Wednesday, December 28, 2016

What's in a Holy Name? What's in Your Name?

I've agreed to fill in on Sunday, January 1 at  the parish where I had been rector for eight years.  Anyone want to guess how many are likely to be there?  It’s not just New Year’s Day; given our Pacific time zone, the services will be right in the middle of a day of bowl games.  Talk about high probability for a low Sunday!  I've begged and bribed my wife to be among the congregation so that there will be at least two, and we can celebrate the Eucharist.  It's also the Feast of the Holy Name, which brings up two questions.  What makes a name holy, and if it's holy, does it have any special power that other names don't?  Jesus posed something like that when he rhetorically asked: "For which is greater, the gift or the altar that makes the gift sacred?"  Is the name holy, or is it made holy by the holy one to whom it is given?

I suppose one ought to ask what holy means, and therein lies a problem.  Holy is not a thing.  It is a condition of a thing.  It has an abundance of meanings that gravitate around while weaving in and out of an intimate presence of the divine.  In  so doing, things that are holy take on a character of wholeness and health that exists in a dimension not quite our own.  Thus it is not always recognized as wholeness and health according to our ordinary standards.  It’s not much of an answer is it?  But it should give you a glimpse into the spiritual reality that has always been a part of our lives, and was briefly made incarnate for us to experience in our reality through Jesus Christ.

So, back to the main question: Is your name holy?  Or perhaps your name is made holy by the one who made you holy?  Are you holy?  When in baptism you were sealed by the Holy Spirit and marked as Christ's own forever did that make you holy in some way that you weren't before?  Did that make your name holy in a way it otherwise wasn’t?  If it did, has it ever done you any good?  Does being made holy mean becoming a prissy, holier than thou, self righteous prig?  Can you be a scruffy, run of the mill, sometimes ill behaved human mutt, who enjoys a good time, and still be holy?  

For the sake of argument, let's say that all creatures, being made in the image of God, are inhabited by the holy, but in baptism each takes on a special kind of holiness as prospective agents of God's presence in the world, each according to one’s abilities.  In that sense, there is nothing that is not holy, but some holy things have been set aside for particular purposes.  Paul, in his letter to the Romans made the case that the potter (God) made all of us out of the same clay, but made some for one use, and some for another use – not a better use as such, but a different use with responsibility for doing odd jobs in God’s name (9.21).  My own sense is that we start out our holy lives at an infantile level, sometime literally, and gain in knowledge, understanding and skill by the grace of others who have preceded us, and our willingness to be taught, coached and disciplined under the guidance of those who have proven themselves to be masters.  Consider Luke and Yoda, or Harry and Dumbledore.  As those mythical stories tell, it can also go nowhere or the wrong way.  Success is not guaranteed.  

If you are among those who recognize that all creatures have something of the holy in them, that you are holy, your name is holy, and that in baptism you have been set aside for holy work – what then?  For starters, it’s time to recognize also that the world we live in is not myth.  It’s real.  We’re not playing a video game or watching a movie with many sequels.  What we say and do has a real impact on the lives of real people in real time.  After that, stop worrying about it.  Go do what you usually do.  You will be led to the place you need to be, or maybe others will be led to you.  It doesn’t matter.  It does matter that you remain awake and pay attention.  

Being set aside in one’s holiness to do the work God has given to be done might involve an occasional task or two of no great world shaking moment.  On the other hand, it might involve a lifetime’s dedication.  More likely it will be something in between that accommodates your drooping hands, weak knees, short attention span, and lack of serious training at the hands of a true master.  That’s certainly what I claim for myself.  It doesn’t matter.  Stay awake.  Do the work.  You are holy.  Your name is holy.  Honor your life and your name as being holy.  Remember, you have been sealed by the power of the Holy Spirit and marked as Christ’s own forever.  



Monday, December 19, 2016

How to play Trump, The Game: Part II

Looking back on Trump’s erratic business career littered with broken promises and law suits, echoed by an equally erratic personal  life, some have wondered if he has any guiding principles.  I think he might.

In 1968 a guy named Albert Z. Carr published an article in the Harvard Business Review called “Is Business Bluffing Ethical.”  You can read it online if interested.  The essence of it is that ordinary norms of what most people would call ethical have little or no place in business.  Business is a winner take all game in which any form of bluffing, lying, cheating, or double dealing is fair as long as it’s not blatantly illegal.  It’s not only fair, it’s the way successful business executives become successful, so wrote Carr.  Try to be ethical, and you’ll be a loser.  I have no idea what Trump read when he was at Wharton, but my guess is that this could have been a favorite, maybe the only thing that stuck.  It’s not that long, so people with short attention spans can handle it.  Whether he read it or not, it’s certainly been the credo that has guided his business dealings, and not without some success.  It often works well in the short run.  It can work for a long time if one stays just inside legal boundaries, and has a bit of luck avoiding others more devious than he or she.  Think of J.R. Ewing on the old oil field soap opera “Dallas.”

Ingrained as a habit of the heart (so to speak), it seems to be the same light guiding his politics.  Why should he care that the Carr article was challenged from every side, and has continued to be challenged these last forty-eight years by those who believe ethics are important in business?  Trump, like Carr, tosses challengers into the loser trash bin and goes merrily on his way.  Who cares about losers?  Not Trump.  His message to his minions is couched in the language of loser making revenge.  “All those (liberal) elites that look down on you, call you deplorable, and make your life hard, well stick with me and I’ll make them losers, losers every one.”  It sells.  Is it a bluff?  Not really.  He cares nothing for his minions, but he does care about revenge, and he understands the Carr philosophy perfectly.  Well, maybe he doesn’t understand it, but he knows how to use it. 


What’s the right response?  First, never take at face value anything he agrees to or promises.  Go out and tell the press you had an interesting conversation or think he’s a man you can work with if you want to, but don’t deceive yourself.  Second, always remember that his friendly smile, warm handshake, and complimentary words have no enduring meaning whatsoever.  They are well calculated to keep you off guard and off balance.  You can stay on his good side as long as you are loyal and useful.  Quit being useful and even loyalty won’t count for much – loser.  Third, while we might converse with each other about morality and ethics in politics, it is not an easy sell to a public that doesn’t trust politics or politicians, and has little understanding of American civics.  Evaluate everything he says and does in strictly practical terms.  What is actually happening?  What are the announced intentions?  What are the verifiable results?  Who benefits?  Who gets hurt?  And, as always, follow the money.  Fourth,  make it public in every possible way, but avoid snide, humiliating language.  

