Thursday, October 29, 2015

Faith in What?

Faith in what?  I had a conversation a few days ago with a friend who wondered if Jesus wept at the grave of Lazarus because of the lack of faith he saw in others.  And I wondered, faith in what?  In the synoptics Jesus is quoted often as saying something like “your faith has made you well.”  Sometimes he “saw their faith.”  At other times he said “according to your faith let it be done to you.”  He also criticized people for having “little faith.”  For what it’s worth, John doesn’t mention faith, at least by name.  So the question remains, faith in what? 

Faith in Jesus as the Messiah, the “I have accepted Jesus Christ as my personal lord and savior” kind of faith?  In the context of Jesus’ ministry, that seems unlikely.  He was a brand new never before seen figure on the human landscape.  Everything he did and said opened something new that often contradicted treasured traditions and customs that dictated the way it was supposed to be.  Especially for his disciples, each day had to bring its moment of confusion: Who is this person?  If he is the messiah, he is not the kind of messiah we have been waiting for.

Christian faith, however we understand it, is a post resurrection faith in the risen Christ, the Son of God, the redeemer of the world.  We cannot ask the people of his day to have that faith.  It would have been impossible for them.  That means the faith Jesus saw, and to which he responded, had to be a different kind of faith, faith in something other than him as messiah.  To be sure, the gospel records were written well after the church began to form, and it is possible that the writers intended their readers to understand faith from a resurrection perspective, but to stay with the text as it is we have to look elsewhere for an understanding of what faith Jesus had in mind.

Here’s what I think.  Part of the faith that Jesus spoke about so often is faith in the teachings of the prophets, not about what is to come, but what God spoke through their pens about justice, mercy, and relationships between humans, and between humans and the rest of creation.  It is a faith that is lived into a more full communion with God: more consistent, as it were, with God’s will.  Another part of the faith Jesus spoke about is believing, understanding, and living into his teaching, especially as we see it summarized in places such as the Sermon on the Mount and illustrated in the parables.  

When he gets exasperated and complains about “you of little faith,” I think he means that after all he has taught them about the meaning of God’s word through the prophets, and what it means to live into the fullness of life as God would have life be full, his closest disciples have a hard time grasping it, and keep trying to put big “buts” into it so that it more easily fits their customary way of judging what the good, just life is.  

When he commends someone’s faith I don’t imagine that he has in mind some theologically deep sort of thing.  I think he means a faith that is simply open and trusting that Jesus is a legitimate authority bearing God’s presence of love and power to heal.  Parsing what legitimate authority means would be irrelevant because no one could anticipate the crucifixion and resurrection that lay ahead.  Indeed, the faith he commends is the very childlike faith that toddlers have in what it means to be safe in their parent’s arms.


When it comes down to it, I think we make faith too complicated while not taking it seriously enough.  We do what his followers of little faith did and try to mold Jesus and his teachings into forms that fit our customs, traditions, and prejudices.  We are not toddlers, we are adults, and only a fool would trust in anything as a toddler trusts in a parent.  It’s so much easier just to claim that have accepted Jesus as our lord and savior, call ourselves Christian, and get on with life as usual.  Oh, we of little faith.

Saturday, October 24, 2015

A Halloween Rant

Halloween is around the corner.  Several pastors on a particular Facebook page open to all Christians in a certain occupation have gone on a rampage against a holiday they believe celebrates death, ghosts, and the devil.  As the exchanges unfolded, it seemed to me that the center of their attention and the focus of their faith was on the devil, by whatever name, and the power and presence of evil in the world.  Of course they claimed Jesus as their defense against the dark arts, and I think they were honest about it as far as it went, but it didn’t go very far.  As for the world we inhabit, it was and is subsumed under the power of the devil.  It is that power, and the very real person of the devil, around which their world revolves; it’s at the center of all their attention.  They may use Jesus as their sword and shield, but it’s the devil who has the advantage.

I suppose fear of the devil and anxiety over a world dying of a fatal infection of evil inspires some to turn to Jesus for salvation, but I wonder whether that also reveals not much faith in the power and authority of God over the cosmos that God created and called good.  For Christians, what  does it say about God’s love of humanity (good old John 3:16 so beloved by football fans), and the triumph of Jesus over all the powers of death through his passion and resurrection?

