Monday, December 29, 2014

It's a Triple Today

It’s an interesting day.  A few days ago we were knee deep in sentimental hope for a better future as we celebrated the wonder of baby Jesus, or perhaps the more common Hallmark Channel Christmas specials manufactured to say something magically wonderful about love conquering all.  Sometimes we combine the two with deft ease.  

In any case here we are today on December 29, the Feast of the Holy Innocents transferred from Sunday, the Feast of St. Thomas Becket displaced by the children of Bethlehem, and the memorial of the Massacre at Wounded Knee.

The Holy Innocents are the children of Bethlehem killed on orders from King Herod who was suspicious that among them was a new born king destined to destroy all that he had built up.  Considering the hundreds of others he had killed during his life, it was a small thing of no real consequence.  Just a cautionary measure in the name of national security.  Thomas Becket was the Archbishop of Canterbury who, on December 29, 1170, was assassinated at the presumed urging of King Henry II in the name of national security.  On December 29, 1890 at Wounded Knee in South Dakota, elements of the 7th Cavalry massacred 200 Lakota women, children, elders, and men.  Of course it was in the name of national security.  Twenty soldiers were awarded Medals of Honor for it.  

It’s a stark, humbling reminder that we are not so different from Herod.  Nevertheless, the light that was born in Bethlehem cannot be extinguished by the darkness of evil we so easily embrace in the name of selfish interests.  That light will triumph over all, and in it we are invited to live into a sure and certain hope that lasts for eternity, not for just an hour of television holiday reruns.

Saturday, December 27, 2014

Renewing The Church. Forget About It!

Here goes a very short article.  I'm speed reading yet another book about renewing the church by a respected author with his heart and pen in the right place.  It's all good advice, and very well intended.  If pastors and parish administrators paid any attention to it, they would probably reap the benefits, but, of course, they won't.

I think we ought to dump all of it, and just get on with the business of proclaiming the gospel day by day.  Everyone who enters the church door should be told about God in Christ Jesus as if they had never heard of him before.  Those who are new to their faith should be introduced to it in simple but not unsophisticated terms.  Those who are further along should find their education about Christianity, and their development as disciples, advanced step by step. That's it.  Amen!

Forget about most everything else.  Focus on that.  There is one caveat.  Be loyal to your tradition.  I am an Episcopalian, a little on the high church side.  It's important to me that I proclaim, without apology, the gospel within the context of our Anglican tradition.  

That can be a problem if people in the congregation don't know what the denomination stands for, and what it stands for counts.  It's important.  Some years ago we had a few active members in a congregation I served who were determined to make it into a conservative evangelical place.  Why?  I never knew, but it was wrong.  It's not that we have only one way of doing things.  Here and there we Episcopalians tolerate congregations that enjoy living in the make believe world of medieval Salisbury England, and that's OK as long as they keep it to themselves.  Others are so self righteously open minded that it's hard to know what their theology is, and that's OK too in its own place and time.  What keeps it together is the center that wobbles around Virginia Seminary Protestantism and General Seminary Catholicism, both firmly rooted in Anglican tradition.  

Having said that, the Episcopal Church's triennial convention, charged with maintaining the center while it evolves under the guidance of the Holy Spirit to speak to a changing world, vacuums up enormous amounts of energy and cash.  For the most part it's an exercise in futility enjoyed to the hilt by select minions who revel in bureaucratic, quasi legislative, minutiae that, in the Bard's words, amount to sound and fury signifying nothing.  Only infrequently does anything that happens there have an impact on what goes on in the daily life of an average congregation.  It's not that the institution is unimportant, it is very important.  We need it, and we need it to be as tidy and efficient as possible, doing what it can to provide a forum for theological conversation, and to create helpful resources for local use.  Sometimes it does that, but not often.  Mostly it's just in the way. 

So back to the book, and almost all other books like it.  It wants to speak to the whole church, but it speaks mostly to urban - suburban congregations, many with multiple staff.  That's nice, but most of our congregations have ASA of under fifty served by one clergy who may not be full time.  What help they need with institutional renewal can be provided best informally by qualified persons giving on site counsel.  Even more than that, they need a little guidance on ways to better proclaim the gospel, educate new and veteran believers, and stay out of trouble over the basics of church administration.  

Proclaim the gospel from within your tradition and don't worry so much about the rest of it. 

Tuesday, December 23, 2014

Pleasure Island, Fantasy Island, and Giant Cruise Ships

Carnival just offered me a look at thirty photos of their largest cruise ship ever, so I looked.  In a few words, they were horrifyingly unappealing.  The thought of spending a week with six thousand others in a floating hotel complete with an oversized McDonald’s play land is frightening.  I don’t think that’s going to bother them.  I’m not in their target market anyway.  

It does bring up some interesting questions about what these ships are all about.  I think it has to do with creating a temporary make believe community intended to fulfill fantasies about what fun, friendship, and community are supposed to be?  Remember the television show Fantasy Island?  These are fantasy islands that float and move, except with Carnival you can’t be sure about the moving part.  

There is a moderately serious side to this.  I wrote an article a few months ago about functional and dysfunctional families, and regular readers, both of them, may recall that the most common complaint I heard during pastoral counseling sessions was how dysfunctional one’s family was.  It made me wonder what a functional family might be, and whether anyone actually lived in one.  Too often, I suggested, we have been misled by popular shows of decades past to believe that others live in perfectly functioning families such as the Cleavers and Cunninghams while our families are complicated messes, and, therefore, we have been shortchanged.

We have these myths about the perfect lives that others, but not us, enjoy.  Giant cruise ships promise seven days of fantasy fulfillment.  Friendship, community, romance, it can all be yours, and, as a bonus, you get to eat and drink whatever you want, all you want, anytime you want.  Who could ask for more than that?  If it doesn’t remind you of Pinocchio’s Pleasure Island, it should because we are encouraged to leave our pesky Jiminy Cricket consciences at home.  It can, I suppose, provide a few moments of believing, and maybe that’s not bad.  These giant ships have an advantage over land based resorts that try to do the same thing.  They encapsulate their customers in giant ocean going containers from which there is no means of escape until home port is reached again.  Escape might not be the right word, but you are there for the duration just the same.  That has its advantages.  For seven days you can escape from emails, phone calls, meetings, relatives, traffic jams, and unpleasant world news.  What’s more, it’s a marketing dream come true.  Who could ask for anything better than six thousand customers captured for seven days of nonstop selling, especially if so much of it appears to be free.  The customers love it.  The marketers love it.  Wow!

The ‘they’ behind these ships know very well that the illusion they have created on board and in their advertising entices the delusion that one’s hopeful expectations about a seven day adventure at sea will actually turn out as advertised.  I doubt that it ever does, but it won’t be for lack of marketing prestidigitation to make it appear that it could and it has.

Having said all that, we have enjoyed more than a few cruises ourselves, but on smaller ships catering to a somewhat older crowd with fantasies of being wealthy, elegant and sophisticated, perhaps a little like Cary Grant and Deborah Kerr.