Fifth, and this is for those of you who are clergy, you have a responsibility to teach Christian ethics to your parishioners, not as an abstract religious ideal, but as a way of life in the secular world.  As important as they are, most of those sitting in the pews are not making daily decisions about abortion, sexuality, global warming, pipelines, etc.  They are making ethical decisions every day about how they live life and do business, and they need solid instruction about how to go about that as followers of Jesus, not Carr.  That’s your job.  If you don’t know how to do it, I have some basic materials that might help get you started.  

Christmas Greetings from Country Parson

It’s wonderful, happy, sad, tension filled time of the year.  We all know that perfect families have perfect Christmases, or so we’ve been told.  Television specials may present us with people and families who are not perfect, but by the time a magical Christmas Eve arrives, all their problems are solved, and life is wonderful again.  The problem for us is that none of us has a perfect family, has seldom had a perfect Christmas, and the difficulties we face do not disappear on Christmas Eve.  
Still, there is something so very special about Christmas that we can’t help but look forward to it, expecting to find the joy it promises.  As Christians, it may be because Joseph, Mary, Jesus, and the shepherds present to us a Christmas more like the ones we experience.  The Word of God incarnate in the baby Jesus boldly entered the world as it is, not the world as Hallmark portrays it.  Let’s face it, many would look at the Holy Family as a prime example of what dysfunction looks like, if they didn’t know it was the Holy Family.  Mary is what to us would be an underage pregnant teenage girl without a believable explanation for who the father might be.  Joseph, a man of some local standing, foolishly risked his honor, reputation, and livelihood to marry her anyway.  Shepherds, whom we might compare to undocumented immigrants working in the local vineyards, were the only ones to receive the heavenly message.  Who would believe them?  Who could they even tell it to?  And it all happened in the reign of a brutal, dangerous king known for his heavy hand and willingness to kill anyone who got in his way.

Why?  It all seems so dark and scary.  It’s not at all what we see on television.  I think that’s the point.  Dark and scary cannot overcome God’s love for us, nor can it defeat the power of God to bring salvation to the whole world.  The opening lines of John’s gospel say it this way: “The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.”  That is the where the joy and hope of Christmas make themselves known to those who are willing to come humbly to the manger in the company of the shepherds.  The gifts we lay before him are our fears and anxieties.  The light of his presence will overcome the darkness in which they have been hiding.  If we let it.  That is the joyous gift of Christmas he will give to us.  If we will receive it.

What can we gain from Christmas?  Not renewed faith in the goodness of people, but renewed courageous faith in the power of God’s love knowing that the light we have seen has become the light that lives within us, can shine through us, and cannot be overcome by any darkness.  Consider, if you will, the words of a blessing sometimes heard at the conclusion of worship: Go forth into the world in peace; be of good courage.  Hold fast that which is good; render to no one evil for evil.  Go forth into the world in peace.  Strengthen the fainthearted, support the weak, help the afflicted, honor all persons.  Love and serve the Lord, rejoicing in the power of the Spirit.  

These are the gifts of Christmas that will bring joy into our lives.  


Merry Christmas to All

Saturday, December 17, 2016

Deconstructing the Federal Government

If one set out to choose a cabinet and executive staff intent on deconstructing the federal government as we know it, one could do no better than the incoming administration.  And that’s the point.  It’s about deconstructing.  Some are ideologically motivated to deconstruct the federal government into the barest skeleton required by the Constitution so that state and local agencies will be free to address needs and issues as they are able and see fit.  Moreover, they are certain that many social needs can be better met through private enterprise and charities, encouraging higher standards of personal responsibility, and restoring what they call traditional family values.  Others are motivated by more practical considerations.  They want to remove the federal government as an obstacle to doing business in what ever way they think is best for their bottom lines. 

Trump is no ideologue.  He doesn’t have enough knowledge or curiosity about things ideological to be one.  Even if he did, he wouldn’t care.  If it’s not about him, it isn’t important.  As for the current system, he’s done best when he’s been able to manipulate its complexities in his favor.  He’s tended to fail when he’s had to compete head-to-head in the open market with others who know how to run a business.  He has no pressing need to dismantle the briar patch that has made him rich.  But he is a person who appears to take perverted delight demolishing, in humiliating ways, anyone or thing that stands between him and his ego.  So why not set his minions loose on the federal government the way the Caesars set gladiators and animals against one another?  He doesn’t need a coliseum as long as he has the news media and his Twitter account.  What fun entertainment for him and his ardent supporters.  The bloodier the better.  Whee!  When the battle has gone on long enough, he will fire the minions, and try something else.

Americans who are concerned with how best to meet needs and issues they believe demand a public response, and who view the federal government as an important tool for addressing those that are national in scope, or require resources beyond the abilities of state and local agencies, are missing the point.  They are focussed on needs and issues government can help address, but pay scant attention to its structure and efficiency.  The minions are focussed on the structure of the government, with needs and issues as peripheral concerns.  They exist, but on the periphery.  All the hollering about them coming from the center and left is but the distant muffled noise of unimportant people who can be safely ignored.  

What to do about it?  Centrists and progressives might consider engaging in the hard work of educating the public on the purposes of government, and the basics of how our federal system works at the national, state, and local levels.  It would be important not to overlook the relationship between government and the role of non governmental organizations that also address needs and issues.  They include the usual list of voluntary community organizations, larger associations and foundations, and also institutions sometimes taken for granted: schools, churches, social clubs, even local pubs.  There are some models to learn from.  The authors of the Federalist Papers did it in a time when literacy was limited and communication was slow.  A few decades ago the Southern Poverty Law Center began a program called Teaching Tolerance that has put curriculum material into classrooms all over the country.  Using the best of modern communication techniques, the same could be done for civics.  Did any of you read the December 17 New York Times article by Mike McIntire about how a guy in Britain created a fake internet news site called the “Patriot News Agency,” and made it into one of the hottest ultra right wing publicity machines invading every nook and cranny of the American election season?  He just laughed at the incompetence of centrists and progressives to do anything like it or about it.  Is there any reason why information well anchored in facts and reason can’t do the same and do it better?

