Saturday, March 31, 2012

And What About Your Community?

Rich Lowry, a nationally syndicated columnist, wrote recently about the Trayvon Martin case by listing the deaths of young persons, mostly from the inner cities, and mostly at the hands of other young persons.  He might have used the public awareness of, and outrage over, the Martin case to shine a light on the tragic evil of young people murdering young people, possibly exploring some ways in which we, the greater public, might begin to do something about that, each in our own communities.  After all, he made a valid point, we tend to disregard that kind of violence as long as it doesn’t affect the neighborhood we live in, and is generally constrained (we think) to deadly violence between gangs.  A stern ‘tsk-tsk what is this world coming to’ is sufficient for most of us. 
He could have.  He didn’t.  
He used his list as an accusation of “liberal” hypocrisy.  He used his list as a political bludgeon asserting that liberals only care if a so called white person murders a black person.  He used his list to, rather subtly, suggest that black adults don’t care about black teens killing black teens, and only get worked up if a white person is involved.  It was cheap race baiting, perhaps not at its worst, but cheap just the same.  It was just more of the wedge driving divisiveness that has become the signal emblem of our national politics. 
The guy’s not stupid.  He can do better, and so can we.  Which brings me back to the problem he raised in the first place with his list.  I don’t live in the inner city.  There is not much I can say or do that will have any impact there.  I live in a small city out in the inter-mountain west surrounded by mountains and high desert, wheat fields and cattle ranches, vineyards and a couple of top notch colleges.  We have a gang problem.  Local authorities say membership is probably around five hundred.  Other teens wear imitation gang colors as a fashion statement.  So far we don’t have a lot of killings, some but not a lot.  We do have a lot of fights, wild shots fired here and there, nasty wounds, and the crime that goes along with it.  Meth and other drugs are a troubling presence.  We are not drowning it it.  Our streets are still safe to walk at night.  Our neighborhoods are mostly quiet.  You can forget to lock your door and probably be safe from burglary.  It isn’t all that bad, as long as you don’t look at what’s happening to the community at large, to five hundred gang members, to fashion conscious wannabes, to the losses, both emotional and physical, due to crime and drug use.
What we don’t want is to try to protect ourselves with self-appointed armed neighborhood watchers.  But what do we want?  I’m not sure.  The community just completed its second annual day long series of workshops on issues related to Adverse Childhood Experiences, violence, drugs, gangs, etc.  Hundreds attended, including many who wield influence and make decisions.  What will come of it?  We don’t know, but it’s a start that the community is aware, gathered and thinking.

Wednesday, March 28, 2012

Avoiding God

Avoiding God.  I was reading again the story of Moses, the burning bush, and his repeated attempts to avoid God, if at all possible, to the point where God got a little ticked off at him.  How does that play out among us in today’s world?
Some erstwhile Christians are appalled that Moses, or anyone, would try to avoid God like that.  To argue with God that God has got it wrong, who in their right mind would do such a thing?  I wonder how many rush to embrace God’s instructions when God has not given any?  Do they end up boldly proclaiming that they are doing what God has laid on their hearts to do, when God hasn’t got a thing to do with it?  That’s always been my suspicion when I hear someone say that ‘it has been laid on me to say or do thus and such’.  I start looking around for some evidence of a burning bush.
One active letter writer in our local paper is so certain that whatever she thinks must be from God that any opinion to the contrary must be from Satan, an accusation she is willing to publicly nail on the name of anyone who suggests otherwise.  She seems to cherish the judgement of damnation as the fate of those who do not hear God saying what she says God said.  What makes me think that she does not have an authentic prophetic voice?  Not one trace of Christlike love, delight in God’s grace, or pleasure in God’s creation is the answer, and I’m certain that today’s burning bush would shine with that light.
Deliberately offending God is probably not a good idea.  It didn’t work out well for Pharaoh, but that’s not what the Moses story is about.  It’s worthy to note that Moses spent the bulk of his adult life struggling with God, arguing with God, and taking God seriously.  God seems to have enjoyed that.  No other person, said God, has had, or will have, such an intimate relationship with him, a relationship of true and deep friendship.  I think that’s because Moses didn’t argue to be difficult but to learn, and his learning came in small steps, one at a time, over the course of an entire life.  Moreover, his mistakes and failures did not stop him from going on, even though progress was slow and difficult.
I have a friend who claims in every other sentence that he is not a Christian.  At the same time, he is constantly engaged in conversation with Jesus about God that takes the form of vigorous argument with plenty of give and take.  My guess is that God rejoices in the intimacy of that friendship.  In the meantime, our local letter writer already has my friend roasting in hell.
Who is avoiding God?