Monday, December 8, 2014

Reflections on an Odd Relationship

I’m an old Episcopal priest steeped in Anglican tradition.  My friend is a young minister who describes himself as a pentecostal, charismatic, evangelical.  We might seem an odd couple, but we get together regularly to talk about various aspects of what ministry means. He’s the youth pastor at a local non-denominational church, and he’s got a large, growing, enthusiastic youth program that should be the envy of every other youth pastor in town.  So far, so good.

The thing is, he was ordained in the Church of Somebodyorother after a couple of years in a fundamentalist bible college, the only college education he’s had.  A lot of what we talk about has to do with the basics of Christian history and theology that he’s never heard before.  He’s not going to become an Episcopalian, but it’s great fun to explore with him some of the basics that many of us take for granted.  

The other day he wondered about the problems that pop up when Christian youth are submerged in forceful lessons about their sinfulness, the dangers of backsliding, and the wrath of God that could lead to eternal hell.  At what point does a message like that push them out of the church instead of guiding them toward a more mature faith?  How might they be more inspired by God’s reconciling love?  Somehow that led to hymns, and I brought up an old gospel favorite, “Just as I am without one plea,” that could offer the answer he was seeking.  He’d never hear of it.  No idea at all. 

It seems that his church relies on a rock band and contemporary praise music, which, I might add, is not as bad as the praise music of the previous few decades, but I still can’t stand it.  That’s not the point.  He’s the main light and sound board guy for the show, running something out of a little booth that looks like a professional studio setup.  That’s not the point either.  It’s what he knows about church liturgy and music: sound boards and rock.  That’s the point, or at least one of them.  

The church he serves is growing, one of the few in town than is.  It is spreading wide and fast, but not deep.  It proclaims the message of Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior, and opens the bible to many who have never before heard the Word.  It does it with an enormous display of energy in a weekly stage show featuring rock music, a short speech about Jesus, and a few prayers.  But it does so without any connection to or awareness of two thousand years of Christian practice prefaced by more millennia of Hebrew heritage.

It brings to mind what it might have been like for Paul to set up new churches in places such as Corinth and Thessalonica, but I digress.  

He loves what he’s doing but wants more.  As a young, mostly uneducated minister, he may be unaware that the questions he raises have been asked before, but I’m delighted that he wants to learn.  For the time being, that means coffee with an old Episcopal priest.  It’s  not enough, but it’s something.  We make an odd couple.

By the way, he is coordinating a youth gathering to be held late in January.  It will attract around 400 kids, plus chaperons, from a half dozen other churches similar to his.  We stodgy old Episcopalians might want to pay attention.

Monday, December 1, 2014

Incidents and their Context

One of my young conservative friends copied a post onto Facebook wondering where the outrage was when a black cop shot a white teen in Mobile, Alabama.  You may have seen something of the same circulating on the Internet from conservative sources complaining that liberal and/or mainstream media ignored the Alabama incident, thus exposing their reverse bigotry.

It’s not a bad question once you ignore the propaganda style hyperbole.  I’m not interested in media baiting, but I am interested in what differences there might be that are worthy of examination, and I think there are differences.  There is a difference between an incident that may involve a serious injustice and a climate of systemic injustice in which an incident occurs that may not have involved an injustice.

In a case where an incident involving police results in an injustice that is not otherwise associated with a climate of systemic injustice, the likelihood is that the matter will be resolved locally, attracting little wide spread media attention.  Such incidents are not uncommon.  Each of our communities has them, and for the most part we see no reason why someone hundreds of miles away would or should be interested.  In the Mobile case we have to admit that black cops are not normally seen as agents of systemic oppression against white teens, and so the incident can be resolved within the context of local protocols.

The Ferguson case occurred within the context of a pattern of systemic injustices in which an incident involved a white cop, widely understood by the black community to be an agent of those in power, fatally shot an unarmed young black man.  It turned out that the black teen who was killed was not an innocent young man, unarmed though he was, and that his death was probably the predictable, if tragic, result of his own behavior.  That doesn’t matter  because his death was seen by many as symbolic of a culture and wide spread pattern of injustices in which blacks have been systematically treated in a hostile, oppressive way by the police and others in power.  The right incident at the right time ignited nation wide interest.

Maybe nation wide interest would have been enough, but I believe that the nonstop media frenzy, especially from cable news networks, added the necessary heat and fuel for a few sparks to ignite violent protests.  More on that  in a minute.  

In the meantime, my young conservative friend wanted a definitive answer.  Who was right?  Who was wrong?  Put the blame where it belongs and walk away.  It isn’t that simple.  One must examine the context within which any incident of injustice may, or may not, have occurred.  The problem is that it requires slowing down, not leaping to conclusions, and being willing to address issues on several different levels at the same time.  Moreover, the examination will probably show the messiness of more than a few individual decisions that helped or hindered.  Not many people on either side are willing to do that.  They’d rather operate by the good old American dictum: Ready, Fire, Aim, and they are more than wiling to leave off the aim part unless it favors their political prejudices.  Let me put it this way.  This isn’t a football game.  You don’t get to throw the flag, review the call up in the booth, show the whole thing in slow motion on the Jumbotron, and play the down over.

Now then, back to the violent protests, as opposed to the many others that were not violent.  I’ll offer three thoughts.  First, some of the instigators were ideologically driven persons who believe that violence in protest is the preferred way to bring down the oppressors.  Oddly enough, those on the far left and those on the far right are in agreement on this.  Second, some of the instigators enjoy the violence, especially for the opportunities it offers to act out their anger, take revenge, and loot for their own personal gain.  They turn up whenever violence is an option.  Third, the cable news networks thrive on the mayhem, doing what they can to inflame and sensationalize it, pandering to the lowest common denominator of their viewers.  I find each of them repulsive, and am not interested in what they have to say in their own defense because I believe it to be hypocritically self serving.  Other than that, I have no strong opinions on the matter one way or the other.  Well, I do have a few thoughts about a couple of newspaper columnists, but that can be for another time.

Saturday, November 22, 2014

And a Civil Thanksgiving to You

I’m looking forward to Thanksgiving as a holiday of friends, family, and food.  It’s a civil holiday, not a religious one, although in our house we do give thanks to God for the abundance of blessings we have received.  It helps to be in the rural west where the harvest has been lately finished, and the fields of newly planted winter wheat are showing green.  The wild turkeys that roam our neighborhood remind us that the turkey on the table was once a living creature whose life we have taken to nourish ours.  The same might be said for the sheep, goats, cows, and chickens we see around here.  Saying grace before meals has got to include intentional thanks for their lives.

It’s a time of greater awareness of the cycle of life and seasons, and our dependence for our sustenance on the good earth and those who work it .  In Morning Prayer we often close by thanking God for all God’s goodness and loving kindness to us and all whom he has made.  We thank God for our creation, preservation, and all the blessings of this life; but above all for his immeasurable love in the redemption of the world by our Lord Jesus Christ; for the means of grace, and for the hope of glory.  Thanksgiving seems a good time to take that more seriously. 

