Tuesday, June 25, 2013

Hey! I've got an idea. Let's call down some fire and kill all of them.


The news from around the world, especially the Mideast, is filled with reports of angry, narrow minded, violent people waring on each other with no clear understanding of what they hope to achieve other than the destruction of the other.  There is no point in simply lumping them together as Islamic extremists because it is more complicated than that.  Islamic denominations detest each other.  Ethnic conclaves and tribes work hard to outdo one another in cleansing areas under their control with whatever violence can be brought to bear.  Even well meaning protesters claiming to fight for freedom and justice feel free and justified in using violence toward a goal no farther away that whatever force opposes them at the moment. 

Thank goodness we Americans are different.  Or are we?  I have my doubts.  I’m reminded to two movements on opposite sides of the political divide.  In the 1960s a number of my left wing friends were so exorcized over issues surrounding Viet Nam and civil rights that they foamed at the mouth with a desire for violence toward “the establishment.”  Riots, bombings and general mayhem ensued, but they lacked the critical mass to foment a genuine domestic insurrection.  Most Americans otherwise opposed to the war and in favor of civil rights would not go along, in fact were appalled at their tactics.  More recently, social media has been ablaze with right wing extremists of many stripes ranging from old time racial hate groups, to virulent tea partiers, to violence prone gun rights advocates, some of them claiming the name of Christ as their shield and justification.  So far they are more bluster than action, but that could change at any moment.  Like the lefties before them, they cannot generate the critical mass needed for the general insurrection they think required to remake America in their image. 

As far as I can tell, there is not much difference between the Taliban, various factions fighting each other in Syria, or any number of our own homegrown extremist groups.  If one of Al-Quaeda’s goals was to seduce Americans into their own quagmire of internecine fratricide, these groups have become their willing allies.  Fortunately, it seems that Americans are wiling to tolerate them up to a point, and that point ends when it becomes clear that, however much they spout the litany of freedom and democracy, what they really favor is some form of totalitarianism in which their desires would become the indelible law of the land imposed by violence and deadly force.

This Sunday many Christians will hear the story from Luke about how Jesus rebuked two disciples who wanted to call down fire to consume a Samaritan town that rejected him.  He was not, and is not, a messiah of vengeful punishment but of healing and reconciliation.  We who claim to be Christian are called to be the same, regardless of whatever else our politics call us to be.  Our biggest problem is that we seem to be unable to get it through our Christian heads that healing and reconciliation are not the same as appeasement.  And with that, I’ll leave it to you to work on what follows.
  

Wednesday, June 19, 2013

The Subculture of Bad Choices


There are many in our community who work to make life better, at least a little better, for those who struggle so hard but nothing ever seems to work out for them.  Some from the mouthy edge of the right wing blather on about how anyone can make it in America if they are self reliant and work hard. Those who don’t must be lazy, satisfied with sponging off society.  How cruelly absurd is that?  At the other end of mouthiness are some of my “old time” liberal friends who want to do everything for the less fortunate because they are so obviously incapable of doing anything for themselves.  I wonder if they realize how close they are to the prejudices of the right wingers?

