Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Decompressing Mark

No doubt you have heard that Mark’s gospel is in a hurry.  Everything is immediately this and immediately that.  The scenes jump from time to time and place to place with no hint of transition.  Time and distance are tightly compressed in Mark’s narrative.  
It took many years for me to figure out that more fully appreciating what Mark had to offer required a certain contemplative discipline making it possible to decompress the gospel, allowing time and distance to give room for me to enter into it, and for the Spirit to speak between the words.  
When Jesus emerges from John’s baptism to immediately be driven into the wilderness for forty days, and, within a few brief words, to be back on the trail again, we need to slow down and take the time to walk with him from the Jordan into the wilderness, there to contemplate with him what it is to be a member of the body of Christ, to confront our own doubts without fear, to allow the time necessary for God’s consolations to wash over us, and to once more get on with life.  It takes time.  
When Jesus calls his new disciples and they immediately follow him, we need to relax and listen to the conversation unfold between them, allowing the time needed for a decision to be made.  We need to be patient enough to tune into the ongoing conversation as they stroll up the shore, stopping here and there along the way.  And so it goes throughout Mark.  Making room for his tight narrative to decompress suddenly, yes suddenly, allows room for us to enter into the story as if we were there.  It allows us to participate in the conversations, posing questions of our own to Christ as we walk along, and questioning the new disciples too.  We can visit with Peter’s mother-in-law and follow the cured leper to see where he or she goes.  It can be a wonderful adventure.  Lent is the perfect time for it.

Monday, February 27, 2012

America was Founded as a Christian Nation?

America was founded as a Christian nation, but it’s lost its way and no longer respects the traditional family values of its Judeo-Christian heritage, with a heavy emphasis on Christian.  Have you heard that recently?  It’s campaign season, so I know you have.  It’s worse than sinking into the slime of mere secular humanism; we are in danger of being overwhelmed with Sharia Law.  So say at least some of the candidates in almost every race. 
It is true that America has been whitewashed with a coating of generic Protestantism for a very long time, but it’s wearing thin and it cannot be repainted.  That doesn’t mean that we have turned our back on God, although I think many of those who complain the loudest are closest to doing just that.  In the name of a Christian nation they reject policies that point in a godward direction, plaster God’s name on their own political agendas, and promote policies that God has long condemned.
If the candidates, and Americans in general, are truly concerned about slipping away from God, then I suggest paying a little more attention to the 8th century prophets (BCE), who may have as much to say on God’s behalf to us as they did to those ancient Israelites.  Through them it appears that God is not much impressed by liturgies, worship services, clergy, offerings, and public testimony of faith when that ignores, or worse, covers up, injustices that corrode society.  God is not shy about saying what he thinks is wrong with society, and it all has to do with fairness, honesty, equity, and care for the poor in whatever state of need they may be.  God has much to say about judges, executive authority, law making, taxes, income disparity and class divisions.  It’s time to pay attention to what God has to say.  
Leave so called traditional family values behind.  They have become little more than political cannon fodder with no real meaning.  Pay attention to God’s values.  And what does God require but to do justice, love kindness and walk humbly with your God.  What does Christ say but to love God, love your neighbor, and love one another as he has loved us.  Paul is not shy about describing all manner of personal behaviors that damage relationships, and most of them have to do with the vituperative trash talking coming out of the mouths of candidates and radio talk show hosts, many of whom claim to speak with godly authority.  Moreover, it’s not a matter of simply stopping destructive political behavior, whether as governments or individuals.  That behavior must be replaced by behavior that reflects God’s values.   
Turning again to Paul, consider a portion of his letter to the Galatians as but one example of many: 
Gal. 5:16   Live by the Spirit, I say, and do not gratify the desires of the flesh.  17 For what the flesh desires is opposed to the Spirit, and what the Spirit desires is opposed to the flesh; for these are opposed to each other, to prevent you from doing what you want.  18 But if you are led by the Spirit, you are not subject to the law.  19 Now the works of the flesh are obvious: fornication, impurity, licentiousness,  20 idolatry, sorcery, enmities, strife, jealousy, anger, quarrels, dissensions, factions,  21 envy, drunkenness, carousing, and things like these. I am warning you, as I warned you before: those who do such things will not inherit the kingdom of God. 22  By contrast, the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness,  23 gentleness, and self-control. There is no law against such things.  24 And those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires.  25 If we live by the Spirit, let us also be guided by the Spirit.  26 Let us not become conceited, competing against one another, envying one another. 