Several years ago I taught a home study on Revelation at the request of a woman who had been thoroughly taught that since it was the final book in the bible it was also the most important, laying out what was about to happen to the earth and its creatures.  Revelation, to her, trumped everything in scripture that preceded it.  She lived in constant fear that her faith was insufficient to weather the storm, and that she was sure to be thrown into the lake of eternal fire.  Some crackpot preacher, like those ranting about Halloween, had done that to her during her childhood.  She could not comprehend that Revelation has very little to do with the end of the world, and a great deal to do with a vivid explanation of how God’s plan, that famous plan everyone wants to know about, has been worked out in Christ Jesus.  She wanted affirmation that all her fears were valid, and that I had the secret code to unlock the door to her salvation.

Apparently Jesus’ birth, life, teaching, death, and resurrection was not enough, nor was the fullness of the biblical record together with two millennia of theologians seeking to more fully understand God’s will and intent.  Whoever the preacher was that filled her mind and soul with life long fear and anxiety about the power of the devil and the likelihood that she did not have the right kind or amount of faith for God to save her from hell, had done his job too well. 

And that’s pretty much what I think of the pastors who went on their rant against Halloween.  They are so full of the devil that there is not much room for God’s grace.  In one sense I agree with them.  The world can be a dark place, and we Christians are called to bear the light of Christ into it.  They may point, rather weakly, toward the light, but they don’t carry it with them.  Their lanterns cast shadows and project scary monsters under the bed.  From what I can tell, the devil, by whatever name, only has one power, and that is the power to deceive.  These preachers have done a terrific job of giving it the right platform to make the most of it.



Friday, October 23, 2015

Listening to James

A very long time ago, when I was till in corporate life, I was in a seminar where each of us was asked to take a biblical name as our own, and explain why.  I hate those kinds of exercises.  Anyway, I chose James, as in the letter of James, but I don’t think I ever explained why.  Maybe, as a relatively new Episcopalian back then, it was in opposition to my Lutheran upbringing.  After all, wasn’t it Luther who said something about wishing the letter had not been included in the canon?  If not, it was my childhood pastor who was death on works righteousness, and made a huge point of it whenever James came up.

Be that  as it may, James spoke to me.  Be doers of the word and not hearers only.  If you say you have faith, show me by the way you live, and I’ll show you my faith by what I do.  And what about the favoritism you show to those who are important or wealthy, and the disdain you show to those who are poor and maybe a bit strange?  Is that any way to follow Jesus?  

That was a problem.  My hearing was adequate, but no more than that.  My doing was OK in a minimal sort of way.  Besides, I had a career that would no doubt lead to high corporate office one day soon, and all this was a distraction.

Not many should become teachers, he wrote.  Teaching was what I loved.  My consulting work was a form of teaching.  I taught short workshop courses in a summer program.  I was an adjunct at a college in NYC.  I sometimes admitted that my job paid for my teaching habit.  The problem with teaching is that, in James’ words, the tongue is an uncontrollable fire with which one both curses and blesses.  It is very hard to tame the tongue, and it is the spoken word more than anything else that has ignited wars, revolutions, riots, domestic violence, and you know how much more.  Yet it is the spoken word that Paul has said is to be used to build up and not tear down.  Somewhere at the pivot point between cursing and blessing, building up and tearing down, are teachers.  Which way will they point?  Not many should become teachers.

Anyway, James chastised his readers, including me, to knock off engaging in conflicts driven the selfishness, and the evil spoken about others, sometimes with smug contentment.  Good grief!  Those are two of the most popular pastimes in American culture.  But that wasn’t enough, he finished it off by warning us not let riches or the pursuit of wealth become our god, or come between us and God.  James had spoken, and with unrehearsed thought, I chose James as my name for the exercise I wasn’t all that interested in.

The seminar instructor was an old friend, a fellow teacher, a respected mentor, and, as it turned out, a third order Franciscan (I had  known him for years and learned that only after he died).  As I reflected on James while he rattled on lecturing about the theology of love, he stopped and said, “Steven, when God is talking to you pay attention.”  I don’t know why he did that, but it was the beginning of my journey toward ordination as a priest in the Episcopal Church.

Tuesday, October 20, 2015

Frontier Missions

Ours is a geographically large, rural diocese.  Of the thirty-eight congregations (down from forty-two over the last twenty years), maybe ten are financially strong enough to support full time clergy.  Six months ago each congregation was asked to take the summer to engage in conversation about who they are and what they stand for.  Guidelines for discussion were offered.  Why church?  Why the Episcopal Church?  Why this congregation?  What does it mean to be gathered, transformed and sent?  Who is Jesus and what does that mean for the congregation?  There was more, but you get the idea.  

