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.