Sunday, February 26, 2012

Small Towns and Old Family Power

I live in a small city where it is often said that, if you are not a member of a pioneer family, you will have a very hard time breaking into the right circles, the inner circles where the real power and influence reside.  I imagine you’ve heard that about your community as well.  It seems to be a common assumption.
I heard it in the midwestern city where I grew up, and in the East Coast community where I lived for many years.  At least on the East Coast the descendants of old families could claim a few centuries of forbearers rooted in one place.  Out here in the West the best they can do is a hundred years or so, and mostly less than that.  But I digress.  Is there any evidence to substantiate the claim that the hierarchy of circles of social status and power are hard to break into?  At least locally I don’t see it.
There are closed circles, but they tend to be formed of persons working in the same field.  In our area, the vintners and winemakers all know each other and form a fairly tight circle of friendly competition.  The same can be said of the wheat farmers, university professors and physicians.  On the other hand, service on important community boards, commissions and councils is diverse.  Newcomers and old timers flow through the ranks without distinction between them.
Once upon a time there were a few wealthy families whose money and willingness to invest in the future of the city gave them the unofficial power to dictate, or at least heavily influence, the important decisions around town.  I’m not sure when that ended, but it was in sharp decline during the Great Depression and dropped like a rock after WWII.  What happened?  For one thing there was a flood of newcomers, veterans who had been stationed at near by bases, who moved in and were willing to do what was needed to make a life for themselves with initiative that often disregarded the established ways.  Some old family business failed to keep up with changing times and ceased to exist.  Immigrant families in their second and third generations became fully assimilated.  A broader distribution of wealth, combined with greater options for saving or investing, eroded the exclusiveness of local bankers, forcing them to compete for business rather than assuming it. 
Stories are told of the Grandams who once ruled the admissions committee of the local country club, refusing anyone who did not meet their standards, which were quite racist at best.  In today’s environment, the club is happy to get anyone who can pay the rather modest fees.  Other stories are told of the local madam whose little black book of customers enabled her to pull many behind the scenes strings.  She would have been blackballed at the country club, but no doubt more than a few Grandam husbands listened carefully when she spoke.
As I see it, in decades past there may have been one pyramid of social and economic status with clearly identified persons at the top, but now there are many with considerable overlap, and no one is in a secure position at the top of the heap.  Moreover, it appears that there are fewer people who care about climbing the social ladder, and there are more people who care about improving the community and enjoying life with their friends.  So why does the myth persist?

Thursday, February 23, 2012

A Lenten Bucket List?

Have you got a bucket list?  A friend, Al by name, gave an interesting homily the other day suggesting that each of us, especially we who are older, should have a bucket list that goes beyond the self serving toward that which makes life better for both self and others.  I had never heard of a bucket list before the movie came out, one I actually saw, which is something in itself since I don’t watch many movies.  Now I often hear the phrase used to describe hopes for trips and other events that had been little more than daydreams in years gone by. 
Bucket lists and lenten disciplines have something in common, said Al.  We often talk about giving up something for Lent that has been holding us back from fullness of life.  Less often we talk about taking something on for Lent that will lead us toward greater fullness of life.  And greater fullness of life is what bucket lists are supposed to be about.
So let’s say that your lenten task this year is to come up with a bucket list of things to benefit the community, those in need, and those you love for the glory of God.  Things you can do, kind of want to do, always thought it would be a good idea to do, things you need to do before you die.  That last part probably wont inspire many younger people.  At least it would not have inspired the younger me because ‘before I die’ was an abstraction for an unlikely event sometime in the future.  But back to the question, what would you put on that list?
Remember, it’s a list in which faith is worked out in deeds that will illuminate the gospel and bring the kingdom of God a little more into the lives of others and your own life also.  What would be on it?  I’m not anticipating many answers on this site, but I’d love to see them.  Let me know. 

