do chores.  I still feel a little giddy, and slightly guilty, about going out on a Saturday night with little concern for getting up at 5:00 a.m. to prepare for Sunday at church.  
My wife has accused me of being the most unretired retired person she knows because of the obligations I have agreed to take on in the community and for the diocese.  Sometimes I think she might be onto something, and partly because of the irregularity of the demands they make. They don’t come in the predictable flow of a weekly schedule, but in lumps of overwhelming consumption of time and energy followed by a near complete absence for weeks on end. 
On the other hand, and there is one, we now feel free to take long trips to places we’ve always wanted to visit.  Two weeks each year in our favorite getaway place can now be stretched to a month or even two.  Thanks to my workout routine at the Y, I’m in better physical shape than I have been for years.  My habit of Morning Prayer that was once jammed into a half hour early in the morning can now take hours, drifting into reading or writing, or even just thinking.  Afternoon naps are wonderful treats.  I’m learning the art of just messing around: in the garden, in the garage, fixing things, experiencing the community in new ways, even doing Saturday chores on other days.
Would I want to go back to the well regulated life of a working man?  Not a chance.  The irregularity of retired life may be unsettling at times, but I’ve come to treasure that, and delight in the freedom it has brought.  In some ways it has restored a little childlike joy in life, and that’s not bad, especially for a person who struggles a bit with what I prefer to call a touch of melancholy now and then.