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.