Tuesday, February 21, 2012

Godly Formation & the West Maui Mountains

My friend Bill is the rector of Holy Innocents in Lahaina where we worship when on island.  He’s fond of asking his tourist filled congregation to take a good look at the West Maui Mountains as they exit the church, and consider that, if that is what God can do with rocks, think what God can do with you.  It’s an interesting challenge.
On the lee side of the island, the mountains tend toward shades of desert tan dotted with scrub brush.  On the other side they are the lush green of the tropical rain forest.  A portion of them is the site of a bloody battle in which the stream ran with blood from a dam of dead bodies.  The interior of the collapsed volcano that formed the mountains is off limits, sacred ground, that is forever tempting the curious to go in anyway.  They don’t get far.   Great beauty, great trial, great tragedy, great joy, great pleasure.  Born of violence and fire, nurtured in a history that is still unfolding, slowly eroding into the sea from which they came. 
If these mountains are a metaphor for what God can do with us, it would take the courage of a saint to take God up on the offer.  But isn’t that what the bible records in the lives of God’s people?  Find, if you can, a story of a person in the bible who was not brought into the fullness of being except through fire and trial.  How is it, then, that those who have tasted it proclaim that it is their greatest joy, worth every trial, and would not be traded for anything?
How can that be?  Consider this, ignoring God’s invitation and going on about one’s way without him, does not avoid the trials and tribulations of life.  They come anyway.  Looking upon the destruction of Jerusalem, the writer of Lamentations remembered that God does not willingly afflict or grieve anyone.  It is God who brings us through these times in love, and, to the extent that we are able to cooperate, uses them to bring us to a place of greater good.
The trick is not to look at the mountains and walk away, hoping to avoid such a difficult process of formation, but to trust that in saying yes to God’s invitation, all that life will thrust at us anyway, the way of our crosses, will become our ways of life, peace, love, reconciliation and resurrection.

Monday, February 20, 2012

The Holy Mystery of Absolute Truth

Our Tuesday morning lectionary study group is frequently a source for a new post.  Last week we worked over the story of Elijah’s departure in a chariot of fire and Jesus’ transfiguration in the company of Moses and Elijah.
What struck me was how quickly the conversation turned toward rationalization.  We are such a pragmatic, rational people that it seems almost impossible to dive into mystery without trying to unravel it so that it can be explained in logical, rational ways.  The parts of the stories we could not explain were laid aside as “odd.”  Otherwise, they were sliced and diced into edible chunks small enough to be fed to a congregation as bits of meat to help them better understand their own lives in relation to God.  
My Orthodox friends are a little more adept at grasping the idea of mystery.  At least they claim they are, although I sometimes wonder if proclaiming something as mystery is a way to avoid serious conversation about it.  However, back to our Tuesday group made up of Episcopalians, Lutherans, Presbyterians and Methodists, these mysterious stories led to questions about where one would find truth in them, which led to questions about the nature of truth.  It sounds a lot more intellectual than it was.
Our fundamentalist brothers and sisters are quite certain that absolute truth is revealed in scripture, and they know what it is.  Local letters to the editor include furious rants against relativism through which is God’s absolute not only denied, but nothing at all can stand on solid ground.  Parenthetically, the editorial page of our local paper is often the place where religious diatribe takes place.  The letters published there reflect a real fear.  Nothing in this world can be trusted.  Everything is unstable, and unpredictable change shakes the foundations of what we thought life was supposed to be.  If even the inerrant truth of God’s Word as recorded in the bible can be challenged, then there is nothing left and life itself is meaningless.  Therefore, the inerrant truth of God’s Word as recorded in the bible must be defended against the heretics and antichrists of liberal/progressive theology.  Knowing that I am an Episcopalian, it’s not uncommon for my more conservative acquaintances to lob Bishop Spong hand grenades in my direction as proof that the Episcopal Church has gone after the way of Satan.  Good grief! 
As for our Tuesday morning group, we are agreed that there is such a thing as absolute truth, and that it is Godly truth, but we are able only to approximate it.  Speaking only for myself, I am convinced that absolute truth lies within the context of the birth, life, teaching, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, and that I am unalterably a trinitarian Christian.  Having said that, everything else is provisional knowledge knocking on the door of holy mystery.  It’s a risky place to be, and I can understand why many are uncomfortable with it.  It requires, to paraphrase Paul, hope in that which cannot be apprehended by our senses or intellect, and faith that, while we have no choice but to live through unstable, unpredictable times, we are on a path that is headed in a godward direction.  “On Christ the solid rock I stand.  All other ground is sinking sand.”  This refrain from a popular hymn captures that idea, at least for me.  And, for me, the worst quicksand of all is the claim to possess the absolute truth because it’s in the bible. 

