Friday, December 28, 2012

A Black and White Vengeful God?

God is vengeful.  It’s right there in black and white.

So say more than a few believing Christians who were well taught that whatever grace might be, it is delivered by the hand of a God who is quick to anger, unforgiving, and ready to condemn for all of eternity.  Years of Sundays devoted to the Good News of God in Christ Jesus, and long standing involvement in adult bible studies, cannot erase the damage done.

I wrote a newspaper article some years ago about the progressive nature of biblical revelation, how it is a constant unfolding of new and deeper understanding, always headed in the directions of inclusiveness, love and reconciliation.  I was slammed in a letter to the editor by a local pastor who demanded to make it known that there is nothing progressive in the bible.  It is all of a piece, and no part takes precedent over another.  All is equally true and inerrant. 

How sad is that?  I’ve tried to explain to those in my classes that God can only speak with the vocabulary that his listeners can understand.  The early followers of the God of Israel had a vocabulary that could accommodate neither monotheism nor the mercy of a God who loves his people and desires to engage with them for their wellbeing.  What vocabulary did they have?  It was the vocabulary of the gods of Egypt and Mesopotamia who were ruthless, capricious, numerous, needy and vengeful.   Nevertheless, as God spoke through successive prophets, he constantly pushed the vocabulary envelop in new directions, until we receive the full unveiling of God through Jesus Christ.  However, it seems that that it came to us in the form of a very complex origami package.  Two thousand years later we are still trying to unfold what that full unveiling is about.  God, it seems, is not done speaking.  That insight is hung on banners outside many UCC churches, and I think they’ve got it right.

That should not be hard to understand, but it seems that too many Christians have been treated with some kind of repellent.  They nod yes and go right on trying to read this or that text in it’s plain as day black and white meaning according to their early 21st century vocabulary, and without the slightest concern for how it relates to anything else in scripture.  The fact that God is not an American, that the two thousand years of Hebrew scripture cannot be judged as if nothing developed over those two millennia, and that the people of Jesus’ day cannot be imbued with contemporary American ways of thinking just does not penetrate.  

Oh well, I’ll keep on trying.

Thursday, December 27, 2012

To Whom Do We Owe Our Freedoms?

Facebook has become a constant reminder of what dominates the thinking and conversation of some people.  That is particularly true for those who harp on the same thing day after day.  Over the last six months or so I’ve seen a multitude of posts from a predictable number of “friends” who have gone on and on about how we owe the freedoms we enjoy to our military might, and the fighting men and women who put their lives at risk for us. 

I have tremendous respect for the service rendered to our nation by those who serve in the military.  It deserves to be honored by more than the occasional parade and a “support our troops” bumper sticker.  It certainly deserves to be honored by more than supercilious posts on Facebook.  Honesty would be a good place to start, and a good place to begin with honesty would be to acknowledge that much military action has little to do with defending our American freedoms, and more to do with establishing, sustaining and defending American economic and political interests that, however important they may be, do not pose a danger to the American way of life.

A more important step toward honesty would be a closer examination of to whom and to what we owe the freedoms we enjoy.  What are those freedoms, and how did they come into being?  Never was there an army that conceived of a representative democracy.  Never was there a navy that contemplated what the law of the sea might be.  In a republic such as ours, the military is an agency of, and subordinate to, something larger and more important, and that is the will of the people as represented through freely elected representatives, within the context of a constitutional framework adjudicated by an independent judiciary.  Moreover, it is all underwritten by generations of philosophers, theologians, the press, and a variety of thought and opinion leaders operating in the political arena.  

To whom do we owe the freedoms we enjoy?  To thinkers, writers, teachers, publishers, and (good grief) politicians acting, as they sometimes do, in the best interest of future generations.  To whom do we owe the preservation of our freedoms into the future?  To an educated and politically involved electorate.  If there is a real threat to the American way of life, it no doubt lies there: an uneducated electorate with little recognition of their ignorance or desire to change.

As for Facebook, I prefer people who harp day after day on kittens, children, and sunsets. 

Monday, December 24, 2012

Bribes, Mussolini and Gullibility

Several ultra conservative house Republicans have said, in so many words, that phone calls from their major financial backers threatened to withdraw all future funding if they voted for the Boehner Plan B.  You may recall that the speaker intended to bring his own fiscal cliff plan to a vote in the house as a way to put pressure on the administration.  His Plan B would never had made to the floor of the senate, but it didn’t get even that far.  He had to withdraw his own bill because he was forty or fifty votes short in his own party.  Which brings me back to the ultra conservatives.

What they all but admit is that their votes have been bought and paid for by a small cadre of very wealthy persons who have no intention of allowing any tax rate increase in any form that might affect them.  Moreover, they are equally intent on driving American public policy as far toward laissez-faire as they can, and damn the consequences to the deadbeat leeches in the 47%, and their near cousins, the malleable little people who think they are middle class.

In my mind, it’s an incredibly blatant form of bribery.  What continues to astound me is how many people, whom their policies would economically and socially tear to pieces, can be relied on as true believers with unquestioning faith that Obama really is a socialist, and that a Teaparty style political agenda would be good for the country.  Thank goodness our republic is robust, and is unlikely to fall, for very long, under the spell of a bunch of right wing Mussolini like billionaires and their erstwhile but gullible followers. 

Tuesday, December 18, 2012

Worthy Fruit

What are fruits worthy of repentance?  John told those who came to him for baptism to bear fruit worthy of repentance.  So what would those fruits be?  That was a part of what my sermon last Sunday was about. 

These worthy fruits come with two problems.  The first has to do with repentance.  It doesn’t seem to matter how often we go over the meaning of repentance, the idea that it requires some deep expression of remorse over a particular moral failure is buried so deep that anything other than that is a hard sell.  The second has to do with what is required for something to be worthy.  Walking the Camino de Santiago de Compostela?  Climbing the steps of St. Peter’s on one’s knees?  Wearing a hair shirt with ashes?  Perhaps not quite that.  

Our contemporary American practice is to require some kind of public shaming, preferably the sort of shame that will stick for a good long time, allowing others a generous opportunity to tut-tut.  We don’t officially shun offenders, we just make them feel like they have been.   After all, wasn’t Lent intended to be a period in which those who had been excluded from Holy Communion because of notorious sins be lovingly restored to the bosom of the Church at Easter?  How good of us good people to be so forgivingly good to those notorious sinners. 

John, despite all the viper language, seems to have a different idea.  The mark of repentance, the fruit worthy of repentance, is to continue doing the ordinary work of daily life in the sure and certain knowledge that one is always walking in God’s sight.  That, it seems to me, was the great good news that his listeners heard.  By entering the waters of John’s baptism they bypassed the rigors of becoming acceptable to the guardians of the temple, something that was unlikely to ever happen, and came out as very much like the same person who went in, and yet dramatically changed as ones who, walking daily in God’s sight, led their ordinary lives in entirely new ways.  

