Monday, May 28, 2012

Memorial Day

Originally intended by mothers, wives and daughters of those who died in the Civil War as a day to remember the terrible cost of war, a day for healing, a day to pray for peace, Memorial Day has become a day to remember all our loved ones, especially those who served in the armed forces and died while on active duty.
It has become common place to pray for those who gave their lives for our freedom, and so, from time to time, we need to be reminded that few gave their lives, their lives were taken from them by the violent tragedy of wars that have not always been about protecting our freedom, but were engaged in for other reasons.  Nevertheless, they died in service to their country, doing their duty as they were called to do it, expecting to come home to a better way of life, but paying the ultimate cost.
Let us offer our prayers for each of them, commending their souls to Almighty God that, their sins forgiven, and abounding in the steadfast love of God, they may rest in peace.  Let us offer our prayers for our leaders, that the time may not be far off when wars will cease and nations will live in peace with one another.  Let us offer prayers for each other, that we may be slow to urge sending our young men and women into harm’s way.  Let us offer our prayers in the name of the Prince of Peace who died once for all.
Not all victims of war died during war. Some carried their wounds throughout their lives.  They too deserve our prayers, and our unending commitment to do something about that.

Thursday, May 24, 2012

Mr. MIller


Memorial Day is coming up, so I offer my annual note about Harlan MIller.  Mr. Miller, as most everyone called him, died in abject poverty, an old man having no immediate family, and only one shirttail cousin.  He was used to it.  He’d been born into poverty and knew very little else his entire life.  Just the same, he was as self educated as a man could get from books of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.  It left him stuck in an intellectual time capsule, but with the ability to write his daily journal in Latin.
He got drafted early in WWII.  A little training, and then to the invasion of North Africa.  It didn’t take long.  He was blown up and littered with shrapnel.  He got out of the hospital about the time the war ended.  Back home he wasn’t much use to anyone.  Too many wounds, too few skills; it was easier to become a hermit.  And hermit he was till the day he died.  Yet he found his way to the church, seldom missed a bible study, offered curt one sentence advice to women on how to act like proper nineteenth century ladies, gave irises for the garden, and sometimes a small bag of tea to those he knew had a fondness for it.  A few pennies in the plate was an honest tithe, one of the few.
The rector of the parish was the executor of his ancient will.  I was the rector.  When all was done and his tiny shack sold for the land it was on, two congregations, one in Canada, each received about $10,000, the fortune of a lifetime.  It was, perhaps, the most generous gift either congregation will every receive.
Maybe I’ll put an Iris on his grave this year.  Mr. MIller.  How many Mr. MIllers were there, and are there still?

Revealing Revelation

Our five week study of Revelation with the small rural congregation I serve a few times a month is over, and I’m glad to see it go.  It’s my least favorite book in the bible.  In fact, least favorite is saying too much.  I do not care for it at all.  There is so much in the bible worthy of deep study, and, if we are Christ centered, none is more important than diving into what Jesus is reported to have said and done in the light of the prophets who preceded him. 
As far as I’m concerned, Revelation is a side bar, a distraction, but a powerful one for many.  Its fantastical visions and images captivate imaginations, titillate fears, and challenge the ability to distinguish what is real from what isn’t.  
Some believe that, because it is the last book, it must be the most authoritative, the final word so to speak, the book against which all other books in the bible must be measured.  Some believe that it reveals the blueprint for the end of time, and it is ignored at one’s peril.  Some have been persuaded by popular books and preachers who literally scare the hell out of them, or into them, through artful use of the book’s visions.  In spite of Christ’s repeated assurance of salvation, they are certain that people they know are destined for eternal punishment in hell, and are fearful that they also may be headed that direction.  For some, there is a lingering suspicion that all this stuff about how much God loves us is just a game of godly gottcha.
So they entered the study of Revelation with wide eyed anticipation that it might unlock some great secret of the universe, an inside scoop on what God is up to, a code to tell them when the world will end, and, maybe most of all, to confront once again the thundering threats of damnation that some idiot preacher had nailed onto their hearts during their formative years. 
I don’t know if our five weeks together were a disappointment.  I think we made progress in demystifying it.  We teased out the more important themes of hope, healing, reconciliation and restoration.  We emphasized the certainty of God’s triumph over evil: it is not a battle yet to be fought, the outcome of which is uncertain.  We explored the geopolitical setting in which John received his visions.  We discussed ancient and contemporary (to John) religions that were competing with Christianity.  We followed a few strands from Revelation back to passages in the Hebrew scriptures.  Time and again I argued that Revelation must be measured against the rest of scripture, especially the gospel stories, and not the other way round.  We tried hard to understand the role of metaphor, but it was difficult.  I was caught off guard when, in our final session, a question was raised about whether Babylon and Rome were literally, not metaphorically, the same, and that the Babylon of the Hebrew scriptures was the same city as modern day Rome.
Disappointed or not, they did ask for another round of bible study to be scheduled in the weeks ahead, and that’s a good thing.  I’m going for something simple next time.  Amos maybe.