I resist the pressure to romanticize a first Thanksgiving of peaceful rapport between pilgrims (Or was it Puritans?) and local Indians.  It seems an ingenuous prelude to the wars that followed.  And  I’m not fond of those who use it to expound reactionary nationalism, thanking God that we, alone among all nations, are both favored and exceptional.  I’m happy to simply enjoy what we are able to enjoy in the company of family and friends we enjoy being with.

Thursday, November 20, 2014

The Sounds of Silence

I probably wrote about this some years ago, but it’s back on my mind.  When I was a boy visiting my grandmother’s house in rural Kansas, I was always struck by the quiet.  No television.  No radio.  A clock ticking  in the dining room.  The quiet sounds of whatever was going on outside.  The banging of the kitchen door.  Crickets at night.  Mourning doves at dawn.  Cows mooing in the distance.  Grandma clattering around in the kitchen making breakfast.  The phone ringing now and then, it was always somebody wondering who was visiting.  It was very odd.

My days were filled with louder sounds, city sounds, mostly the radio tuned to a favorite cutting edge top forty station.  If not that, the T.V. was on, and maybe also a record player stacked hight with 45s.  With groups of friends we didn’t just talk, we talked on top of each other, over each other, and always with music or T.V. blaring in the background.  The presence of all that quiet on our annual visits to grandma’s seemed strange.  I thought it was boring; it was a sign of how disconnected she was from what was happening in the world, what was new, exciting, interesting, moving.

Now I’m the old one and treasure the quiet.  It’s a different kind of quiet because times have changed, but the sound of the ticking clock in the den is comforting.  Television seems intrusive except for the rare occasion when there is something on I actually want to watch.  The kitchen door doesn’t slam.  No one has ever called to see who is visiting.  The radio, when on at all, is usually tuned to NPR.  My little boy self would wonder what happened to me, and what could possibly occupy my mind without some outside noise to do the job.

What occupies it is seventy years of memory, knowledge, questions, hypotheses, and plans for possible futures ranging from tonight’s concert, an adventure somewhere in the world next year, or the new restaurant opening this weekend.  In the silence, my head is filled with conversation, images, notes on sermons to be given, lists of things to do, music, and long searches in the library of my mind for that misplaced name or trivial fact.  

None of that was up there when I was a boy.  It was mostly empty, though I didn’t know it at the time.  It wasn’t childish or teenage hubris.  I was just ignorant of the fact that I was ignorant.  All the new things I was learning seemed to be private information shared only between teachers and my friends as if for the first time in the history of the universe.  It was not a question of thinking my grandmother or parents didn’t know anything, because the question itself never occurred to me.

It never occurred to me that my grandmother’s quiet was filled with the noise and excitement of a childhood on the Kansas prairie, with the struggles of a large family living through the Depression, of the anxiety of seeing her boys go off to battle in WWII, of the relief of their safe homecoming, of the ebb and flow of visiting grandchildren, and of the hours of small talk that only small town rural folk can master.  I imagine that my own grandchildren wonder the same about me.

Tuesday, November 18, 2014

A Few Thoughts on Keystone That Might Surprise You

The Keystone Pipeline project is drawing heavy opposition as it draws toward a possibly decisive vote in Congress, and for good reason.  It’s an environmentally filthy product: heavy oil the consistency of road tar dredged up from Alberta tar sands. The pipeline is an environmentally iffy way to transport.  It won’t do anything to make us more energy independent, whatever that means.  It will make the (evil) Koch bothers richer than they already are.  On the other hand, it’s not that simple. 

The basics of the issue?  An 875 mile long pipeline from the Canadian border through Montana and South Dakota to Steele City, Nebraska where it would connect with existing pipelines.  From there the oil would flow to gulf coast refineries.  The final product would be sold on the open market with the likelihood that some of it would be sold in the U.S.

Will it create jobs?  Sort of.  Construction would take a couple of years and create up to 40,000 temporary jobs.  Communities along the way would enjoy a momentary infusion of cash.  Experience indicates that they would spend it faster than they get it.  Boom-Bust is not a viable plan for sustained economic development.  No more than fifty permanent jobs would be created by everybody's count.

If we stop it will it stop the transportation of the stuff?  No.  A lot is being shipped by rail right now.  More will be shipped that way if the pipeline is defeated.  Shipping by rail is even more environmentally damaging than pipelines.  The record of railroad spills is not a good one, and railroads add more cost and pollution just because they’re railroads.  Of course shipping by rail would add more permanent jobs in many sectors of the economy.  Think about that!  But I digress.  Other pipelines are in the works to move it across the Rockies to ports near Vancouver, BC. where the, as yet, pristine waters of Puget Sound and the Inside Passage remain relatively free of environmental threats of such magnitude.  Plans are being made to expand the capacity of yet other existing pipelines to our own gulf coast. 

In Dr. Pangloss’s world, stopping Keystone would stop Alberta tar sands oil altogether, and maybe that would be a good thing, but this is not Dr. Pangloss’s world.  So my reluctant advice is to approve Keystone as the least damaging alternative amongst a host of damaging alternatives.  I’m prepared to change my mind, but it has to be on evidence, and not on wishful thinking or left leaning Fox News style propaganda.

In the meantime, if we had the political courage to do so, we would be wading into solar, wind, and geothermal as viable alternatives that could put a good chunk of these kinds of projects out of business.  However, considering the shameful voter turnout in America, it’s obvious that we lack political common sense, much less courage.  We’ve given over control of the nation to Ezekiel’s fat sheep and Matthew’s goats.

As for me, I enjoy my gasoline powered cars, natural gas fired furnace, and the privilege of travel on planes, trains and ships.  What about you?

Monday, November 10, 2014

Well, here we are again with the talents thing

Well, here we are again at the parable of the talents so conveniently located in the customary fundraising season for both churches and non profits.  It’s hard to know how to let these words speak with a fresh meaning.  I wonder if it would help to begin the passage with the closing lines of the previous parable of the ten bridesmaids: “Keep awake therefore, for you know neither the day nor the hour.”  Or  maybe it would be better to begin with Pay Attention!

What have we been talking about since Pentecost if not what it means to be disciples of Christ?  Has that made any difference in your life, or did it just pass through leaving almost no wake?  This parable and the one preceding it are not about lamps and talents; they are about paying attention to what Jesus had been teaching all this time.  And like any good teacher, he’s going to give a final exam.  How have you loved God?  How have you loved your neighbor?  How have you loved each other as he loved you?  The how of how we have done these things is not so much about what we believe, but what we have done with our lives in relationship with all the lives around us, and I often think that we make that both too hard and too easy because we are not paying attention.

I have a friend, an ernest Christian honestly anxious about what it is that God might be calling him to do.  He is among those who make it too hard.  While spending time in enquiring prayer, and hoping for a flash of insight into something special that is out there for him, he is reluctant to look around and see that where he is, and what he does day in and day out, is the mission field begging attention.  It makes sense.  I think we’ve been misled in too many ways about what it means to be called by God.  We expect it to be special in a way that ordinary daily life is not special.  My friend knows he has been given his talent, but what is it and what should he do with it?  That’s the question, and the answer must, according to what we have all been taught, be something extraordinarily different than the contents of our ordinary daily lives.  

