Friday, November 29, 2013

Do You Love Jesus?

A few days ago, I spent some time with a couple I had not met before.  They were delightful, very comfortable in their born again, fundamentalist way of experiencing and expressing their Christian faith, and more than uncomfortable in how I was introduced to them as Fr. Woolley.  Not a title that appealed to them in the least.  Nevertheless, it was reassuring to them that we did worship the same God, although she asked, in earnest, whether I loved Jesus.

I thought about it for a few seconds and said, sometimes.  I don’t think that’s the answer she wanted.  I am certain that Jesus loves me even if I don’t understand why he should, but my loving Jesus is more problematic.  I seldom think about loving Jesus one way or the other, it just doesn’t cross my mind that often.  Besides, I’m not sure what loving Jesus means.  

The English word love is so imprecise that unless I know the context in which it is used I have only the faintest idea of its meaning.  Often that context has to include the idiosyncrasies of the person using it.  At it’s least it has something to do with an affection for something that is affiliated with a degree of undefined pleasure.  I love what?  My wife, children, pumpkin pie, guitar music, oceans, Donne, cozy fires, Anglican choral evensong?  We use the word love to cover a lot of ground, we can even love hurtful, destructive things.  I don’t think it does much good to pull out the seminary card and argue for agape.  That’s not the word we use in everyday life.  We say love, so that’s the word we have to deal with. 

The Shema instructs us to love God with all our being.  Jesus said it was the greatest of all the commandments.  At the end of John’s gospel he interrogated Peter about whether Peter loved him.  Peter seemed to have a hard time understanding what Jesus was talking about.  I’m with Peter.       

Do I love Jesus?  I guess so, but sometimes I don’t like him very much.  He doesn’t see the world the way I do, and isn’t impressed with my arguments of self justification.  His teachings are admirable in the abstract, but it turns out that they weren’t meant to be abstractions.  He’s serious about putting them into daily practice as a way of everyday living.  How crazy is that?  What he says are practical habits leading to divine blessings seem a bit excessive.  They are not in sync with some of my own well developed habits.  They interfere with my plans and prejudices.  He and I have long conversations about that.  He’s patient, and a far better listener than I am, but the only way I can win the argument is to walk away, slamming the door behind me like a petulant child.  I’ve finally learned not to do that.

A life spent in conversation with him means that what I thought I knew about being a Christian in decades past has changed dramatically, so much so that I recognize that what I think I know, I can know only provisionally.  God, whom I know in Jesus, keeps changing what I’ve always thought to be true by introducing new information, and opening my eyes to new understanding.  As they say, God is not done with me, and it appears that God is not done with anything else either.  Everything is in some state of becoming.  It‘s not reassuring for those who expect a priest and pastor to tell them what is absolutely and eternally true about all things, especially about things that relate to contemporary social and political issues.  What I can say, and what I have come to understand, is that I can trust God, whom I know in Christ Jesus.  I can trust him always and everywhere, even when he can’t trust me.  If that’s what it means to love Jesus, I’ll take it.  



Monday, November 25, 2013

Time Honored Holiday Traditions

I am struck by the epistle reading for the first Sunday of Advent in which Paul exhorts his readers not to revel in drunkenness, debauchery, and licentiousness, nor in quarreling and jealousy.  How untimely is that considering that’s pretty much what a lot of the holiday season is all about?

Isn’t it the time honored tradition of office Christmas parties to drink too much and do stupid things?  Aren’t we supposed to get giddy and flirt a little too much at neighborhood gatherings?  Don’t we earn bragging rights for eating too much, especially too much of those delicious calorie laden, artery clogging foods of our traditions?  “Too much” is a badge of honor not to be trifled with, and, after all, it’s only once a year, and it is the holiday season after all, after all.  And, if we get caught doing something we shouldn’t, well, it is the holiday season after all, and perhaps we had a wee bit too much to drink.

Why is Paul messing around with our traditions?  Doesn’t he read the papers or watch TV?

Needless to say, we Christians don’t participate in that kind over indulgent frivolity, although we have to admit that our family gatherings, if there are any, can become a bit mired in quarreling and jealousy.  Soberly, of course, but mired just the same.  Not my family, of course, but probably yours.  Sometimes it even spills over into our congregations where long simmering discontent erupts over disagreements about when and how to “green the church;” whether the annual whatever party will again be held since no one wants to be in charge, but everyone expects it to happen because it always has; where the creche will be put; when the children’s pageant will be held, and who Mary will be.  Not in my congregation, of course, but probably in yours.

Get a life Paul!  These are our time honored Christmas traditions.  We will get more serious about cutting down on drunkenness, debauchery, licentiousness, quarreling, and jealousy in January.  That’s what January is for.  It’s tradition.