Tuesday, May 22, 2012

May. Bah!

Eliot declared April to be the cruelest month, but I think May is a worthy competitor, at least where I live.  Here, May brings weather that unpredictably gyrates from sunny and hot to rainy and cold.  In between it’s just overcast.  Newly manicured lawns and patios are trashed with locust seeds and other tree generated detritus, while garages are filled with cottonwood tufts, and both are dragged muddily through the house by pets and people alike. 
One day I’m in my summer uniform of shorts, tee shirt and flip flops (slippers).  The next I’ve got on winter clothing that needs to be put away, and soon.  The fireplace may not yet have seen its final blaze until fall.  But it is possible that the air conditioner could get an unexpected workout. 
It’s the fickleness of the whole thing.  Whatever happened to the romantic ideal of a seamless, gentle transition of spring into summer?  I thought May was supposed to provide that.

Monday, May 21, 2012

It's that Time Again

Pentecost is upon us, and each year I am reminded of how hard it is to grasp the idea of the Holy Spirit.  I was part of a group years ago that regularly met to discuss things theological.  It included Anglicans, Roman Catholics, Conservative Jews, Reformed Jews and Russian Orthodox.  Quite a gaggle of religious types.  Oddly enough, no main line Protestants.  Don’t know why.
Anyway, the one thing that eluded us was an ability to talk with each another about the Holy Spirit in ways that made sense to each other, which may have something to do with each of us not being able to make much sense to ourselves either.  The Russian Orthodox generally solved the problem by waving their hands in the air and proclaiming it to be a holy mystery, thus delivering us from any more anguish about it.
So what about regular Christians and wannabe Christians sitting in the pews on Pentecost Sunday?  The only redeeming thing for them is that it won’t be as confusing as Trinity Sunday the week following, perhaps explaining the usual low turnout for Trinity Sunday.  For one thing, what does Pentecost mean?  Isn’t it one of those freaky symbols wizards and witches use to summon up dark forces?  Just how much about Jewish festivals can one inflict on a congregation without running out of time to deal with the Holy Spirit?
Then there is the problem of tongues of fire.  Were they real tongues of fire, or just something that looked like tongues of fire?  Maybe something like St. Elmos’ Fire?  Oops!  Don’t want to go down that road or we’ll end up on Sesame Street.  What about those languages.  They’re not the same thing as glossolalia, right?  Which brings up another word to stay away from.  And we are still not at the power and presence of the Holy Spirit.  We’re just dancing around the edges. 
In any case, it’s a story about something that happened a very long time ago to a people we do not know living in a strange place under conditions we cannot apprehend.  It doesn’t seem to have anything to do with us, and, if it means that we are supposed to act like those Pentecostals down the street, well that’s just too weird, and we’re not going to do it.  Episcopalians don't do silly things.  So there!
How to make the Holy Spirit understood as a tactile, physical presence with real power, and not as some vague metaphorical something or other that the preacher goes on about now and then?  That’s the problem.  I’m still working on it.  We shall see what happens on Sunday.

Monday, May 14, 2012

Thoughts on the European Economy

The austerity program in Europe doesn’t seem to be working all that well.  Restructure your debt, and live within your means by immediately and drastically cutting government expenditures, sounded like good common sense advice, and certainly something had to be done.  Bureaucracies in the so called PIIGS nations (Portugal, Italy, Ireland, Greece, Spain) were bloated and inefficient.  Guaranteed social benefits were overly generous and unfunded.  Deficit spending and national debt had climbed to unsustainable levels.  Banks were under capitalized.  What a mess!
What appeared to be the common sense solution just is not working.  As it turns out, Keynes was right, you cannot financially starve a country into prosperity.  All it produces is a deepening recession accompanied by very unhappy citizens verging on riot and revolution.  Add some strong arm tactics to put down civil unrest and it’s a path toward authoritarian rule. 
So what might work?  How about focussing on reforms of a more prosaic nature?  Some of these countries, Greece and Italy especially, are well known for massive tax evasion by just about everyone.  The very rich report only a fraction of their income.  Lower classes don’t report at all.  Shops collect the VAT on every sale, but forward only a portion, or none, to the state.  It’s hard to run even a slimmed down government under circumstances like that.  Honest enforcement of the tax laws might produce enormous revenues for the state without jeopardizing anyone’s well being.
What about reducing bureaucracies through attrition while enforcing simple rules promoting efficiency and punishing bribery?  It would require a change in organizational culture, but, I suspect, a welcome one.
What about phased in changes to working hours, retirement ages, and paid leave benefits in ways that would enable ordinary families to prepare and adjust without feeling like they have had it shoved down their throats?
Instead of shutting down public expenditures altogether, what about a carefully designed plan of additional investment in appropriate infrastructure, both physical and social?
It would still require a massive restructuring of debt, and, perhaps, Greece at least would still find its way out of the Euro and back to the Drachma.  It would not be a quick fix, but it might stave off a European wide depression while setting the groundwork for long term economic recovery.  
To me, that’s common sense.