So, and this is what we struggled with, by what do you measure the fruits of your labor?  Are they worthy of repentance?  That is to say, are they worthy of being gained while God is watching?  That gets to be a very interesting question.  Do I buy and sell in a way I want God to see?  Do I farm land, employ others, work for my boss, engage with my family and friends in ways that I want God to see?  Do I treat sales clerks, strangers, cops and crooks in ways that I want God to see?  In other words, as I go about my daily life, more or less as I always have, am I doing so in God’s company?

Think about it.   It could be that climbing the steps of St. Peter’s on one’s knees is easier.  Well, maybe not easier, but preferable to the discipline of walking in God's sight.

Monday, December 17, 2012

Not Just Guns - It's Mental Health Too

Gun enthusiasts have been quick to come down hard on the nation’s failure to provide adequate mental health care to those who need it most.  They are absolutely right.  We are lousy at it, and not just for those who need it most.  Mental illness needs to be addressed on a much broader scale than that. 

Years ago we closed down most of our state run mental hospitals, our insane asylums, because they were inhuman.  Many were.  We said that the mentally ill could be treated at the community level more effectively, at less cost and with more dignity.  That was true, but we never did it.  Moreover, mental illness has retained it’s patina of something sufficiently embarrassing to the rest of us that it must be kept in the closet, under the rug, locked in the basement, anywhere but admitted in decent society.

The past few decades have provided us with some extraordinary medicines that do amazing things to relieve the symptoms of mental illness, but prescribing them has fallen mostly to primary care givers who are not well trained in their use.  What choice do they have?  In our community we have only one psychiatrist in private practice.  The Yellow Pages list a slug of therapists of varying qualification.  At least, for the most part, they do no harm, and maybe some good.  So it’s the primary care physician who doles out the pills, and for goodness sake don’t ever suggest that mom or dad’s little helper has anything to do with mental illness.

As for those with serious mental illness, I have to give credit to the ones who have learned to cope with their psychoses most of the time.  Street drugs and alcohol help dull the pain, even if they make the psychosis worse.  It’s a deadly trap.  Homelessness is not that bad if you’ve got it figured out.  Holding a job is impossible, but one can learn to ignore the “pick yourself up and get a job you lazy bum” jibes from more decent people.  

We have two ways of helping them.  If they are crazy enough when they come into the ER, our Crisis Response Team can usually, but not always, find a bed for them in a city over a hundred miles away.  It’ll be a short stay, just long enough to detox and work on a new regimen of meds.  Acting out more often becomes a crime, and it’s off to jail, our number one mental health warehouse in the county. 

I don’t know what’s going on in your community.  In ours we are finally beginning to address our needs.  Both hospitals and several other agencies have a task force working on identifying our most pressing mental health issues.  The United Way has it’s own task force, and will dedicate as much as a third of it’s funding next year to a targeted mental health project.  The county will soon be receiving a small percentage of certain sales tax revenue dedicated to mental health.  All are working together to coordinate for significant impact on projects yet to be identified, but with intent to begin funding them by the spring of 2013.

In the meantime, one of our hospitals is about to offer the third in a continuing series of symposia aimed at helping physicians, nurses, hospital staff, pastors and other care givers improve the skills needed to attend to the emotional well being of others and themselves.  Another group has conducted two community wide workshops on the impact of Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACES) on emotional health and behavior.  The long standing work of other organizations that have for years helped dysfunctional families and abused spouses are getting more widely recognized.  It’s a start.  Not a very big one, but a start just the same. 

OK, I'm Finally Taking a Shot at the Gun Issue

I started several times to write about guns and the American obsession with violence as entertainment.  Nothing seemed to work.  I kept running into local people, whom I know well, convinced that any gun control legislation, in any form, is a threat to their freedom as guaranteed by the Constitution.  Some of them are among those who believe that we should arm teachers and encourage everyone to go about armed at all times.  Old west vigilante justice has been romanticized without any memory of why western folks got rid of it in favor of the rule of law and, yes, the banning of guns in public places. 

Some of that attitude is generated by fear, and, as one posted just today, fear not only of other armed persons, but of one’s own government.  Having a stash of weapons is one way to make sure that the government does not turn into a Stalinesque police state. Not everyone is that extreme in their views, but the NRA and fellow travelers have convinced many that having any gun they want without limitation is an unalienable right, an indelible mark of what American values are about.  Some have been convinced that there is a secret agenda to outlaw and confiscate all weapons.  Even ordinary hunters get nervous at the idea that their favorite rifle or shotgun might be restricted in some unknown way they might not like.

Lingering in the background are world events such as our decade of war in Iraq and Afghanistan, uprisings in Libya and Syria, the drug war in Mexico and the multitude of war lords wandering around parts of Africa.  I don’t know what effect they have on the American psyche regarding guns, but imagine that it’s substantial.

There is something else contributing to all of this, and I think it is the flood of gratuitous violence in contemporary entertainment in which firearms play a staring role.  Even more than television and movies, the most popular computer games seem to be all about war, revenge, crime and the successful resolution of all issues through killing, the greater the slaughter the higher the score. 

The result is that guns have become objects of worship, idols to which absolute loyalty has been pledged without the slightest consideration of the consequences.  Garry Wills wrote a scathing article about guns as our modern day Molech, the insatiable god that required the blood sacrifice of children in the days of ancient Israel and surrounding nations.  He may have overstated the case, but not by much.  Led by the gun lobby, fueled by irrational fear, and nurtured by outer fringe libertarian ideals, guns have become idols that seduce otherwise decent people into the most vile heresy.  If Satan is the great deceiver, then this is a good example of what the satanic looks like. 

I do not want to condemn my friends and acquaintances who have fallen into this way of thinking, and I have not yet figured out a way to write or speak that might lead them into a reasonable conversation without blowing our relationships to smithereens.  To use an apt metaphor, they have a hair trigger on this issue, and cannot tolerate even the slightest suggestion that we might need some form of gun control legislation.  Having a pastoral relationship with some of them makes it even more difficult.

As for me, I’d like to see guns and gun owners licensed in a way similar to how we license cars and drivers.  It would require training and passing a test to get a license.  Assault type weapons would be outlawed, as well as excessively large ammunition clips.  To me, that’s a reasonable approach well within the intent of the Second Amendment.  Would there still be scoff laws?  Probably.  Would it solve all gun related problems?  No.  So what!

Friday, December 7, 2012

Remembering Pearl Harbor

Like June 6, December 7 has become a national day of remembrance, more by custom than by formal resolution of governors and presidents.  The attack on Pearl Harbor marked our nation’s official entrance into WWII, the good war as Studs Terkel called it, and, with the stirring music of Victory at Sea ringing in our ears, we can be seduced into an inappropriate romanticizing of it.  At least that was my experience as a young man in my mid twenties when I first visited Pearl Harbor in 1968.

