Friday, February 15, 2019

"The Final Days" - Goodreads review

Well written tour de force through an American debacle ... with Nixon at the center, a man of so many flaws - hard, arrogant, manipulative. And at the end, broken ... wisely seeing that a protracted trial would add to the nation's woes and accomplish very little.

As one observed at the end, "This was the real Nixon. Too bad he couldn't show that early on."

If there's anything to be learned, it's that lies cannot endure, that the truth, mangled and weary, will emerge out of the mix of deception, whatever the motivation may have been. Nixon always believed his motives to be laudable; only at the end were there bits of admission of his own wrongdoing, though even at the end, he waffled between hints of remorse and then bewilderment, that his "small" mistakes should be worthy of his being hounded out of office.

A worthy read for the day in which we live. And a reminder to those in power, that lies will be exposed. As corrupt as great power is, there is at work in all the structures of the mind and the corporate craziness of Washington DC, a sense of justice, too, and what's right and what's wrong.

There are always women and men of conscience, in spite of the disease of power, who can yet speak of the truth, and who strive to do what's right.

Damage was done, and some of the damage reveals itself today in the maniacal behavior of the current occupant of the White House, and in the toadies who so obsequiously serve him while furthering their own interests.

Nixon's politics were dirty, and the filth of his days continue to play havoc in our land.

His international interests and skills were surely laudable, but in the long run, he was a mediocre personality holding the highest office of the land. He deserves our attention, if for no other reason than to learn of how power corrupts; this book has certainly added to the depths of my understanding.

I can only hope that history does repeat itself, and that soon the lies that have characterized the current administration will bring about its complete failure, ending, I hope, in the disgrace fitting a man of lies.

Wednesday, January 23, 2019

The Ransom of the Soul - study materials

Study Group, Monday, January 21, 2019, Pasadena
Hosts: Dean Thompson and Tom Eggebeen
Study: Tom Eggebeen

Reading Peter Brown's book, "Ransom of the Soul" (2016) - the first six centuries of Christianity, with a focus on the place of wealth in this life, and as a bridge to heaven.

Enhanced further by Brown’s, “Through the Eye of a Needle.)

Personal note: I wish I had read all of this 40 years ago … but neither of these books then existed. As I read, I kept jumping back to the Bible, seeing, I think, how much of the New Testament especially, was written in the light of Empire values and behavior - I think of the Banquet Parable. Brown is a remarkable writer, often taking issue with “traditional” scholarship on the Roman Empire, and incredibly generous in praise for a new generation of scholars. There is so much here, I cannot begin to do it justice, but, for me, this is some of the best reading I’ve done in years. My initial interest was tweaked by a brief review of the book, “Ransom of the Soul.” I then secured from the library, “Through the Eye of a Needle” which is Brown’s “big fat book.”

Let’s begin:

Then, or now, nothing is ever really settled. 

Rising stars and people of influence, each with their own take on things, some prevailing, enduring, both for the cogency of their ideas, and when the powers-that-be decided that some ideas were likely to enhance their own place of privilege, while adding to the civic good. Then or now, privilege, power, wealth and influence, religion and rhetoric, flow together like some kind of a huge, muddy, river, feeding the land, sometimes flooding it, and always moving along, carrying history with it.

Some voices, like, Tertullian and Cyprian in Carthage, and later, Augustine in Hippo and Ambrose in Milan, achieved a degree of lasting influence. But for every voice in one direction, there were others moving contrapuntally.

The move to Christianity, in spite of Constantine’s conversion, was neither immediate nor widespread. But in bits and pieces, here and there … in the meantime, before the final “victory” of Christianity, Pagans, Jews and Christians lived together much of the time without distress (post Constantine, of course), often in dialogue with one another, sometimes in agreement, and sometimes not.

In all of this, Christianity emerges with some unique ideas that were to shape ultimately the Western World.