Thursday, May 10, 2012

Beware The Jabberwock My Son, and also the Triennial Convention of the Episcopal Church

The Episcopal Church is preparing for its regular triennial convention this summer.  The House of Bishops will meet in sessions separate from the House of Deputies, which is made up of some 800 clergy and laity.  Either house may propose legislation in the form of a resolution, but each house must agree, in identical language, for a resolution to pass.  Deputies will have received a five pound notebook of papers to help them prepare for it.  Over nearly two weeks they will debate close to a thousand pieces of “legislation” that will have been parsed by committees holding open hearings.  The whole thing is an embarrassment of bureaucracy complicated by arcane rules of order, and the ridiculous idea, solemnly held, that all this so called “legislation” has real meaning for the kingdom of God, the world, the nation, the church and the ordinary people sitting in the pews.  Some of it does, but only some.
What got me going on this was a recent gathering where a several persons who are deeply involved in Convention took great pride in boasting about its size, length, number of resolutions, complexity of process, and the mind numbing endurance it takes to attend the many committee hearings scheduled for the odd hours of early morning and late night as if, somehow, all this exhausting vertical motion represents forward movement. 
That’s just not right!  If egos are well served by such a large, complicated gathering, so be it and God bless them.  But all the essential business of the church could easily be handled in half the time, through relatively simple procedures, culling resolutions to those that actually have something to do with the life and ministry of the church.
Twice I have been a deputy to Convention, and have been dumfounded at the time spent in floor debates about commas, prepositions, adjectives, and adverbs.  Additional time was spent on resolutions by the dozens commending, condemning, and instructing everyone from the United Nations to Congress and the President on a variety of issues, few of which will even be remembered within a week or two.  Grandiose plans for ministry in every conceivable area of interest are worked up with great enthusiasm only to be left unfunded, unheralded and unlamented.  Hearings on very complex and important subjects requiring serious scholarly study become arenas for the expression of personal opinion and emotional conviction testified to without fear of contradiction.
It’s not all bad.  Daily worship in the company of so many brothers and sisters in Christ is an amazing experience.  Small group bible study is always worthwhile, especially since it mixes up people from every part of the communion.  Now and then a genuine spirit of prayerful discernment descends upon the gathered, often through the gifted words of a chaplain.  The exhibit hall is a riot of churchy stuff to tempt even the most miserly, and there are a lot of freebies.  A supply of New York Times crossword puzzles and few good books help keep the mind sharp while interminable babbling issues forth from floor microphones.  New friendships are made, networking between interest groups takes place, and there are abundant opportunities for interesting conversation.  
Just the same, we can do better.  I hope we do.  I bet we don’t because we won’t.

Tuesday, May 8, 2012

A Justifiable Homicide

We had a shooting around here a few days ago.  It was the sort of shooting of which the NRA and friends would approve as justified, just the kind that any right thinking, red blooded American would take pride in.  Perhaps it will be found to be a justifiable homicide. 
A young man broke into a western clothing and outfitters store in the dark of an early morning hour.  Make no mistake, he was a burglar, he broke through the glass front door, and was helping himself to belts and buckles.  He was not an innocent victim.  The owner of the store lives in the back.  What exactly happened is under investigation, but at some point the owner confronted the burglar, fired several rounds of #4 buckshot, and killed him.  The burglar was unarmed, but who knew that in the dark of the night?
I’ve met the owner a few times, and feel a deep compassion for what he will have to endure for the rest of his life.  He’s an OK sort of guy, an older man, someone who bought into the hard core 2nd Amendment rights propaganda, including the “By God, you come into my house the wrong way and you’ll pay for it with lead” mentality.  
That puerile bravado plays well until you’ve shot and killed someone, even a bad guy.  Then the reality of what it means to have taken a life sets in.  The second thoughts, the guilt, the remorse, the never ending question about what could have been done differently.  For a sane person there is no romance in killing another human being.  There is no satisfaction in it.  There is nothing to brag about.  I hope that emotional healing will happen for him in time, and that he gets the competent help to guide it along.  Most do heal, but not all.  Some will find that something in themselves has also died, a part of their soul, leaving them with a heart less able to trust and love, a heart less able to find joy in life.  This isn’t a movie or television show.  It’s real life, and it’s ugly.  I will pray for his healing.  You pray too.
I do not know why we romanticize guns and killing.  I do not know why so many fall for that garbage the NRA keeps peddling.  