Because of the people I was with, we were given a VIP tour aboard the admiral’s barge.  Our small group spent a long time at the Arizona Memorial.  One of us, much older than I, noted a name he recognized from his very small Minnesota hometown.  He cried.  I didn’t understand.  I was a history buff and mesmerized by everything I saw.  At the time, surrounded by the tropical beauty of Hawaii, it seemed more heroically romantic than tragic.  Since then I’ve been back several times as an ordinary tourist.  I think it’s a place everyone should visit if they have the chance, but not without also visiting Punchbowl, the National Cemetery of the Pacific.

The tens of thousands of grave markers in a parklike setting high above Honolulu do not honor romantic heroes.  They mark the graves of ordinary young men, and some women, who had no intention of dying, who only wanted to survive to go home, who did not fully understand what it meant to kill another human being, who were probably scared out of their minds, but who, nevertheless, did what their country called on them to do.  William Manchester wrote “Goodbye, Darkness: A Memoir of the Pacific War,” the record of his cathartic journey to visit the battle sites of the Pacific that had haunted his nightmares for decades following his service in the Marines.  It’s a reminder to his readers that war should never be romanticized, sentimentalized, or trivialized.  But neither should it or it’s lessons be forgotten.

We must remember, not to celebrate, but with a certain gravitas leading to renewed commitment to work harder for life than death, harder for justice than oppression, harder for peace than war.

Monday, December 3, 2012

The Discipline of Morning Prayer from an undisciplined person

I’m not sure when it began, but years ago the Office of Morning Prayer became my daily discipline for time with God.  The daily lectionary takes me through most of the bible once every two years, and I often find myself wandering off into extended readings.  Collects for each day redirect my conversation with God from the routine of the usual and often banal litany of prayerish type thoughts.  Reading the psalms once every seven weeks keeps me in touch with the best and worst of my own inner thoughts and feelings.  And I am constantly provoked to remember before God the needs of people whom I often forget and ignore (sometimes they are me).

The Office was not intended as a private meditation but as a work in community taken from the ancient hours of prayer kept in monasteries and cathedrals.  It’s a beautiful service that dictated the beginning and end of the day during my years in seminary.  I suppose that someone in a hurry could rush through it in ten or fifteen minutes, although I cannot imagine what purpose that would serve.  The comics page in the morning paper might be a better use of such limited time. But I digress.

Intended or not, I have found it to be the perfect vehicle for my private time with God, but it can be hard work, even boring work.  Days never quite get off on the right foot if I don’t have my time with God in the discipline of Morning Prayer, but some days it just seems like another burdensome obligation to get over with before the real work of the day gets underway.  I find myself dithering away with inconsequential puttering before finally sitting down in the quiet of my study to talk with God, and wondering if we might not make this a quick one.  Looking out the window, I simultaneously ask to be reminded that I am ever walking in God’s sight and deciding how best to trim the bushes.  The passing squirrel takes me away from whatever scripture is open.  A beep from the computer entices me with what must be an important e-mail from...from who?  My nose is runny, my back itches, the dog wants out, now he wants in, I have to change that light bulb, what’s my first meeting of the day, should I get another cup of coffee.  God seems to take second place to just about any trivial thought that drifts in and out of my consciousness. 

Still, the discipline of Morning Prayer holds.  What could be a quick ten minute read turns into a half hour, and then an hour.  Formal prayer turns into conversation.  Sometimes I give God a chance to get a word in.  Whatever time the alarm goes off, I know I have to allow at least an hour with God before anything else happens.  That hour is often eroded by my short attention span, but I need the whole hour in any case.  So what good does it do?  I’m not sure.  I only know that the day is not right without it.  How prayer works is a mystery to me.  Maybe it doesn’t work at all, at least not in the sense that we normally think about how things work or not work to get something done.  What I do know is that I have been led away from prayer as a laundry list of things I want God to do, and into communion with God who seems to be willing to spend more time with me than I with him.  Maybe that is what prayer is all about.

Saturday, December 1, 2012

Will He Get It Right This Time?

I’m always hesitant to write about Advent because so many others have, are now, and will write about it with deeper understanding and far more wit.  However, hesitation aside, here goes. 

It’s a goofy season.  My evangelical friends don’t acknowledge it, and my mainline Protestant friends give it a quick sweep as they green their churches.  So here we are, Episcopalians, some Lutherans and most Catholics, maintaining a season held in high disregard by most, including a fair number in our own congregations.  It’s such an odd in between time of endings and beginnings.  Jesus’ kingship has been acknowledged as the king of glory and king of kings who led a small ragtag group of followers, and never rode in style on anything better than a borrowed donkey.  Now we wait for the remembrance of his birth as the baby of an unwed mother born into the lap of poverty.  How strange is that?

Amidst it all, we are reminded that the people of Jesus’ day had good reason to expect a different kind of messiah.  The prophets, for the most part, were clear.  The messiah would be a proper king backed by the awesome power of God to vanquish all of their enemies, wreak appropriate levels of revenge, and rule a renewed empire, if not the whole world.  The messiah they got triumphed over all the powers of the universe, stood the common understanding of natural law on its head, defeated death, and illuminated the path of forgiveness, healing, reconciliation, and wholeness.  But he wasn’t a proper king, and didn’t do what he was supposed to do.  

It isn’t much different today.  Many Christians are consumed by expectations of the second coming that bear all the marks of a proper kingship shared by the people of Jesus’ day.  Moreover, they have enough scriptural text before them to endorse it.  When Jesus comes again he’ll get it right this time.  Wholesale slaughter of enemies, eternal punishment of most of humanity in a flaming hell, and the eternal establishment of the kingdom of God for the elect. 

We were wrong the first time.  Why would we be right now?  Didn’t God make it clear enough that God does not work in the way we expect?  The prophets, both old and new, were not entirely wrong.  The triumph of God, the banishment of evil and the healing of all creation is what they were inspired to understand, but they wrote it down, and write it still, in the language of human greed and desire for self righteous vengeance.  

Advent, it seems to me, is a time to think about that.  Then maybe we can approach the manger on bended knee in genuine humility and without the veneer of saccharine sentimentality that so often shrouds this holy moment.

Saturday, November 17, 2012

Faith, Hope, and Sure and Certain Hope

Faith and hope are often mentioned together as if they are different facets of the same gem, but I think they are more different than that. 

Faith, it seems to me, is the assertion of what we believe to be true on the basis of evidence and reason.  Our creeds, for instance, are statements of faith about who we Christians understand God to be.  They were worked out through reasoned (if not always reasonable) debate grounded in a thorough examination of scripture and the oral traditions of the first generations of believers.  In our own day, what we describe as our faith is the set of beliefs that define denomination, tradition, or local congregation that have been painfully hashed out over some period of time.  