It would be a good start but not enough.  There is a real problem with the complexity and inefficiency of the federal government.  Part is due to structural issues that could be corrected with a little discipline.  Part is due to legislation that incompetently micro manages implementation.  Part is due to liberal tendencies, yes I’m speaking to us, to define problems and solutions on grand scales, throw some money at them, and go on to other things.  Progressive leadership at the national and state levels would do well to be as hard headed pragmatic as possible in demanding that legislators, legislation, executives and bureaucracies be results oriented and accountable.

Pay attention!  Failure to do something like this is to fail!



Wednesday, December 14, 2016

Sex in the Age of Discontinuity

That’s not what this short article is about, but I needed a provocative headline to grab attention because this article is about the role of men in the age of discontinuity.  Maybe every age is discontinuous, but we often deceive ourselves into thinking that there was a time not long ago when it wasn’t.  Speaking of not long ago, it was not long ago that movements such as Promise Keepers, and something featuring men sitting around banging drums, had their moment of fame, and followers who were told it was the way to reclaim their rightful roles as undisputed heads of families, protectors of women folk, and guides to proper adult roles for their sons and daughters. 

They were popular because ours is an age in which gender specific roles as cornerstones of American culture have been challenged.  No, not challenged, displaced altogether.  But with what?  When men no longer have a preferred place reserved for them only, what do they have?  What role should they play?  What role are they called to play, and by whom are they called?  In this Christmas season we might look to Joseph, as revealed in Matthew’s gospel, for a few clues.

Joseph was a man of considerable standing in his community.  In his time and place, one of unquestioned patriarchal rule, a man of any standing whatsoever would have had nothing more to do with a girl like Mary.  Nothing was more important than one’s honor, but close behind were the honor of his family, his broader reputation in the region, and the future of his livelihood.  Social standing, pride, economic necessity, they all dictated that Mary had to go.  She was a corrupted sinner who had brought shameful disgrace to her family, his family, and him personally.  Joseph was a man of considerable standing in his community.  Being a compassionate man as well, he would prefer to get rid of her in a way that would at least keep her from being stoned to death.  It was the best he could do. 
But Joseph was also something else.  He was a man of faith.  He was a man who was wiling to listen to the angel.  He was a man who had the courage to lay aside his standing, his honor, his pride, his rights.  He was a man who was willing to risk his livelihood, and every prospect for a secure future, to go, as God directed him, on a path of unknown destination, but of well known danger in an unsettled and dangerous time.  He was a man who was willing to give up himself to God’s service not only with his lips, but with his life.  That’s what courageous faith looks like.  That’s what the role of a Christian man looks like today.  It’s not gender specific.  Few roles are.  To echo a popular internet meme: Be like a man, Be like Joseph.





Tuesday, December 13, 2016

A few thoughts on populism and the election

Populist movements have received a lot of attention in recent months.  It might be more accurate to say that the word populist has been used a lot in recent months.  It gets splattered around in articles with the frequency of misplaced commas, but with little explanation.  So what is populism?  At least that’s the question I asked myself.  Back in high school we were lucky enough to have a terrific civics teacher who put in the hard work of explaining the differences between populism, progressivism, and pragmatism, as it was expressed in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.  His labor was not in vain.  It just took quite a few decades to sink in, and a little refresher study thanks to the internet. 

It seems that populism is not a conservative or liberal ideology.  In fact, it’s not an ideology at all.  It’s a reactionary movement that can come from any part of the political spectrum.  What is it reactionary to?  It is always a reaction by some portion of the population that believes it is being suppressed or oppressed by a powerful (corrupt?) elite, and that organized opposition is needed to combat it.  Usually the offending suppression or oppression is a verifiable condition of fairly long standing that finally reaches a tipping point in which previously unorganized victims find ways to come together to fight back, first in spontaneous fashion, and then in more organized ways.  Usually but not always.  Sometimes the offending suppression or oppression can be largely imaginary, as in secret plans to confiscate all our guns, and the skillful use of propaganda can light a populist fire with real consequences.  

There have been all kinds of populist movements.  On the current public stage one might include the Occupy movements, Black Lives Matter, the various tea party groups, as well as the newly resurgent white supremacists and neo nazis.  There have been political parties that have attempted to institutionalize populist movements.  Think of the Populist Party, Greenback Party, Progressive Party and the Share Our Wealth Party, each of which had it’s day and then withered.  Institutionalizing populist fervor never works, and yet the ideas they generate can often take hold as they enter into the mainstream of American political life.  Laws related to child labor, social security, minimum wage, corporate monopolies, predatory pricing, food and drug safety, and others began as thrusts from populist movements.   So too were laws that enforced segregation, restricted voting rights, barred immigration of certain races, and favored high import tariffs.  Populism, as a descriptor of movement dynamics, is amoral and has no inherent political bias.  It’s neither progressive nor conservative.  It is simply a way to describe how a certain kind of reactionary movement can come into existence, take root, and have influence over public policy.  

It’s tempting to think that all populist movements arise from the people, and are not constructed by outside forces with manipulative intent in mind.  And for the most part that’s true, but not always.  In the early days of the tea party movement, liberal commentator Rachel Maddow complained that it was not a genuine grassroots movement, that it was organized and financed by particular right wing big money corporate interests.  I think she had the Koch brothers in mind.  She was probably right, but it didn’t matter.  I recall hearing her say something like once they figure out they’re being had, they’ll all go home.  She was wrong.  The Kochs, or whoever, knew how to tap into smoldering discontent through skillful use of propaganda and organization of well planned opportunities for it to be expressed in ways sure to garner media attention.  It worked.  It’s working still.  Did it pay off for the behind the scenes organizers?  Who can say for certain, but the 2016 election results, with the current line up of proposed senior executive leadership, indicates a huge return on investment at the cost of a few trivial bones tossed to the crowds that had been so masterfully used.  Moreover, they’ve got a guy headed to the White House who, because of his narcissistic unpredictability and general lack of intellectual curiosity, is probably someone they can manipulate to their own advantage while letting him play at being president.  I wonder.  He’s the wily sort of crazy that may not be so easy to handle.  But I digress and have strayed from the subject of populism.