Saturday, February 11, 2012

Word Study

Word study is an important element in bible study.  Probing not only the meaning of words in Greek or Hebrew, but also of their tenses, cases, moods and whatever other stuff grammarians have names for, is intended to enlighten our deeper understanding of the author’s meaning.  It all seems to be based on the assumption that the writer was intentional about the detailed particulars of what he or she put to paper or parchment. 
I’ve been thinking about that as I write, and rewrite, and then publish these occasional brief essays only to discover errors in spelling, punctuation, and usage after the thing is out there before the public.  Fortunately, I have a very small public, and the one who most often comments on my mistakes has her studio just above my study.  Now and then I look at something with no serious mistakes, but recognize that I could have said it better in so many other ways.  At other times it appears that the key to the logic of an idea was in my head, but failed to make it onto paper.
One of my biggest faults is that I switch tenses in the middle of things without very good reason.  It’s not intentional.  It just comes out that way.  That’s aided and abetted by my inconsistent use of commas, semicolons, and colons, although I think I’m better than many British writers who seem to sprinkle them about like so much pixie dust.
But I digress; what about Paul, the gospel writers and all those prophets?   They didn’t have spell check, backspace keys, or cut and paste options allowing them to move things into their proper order, which may explain a lot about Romans.
Would Paul be appalled to find that we treat his every scratch of ink as if it had theologically intentional meaning?  Or would he say something such as, “Oops!  I didn’t mean to mix up my tenses like that.  Sorry.”   
I imagine a conversation between two of Paul’s secretaries (Why do we feel compelled to use words like amanuensis?):
“He’s mumbling again.  It sounded like licentiousness, what do you think?”
“That’s as good a guess as mine, how do you spell it?”
“Don’t worry about it.  He never reads the draft anyway.  He just signs off with that big, scrawly signature of his.”
I enjoy word study.  My friend Deirdre Good devoted nearly the first half of her book, Jesus, the Meek King, to the meanings of the word meek.  It made a big difference in my understanding that has been incorporated in many a sermon.  Several of Raymond Brown’s commentaries are my guides into alternative meanings I had never suspected.
The Theological Dictionary of the New Testament helps me understand how many Greek words were used in everyday use, literature and historically.
All of that aside, I suspect that we too often put more weight on biblical words than they can bear.  We don’t give enough credit to their authors for being just as ordinary in their writing skills as we are.  On the other hand, if you are a literalist who believes the scriptures to be not simply inspired but true and correct in every word, then none of this makes any sense.