In the quest for justice (ideas shared by both Jew and Christian) ... much of the writing and preaching of the fourth and fifth centuries was an effort to promote alms-giving - to remember those so easily forgotten, the poor. 

The Pagan focus was primarily on caring for one’s own kind, not only those of one’s own social status, but of one’s community, i.e. a rather profound civic mindedness, but one restricted to “citizens,” only rarely crossing the boundary to do something good for the rabble.

For Christians, the question of wealth remained a challenge, and ultimately wealth, rather than being rejected, was linked to heaven, the afterlife ... something that Pagans, Jews, and Christians pondered, with alms-giving a tool in the remission of sins, and then also a means of social security for the poor. Both categories of people, the poor and the dead ought not to be forgotten, and wealth was the means by which the memory of the dead and the living poor could be “kept alive.”

In the mix of all of this, the parable of the Rich Young Man played a vital role, to sell all and give it to the poor.

Some took this be a universal dictum for the rich, and some, in fact, divested themselves of their wealth, but even then, unloading a vast fortune of estates, material wealth in ivory, gold and silver, and villas wasn’t easy. As best as we can tell, such “divestiture” likely involved selling to family members and friends of similar social standing, or, giving it to a church, all to secure treasure in heaven, while still receiving some income from distant estates, not so easily divested. Some then founded their own monasteries, and while living austere lives (especially the emphasis on owning everything in common and being humbly dressed), they did so in the comfort of villa-like buildings. What was built for God was to be glorious, even as were the villas they once built for themselves and their image in the community.

Treasure in heaven was a reality that few of us can imagine. 

But it moved money away from the usual display of wealth expected by Roman society into the coffers of the church, and much was done to relieve the suffering of the really poor, the non-citizens of the Empire, people on the bottom of the economic heap.

A perfect system?

Clearly not, but a system that addressed two concerns: the afterlife, and life here-and-now, with a special focus on the poor, not so much to change the conditions creating poverty, but as a means by which the wealthy, and the not-so-wealthy, could secure their salvation through alms-giving, to relieve immediate suffering. "Lay up alms in thy storehouse; it shall deliver thee from affliction" (Ecclesiasticus 29:12). 

The church soon realized that wealth was not going to go away, so the church found ways to tame that wealth, to keep the wealth from damaging those who possessed it. Roman philosophers shared this concern, and like the Christians who followed, often decried, not wealth, but avarice.

Much preaching was against the "Roman Games" wherein the rich would showcase their wealth and power by supporting gladiators and funding the carnivals. It was exorbitant, to say the least, but it secured the social position of the sponsor and also earned them the goodwill of the people (citizens: what we might call the middle and the lower-middle class), who sometimes protested when the “rich” failed to provide for the welfare and the entertainment of the city. 

Clearly, there was massive wealth throughout the Empire, and much competition among the rich to display it. Yet, it was governed by a sense of civic good deeds, an idea well-developed in the Empire with its philosophers. Reputation meant just about everything, and a person of wealth needed to secure his or her presence through magnificent buildings, bridges, public baths, and entertainment.

Christianity, with its broader focus on the poor, was able to enter into this Roman world of values and build upon it a specific Christian ethic regarding the place and function of wealth, and the need to include all people, all classes, all needs, material and spiritual.

Augustine centered in on alms-giving for the sake of the poor, rather than the “Games"  as a means of display, and, then, of course, in Rome (a growing clergy group) and Milan (Ambrose), monies were funneled into the churches, the tombs of the saints (special locations, sacred, where heaven and earth were bound together, where miracles occurred - even as the saints prayed for our salvation), and then the monasteries. 

None of this happened over night, but it happened slowly and surely as the church grappled with what the earlier Pagan culture did: i.e. what’s the place of wealth, and how shall the wealthy behave?

Then, or now, wealth was a conundrum - Pelagius suggested that the only way through wealth was for the Christian to give it all away.