My work brings me into lives of the poor at times of emotionally traumatizing events, usually death, that disrupt whatever sense of order they had.  What I’ve come to recognize is the presence of a subculture of persons among the poor who have one thing in common, a lifelong practice of making bad choices when obviously better and simpler choices are at hand.  It’s a subculture because they know each other as either best friends or worst enemies.  They socialize together out of sight of the good people of Walla Walla, and they have an amazingly high speed telegraph system that keeps them informed about each other. 
Among them they share a strong desire for a better life supported by plans to make it happen, but the plans tend to be complicated Rube Goldberg contraptions that will work only if a series of unlikely things happen in the right order.  The result is often a crash that leaves behind a pile of rubble, sometimes evidenced by the junk lying all over the yard, filling a shack, or stuffed into corners of a room.  There are some strange bright spots. Thanks to car dealer ads touting easy payments with bad or no credit, a surprising number of the subculture have at least one new truck or SUV, so, if nothing else, they can ride around town in the comfort of a middle class image.  The same is true of rent to own big screen televisions and other household gizmos.  The cycle of acquire, repossess, and reacquire, is normal.  If that’s true for trucks and televisions, it’s also true for sexually intimate personal relationships.  It’s the way things are, the way the world works.  Decisions are made with little thought given to what might be needed to carry them out.  A weekend trip to Seattle lurches out of town with a few dollars in one’s pocket, not a clue about how much it will cost, or whether the car can make it.  A lifelong commitment is made with a new girlfriend or boyfriend without the slightest idea of what will be required to make it work next week.  A new career is begun with a part time job and only a dim idea of what a disciplined work life requires.  

Illness, injury, prescription drugs, street drugs and alcohol are often, but not always, underlying conditions.  It would be callous to write them off as a bunch of addicts, and let it go at that.  For some it’s what’s needed to dull the pain of daily life.  For others it’s a way of life that seems normal, it’s what everybody they know does, as normal as playing a round of golf, working out at the Y, or having coffee with friends at Starbucks.   Many are on disability because, for them, they really are emotionally or physically disabled, or both.

Does it have to be this way?  Consider the long history of beggar king stories that chronicle the lives of subcultures like this.  The tales go back for centuries.  Or how about the gang in Steinbeck’s “Cannery Row”?  Our own westward expansion was fueled in part by members of a similar subculture launching into the wilderness with poorly formed plans and few resources expecting to make something wonderful happen.  We idealize it now, but for many individuals and families it was a train wreck of an adventure in which poor decisions in Ohio led one on to make poor decisions in Indiana, and then Iowa and then Nebraska.  The good decision makers followed on behind. 

That doesn’t answer the question, does it have to be this way?  I don’t know the answer.  Maybe you do.  In the several hours I have with emotionally traumatized persons, we can sometimes work out a few simple decisions about what to do next.  But as far as I can tell, simplicity soon gives way to complex plans relying on the improbable, and life returns to its chaotic normal aided and abetted by a network of friends and enemies for whom that normal is just the way the world works.  I’ll give them credit.  They are, for the most part, survivors who persevere in their own screwball ways.  Moreover, and contrary to right wing, left wing biases, they are self reliant, just not self reliant in ways that are likely to change their condition in life for the better. 

Monday, June 17, 2013

The Episical What?


The following is a little something I put together to help members of little Grace Church in Dayton, WA use when asked about the Episcopal Church.  It has limited value, but you might enjoy it.
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I am always a little surprised when people don’t know what an Episcopalian is.  Then again, it’s a funny word, hard to spell, and not that easy to pronounce, so maybe it shouldn’t be such a surprise.

The Episcopal Church has been around a long time.  It arrived in America even before the Pilgrims of Plymouth Rock fame, and it traces its roots in the Church of England to a time not long after Peter, Paul and the other Apostles.  And that brings me to the first question often asked.

Are Episcopalians Christian?  
Yes, we are Christians in the historic tradition of the ancient Church.

Is the Episcopal Church Protestant or Catholic?  
Yes we are.  Our ancestors in England split from Roman Catholicism about five hundred years ago, mostly over a political argument that had little to do with theology.  Afterwards, we adopted many of the reforms suggested by Martin Luther and others while retaining the Catholic forms of ministry and orders of service.  Our ministers are deacons, priests and bishops, and we celebrate Holy Communion every Sunday.  So we are both Catholic and Protestant.

Is it a bible believing and preaching Church?  
We not only believe it and preach it, we read it, out loud, in church.  Come to one of our services and you will hear four fairly long passages from scripture: Old Testament, Psalm, Epistle and Gospel.  Come every Sunday for three years and you will have heard most of the bible read out loud.  We take it very seriously.  We believe it is divinely inspired and reveals holy truth, but we do not take it as the historically accurate and inerrant Word of God.