Religious faith is certainly not the only kind of faith.  Faith is also found in the political, scientific, and economic worlds.  Faith in the big bang, faith in evolution, faith in free enterprise, faith in a political ideology.  Each article of faith is based on a reasoned examination of the evidence.  That doesn’t necessarily make it right.  Even based on reason and evidence it can still be wrong.  Reason can be corrupted and evidence misleading.  What has been known to be true about things in the past is often shown to be untrue by new knowledge and new evidence.   Nevertheless, statements of faith assert truths on which individual lives and entire societies are built.  

Faith must be flexible if it is to endure, but any substantial changes to it must be carefully worked out with diligence over time.  That’s because challenges to statements of faith are necessary to their continued legitimacy as truths on which lives can be built, and they must be met by close examination to determine their own legitimacy and consequences.  The old dialectic thinkers were not wrong about that, and scripture suggests that God is engaged in a constant dialectic of his own with us: “Indeed, the word of God is living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing until it divides soul from spirit, joints from marrow; it is able to judge the thoughts and intentions of the heart.” (Heb. 4.12)  The living word of God is not trapped in the text of a book, but through that text it can and does leap into new places with new understandings. 

Hope is different.  There is something anxious about hope.  Hope is an anxious expectation that something better will come along.  Hope is anxious because it has little or no evidence to support it, and what evidence it does have can be to the contrary.  I am reminded of the lines waiting for the buses in front of the church I served in New York City.  They were populated by people hoping their bus would come on time.  Did it ever?  Sometimes, but not often.  “Hope springs eternal in the human breast; Man never Is, but always to be blest: The soul, uneasy and confin'd from home, rests and expatiates in a life to come.”  So said Alexander Pope in his “An Essay on Man.”

We hope for sunshine tomorrow in spite of forecasts of rain.  We hope our team wins in spite of its losing record.  We hope for fulfillment in new relationships that the old ones seldom met.  We hope we win the lottery or finally get a pony for Christmas.  We hope for all kinds of things in anxious expectation that his time it might work out, and sometimes it does.  Maybe by chance, maybe in answer to prayer, and maybe what we hope for is more predictable than we thought.  It’s hard to tell.  The New York buses turn out to be fairly reliable. 

But there is a different kind of hope.  It is the sure and certain hope of the resurrection.  
My hope is built on nothing less
Than Jesus’ blood and righteousness.
I dare not trust the sweetest frame,
But wholly trust in Jesus’ Name.
(Edward Mote)

It’s a ridiculous kind of hope because it is founded on the relatively flimsy evidence of the resurrection; flimsy because such a one time in all of history never to be replicated by anyone else event was attested to by witnesses of dubious qualification, none with academic credentials.  It is a hope that defies everything we currently know about the cycles of life and death.  Moreover, Christians in each generation have been firm in their sure and certain hope that Jesus’ resurrection is the sign and symbol of their own resurrection under conditions unknown and never yet reported on - near death experiences notwithstanding.  For all of that, it is, at least in orthodox Christianity, a non-anxious hope, despite its shortcomings of evidence.

The bus may be late.  It may rain tomorrow.  My team may lose.  The lottery will go to someone else.  My pony may never come.  My best friend may betray and abandon me.  But my hope in God through Christ for my own resurrection is sure and certain.  And we wonder why some people think Christians are deluded fools.  Well, as Paul said, if our hope is not true we really are crazy, but it is true and we know it. 

Tuesday, November 13, 2012

Childlike Delight

Youth ministry is not among my gifts.  When my children were young, well before my late vocation ordination, I did my duty helping teach confirmation and organizing a few youth events, but they were not my strengths.  After seminary and ordination, and in my early 50s, I had the usual round of interviews with rectors looking for a newly minted youth minister.  Thankfully, none of them offered me a job.  Adult Christian education is my passion, what I’m good at.  As a priest and rector, I have never given a children’s sermon, nor am I much in favor of them believing, as I do, that children can handle the fullness of church, including the sermon.  

This is not to say that I have little regard for youth ministry.  To the contrary, I think it is of highest importance.  I made it a policy and discipline to do everything possible to raise it up, make it happen, see that it was funded and rejoice in its successes.  It’s just that I am not very good at it myself.  

All this is prelude to my first encounter with pre-schoolers.  I filled in for a good friend of mine several weeks this summer while he was on vacation.  His parish has a pre-school, and he conducts a regular education and worship service for them.  So there I was, face to face with about thirty three and four year olds who expected some songs, prayers, a bible story or two and a chance to talk about them.  It was quite a wonderful experience.  They did their best to teach me some songs about saying good morning and thank you and loving one’s neighbor.  They offered enthusiastic prayers of thanksgiving and supplication.  They explained to me whose house (God’s) we were in and what we do when we are in it.  And they seemed to enjoy my reading of simple bible stories.  

They all appeared to be enthusiastic, energetic, willing, trusting, and absolutely fascinated to learn anything new, anything at all.  Much of the school is open air, it is the tropics after all, so I walked by them many times a day witnessing their behavior under each of the circumstance of their routine.  It seemed to me to be a happy place.

So what happens?  Do we stifle all of that, stuffing kids into pedagogical boxes and throwing up barriers to the sheer joy of being and learning?  Do maturing minds naturally lose that joyful spontaneity as they age?  Do we observe some small character defect, real or imagined, and label a child from that point on?  Do parents discourage the joy of life as they try to teach them the right way to be?  Some of these children will grow up to be pillars of society.  Some will go to prison.  Some will die young of drugs, accidents or war.  Some will drift through a life of boring mediocrity.  Some will achieve great things.  Some will rebel, and some will obey.  Some, maybe not many, will never lose the joyful spontaneity of childhood.  Even fewer will rediscover it after many years.  

It gets complicated.  Children must grow into adults.  Childishness must be left behind.  The balance of leaving childishness behind while retaining a childlike delight in life is not an easy one.  My few hours with these children helped me rejoice again in childlike delight.  It was fun.  Who knows, maybe I’ll learn all the words of the sassy little mynah bird song one of these days.

Monday, November 12, 2012

Our Middle School Paper on Jesus

I had an hour long Skype session with my 13 year old granddaughter who had a paper to write for her religion class (private school, Hong Kong) in which she was asked to reflect on a movie about Jesus and contrast several things that were said about him in it with what is said about him in scripture.  I presume that the other kids in her class were all well versed in scripture and the basics of Christian history so that they could easily distinguish between the movie version and the mosaic of Jesus that comes to us through the gospels and epistles.  Moreover, the instructions for the paper required the students to distinguish between what Jesus’ disciples believed about him during their time with him and what today’s Christians believe about Jesus.

As I said, no doubt the other 13 year olds in her class were up to it, but she was in tears because she simply could not understand what was being asked of her.  Frankly, I doubt that many adults who regularly attend church would be up to it either.  Well, that’s not entirely true.  I have several conservative evangelical acquaintances who have been taught the correct answers and are quite certain that any other possibility is of the devil, but I digress.