Why?  Why would our talents not be what we already have, and know that we have?  Why would we not be called to employ them in the ordinary affairs of life?  I think we look too far afield and thus miss the obvious.  My friend is honestly seeking what he might be called to do, but in the meantime he might be said to be hiding his talent until the right thing comes along.  How many of us do the same thing?

What about those who are self satisfied, and don’t give this parable another thought after they’ve left the building?  They are among those who make it too easy.  They don’t let what Jesus taught interfere with their political beliefs, economic behavior, or social life.  If they bother at all, they have comfortably harmonized whatever the preacher says, and what they are sure the bible teaches, with the way they live their lives.  If judgment is in the offing, it is others who are likely to be damned, not them.  

These parables are, at least in part, about the seriousness of following Jesus as a disciple, and the accounting we must one day give.  My guess is that those who will fare the worst are those who just didn’t care much one way or the other, yet claimed the name of Christ.  Indifference has got to be the worst accounting one could give.  Right behind them are likely to be those who confidently gave themselves passing marks.  That could be my group.  I think my friend who is cautious about investing his talent will fare much better.

Friday, November 7, 2014

OK, One more time and then I'm finished

For nearly two decades I worked on behalf of conservative pro business issues as one part of my portfolio.  As time went by it became increasingly clear to me that conservatives in general, and ideological conservatives in particular, were not very good at governing.  When in power, what they believed to be true about the best environment for business, and thus for the nation, often ended badly.  In the face of repeated poor results, faith in their thinking never wavered.  Part of that might have been due to business and industry interests on issues of public policy that resemble conservative ideology but are entirely selfish, and not always in a bad way.  The thing is, ideological conservatives seem to be blind to that, and the amalgamation of particular business friendly positions into generalized policy has not proved out very well for business or the nation.

On the other hand, and there is always an other hand, conservatives, in general, were very good at being the loyal opposition serving as a check against the extravagances of ideological liberals.  At the national level, liberal ideologues tend to identify problems and then throw money at them hoping for the best.  A loyal conservative opposition tends to rein that in by demanding evidence and accountability.  Some liberal ideologues, well meaning in their heartfelt desire to help the poor and oppressed, can become overly patronizing, acting as if the poor and oppressed are not capable of helping themselves, and with the assumption that moving into a white dominated middle class culture and standard of living is what everyone really wants.  A loyal conservative opposition can be just as patronizing, but they assume that everyone can at least tug at their own bootstraps.  More conservative ideologues are happy to let others live whatever life style they like as long as they do it without government intervention, and don’t try to move into their neighborhoods.  The effect is to balance the drive to do good with a healthy dose of pragmatism. 

Until midway through the second Clinton term that fluid balance, and an unstated acceptance of what loyal opposition meant, usually resulted in a willingness to find a place of agreement that tended to be labeled as center left or center right under the leadership of people who knew how to negotiate, and who knew how to keep the ideologues under control.  That was true even in the Reagan years, and I am no fan of Reagan.  Ideological conservatives remember them as golden years but forget that Reagan was a master negotiator who irritated the living daylights out of true blue (or red) conservatives because he spoke the dogma but negotiated pragmatically.  

That began to crumble toward the end of the Clinton presidency, and when the conservative ideologues took the reins under Bush II, it collapsed altogether.  The idea of a loyal opposition was rejected, ejected, and decapitated with ridicule.  The last six years have seen the fruits of a disloyal opposition that has poisoned the well of American politics, at least for the time being.  Against all odds, the economy has dug itself out of the pit it had fallen into during the Bush II years, and yet the conservative ideologues lust after the opportunity to implement their agenda more fully this time in the firm belief that it will create an environment richer in jobs, profit, freedom, and happiness for all, while lowering taxes and reducing government spending on everything but defense. 

We’ve always had ideologues of one kind or another.  Mostly they have been irksome pests.  Now and then, on either side of the ledger, they have come up with a good idea or two, and, given time to moderate them, some have been profitably enacted into law.  What we have at the moment is a dreadful lack of pragmatic political leadership in the congress who are capable of negotiating in good faith.  Instead we have conservative leadership pandering to the ideologues on their side, and progressive leadership that muddles through while exhibiting a public image of cluelessness.  Other than that, I have no strong opinions on the matter.

Wednesday, November 5, 2014

More on Politics

An acquaintance, having read the Isaiah Berlin essay that’s going around the internet, commented that it’s all true, and the big threat to America is from the Islamic State and atheists.  I thought that she either hadn’t really read the essay, or wasn’t able to understand it, or did understand it and chose to interpret it through very peculiar lenses.  A bit later there was a guy in the Y locker room holding forth on our unconscionably high property taxes (by most standards they are quite reasonable, even a bit low) that are only going to pay for free education and health care of illegal alien kids, and he knows that our own kids can’t even get the help they deserve because of it.  How he strung all of that together is quite amazing in itself.  Combine that with a recent letter to the editor that chastised gun control advocates for being hysterical, this coming from the crowd that is certain there are secret plans to confiscate weapons, and that the government (illegitimate) is their enemy.  Other acquaintances are certain that if Obama had his way we would be living under Venezuelan like socialism.  It adds up to my discouraged mood. 

Each of them seems to be inspired by fear mongering, yellow journalism, and an unwillingness to think critically.  Nevertheless, they are true believers.  Several of them have remonstrated with me that they see clearly what I have chosen to ignore.  Perhaps.  I am not without my own political apprehensions.  Among them is something the Berlin essay said something that I have also said many times in my own words.  People who are driven by fear in defense of their own prosperity and freedom tend to gravitate toward a form of fascism, willingly submitting themselves to the very despotism that they detest.  In the process they blame whatever evils they think beset them on scape goats that are handily available.  Out of fear of losing security and freedom, they give up both.  In the meantime, they do serious moral and physical damage to some population designated to take the blame.  

I may be wrong, but as I think back over the recent history of our world, nations with a strong middle class seem less susceptible to that kind of decline, and maybe that’s because life looks better, more promising, when a middle class is dynamic, open on both ends, with a reasonably predictable degree of equity of opportunity.  Nations are more susceptible to a decline into something like fascism when the middle class is threatened by something like oligarchy.  In our case, the middle class has been stagnate for a long time.  Real income for the majority has been flat or declining.  What we once defined as middle class (white, male dominated, married, three children) has been rent asunder by integration, immigration, the rise of independent women, gay marriage, and more.  In the meantime, the amazing growth in new wealth has been funneled mostly into the bank accounts of a very small portion of the population.  It’s a rich environment in which to grow discontented bigotry.

It is not the Islamic State, or atheists, or gun control advocates that we need to fear.  We need to fear right wing tendencies dragging us toward our own brand of fascism.  Not Italian.  Not German.  Not Argentine.  It would be an American form all our own.  There have been moves in that direction before: the late nineteenth century, the 1930s, and now.  We have come to our senses before.   I hope we do again.   