What goes on in an Episcopal worship service?
We are a liturgical church, as are Catholics, Lutherans and some others.  That means we follow an order of worship that goes as far back as anyone knows.  Our services are divided into two parts, one devoted to scripture and prayer, and the other devoted to Holy Communion (the Eucharist).  Following a congregational hymn, we ask God to prepare us for holy worship, recite an ancient prayer of glory to God, offer a prayer for the particular Sunday, and listen to readings from scripture.  Sermons are fairly short because we have a lot to do.  After the sermon we affirm our faith in one of the ancient creeds of the Church, most often the Nicene Creed, we offer prayers for the world and one another, and confess to God that we have sinned and seek God’s forgiveness.  Then we offer each other a sign of God’s peace, we offer announcements about the life and ministry of the congregation, and we offer our tithes of money as we prepare for Holy Communion.  For us, Communion is not just an occasional memorial of the Last Supper.  God in Christ Jesus is truly present in, with, and under the bread and the wine (we use real wine).  The prayers of thanksgiving we offer over them are very, very old, even if they are said in modern English.  Everyone comes forward to stand or kneel at the altar rail and is served a portion of bread and sip of wine in communion with the living Christ who is present with us.  After a blessing and final hymn, we go out into the world to do the work God has given us to do.  Whew!

It sounds pretty fancy.
It can be.  Candles, vestments, choirs, anthems, chanted prayers, even incense and bells.  In a small church such as Grace Church in Dayton, we do it country style.  We are just friends gathered for worship.  We keep it simple and relaxed.  The liturgy has only one purpose, and it’s not for entertainment.  The purpose of the liturgy is to be a conduit, an avenue, guiding us ever deeper into communion with God.

I hear there is a lot of kneeling, bowing, making the sign of the cross and stuff like that.
It’s true.  Episcopal aerobics, we call it.  We generally stand to sing and pray, and sit to listen.  Kneeling is an option that we don’t practice much at Grace, but it’s normal in other congregations.  Making the sign of the cross, another option, is a practice signifying the giving or receiving of God’s blessing.  Most of us offer a brief bow before the altar as a sign of respect and worship, but it’s not required.  One thing to remember, the congregation plays an active role in the service.  It’s not just the priest doing all the work.

Now and then I read about controversy in the Episcopal Church.  What’s up with that?
Episcopalians believe that Christians are called to continue the reconciling and healing ministry of Jesus Christ.  That almost always means a bias toward justice, the poor, and the oppressed, and that can sometimes lead into controversy.  Racial integration, the ordination of women, and full equality for gays have been controversial issues.  Contrary to some media reports, the Episcopal Church has not split asunder over them.  Some have left, as is their right to do.  Some have come in their place.  For us, the important thing is to keep Christ at the center of our lives.  We are pretty good at doing that.

So does that make you one of those liberal type Churches?
Once upon a time it was said that the Episcopal Church was the Republican Party at prayer led by left wing clergy.  It was also said that we were the church of the wealthy and powerful ministering to the poor and needy.  There is always some truth in stories such as those, but not much.  What we are is a Church committed to following where Christ has led, and that means healing and reconciliation.  Our members are a hodgepodge of conservative, liberal, poor, rich, and none of the above who remain together in the power of the love of Christ.  We are not conservative evangelicals, if that’s what you mean.

OK, one other question.  What’s an Anglican?
Anglican is a word that encompasses everything connected with the Church of England, including the Celtic Christianity of the earliest Christian worship in Britain, the Roman Catholic heritage of the Middle Ages, the Protestant reforms following the break with Rome, and the Churches throughout the world that are in communion with the Archbishop of Canterbury, who is the honorary head of the World Wide Anglican Communion.  Episcopalians are Anglicans.
There are some congregations, mostly in America, that call themselves Anglican but are not a part of the Anglican Communion.  They are faithful Christians, to be sure, just not members of the World Wide Anglican Communion.