We talked it through as best we could, and I think she will produce a fine paper, but how do you explain, in a few words, that the disciples did not know anymore about who Jesus was on any given day than what they had experienced up to that moment, nor did they have any idea what tomorrow might bring?  We, on the other hand, have read the whole story and know how it comes out, and we have two thousand years of scholarship and tradition to help us understand it in ever new ways.

How do you explain that everything depends on the resurrection?  How do you explain that the four gospels portray Jesus in ways sufficiently different from each other that there are conflicts and gaps hard to reconcile?  Becoming a mature Christian is not an easy thing to do.  Providing a 13 year old with enough understandable information to write a school paper isn’t that easy either.  I hope we get a decent grade on it.  I’d like to see the one her teacher writes.

Friday, November 9, 2012

Sacred Space, Holy Space

Our Italian sojourn was filled with visits to churches, famous and otherwise.  I was struck by the ornate beauty of the great cathedrals and basilicas, but as we visited one after another it became clear that few of them were built to the glory of God.  They were, like Herod’s temple, built to the glory of wealthy patrons and powerful Church bureaucrats.  That’s clear from the family crests, statues, architectural adornments, and commemorative chapels that dominate the buildings and give them their place in history as objects of great art.  Yet, they endure to the glory of God.  How can that be?  

What consecrates a space to the glory of God is not a bishop’s blessing amidst clouds of incense, but the intentionality of those who gather to worship and offer prayer.  The ritual of consecration does not make a place holy, but it is a powerful symbol of the holy.  It does set aside a space as sacred space, a fundamentally different kind of space from the spaces that surround it.  In my imagination I could see the pomp of medieval ritual in the company of patrons and princes.  It must have been a magnificent show of self importance, with God’s name thrown in now and then to lend the appearance of legitimacy.  

Having said that, it did what it was supposed to do.  It set aside space that would be filled with God’s presence through the intentional prayers of the people through centuries of time.  It was, and is, these hundreds of years of the faithful offering their prayers of supplication and thanksgiving that have imbued these buildings with a holiness that can be palpable if you let it, and which exists in, but entirely separate from, the buildings themselves.     

As for me, my favorite church, one that spoke deeply to my soul, was S. Stefano in Assisi.  It’s a crude stone church tucked into a piazza no larger than a patio and well off the tourist track.  No architect designed it, no engineer built it.  Centuries ago the local workers cobbled it together by themselves as a place for them to worship.  No wealthy patron endowed it, no famous artist decorated it. Fifty or sixty would fill it to capacity.  It reeked of all that is sacred.

Perhaps the Silly Season is Over

A recent editorial in our local paper lamented the extreme positions taken by each party these last few years, and hoped that the next four would provide an opportunity for them to show reasonable moderation.  

Trying to appear even handed in a sort of inverse of the wishy-washy “I’m OK, You’re OK” approach to pop psychology, they missed something important.  For the most part, the president and his supporters in congress have been quite centrist in their policies and positions.  Extremism came from the caterwauling of the far right who declared that if they could not have their way they would stop anything from happening, and who yelped at every opportunity that the president was a socialist radical intent on destroying the nation when the plain vanilla, in front of your nose facts said just the opposite.  

Therefore, I was heartened by Mr. Boehner’s post election speech in which he sounded like a responsible Speaker of the House leading the loyal opposition into negotiations from which workable solutions will emerge.  It was, I believe, aimed directly at the tea party elements of his side of the aisle, letting them know that their day of recalcitrant defiance has passed.  I would be even more heartened if I thought that Senators Reid and Mitchell, and minority leader Pelosi were capable legislative leaders of their respective troops, but that remains to be seen. So far there is not much evidence of it. 

Thursday, November 8, 2012

Driving in Italy

We just got home from several weeks exploring Tuscany and Umbria by car, and then taking a trans-Atlantic repositioning cruise from Italy to Florida.  So, a few thoughts about driving in Italy. 

The books say that Italian drivers have slowed down since speed cameras and electronic ticketing have become common place on all major highways, in most towns, and on a few secondary roads.  That’s partly true.  There are speed cameras everywhere.  Thousands of them.  I seldom saw anyone going over 100 mph, although there were a few.  Anything below that seemed OK.  Sticking relatively close to the posted speed limits, I was not just among the slow ones, but a definite road hazard.  The real embarrassment came when our rented Mercedes got passed by Smart Cars, more than once, going up hill. The way I figure it, either the speed cameras are fake, or no one pays the tickets.  

Italians like to pack as many cars as possible into the whatever space is available.  It doesn’t matter if that space is on a four lane highway with plenty of room to spread out.  They discourage signaling lane changes or turns, but they use their signals often.  For what I have no idea.  If there are two lanes of traffic, a third lane can always be created for those who want to pass.  It makes for a thrilling form of high speed slalom racing. 

Many of the old walled cities allow only authorized vehicles on their narrow alley size streets, and it seemed to me that their were an awful lot of authorized vehicles.  So there you are strolling down a narrow alley filled with other pedestrians, quickly learning that pedestrians have no right of way, and that survival depends on how well you can melt into a wall.  Just the same, I never saw a mishap.  

What we did not see was any evidence of road rage.  As far as I could tell, the freestyle form of driving with its unwritten rules works pretty well.  We got along fine, I just resurrected my old NYC driving habits, minus the aggression, and got along fine, if a little slow for the locals.  For what it’s worth, our greatest joy was to get off the major toll roads and onto secondary highways that meandered through beautiful countryside and picturesque villages.

Monday, October 8, 2012

A Note to My Readers

A note to my two or three regular readers and the several unexpected visitors who happen by now and then.  By the way, I've noticed that most of my unexpected visitors are eager to share their own websites offering a variety of life enhancing chemical substances.  I wonder what attracts them to a progressive Christian blog?  Anyway, I'm going to take a few weeks off to go explore Tuscany.  A first for me, I'm not taking my computer.  That may cause some withdrawal problems, but I understand the supply of Chianti is substantial in the places we will visit.  On the other hand, I will have my iPad and iPhone.  You know, it's one step at a time.

Wednesday, October 3, 2012

Thoughts on Living in Walla Walla

My sister is moving here from a large city quite far away.  In fact she’s bought a house and arrives this Friday.  She’s moving from a beautiful city where the abundance of wealth effectively hides poverty from casual visitors, and neighborhoods of struggling families who work hard for modest incomes are in areas not frequented by tourists.  I wonder what it will be like for her to live in a small city of the rural west.  Small town living is different.