Monday, May 7, 2012

Random Thoughts on the Power of Expectation

I’ve been reflecting on the power of expectations that we have of others, and of ourselves.  Expectations can be high, low, or unimportant.  They can be genuine or false.  They can be quite intentional or come from somewhere below our cognitive consciousness. 
When I was a boy, the worst punishment was to hear my dad say, “I am disappointed.  I expected better of you.”  Expectations have real power. 
The speaker last week at our local YWCA annual fund raising luncheon was Barbara Bell, a retired Navy captain who was among the women who broke new ground proving themselves at the Academy, in flight school, as a test pilot, taking command.  She and others accomplished it in the face of high expectations for low performance from male colleagues who grudgingly accommodated the entrance and rise of women in their formerly exclusive domain.  
It’s long been known that when teachers and supervisors express genuine expectation for high performance from students and workers, they get a great deal more of it than do teachers and supervisors who do not.
It is equally true that supervisors who expect low performance get that too, but the issue isn’t as simple as what supervisors expect out of their people.  The expectations that individuals have for their own performance, the physical and mental abilities they have to meet those expectations, and their capacity to persevere in the face of adverse expectations from others, are extraordinarily vitally important.  
Most of us are aware of supervisors who appear to express high expectations for performance while behaving in every way possible to anticipate low performance.  Insincerity is their hallmark.  That they are common is the reason why the pointy haired boss in Dilbert is so easily recognized as someone we all know. 
But even authentic high expectations from teachers and supervisors must be met with a certain trusting openness from subordinates.  It is not possible to force another to live up to their potential.  The best any of us can do is create conditions under which they are most likely to succeed if they want to succeed, if they are able to succeed, and if they are willing to put in the work needed to succeed.
On the other hand, it is possible to force another to live down to low expectations.  Creating and maintaining the conditions for failure are easy to manage.  Only the truly exceptional can escape that trap.  Some in supervisory positions appear to get a perverse satisfaction out of creating and maintaining just those conditions in order to discover the few who can escape and then claim victory for having developed a winner.  It’s a brutal, inhumane sport governed by those who could not themselves compete. 
Almost as bad, it seems to me, are those in supervisory positions who don’t care at all.  The “whatever” style of teaching and management suck the life out of the learning or work environment, leaving everyone to just drift on whatever current is flowing at the moment.
Does our Christian faith have anything to do with any of this?  I think it does if we are about life in abundance in the face of scarcity, reconciliation in the face of enmity, and resurrection in the face of crucifixion.  Christians, individually and collectively, as the body of Christ, are under obligation to do what they can to create and maintain conditions under which all of that is possible for every person.  I think, however, that we are too easily tempted to take the “whatever” approach as if our faith, and what happens in the workaday world, have little to do with each other. 