Augustine suggested that wealth was a tool for good, and that a Christian could be wealthy, but only by alms-giving, a steady discipline throughout one's life: to secure "treasure in heaven" by providing treasure for the poor, through the the coffers of the church, it’s buildings and its tombs for the martyrs.

My reading makes clear just how challenging it all was ... to find the ways and means of dealing with the one thing that preoccupies most of humanity most of the time: money!

Today, Augustine would lament how the wealthy are inclined to build towers to themselves rather than securing "treasure in heaven" by providing for the poor. Augustine would likely see much of America as nothing more than a Roman Carnival, replete with all the trappings of wealth, clamoring for entertainment, while ignoring the plight of many who “really don’t count.”

Then or now, no system is flawless, but we can't give up the effort, and because the church is no longer the "central bank," so to speak, the government has to function in that regard, and taxation is the tool to bring about a humbling of the rich, and redistribution of wealth, even as alms-giving was the tool then.

And we needn't worry about the rich giving up their desire for wealth. It's in their character, and they'll do it no matter how much they pay in taxes, but in the end, taxes will "save their souls" (if high enough to actually be real giving), whether they know it or not, and in the end, the poor will be comforted, their lot improved, and society changed.

Questions/Thoughts:

1. What is the place of wealth in the United States? How do we think about it? What’s the purpose of wealth? 

2. The WASP establishment seemingly had a sense of civic duty - what’s happened to this?

3. In Western Michigan, the VanAndels and the DeVoses poured tens of millions into the revitalization of Grand Rapids, including medical research and a host of other means by which the common good of the city is enhanced. I believe this was done out of the goodness of their hearts, and with a sense of Christ, and a commitment to civic good. Yet what I know of their political allegiances (for them, all tied up in their religion) strikes me as inimical to the foundations of democracy, and contrary to much of my Christian faith. What do we make of people such as this? And others of great wealth who dominate the world, who often show up in their “carriages” as did the ancient wealthy, on their way to parties held in honor of the Emperor, to display their wealth and privilege, competing with one another for the largest this and the most beautiful that. Can the church offer anything to this? Other than baptizing it, or condemning it?

4. Augustine and Ambrose were able to challenge people to think eternally - for the Pagan, to mount to the stars; for the Christian, to be with the saints in heaven with Christ. They spoke easily and convincingly about the “transfer of wealth,” from here to there, by giving it to the church, and the church, in turn, caring for the poor, which it most earnestly did, even as it acquired great wealth for itself. What, if any, tools are at our disposal to thinking about wealth today?



Friday, January 4, 2019


On a recent visit to the Norton Simon Museum, a stroll through the South and Southeast Asian art and sculpture collection.

I've seen it before, usually in haste, but on this visit, more stopping and examining ... and then for the last week, pondering.

The hope evident in the art ... the peace and the love ... wisdom and guidance ... every artist giving expression to something of the deeps in the human story.

I'm sure the "reality" of life was quite different than the spirit offered in the art, as is true for much of Western art, too - a world portrayed far better than the reality, but in the portrayal of something ideal, an encouragement to the beholder, to strive for the better, the higher, that which is sublime and beautiful.

For much of Western History, dominated by the Christian Tradition, other religions were usually looked upon as wayward and wrong, and even evil.

Lots of evangelicals still hold to such bias, but the shrinking world no longer allows any one religion to encapsulate itself, and from the behind the walls of safety, despise what lies beyond.

This collection of art moved me deeply ... as most art does ... as it should.

With a reminder that we all have more in common than not, and that no religion, certainly not mine, can claim any high moral ground of superiority.

Rather, I believe, God is diluting our protective boundaries, so that we have to hear and see and touch others, and their world-views, their faith, their religion, their icons and philosophies.

I think this all means the end of "evangelism" in the older sense of "converting" others to the Christian Faith. If evangelism means anything today, it's this: that we offer to others what we have, and it's not all that much, and with eager hearts, receive what others have to offer, which, after all, isn't all that much, either.