Here wealth and poverty are not so easily separated.  The best neighborhoods are spotted with marginal housing, some of it looking pretty dilapidated.  Poor neighborhoods are filling in with places being fixed up by families who have lived there a long time and don’t want to move.  An abundance of post WWII houses, the ones “all made out of ticky-tacky” are all over the place.  Scenic entrances to the city pass farm supply yards, a prison, and the usual stretch of fast food joints.  It’s all mixed together.  We have a couple of new gated developments, but I think most owners are from Seattle or Portland and don't know any better.

Two superb private colleges, and one of the best community colleges in the nation, provide a full spectrum of cultural life, including the “oldest continuing symphony orchestra west of the Mississippi.”  Less than two miles away (everything is less than two miles away) are the fair and rodeo grounds that also accommodate the ever popular demolition derbies.  Ranchers, farmers, vintners, wine makers, professors, physicians, tradesmen of every variety, and everyone else provide a quilt-like patchwork of social gatherings.  

A ten minute drive in any direction will bring one into the country.  The nearest larger urban area is fifty miles away, three sister cities whose collective attractiveness has yet to be discovered, but they do have a Costco.  Getting to a “real” city means a long drive of three to five hours.

We love it, but we have had visitors who are uncertain on the way in from the airport, having arrived on one of our two or three flights a day, but where we have free parking, and the airport cop knows all the locals by sight if not by name.  They came in on a seventy passenger plane flying low and slow over miles of almost treeless ranch and wheat land.  Wilbur Avenue is our way home, but it muddles its way along trying to decide if it’s a new wide avenue or narrow bumpy county road as it passes what one daughter proclaimed to be the ugliest houses in America.

So why do we love it?  The Blue Mountains, on whose flanks we live, are moments away.  The steeply rolling landscape of the Palouse changes day by day.  Eating as a “localvore” is not something new, it’s the way we eat.  The symphony is superb, we park for free, and are home ten minutes after it gets out.  Plays, lectures, and concerts are in such abundance that we cannot possibly go to all, or even most.  The wine industry has sparked a restaurant renaissance.  Clean jeans and a collared shirt are all that are required to be dressed up.  It’s easy for strangers become acquaintances, and acquaintances to become friends.  Like any place we have our share of crime, but locking the house or car doors can be a more casual thing.  We are big enough to have two fine hospitals and one of the best paramedic staffed ambulance services anywhere. 

This is not a Thomas Kincaid village or Disneyland Main Street.  It’s real life, and I think it’s a good life.

Tuesday, October 2, 2012

Restructuring the Weapons Industry

Public anxiety over the economy has generated a variety of proposals for what to do: raise taxes, lower taxes, increase public spending, decrease public spending, raise trade barriers, negotiate more freed trade treaties, and on and on.  On top of that, the public is convinced that the size of the public debt and continued deficit spending are about to sink us into the swamp of Greece and Spain.  The issues are poorly understood but deeply held beliefs about them are unshakable.  

I want to suggest that something else is afoot, or at least I hope it is.  It is a dramatic restructuring of the American economy to position it as a major competitor in a global economy in which America is one player among others, but not the singular driving force that can command the fortunes of others.  That will require a coordinated public private partnership that rules out the romantic ideal of free enterprise unhindered by government regulation and interference.  

The problem is that any one change in public policy affecting the economy will have a multitude of effects, often effects that will stagger the way business is done.  Take, for instance, military spending.  We can no longer afford to pretend that global peace depends on American military might flexing its muscle in every corner of the world.  It is sad that there is warlike violence in so many countries, that human rights and simple justice are trampled in many places for so many reasons.  Nevertheless, America cannot, and does not have the moral right to, intervene to impose Pax Americana.  From a more selfish perspective, continuing to try will destroy our economy in the end.  Other nations must work out their own problems.  We may not like the way they do it, but it’s their life not ours.  It amazes me that so many conservative types who demand limited government for themselves are lightning quick to demand that America impose it’s will on others, by force if necessary.  

So what happens when we begin to resize our military establishment?  I think we can safely disregard the hysterical paranoia about weakening our national defense.  That’s a lot of nonsense.  However, backstage from troops and equipment is an enormous weapons industry that employs many hundreds of thousands of workers earning high wages.  Those industries will have to figure out some other product line for their highly skilled people to produce, or go out of business, and considering how slow, bureaucratic, and hide bound they are, it seems unlikely that they can easily adapt to a new more entrepreneurial way of doing things. 

Consider a small example: if you build tanks, then tanks are what you want to keep building.  A recent report (The Week, October 5, 2012) noted that the army has said that it needs no more tanks.  It has enough, in fact it has 3,000 sitting in reserve, but tank building is what they do in Ohio, so congress mandated construction of 42 new tanks not because they are needed but to keep jobs filled.  That is make work corporate welfare at its wasteful best. That one small example is replicated many times over on a much larger scale throughout the weapons industry, and is echoed in the public angst that comes with proposed base closures.  

Somehow all that talent must be reoriented to non-weaponry, but making it happen gets very complicated.  There is nothing easy about it.  The weapons industry is irrevocably embedded in the fabric of our national government, so whatever is done must be a function of public-private partnership.  It seems to me that a slow decade long transformation is the way to go.  It would give the greater economy time to adjust.  I wish it was as easy as just saying that, but we all know that industrial lobbying and congressional ineptitude will fight any change at all.  That’s too bad because history suggests that the possibilities are enormous.  No one can be certain what they are, but we know that products from micro-wave ovens to the innards of our communication devices were given birth in the weapons industry.  I have no doubt that there is more ahead like that if we can make the turn. 

If we fail to make the turn, we will simply become the weapons factory for the world with our economy dependent on a continued cycle of armed violence in a great many places.   How immoral would that be? 

Monday, October 1, 2012

Thoughts on Retirement

As I approach the fifth anniversary of my retirement, I’m becoming more aware of the some of the losses others before me have talked about.  

I am more acutely aware that younger people absorbed with important responsibilities for the care and management of their congregations share a community of interests that bind them together.  It’s a community of interests I used to take for granted, but am no longer a part of.  They are happy to share their gatherings with us retired clergy.  After all, many of us are still quite active in ministry, but the stark reality is that as we age we become warmly befriended guests who do not and cannot share in the immediacy of issues confronting them.  At some point continued failure to show up at a gathering of active clergy will simply go unnoticed.  

In like manner, while I retain a spot on at least one diocesan board, leadership has passed on, as it should, to younger persons whose gifts and energy will benefit the church for years to come.  Still, it seems like only moments ago that I was one of the younger leaders, and I find myself a little surprised to discover me as an elder whose “wisdom” is usually welcomed and appreciated, but often unneeded.

I haven’t always been an Episcopal priest; earlier in my career I had been well educated in organization development and the social psychology of the workplace, enough so that I could teach courses and offer consulting services to a wide variety of groups in many parts of the country.  It’s dated knowledge now, thirty or forty years old, and dreadfully behind the times.  I still think it’s good stuff, but there are new authors, new books, new presentations and a new generation providing congregational development guidance.  They do excellent work.  No doubt they would be happy to let me help out, but I would have to go through their training and do it according to their way, and I am just enough of a stubborn old curmudgeon to object.