Tuesday, June 11, 2013

The Fourth Amendment and Electronic Communication


I am among those somewhat conflicted over the issue of NSA data sweeps.  I don’t like the idea of NSA, or any governmental agency, examining my phone and internet records without a warrant, even if they are not looking at content.  And by warrant I don’t mean a secret blanket warrant, but one issued for good cause, specifically naming me, what is to be searched and what is being searched for.  It’s important because government power, even for beneficent purposes, is always coercive, and, therefore, must one must always be cautious about employing it. 

Sifting through records to see whether patterns emerge that point toward threats to public safety and well being has some merit, and I can understand why some kind of blanket warrant might be needed under tightly controlled and supervised circumstances.  The problem is that the combination of power, capability and secrecy attracts J. Edgar Hoover types who go well beyond the fox guarding the henhouse metaphor.  They become the fox who built and stocked the henhouse, controlling all access to it. 

That may sound odd coming from a liberal like me, but then I have always been a conservative liberal, not a liberal liberal, if that makes any sense at all. 

On the other hand, phone and internet records are public commodities traded among public and private enterprises for their own benefit, and have been for decades.  We have few enforceable rights to the privacy of our communications in today’s environment.  Moreover, content is not excluded.  What we write and talk about through electronic media is fodder for marketers worldwide.  Non government organizations may not have the legitimate coercive power of governments, but they can be, and are, intrusive and manipulative to the point of coercion, and we gladly endure it in defense of “free enterprise.”

Tell me what the difference is between information about a shirt bought from Land’s End being shared with the entire world, and records of multiple phone contacts with suspected terrorists being shared with law enforcement agencies.  It’s not a thin line, it’s a fuzzy line.  It all depends on what is understood as unreasonable search and seizure (U.S. Constitution, Amendment 4) and whether the Constitution has authority at all over what private enterprises do with information that has been so widely bought, sold and traded without government oversight.

My Tea Party Second Amendment acquaintances are obsessively paranoid over all of this.  On the one hand, they love the idea of spying on foreigners and those who are unAmerican.  On the other hand, they are pretty sure the government is run by foreigners and unAmerican traitors who want to take away their guns.  They don’t know which way to turn.  If only J. Edgar was back, he could be trusted, and maybe Joe McCarthy too (he was right all along you know).

The problem, as I see it, is that we do not know what unreasonable search and seizure means in an electronic environment where most data is regularly farmed for public and private purposes, and in a political environment where electronic media is the conduit through which crimes are planned and committed on an international scale.  Our current Congress is not capable of an informed debate leading toward resolution, and, with few exceptions, neither are the various news media outlets.

Whatever the solution, I would advise erring on the side of caution and respect for individual privacy.  

Sunday, June 9, 2013

The Death of an Atheist


As in so many of Luke’s stories, there is no profession of faith or belief of any kind in the  restoration to life of the widow’s son near the village of Nain.  It’s just Jesus moved by compassion to infuse the gift of life.   There was no interrogation about whether the widow was a true believer, or would hereafter submit herself to his authority.  How unlike my conversation with a rural volunteer firefighter who, knowing that I am the city fire department chaplain, opined that one reason he signed up as a volunteer was for the chance to be present at a fatal car wreck in time to convert a dying victim, and thus save a soul for Christ.  Maybe he wants to be Robert Duvall?

Just the same, it raises a valid question, and I thought about it this morning as I sat with a woman whose mother was in the process of dying.  Her grief was deep, nearly out of control.  Her father had died just four weeks earlier, and now this.  It was too much.  Far too much.  She was an atheist, an avowed atheist.  Her parents, she said, were also atheists.  In an odd turn of phrase, she said they were devout atheists. 

