Monday, December 31, 2018

Jesus, Time, and Meaning: A New Year’s Eve Reflection

[Note: my editor is getting ready for a night out and unavailable.  I, being fully confident of having proofed and edited carefully, dare to publish on my own.]

It’s New Year’s Eve 2018.  Tomorrow is the Feast of the Holy Name in memory of the baby’s circumcision and proclamation of his divinely given name, Jesus.  For Luke, things are to be done decently and in order so there can be no mistake about who he is.  Maybe we need to be conscious of starting the new year off more in the name of Jesus than in the name of Alka-Seltzer.  

In any case, New Year’s Eve is a strange event.  It’s as if something old has been left behind, the door shut on last year, as we enter a new place and time.  In truth, tomorrow will be not unlike today, and what it brings will come in large part from the accumulated events of many yesterdays.  Once upon a time, time was thought to be circular, what goes around comes around, a bit wobbly perhaps, but essentially no different than what it was the last time round, and not going anywhere new.  

So here is my New Year’s reflection on the nature of Jesus, time and meaning.  My coffee buddy Tom, who teaches philosophy, might shake his head at me covering old sod, and not well, but it’s just a reflection, nothing more.

Jesus changed time, at least for Christians and Western civilization.  Whatever time was before Jesus, his presence dramatically changed its direction and meaning.  Time after Jesus was going somewhere.  It had a purpose, it was on a journey.  Where it had been was left behind as it went on to where it was going.  But did it become linear?  Physics says time is multidimensional, and I suppose it would be if we were quarks or photons, but we’re not, we’re humans living in history.  We record our history in linear fashion, year by year, marking each year as if it were a new beginning when we know very well it’s not.  Yet marking them serves to remind us that the cycles of the years have a direction, and we can do something to guide them for the better, at least a little, based on understanding where we have been, where we are, and where we want to go.

Time for us is history, and history is cyclical, but more like a moving spiral, a three dimensional curve.  Each season returns at its appointed time, but never in quite the same way or with the same conditions as it had before, or will again.  Empires rise, fall, and rise again, but never the same way twice.  Economic cycles are unavoidable, their conditions recorded and studied to predict what will come, yet their next iteration is never what we expect.  Generations are born and die, but each transmits what it has received, adds to it and passes it on as an eternal inheritance to those who follow.  All the yesterdays are not dead and gone.  They are the stuff of which today is made, and the preparation for what will come tomorrow. 

Moments don’t pass into extinction, they are woven into the fabric of who we are, our memories restore them to today’s reality – for good or for ill.  The possibilities of tomorrow can be anticipated with a comfortable degree of probability, goals can be set for something new, and so the work of today already lives into the future.  It’s why we can anticipate and plan for what is to come, yet as with all cycles there will be a today or tomorrow that changes everything for all time.  Fortunate or tragic, it will come.

Jesus did that.  The curious thing, at least for Christians, is he continues to do it.  He is not a person who lived several thousand years ago and whom we reverently remember. He lives now and is as present now as he was then.  Moreover, he is the manifestation of the essence of God that has never not lived.  Jesus transcends time.  When, in this earthly presence, he bent time in a new direction, giving it purpose, he invited us to walk in that new direction toward an end that has meaning beyond the limits of time as we experience it in our short lives.  Discovering that meaning is the purpose of our worship.  Living into it is the work of our daily lives.   


Friday, December 28, 2018

Quiting Politics for Christ’s Sake?

A friend, not a close one, but a friend nevertheless, is the founder and pastor of his own nondenominational church with a growing congregation.  He is, as one might expect, a conservative evangelical who is suspicious of the theology and politics of people like me. 

Not long ago he cited a passage from “The Screwtape Letters” in which Screwtape advised Wormwood to encourage his “patients” to obsess about politics and the problems of society because it would keep them from focussing on Jesus and their own moral failings.  As a priest and political commentator, I have some misgivings about that, no matter how much I admire C.S. Lewis, and this book in particular.  

They are misgivings in two parts.  One is entirely pragmatic, having to do with observations about the ebb and flow of religious engagement in politics.  The other is more theological, based on the political implications of following Jesus, at least as I understand it.

American religious leaders have always had their political say and sway.  How could it be otherwise for a country founded in large part by religious colonization?  Think of the religious righteousness of Adams fulminating against the godlessness of Jefferson, and how that affected the way the Constitution and Bill of Rights were written.  Or consider the religious foundations of the anti-slavery movement that were, oddly enough, opposed by arguments justifying slavery on biblical grounds.

In our time, the religious right, starting with the Moral Majority of the Reagan years, has been overtly Republican, and worked hard to oust moderates from GOP leadership.  The old Moral Majority is no more, but its progeny have endured and succeeded in what they set out to do.  Advertised as doing God’s work to restore traditional American family values, they claimed moral superiority over dying mainline churches and their anything goes ways.  

Perhaps to their surprise, the mainline churches did not die.  Their ways were never anything goes.  They were always about following Jesus.  And they redoubled their commitment to follow Jesus by opening more doors to more people from more conditions in life.  It was not without prayerful, sometimes painful struggle, nor was it without recognition of human failure within their institutions.  In the meantime, the religious right discovered the infection of unrighteousness in their own ranks.  The burden of racism, sexism, and internal corruption has led some conservative traditions to reexamine their souls, and face their own declining membership.  

