Tuesday, January 27, 2009

In These Times ...

In These Times …

I find fear creeping in at the edges of my mind and heart.

Every newscast brings more sad news for tens of thousands of Americans and folks around the world.

And, then, Citi Group purchases a $50 million dollar corporate jet – get this, it carries 12, and get this and then some, ordered from a French company. Ha! And when challenged by Keith Olbermann, they declined to comment, saying, “security reasons” prohibit us from commenting on our fleet. Yeah, sure – security? No, shame! Plain old shame!

Sadly, their avarice is my money at work, and I’m not real fond of that.

Oh sure, it’s Capitalism, some say. It’s the Free Market, and we all love that, don’t we?

Naw, it’s just plain old greed at work – over-the-top entitlement – the worm in the apple gnawing away at our character and our economy.

I think we’ve got ourselves into a real pickle.

And certain forms of Christianity haven’t helped one bit:
¸ The feel-good, advance-yourself, Jesus-loves-you-always, let’s-clap-our-hands-and-love-one-another, kind of Christianity.
¸ The James Dobson brand of Christianity, with his snarling intrusion into the American bedroom.
¸ The psycho-babble kind of Christianity, where Sunday morning is nothing more than a couch for therapy and learning “five steps to happiness.”
¸ And Americanized Christianity where flag and faith are all entwined in one another, and no one knows where country and Christ begin or end.

Here’s where I have hope for mainline Protestant Christianity to regain some traction. Ours has been a faithful voice, crying in the wilderness of prosperity and evangelical power. As the megachurches zoomed into view and climbed to the top of the numbers heap, we all hung our head and slinked away, ashamed of our faith, and wondering why we were such a failure.

But we’re not a failure at all. And though the numbers are not likely to change in the foreseeable future, it’s all about integrity and responsibility, and the numbers be damned, if you will.

This is not Wall Street after all. It’s not about some bottom line of success. It’s faithfulness and critical thinking. Do we really have anything at all to say?

We’ve been studying the prophets and the kings of Israel and Judah, background to Jesus our LORD. Here we find some grit to throw on the road for traction. Here is where we find some guidance in such times, when the bastions of power and religion have proved hollow!

Yes, I find fear creeping in at the edges, because bad things happen when human beings forget one another, when a nation worships at the alter of prosperity and condemns millions to a life of hardship. Bad things happen when religion loses its bearings and can no longer muster the courage or the conviction to tell the truth to itself, much less to anyone else.

The simple truth, at least as I read in the Prophets and in the life of Jesus: our nation has spent way too much time at the alter of Wall Street and allowed wealth to be concentrated into the hands of a strange breed of royalty who lost their bearings, who spent corporate profits foolishly, who lived high on the hog and damned the rest of us, and way too many Christians, enamored with visions of Jesus and wealth, lost their minds and their souls, as well.

But I think God for God!

God’s Spirit yet strives with our spirit, and when God’s people dig into the Word thoughtfully, intelligently, looking not for ways to condemn others, nor for ways to feather our own bed, but to discern the will of God and to seek ways by which we can effect salvation – shalom – here and now - real peace and a prosperity that leaves no one behind – when such things become our purpose, there will be showers of blessing from on high!

It’s time for decency, a kindliness toward one another, an honest humility, and it’s time for the powerful and the wealthy, for the super-religionists of the world, Christian or otherwise, to remember, that even on the loftiest of thrones, we’re still sitting only on our own rumps (Montaigne), and our task on earth is not to build thrones for ourselves, but to sew pillows for one another, to make the sitting a tad bit easier!

Monday, January 26, 2009

Bishop Robinson's Prayer

A Prayer for the Nation and Our Next President, Barack Obama
(Also available on YouTube).

By The Rt. Rev. V. Gene Robinson, Episcopal Bishop of New Hampshire

Opening Inaugural Event
Lincoln Memorial, Washington, DC
January 18, 2009

Welcome to Washington! The fun is about to begin, but first, please join me in pausing for a moment, to ask God’s blessing upon our nation and our next president.