We are going to try a Blue Christmas and see what happens

Regular readers, both of them, know that several times a month I serve a very small rural congregation, and love it.  So on December 22 we are teaming up with the UCC church across the street to host a Blue Christmas service.  It’s one they’ve done before, but it’s a first for us.  You probably know that it’s a simple service of readings, prayer and music designed especially for those who find the holiday season emotionally hard to bear.

I was trying to explain it to my wife, who wondered whether a Blue Christmas service was something of a liturgical pity party making an already difficult holiday season even worse.  A very good question, because advertising it to the broader community has to overcome that hurdle and a few others.  

For one thing, the larger community is made up of two fairly large groups.  First, those who attend conservative churches that emphasize the dark days in which we live, the importance of fighting the devil, the slim and slippery grasp we have on salvation, and a dose of right wing politics whenever it can be worked in.  The other, and larger group, are those who attend no church at all, are turned off by what they think they know about Christianity as expressed by the churches in the first group, and know for certain that their lives bear zero similarity to those depicted on the Hallmark Channel’s nonstop parade of saccharine Christmas shows.  So whatever Christianity and Christmas are about, it has nothing to do with them.


We shall see what happens.  We are going to advertise it as well as we can in the local papers and social media.  It will be held at our church, but the Congregational pastor will lead it.  I will be the celebrant for Holy Communion offered at the end, with some inviting explanation about what Holy Communion means as a sacrament of healing within the context of Anglican tradition.  It will be gentle and filled with hope and blessing for those who need it most.  I may have more to say about it after the 22nd.  In the meantime, on to other things.

Sunday, November 17, 2013

Do Your Politics inform the Gospel?

I’ve recently been able to spend some time with one of my favorite very conservative friends: a man who will only watch Fox News, only listen to Rush Limbaugh, and only read books by Glenn Beck.  If he could, his paper would be the Washington Times.  At the same time, he is a devoted Christian who is unafraid to ask the hard questions, and always wants to know more.  Part of what makes him one of my favorite people is that he enjoys conversation with folks on the other side, is willing to listen, and always speaks with respectful civility.  

It’s made me ask my own question.  Do politics inform our understanding of the gospel, or does the gospel inform our understanding of politics?  It’s probably a combination of both, but we have chosen the wrong path if the gospel is not predominant.

I like to think that it is the gospel that informs my politics, which, of course, makes me a perfectly fair and balanced observer of how others answer the question through their words and deeds.  For instance, I’m fairly sure that my friend’s politics inform his understanding of the gospel, and he hopes that, if he asks the right questions, sooner or later it will endorse his conservative libertarian world view.  To the extent that it has not yet done so, he is able to compartmentalize, keeping Sunday, church, the bible and Jesus in one place, and his politics in another.  I suppose it would help if he had more politically conservative pastors in his life.  He’s tried that, but it is the gospel as wrestled with in the Episcopal Church that feeds his soul and gives him the blessed assurance he craves, so he puts up with pastors who are unable to cross his political threshold.  

You can see how fair and balanced I am about this, very close to the Pharisee in the parable about the Pharisee and the tax collector.  But the question is a good one.  Think about it.  Does the gospel inform your politics, or do your politics inform the gospel?  As pastors, we need to ask it repeatedly because the answers will be slippery little devils, quickly appealing to our various assumptions and prejudices.  Answering it through thoughtful, prayerful discernment will force us to examine them, while making room for us to listen when God has something to say.  And, as scripture so often reminds us, what God has to say is often something we don’t want to hear.  

Saturday, November 16, 2013

You Don't Work, You Don't Eat!

I belong to an ecumenical Tuesday morning clergy group that gathers to talk and study the lectionary lessons for the coming Sunday.  Sometimes it’s more talk than study, and that’s OK.  

Recently we worried over that portion of 2 Thessalonians where Paul commanded that those who don’t work don’t eat, which he prefaced by condemning idlers, testifying to his own hard self supporting work, and encouraging all to work quietly.  Now, you can exegete and parse that out anyway you want, the fact remains that it’s one of those “Aha, I told you so, it’s right there in the bible: you don’t work you don’t eat” passages that seems to endorse solid libertarian politics in opposition to the welfare state, especially welfare for the lazy good for nothings who feed at the tax payers’ trough. 

How, as a pastor, are you going to handle that?

I don’t think a sophisticated theological argument based on a systematic examination of scripture, even if limited to 2 Thessalonians, will do much good.  Most of the people sitting in the pews understand the Christian faith, the bible, and the denomination in which they worship with little more than a superficial Sunday School education.  They’re always impressed with their pastor’s erudition, particularly when she tosses in a few Greek words, but it doesn’t change their politics.  They know what they know, and what they know is anchored more deeply in cultural prejudice than in scripture, which, as is the custom, is best used to support cultural bias anyway.  