We all possess bits and pieces of divinity, of truth, of hope and love, and there's no need to discard what we have, any more than there is a need to disparage what others have.

Today, it's has to be humility before the mystery of the Creator's love revealing itself in other times and places, other cultures and other religions.

A time for Christians to face up to our own dirty stories and failed projects, yet to affirm that in our art, perhaps, and in our best thinking, we year for what others yearn, as well.

We're all in this together ... and to put it into perspective, Luther's phrase says it well: "simul justus et peccator."

In our realities, we are less, and oftentimes tragically less, than what we ourselves would like to be, and in our art, and oftentimes gloriously so, we hold before ourselves what we could be, and what we are sometimes, and what the journey needs to forever seek - perhaps like the Star leading on the Magi ...

Is it not true that every human being longs for the Star ... and that every religion reflects this longing in its art?

Monday, November 19, 2018

Luke's Wicked Sense of Humor

Good ol' Luke.

I suspect a twinkle in his eye many a time as he wrote the gospel, tweaking the noses of the know-it-alls, and catching the proud (and who isn't?) off guard.

Today's lection, the rich man (Oh Lordy, listen to the trumpets and watch the security detail in their black SUVs) and, oh wait a minute, does the rich man have a name?

And Lazarus, a stinking little man full of sores and sorrow, groveling on the ground for a few of the rich man's crumbs ... friendless, a companion of raggedy street dogs ...

But, wait, he has a name, a real name, and later in the story, this sad mess of sores gets to sit on the lap of Abraham, while the rich man, a critter without a name, a self-serving bag of pride, goes without a name, and he's hot and he thirsty, and still expects Lazarus to come a-running to wait upon him.

He's not worth naming; his worth is in himself, his possessions and his power. He has what he wants, and so he's lost his name. Like all the rich, so full of themselves, a dime a dozen as God sees it.

But it's Lazarus, the man with nothing, who smells to high heaven with sores and disease, likely condemned by the rich man for being lazy, or stupid, why, he has a name.

Precious in the sight of the LORD.

A name.

I think Luke was chuckling to himself when he wrote the story, recalling how Jesus so often tweaked the noses of the rich and the powerful.

Recalling the moment, perhaps, as Luke witnessed it, or more likely, as Luke heard it from others, that Jesus, too, had a twinkle in his eye, a wicked sense of humor, as he made it clear to those who worked so hard to make a name for themselves, that in God's realm, they have no name at all; they've traded it away for goods.

And the stinking man, licked by the dogs, beneath the table of the rich, well, pay attention folks, because he has a name!

Saturday, November 17, 2018

Psalm 149

Reading the text is always an unpredictable process ... sure, we can sort of determine what the "original" intent might have been, sort of, but it's our response that's most telling.

I've read Psalm 149 a good many times, with thanksgiving and with reservation, because of the violence ... biblical violence in the hands of the powerful is, at best, dangerous; but perhaps it can be read in another way, and that's what struck me this morning.

V.6, "Let the high praises of God be in their throats and two-edged swords in their hands."

Yes, in the eager hands of the already-powerful, such a verse can be disastrous. The Erik Princes of this world love this kind of stuff, and exult in the love of "arms for christ."

Yet as I read it this morning, it reminded me that our praise of God can never be separated from the tasks at hand, the tasks of living and caring for what it is right and good, promoting the wellbeing of a society, and especially defending those whose voices have been muted by the powerful.

The text goes on: "to execute vengeance on the nations and punishment on the peoples, to bind their kings with fetters and their nobles with chains of iron...."

I think of Bonhoeffer's fateful decision to participate in the bomb plot to kill Hitler, which, of course, is an extreme measure, but Bonhoeffer knew full well that love for the nation, for the Jews, now required a dramatic move to remove the source of the nation's ills.

I think of Martin Luther King, Jr., who made clear that violence was never to be offered to violence. But the text makes clear, I believe, that in the struggle for right, there can be no laying downing and simply taking it.