Tuesday, November 4, 2014

I'm Discouraged (A political rant so skip if not interested)

It’s election day, and I’m discouraged.  Cathy McMorris Rodgers, my Member of Congress, will no doubt get reelected in spite of a ten year record of having done nothing worth talking about.  She’s an ultra-conservative first elected on the strength of being a fundamentalist Christian.  Obviously not a progressive in any sense of the word, but curiously enough, she hasn’t done anything notable on the conservative side of the ledger.

The local paper endorsed her on the grounds that she is part of the leadership, and isn’t that a good thing.  I can’t see that it is.  First, it appears that she is only window dressing for a leadership cadre that has no other interest in her.  Second, it’s a leadership unlike any other in my lifetime, one dedicated to the destruction of the sitting president, absolute opposition to anything he might propose or do, even if he endorsed one of their ideas, and utterly disrespectful of the person in that office.  It’s not a leadership to be proud of. 

Her opponent is a highly qualified business leader, a member of one of the tribes of the Pacific Northwest, and, yes, what I would call a pragmatic progressive - or what might once have been called a moderate Republican.  He will not get elected because the conservative voters of the district will not vote Democratic under any circumstance, and because, let’s be honest about it, they can’t stand the idea of a black man in the white house.  The hard core of them are convinced that global warming is a hoax, that welfare is out of control, that someone has a secret plan to confiscate their guns, and that the biggest threat to America is ISIS.  I look out over that political landscape and am discouraged.  

Wednesday, October 22, 2014

Pack'em in Airline Seating

I made a comment a while back about the cattle car coach seating in today’s air travel.  Several responded by asking if the planes are full, which they are, and then pointed out that the public desires cheap airfares and willingly sits in uncomfortable conditions, so what’s the problem?  Others observed that airlines are finally turning profits that can come only from packing as many people into as small a space as possible, so what’s the problem?

I wonder if the reported increase in disruptive, sometimes violent passenger behavior might be a symptom of a problem, or maybe problems.  I can’t find any comprehensive data on disruptive passengers, but then I haven’t looked very hard either.  However, I did stumble on a study of Canadian domestic airlines that showed a steady rate of about twenty incidents per year until 2008 when the numbers lurched into a rate of around one hundred per year.  That’s a big jump in a short time.  I wonder if U.S. airlines would report something similar.

Airline representatives blame disruptive behavior mostly on alcohol and drugs, so I guess 2008 must have been a year in which alcohol and drug use exploded among airline passengers.  Could be, but I suggest another cause, and that is the inhuman conditions of passenger comfort that create tipping points for the increase in disruptive behavior.  I understand that people willingly submit themselves to those conditions because, if they want to fly somewhere, they have no choice.  The same might be said for steerage on the old transatlantic ocean liners.  That doesn’t make the conditions any less uncomfortable, painful, intrusive, stressful, and ripe for defensive and offensive disruptive behavior.  Let’s put it this way, we are painfully aware that overcrowding prisons creates conditions in which violent behavior is likely.  Overcrowding airplanes does the same.  It’s a confined, regimented environment from which there is no escape.  The preflight briefing makes it clear that flight attendants are in charge and must be obeyed.  Fellow passengers are harried, nervous, doing what they can to preserve the sanctity of what small private space they can acquire, and ready to take offense.  

Drugs and alcohol may contribute to the situation, but the conditions themselves are designed to encourage disruptive passenger behavior.  I’m surprised that we don’t hear more stories than we already do.  

I imagine that behavioral psychologists can pinpoint the smallest amount of space an average person can tolerate for how long, and that calculation has something to do with how airlines design seating configurations.  Add to that some enticing advertising luring people to exotic places for what appears to be a reasonable price, and the result is a well orchestrated campaign to pack’em in, tell'em they’re having a good time, and send'em home tired, frustrated, and broke knowing that they can be seduced again next year. 

I imagine that those same psychologists can also identify an amount of space needed for a range of persons to be reasonably content for some period of time.  Maybe that amount of space would reduce airline seating and require an increase in fares to compensate, but my guess is that it would not make much of a change, if any, in profitability.  True, some people who might otherwise fly somewhere would stay home or find another mode of transportation.  A few of my respondents called that elitist, arguing that the pack’em in like sardines schemes provide worthy benefits to the masses.  That doesn’t smell right.  It smacks too much of a lack of respect for the dignity of ordinary people and deliberate psychological abuse in defense of profit. 

So, what do you think?

Thursday, October 16, 2014

Rabbit Holes and Equity

Somewhere on the internet, someone suggested blogs on the question of inequality.  It’s hard to know what that means, but I assume it has something to do with the current publicity about inequality of income and net worth.  Not to make too much of it, but one might start with the observation that the issue did not become prominent until the white middle class became aware that they were slip-sliding downward on a hill tilted in favor of a few already at the top.  However, starting there would probably take us down a rabbit hole.  Suffice it to say that the white middle class remains, at least for a few more years, a sort of barometer of general economic well being, and when they are slip-sliding we had better pay attention because the whole system is hurting.

Having said that, I’d like to move in another direction and suggest that inequality is not as important as inequity.  Equality cannot be achieved across the breadth of a population, nor would we want that.  Part of what makes life interesting, challenging, and rewarding are the differences between us; our different abilities, interests, tastes, personalities, and so forth.  We are, and want to be, unequal in so many ways.  Equity is another matter.  Equity is more about the well known level playing field.  We need to strive for a national ethos that places its highest value on equity, on the assurance that no obstacle is placed in the path of any person to achieve what they are capable of achieving.  Recognizing and removing existing obstacles is a start, and an often a difficult one because we don’t easily recognize existing obstacles if they are in someone else’s way, but not in our way.  Beyond that, it also means a cultural bent toward providing the tools, education, training, and policies that are equitably available to all persons to aid them in achieving what they are able to achieve.  The early advocates of universal public education understood that.  They hoped for a nation in which every child got a first class education at public expense instead of the British system of second rate or non-existent education for most while those who could afford it got a good education in private schools.

The last century produced enormous strides in understanding what is needed for an organization (or nation) to perform well.  Researchers such as Deming, Bennis, Herzberg, Maslow, Kendrick, Likert, Lewin, and others all agreed on a few fundamentals that can be summed up as providing an environment in which each person can succeed (not will succeed).  Doing that requires the discipline of assuring that the right education, training, equipment and quality materials to do the job are available to each without prejudice.  It also requires a constant vigilance of the environment along with dedication to research and development to assure that methods change with technology and social conditions.  That’s the hub of equity, and I think we have two problems with it today. 

First, the dominant American culture has historically been the myth of a generic white middle class that is often blind to the inequity that rules the lives of others who are not a part of it.  That’s changing rapidly, if not smoothly, with claims, counter claims, and taunts along the lines of, “You think you had a hard time of it, let me tell you how hard it was for me.”  Just the same, it is changing.  Part of that is the growing recognition that we need to change our definition of the dominant American culture to accommodate diverse races and ethnicities.  Maybe that will help us see more clearly the obstacles that are in our way, and in the way of others who are not like us.  

