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?

Wednesday, September 12, 2012

The Power of the Spoken Word


Words have tremendous power.  The old saw about the pen being mightier than the sword is right, just as right as “sticks and stones can break my bones, but words can never hurt me” is wrong.  It may be that it is the written word that endures, and in enduring is the more powerful, but the spoken word is often the more dangerous.

A word written can be edited, erased, rewritten, interpreted and reinterpreted for centuries.  In so doing it can be softened or strengthened, and put to use in different ways by different cultures in different times.  The spoken word has an immediate effect on the particular people who hear it.  It cannot be unsaid, and once said, its meaning exists entirely within the understanding of the hearer.  Great orators and gifted conversationalists may be adept at infusing intended meaning into every tone and gesture, but the final arbiter is always the hearer.  Frankly, it’s a wonder that we are able to communicate verbally at all, considering how easy it is to mishear and misunderstand, and how hard it is to confirm agreement between speaker and hearer.    

The spoken word can bring blessing, joy, compassion, encouragement, and comfort.  Oddly, these good things seem to stay with us only in passing.  They are soon forgotten in the sense of “Yes, but what have you done for me lately.”  On the other hand, words that hurt seem to embed themselves in the very core of one’s self where they continue to do damage for a very long time.  It’s one reason why I think the Ten Commandments are as much about what we say as what we do.  For example, there are not many of us who commit physical theft or murder, but most of us have stolen and killed with the words we have spoken.  Think of the idea of stealing a good reputation or killing a portion on one’s soul with nothing more than a few words spoken in haste or on purpose.  It happens without thinking in nothing more than daily gossip.  Unintended harm, but there just the same.  Worse are those malicious words intended not just to hurt, but to do permanent damage.  Harsh words, cruel words, false words, deceiving words, they flow too easily from our mouths, and  they can never be unsaid.

“Oh, I wish I hadn’t said that,” is my daily confession.  Maybe it’s yours also.

If we are to be serious about following Christ, then we have to be serious, that is conscious, about the words we use, because they proclaim not only who we are, but who Jesus is, who God is.  The problem is that that too often gets interpreted as an invitation to speak in self sanctimonious, preachy Jesus talk that raises immediate warnings of born again hypocrisy.  Maybe that’s why St. Francis is said to have encouraged proclaiming the good news with words only as a last resort.

What I have in mind is more along the lines of speaking in ordinary ways, about ordinary things, in ordinary conversation, bearing in mind that what we say and the way we say it will convey something of what it means to be a follower of Christ, whether or not Jesus is ever mentioned.

Saturday, September 8, 2012

Cultural Change in America


Somewhere in the ‘80s I wrote class materials on understanding societal change for community leaders, mostly business people, who were having a hard time understanding what was happening to the towns and cities they lived in.  My argument then was that the Civil War did not end until 1965, by which I meant that it was not until the voting rights and civil rights acts of the mid 1960s that the primary issues of the war were finally resolved.  The point I was trying to make was that foundational social or cultural change takes a long time.  It moves at glacial speed in the face of other forms of social and technological change that move faster than we accommodate them.

Those were the same years in which we had begun to fight a different kind of civil war, of which the brutal reality of the Vietnam War was also a metaphor.  The struggle to settle into the hard work of reconstruction after the civil rights legislation had been passed was complicated by the raging storm of conflict over Vietnam at home.  It helped fuel race riots and assassinations.  Old friends, bothers and sisters, parents and children found themselves on different sides.  Claims and counterclaims so muddled the public debate that it was impossible to discern any clear cut line on which to take one’s stand without suddenly discovering other lines on which others took their stands.  To complicate matters, the Cold War ended, and with it the stability and reliability of having a known enemy camp with clearly defined geopolitical boundaries.

Our foundational myths of a national ethos could not hold, and there was nothing to replace them.  What do I mean by that?  As good an example as any would be the WWII Norman Rockwell paintings, The Four Freedoms.  They were the freedom from want, of speech, of worship, and from fear.  Freedom from want featured a happy extended family sitting down to Thanksgiving feast, with grandma placing a huge turkey in front of grandpa for him to carve.  Freedom of speech showed a working man in a worn leather jacket with some papers in his pocket standing to speak at a town meeting.  Freedom of worship displayed a patchwork of heads bowed in reverent prayer.  Freedom from fear showed parents lovingly tucking in small children with a brightly lit hallway in the background.  