Friday, March 23, 2012

Prepared to be President?

My wife got into an interesting conversation with an old school friend who wondered if Obama might be the least prepared president ever.  It got me thinking about who the least prepared presidents have been in recent history.  Three came to mind immediately: Teddy Roosevelt, Harry Truman, and Gerald Ford.  None of them anticipated becoming president.  Party leaders were generally pleased to see them shunted onto the all but abandoned siding of the vice presidency.  Ford wasn’t even an elected vice president.  Truman had been kept dreadfully ignorant of important matters crossing the president’s desk.  None was without some experience of value.  Roosevelt had the advantage of education, wealth, social connection and executive experience at the local, state, and federal levels, but people in power didn’t like or trust him.  Truman had some executive experience as a county judge in Missouri, what today we would call a county executive, but was tainted with connections to corrupt political machines.  Ford had been an able congressional leader, a likable sort of guy, and that’s about all that can be said.
The fact that none of them anticipated becoming president is what made them so unprepared.  One day they were idling away their time in the nether world of the vice presidency.  The next day they were president, and, in Truman’s case, president in the middle of a world war with a bomb he had never heard of waiting for his approval.
Is it possible to be prepared to be president of the United States?
I don’t think so.  How can one be prepared for the most powerful office in the land, and yet an office in which every move is second guessed by the press, congress, courts and staff?  Not to forget you and me with our vast stores of knowledge and wisdom.  This most powerful office where most decisions important to the well being of the nation must first be legislated by congress, and then implemented through the filter of departments and agencies over which one has only limited control.  And where any of that can be litigated for years until, at long last, the Supreme Court has its say.  Show me a corporate CEO, general of the army, or captain of a ship who would put up with that.  Oh, and let us not forget the hosts of lobbyists and other influence peddlers.
I don’t think it’s possible to be well prepared for the deluge of information, much of it secret, whose flow is monitored and directed by legions of staff all wanting to curry favor and position.  I don’t think its possible to be well prepared to give up one’s private life to have it parsed down to the smallest iota on the one hand, and imprisoned behind Secret Service security on the other.   
Presidents who were expected to have been well prepared turned out to be duds, while some who were spectacularly unprepared are remembered among the best.  
As for our current president, he has the education, intelligence, integrity, and desire to do well.  Now he has the experience to go with it, and a track record of accomplishments in the face of heated opposition that I find quite impressive.  Was he unprepared before the election?  Absolutely, and so are each of the candidates now running.  Has he become prepared?  I believe he has. 

Thursday, March 22, 2012

I'm Conflicted

I’m conflicted about the current debate over insurance coverage for contraceptives.  The headlines keep blaring that the question is not only whether they should be required to be included in employer health insurance plans, but that they should also be free.  The flip side is to single out contraceptives as optional according to the whim of the employer.  Supposedly it’s an option based on moral values of some kind, but I think whim is a more accurate term. 
It seems to me that if an employer provides health insurance at all, and if that insurance includes a prescription drug plan, contraceptives should be included in the same way as any other prescribed drug.  That may or may not, probably not, be free.  The day of 100% employer paid health insurance plan is gone.  Most prescription plans require a copay in addition to the employee share of the premium.  Some get picky about brand name and generic drugs. 
I would prefer something similar to the Canadian health insurance system, but we have what we have.
It does bring up an interesting question.  To what extent is an employer free to impose particular moral values on an employee?  Codes of ethics are legion among major corporations.  Once upon a time companies such as IBM required ‘men’ to wear white shirts and ties.  I once worked for an organization that had, before I worked for them, required ‘men’ to wear dark colored suits, preferably black or dark grey.  Women were required to wear dresses of appropriate modesty in appropriate colors that did not include red.  Married men were given pay and promotion preference over single men.  Single women and widows were given pay and promotion preference over married women, but not on the same track as men.  Unmarried moms were never hired, or fired as soon as discovered.  All of it was intended to say something about the moral or ethical standards of the organization.
These may seem quaintly dated examples, but the point is that employers have a long history of messing around in the personal and private lives of their employees for reasons that, as it turns out, have nothing to do with the effective, efficient operation of the organization.  Yet every organization must have standards of ethical behavior, appearance, and performance that are important to the effective, efficient operation of the business.  
I don’t think there is a line that separates the two.  It’s more like a large fuzzy no man’s land.  Perhaps the contraceptive issue is in that region, but I doubt it.  The abortion question, while touching even more raw nerves and generating greater heat, is another that might be in that region, but I doubt it. 
Something to think about.