Friday, February 10, 2012

On Becoming a Priest

Have you ever been asked a simple question about yourself that defies a simple answer?  I’m sure you have.  The one I find most difficult to respond to in any sensible way, much less explain, is how I became an Episcopal priest.  
I didn’t go to seminary until shortly before my fiftieth birthday.  A late bloomer, so to speak.  I was not unhappy in my career.  In fact I enjoyed almost every moment of it.  I got to travel throughout the country and most of Canada while poking my nose into all kinds of interesting things.  Now and then I got to hobnob with princes, dictators, presidents and legislators.  I got to know people in plush New York corner offices and beat up old ranches in the rural west.  Even more interesting was my slow recognition that I hungered more for reading in theology, assisting in worship services, offering the occasional lay sermon, becoming certified as a Stephen Minister, and sitting in on any available class. 
Maybe all of that made me more aware of conversations in the business world that led to talk about God, and Christ, and Christianity, and Christians.  In my early forties I took a three year continuing education course, sponsored in part by Notre Dame, called the Academy for Organization Management.  I got a dandy certificate out of it.  More important, I was deep into a a seminar lecture on Camus that had morphed into a discussion of the theology of love.  My friend and colleague Tony Nemetz was the instructor.  He suddenly stopped, tapped me on the shoulder and said, “You could listen to this God talk all day couldn’t you. Pay attention when God is talking to you.”  That began some serious thinking.
Well over two years before I went to seminary my wife and I began to talk with our rector, close friends, and the bishop about what it might mean for me to do such a thing.  One thing led to another, and in the Episcopal Church that means many hoops and hurdles as one group after another tries to discern whether it’s just another crazy idea, or is God really calling this person to ordained ministry.  Speaking of crazy, somewhere in my files are the results of my psychological testing confirming that I am not psychotic.  What a relief!  Four kids moving from their teens into their twenties had left me in doubt about that.  The oldest was anxious about what would happen to us.  The youngest was anxious about what would happen to her.  The two in the middle said it sounded cool to them.
One thing kept leading to other things that ended with me entering seminary, discovering that an older student could keep up with younger ones, and coming out the other end as an Episcopal priest knowing that this was what I was always meant to be, even though it took thirty years of preparation to get me ready for it.  I take some comfort in knowing that others also entered the fullness of their ministry rather late in life: Abraham, Moses, Joseph, and Joshua to name a few.  My friend Tony died too young, in his early sixties.  I did not know until his death that he was a third order Franciscan.  It was said of him that more “men” had been called to the priesthood through him than any other person.  Who knew?

Wednesday, February 8, 2012

Paul, Pastors & Guides

A few weeks ago I wrote about being stuck in Paul’s first letter to the church in Corinth for the duration of Epiphany.  We’ve had at it in the little rural church I serve several times a month with the result that, as the congregation became more comfortable with Paul, they also became more willing to ask questions that they had always wondered about but, not wanting to look stupid or ill informed, they had never asked.  
If, they asked, what I said was true, that Paul’s letter was written at about the same time that Mark’s gospel was being penned, then what gospel did he preach because he often says he preached it?
For that matter, when were the gospels written?
If Mark was written first, why is Matthew listed first?
Paul sometimes writes about ‘his’ gospel.  Why isn’t there a gospel according to Paul?
You said that Luke was one of Paul’s followers, and you also said that Luke didn’t know Jesus and was not one of the disciples, so where did he get his information?
You said that Paul’s letter to the Romans is a later more mature rendering of Paul’s theology, so why does it come before 1st Corinthians?
What do you mean they’re not in chronological order?  What order are they in?
That goes for the prophets too?  What idiot made that decision?
How can other Christian traditions have books in a different order and even different books than our bible?
Back to Paul, this all things to all people stuff makes him sound like a chameleon.  Who can trust what he says?
Yeah, he keeps contradicting himself!
We seminary educated clergy can too easily forget that these and other questions are constantly lingering in the minds of our parishioners, even if usually suppressed.  They are lingering because they are the questions they’ve had since they were old enough to wonder.  They are suppressed because they’ve been taught not to question the pastor out loud, in public, and because they’ve been taught that to question scripture is to question the authority of God, so it’s better just to sit on it.  
I suspect that three conditions must be met for honest questions to rise to the surface. First, there must be a level of mutual trust that dumb or contentious questions can be raised without fear of humiliation.  Second, there must be time and space made available for them to be asked.  Third, there must be an honest invitation.
I don’t know; I don’t understand; That doesn’t make any sense: these are hard questions to ask, and only the brave are willing, usually prefaced with the obligatory, “this may be a dumb question but...”  It’s not only a fear of being made to feel stupid, it’s also a fear of offending the clergy, the doctrines of the church and even God.
Memorizing a favorite bible passage is one thing.  Reading the bible and being told what it means is one thing.  Bible study with workbook questions is one thing.  But wrestling with scripture, arguing with scripture, questioning scripture, well that’s another thing altogether.  One role of pastor as teacher is to bring members of a congregation to the place where they can do that in a responsible way guided by well informed but not inerrant clergy. 
Some months ago I sat in on a service in which the minister asked everyone to open their bibles to a certain place.  Then he repeatedly urged them to underline a verse while he told them what it meant.  I didn’t have my bible with me, something he made sure to notice with a disapproving look, but I looked on at the one my neighbor had.  His was so underlined and highlighted that there was nothing left unmarked, yet he dutifully penciled in another line as the preacher harangued.  He was satisfied.  His job was to underline, maybe even to memorize.  It was not his job to wrestle with the words, challenge them, let them “divide soul from spirit, joints from marrow.”  It was sad.  Would that he and others present had a better guide.
Well informed guiding is the key.  We’ve been on adventures with a number of inspiring guides who have led us into bird havens, fern forests, reef dives, museum tours, deep canyons, and ancient cities.  They don’t know everything, but they know what we have needed to open our eyes to new and deeper understanding.  They walked with us, looked with us, waited for us, urged us on, and encouraged us to go farther than we ever would on our own.  The best of them took the time to know us as individuals with stories of our own, and shared with us some of their story as well. 
That’s what well informed guiding is about, and it’s what pastorally guiding a congregation ever deeper into scripture is all about.  It’s about sharing the journey with them, using all one’s knowledge to guide with confidence, willing to admit the limits of one’s own knowledge, rejoicing in one’s own new discoveries, and leading onward with faith toward a goal always just beyond reach.   It’s about knowing them and their stories, and sharing something of our own with them.
Small group settings are where that kind of guiding can happen.  It isn’t possible to do it from the pulpit.  Sermons, at least in larger congregations, can offer little more than words to incite questions and stimulate hunger for more.  But what if small groups are not offered?  How frustrating it must be to have one’s spiritual appetite ignited with no hope of food ever being served.  Maybe that’s why many Christians are satisfied with a few jokes and some warm words in one church, and prurient recitations of sin sprinkled with threats of hell in another.  Both are easily forgotten and neither promises more than they can deliver. 