Second, we have stumbled into  a set of tax laws and compensation practices that have become so warped that only a very few are able to benefit from economic growth.  It’s the 1% phenomena of popular media fame wherein, even if equity is broadly distributed, there is little likelihood that rewards will be commensurate with achievement.  Declining purchasing power through stagnant wages for the majority of the population while a certain very small minority are able to reap unheard of riches is a prescription for national collapse.

Oddly enough, it appears to me that a large portion of what remains of the mythical white middle class has sided with the oligarchical tendencies of the so called 1% for reasons that I do not understand when it is obvious that it can lead only to their continued slide toward the bottom.  And that, my friends, is the entrance to the rabbit hole.  

Monday, October 13, 2014

Refugees or Illegal Aliens?

We have just returned from several weeks away that included seven days exploring historic Istanbul from its famous sites to its slums.  It’s an enormous city so seven days was not enough to allow much beyond the older parts of it centering on the Byzantine and Ottoman empires.  Apart from that, we also came face-to-face with the influx of Syrian refugees who have left, or simply bypassed, the refugee camps along the border.

What struck me first was the public and private recognition of them as refugees, not illegal aliens.  How unlike our own recognition of the influx of persons escaping the violence of their homelands to seek shelter and opportunity in the U.S.  Many, perhaps most, Syrian refugees in Istanbul squat in the slums.  Some find work, but many beg, illegally peddle cheap goods on the street, or pickpocket unwary tourists.  On the other hand, they are systematically moved into the nation’s universal health care program.  Children are entered into the school system, and adults are encouraged to learn how to fit into the Turkish way of doing things.

No doubt there are many holes in the system, and not everyone is happy with them being there, but it’s so different from our own stomping Rumpelstiltskin  like hysteria at illegal (read criminal) aliens masquerading as children and teens, or our outrage at the illegal, mostly Mexican, adults who have been here for years building our houses, landscaping our lawns, and tending our shops at low wages with no benefits while simultaneously paying into a Social Security system from which they are unlikely to ever get anything.

I wonder why we find it so hard to lean anything from others?  Oh well, we’re Americans.  What could a second rate nation such as Turkey have to teach us?

Columbus Day!?

Today is Columbus Day, and throughout the internet he is being condemned as a reprehensible manifestation of all that is bad about the western conquest of the Americas.  I guess there is a legitimate point being made.  It’s true that when I was in grade school we were told that Columbus discovered America, which opened up the New World for European colonization that led eventually to the American War of Independence.  But, since I was raised in Minnesota, we were also reminded that Scandinavians beat him by centuries, so there!

There was never much said about the violent conquest of lands belonging to others.  It was more about the opening up of a vast, mostly empty land abounding in possibilities of new life, opportunity, and freedom for those willing to face its challenges.  Later, when we lived in the NYC area, Columbus Day was a celebration of Italian heritage with little publicity given to the man himself.  In any case, I’m willing to give Columbus a break.  He was a man of his age, not of ours.  He had the courage to set out on a journey into the unknown on ships no more sea worthy than large dinghies, and, from a European point of view, he did discover a new land that inspired the ensuing years of European voyages of discovery.  Those voyages redefined what the world was and could become.

It’s not much of a holiday where I live.  Except for a notation on calendars, life goes on as normal.  With that in mind, the effort to rebrand the day to honor indigenous peoples is well intentioned but misses the target.  A more pragmatic solution might be to eliminate Columbus Day as a federal holiday, perhaps giving federal employees the time off as a floating holiday.  Then establish another day at another time in the year to honor indigenous peoples.  My own choice would be December 29, the date of the massacre at Wounded Knee, but who wants to remember that during “the holidays.”  As an alternative I might suggest June 25, remembering the victory over Custer at Little Bighorn.  More important, as we have moved Black history into a more visible place in school curricula, we should do the same with Indian history.  It’s a rich, colorful history that goes far beyond and is more interesting than the romanticized fiction of a peaceful people at one with nature and each other.  

Friday, September 26, 2014

The Moral High Ground

Why someone from the U.S. or U.K. would want to join a terrorist organization is very hard to understand when it must be fairly obvious that such groups are bent on destruction and mayhem dredged out of intense hatred of enemies, imagined and real.  At the same time, I am reminded of two people with whom I once worked.

The first was a coworker in the late ‘60s.  Then he was considered by many to be a left wing radical.  He could barely contain his anger and contempt for the agents of big business, corporate America in general, and the federal government that he believed was beholden to the military-industrial complex.  I often wondered if he was involved in some of the violence that attacked local universities and erupted in urban race riots.  If he is still alive, I suspect that has has become a convicted tea-partier.  There isn’t much distance between the radical left and radical right.  Only mutual loathing of each other separates them. 

The second was another coworker about fifteen years later.  He was as right wing as the former was left wing.  A hard core libertarian, he detested anything the government did that he believed would limit individual rights to do what one wanted with one’s property, however one defined property.  Welfare for the poor in any form was anathema to him.  But that wasn’t the end of it.  He was an intensely proud descendent of Irish immigrants, and took on an unreasoned hatred of all things English, which led him to be an ardent supporter of the IRA in every way possible, legal or illegal.  I ran into some online information about him a few years ago and discovered that he is now a champion of a variety of radical, super patriot, right wing causes.  

Neither of them ran off to join a foreign terrorist organization, but the anger and hatred they evinced toward those whom they tagged as enemies seems to me to be like that I imagine inspires those who do.  Where does it come from?  For these two, and based on my limited knowledge and memory, it came from a combination of childhood experiences, lessons they were taught by their elders, frustrations in their early careers, and something else.  That something else seemed to be an inability to look dispassionately at the world about them, their own beliefs about it, and the moral consequences of those beliefs.  

Is that a neurological problem?  A spiritual problem?  An educational problem?  Some combination?  I don’t know.  I suspect that they would say none of the above.  They had staked out the moral high ground, and it is the rest of us who are deluded and in need of help.  

Thursday, September 25, 2014

Let's talk about Sex!

I’m part of a small clergy group that meets each week to share thoughts about the lectionary passages for the coming Sunday.  We explored a passage from Matthew's gospel that has Jesus saying that tax collectors and prostitutes will enter the kingdom ahead of others in the audience with whom he was speaking.  

That brought up the question of what it meant to be a sinner, which, given the presence of prostitutes, slid toward the usual conflation of sin with sexual immorality.  I say usual because it seems that every time the subject of sin comes up in any discussion, it turns quickly to sexual morality.  It’s a curious thing.

One can raise the issue of sin, at least in the gospels, as being a condition of living outside the boundaries of strict pharisaic standards.  That would include just about everyone living in rural communities, and most of the poor living in cities.  One can raise the issue of sin as failing to meet the moral imperatives of the Ten Commandments.  One can raise the issue of sin as any failure to live up to God’s expectations as set forth in the Sermon on the Mount.  One can raise the issue of sin in just about any way one wants to raise it, and the discussion will turn quickly to sexual morality.  Why is that?  

In popular thought sin means immorality, and immorality will be assumed to have something to do with sex.  To be sure, there are important moral questions revolving around sex including clergy abuses, human trafficking, sex tourism and more, but morality is more than sex.  You know that.  