The sad fallout for us all has been the often reported growth of so called ‘nones’, and parallel growth of disrespect for clergy and Christianity in general.  One way out is for some, such as my friend, to return to an earlier practice of removing church from the corrupting realm of politics in order to save the faithful.  Being more skeptical, I think it’s a well thought out tactic to quit the game while winning is waning.  It’s hard to be morally righteous when your own movement has helped generate a Trumpian quagmire of corrupt autocracy.  Trying to segregate church from politics is a rear guard tactic to avoid clergy accountability, while giving an encouraging wink and nod to church members to stay the political course, knowing the clergy won’t hold them accountable either.  

God has quite a lot to say about politics in both the Hebrew scriptures and gospel records.  Prophets were called to challenge idolatrous worship and to illuminate the political sins of the people.  Right worship, the prophets warned, required right politics of justice and equity, not only in personal life, but even more in the life of the community and its government.  Jesus defined ways of living with one another that can’t be met unless they’re extended to the community and its leaders.  

You can’t thirst for righteousness without thirsting for it on behalf of everyone.  You can’t be merciful without seeking mercy as a standard for the community.  You can’t be a peacemaker without working for peace between enemies.  You can’t be the light of the world in a shining city on the hill without building the city and all that’s within it.  You can’t let your light shine before others so they see your good works and give glory to God without those good works making society better than it was.  You can’t live into any of Christ’s ways as recorded in the Sermon on the Mount without engaging in the political process that governs the whole community.  

There is nothing in scripture demanding that one be Republican or Democrat, conservative or liberal.  But there is much in scripture that reveals God’s expectations for what a just society is to be.  Doing what one can to influence public policy decisions to meet those expectations is what politics is all about, at least for Christians.  The temptation we face is our desire to tell people what to believe and how to behave in properly righteous ways, enforcing them through the coercive power of government.  It never works.  Never.  The harder, but more Christ like way, is to do what we can to create conditions under which others, especially the least of others, are able to succeed and prosper as best they can in a society as just and free as we are able to make it.  Some of those conditions are very libertarian in character.  Some are very socialist.  Some are regulatory in favor of health, education, safety, and freedom.  Some are   more laissez-faire, trusting in a free market to do good as well as profit.


It gets messy.  Not everyone involved in making public policy has noble intentions, but Christians are not excused from entering into the fray in order to stay ritually clean.  Jesus compels them to enter bearing the light of Christ, fearlessly illuminating the issues under debate.  Can we all be of one mind?  Paul hoped so, but it didn’t happen in his time, nor has it ever.  That also is no excuse.  Prayerful deliberation will eventually come to a place more godly just than it used to be.  We muddle through.  That’s what we are – muddlers. So, Onward Christian Muddlers.

Thursday, December 20, 2018

A Christmas Reflection 2018

When I was a boy, the weeks before Christmas were filled with giddy anticipation centered on the decorated tree, stockings hung by the fireplace, and carols sung around the piano with mom, dad and my sisters.  Somewhere in my teens Christmas eve at church became the principal focal point, and with it an expectation of a greater time of peace and goodwill on earth, although it seemed to me we already had good portion of it.  It didn’t occur to me until years later that mom and dad had lived through the depression in rural dust bowl Kansas, and WWII when all the world was aflame.  Just when it seemed that peace and goodwill might have finally arrived, Korea broke out and threats of nuclear annihilation were real.  Amidst it all, they led us in carols, worship, and thanksgiving for the peace and goodwill that surrounded our home life.

To me, America was an island of peace and goodwill in a world that was otherwise neither peaceful nor of goodwill.  Not true of course, unless you were among the fortunate and privileged, I being one of them.  For many Americans, television kept up the illusion through decades of entertainment featuring the good life, good times, good friends, and happy days.  Even the Great Recession couldn’t rattle the cage, but it’s rattled now.  The world hasn’t changed, and maybe America hasn’t either, but whatever patina of peace and goodwill it had has worn thin.  What happened?

We’ve become aware and weary that our engagement in decades of military hostilities offers no victory, no end, and increasingly no purpose.  We can’t avoid knowing about the unspeakable barbarity it has brought upon millions of others.  The nation’s government lurches from one continuing resolution to another like a broken down old truck.  The presidency is held by the corrupt head of a corrupt family organization.  He knows little about and cares less for anything that isn’t about him.  In the harsh light cast about him, the systemic injustices that have haunted us for centuries are now more fully and painfully revealed.  Our reputation for world leadership lies in ridiculed tatters.  A significant portion of the population we had hidden away feels liberated to engage in racial and ethnic discrimination without fear of consequences.  A slide toward fascism seems possible, even probable.

Where is Christmas in all of this?  Certainly not in Hallmark movies.