Our nation has been influenced by populist movements from colonial days to now.  A combination of our constitutional forms of government combined with a centrist political ethos has generally enabled us to self correct in ways that other nations have not.  We may take the occasional wrong turn, but always find our way back.  After rejecting populist movements as such, we have taken from them ideas that have contributed to the well being of the nation, weaving them into the institutional fabric of American life.  In like manner, we have spurned, after a time, sometimes too long of a time, populist ideas that have been destructive of society.  Our practice has been to tolerate a considerable deviation about the mean while suspiciously watching outliers to see whether they should be brought into the mix, left out in the cold, or made illegal.  It hasn’t been pretty at times.  From violent suppression of factory and mine strikers to toleration of the KKK, and our brief love affair with the America First movement, we have toyed with the possibility of not continuing as a democratic republic centered on shared American cultural values.  We’ve toyed with it, but no more than that.

Now we are in a political transition that may be as dangerous to the republic as was the election of 1860.  It remains to be seen whether a well engineered right wing swing toward something that looks a lot like fascism swathed in clothing that promises greater personal freedom and opportunity for working class folks can really work.  Or will the self correcting mechanisms embedded in our constitution and laws, backed by our history of centrist democracy succeed in keeping us ethically and politically healthy?  We shall see.


One thing I know, if any of my right wing friends read this short essay, they will take umbrage in high dudgeon at the very thought of having been manipulated.  How rudely arrogant of me when all they want is a simpler federal government that is not so intrusive in their lives, and leaves local problems to be solved by local people in their own way.  More on that at another time, along with a recipe for how to make an umbrage served in high dudgeon.





Sunday, December 11, 2016

Is the Protestant Work Ethic relevant?

When I write about what conservative friends think about issues of public policy, I’m not writing about conservatives as a class, only about the friends to whom I have listened.  It disturbs me when I read articles that assert conservatives or liberals believe thus and so.  I consider my self left of center and very pragmatic.  What some commentators ascribe to all liberals or progressives is foreign to me, and it seems the height of conceit to slather an entire political spectrum with a brush of one unverifiable color.  In like manner, I cannot say conservatives think or believe thus and so.  I can only say what I understand my particular conservative friends think and believe because I have listened to them one at a time.  They cannot speak for all.  They can’t even speak for others who live in our area and vote like they do.   They can speak only for themselves, as I can speak only for myself.  When I write articles that imply a dialogue between us, I take the risk of misstating what they would say for themselves, but it’s one I’m willing to take for the sake of writing anything at all.

With that said, my friends farther to the right end of the spectrum believe that it is essential for people to be responsible for their own well being, and that government assistance programs are, for the most part, agencies enabling dependency rather than responsibility.  But for all the welfare programs, people would find ways to work for their needs rather than relying on government handouts.  But for all the government regulations, there would be abundant opportunity for entrepreneurial growth in business and industry.  The creeping socialism of the left is the greatest danger to America’s prosperity.  No doubt you have heard something similar, and more.  The roots of those assumptions lie deep in the American psyche, and I suspect they are tied closely to the so called Protestant work ethic, popularized by Max Weber in the early part of the 20th century as our civic inheritance of Puritan theology applied to daily life.  

Protestant by its foundation in Calvinist theology as expressed by colonial Puritans, it has a curious affection for one way of understanding justification by works that many Protestants ascribed to Roman Catholics, and to which they were adamantly opposed.  Grossly and unfairly summarized, it might be said that one side believed success achieved through hard work and civic diligence was a sign of God’s preordained blessing.  The other side believed that God’s blessing could be achieved through hard work and civic diligence.  Either way, hard work and civic diligence are at the center.  At best, slackers and reprobates fail the community, fail God and are bereft of God’s blessings.  At worst, they are signs of the devil’s handiwork sapping the life out of the community.  

What some of my very conservative friends leave out of their take on all of this is civic diligence.  It’s the same thing missing from what several right wing commentators write, to the extent that I stumble across them from time to time in our local paper.  It’s a big mistake.  Civic diligence is central to both ways of understanding the importance of hard work and God’s blessings.  The other day I was reading an essay on this very subject by John Cotton, one of those old colonial Puritans.  In it he asserted that there were three mandatory characteristics of the work to which every Christian [man] is called.  First, all work must be not only for his own well being, but also for the public good.  Second, the work one is called to is work for which one has skills, abilities, and understanding, and not other kinds of work.  Third, the work one is called to must be accomplished in ways acceptable to God’s purposes.  Obviously he had more to say, but the point is that if one wants to appeal to the founding principles of an American work ethic as the standard against which modern social policy is measured, then one ought to know what those principles are. And those principles always point toward the responsibility one has to the community for work that contributes to the well being of the community.  They require people to do what they are capable of doing, but not what they are not capable of doing.  They require that work be accomplished in morally, ethically acceptable ways.  

It’s the communitarian emphasis that my very conservative friends would find suspicious, even threatening, if they knew about it.  The rugged individualism and freedom from community oversight they attribute to the founding ideologies of the nation are not there.  Just to be fair, nascent European style socialism is not there either.  It’s important to make that point because they have a tendency to say if you don’t believe what they believe then you must be a socialist.  It doesn’t work that way, but trying to bring a more complex understanding into the conversation generally ends the conversation.  

Apart from the communitarian issue, their current delight in the president elect ignores the call to high standards of the moral and ethical component that characterized the early American work ethic.  For those old New England Puritans, success that does not reflect God’s will and ways is the work of the devil.  No matter how successful such a person might appear, it is destructive to the community and a sign of his or her eternal damnation.  It is to be rejected by the community.


Maybe none of this is important as we enter 2017.  Friends who think they are appealing to traditional American values are unlikely to read essays by those who gave birth to them.  I suspect they don’t really believe in them anyway.  They adhere to a Disney theme park version, and are not going to give it up.  On the other hand, maybe we need make it a part of the public debate.  What are the most workable ways to understand the scope of and relationships between communities and issues at the national, state, local levels?  What responsibility does the community have for creating conditions under which meaningful work opportunities for every level of skill and ability can exist?  What does it mean for persons and communities to have high moral and ethical standards for the work they do and the way they do it?  In what ways can we maximize individual right to live and work as each will without jeopardizing the right of others to do the same?  If each is to be as responsible for one’s self as each is able, what is needed for it to also provide for the necessities of life?  What is the responsibility of the community toward those who are irresponsible for what ever reason?

Thursday, December 8, 2016

Beware the Beast?