O God of our many understandings, we pray that you will…

Bless us with tears – for a world in which over a billion people exist on less than a dollar a day, where young women from many lands are beaten and raped for wanting an education, and thousands die daily from malnutrition, malaria, and AIDS.

Bless us with anger – at discrimination, at home and abroad, against refugees and immigrants, women, people of color, gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender people.

Bless us with discomfort – at the easy, simplistic “answers” we’ve preferred to hear from our politicians, instead of the truth, about ourselves and the world, which we need to face if we are going to rise to the challenges of the future.

Bless us with patience – and the knowledge that none of what ails us will be “fixed” anytime soon, and the understanding that our new president is a human being, not a messiah.

Bless us with humility – open to understanding that our own needs must always be balanced with those of the world.

Bless us with freedom from mere tolerance – replacing it with a genuine respect and warm embrace of our differences, and an understanding that in our diversity, we are stronger.

Bless us with compassion and generosity – remembering that every religion’s God judges us by the way we care for the most vulnerable in the human community, whether across town or across the world.

And God, we give you thanks for your child Barack, as he assumes the office of President of the United States.

Give him wisdom beyond his years, and inspire him with Lincoln’s reconciling leadership style, President Kennedy’s ability to enlist our best efforts, and Dr. King’s dream of a nation for ALL the people.

Give him a quiet heart, for our Ship of State needs a steady, calm captain in these times.

Give him stirring words, for we will need to be inspired and motivated to make the personal and common sacrifices necessary to facing the challenges ahead.

Make him color-blind, reminding him of his own words that under his leadership, there will be neither red nor blue states, but the United States.

Help him remember his own oppression as a minority, drawing on that experience of discrimination, that he might seek to change the lives of those who are still its victims.

Give him the strength to find family time and privacy, and help him remember that even though he is president, a father only gets one shot at his daughters’ childhoods.

And please, God, keep him safe. We know we ask too much of our presidents, and we’re asking FAR too much of this one. We know the risk he and his wife are taking for all of us, and we implore you, O good and great God, to keep him safe. Hold him in the palm of your hand – that he might do the work we have called him to do, that he might find joy in this impossible calling, and that in the end, he might lead us as a nation to a place of integrity, prosperity and peace.


Sunday, January 25, 2009

25 Things ...

A friend of mine on Facebook, a young lady who lives in Minnesota but attended the church I served in Detroit - this is a remarkable piece of writing ... enjoy it, and enjoy the reflections of your own life.

1.It took me eleven years to finish a bachelor's degree. I changed my major three times, even though I've known that I wanted to be a teacher since I was in 1st grade. My degree is not in education; it's a business and urban planning degree.

2. My life revolves completely around my family, and more specifically, my daughter. Most every thought I have is about her. Even though she is almost a year and a half old, I check on her several times at night to make sure she's still breathing. The thought of anything bad happening to her chills my blood.

3. I've never met my real dad.

4. I waver between materialism and remembering the important things in life. I sometimes have a hard time maintaining perspective.

5. I taught my cat to sit on command. She gained one pound during her training from all the treats it took.

6. I am good at many things. I am not great at any one thing.

7. I am an outgoing introvert. I love people, but I need to be alone.

8. I will eat candy corn or conversation heart candy until I'm sick. I've also been known to make candy corn fangs a time or two.

9. I never tell anyone how much Berkeley sleeps or how late she sleeps in the morning for fear of someone causing me serious bodily harm.

10. I refused to shack up with my husband until we were engaged or married. He convinced me to do a trial run to make sure we were all compatible (Eric, me, and the cat). We agreed that I would live with him for a three-month period. At the end of the trial run, Eric tried to convince me to stay. I insisted I move back to my house (and did!). A month later he proposed.

11. I've never been to Europe. The only place in Mexico I've been is Nogales, which doesn't really count. My dream vacation destinations include Africa, the Greek Isles, Israel, and France. The most exotic trips I've taken include Australia and Costa Rica.

12. I read every single night before bed. My favorite books take place in far away lands, like Afghanistan, India, or Africa. I average about two or three books per month.

13. I really, really want another baby.

14. I grew up with strict TV rules. Today, watching TV is one of my favorite ways to unwind and decompress at the end of the day. I don't allow my daughter to watch TV, except on very rare/special occasions.