If we strip away the sentimentality of Christmas, it’s right where it should be.  It came in just such a time as this.  It came when things looked as if they couldn’t get any darker.  It came in the least expected way: gritty, humble, vulnerable, weak, powerless, a baby lying in a borrowed pile of hay.  The Word of God made flesh was made known to only a few shepherds, yet it was a light that the darkness could not extinguish.  Amidst the pomp of Rome’s greatest days, in a land under the thumb of Roman occupation, with a cruel puppet king, Jesus, prince of peace, entered unobserved and unwelcome.  The source of all life came to give us new life in a dangerously improbable way.  

It took many years for me to realize that mom and dad had known it all along.  We could gather around the piano singing songs of peace and goodwill because they had been to the manger in the darkest of times, and knew that lying there was the source of redemption from darkness.  Their’s wasn’t a complicated faith.  I’ve often called it mid American generic Christianity.  But they had experienced the darkness.  With the shepherds, they had seen the stable light burning, had heard the angels sing, and let it guide their way into the future.

We, no less than they, can do the same.  We live in neither the best of all possible worlds, nor the worst, but it is a world desperate for redemption, and we know that its redeemer lives, not as a mythical far away god, nor gallant knight of yore, but as Jesus Christ, whom in human language we say is God’s only and eternal son.  He was born to share our human nature, to live and die as one of us, reconciling us to God.  In dark and dangerous times we need someone to shine the light and lead the way.  Jesus is the way, the light, and the source of life.  Finding our way to the manger is a good place to start.  No Hallmark movie sappiness here, it’s the real thing, and we need it.








Sunday, December 16, 2018

Bread & Butter Wins the Political Race.

Commenting on a political Facebook post is a sure way to get unpleasant return comments.  It’s  especially true when commenting on a Tump sponsored post asking for donations to support all the good work he is doing.  You would think I’d know better, but sometimes I just have to say something.  A few responses, I suspect, are from bots set up to post snide remarks to anything tagged as negative.  Some are trolls whose motivation escapes me altogether.  But some are erstwhile Trumpsters with something revealing to say.

“Get off your high horse.”  “You may have degrees, but no common sense.”  “You think you’re so smart, but you’re stupid.”  “Get your head out of the sand.”  “You’re so high and mighty, but you don’t know what’s going on.”  “Trump is doing the people’s will, not yours.”  They go on, but you get the idea.  Some are phrased more crudely, but bear the same message.  Liberals are know-it-all elites, out of touch with ordinary people.   They know nothing about the struggles of real life.  They think they’re better than others, and that ordinary people can’t do for themselves without a liberal telling them how to live.  Liberals use our money to pass out welfare to the lazy undeserving who would rather get a handout than work.  They’re more concerned about the welfare of illegal immigrants than underemployed, poorly paid Americans.

Thoughts like these are expressed with intense anger, and utter unwillingness to enter into conversation or listen to alternative views.  To the contrary, tired of being lectured to by smart ass liberals, they assert that it’s liberals who are closed minded and refuse to listen to what they have to say.  There’s some truth to that.  In years gone by they were reliable Democratic voters because Democratic candidates spoke with them and for them on bread and butter issues.  Remember bread and butter issues?  They were important.  If you messed up on those, you would lose the election.  If you nailed them down, it was OK to add whatever else seemed good for the nation, you had their votes. 

As an aside, I’m reminded of a consulting job of years gone by.  The client was a major city nonprofit that several years earlier had been lauded in the national press for its extraordinary work.  Now it was almost bankrupt.  What happened?  It got so enamored with its own success on big projects, it forgot about the rank and file membership it relied on for support.  If you don’t nourish your people with bread and butter, dessert has no appeal.  But I digress.

Sophisticated political operatives, unhappy with increasing federal regulation of business and industry, took advantage of slow economic recovery and Obama’s popularity in the big cities to excite the “left behind” whose bread and butter issues, so they said, were being ignored in favor of undeserving others.  Was it true?  Doesn’t matter.  They sold it with consummate skill.  With more than a heavy dose of racism and fear mongering, they painted a picture of everyone from center-right on, as extreme leftists intent on stripping Americans of their rights.  It ushered in so called populist movements eventually resulting in Trump, and what could have been a forced march toward fascist like authoritarian oligarchy if not for the amazingly incoherent incompetence of the man himself.

What happens next is anyone’s guess.  The midterms were a win for Democrats.  Trump appears to be in so much legal trouble, it’s hard to see how he can escape.  But the political landscape remains littered with centrist candidates who have forgotten how important bread and butter issues are, and very liberal candidates who are off tilting at windmills.  There are self proclaimed ordinary people who still think liberals are leftist intellectual elites who look down on them.  Others have become more aware they’ve been played the fool, but it’s embarrassing.  No one wants to admit it.  It’s easier to save face by getting mad at everyone else.  Racism remains a bitter issue for all kinds of reasons that make it hard to craft a message not easily criticized as divisive identity politics (which, in my opinion, need not be divisive and we need to get over it).

My advice to centrist and liberal candidates.  Do some research.  Identify the bread and butter issues important to your would be constituents.  Focus on those.  They may not be the issues most important to the district or nation, but they’re the ones most important to the voters.  Add the big issues into the mix, but don’t make them the main thing. 