Very strange.  Has our culture has become so obsessed with sex?  If not obsessed, has it been so overwhelmed with sexual overtones that we cannot avoid it?  FaceBook ads tell me that Fredrick's of Hollywood is still in business.  Who knew?  I wonder why they think that would interest me?  But I digress.  That may all be true, but there is more.  I suspect that we slide so easily into equating immorality with sex as a way to avoid examination of, and responsibility for, the multitude of behaviors with moral implications that we participate in on a daily basis without giving them much thought.  And we don’t give them much thought because we don’t want to give them much thought.

I’m reminded of the years I taught an ethics course for business students (no oxymoron jokes please).  They always wanted to start off with questions about things like the morality of atomic warfare.  That gives you an idea of how long ago that was, but the point is the same.  They could grapple with that, but did not recognize the need to grapple with questions of a more immediate, everyday nature involving the decisions they actually make and are responsible for.  They didn’t recognize the need because they didn’t want to recognize it.  It was a matter of avoidance.  I think it’s the same dynamic that took place in my little clergy study group, and it takes place in almost every discussion of morality and immorality.  We quickly turn to sex because it’s, well, sexy.  The issues are real and important, but even more important, they allow us to avoid the more immediate issues that are no doubt lurking nearby.  Maybe we should leave the prostitutes out of it altogether, and focus entirely on the tax collectors.  They hit closer to the homes in which most of us live. 

Tuesday, September 23, 2014

What Could Possibly Go Wrong?

We are leaving in a couple of days for a few weeks away on a trip that will take us on ten flight legs through several countries.  I find myself a bit anxious.  It’s not the anxiety of fear. It’s more of anticipation, the kind that children feel as they wait impatiently for Christmas.  I’m a little surprised.  Having spent a good part of my life traveling domestically and abroad, why is this trip different?

The answer, I think, is twofold.  First, the combination of closely timed flights on airlines large, small, and unfamiliar, means that if any link fails in this technologically knitted fabric, the whole thing comes unraveled, and then what?  Second, part of our trip will be in entirely new territory, and anticipation of the wholly unknown tends to raise a strange combination of eagerness and anxiousness.  

There is probably something else as well.  When I was younger, my attitude was more like, ‘What could possibly go wrong?,’ and when something did, it just added to the adventure.  Now I’m old and know perfectly well what can go wrong.  Moreover, not so many years ago we might have got a taste of breaking news in other parts of the world on the evening news.  Now it’s splattered all over the electronic byways in instantaneous, hyperbolic ad nauseam, so that highly improbable events are presented as potential and immediate threats.  It can’t help but have an effect, even on a calm, reasonable person like me.

So, we shall see what we shall see.  I wonder if Paul felt like this as he prepared to set sail from Antioch?

Saturday, September 13, 2014

Provisional Truth

Provisional truth is something I’ve sometimes preached about, and it has always been discomforting for those (few) who were paying attention.  What they want, and what would be comforting for me also, is absolute truth.  But, to slightly reword a sentence from William James, “We must be content to regard our most assured conclusions concerning matters of fact as hypotheses liable to modification in the course of future experience.”

Scientific fact is one thing.  Theological fact is another.  Our most solid reasoning, experimentation, evidence and peer review, backs up scientific fact as irrefutable, given what we currently know, and there’s the rub.  What we currently know.  Each time we add a bit of verifiable knowledge to the pot, it changes the whole stew.  It’s what enables some people to discount scientific fact as just another opinion, no better than their own.  Well grounded theories are dismissed with “It’s just a theory, no one really knows,” as if theory and uninformed guesses are pretty much the same thing.  Operating from that set of assumptions, one can claim anything they want as their own private fact. 

Theological fact gets even more complicated.  It can rarely, if ever, be anything other than provisional.  As a Christian preacher, I believe that our provisional truths point reliably toward the absolute truths that are hidden in God, but, along with Paul, I’m doubtful that we can see them except as in a mirror and dimly.  It’s an argument unacceptable to many who demand to know now what the absolute truth is, and are willing to accept the word of anyone who claims to have it.  Some claim the absolute truth that God is a hoax because God cannot be subject to scientific verification.  Some claim the absolute truth about God they have coaxed out of scripture, which they assert to be inerrant.  The historical record of competing claims to know the absolute truth is wobbly at best.  No one view can endure for more than a few years, and each appears to be in unreconcilable competition with all others, but that doesn’t seem to dissuade their true believers.   

Lower case ‘o’ orthodox Christianity, for the most part, holds that scripture is a genuine bearer of God’s truth without having to be scientifically or historically factual in every way, which is way too fuzzy for those who want the certainty of a fifth grade arithmetic text.  Yet, it took centuries for the priests and rabbis of our paternal roots to discern which of the many writings could be trusted as Hebrew scripture.  In like manner, it took several centuries for the Church to discern which of the many writings could be trusted as scripture in what we now call the New Testament.  Unlike the sciences, theology cannot turn to the laboratory to conduct controlled experiments whose results are made public for peer review.  But that doesn’t mean that writings and teachings cannot be subject to examination and evaluation.  It’s the very task of theology.  It may be that authentic scripture, inspired by God, is still being written.  Every now and then someone says that it has.  The Koran and the Book of Mormon are two examples that have been accepted by many, but rejected by orthodox Christianity as inconsistent with what what God has revealed God’s self to be through the progressive revelation of provisional truths that we have learned can be trusted.  In like manner, the so called Gnostic Gospels have been instructive for what they say about the communities they served, but rejected as scripture because they are inconsistent with what we have learned is trustworthy about who Jesus is. 

The test of consistency is a good one, but it has serious limitations.  If every new truth had to be consistent with the old truths, we would still live on a flat earth, so to speak.  Sometimes the Church has acted as if we do.  However, the essential characteristics of the consistency of Godly revelation are change and direction of change .  It’s always changing, so the new and challenging always have to be looked for, and it reliably goes in the direction of love, reconciliation, healing, inclusion, and transparency.  Reliable scripture always speaks to the people of the time of its writing in terms they can understand given the vocabulary available to them and the cultural setting in which they lived, but it also pushes the limits of meaning in the uncomfortable direction of love, reconciliation, healing, inclusion, and transparency.  Speech that claims to speak for God but goes in the opposite direction has to be suspect.

We’ve come to accept the canon as a reliable revelation of the nature of God, humanity, and the relationship between the two.  Two thousand years of theology have informed and guided our expanding and deepening understanding within the context of the times and places we have lived, but it has always been an uncomfortable understanding that has pushed us into unfamiliar territory.  For all of that, no matter how respected a teaching has been, none has been accorded the authority of scripture.  Somehow we have recognized that it’s all provisional, but, walking in faith, we are confident that it points more or less in the right direction.

If you would like to wade in with your own thoughts, please do so in the comments, or drop me an email.

Monday, September 1, 2014

Is Satan the reflection we see in the mirror?

I was struck by a line from Job in Morning Prayer this morning.  “Those at ease have contempt for misfortune, but it is ready for those whose feet stumble.”  Peterson puts it this way: “It’s easy for the well-to-do to point their fingers in blame, for the well-fixed to pour scorn on the strugglers.”