The Civil Rights demonstrators, while refraining from proactive violence, made it clear to the nation that Black People would not longer "take it," but in their determination to cross the bridge or to order a coke at the local drugstore counter, they "violated" the social boundaries and put chains on the powerful.

Lots of folks told them to go back to church and pray, put it into God's hands, and God would sort it all out. But it became evident that God's hands were tied by the powerful representatives of the Jim Crow, and all the prayer in all the world wouldn't open up voting rights or french fries at the local lunch counter. But only a forceful presence that dared to cross the lines and confront the lies.

Well, the upshot of this is both complex and simple: to praise God with our voice is meaningless unless the sword is in our hand, ready to clear the way, make straight the way of the LORD, and put into chains those forces and ideas that make a mockery of religion and love to hurt the weak.

And, that a sword in the hand, always dangerous, has to be linked to praise, lest the sword become a law unto itself, and violence for good simply becomes violence.

So was my reading this morning of Psalm 149.

Sunday, November 11, 2018

Armistice Day

In 1954, upon the urging of American veteran groups, Armistice Day was renamed Veterans Day.

While it's right and good to remember our veterans, it's also right and good that we remember the larger event, Armistice Day, when "the war to end all wars" came to an end, at the 11th hour, on the 11th day of the 11th month.

It was a war of fools, as most wars are - blunders into violence, the love of tactics, and the mindless belief that nations can really conquer nations, that might prevails, and "god is on our side." Everyone fought everyone else with chaplains chanting prayers and the leaders of the nations fiercely weaving a bloody tapestry of faith and nation.

When the war ended, with untold millions dead, nothing was resolved - but only from sheer weariness of killing and dying did the combatants lay down their arms, and while the allies were "victorious," they took it upon themselves to punish Germany (and sow the seeds of WW2) and to redraw the boundaries of the Ottoman Empire (sowing the seeds of today's Middle East chaos).

Armistice Day deserves to be remembered with tears and reverence for the millions of soldiers who were ordered to advance by generals far removed from the front. The solider, with friends and family back home, his face covered in mud and his body crawling with vermin, didn't fight for "god and country." They fought to stay alive, and to protect one another. And millions didn't make it, because of the foolhardiness of the nations.

Let's remember our veterans, but let's not make light of their suffering and death by draping their broken bodies with bunting, but covering them with our tears, and a fresh resolve to see the insanity of war, to work mightily to unmask the craven purposes of the arms industry, and give no heed to the mindless babbling of nations who speak of their own greatness.

Let 11.11.11 be our prayer, our purpose, our work every day of our life, until war be no more.

Wednesday, August 1, 2018

Infant Baptism: The Great Equalizer

Infant Baptism is the New Testament version of Circumcision, the ancient rite practiced by the Israelites as the mark of God's love in their lives, the claim of God upon them, that they, and their children, belong to God, not by their own efforts, or their own choice, or their intelligence or spiritual sensitivity, but rather by the sovereign declarations of God, that "I will be your God, and you will be my people."

God made it clear, from the covenant made with Sarah and Abraham, that children, too, belong, right from the start, and while the ancient rite belonged only to the male child, the New Testament expands the rite to include girls, too - the purpose, the intent, of the respective rites, are the same, but now in Christ, it's clear: all children belong to God, and nothing says that more clearly, and directly, than baptism, the great equalizer for us all - that in Christ, there are no more the distinctions that humans love to make: neither Jew nor Gentile, neither male nor female, neither slave nor free: ethnic, gender and social.

No one choses their baptism; it's chosen for them, by their families, by the community of faith around them, and ultimately, by the love of God, the primal moving of the Holy Spirit, the a prior grace of God, that moves and works and creates anew, before we know anything about it, before we ask for it, or claim it, or do anything at all on our part.