What about the sophisticated oligarchs?  They’re still there, and they’re politically sophisticated.  Don’t be baited by them, and they’re very good at baiting.  In the words of every successful coach: stick with your game plan, not their game plan. 

Thursday, December 13, 2018

Liberals must make the political arena safe for Conservatives

Not long ago, a woman whom I know fairly well had quite a bit to say about the misguided effort by liberals to equate men and women.  Women are not equal to men, they are different from men.  They can do things men can’t, and can’t do things men can.  Liberals should stop trying to make them the same.  She’s solidly anti-abortion, believes husbands are the undisputed heads of households, finds homosexuality distasteful, is utterly baffled by the transgender thing, and so on.  She supported Trump’s campaign based on what she was led to believe he would fight for, but don’t be too quick to judge.  She’s also one of the best young moms around, fun to know, a well trained R.N., kind to everyone, and an enthusiastic lover of life.  It would not be a good idea to put her in a pigeon hole.

I don’t know where she got the idea that liberals want to equate men and women, because she’s equally upset that men in positions of power would dare to tell her what she can and can’t do, or that the worth of what she does is not what a man is worth doing the same job with the same level of skill and experience.  My suspicion is she pays too much attention to right wing propaganda.  It appeals to her conservative politics.  It feeds her rumors about liberal agendas to destroy America’s core values.  It exaggerates germs of truth into fantastical camp fire horror stories.  It declares  contrary evidence to be fake news.  Once you’re sucked into a propaganda machine like that, it’s hard to get out, and even harder for anything else to get in.  

It creates a strong fortification nearly immune to breaching from any angle.  Broadsides of fact checking just bounce off.  Well reasoned arguments are deflected into scatter shot, and then, poof!, there’s no reasoning at all. Even carefully crafted emotional appeals fail.  Inside the propaganda walls, life is secure.  Outside of them the world is full of unknowns and conflicting claims to truth.   

So why bother?  Why not let well enough alone?  Everyone’s entitled to their opinions.

The reason bothering remains worthwhile is that serious issues of justice are at stake.  Core American political values are at stake, values enshrined in the Constitution that have evolved slowly and painfully with each succeeding generation to include more people, more equitably.  Genuine conservatives, like liberals, are committed to them, and have something positive to offer in the debate, but who and where are genuine conservatives?  Tea party populism helped build the propaganda fortress walls, and locked them out of the political arena, at least for now.  Locked inside are people who could be genuine conservatives but for their incarceration.  

Genuine conservatives, not taken in by right wing propaganda, are reasonably informed by the facts, aware of issues that must be addressed collaboratively, and cautious about the downside of elaborate schemes liberals are prone to come up with.  They tend to be favorably inclined toward corporate business interests, suspicious of higher taxation, worried about over regulation, have different demands for accountability, and are reluctant to put too much trust in social programs.  In other words, they create obstacle courses to be navigated, and that’s not a bad thing.  It keeps things in perspective, and requires liberals to prove their points.

In today’s electoral environment, would be genuine conservatives such as my young friend, have been highjacked by far right Trumpian neofascists, and led to believe that’s what being conservative is.  I’ve heard all the reasons for the rise of far right wing populism marching down the fascist road.  Knowing the reasons is no reason to let it go on.  It has to change.  Apparently, it’s up to liberals to restore a place for genuine conservative voices.  The lies of the far right have to be made clear, not to liberals, but to conservatives in right wing captivity.  They don’t have to be convinced that liberals are right.  They have to be convinced that there is a better way for conservative voices to be expressed.  Genuine conservatives remaining free of captivity must be given respect, and not treated as if they are simply right wingers in disguise.


It sounds counter intuitive, but liberals making room for conservative voices is part of what we need to do to restore integrity to our democratic processes.

Saturday, December 8, 2018

Bad Decision Making as Life Long Practice

Bad decision making again.  A few years ago I wrote a piece on bad decision making, and the subject seems to have forced itself into my field of vision once again. 

We all make bad decisions.  That’s just the way it is.  Hopefully, we learn from them to make better decisions on similar matters as we go forward.  On the whole, most of us, regardless of condition in life, are able to evaluate decisions that lie before us, recognize the best available choice given what we’re able to know, and act on them.  It may take a while.  We may have moments of uncertainty.  We may ask others for advice, but in the end we make reasonably competent decisions, and live by the consequences.  That’s most of us.  

There are others who just can’t do it.  They have long histories of making obviously bad decisions, reaping the predictably unpleasant consequences, and wondering why the world has conspired to do bad things to them.  When I wrote about it the first time, I was reflecting about experiences on fire calls responding to incidents where life times of bad decision making had resulted in death.  It’s not always that way.  There are more habitual bad decision makers who manage to otherwise get through life one way or another. 

True, substance abuse and mental illness open doors to bad decisions.  An elderly semi-homeless friend (he really is a friend) suffers from mental illnesses that cause him to fantasize about the perfect place to live, which is never the place he’s in.  Not long ago he got  V.A. assistance to move into a brand new apartment where he could have enjoyed the rest of his life, but it wasn’t perfect.  The last I heard he was living in a basement room in a small town about fifty miles from here, still looking for the perfect place.