On the other hand, it is also true that retirement offers one more freedom to choose when and to whom one is willing to make commitments.  We have chosen to travel as much as we are able to places we have always wanted to see now that we are not bound by obligations to children and work.  There is a cost to that.  It takes us away from engagement with important local issues, and from gathering times of fellow clergy, diocesan leadership, and community events.  While we eagerly go off to explore the world and enjoy our adventures, we also lose touch with the world of work that defined our existence for many years.  It’s a sort of ungluing.  It’s a question of whether they are leaving me behind or I am leaving them behind.  One way or the other, it happens.

Lincoln said at Gettysburg that the world would little note nor long remember what was said there.  He was wrong about that, but he was right about a central truth for most of us.  We trust that by God’s grace our lives will have made a difference for the better in the lives of others around us and for generations yet to come, but to expect that the world will note or long remember, that is more than we are entitled to.

Magpies, Squirrels and Crows

Keeping squirrels away from the bird feed is almost impossible.  Keeping magpies away from squirrel food is harder, and they are more voracious.  I’ve got an old bird feeder filled with peanuts, and the squirrels have to work for their food by climbing the feeder pole, balancing on top the feeder, hanging over the edge by their hind legs, and digging out a peanut or two.  It’s part of my squirrel aerobics program to help keep them in shape. 

Magpies, on the other hand, swoop in early in the morning, or any time they feel like it, chase away all other critters, fly at the feeder to rock it back and forth spilling peanuts onto the ground.  With a half dozen magpies making repeated strikes, a feeder full of peanuts can be emptied in an hour or less.  I finally put a tarp over it this morning, hoping that the squirrels would be smart enough to go under it.  The magpies held a convention to discuss the matter and make their complaints known.  Then they flew off.  The squirrels didn’t like the tarp idea so I took it off.  Maybe I'll do it all over again tomorrow morning.  Retirement gives one the time to experiment like that.  New horizons they call it. 

This all started a couple of years ago with bird feeding, and then squirrel feeding to give the birds a chance at their own food.  I wonder if the next step is magpie feeding.  I hope not.  Just for the record, the neighborhood crows, who do not care for magpies either, are content to pick up crumbs off the ground and use the bird bath to soften up whatever food they have scrounged off the street. 

In other back yard news, the bird houses appear to have been leased up for the winter by new tenants, sparrows as usual.  There seem to be one or two minor property disputes about who the real lessee is.

Sunday, September 30, 2012

Paddle Board Christians

I had a lesson in perseverance over our recent three weeks on Maui.  It had to do with paddle boarding.  You’ve probably seen paddle boarders gliding over the waves, standing with confidence on oversized surf boards that seem impervious to tipping over.  I’ve been watching them for several years and finally had the time and opportunity to give it a try.  How hard could it be?  You stand up on the board, take the long paddle in hand, and head out.

As it turned out, learning to paddle board on one’s own with no instruction is not that easy.  The boards do tip, a lot.  Getting comfortable just kneeling takes some practice.  Standing is another matter altogether, especially if you are of an age where popping up into a standing position in one fluid motion is an unlikely event.  A little move this way or that, and it’s in the water you go.  My wife and I worked on it for an hour or so most afternoons until we finally got it down, providing days of slapstick entertainment for the folks on the beach in the meantime.  The next problem was figuring out what to do with the paddle.  It’s big, and digging down into the water changes one’s center of gravity and everything.  Moreover, Maui’s waters are not smooth.  They have this stuff called surf, and even small surf provides challenges, especially traversing the waves.  A few lessons with a good coach would have been the right thing to do.  

We will be back in a few months to take up where we left off, getting more confident with each outing, proving once more that old age is no excuse for not learning new things.  Maybe this time we will take a lesson.

I wonder if becoming a Christian isn’t a lot like that.  It looks so easy from the outside, and word on the street is that all you have to do is love Jesus.  After that it’s all smooth sailing, or paddling as the case may be.  

That’s not how it works.  It takes practice to learn to stand as a Christian.  Trying to do it without instruction from a good coach is not a good idea, although it can be done.  In any case, on one’s knees is a good place to begin.  It will take a lot of falls to get from there to standing, so it’s a good idea to stay in shallow water.  Makes it easier to climb back up.  Don’t try to go too deep too fast.  But standing is not the end.  Now you have to go somewhere, and that’s going to take work, yet more learning involving more spills along the way.   It would all be so much nicer if paddling on the calm waters of baptism was smooth going, but that’s not what happens in the real world.  There are waves, and currents pushing where you don’t want to go.  

An accomplished Christian makes it look so easy, but it takes perseverance, time, and a lot of spills to get there.  If we, as leaders, have two weaknesses, I suspect they are these: first, we are too quick to let folks sit on the beach and watch without getting in the water; second, once they’re in the water, we are too willing to let them learn what they can, how they can, on their own with no teaching or coaching.  That’s not good preparation for the waters that will roar and foam about them, the deep waters that can sweep over them.

We can do better.

Saturday, September 29, 2012

Stumbling Blocks: It Gets Complicated

When the gospel is read on Sunday, I wonder how many will say it’s all about eyes plucked out, weighted bodies chucked in a lake, bloodied stumps where hands and feet used to be, and worm infested souls roasting forever in blazing fire?

They are powerful images more suitable for chain saw massacre horror movies, but here they are in scripture.  I can only imagine Jesus’ audience.  I bet he had their attention.  It reminds me of the day I preached a few well known lines from Jonathon Edwards without any preamble.  The congregation was stone cold, wide eyed silent.

My guess is that Jesus said something like, “OK, now that I have your attention, I want to talk to you about what’s really important.”  For me, and perhaps for other preachers, “what’s really important” comes a sentence earlier and it’s about putting stumbling blocks before one of these little ones who believe in me.  If I am in the business of leading the flock given into my care from baby food to real meat, from immature to mature faith, then it’s going to look a lot like I’m putting stumbling blocks all along the way. 

I don’t think I am.  I think those stumbling blocks have been there all along, and it’s my job to help plot a course through them.  On the other hand, what if something I say or do  does put a stumbling block, a gigantic one, in someone’s way?  It’s something I think and pray about quite often.  The homosexual issue was a big obstacle for some, and I was accused of putting it there by more than one person.  Sometimes little pebbles can appear like obstacles that I have deliberately placed on the road of faith.  There was the man who trembled in rage because I distributed Holy Communion in a way he was unaccustomed to, or the couple who said I had removed a major obstacle for them by saying something in the liturgy, and I have no idea what it might have been, or the woman who stomped out because the candles were not lit in the right order. 