15. I played the flute from 5th grade through high school. I picked up trombone in high school (too many flutes, not enough trombones). I still have a flute, and play every now and again. I'm not nearly as good as I used to be.

16. I love karaoke.

17. I hate olives, pickles, and beets.

18. I sometimes feel guilty that I don't do enough creative, "developmentally appropriate" activities with my child.

19. I teared up when Barack Obama was elected and again when he was inaugurated.

20. I live in Minnesota and my mittens don't match my hat, my hat doesn't match my boots, and my boots don't match my coat. I feel like a slob every time I leave the house in the winter (which is about 6 months out of the year).

21. I was always afraid of getting beat up by the burnouts in junior high.

22. I've had a lot of sadness and hard times in my life. Despite that, I am very happy now, and am overwhelmed with how blessed I am.

23. I'm afraid of the dark and have nightmares sometimes.

24. I can't remember the last time I told a lie.

25. I just went to check on Berkeley while she naps. She's still breathing.

Tuesday, January 20, 2009

Happy to be a Presbyterian

I’m happy to be a Presbyterian … and here are a few reasons why:

We may be a little pedantic, now and then … even a little dry, but we care about what we know, and we know some mighty important things.

Several months ago, I had lunch with an associate pastor from a large SoCal church … a good guy who came to Christ from a life of drugs, etc. – and I have no doubt of his conversion, and God be praised for it.

As he tried a time or two to “convert” me, and I light-heartedly parried his moves, he laughed. We enjoyed our lunch, but both knew how far apart we were, in spite of both being Christians. We commented on the hard reality: folks like us rarely ever get together for lunch. We just talk about each other at a distance.

At one point, I commented on the two essential views of the atonement: Anselm and Abelard, of which he had no knowledge. I’ve since set him some websites to explore both of these theologians.

That someone in the pew might not know such things is permissible, but someone who wear the tag, “pastor” or “rev” ought to know such things.

Recently, I accessed the church’s website and checked out the “sermon outlines” from the sr. pastor – to say that I was aghast is to put it lightly. The outlines were typical of a pattern emerging in some traditions in the last ten years – the hand-out outline, for folks to fill in the blanks, along with PowerPoint.

Sure, preaching needs to be accessible to the people, and not so “intellectual” – but I couldn’t help but think: “This is really shallow” – a few miscellaneous thoughts strung together will Scripture tacked on without any apparent effort to plumb the text.

The other outlines were similar, and I thought again, “If this is what they’re feeding the flock, the calorie intake is terribly low – a starvation level diet.”

Anyway, we Presbyterians have a long and worthy tradition of prepared preaching. We know something about Anselm and Abelard, and it’s reflected in our proclamation and in the stories of our churches.

The gospel is simple, but not simplistic! Jesus and the love of God take us on a profound journey in a vast landscape of ideas and characters, leading us to a life-long effort to make this a better world.

The fact that we’ve not been hugely popular in recent decades should call us to attention, but not undue alarm.

The sun is already setting on the megachurch phenomenon, and folks who are attracted to the simplistic Powerpoint and fill-in-the-blank Christianity are already on the move to the next whatever-it-is they’re looking for.

Where it goes from here, though, hard to say. Can anyone ever predict the future?

But this I know, the heart and soul of the church is all about good thinking about God … which is nothing less than prayer.

The gospel is both greater and less than human estimate – greater than our meager expectations, and less than the hype often associated with the silly promises of “Jesus can do everything.”

Good thinking will always be central, and good training for those who hope to wear the tag, “pastor” or “rev.”

Our commitment to good thinking and good learning is a part of our worthy heritage and a pathway for our future.

Wednesday, January 14, 2009

Roll Down Like Waters

Some thoughts for meeting with FedEx workers and Teamsters – Tuesday, August 26, 2008 – El Segundo

Tom Eggebeen, Interim Pastor
Covenant Presbyterian Church
80th & Sepulveda – Los Angeles 90045

Religious communities generally respond to the language of justice …

“Let justice roll down like waters” (Amos 5:24).

The heart and soul of the Bible is the creation of a just society … and what, we might ask, is just?