Thursday, March 15, 2012

The Meaning of Covenant

I’ve read most of the same sex blessing study material recently sent out in preparation for this summer’s triennial convention of the Episcopal Church, and have some problems with the way the word covenant is used throughout, and especially in the suggested liturgy.  To me, the way the reports read, covenant could be easily changed to contract, and I think that loses the heart of the meaning of covenant.
As I understand it, covenant is not something one makes, but something one enters into.  So if one enters into it rather than making it, who makes it?  The one who has the authority to do so does, and, when made, the terms are not negotiable for those entering into it. 
The English word covenant is used several hundred times in our translations, most of them in the Old Testament.  It consistently refers to the definition of a relationship between humanity and God in which God established the terms and conditions.  If there is an exception, it is about agreements between humans in which God is the sole judge.
To use a more human example, the king conquers a new land and establishes a covenant with his new subjects.  Their desires may be taken into account, but they don’t make the covenant, the king does.  The new subjects have two choices: enter into the covenant or face the consequences.  
It may be a harsh example, but it makes the point that the covenants we enter into, as a part of who we are as God’s people, are established by God, not by us as a function of negotiation with each other or with God.  It may be that in the rites of marriage, whether of same or different sexes, the church has struggled to identify the nature of the covenant and put words to it, but the struggle has always been about discerning what God has established or is establishing. 
Our current liturgy says that the covenant of marriage was established by God, but one would have hard time finding that spelled out in any of the hundreds of covenant passages in scripture.  It took a long time for the Church to discern marriage as a Godly covenant, a sacrament, revealed in both scripture and experience.  We take it for granted now, but it wasn't always so. 
I think we need to be bold enough to say in plain language that we now understand that God has established the terms of covenant that bless same sex unions, and that we have done the best we can to put appropriate words to it.  It is a new understanding.  We did not recognize it before, but after many years of prayerful study, we do recognize it now.  In time we may anticipate a greater fullness of understanding, but this is where we are at present.  
I would prefer that the scriptural sense of covenant we attribute to marriage be reflected in the liturgy for the blessing of the union of same sex couples.  To be blunt about it, I think the way the word is used in the liturgy set forth for study lacks that conviction.  If we, as the Church assembled, do not have that conviction, then we need to lay the matter aside and return to prayerful discernment.

Satire vs. Sarcasm

I suppose it’s time to wade in on the assertion that liberals have no right to complain about Rush Limbaugh because Bill Maher is just as foul mouthed when criticizing conservatives.
My first thought is, how juvenile is that?  How is that different from three year olds whining that ‘she hit me first’?  When did it become OK for one person’s bad behavior to justify another’s similar bad behavior?
Which brings me to Bill Maher, and to a lesser extent Jon Stewart.  Both are capable of very funny and insightful political satire, as good as the best of Mort Sahl, maybe better because they, and their writers, manage to cover new material for mass audiences day after day.  
But here’s the problem, both of them like to think they are ‘edgy’, which means nothing more than salting their lines with curses and obscenities that have long since lost their ability to shock, are not humorous, but are a distraction from the sophisticated satire of which they are capable.   Whatever edginess that might have represented was over fifty years ago.  Even George Carlin figured that out. 
One final observation.  Don’t confuse satire with sarcasm.  Maher is capable of intellectually honed political satire.  Limbaugh slugs away with sarcasm.