Friday, May 4, 2012

Plutocrats and the People Who Love Them

Paul Krugman wrote an interesting column today in which he noted the correlation between extremes in income inequality with poor economic performance, and the dismal track record of far right wing economic practice delivering the goods it promises.  When income inequality becomes too great, and what too great is is debatable, governments tend toward plutocracy where the very rich are able to “purchase” policies that protect their accumulated wealth while opening up small windows to increased wealth through which only they, and a few others, can pass. 
Looking at the current American scene from a distance, as Krugman is able to do, it looks like a pretty good description of what is going on.  But looking at the same scene from the inside, down at the middle and lower levels, it looks different.  The so called Tea Party movement, aided and abetted by more ordinary conservatives, are not only enthusiastic supporters of policies favorable to the plutocracy, they often want to go farther.  Curiously, none of them are members of the plutocratic class, nor are they ever likely to be.  Moreover, many are in that indebted middle class group that is always teetering on the verge of personal economic disaster.  Yet they are enthusiastic about policies destined to work against their own best interests.  Why is that?
I suspect that fear has something to do with it.  Fear that the nation might be in as bad a shape as they are.  They know how close to edge they live day to day, and believe that the nation is nothing more than a typical domestic household writ large, very large.  They believe, without examination, that we have to go begging hat in hand for loans from the Chinese.  They believe that petroleum products produced domestically are consumed domestically, and that, if we really tried, we could produce all that we need.  They are certain that certain other nations want to conquer us, making us subjects of an alien empire.  They are, to be truthful, suspicious of a president who is not a white male.  In my part of the country, they are Republicans because they are Republicans, and whatever the party is selling must be good, as opposed to tax and spend big government Democrats.
I don’t think the plutocrats get together to giggle at their good fortune, finding their best allies among those whom they are grinding underfoot.  They don’t do that because they don’t think about it at all.  Nor do they give much thought to the destructiveness of their favorite policies that, in the end, will erode their own domestic wealth producing opportunities.  That’s because they are both short sighted and not economic citizens of this country anyway.  They are global citizens quite certain that if a market dries up in one place, there will be another lucrative, amenable one not far off.  The well being of the commonwealth is unimportant because they have little regard for the idea of commonwealth at all.  What is important is the viability of markets in which they can make a killing over the short term. 
It will be interesting to see how all of this works out.  

Tuesday, May 1, 2012

Eunuchs, Sex & Agriculture

What’s a eunuch?  The story of Philip and the Ethiopian eunuch, which many of us will hear read this coming Sunday, reminded me of my youthful ignorance of things such as eunuchs.  As a teenager being introduced to the depths of the bible, anything that had to do with something sexual was avoided by our old fashioned pastor.  Whatever eunuchs were was off limits, as were questions about harlots, women known to be sinners, adulterers, Moses’ natural power that had not abated, even in old age, and the like.  I recall that there was some vague reference to the sin of spilling one’s seed, which was an act reputed to also cause poor eyesight.  Being a tad on the naive side, it took me a while to catch on that my 20/800 vision made me a suspect for some reason.   But I digress.  What’s a eunuch?
Knowing the answer to that, knowing that he traveled on a very long and dangerous journey to worship at a temple into which he could not enter, is the key to understanding the good news of the kingdom that is near to all and not just to some.  The gospel message is, among other things, quite earthy.  I don’t think that troubled most people over the centuries in which the earthiness of living was an every day experience, and, therefore, not a subject to elicit juvenile twittering combining embarrassment with curiosity.  I don’t know when that came in, but it certainly found a voice in Victorian prudishness that infected the religiosity of America through at least the first two thirds of the 20th century.  My guess is that that faux prudishness one experienced in chruch had something to do with the mass exodus of baby boomers from it.   Remember, they were the members of the Sunday School classes so large that they nearly overwhelmed the capacity of local congregations.  What they learned in those years was such thin gruel, and so disconnected from what they saw going on all around them, that growing up and leaving behind their childish ways included leaving behind the religious trivialities they had learned in church.
In an odd twist, we religious leaders and teachers have become far more comfortable talking honestly about the earthiness of scripture as it relates to human sexuality, but we are losing ground in another arena - agriculture.
The bible is not just earthy about sex, it’s also earthy about agriculture.  History, wisdom, poetry and the gospel stories are saturated with agricultural settings and metaphors.  This Sunday some of us will have the vine and its branches.  Last Sunday we had the good shepherd.  Barley, wheat, tares, early rains, late rains, sheep, goats, asses, plowing, seeding, reaping, threshing, and more are all vehicles that carry the depth, breadth and weight of meaning required for a full understanding of what scripture has to offer. 
It’s not much of a problem where I live.  We are surrounded by agriculture.  Even we townies know at least something about the basics.  But we are a shrinking population amidst the many for whom the language of the farm is as foreign as Farsi.  In our urban sophistication we can handle sex without much ado, but what are we to do with grape vines?  Who even knows that the vine is not the fruit bearing tendril snaking its way onto a trellis like frame, but the root stock itself?  Who understands about grafting new varieties onto old stock?  Why is a lamb symbolic of anything other than cuteness?  Talk about irrelevant nonsense!  If that is what religion is about, why bother?
If I choose to preach this Sunday on Jesus’ self identification as the true vine, the few members of my little rural congregation have only to wander to the edge of town to be in the vineyards.  For my big city born and bred friends, a vine is highly problematic, and Jesus being the true vine is all but meaningless - unless.  Unless the preacher come teacher is able to impart enough information for the metaphor to make sense.  It means throwing out the thin gruel and cooking up some thick, rich porridge.
The solution?  Make ag-econ 101 a required introductory course in seminary?  Maybe not, but the language we use to guide nascent Christians into the language of the bible is way too important to forget about it.