Years of pastoral counseling have brought into my study middle class people about to lose their homes, jobs or businesses because, in the face of clear and reasonable choices to avoid it, and against all advice from those whom they’ve sought out, they make the obviously wrong decisions, ones that will bring them the very outcome they’re trying to avoid.  Why?  I’ve observed a recurring set of reasons forming strands tangled together.  Separating the strands, they tend to look like what follows.

One is not unlike my mentally ill semi-homeless friend.  Others less ill than he still have fantasies about what they want, an imagined reality with an imagined pathway to it that doesn’t correlate with reality, but they’re committed to it, certain that it will come true no matter what others say.  There are enough stories about success through grit, determination, faith and perseverance to give them hope, so they just plow ahead into disaster.  For some it’s a form of magical thinking involving miracles of faith, luck or fate they’re sure will materialize.  For others it’s the conviction that nothing can defeat the brilliance of their plan.  In a previous career, I once had a staff member who addressed every problem or goal with a complex Rube Goldberg type plan dependent on every part working to perfection.  Doing things the simple way never occurred to him.  It was the beauty of the plan’s complexity that he prided.  None ever worked.  He didn’t last long.  

Another strand is a conviction that, with Emerson like self reliance, one can be in control of all decisions and outcomes affecting one’s life, all problems solved through transactional deal making with other individuals.  It’s a conviction that ignores, or is ignorant of, community and the agencies of community that involve collectively working together.  Self reliance is important.  One-on-one transactional problem solving works a lot of the time.  But it all takes place in the context of community where advocacy and decision making are collective processes.  It’s why towns not only have governments, they also have chambers of commerce, service clubs, and not for profit organizations doing good things.  Ignoring the value of the collective processes that make community work, and trying to go it alone based on nothing but a series of individual transactions is bound to reap bad results. 

The habit of acting on intuition, or impulse, appears to be a third strand, at least in my experience.  There is such a thing as well informed intuition, but impulsiveness is not it.  Rex Tillerson was interviewed recently on CBS during which he observed that Trump is undisciplined, doesn’t like to read or get involved in details, and makes impulsive decisions.  Trump calls it something else,  a gut feeling far superior to other people’s claimed knowledge.  His life long track record doesn’t give much it much credence, but everyone’s gut feeling can be right now and then, and it can be enough to strengthen confidence that this time it will work.  Trump may be the most visible example, but it’s replicated many times over in the lives of people who habitually make bad decisions on important matters.  Impulsiveness, intemperance, following your gut, call it what you may, it’s decision making that doesn’t bother with the hard work of objective evaluation.

It’s close cousin is dithering.  Dithering can look like diligent study before making an informed decision, but it’s really a way to avoid making any decision at all, which, of course, is a decision and usually a bad one.  Ditherers, fearful of making a wrong decision, spend so much time and effort considering potential pros and cons that the optimal timing of a decision passes them by, never to be recovered.  Dithering may be inconsequential more often than not, but when it comes to truly important life choices, dithering has already gone in the wrong direction.  Military history is filled with stories of dithering generals and admirals whose indecisiveness caused death and defeat, the very thing they wanted to avoid by having made a wrong decision.  Generals and admirals may make history, but ordinary ditherers make life miserable for themselves, loved ones, co workers, and friends.


Fantasies, over reliance on self reliance, impulsiveness, and dithering may be identifiable strands, but the get tangled together like last year’s Christmas lights to make for habitually bad decisions.

Wednesday, December 5, 2018

Church is the Problem

I ran across Joe today.  We manage an occasional street wave a few times a month, but don’t know each other except by sight and first names.  I was surprised when he said, “You’re a pastor aren't you?”  “Yeah, I am, how did you know?”  “I read your columns in the paper.”  Well I’ll be; someone other than family and close friends actually reads them. That’s nice to know. 

Joe had more to say.  He doesn’t go to church often.  He should.  It’s the season.  Maybe he will.  My guess is there are many Joes out there who will show up on Christmas Eve.  Clergy tell each other stale jokes about C&E Christians (Christmas and Easter), but this is a time of year when seeds planted early in life try to bud once again.  Maybe it’s the music, decorations, catalogues, tv movies, and holiday parades that give them energy to produce a nagging urge to reconnect with church.  Why is it so seldom a take?

The problem is church.  It gets in the way whenever church is a place one should go to.  It’s an hour or two of time.  It’s a half remembered ritual.  The urge to go there is present, but why, what’s the purpose?  Life seems to get along fine without it.  Going there a couple of times a year is good, in some way, but why is it good, what do you really get out of it?  Those are the questions Joe is bound to ask himself as January unfolds.  At least going to the dentist twice a year has a purpose, but what’s the purpose of church?

My pastoral answer may not be enough, but it’s all I’ve got.  There is no good reason to go to church, if church is just a place, no matter how nice the music or inspiring the sermon.  But there is a reason to join with others to be nourished with God’s word, receive God’s blessing, and to know there is more to life than getting teeth cleaned twice a year.  People who have any belief in God at all know that communing with God is to be in communion with the source of all life, and that a more intimate relationship with God is nourishing in ways nothing else can be.  But how to do that?  Our tendency is to stumble around trying to figure it out for ourselves when God has told us how, pointed the way, opened the door and invited us in.  It’s church.