What would you have done?  Would you have offered her the opportunity to accept Jesus as her Lord and Savior?  Would you have gone into the trauma room to elicit from her mother a hand squeeze or eye blink of conversion.  Would you have told her it was too bad about her dad and mom, but it wasn’t too late for her to save her own life?

What would Jesus have done?  I’m not sure, but whatever he did it would have borne life, not death.  What I did was to say that, as a priest, I bore with me God’s love for her and her mother regardless of what they did or didn’t believed about God.  We talked about many things, about the love of family and friends, about death and dying, but not about Jesus or God.  As I bade goodbye, I said that I would pray for God’s blessings to come to her.  She said a lot of her friends were doing the same.  Those are powerful prayers.  If we can’t do that, we can’t do anything.  If we insist on doing more, we may end up keeping love out.  I hope that the gift of life in the presence of death was a part of our time together.  I’ll never know for sure.  Sometimes I wish that we clergy didn’t have to live with such ambiguity, but that’s the way it is. 

Friday, June 7, 2013

Let's Bomb the Hell out of Them and Impose Peace and Democracy


I listened to a portion of the Diane Rehm show featuring commentary on news from the Syrian war.  The consensus was that the situation is exploding into the broader region, violence is increasing, a Sunni vs. Shiite regional war may break out, and there will come a point where America will have to intervene.  To do what?  Restore order and peace?  What order?  What peace?  One commentator observed that Iraq was not only being drawn into the conflict in Syria, but was showing signs of falling back into its own civil war, thus proving that we should not have left Iraq.  What should we have done, annex it as a territory?  John McCain demands that America arm and support the Syrian rebels.  Which rebels?  What will that accomplish?  If they win, what will they have won?  What, for heaven’s sake, is McCain thinking?  Is he thinking at all, or does he just like to shoot people?

There is something about this I don’t get.  At what point do we recognize that the peoples of the MIddle East are responsible for themselves, that outsiders, especially American outsiders, cannot impose peace and order.  Moreover, the liberal democracy that we cherish cannot be transposed into or onto another culture.  Whatever they come up with may bear the name of democracy, but it will probably not look much like American democracy. 

I deplore the violence, needless bloodshed, and lust for revenge as much as anyone else, but somehow that has to be a problem they settle for themselves.  Consider our own Civil War; various European powers tried to intervene on one side or the other, mostly for their particular selfish interests.  All it accomplished was a longer more complicated war, and a deep American distrust of anything coming out of Europe.  A hundred years later America finally got out of what was essentially a Vietnamese civil war, but that did not stop the fighting.  It took another ten years for things to settle down, and at the cost of the Cambodian killing fields, a border war with China, and a host of internal conflicts.  And so it goes, and has been going in “modern” times since the Roman Empire tried all of the same tricks.

I do not know what is required for America to make a major contribution toward the conditions needed for a permanent cessation of bloody hostilities, but I am convinced that our proclivity to use overwhelming violent killing force to impose a moment of stunned quiet, and expect that to turn into peace, is a very bad idea.

Tuesday, June 4, 2013

Whacky Ignorance Rules


I get most of the usual mailings from various Democratic sources, and more than a few from Republicans.  Every one of them implies an impending disaster that will sink the ship of state and all aboard.  Republicans are especially fond of surveys that ask questions of dubious merit while offering multiple choice answers that would rejoice the hearts at any tea party.  Democrats send out surveys too, but they are less entertaining and stick closer to real issues. Boring, but often important.  I doubt that anyone ever tabulates the results.  They’re just fronts for raising money.  

Both parties assert a financial deadline that, if not met, will result in the other side’s catastrophic and irredeemable victory, if not the actual end of civilization as we know it.  The monthly FEC reports they have to file are treated with the urgency of a dead heat on the final lap of a NASCAR race.  It’s a monthly report, for crying out loud, just a lousy monthly report.  Nothing of any significance comes from it or is linked to it except in the minds of the marketing geniuses in each party who are sure that we care.