For any number of decades we have been pummeled by self declared Christian voices warning that the anti-Christ was here, or soon would be.  When I was a boy the anti-Christ looked a lot like Communists, especially Russians and Chinese.  Later they were the civil rights leaders and those opposing the Vietnam War.  Secular humanists, whatever they are, were always in reserve to be trotted out if there wasn’t a more obvious candidate.  More recently it has been anything related to homosexuality, in fact anything with the word sex in it. 

It’s nothing new.  Every age from the beginning of ages has had something like it.  What opens the door for some Christians to become obsessed with it are the several passages in scripture that warn about it.  Matthew, Mark, and Luke each cite Jesus as saying that “many will come in my name, saying, ‘I am the Messiah!’ and they will lead many astray…Do not go after them.”  Paul's second letter to the Thessalonians warns about the lawless one who will presume to rule as if a god.  The thirteenth chapter of Revelation describes two beasts who emerge from the sea, enticing people to worship them through displays of miraculous powers, awesome strength, and authority to rule as they will.  Who could oppose them?  Those who tried were humiliated, tortured, killed.  They uttered haughty and blasphemous words, and got away with it, for a time.  It didn’t last, but that didn’t stop them from doing all the damage they could to God’s creation and creatures in the time they had.  When it’s in the bible, it’s to be taken seriously, and when it’s as scary as false messiahs, lawless ones, and beasts from the sea, it’s to be taken very seriously.  Vigilance is called for.

Looking for them in each age has inspired both fear and hope.  Fear of the trials and tribulations that were to come, and maybe were here already.  Hope that they heralded the second coming of Christ, the final judgment of the world, and the resurrection life of salvation that would be theirs at last.  Finally everything would be put to right.  Their strife would be over.  It’s an understandable thing, and all the more when times are violently brutal, as they have often been.  There have certainly been no lack of candidates for false messiahs, lawless ones, and beasts from the sea.  Curiously, there have been far too many times when people of faith have pointed their fingers of accusation in the wrong direction, often at others fighting injustices, upsetting the normal ways of doing things, raising uncomfortable moral questions, and opening doors that were better left shut.  On the other hand, those who have proven themselves to be morally corrupt in ways that surpass despicable have sometimes been greeted by communities of faith as if they were the saviors they were looking for.  It seems to have escaped them that the lesson in the passage from Revelation is the ease with which evil can persuade the faithful to follow it.  Isn’t that what Jesus warned about?

There are plenty of examples of that happening in the previous century.  Stalin, Hitler, Mussolini, Tojo, Pol Pot are a few of the obvious ones.  At least for those from Christian nations, it was not hard for them to gain the loyalty of a majority of the faithful.  Even in our own country there was strong support for Nazi successes as a model we might want to follow here.  At least there was before the war came to us.  A surprising number thought Stalin was someone to look up to, until after the war.  That was the last century, what might we say about our own century?  Are there any in power, or coming to power that exhibit beastly patterns?  Terrorists of one brand or another don't measure up.  They are terrifying, but basically just another type of common criminal, vicious but common.  The various occupy movements probably don’t count.  They may be naive, and sometimes violent in pointless ways, but they appear to be in pursuit of greater justice for all.  What about all the urban protesters, some of whom loot and destroy property?  Maybe the Standing Rock folks?  They are certainly disturbing the peace of others.  My guess is one would have to look for something more serious than any of them for someone who might approach the great beasts, lawless ones, and false messiahs of the previous century.  What might we look for?  Blasphemy would be high on the list.  Someone who claims the Christian faith but shows no evidence of understanding or practicing it.  Someone who claims the authority to do as he or she pleases without regard for law or tradition.  Someone who demonizes entire classes of others.  Someone who habitually humiliates, insults, and embarrasses others.  Someone who takes umbrage at any perceived slight, and seeks revenge.  Someone who routinely speaks falsely and deceptively so that truth becomes an abstraction.  Someone like that might be one to watch for.  

I wonder if good Christian folks would recognize the danger if someone such as that were to appear on the American stage?  Of course they would.  We are not the sort to blindly follow false messiahs.  It’s a relief to me to know that.





Wednesday, December 7, 2016

Interim Ministry - We're all in it

A friend of mine is an interim pastor by choice and training.  He’s good at it and loves it.  Our conversations often turn toward the dynamics of interim ministry: what it means to arrive, heal what has been hurt, prepare the way for what is to come, and leave, with a certain degree of sadness, a place of welcome for the one who will follow.  Sounds like John the Baptist doesn’t it, except for the brood of vipers part?  What has stuck me is the realization that all pastors, even long term pastors, are interim ministers.  

Congregations never belong to the pastors who serve them, they  are merely stewards of it for a season, however long or short the season may be.  Congregational leaders, especially those of long standing, perhaps generations of long standing, seem to know that, and are quick to let each pastor know that he or she is a temporary fixture who will be replaced in due time.  I’ve run into some, maybe you have too, who take perverse delight in making that clear.  It may be an uncomfortable truth, but it is a truth.  It might be a good idea for every pastor to take interim training.  My guess is that it could relieve more than a little of the angst one feels when one discovers the parish as it is, is not the parish that was described in the profile.  It could also help reduce the nascent disappointment parishioners feel when they discover that the new pastor is not the messiah that had been promised.  Long term pastors might rediscover the delight in knowing they are preparing the way for those who will follow, rather than setting a standard they hope no one will ever surpass.  

But here’s the real news.  All those parishioners, even the ones of long standing, are also interim ministers.  Congregational membership, however defined, turns over surprisingly fast.  People move away, die, go elsewhere, quit altogether.  Others are born, move into the neighborhood, come from other churches, or just pass through out of curiosity.  It’s a moving river.  I wonder why more congregational leaders don’t see that?  I’ve heard, and so have you, a well meaning elder say something like, “We’re so glad you’re here, but of course you are only here for a time while this is our church and we are here forever.  Some day you will go, but we will stay.”  It isn’t true.  

Every pastor is an interim minister leading a congregation of interim ministers in a church that belongs to God and to no one else.  As Christians we know God through the peripatetic life and teaching of Jesus Christ, who, in calling us to follow him, keeps us constantly on the move.  We cannot not be interims and still be followers of Jesus.  You’ve seen what happens when that is ignored.  Congregations slowly die out as fewer and fewer sit stubbornly in their pews unwilling to give up their building or memories of who they once were, while the work of following Jesus is going on somewhere else.  With enough money, a church building and its traditions can be the permanent thing, until the money runs out.  Through it visitors may flow, sometimes staying a few years, sometimes a few minutes.  Museums are like that, even liturgical museums offering worship services.  It can be a way station on the path of following Jesus, or it can be a terminal stop from which following Jesus is no longer important.  Maybe it never was.  Entertaining preaching and terrific music can be a lot more fun than following Jesus. 