Although the theme was taken from an FDR speech, the paintings said everything about our foundational myths of a national ethos without a single word spoken.  They didn’t have to.  With one insignificant exception, all the characters were white and reasonably prosperous.  Most viewers simply assumed that the worshipers were Protestant.  Families were understood to consist of once married, never divorced, loving, contented adults and happy children.  Freedom of speech meant freedom to speak out and be respectfully heard on issues about which we would all agree after everyone had his (or maybe her) say.  No one actually said that.  The paintings didn’t.  It was just assumed.  Everyone knew that this was what was true about America and not true about most the rest of the world.  We were white, Protestant, well off, and good. 

In the late ‘60s and throughout the ‘70s, in spite of the Cleavers and Mayberry, that mythical house came tumbling down, never to be rebuilt.  Here we are, nearly a half century later, struggling to find new words and new paintings to illustrate a new understanding of a national ethos, if we could agree on what that ethos is and a foundational myth most of us could agree on that would explain it.  The Tea Party movement wants to restore a time that never existed, something between Rockwell paintings and Matt Dillon’s Dodge City.  It’s a last gasp and grasp, doomed to failure, but with enough political muscle behind it to do real damage to our future.  Various liberals, progressives and conservatives are vying to discover a more realistic vision of what it means to be family, or speak freely, or worship, or have enough, or be safe in ways that make sense in a world of such dramatic and disruptive change.  A new American ethos is being born.  About the only thing that can be said with certainty is that it will be an ethos of American pride that includes neither American exceptionalism, nor the hubris of America the Greatest Nation on Earth.

I think that what I said thirty years ago to various community leaders is still true.  In the face of the lightning speed of technological change and the havoc that wreaks on daily life, the pace of foundational social and cultural change remains slow.  If it took a century to end the Civil War, I have little expectation that this new kind of civil war will end much sooner.  I hope I’m wrong.

Wednesday, September 5, 2012

Time and Space in Mark


Mark has been a constant puzzle to me.  I didn’t much care for it for a long time.  His sense of urgency and spareness of narrative left me feeling I was reading the Cliff Notes of scripture.  That began to change a few years ago when I took a hard look at whether Mark was as immediately this and immediately that as I assumed.  What surprised me was that the narrative slows down after the first few chapters with very little immediacy present.  It encouraged me to pay more attention with more patience.  

What Mark has done, whether on purpose or by accident I have no idea, is to provide enormous space for questions and imagination.  He does that by making huge leaps in time and space.  Take this coming Sunday’s gospel for instance.  In it Jesus leaves the shores of Galilee, appears without warning in Tyre, jumps from there to the Decapolis, and in the process expands the circle of those included far beyond the comprehension of his followers.  

What went on in the days required to walk from one place to the other?  What teaching took place?  How was the Syrophoenician woman explained to the disciples?  Did they stop at home for a few days as they passed back through Galilee on their way to the Decapolis?  Why did they go there at all?  Mark provides as much room as possible for us to join with the disciples in asking all of our questions, trivial and profound.  Between the sentences of a spare narrative, we can take all the time we want.  Mark, I think, should be read slowly, maybe only a few lines at a time leaving hours or days between, using those hours or days to engage in conversation with God and others, unafraid to let our imaginations go to work.  

If I had set out with Jesus to walk to Tyre, what might I have said to him as we made camp on the first night?  “Hey Jesus, a word please.  What the hell are we going to Tyre for?  We don’t like them.  They don’t like us.  We’re not convinced that the few Jews there are really Jews.  They don’t speak our language.  They smell bad.  We could get killed along the way.  You know what they’re like, they’re just going to hound us for money and rip us off with high prices.  I don’t get it.”

What might Jesus have said to me?  “In the unlikely event that you complete your training as a disciple, you will thank me for this little adventure because you are going to learn something about your own prejudices.  Take my advice, suspect your own judgments, talk a little less, and pay attention.  Maybe you can come with me on the next trip.  In the meantime, consider yourself on probation.”