Church, in its proper sense, is not a place.  It’s a gathering of people to hear, mark, learn and inwardly digest what God has to say, and to be nourished with holy food that will give them the strength to go on.  Can you do that on your own?  Apparently not, at least not very well.  God, and particularly God as revealed in Jesus, called people into community to enter into holy communion with God,  and through it to become agents of God’s healing and redeeming love in the world.  

Many people have a sense of what that might mean, but keep looking for it in all the wrong places.  For instance, there’s a lot of New Age talk about using the power of crystals to focus the energy of the universe for human good, or about various places in the world where the boundary between heaven and earth is very thin.  You can fork over a lot of money trying to get the right crystal, or travel to the right place, to discover if the hidden power of the universe can be yours.  God, whom we know to be manifested in Jesus, says forget it.  Jesus, the Word of God made flesh, is the power so many are seeking.  He isn’t somewhere else. He’s here. You don’t have to find him.  If you let him, he’ll find you.  God’s power doesn’t flow through crystals but in the community of people gathered for worship.  Thin places are real, but not rare.  They exist in every gathering of the church.  Maybe not always easy to experience, but always there. 

Admittedly, not every place that calls itself a church is one.  If the message it offers is centered on loving God, loving yourself, loving your neighbor, and following where Jesus leads, it’s probably a real church.  If it promises prosperity, easy self help, or threats of all kinds, it probably isn’t.  Moreover, every real church is a gathering of sinners and miscreants of all kinds stumbling toward more faithful communion with God.  Real church doesn’t offer perfection.  Different churches offer access to God’s presence in different ways because people are different.  What works for some doesn’t work for others.  How can you tell which is right for you?  We clergy hate the idea of church shopping, but it can work.  When you find the thin place you’ll know it.  Needless to say I’m biased, and am certain the Episcopal Church has it all. 


   

Sunday, December 2, 2018

Superficial People behaving Superficially

A very long time ago I read a short story.  I have no idea where, or by whom, or even the details of it.  What I remember is the protagonist was a famous person, more by reputation than sight, who wanted to enjoy social gatherings, but never did.  As soon as he introduced himself, and was revealed to be a famous person, others treated him as a fragile object too precious to be handled, or worse, as an exotic acquisition to be paraded around like a circus animal.  But no one cared about him as a person.  He discovered that if he pretended to be a friend of himself, others began to take interest, still with the same selfish motives, but at least they wanted to get to know him better, and were willing to engage in extended conversation.  Clever, right?  No.  

It was a sad story of social superficiality bereft of any  desire for genuine friendship or community.  There was not a hint of interest in getting to know something about the other for no other reason than that people are interesting in and of themselves.  It was a cartoon of cocktail parties attended by selfish superficial people behaving with selfish superficiality.  But like a well crafted cartoon, it revealed a truth we all recognize because we’ve experienced it, at least in part.  

It came to mind because ’tis the season of holiday parties, when the joy of celebrating over a drink or two in genuine friendship with genuine friends, the subject of greeting cards and Hallmark movies, is seductively dangled before us.  Sometimes it happens.  Often it doesn’t.

It happens when people take delight in others because they’re interesting in and of themselves.  It’s not who they know, whether they might provide a desired connection, or be an opportunity to bask in the reflected light of celebrity.  Everyone is a somebody.  No one is a nobody.  Everyone is worth getting to know because they’re interesting.  It’s as simple as that.  Not everyone needs to become a friend.  There’s no requirement to even like everyone.  But everyone is a unique person, and that makes them interesting, worth getting to know for no reason other than their presence in your life at that moment. 

To take delight in the other simply because they’re interesting can happen even in brief exchanges at parties, in the street, or waiting in line at the grocery store.  It doesn’t require deep extended conversation, as desirable as that is.  It does require some sense of boundaries.  Not everyone wants to be talked to.  Not every encounter is a time for it.  And sometimes superficial people behaving superficially are just jerks who should be avoided.

Enjoy the party.




Thursday, November 29, 2018

Tribes are Good. Tribalism is bad.

Tribalism, and the tribalization of America, has been in the public debate for some time, and now the president has added nationalism to the menu, with white nationalism as a subtext.  It raises a question about the proper role of boundaries between tribal and national identities.  Tribes have boundaries.  Tribalism creates barriers.    Trumpians complain that liberals don't believe in boundaries.  They want open borders and a one world government that destroys national identity.  It’s silly at best, but I remember similar scare tactics from the 1950s and ‘60s.  Thought they were dead and buried.  Guess not.  

In the meantime Europeans are discovering that it’s hard to have economic union and maintain different cultural identities, because economic integration invades long cherished cultural territory.  Added to it are pressures from immigrants bringing strange, alien cultures with them.  It must seem to Europeans like reverse colonization, and it does have some of that flavor.

As a Christian, I’m committed to following Jesus who led the way in breaking down barriers that separate us one from another, but that’s not the same thing as eliminating boundaries, or demanding that tribes and nations be abolished.  For one thing, boundaries are permeable while barriers are impermeable.  Barriers keep others out.  Boundaries mark where one tribe or nation ends and another begins, permitting passage from one to another.  