Each congregation was then asked to craft a very short statement of identity and offer it at the fall diocesan convention.  That happened a few days ago.  Needless to say, every congregation was friendly and welcoming.  Some were even open.  I wonder if we could ever get a congregation to admit that they are not all that friendly, not especially welcoming, and closed to doing anything different?  One actually did say they were old, tired, and doing what they could to take care of each other.  Oh, well, I digress.  

The majority of the congregations had something worthwhile to offer.  Their leaders, at least, had given serious thought to the questions and their answers.  They offered statements that defined purpose rather than programs, actions rather than names of things, and a sense of mission rather than location and buildings.  It was a great step away from ministry emotionally limited by scarce resources.  It went toward proclaiming the gospel by word and deed with renewed energy using resources at hand to their fullest.  Some of the best presentations were from very small congregations who get along with part time unpaid clergy, or no clergy at all.  

On the other hand, there were some who identified themselves as the building they inhabit, the history of past generations, and programs named but without much thought about how they modeled Christ or what they were supposed to accomplish.  A few offered nothing.  Perhaps they didn’t care enough about who they are as members of the body of Christ to take the time or trouble.


I wonder if these latter few recognized how pitiful they looked compared to those who had decided to get serious about imagining a new future for themselves: a missionary future, which, oddly enough is not unlike the missionary past of those who preceded them in another century in the frontier settings of these western towns.  

Thursday, October 15, 2015

Fighting Special Interests

I watched a CBS interview with Charles Koch and was surprised to hear him say that his only interest in politics was to combat "special interests."  He’s not the only one.  Almost every public interest group, candidate, and campaign manager trots out the bugbear of special interests as their favorite windmill to tilt against.  If Mr. Koch, and Koch Industries, is not a special interest, what is?

That's a very good question.  What is a special interest?  The liberal side of politics has for many years claimed to be the defender of the people against special interests.  Now conservatives are doing the same, and extremists on the far right curse them both for being the champions of special interests.  Extremists on the far left have done that too, but nobody listens to them anymore, so they don't count.  Classical libertarians are suspicious of everyone, including other libertarians.

I imagine that for Mr. Koch special interests include environmental groups lobbying for more regulation of his refineries and pipelines, unions lobbying for the right to organize, groups lobbying for an increase in the minimum wage and better working conditions, and probably those who think income inequality is a serious threat to our national well being.  He would be right.  They are special interests, in the sense that any group representing a segment of the economy is, by definition, a special interest.

Every person or group that takes a position on public policy and tries to influence the legislative outcome represents some sort of special interest.  It's time we recognized that, and quit engaging in diatribes against them as if special interests are in conflict with the common good just because they are special.  The self righteous indignation that some people can generate by claiming opposition to special interests may effectively jerk the emotional reins of voters, but it's all a sham, the prestidigitation of propaganda, and we should knock it off. 

Of greater concern should be the reasonably objective examination of the issues and positions advocated by various groups in terms of their effect on the economy as a whole.  And by economy I mean the whole fabric of society, not just the balance sheets of businesses and households.  

Follow the money is always a god place to start.  How is any particular group funded, and what do the funders stand to gain or lose in the outcome of issues advocated by the group?  It may be that there are incredibly selfish motives involved in the issues and outcomes, but selfishness alone is not what makes them good or bad.  Moral judgment has to be made on the probable effect on the economy as a whole.  As a Christian, I would add that a special bias must be added – the effect on the poor and oppressed, whoever they may be.  That’s one of my special interests. 

But following the money sometimes goes nowhere important.  A current local issue will illustrate the point.  Floods once decimated our town every now and then.  Decades ago the Corps of Engineers built a series of reservoirs, controlled diversion of spring runoff into various creeks, and levees along a portion of our largest waterway.  Pathways along the levees provide bicycle, pedestrian, and horse trails in a beautiful setting enjoyed by a variety of birds and animals.  Over the years brush and trees have grown up along the levees in ways that the Corps believes are undermining their integrity.  They want to remove them along a fifteen foot wide corridor.  Various environmental and recreational groups are adamantly opposed.  The fight is on.  Following the money wouldn’t lead anywhere.  There isn’t much to begin with.  Yet each side represents a special interest, and each has fielded experts who disagree with each other about what should be done.  What should be done?  What would you do?  Why?  What assumptions and pre-judgments tend to push you this way or that?

The issue is important not only to nature lovers, hikers, and horse riders.  The outcome will have an effect on the water supply and safety of our community.  It will have an effect on migrating fish.  Some wildlife will find their man made habitat disrupted, but not destroyed.  We shall see what happens in a few months. 