So here’s to interim ministry.  We’re all in it.  Or should be.

Wednesday, November 30, 2016

America's Shared Cultural Values: Are there any? What are they?

American cultural values, what are they?  Are there some that are essential to understanding what is meant by the American way of life?  Are there some that transcend the many ethnicities, races, and ways of living that make up the American landscape?  People seem to think there are, but defining them is not that easy.  Nevertheless, that is what this brief article will try to do.  But first, What is America?  In one sense we are a nation in which white European immigrants and their descendants conquered land through the use of force and duplicity in ways that are no longer tolerated as morally acceptable, but what an amazing feat it was.  Books, movies, and myths record it in truth, and in romanticized exaggeration.  It is the stuff of childhood dreams and games.  Colonial and pioneer associations exist in every region, and are celebrated at annual fairs and exhibitions.  It’s an odd mixture of pride and shame, with pride overshadowing deeds shamefully half remembered.  

In another sense we are a nation in which loosely regulated entrepreneurial private enterprise is encouraged to prosper in whatever ways are legal.  With luck and hard work, creativity and risk may be richly rewarded, or maybe not.  Finally, we are participants in a national experiment in constitutional, representative democracy that is unique on the world stage.  It shouldn’t work, but it does.  Our national motto, “E Pluribus Unum” (Out of many, One) is aspirational.  Often interpreted to mean out of many people, one people, it was intended to mean out of many states, one nation.  Either way, we are  many.  We are not one.  Not yet.  Moreover, we have not yet come to terms with what government is, or what it should do.  American government is a hodgepodge of a complicated federal system overlaying fifty different versions of provincial government, each with its own sets of rules for local government, a few of which follow laws set for them by monarchs otherwise remembered only in history books.  At its heart is a written constitution, amended twenty-seven times as we try to get it right.

Before exploring the variety of ways in which the cultural values that define America are expressed, it would be good to say something about the Constitution as an expression of cultural values, especially the first ten amendments, the Bill of Rights, because they not only outline core cultural values, they set them in foundational law.  They are not values always adhered to, but they set standards we desire for the nation as a whole, even when we have little intention of meeting them.  We are a land that values freedom of speech, the press, and religion, but forbids governments from establishing or favoring any particular religion.  We are a nation that values the role of the citizen soldier, and, therefore, the right of citizens to be armed (in a limited and disciplined way?).  We are a nation that will not tolerate governmental use of private property without due process of law.  We are a nation that prohibits governments from searches and seizures without warrants.  We are a nation that demands fair trials.  We are a nation that recognizes there are other rights, unalienable rights, not recognized in law but given by the Almighty to all persons.  As they are discovered, they will be protected.  We are a nation that intentionally disperses governmental authority between and among different branches in different places.  Following the Civil War, amendments XIII, XIV, and XV clarified these rights by specifically extending them to former slaves, and their descendants.  Amendment XIX extended the right to vote to women.  American Indians, declared full citizens in 1924, are struggling yet for their rightful place in a land where centuries gross injustices have gone unheeded.  

The Constitution is our foundational law, but cultural values that define America go well beyond law.  They are ever changing, often poorly defined myths, standards, and expectations that are generally understood, but in vastly different ways by different people in different parts of the country.  Whatever they are, preserving or restoring them was a rallying cry in the recent presidential campaign, with many people complaining that their access to achieving all that they promise had been closed to them.  Indeed, there has been a strong movement to preserve traditional American cultural values for several decades, with no little controversy over what they are.  In the face of massive immigration from non-European countries, more demands have been made that newcomers must assimilate into American culture, leaving their old behind.  It raises a question.  What would you tell a new immigrant about what the essential American values are, and how to live into the American way of life?

We have an unofficial model assigned to display the ideal of what American cultural values look like.  It’s a white, vaguely Protestant, middle class family living in their own house, surrounded by friendly neighbors who are a lot like them.  It’s not that literature, movies, and the media (whatever that is) haven’t portrayed other ways of American life, but it’s always been clear that those ways fall short of the ideal.  Everything either pointed to the ideal as the way to success, or illuminated the outer edges of society as places of tacky humor, tragedy, or failure.  Even works that exposed and explored injustices assumed, each in their own way, that the depth of injustice was measured by its deviance from the unofficial ideal.  It isn’t working any more.  What would work?  Can we define it?

I asked Facebook friends to write a little something about what they believed to be essential American values, and to do so without snide asides or political hatchet honing.  A few responded.  Some could not resist snideness.  Only two of my several right wing and conservative friends had anything to say.  Maybe the others thought it was a trap of some kind.  Who can say?  Nonetheless, some thoughtful offerings were made.  Everyone agreed that freedom was one of the essentials, but all had difficulty saying what it means.  Before digging into what freedom might mean, what language shall we use?  Is it possible to share cultural values without a common language?  I don’t think so.  

Unlike most other countries, America does not have an official language, but English is our default shared language, and it has worked well for three centuries to help mold what it is to be American.  Strident calls to make it our official language are more about bullying immigrants than anything else and are not helpful, nor are they meant to be helpful.  Mean spirited is about the best one can say for them.  Still, English is the language that binds us together as a people.  Basic competency in it is essential to learning, understanding and adopting America’s shared cultural values.  It is shameful when we deliberately make it hard for non-English speakers to learn it in their own way.  It is even more shameful when we deliberately suppress the use of other languages.  I stand in awe of my Spanish speaking neighbors who can flip back and forth with ease between it and English.  Would that every school child was taught a second or third language from the very start of their education.  Besides, like the increasing ethnic diversity of the American public, American English is a mix of many others as it adopts words and phrases from other cultures, almost without noticing it.  New York City  English is peppered with dozens of Yiddishisms that are ordinary parts of everyday conversation.  Honolulu English contains a wild mix of Hawaiian, Chinese and Japanese all mangled together.  Santa Fe can’t be navigated without some knowledge of Spanish.  Oy vey!  Let it be.  Competency in English is what enlarges our Ohana while binding it together.  We don’t need laws to enforce it.  We do need to explore freedom – in English.