It’s especially hard when counseling with persons from very different faith traditions within the body of Christ.  Not long ago it was a young man from a fundamentalist background for whom anything other than what he believed to be the literal truth as revealed in the bible (by his childhood pastor) was heretical, and therefore a major obstacle.  I don’t know that I tiptoed around that one.  

Biblical teaching and preaching is where the truly big stumbling blocks lie.  A few months ago I took a dozen older adults through the book of Revelation.  It’s what they wanted.  I like to think that what we did in those five sessions was to sweep away obstacles that are, in some other denominations, the stuff of solid teaching.  It gets complicated.  Bible Basics for Adults is a study guide I wrote and have used for many years to help adults become comfortable enough to wallow in scripture, letting it wash over them, learning to swim in its waves and cross currents.  Some, accustomed to only one way to read and understand the bible, can’t take it.  Their faith is not supple enough, and for them it’s an obstacle they cannot overcome.  The best I can do is to reassure them that the faith they have in the place where they are is OK with God.   They are fine with that, but not at all certain that the faith I have in the place where I am is OK with God.  If I think I’ve overcome the obstacle that blocks them, they are fairly sure that I have taken a detour leading far off the right way.

It gets complicated.

Saturday, September 22, 2012

Human Nature in the Post Apocalyptic World

I don’t watch movies very often, and on television when I do.  But I try to keep up by checking out the reviews.  One thing I have noticed about all the post apocalypse films is the assumption that the natural and normal condition of humanity is barbaric tribal warfare dominated by the cruelest, most evil, most violent characters.  

Apparently, as the plot lines go, our thin veneer of civilization is held together only by a flimsy binding of technology, and when that goes, so goes any pretense of society based on law and respect for one’s fellow human beings.  Hobbes thought pretty much the same thing, as do today’s Tea Party types, at least in their very unsophisticated and largely unexamined view of the world.  Survivalists are absolutely convinced of it. Joseph Kony and the Lord’s Resistance Army in Congo would be a good example of what is assumed to be the normal unrestrained human condition.

I wonder about that.  What makes Kony so appalling is that he is not normal but abnormal, psychopathically evil.  What the movies portray, and what modern society may fear, is that most humans are some version of Kony except for the restraints of society that are themselves dependent on technology.  Is that true?  When the Roman Empire collapsed and western Europe fell into the so called Dark Ages, it did devolve into waring duchies, but it also preserved a semblance of social structure, law and learning in each jurisdiction.  However corrupt it became, the agency of the Church did not allow moral authority to be abandoned.  The thousand years of the Middle Ages was marked by a slow, constant march toward new understandings of what it meant to be a civilized people.

Something was at work that was not dependent on Roman roads, postal systems, peace keeping forces, forms of government, and elements of social structure.  I imagine that there are many things at work.  As a Christian, I believe in two.  First, that in being created in God’s image, and in spite of our sinfulness, the spark of God in us impels us in a Godward direction, however wobbly our path may be.  Second, I am reminded by the canticle recommended for use each Friday, that God’s ways are not ours, and that the Word God sends forth will succeed in that which God intends.  That intention is summed up in the words of Christ that he came to save the world, not condemn it.  

Not all who claim the name of Christ see it that way.  Several of my acquaintances are convinced that the utter depravity of human kind, apart from the few who will be saved, is clear evidence that it is the devil, no doubt a Socialist, and not God, who is in control of things on earth.  Therefore, one must, on the one hand, affirm Jesus as one’s personal Lord and Savior in order to stake one’s assurance on being among the (few) saved.  On the other hand, one must be prepared to defend one’s self against the unsaved by whatever means are at hand, and a heavy calibre hand gun is a good thing to have at hand.

In America that gives us two large groups who are inclined to buy into the movie plot line as reliable metaphor for real life.  Secularists who worship at the altar of technology, a fragile and undependable god whose demise will unleash the very worst of what we are capable of being.  And a certain brand of Christian, probably of Jews and Muslims also, who believe that’s already happened, and God is depending on them to fight the evil forces, spiritually and physically, as proof of their place in God’s kingdom, which is not here and not capable of being here as long as the devil is around.

I don’t give much credence to the devil as a particular fallen angel, but if I did I could not imagine a better gang of allies for him than them.

Tuesday, September 18, 2012

The One Sunday Woman

A visitor came to church a few weeks ago.  We had quite a conversation during the hospitality hour out on the lawn.  I don’t remember her exact words, but she said she was seeking spiritual truth, tired of pastors who harangued their congregations with threats of hell, tired of pastors who hypocritically demanded one way of living while behaving in another, tired of shallow, emotion filled fake worship.  She wanted a church where she would finally learn something about the Christian faith, the bible and God, a church where she could ask questions and get answers.  She had tried church after church, Sunday after Sunday, and was very glad to be in ours where, at last, she had found what she was looking for.  She could hardly wait for next Sunday.

That was three weeks ago.  I have not seen her since.  Why didn’t I get her name?  Why was her name not in the guest book?  I don’t know.  But it occurred to me that a person with a one Sunday exposure to dozens of congregations and denominations can know very little about any one of them.  How on earth could she have the slightest idea about whether we were the right place for her, and all those other places weren’t?

I’ve often observed that many, perhaps most, long time church goers have gone through their adult Christian lives with little more than a not very good grade school level of Sunday School education they got as children.  I guess that’s why I’ve been passionate about adult Christian education.  At least I could assume that those in my classes had some basic knowledge about what it means to be a believer.  We could start from there and go on.  However, times have changed.  There are fewer long time church goers, and more who are passing through to see what goes on and whether it might be an answer to barely formed spiritual questions. 

God, Jesus, the bible, Christian teaching and tradition, none of it can be assumed, not even at the most basic level of children’s bible stories for four year old toddlers.  I’m not proposing that worship be dumbed down for the their benefit, but I do think it’s imperative that we be mindful that what we do and what we say in the process of an hour or so of worship has to make sense at three levels of meaning: to those mature in faith who are able and need to be fed with real meat; to those habitual church goers for whom being a Christian is mostly a rote habit; to those who are on some kind of spiritual search hampered by a limited vocabulary and ignorance about Christianity (or any other religion for that matter). 

I’d like to say that I know how to do that well, but I can’t.  Maybe that’s why she didn’t come back.  Who knows.   Still, I think about it all the time.  What happened three weeks ago was in a city far away where I was filling in for the rector, a friend on vacation.  Now I’m back home and to the small rural congregation I serve in my retirement a few times a month.  Just the same, it remains an important issue for me.  The congregation I serve, along with other retired priests, is about thirty miles away in a town of around two thousand.  While church going is still important for many in the community, the majority are among the second and third generation who have never gone, not even to Sunday School.  They are, for the most part, glad we are there to hold up the facade of Christianity, and trust that if they ever need us for whatever it is that we do, we will be there for them.  They have not even the knowledge of the woman with a one Sunday exposure to dozens of congregations.

I wonder how we can become better missionaries in our own back yards?