In the meantime we are stuck with a bunch of elderly juveniles masquerading as congressional leaders, and enough incompetent legislators doused in ignorance and arrogance to keep anything useful from happening.  And they are proud of it!

Don’t get me wrong.  I think politics is important.  I spent many years of my career involved in it one way or the other.  Things could get nasty at times, but on the whole there was a shared intent to find a way to work things out, partly for the good of the country, partly for the good of states and districts, partly for the good of industries and corporations, and partly for the good of congressional egos.  It was a mess, but it worked.  Campaigning was important, but not a full time job.  Money was important too, but the serious decisions before congress did not depend on who could raise the most for the whackiest publicity offensive.

They were not the good old days, and I do not want to go back to them, but today’s congress is most certainly the bad old days, possibly the worst since the late 19th century, or maybe the ‘20s, and the sooner we can leave them behind the better.  

Monday, June 3, 2013

Grace at Grace


It’s hard to explain what worship at Grace Church is like.  For me, it’s pure joy.  Most young clergy start off their careers in small churches and hope to work their way up to something big.  As a late vocation priest, I started in a huge NYC parish, and have been working my way down.  But I digress.  Maybe every small rural congregation is different, has its own ways, and cannot be compared with ease to any other.  As Episcopalians, we at Grace take the liturgy seriously.  Its dignity leads us ever deeper into soulful worship.  But we don’t take ourselves that seriously.  There just are not enough of us to do it.  Average Sunday attendance is around fifteen, and if everybody shows up we might have twenty-five.

In our very small space and even smaller congregation, there isn’t much reason for a procession or recession.  We visit with each other for a while and then settle down for some quiet time before the worship begins.  I generally announce the first hymn, and, since we don’t have anyone to play our old vacuum tube powered organ, we start with whatever note I lead off with in, as I like to say, fifteen part harmony and a variety of keys and time signatures. 

Prayers are offered, lessons read, the gospel proclaimed, and I preach for about ten minutes, then open it up to conversation.  Sometimes there is a lot.  Sometimes not.  The offering includes announcements concerning the life of the congregation as well as making any decision that would otherwise be made by a vestry, if we had a vestry.  The Eucharist is celebrated with relaxed formality, and we often end the service with a second hymn sung in a fashion similar to the first.  Since we don’t have room for in house coffee hour, we all troop down to “the bakery” where we pull a few tables together and continue our fellowship.

I suspect that Grace is graced with more resources than most other small rural congregations.  I drive the thirty miles to Dayton two or three Sundays a month, and two other retired clergy serve the other Sundays.  The gift of having three different voices lead worship and proclaim the gospel adds an enriching breadth and depth.  Two of us have served at Grace for well over a decade, and that has provided a degree of intimacy in pastoral relationships that cannot exist in places served by an ever changing stream of supply clergy.

Grace also has money, not a lot, but enough to cover costs, send its fair share of support to the diocese, and be generous in giving to local community needs.  One member has begun scheduling a local musicians of varying talent to enrich our services on the fourth Sunday of each month.  If I get my act together, we will have a midweek adult education series sometime this summer.  LIfe is good at Grace.

On the other hand, it’s an aging congregation in a town that is economically stable but not growing.  There is a tendency to announce that everybody who is coming is here, so we can shut the door and get started.  The intimacy of a small family congregation has a hard time wrapping its collective mind around being open to newcomers.  They like the security of knowing who they are.  That the majority in town are the “nones” of modern America seems lost on them.  How could that be in a small town so full of churches?

A few weeks ago, I wrote about the question of legacy.  What legacy will the current members of Grace Church leave?  It’s an open question with no clear answer.  It could just fade away until the last one dies and the doors are locked forever.  It could continue, as it has for a hundred years, with new members trickling in for whatever reason, just enough to replace those who have died.  It could become an entirely new kind of parish, one filled with “nones,” mostly poor, and in great need of being taught what it is to be Christian in the Anglican tradition of the Episcopal Church.  Who knows?