Where folks are safe … where a social safety net covers the extremes of life … not a regulated society as we saw with the Soviet Union, but a free society in which all of us are committed to the wellbeing of everyone … and through good government, good unions, the various forces of the economy are guarded and regulated to provide safety for everyone – children with health-care and safe education; workers protected from the whims of Wall Street, which in a moment, with a flash of the pen, can strip away or greatly reduce health benefits and do a vanishing act with pensions.

The issue for CLUE is justice.


And though CLUE has primarily been focused on the working poor, the effort now directed to assist FedEx employees is an expansion of concern, recognizing that in the current environment of corporate greed and unregulated financial systems, those who are middle-class and fully employed today, could be quickly reduced to barely getting by, or even descending into poverty.

The heart of America’s greatness has been the Middle Class.

The Middle Class is a social construct created by a strong and regulatory partnership between government and industry. Left to itself, industry become increasingly profit-centered, and in our day, we see the disappearance of family-owned business replaced by corporations held hostage by speculators and Wall Street.

Offering good wages as an incentive to discourage unions has been a part of the strategy, and for a time, it’s worked, but the globalization of America’s economy, the depletion of our surplus and the growth of deficit spending has weakened the American dollar, driving up prices at home, reducing our standard of living, and leading many companies to downsize – taking it out of the pockets of those who put their backs into it, while often rewarding those in charge. The various boardrooms of America’s giant corporations are filled with those looking our for their own interests, and look after themselves, they do.

Without regulation, economies all go the same route – the rich get richer, the middle class shrinks, and the poor are driven into the deepest of trenches. Until just a few hold most of the dollars; beneath them, a very small middle class, and beneath them, what was called, in other times, serfs. 

Who’s to look after you?

Can your parents do it?
Your friends across the street?
Our children? (That’s my strategy … just kidding).

America’s relationship to the working person has been a simple one. Without government regulation or unions, people are worked and discarded. Pensions and other benefits come and go.

We are soon to celebrate Labor Day.

Labor Day grew in the late 1800s when Americans shifted from farm to factory, and millions of immigrants came to our shores in search of work.

Wise and thoughtful people soon recognized the terrible working conditions in our factories, coalmines and oil fields, with children often bearing the brunt of it. Who would protect the children?

Read “Oil,” Upton Sinclair’s book about the California oil fields, on which the film, “There Will be Blood” was based.

Who would protect the children?
Who would protect the man in the Pennsylvania coalmine?
Who would build the schools?
Who would keep big business from draining away the social capital of the nation by unrelenting hours of hard work, low wages, dangerous environments and no social security whatsoever?

Things changed.
No longer were we an agrarian society with the children growing up and living on gramma and grampa’s farm. We became an urban society, where the need to look after one another on a larger scale became paramount.

CLUE and other similar organizations remind us – to be human is to be humane. To be humane, is to look after one another, to practice the Golden Rule, to do unto others as we would have them do unto us.

The great faith traditions of our world have always seen justice as the ethical heart and soul of believing in God.

To love one another … is to care for one another … and in a complicated society of 310 million people, care is best enacted through corporate structures to help everyone remember the Golden Rule and to protect everyone.

Structures: like good government working in partnership with industry – good government passing and enforcing safe food laws, protections for pensions and health care for every citizen.

Structures: like unions – like the Teamsters, who help business remember the higher principles of life – unions, who go to bat for their members, to protect them, to keep them and their families, so that a man and woman can go home at night feeling safe!

I was a Teamster for 5 years – during school, I loaded trailers at Spartan Warehouse in Grand Rapids, MI – a large grocery store chain.

We were paid $3.65 an hour – that was a great wage then, with plenty of overtime (all my school buds were envious), allowing these hardworking men (and it was just men then) to be middle class – to buy a 17 foot fishing boat, maybe even a small cottage up north – TVs and cars – they were a part of the Middle Class,

And it’s the Middle Class that made this country great.

And right now, it’s the Middle Class threatened with serious decline.

CLUE understands this and is working with you to protect your interests and help this nation rebuild the safety net for all of its good citizens.