Hence no one can point to their baptism as a self-affirming sign of any sort of spiritual decision, as in "I did this, I chose to be baptized, I went forward at a revival, I felt the leading of the Spirit, and welcomed it." Or, "I felt the leading of the Spirit, and resisted it for a long, I fought against God [this is the stuff of testimony, the stuff that gets the juices flowing] and then I could no longer resist, and so I surrendered to God."

Notice the dominate of the pronoun "I" in all of this?

There is no "I" in infant baptism; the "I" doesn't exist, because infant baptism is of God, through the community, through the family; it's primal, it's basic, it's not of our own decision, and for the rest of our lives, as with circumcision, we are marked by the water of baptism, in the eyes of God, in the eyes of the community, and in our own eyes, too, though we may do our best to deny it, to forget it, to live contrary to it, but no one can undo the mark of circumcision, and no one can wipe off the water of baptism.

Believer's Baptism, on the other hand, is all about the "I" ... and that's the cause of so much dissension and distress in evangelical communities, creating a spiritual rivalry in which the believer is made the central actor, and when it comes to worship in such communities, "stars" are born who have the most spectacular stories of conversion, resistance, surrender, and then victory over the dark forces of Satan, and so on.

If we begin with the "I" in all of this, that's where we end, and there's nothing more deadly to the work of God than when the "I" assumes control, even when masked with the language of surrender and humility, as in "God has done it all," when in fact, the believer makes it clear that it was their decision, their moment of surrender, their will, their moment to decision, and though God played a part, it was the believer who finished the deal and subsequently plays the central role through prayer, Bible reading, witnessing, fellowship and faith. All of these are important, of course, for all of us, but evangelical communities, these are the tools the believer uses to maintain faith, whereas in reality, these are the gifts of the Spirit, and like John put it, "I must grow smaller, and he must grow larger."

When the "I" is dominant, we have rivalries, dissensions and distinctions - as I heard years ago, "Me graduate school Christian; you kindergarten Christian. What's wrong with you?"

The "testimony" trail in evangelicalism provides the platform of stardom, the "witness" of the "saved," who tell their stories with flourish, and, I suspect, plenty of embellishment, to eager crowds, crowds looking for encouragement, for thrill, for confirmation of their own ego in the spiritual realm.

When it comes to testimony, what did a Jew say, other than "I belong to God, and that's not my decision, it's God's"? ... maybe adding, "I wish God would leave me alone."

What can a Christian say, except the very same thing?

"I belong to God, and that's not my decision, it's God's decision, God's work, God's purpose flowing through the width and breadth of history, from the beginning, and reaching to the very end, however that will be."

And because it's God's decision, from before the foundation of the earth, there is nothing now that can separate us from the love of God in Christ ... what God establishes, God protects; what God initiates, God finishes, and to God be the glory.

And in a weary world where "our glory" plays the central world, much to our sorrow and much to the harm of our world, the message of grace, sovereign, full and complete, becomes the glass of cool water in a hot and thirsty world.

The message of grace, resplendently portrayed in the moment of infant baptism, when this little squiggling, squirming, diaper-pooping, child is touched with the water, and the minister says, "In the name of the Father, in the name of the Son, in the name of the Holy Spirit" ... in the name of all that is good, all that is God, all that is right and beautiful, hopeful and redeeming, "you are baptized! Now and forever more, you belong to God, not because of this baptism, but because of God's decision, made in the heart of God, for sake of God's purposes, God's creation, God's work. And what God has done is revealed and confirmed in waters of baptism."

And, of course, for those who come to faith later in life, it's really all the same - the same intent on God's part, the same purpose, the same grounding - not in the believer can any of this be found but only in the mercy of God. Whereas we're often tempted to point to ourselves in these matters, baptism  erases all such efforts to glorify ourselves.

For the adult being baptized, the language is the same: "In the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit. By the mercies of God, full and complete, you belong to God, now and forever more. not because of this baptism, but through the work of the Spirit, who does it all, the giver of life, unto the glory of God."

Yes, to God be the glory!

And for me, there is no clearer statement of such power than in the moment of an infant baptism.