I wish I knew what would make a difference, but just a day ago I was a gathering of some of the more wealthy people in town.  One person at our table wondered if society has a moral responsibility to see that effective health care is available to all, and the response was a horrified no.  That’s just code talk for (gasp) socialized medicine that takes goods and services away from people who can and do pay for them through hard work, and gives them away to the (lazy) poor.  In another setting, an acquaintance asserted that the relatively few deserving poor could, and should, be taken care of by the churches and other local non profits.  A few days before that I was with a small group that shared their first hand knowledge of food stampers who a) sold their benefits for cash to buy drugs, b) bought unapproved goodies and beer, c) took out good food but kept junk when it was clear they could not pay for everything.  When pressed for details it became clear that they a) were repeating rumors, b) easily generalized from one reported incident, c) assumed that food stampers needed to be treated with suspicion and closely monitored.

I don’t know where one can gain traction with mind sets like that.  In its Wit & Wisdom column, the November 15 issue of The Week cited Henry Rosovsky as having said, “Never underestimate the difficulty of changing false beliefs by facts.” 

What I do know is this, we pastors must be faithful in proclaiming the gospel in as profligate and promiscuous way as the sower of seeds in Jesus’ parable.  Our job is to continue sowing the seeds that Christ sowed with no care about where they land or fear that we might run out.  For what it’s worth, my seed sack is filled with a blend of Sermon on the Mount and the Great Commission salted with a bit of Matthew 25.  What’s in yours?

Saturday, November 9, 2013

Come on in, Sit down, and Rest a little while

We have traveled a lot in the last few days, with much our time waiting around in airports for the next flight.  One airport had recharging stations set up on tables similar to library reading tables, and I sat across from two men who worked for a technology company that had something to do with fluid dynamics.

Both were hard at work on their computers, and sometimes on their phones with clients or coworkers.  One was in his late 50s, and clearly the master of his profession.  The other was in his 20s, and clearly the master of quick thinking, and the mechanics of his work.  I got to watch them for an hour or so as close to an invisible presence as possible.   

What I noticed was the younger man’s impatience with older man’s questions that required reflective answers, especially questions that touched on some issue involving calculations or statistical analyses, on which each was working.  The younger man would snap back that he had already done it, had it under control, and was way ahead of the other on everything.

The older man wanted some reflective thinking about how what they were working on would affect customers, suppliers, and coworkers in other departments.  The younger man expected mathematical analysis to speak for itself with no need for additional reflection about things that could not be calculated or factored into computer code.  It would just slow things down.

Yes, there was a bit of youthful arrogance in the form of, “I’m young, smart, and fast while you are old, slow, and behind the times.”  But the older man’s knowledge, speed and abilities appeared to the be the equal of his young companion.  What was more striking was the younger man’s inability to recognize the importance of how much work is a function of relationships between humans that must be factored into any calculation that will affect those relationships.  I don’t think that’s a characteristic of youth as such.  It seems to be something more in keeping with an education lacking in the liberal arts, the failure of management to provide appropriate training and education, and possibly a function of one’s basic personality type. 

I’m a little hesitant on that last part because I’m unconvinced that we are so hardwired into particular personality types that we cannot adapt.  Arguments of “that’s just the way I am” are signs of emotional laziness more than anything else.  I’m reminded of a class I taught in an executive MBA program some decades ago.  It was called Management and Society, the only first year non-quantitative class they were required to take.  Most of my students were technical people from engineering or medicine, and they were uncomfortable trying to cope with issues that could not be graphed or calculated, but they did it.    

It may not have turned engineers into diplomats.  Reflective thinking about relationships may have remained a struggle.  But they were smart enough to know that they now had the basic tools to engage in that work, and that it was an important work.  The only question that remained was whether they would be too lazy to do it.  I often wonder about what happened to them.  How many went on like the young man across the table from me who could put numbers on faces, but could not put faces on numbers?  

Beyond that question, the brief play acted out before me also had something to say to the Church.  Ours is a faith that encourages slow, reflective thinking.  The entrance bar is low: a little water, “accepting” Jesus, and a juvenile grasp of the text is all there is, maybe all there needs to be.  But it offers so much more when the text is comprehended on multiple levels that compete with each other while revealing something new at each reading; when life is lived slow enough to allow suspension of judgment; and when enchantment is allowed to penetrate the ordinary of daily life.

That doesn’t lend itself to a text messaging, spreadsheet informed society lived at digital light speed, nor should it.  Maybe we need to be more assertive about inviting the world, in the words of the old spiritual, to come on in, sit down, and rest a little while.