Sunday, March 11, 2012

A Good Cleansing Inside and Out

I was reading over the lesson from John’s gospel about Jesus cleansing the temple by driving out the livestock, turning over the money changing tables, and ordering the sacrificial doves to be released.  It brought to mind the passage of the first letter of John that says that if, we confess our sins, Jesus will cleanse us of all unrighteousness.  The two seem to be related.
The cleansing of the temple was an unpleasant experience, to say the least.  Noise, confusion, disruption, and physical pain.  What else could it have been?  So what do you suppose it is like when he does the same thing to our souls?  I mean, we’ve got a lot of valuable stuff stored in there.  We hoard it.  We treasure it.  We worship it.  We trade some of it for other stuff we want more.  I’m not so sure that it’s all that different from Herod’s cattle filled, money changing, bird emporium. 
I imagine Jesus showing up to cleanse me from all unrighteousness, and me saying something like, ‘Hold on a minute.  Can’t we talk about it first?  How about looking things over and just getting rid of the really bad stuff, because some of the other is very important to me’.  
We non Roman Catholics got rid of the idea of purgatory a long time ago, and for good reason, but maybe not good enough.  I don’t suspect, I know, that in spite of regular prayer, confession and reception of Holy Communion, that I take with serious intentionality, I have also kept a well stocked inner courtyard of cattle, cash and birds with which I do a profitable business of buying and selling advantage while appeasing my conscience.  Maybe you do too.
Anyway, if Jesus is going to come in to do a little cleansing, I’m likely to find it a disruptive and painful experience, but one to be happily endured.  I imagine myself standing before God on the other side of this life with him saying, ‘Welcome Steve, glad you're here, but first we need to clean you up a bit.  You’re a mess.  Let’s get those old rags off and give you a good scrubbing inside and out’.  

Saturday, March 10, 2012

God's Calculus

While Mark’s gospel is often noted for being in a hurry with everything happening immediately, it is less often noted that his narrative slows down to a leisurely pace in the middle chapters.  Consider, for instance, the story of the demoniac in chapter five.  It’s a fairly long one, rich in detail, and not in a hurry to reach its conclusion.  
Do you suppose Mark intended his readers to linger there for a while to ponder something?  If so, what?  We have a location: a non-Jewish region on the far side of Galilee, in a cemetery, with a herd of pigs feeding near by; a cast of characters: Jesus, a very strong maniac, the disciples, swineherds, and villagers.  We also have a legion of unclean spirits who clearly knew exactly who Jesus was. 
The maniac had been ill treated by the locals, but not without reason.  On the one hand, he allowed himself to be chained up for their safety and his.  On the other, in the rage of madness, he broke free of all restraints to roam the cemetery, howling at the moon like a B movie werwolf. 
When called to account for themselves by Jesus, the unclean spirits, speaking as one, seemed to beg for mercy.  What were Jesus’ options?  I don’t know, but he did permit them to go elsewhere, into the pigs.  It seems that unclean spirits going elsewhere are still unclean, bent on self destruction, even if that means the destruction of their hosts.  I don’t want to get into a discussion about the nature of unclean spirits because it’s a rabbit hole from which there is no escape.  But I do want to consider the cost of one man’s salvation.
The maniac, now healed, appears to have received more than his sanity.  He received the same knowledge of who Jesus was that the spirits had, but with clear headed, sane understanding.  Wisdom if you will.  The herd of pigs, and the unclean spirits with them, drowned.  That was a valuable herd.  It represented somebody’s wealth, a considerable fortune, the source of his standing in the community, and now it was gone.  The salvation of one dirty, screaming maniac at the cost of the considerable wealth of a hard working, responsible member of the community?  What sense does that make?  
Who cares about the maniac compared to the good standing of a person of wealth?  Where is the equity in exchanging the lives of a valuable herd of pigs for the worthless life of a mad man?  All it did was bankrupt a worthy farmer.  So he’s sane, wise and knows God now: big deal!  What’s that going to get him, and what good does it do us?  
God’s calculus is strange indeed.  It defies all the rules of logic and quantitative analysis.  It’s fiscally and morally insupportable.  More especially, it flies in the face of the self satisfied complacency of many who call themselves Christians.  Now there is something to ponder in the middle of Lent.

Monday, March 5, 2012

What is Faith?