Here is another one.  Local hard core conservatives are delighted that the Ex-Im Bank was not reauthorized.  They see it as corporate welfare of the worst kind.  But local wineries, wheat farmers, and small manufacturers rely on it to insure their overseas transactions in ways that private insurers can’t.  If you follow the money it will lead back to giant aerospace companies, but if you examine the effect on the whole economy you will discover deep roots leading into farms, small industrial businesses, and Main Street.  

What’s the answer?  Follow the money first, but always examine the issues and their outcomes for their effect on the whole fabric of society.  As for special interests.  We all have them. 


Thursday, October 8, 2015

A Few Thoughts on White Privilege

Earlier this summer the question of white privilege was a hot topic in the news and on social media.  Around here in my part of the rural west, many of the men I talk with were angry and perplexed about it.  What white privilege could they be talking about?  They didn’t know of any and could not imagine having benefitted from it, whatever it might be.  They don’t even remember those words we used to hear so often when we were young adults: “I’m free, white, and twenty-one.”

They had a point.  Many of them had grown up in households that had struggled to provide a decent home life.  With not much money, but a fair amount of determination, they had gone on to get an education and “make something of themselves.”  Where’s the so called white privilege in that?  From their point of view, they were absolutely right.  Within the context of the communities in which they were raised, everyone had about the same access to whatever resources were available.  There were economic differences that gave an edge to some and not others, but it was never a very big edge.  Boys had more choices about their future than girls, but that was just the way things were.  Ethnic differences were mainly between European immigrant groups with a few Asians and Hispanics thrown in.  Everyone claimed to be some brand of Christian, whether or not they went to church.

How can you see white privilege if everyone you knew in your formative years had access to those privileges, and you were unaware of anyone who didn’t?  You can’t.  You don’t even know they are there.  They are invisible.  

Can they be made both visible and understandable to them now?  It isn’t easy.  Conditions that exist beyond the boundaries of their internalized communities are abstractions.  Moreover, my guess is that those internalized communities exist almost exclusively in their childhood memories.  They form the lenses through which they view the world about them today.  It’s made all the more difficult when white privilege is used as a cudgel to attack the moral character of ‘men’ who have never seen themselves as anything other than hard workers who helped build the communities that others now want to have for nothing.

We are doing better in some parts of the nation thanks to better education that is willing to explore, without apology, some of the darker corners of American history while not diminishing that which is worthy of celebration and honor.  That gives promise to younger generations.  We are also doing better in some areas of the media and entertainment that tell the stories without sensationalizing them or assigning moral culpability to those who have had no control, or even knowledge, of great systemic injustices.  

On the other hand, the current political landscape has also unleashed the remnant of those who know full well what white (male) privilege has been and still is, and who are determined to keep it that way in the face of a nation in which they will no longer be in the majority either numerically or in voting power.  They are not dumb; their masterful use of propaganda to incite fear fueled reactionary political action has been very successful. 


It’s a prickly problem, and I don’t know what the answer is.  Many years ago I attended a lecture by Schlesinger when he was asked what he thought the answer would be.  He said “sex.”  Sooner or later romance will integrate us in ways that laws can never do.  Maybe he was right. 

In Praise of Home Health Care Aides

My wife had hip surgery two weeks ago, and I’ve been her home health care aide.  It’s given me a new perspective on the work that real home health care aides do for minimum wage, or even less.  It’s not that easy.  

To be sure, it includes the usual household chores such as cleaning, laundry, bed making, cooking, grocery shopping, dog walking, etc.  It includes them, but in the context of a person who cannot get around very well, and who needs things brought to her and done for her.  Compression socks have been the biggest headache.  It takes for ever to get them on, and it’s a pain.  I know because she yelps a lot during the ordeal.  Of course, medications have to be organized and delivered as prescribed.  Meals have to be prepared for taste buds that have been destroyed by anesthetic and physical discomfort.  All of this has to be done in the company of someone who does not like having limited mobility, being in pain, forced to endure embarrassing intimacies, and generally ticked off at the surgeon who suggested that this would be a breeze.

The next time you meet someone who shyly admits to being only a home health care aide, give them a big hug and hearty handshake.  For pennies a day they do an amazing lot of hard work.  I’m near the end of my time in that slot.  My wife is recovering speedily and will soon be back to her old self.  They do this work every day, year after year.  They deserve a lot more than minimum wage, and I hope there is a way for them to get it.  They also deserve a lot more respect from the rest of us.  That we can provide with ease.

Saturday, October 3, 2015

Communication and Integrity

A few days ago I sat in on interviews of candidates being considered for a first line supervisor’s job in an organization where entry level positions require advanced technical education and experience.  Two words were used many times by each of the candidates: communication and integrity.