Thursday, February 2, 2012

Gay Marriage in the State of Washington

The Washington State legislature is likely to pass a gay marriage bill by early next week.  It’s generated quite a few letters to the editor in our local paper, each of which has been apoplectic about this moral outrage that flies in the face of what God, through the bible, has ordained marriage to be.
I don’t imagine there would be much to be gained by pointing out that civil marriage has nothing to do with either God or the bible, but is an institution established by the state and defined by law.  Every society has something that is recognized as marriage, and every society defines it by law, whether written or oral.  
Christian marriage is another matter.  The history of marriage, both civil and religious, in the Mediterranean world of the centuries around Christ, is both complex and fascinating.  It is in that environment where many of our ideas about what marriage is have their origin, and it is worthy of some study.  Within that context, the church, writ large and over time, developed a doctrine of marriage as having been established by God, adorned by Christ, and involving a relationship between husband and wife in which God plays an active role.  Denominations flesh out the doctrine each in their own way.  In some it’s hard to tell the difference between the officiating minister and a justice of the peace - including the words “...by the authority invested in me by the State of...”  Those are words one would never hear in an Episcopalian service where the couple are the ministers of the sacrament, and marriage is a sacrament in our tradition.  A tarnished one to be sure, but a sacrament just the same.
Other religions also recognize marriage as something special to be celebrated before God or the gods.  I don’t know much about them, but imagine that they are as devoted to what they think marriage is as Christians are to their ideal.  It’s an ideal, by the way, that has been “more honour'd in the breach than the observance,” and, sadly, some Churches have used the bible to accommodate horrific abuses and betrayals in marriage.
In any case, Christian Churches are free to recognize, or not, whatever form of marriage is consistent with their several understandings of God’s intentions as discerned in scripture.  They are not free to impose that understanding on society as a whole, nor on those outside their particular denomination.  On the other hand, they are free to do what they can to influence public opinion and legislators that their particular view of marriage is the one that should be reflected in civil law.  As it turns out, that’s, more or less, been the case for the last two hundred years or so with civil marriage defined in terms roughly consistent with generic Protestantism to the extent that it could be synchronized with the practical aspects of contract law.
As for me, I strongly endorse the legitimization of gay marriage in the State of Washington, look forward to the same in all states, and to the day when the church understands the depth and breadth of God’s will as revealed in scripture to include it within the sacramental blessing of marriage.  I do understand the thinking of those who are certain that God never intended such a thing.  I understand it, but do not agree with it.