Jesus broke down barriers that prevented people from abundance of life and enjoyment of a welcoming place in community.  He never demanded that Pharisees and Sadducees become Pharducees.  He didn’t demand that the centurion cease being Roman, or the Jews and Samaritans merge into one.  He did demand that no tribe or nation impose on others that which would prevent them from a full and complete life.  

For all our dysfunction, America may have something to teach other nations about tribes and boundaries.  Of course we struggle with systemic racism, it’s a huge problem, but we know it and continue the struggle.  In the meantime, we’ve managed to form a nation of enormous variety in cultures, heritages, religions, strange names and stranger words.  I thought about it the other day when reading articles written by authors with Asian, African, and Arabian sounding names who argued passionately as Americans, about America, for America.  

American English, our unofficial official language, is filled with a growing vocabulary of words and phrases from any number of immigrant groups.  In fact, they help mark cultural boundaries between regions.  I grew up in Minnesota where Scandinavian phrases were woven into everyday conversation.  It’s hard to do the NYT crossword if you don’t know a handful of common Yiddish words.  Some Spanish is essential to getting around in Santa Fe. Louisiana has its Creole, and Hawaii has a patois mixing half a dozen languages.  American Indian words are a staple of geography.  All of them are integrated, in small ways and large, into American English spoken in every region.    

So what’s the point?  Part of it is that language helps carry the continuation of cultural heritage into a new place, and it helps make it a part of the larger culture of that place while maintaining its unique identity.

Here’s another point.  I don’t believe we need to be paranoid about tribes.  Being a member of a tribe is not tribalism.  Not too far from us is the land of the Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla Reservation.  The Cayuse, Umatilla, and Walla Walla tribes maintain their identities but live in confederated union.  With increasing confidence and economic clout, they’re engaging with the communities around them as important players in the life of the region.  Tribal identity is important. There’s nothing wrong with it as such.  It goes wrong when tribal identity is used to denigrate, oppress, or erect barriers that prevent members of other tribes from enjoying universal rights and privileges.  That’s tribalism.  White nationalism is tribal identity that intends to do just that, and it’s morally wrong.

My final point is that nationalism is, or should be, an expression of pride and patriotic loyalty to a nation state, its history, customs, and hopes for a better future.  Think of it as super tribe.  It’s the kind of patriotic pride that has no need to put down the patriotic pride of other nations, nor does it feel compelled to define the world in terms of enemies, allies, and the rest who can’t be trusted.  Borders?  Certainly?  Secure if need be, but not excessively so.  The United States, perhaps more than any other country, ought to know how to do that.  We are, after all, a nation of immigrants.

We need to put away tribalism, confronting it for the immoral thing it is.  But we need not put away our tribes, and the pride we take in them.  Like the Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla, Cayuse, and Walla Walla, our tribes can live together in harmony, sharing with each other the best of what each has to offer, without one claiming privilege of place at the top of a competitive heap.

Sunday, November 25, 2018

King is such an indadequate word

Christ the king Sunday was celebrated this morning.  I heard a good sermon about how hard it is for modern day Americans to connect with the idea of kingship because it’s so antithetical to our democratic ways.  It reminded me of a time quite a few years ago when an enquirer gave up on becoming a Christian because she was unwilling to accept a God that was not the product of her own design and election.  No king for her.

Maybe we need to get at it from another starting point.  John’s gospel asserts that Jesus is the Word of God made flesh, which to me to captures the meat of it.  Another way of saying it might be that Jesus is the human manifestation of such powerful love that through it all that is was brought into being. 

It’s not kingship in any ordinary way of understanding monarchs, by whatever name, but it is the declaration of ultimate authority through which, and by which, we exist.  I just finished reading Johnathan Haidt’s book “The Righteous Mind: why good people are divided by politics and religion.”  My brother in law had read it, and wanted to get into a conversation, so I read it too.  Haidt surveyed several ways to catalogue morality, noting that religious people have a strong sense of obedience to authority which they posit in gods of many kinds.  This deontological basis for morality didn’t have much appeal to him, mainly, I suspect, because he believes all religions share the same psychological and sociological processes, differentiated only by the names of their gods and the flavors of their rituals.  Besides, he claims to be a modern day utilitarian following in the path of Bentham and Durkheim.  

We Christians, following in the path of our elder Jewish kin, recognize God whom we cannot know, and cannot mold to our own tastes (not for lack of trying), but whom we we can come to know in part through God’s own self revelation.  As Christians, we are certain that in Jesus all the fullness of God that can be shown in human form has been made known to us.  It means that what he did and said has ultimate authority, and by that authority he made it clear that loving one another as he loved us is the way to abundant life. 

Maybe king of kings and lord of lords makes little sense to modern day Americans, but the idea that the ultimate power of the universe intends us to live life in abundance, and has told us how to do it, should have some appeal.

A member of the small rural congregation I serve several times a month asked the obvious question a few weeks ago.  If that’s true, why can’t we do it?  Did he goof up on our design?