I wonder what it is that entices those of us who are more or less at ease to heap contempt on beggars, immigrants (illegal or otherwise), low wage workers in part time jobs with no benefits, the intellectually less competent, the intellectually more competent, the poor, anyone receiving government benefits other than the ones we receive (because we’ve earned and deserve them), and so forth.  It goes even deeper than that.  Some of us, as in the story of Job, heap contempt on the inadequate faith of others which, no doubt, has led to their failure to recover from their misfortunes.  We even dare to heap contempt on God by attributing to God our own worst impulses toward punishment and revenge.  The character of Satan in the story of Job is very much a reflection of us, which is not a very flattering revelation.  To paraphrase Pogo, “We have met Satan and he is us.”  

A few months ago I wrote about a friend who believes that anyone can lift herself or himself out of poverty and the ghetto.  He is not blind to social and racial beliefs and attitudes that effectively fence off any but the most determined and able, he’s in favor of them as tools to separate the worthy from the unworthy, with his sort as the arbiters.  Others, who are not quite as perverse as he, are just not observant and don’t see what is clearly in front of them.  Of course, it’s not all about race, class, and social barriers.  Just the ordinary events of life tend to seduce us into smugly blaming the victims of disease and injury.

It is that smugness that is so infuriating.  “I’m at ease, they are not, and it’s their own fault.”  When we are at ease, it is easy to be smug about the misfortunes of others, and yet we are horrified at the unfairness of life when misfortunes happen to us.  Even that horror is a form of smugness because we are certain that we don’t deserve the misfortunes that come to us, unlike others whose misfortunes are deserved. 

My friend, who is such a contented bigot, does what he can to help some individuals whom he deems to be be worthy, if less fortunate, as long as they bend to the task as he defines the task.  Maybe that’s a good thing, or at least better than those of us who are simply ignorant and too lazy to pay attention to our surroundings.  I’m not sure. 

Wednesday, August 27, 2014

The Invisible Wall

Not long ago I was talking with  friend who has become the pastor of a church in his small home town.  He’s been there for a few years, having been away for twenty, and has found himself among people he has known all his life.  The parish council president, for instance, is an old classmate from nursery school through high school.  Some of his elderly parishioners are his old teachers.  He knows almost everyone on Main Street, regardless of their denomination, or lack thereof.

What’s got to him, he said, is the invisible wall that has been constructed between him and all these old friends.  He goes to morning coffee and the old gang chirps up with, “Watch what you say, the preacher is here.”  That sort of thing.  Friendships that once shared confidences with ease are now guarded.  Relaxing “out of uniform” in public as become difficult, if not impossible.

The invisible wall is a price paid by almost every clergy person no matter where they serve, but I imagine it has to be especially tough when one serves in one’s home town.  Not everyone, however, experiences it as a negative.  Another acquaintance, who also serves in his home town as a locally ordained person, has found the invisible wall to be quite permeable, and the cautionary, “Watch what you say, the preacher is here,” is also an invitation for him to be comfortable as the presence of the Church over coffee or a beer.  Nevertheless, he is mindful that he is never not the pastor, even when working at his secular job.

It brings up an interesting question.  Locally ordained non stipendiary and part time clergy are becoming the norm in many small towns, and in many denominations.  The greater Church has done what it can to see that they are as theologically well educated as possible, sans three or four years away at seminary.  Is the greater Church also helping them understand what it means to be separated from the flock to become a shepherd?  It’s the separation part that I wonder about.  Being separated for ordination is an old subject of conversation among Church leaders, but it’s been mostly about seminary graduates who do not go back to their home towns, and who, for the most part, have ventured forth as professional clergy.  Locally ordained persons serving their home congregations while maintaining a secular job are in a different place.

Separation for ordination also brings social separation that has dramatic emotional consequences, and I suspect that we don’t pay enough attention to it when preparing locally ordained persons for ministry in their home towns.  The invisible wall is  reality.  It does not have to be an emotionally damaging one, but I suspect it will be if we don’t help them prepare for it. 

Any thoughts?

Tuesday, August 26, 2014

All Sorts and Conditions

There is a prayer dating from somewhere in the late 17th century that has graced the lips of Anglicans in Morning and Evening Prayer, and sometimes in the Sunday Eucharist.  

O God, the creator and preserver of all mankind, we humbly beseech thee for all sorts and conditions of men; that thou wouldest be pleased to make thy ways known unto them, thy saving health unto all nations. More especially we pray for thy holy Church universal; that it may be so guided and governed by thy good Spirit, that all who profess and call themselves Christians may be led into the way of truth, and hold the faith in unity of spirit, in the bond of peace, and in righteousness of life. Finally, we commend to thy fatherly goodness all those who are in any ways afflicted or distressed, in mind, body, or estate; [especially those for whom our prayers are desired]; that it may please thee to comfort and relieve them according to their several necessities, giving them patience under their sufferings, and a happy issue out of all their afflictions. And this we beg for Jesus Christ's sake. Amen.
I wonder sometimes what good it does to have been said so many times by so many people for over three hundred years, and to see it bear so little fruit.  Various members of the congregations I served before I retired would tell me how much they loved this prayer, and would we please use it more often.  I have no doubt that the sentiment was sincere, but it also seems to me that the only way for God to fulfill its petitions is for Christians to carry them out, and that seems to be the rub.
How is God to make God’s ways known unless we know what those ways are, demonstrate at least some of them in our lives, and are willing to tell others about them?  And I don’t think sending missionaries to far off lands counts when we fail to make God’s ways known to the people around us every day.
We ask God to guide and govern the Church universal, and then act like every part of that Church with which we have some small disagreement is an enemy.
We commend to God’s care those afflicted in mind, body or estate, and then oppose anything that smacks of welfare, especially for those whom we deem to be undeserving.  We ask God to give them a happy outcome, and do very little to make that possible.  
I’m not only fulminating at the usual list of hypocrites.  They are out there, and they do get under my skin.  But when I look in the mirror, around my own neighborhood, and at my friends and fellow worshipers, I see good people who too easily become complacent, self absorbed, and anxious about engaging in lavish generosity when we have been so well schooled in the fear of scarcity.  A lack of confidence in our own faith, combined with fear of not having enough, leads smoothly down the path of sincere prayer followed by precious little response, not from God, but from us.  
When confronted with this painful truth we get defensive, and our best defense is to self righteously point to all the good causes we support one way or another, and the diligent work of the greater Church undertaken with our various tithes and assessments (about which we complain just the same).  What we are less good at doing is working on public policies that would go far toward alleviating afflictions and suffering at their root, nor are we comfortable enough in our Episcopalian skins (I can’t speak for any other denomination) to share the good news of God in Christ as we understand it.  
I wonder if God doesn’t say to the assembled heavenly court something like, “Here comes that blasted prayer again.  I’ve told them what to do, come to them in person to show them the way, inspired scriptures to guide them, given them every resource they need, empowered them with my Spirit, and showered them with miracles, and what do I get in return - not much.”
It’s a good thing God is slow to anger and abounds in steadfast love.