Freedom.  Everyone agreed that freedom is an essential cultural value, but what is it?  The light of freedom had been snuffed out all over Europe in the last years of the ‘30s, flickering only in Britain.  It looked like it too would be extinguished soon, and our own was under threat.  Franklin Roosevelt’s 1941 State of the Union speech articulated Four Freedoms that should be universal, are treasured by Americans, and are worth fighting for.  They were: Freedom of Speech; Freedom to Worship as one desires; Freedom from Want; and Freedom from Fear.  Might they also include freedom to work at whatever one is capable of doing, or studying whatever one wants to study, or live wherever one wants and travel without restriction?  Commentator Dennis Prager says that American freedoms are unique because they are not based on race or ethnicity.  Would that it were so.  It’s wishful thinking, but he has a point.  We want our freedoms to be prejudice free.  We may not live up to our highest standards of freedom that have no place for racial prejudice, but they are still our standards.  

Although many countries proclaim freedom of speech, it is America that embeds it in the Constitution, and protects even vile forms of speech so that the freedom to express one’s self is not jeopardized.  When powerful political forces arise to limit freedom of speech, equally powerful forces arise to defend it.  It may be our most important freedom.  Freedom to worship as one pleases frames the value Americans place on worship, and on the value of not prescribing what worship is or should be.  If “in God we trust,” we do not presume to say who God is or isn’t.  

Freedom from Want has generally been understood as freedom to work for one’s bread in the assurance that there is work to be had and that it pays enough to live comfortably.  Can it mean more than that?  Roosevelt’s speech came as the nation was finally coming out of the Great Depression when work was not to be had, or could not be had a wages sufficient enough for food and shelter.  What was the responsibility of the community to create conditions under which well paid work is available to all who can work?  That was the question then.  It is still the question.  

Freedom from fear of what?  Fear of destitution?  Fear of domestic violence?  Fear of crime?  Fear of war?  Fear of terrorism?  There is a lot to be afraid of, yet with few exceptions those of us privileged to have been born into and live the life of the American dream do not know fear the way others do.  If all are to live free of fear, what has to be done?  Freedom from fear means a certain level of security of life and property.  It’s not a value unique to America, but it is the promise of security that draws many from other nations where there is little of it.  Freedom from fear also implies courage in the face of threats, and there is an American ideal of courage that is a cultural value idealized in images such as the Minutemen, cowboys, Marines, and armies of one.  It may be more hype than reality, but it is an important cultural value just the same. 

Freedom is not the only cultural value that transcends the length and breadth of America.  Consider self control – responsibility – accountability.  An American hymn declares that freedoms are “confirmed by self control, liberty by law.”  The cultural value of self control and liberty protected by and accountable to the law are important elements of the American character.  From colonial days to now, American cultural values have included accountability to others, and the responsibility one has for one’s own choices and actions.  American culture also values self control that eschews extravagant displays of emotion one way or the other, and can withstand temptations to act outside the boundaries of what is socially and morally acceptable.  They are cultural values that, while celebrated, rub up against each other in uncomfortable ways depending on where one stands in relation to two significant strands of American political tradition: Libertarian and Puritan. Libertarians celebrate responsibility for their own actions and freedom from government oversight.  They reserve the right to establish their own standards of what is right and wrong, desirable and undesirable.  If they are not hurting anyone else, leave them alone.  Those from a more Puritan perspective celebrate freedom, responsibility, and accountability within the context of community.  It is the community that is free to do as it likes, and that sets the standards for those who are members of the community.  Individuals are free to join or leave the community, but they are not free to live as they please within the community.  When the community gets defined as the city, state, or nation, the conflict between Puritans and Libertarians can be unresolvable.  It’s not that Libertarians don’t believe in accountability, they just have a problem saying to whom.  While Libertarians are well known in today’s politics, Puritans can be dismissed as stuffy New England pilgrims from long ago who are barely remembered.  It’s not true.  Their political and ethical standards are with us still in hundreds of ways, underwriting our constitutions and laws, and buried deep in the American consciousness.  

Almost as universal as freedom are the values of equality – equity – tolerance.  Proclaimed, if not practiced, equality under the law is an essential American cultural value.  If nothing else, we want to believe that everyone is equal under the law.  We also want to believe that everyone has an equitable opportunity to succeed in life.  If it isn’t true, we agree that it should be, although in different ways to make it happen.  Recent publicity about the reality of white privilege has been ill received by many, especially by those who think that whatever privilege had been theirs has been taken away and given to someone else who has not put in the hard work to deserve it.  It’s created a strain on another essential element of American cultural values, tolerance of those who look different, think different, act different.  We celebrate our tolerance of others more than we practice it, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t an essential cultural value, one that we insist new immigrants adopt as quickly as possible.  In fact, we want immigrants to go one step farther.  We want them to respect and honor the cultural values that have already been woven into the American fabric, leaving their own behind. Tolerance of differences is not the same as respecting and honoring differences.  It seems to be where Americans want to go, but we want immigrants to go first.  In the meantime, their cultural baggage will be grudgingly tolerated as long as it doesn’t interfere with established ways.  

Related American cultural values are perseverance and hope.  Sustaining Americans through ups and downs have been shared cultural values of perseverance and hope.  We may not like what’s going on, but Americans value determined perseverance to get through it.  Generic Protestantism, the de facto civic religion for three centuries, bequeathed hope to our shared values.  No matter how bad things might seem there is always hope for a better future, perhaps not now, but soon.  The Social Gospel of the late 19th and early 20th centuries may have sputtered in the wake of wars, depression, and social upheaval, but it will not be put out.  There is always hope.  

Is there more to be said?  Of course there is.  For instance, I believe that tax supported free public schools are not just important but essential to preserving and enhancing everything that is America.  We may need to reenergize the principle of subsidiarity in public policy and programs.  Some conservatives have a handle on it, and progressives need to do the same.  You may have your own thoughts to add, but this article is long enough for now. 




Sunday, November 27, 2016

Reflections on Hillbilly Elegy

Two friends recommended J.D. Vance’s book Hillbilly Elegy (Harper Collins).  One started an online group to discuss it.  The other left a copy in my car just to make sure I had it.  So I read it.  Here’s my short take.  The final chapters reveal it as an extended apology for and about "hillbilly" culture as the refiner's cauldron from which some are able to emerge, bringing with them the gold and silver of individual fortitude without the dross of behaviors that are destructive of lives and societies. It's an essay on learned helplessness and the ways, or at least his way, of unlearning it.  In it are echoes of behaviors many others have experienced in their own lives, regardless of where they grew up. Finally, it is a commentary on how cultural heritage is baggage, both good and bad, that is not easily discarded, no matter how far away one gets from its epicenter. 