Haidt’s answer, echoed by many others, is that we weren’t designed, we just evolved.  Our brains are not yet wired to live in love with one another, except in predictably limited ways.  Maybe they’ll never evolve to a higher morality.  My more sophisticated theological answer was, “I dunno.”  We Episcopalians don’t get hung up with questions about intelligent design.  We’re content to let science slowly reveal the processes by which we came to be without displacing God from the center of it all.

It brings me back to the beginning.   As Christians, following in Jewish footsteps, we have to admit we cannot comprehend God.  As an anonymous medieval mystic wrote, God exists within a cloud of unknowing.   All we can do is apprehend God as God is revealed to us.  To us God has said “I’ve shown you the way and demonstrated how to do it, follow where you have been led.  You asked how to live well, and I’ve told you and showed you.”

For all the reasons Haidt describes in his book, we’re not good at doing it.  But here’s the really curious thing.  God knows it, and has said that our life here is a waypoint on our journey to a more perfect one.  It’s through the gate of death.  We can get glimpses of it, but only glimpses.  

That’s way too much for many.  Silliness to the extreme.  A childish fairy tale.  Be that as it may, Christians are convinced of it by the evidence of those who bore witness to the life, death and resurrection of Jesus.  Different denominations have different ways of understanding it.  Episcopalians tend toward the universal salvation side of things.  But my guess is that if you don’t want to go through that gate, you don’t have to.  Nobody’s going to force it on you.  


Now where were we?  King of kings and lord of lords.  I can live with that. 

Tuesday, November 20, 2018

Advent is Upon Us

Advent is upon us.  What does it mean?  For many it’s a signal to begin hyperventilating anxiety about the strain of the holidays on an already strained budget, the expectations and disappointments sure to come with gifts given and received, and parties that are supposed to be fun.  Amidst joy filled decorating, eager anticipation in children’s eyes, and the comfort of reunited families, some are lonely, grieving, and scared.  Confusing, isn’t it? 

Advent is upon us.  What does it mean?  It’s a time to prepare in heart and mind to receive once more God’s presence in our lives through the most intimate way possible: the Word of God made flesh in a baby born of Mary.  It happened only once a long time ago, but you and I need the annual renewal of the wonder of it.  We need it to be reminded that it’s not we who must struggle to reach up to God, but God who has reached down to us in humble, trusting vulnerability.


The Holiday Season has other intentions.  After all, it’s rooted in pagan celebrations of the new year, and let’s admit it, it’s fun to engage in at least a bit of it.  If we’re honest, there’s a little pagan blood in each of us.  But Advent can be an effective inoculation against too much.  Advent can slow us down, redirect our attention to Jesus, remind us that the enduring gift of life is ours to have for all eternity.  Advent can calm our fears, ease our anxieties, and hush the noise so we can hear the angels sing.  What we have, we have.  What we don’t have, we don’t have.  Let it be.  What we need is important.  What we want is not.  What we most need and want is love that accepts us as we are.  We can give love like that, even to those we don’t much like.  We can receive it, even from those we’re not fond of.  We have received it freely from God, and can give it freely in Christ’s name.  Advent is a time to work on it. 

Monday, November 19, 2018

Online $pending $eason is Here Again

Online shopping is booming, and has only just begun its rise.  At around $130 billion in annual sales, it’s still only about 10% of total retail spending (source: FRED).  Somewhere around 40% of the buying public does so online several times a month, and over 80% of them are quite happy with the experience.  My own family prefers shopping online, although they also say they like to support local stores.  Not entirely sure how that works. 

This leaves me in the minority.  I shop online from time to time, mostly for ebooks, but occasionally for other things.  For instance, I recently bought a pair of slacks and a new iPad online.  Was I happy with the experience?  No!  

All I wanted was a pair of khakis.  How difficult is that?  Apparently only old guys like me buy them because there are none for sale locally.  As of now, I’m waiting for pair number three to arrive via UPS.  Maybe they’ll be the right ones this time.  Probably not. 

In days of yore I would have wandered into the store, looked around, found the right pair, paid and left.  Total time – maybe twenty minutes.  Now the weeks roll by as I wait for the next box to come.

I like to see, touch and try products I’m thinking about buying.  I want to read labels, check alternatives, ask a few questions of a helpful sales person.  I like the tactile human experience.  Quaint isn’t it?  Are there any helpful sales persons?

It may seem old fashioned, but I needed (wanted?) a new iPad.  Every molecule in my body screamed for driving to the nearest Apple store to look them over, mess with a few, talk to a genius, and hand over the plastic money.  Shoot, I might even have done it with Apple Pay.  The nearest Apple store is 200 miles away, so I bought it online.  You’d think I’d be satisfied.  Look at all the money I saved not driving 400 miles round trip plus hotel and food.  But it seemed so –– sanitary.

Well, it’s that time of year again.  “Tis the $eason to be $pending; tra la la, la la, la la la la.”  Did I get enough las in there?  The mail box is stuffed with catalogues from vendors I’ve never heard of, each begging me to order online.  We can $plurge it all over the internet, and never have to worry about choosing between Happy Holidays and Merry Christmas when paying at the cash register.

I’ll get used to it.