Better communication, good communication, communicate with my team: how many ways could one describe communication as essential to effective leadership and yet never say what it means?  
Integrity was the other word. A good supervisor, each of them said, needs to have integrity.  But what is integrity?  For most it seemed to have something to do with moral standards, knowing right from wrong, having a moral compass.  But if your compass points north and mine points south, we’re going to have a problem.  If communication is important but only vaguely understood, integrity is packed with strong emotional content that is deeply felt but hard to put into words.

It appears that communication and integrity are seen to be among the most important characteristics of a good supervisor by those who aspire to become supervisors.  I suspect that their emphasis on them was also a thinly veiled commentary on current supervisors and upper management.

No doubt current supervisors and upper management would lean on the same two words as essential to effective leadership.  Given that, perhaps more senior levels of management should get serious about educational training that will help with a deeper understanding of what communication and integrity mean and how to go about being a person of integrity who communicates well in the role of supervisor.  As a substitute for that hard work, too many upper level managers rely on whatever motivational tools are present at the time, which amount to little more than memos and posters urging integrity and better communication, along with the occasional workshop led by an inspirational speaker whose lasting effect has the duration of a Mayfly.  

A few provisional definitions might help to guide in a more useful direction.

Communication is complex, but broken down into component parts, it’s not that complicated.  It involves a few mechanical, sociological, psychological, and cultural elements.  Mechanically, the brain can think faster than it can listen or read, and it’s always interpreting communication input in ways that is guaranteed to distort what the communicator believes is being said or written.  Mechanically, we rely on systems and protocols that are both necessary and unreliable.  We can always do better even if we can never quite get it right. 

Sociologically, pieces of communicated information are commodities to be acquired, saved, invested, and spent for the benefit of who?  Often it is for the benefit one’s own self interests that are perceived to be in competition with the self interests of others.  Sometimes it is for the benefit the group’s interests in competition with those of other groups.  Less often it is used altruistically for the benefit of all, whoever all may be.

Psychologically, communication is always filtered by whatever prejudices one has about the communicator or the subject of the communication.  Honest self awareness of what that means is hard to come by.  Most of us are not conscious of our own filtering processes, and are only marginally aware of the power of our prejudices.  

Culturally, the internet, talk radio, 24 hour cable news, and smart phones have created forms of communication and ways of understanding that are less than twenty years old.  Yet they have enormous influence on individuals and at every level of society.  

So the question is, given all of that, how does one become a more effective communicator in the context of supervision?   The practical answers to what is needed to be as successful as possible is often broader and deeper than we like to admit.  Posters, memos, and inspirational speakers can’t cut it and are a waste of money.  However, if you insist on continuing down that path please call me.  My fees are absurdly high which should assure you that I can be very inspirational.

On the other hand, practical models for understanding the dynamics of communication, and some basic tools for increasing the probability that the information A has and that B needs can be effectively transmitted  are things that can be made a key element of any educational training program.

Integrity is a more difficult subject.  As the dictionary says, it is the quality of being honest and having strong moral values.  From antiquity it implied a sense of wholeness; not having, as the bible might say, a divided heart.  The problem comes with using one’s own unreflective moral assumptions as the standard against which to measure other people’s integrity.  Moreover, what many people call moral values are nothing other than the culturally accepted norms of an earlier generation that is popularly believed to be the way it has always been – until today when every thing is going to hell.  

When the idea of integrity is used that way it becomes a significant cause of much of the polarization we see in our political environment, and in our personal relationships.  It would be better for integrity to be understood as the quality of trustworthiness without the element of deception, by which I mean that there are some people whom I can always trust to be deceptive in their dealings with others.  They are trustworthy, but not in the right way.  It would also be helpful to better understand the common use of integrity as an adjective for what one thinks is morally right, and that means a more honest examination of what one believes to be morally true and why he or she believes it.   An exercise like that is difficult but can produce a little more room for appreciative flexibility in honoring what the other believes to be moral even if it differs from your beliefs. 

Obviously the question about what integrity means can take one down a rabbit’s hole where philosophy professors hide in wait to capture the unwary and never let them go.  Surely there are others competent to guide examinations of integrity with managers and supervisors in terms that make sense to their work environments.


My recommendation is to turn to local resources, possibly faculty at the local community college; women and men who know the local customs well and have the proven ability to translate academic knowledge into practical training.  Moreover, it’s important to begin with chief executives and other top management before submitting first line supervisors to that kind of educational training.  If top management can’t or won’t take the time, why should anyone else?