Vance uses hillbilly as a label for the cultural attitudes and behaviors of the Kentucky town from which generations of his family came, and the cultural baggage they took with them when they migrated for a hoped for better life elsewhere.  Although he escaped the cycle of ignorance, abuse, poverty, and addiction that infected most of the people he knew, the culture that formed him came with him into his new life far away from Kentucky and Ohio.

His personal story aside, there are more than a few subtexts in the book.  Primary among them is his attempt to explain right wing populism as an extension of “hillbilly” culture that exists in many forms throughout industrial and rural America where decent job prospects are scarce and the people are deeply suspicious of those whom they identify as effete, yet powerful, upper class manipulators of their misfortunes.  Another is a predictable reverse snobbishness that celebrates the hardscrabble endurance of “hillbillies” who know how to survive under conditions that would kill upper class softies who have never had to do hard work with their hands.  It’s the subtexts that interest my friends, although both of them are familiar with life experiences that share similarities with his.  Most of us do, I suspect.  The subtexts offer attractive generalities because there is some truth in them, but like all generalities , they bite off too much.  They can only be tightly focussed beams illuminating a small portion of a more complex reality.  Anything more is too much, and I think Vance knows that.  The problem comes when readers have their “aha moment” and declare that it explains everything. 

The culture described in Hillbilly Elegy may honor family loyalty, hard work, and Jesus, but it’s also a culture that habitually undermines the foundations of family loyalty, works hard sporadically, and proclaims religion without practicing it.  It’s a culture that opens doors to addiction, tolerates abuse as normal, belittles higher education, and assumes a knowledge of how the world works that extends no farther than the next “holler.”  It despises government welfare, and takes every penny it can get.  It’s not a culture on which a successful democratic society could be built or sustained, but it is a culture that can be turned easily to fascism offered to them as a bulwark protecting their rights and freedom.  Vance, I think, would like to see a way for them to assimilate more successfully into an America that will never again provide the economic opportunity they imagined was theirs for the taking in the mines and mills.  It’s a more complicated America that requires different skill sets, but has yet to understand the economic value of critical jobs that are chronically underpaid.  The hillbilly culture he describes works against it, but there is alway hope.

It’s also important for readers of the book to remember that it is not the only culture around, nor is it the only one that burdens its people with baggage they haul with them into future generations and far away places.  We all carry something with us.  I’ve never lived in Kansas, and haven’t seen my Kansas relatives in almost fifty years, but there is something of the Kansas prairie that is an important part of who I am.  You have your own story too.  The old shibboleth that we were a melting pot nation was a sixth grade text book dream in which everyone eventually became a white middle class Protestant.  It gave way to being a stew pot nation, which is still not a very good metaphor, but at least it gets at an important point.  Assimilation of cultures into the American way of life means learning how to live together sharing important transcultural values while remembering and honoring the best of whence we came.  The dominant cultural standard has been the white suburban middle class, and it’s been a good one, but it cannot stand.  It’s evolving, as it always has been, into something less white and more colorful with norms that accommodate more than a suburban house and two children who grow up to go to college.  It will become a better thing, if we let it. 





Wednesday, November 23, 2016

Hey Jesus, let's stop here. This looks like a good place to stay.

I’m part of a Tuesday morning ecumenical study group, and the other day we spent time with Isaiah 2.2-5: 
2:2    In days to come
the mountain of the LORD’S house
shall be established as the highest of the mountains,
and shall be raised above the hills;
all the nations shall stream to it. 
3 Many peoples shall come and say,
“Come, let us go up to the mountain of the LORD,
to the house of the God of Jacob;
that he may teach us his ways
and that we may walk in his paths.”
For out of Zion shall go forth instruction,
and the word of the LORD from Jerusalem. 
4 He shall judge between the nations,
and shall arbitrate for many peoples;
they shall beat their swords into plowshares,
and their spears into pruning hooks;
nation shall not lift up sword against nation,
neither shall they learn war any more.

Laying plowshares and pruning hooks aside, what struck us were words like come and walk.  You can’t come to some place unless you leave the place you are in.  You can’t live in faith by resting in it.  You have to walk in it.  Walking always means leaving the place where you were as you go to the place at which you have not yet arrived.  Each step brings you to a new place along the way where you will remain for only a moment because it is not the place where you are going.  The psalmist begs us to “be still and know that I am God” (Ps. 46).  In a curious way, we can be still only by walking – leaving, arriving, and leaving again – in the stillness of quiet confidence that we are waking in the way of the LORD. 

It’s frustrating.  My confidence that I am walking in the way of the LORD is not all that great.  For me, stillness is a call to stop walking.  Just sit and be.  Let the world go by.  Get out of the parade.  If I have to move, I want to look around for a moving sidewalk, escalator, taxi, whatever, anything to take the work out of it.  On the whole, I’d rather stay put.  I mean, it’s one thing to enjoy traveling to foreign lands and exotic places, always knowing that I will return home.  It’s another thing to walk in the way of the LORD knowing that I can’t stop walking, will never return to where I started, and have no idea when I will get to wherever I am going, which, I am told, is my true home, but I have to trust that it is so.  Prayerful meditation is not a big help.  It always ends up with me being somewhere other that where I started.  God, it seems, has a puckish sense of humor so that even when I remain anchored in the reading chair of my study, where I thought I was when I began prayerful meditation is not where I am when I rise to go out to the kitchen.  

When Jesus said “follow me,” he meant get up, start walking, and leave where you are behind.  A number of people I know don’t like that at all.  The world is unpredictable enough as it is.  They want a Christian faith that is set, doesn’t change, doesn’t further upset the tenuous balance of life they have to live with anyway.  If there is a difference, maybe it’s the difference between believers and disciples.  Believers are content to sit where they are, acknowledge Jesus as he passes by, and hope he comes back again soon.  In the meantime, they’re not moving.  Disciples follow Jesus, never staying in one place for long, unsure of where they are going, but certain that by following Jesus they are going in the right way.  Some days I’m a believer.  Some days I’m a disciple.  Mostly I wish Jesus had handed out AAA Triptiks.