What is faith?  With campaign season in full swing, one cannot avoid the word.  It’s constantly tossed around with all the impact of a Nerf football.  What is it?  When someone asks about your faith, does the name of your denomination come to mind?  How about the more generic answer that your faith is Christian?  Is it something you belong to as in, I belong to the Catholic Church?  Is it something you possess as in, I have accepted Jesus Christ as my personal Lord and Savior?
It seems to me that faith has come to mean a set of beliefs associated with a particular way of thinking or talking about God.  Creeds, confessions, manifestos, lists of fundamentals, strict adherence to a doctrine of atonement are all not just signs of faith but  have become the very stuff of faith itself, at least in the way we often use the word and hear it being used.  For the slightly more intellectual, and possibly seminary trained, faith may be articulated through the lens of what Luther, Calvin or Wesley wrote.  We Anglicans might say the same about Hooker, but most of us have never read him.  Then, of course, there are those who have stitched together a personal faith that mutates with every new spiritual fad.
What is faith?  It’s none of the above, I’m quite sure about that.  Considering the faith of the patriarchs and matriarchs in every age, I believe that faith is trust.   Abraham did not have a religious faith.  Whatever religion was in his past had been rejected.  There was no religion associated with the God with whom he spoke.  What he had was trust in God, a very robust and flexible trust.  A trust that ran deep enough to lead him on unknown paths, for honest conversation, even for doubt and argument.  That kind of Abrahamic faith is the model for everyone else who has demonstrated trust in God above what we normally call religious faith.  Can you think of one for whom this is not true?  You cannot.    
On the other hand, we also have the record of those for whom faith had become identified with religious practice and ideology, perhaps most obviously the Sadducees and Pharisees of Jesus’ day.  What about the religious ideologues of our own day?  When I am confronted by their proclamations, I do not hear about trust in God for the blaring noise of faith as an ideology about God.
Don’t get me wrong.  As an Episcopalian steeped in the Anglican tradition, I treasure our ways of worship.  I am a trinitarian of the Nicene variety.  The Eucharist is important to me.  I have no doubt that Christ is truly present in it.  I can tolerate a lousy sermon, even one of my own, for the gift of Eucharist.  The Book of Common Prayer, the rhythm of the liturgical year, the candles, vestments and music all speak to my soul.  But all of it, every bit of it, would be worthless. if it did not lead toward, and open the door to, deeper trust in God, and trust in God is what faith is.

Thursday, March 1, 2012

Disruptive, Destructive Entry into Church

There were a couple of things that distracted me when I was a teenager and it came time to listen to a sermon on Mark’s story about a paralytic let down through the roof so Jesus could heal him.  First, I wasn’t sure what a paralytic was.  Second, it always seemed that the preacher spent most of his time explaining the roof and how they got through it.  Was it tiled?  Thatched?  Sticks and mud?  No doubt there was more to those sermons than that, but that’s what I remembered.  
The story rose again in today’s Morning Prayer, and again I was distracted, this time by thoughts of the “missional church.”  I’m having a hard time with that term.  For all the publicity, and its constant use in daily clergy speak, I don’t know what a missional church is, except that it has something to do with being sent out.  Today’s lesson turns that upside down.  What happens when someone is trying to break in?
I wonder what the people sitting inside thought.  The man who had been brought to the front door to get in was unclean, and I can imagine the disruption as his four friends, hauling him on his pallet, tried to muscle their way in only to be rebuffed because there was no room.  Must have been quite a racket along with shoving, arguing, and angry words.  Jesus probably kept on speaking, but his audience paid little attention as they turned to see what was going on making pursed lip lemony faces with loud shushes.
Ah, peace at last; the interlopers left, and they could get back to the business of listening to the preacher.  
Not for long.  It turned out that these four guys were not only persistent, they were violent and destructive.  Whatever the roof and ceiling were made of, they began to rumble, pieces of ceiling began to fall, daylight appeared, a small hole growing quickly as if the whole building might collapse.  Who were these guys?  Bad, evil, uncivilized, intent on breaking in to attack this good preacher and his godly assembly.  
Think about it.  We talk so much about being sent out, what happens when  someone tries to break in, especially if that someone appears to be not like us, even disreputable, threatening?  Shoot, we get upset if a baby starts to cry too loud and mom or dad fail to do anything about it quick enough for us.  Holy Innocents in Lahaina is located on one end of Front Street, the main drag.  Every Sunday, right about the start of the Eucharistic Prayer, a herd of Harleys thunder by, revving their engines as they pass the church.  Without fail the tourist filled congregation looks askance (how does one look askance?).  Bill, the priest, stops to explain that they go out of their way to help the church provide Christmas to the children most in need, and the Harley thunder is their weekly salute to the ministry of Holy Innocents. 
OK, it’s a small enough example, but what about this idea of the way we treat people who are trying hard to break into God presence in our churches, but doing it in a way that we find disruptive, intrusive, and maybe even destructive?  Can we handle it?  Can we maintain our equanimity, whatever that is, our dignity, and our identity while, at the same time, making room?  It’s a tough question.