Monday, January 12, 2009

Just Read the Layman

 I just put down the latest issue of the Layman (January, 2009) ... a tour de force of dissatisfaction.

I have some sympathy for them ... there was a time in my life when dissatisfaction sat on both of my shoulders, but with the passage of time, I've either grown addled or I've grown! Obviously, some would say addled. But I like my peaceable stance; I’d like to think that I’ve grown.

If the current Layman reflects where a good many of our brothers and sisters are living right now, it's pretty far from where I live.

Wish I had some answers - I don't.

With the turn of every page, I saw a determined Layman creating two camps with an absolute chasm between them - an unbridgeable gulf growing wider by the day. Again and again, churches leaving were lifted up and celebrated, along with all the numbers. On every page: the supposed failures of the PCUSA – our emptiness and our unfaithfulness, our desertion of the gospel and our abandonment of the historic Reformed faith, and so on.

Part of me is burdened with sadness – because the two camps are never so clearly delineated – there are folks with sympathies and sentiments rooted in both and on all sides of the questions.

Part of me is resigned to the darkening mood of the conversation, or what’s left of it.

Part of me is simply frustrated – how can the conversation be enlarged?

Part of me is hopeful, too. If Jesus’ ministry were judged on the basis of numbers and popularity, we’d all have to agree that his work was largely a failure. Only in the aftermath of the resurrection and subsequent missional expansion does the work of Jesus take on a larger significance.

So, who’s to say?

Church history is replete with times of God shaking things out. Our own history – often fatally flawed with our incessant desire to write it all down and then test one another’s orthodoxy or orthopraxy – has seen countless moments of division and reconciliation, off-shoots and new denominations. So who knows exactly where the power of resurrection will manifest itself? But we believe and trust: “God gives life to the dead and calls into existence the things that do not exist” (Romans 4:17).

As some of our brothers and sisters pack their bags and move to a new town, I can only wish them well. I’d love to see them stay a little while longer, but their discontent only grows stronger – a discontent resolved only by living in a new neighborhood with less irksome neighbors.

I suspect they’ll find, however, as all folks do who move, that a good deal of the discontent is a spiritual inclination always in need of someone or something against which to express itself anew. Dissatisfaction, like some primordial hunger, is never assuaged; it will only find new reasons to live.

I am happier than ever in being a Presbyterian – our faithfulness to the gospel is expressed in a willingness to constantly explore the boundary regions of love. Jesus is a boundary crosser, and so are we. There’s always some risk in such ventures of faith, but risk is part of it.

When all is said and done, our immediate family may be a little smaller, but so was Gideon’s army, and those 300 were more than enough to win the day!

Friday, January 9, 2009

Fatal Flaw?

Posted this the other day at a group on FB, "Happy to be a Presbyterian" -

For much of my ministry (39 years’ worth), I’ve watched portions of our church raise critical questions about our faithfulness, our orthodoxy, our trustworthiness, and sometimes, with the questions, a full-out dismissal of the church as heretical, if not apostate.

Some of this reflects an American desire to supersede one another – to find the next version - bigger, better, purer, and more effective. Along with this, then, the stories of dramatic conversion and numerical success as proof of the “better” idea.

But it’s not just an American thing, but an element of the Reformation itself – what I’ve come to term, “our fatal flaw.” Not always fatal, of course, nor always a flaw, but our incessant desire to pin one another down on what’s believed, to write and write again, to give expression to our faith, at the moment, and then check and recheck on one another as to how we’re lining up.

In this regard, I’ve had some appreciation for the Roman Church – their unity is less a matter of faith and more a matter of polity. Upon closer examination, in spite of the Pope and the Magisterium, there is tremendous diversity across the Roman world, especially in the near-independent monastic orders, but from nation-to-nation as well.

Nothing works perfectly, of course – the Tower of Babel Principle - a marvelous gift from God that insures a failure-factor in our unrelenting efforts to build a tower to heaven.

Whether Reformed or Roman, evangelical or progressive (or whatever title we might claim) we do well to heed Calvin’s leveling words – the persistent character of sin, and in so recognizing OUR sin, and seeing how merciful God is to US, we might, in our recognition of someone else’s sin, be a bit more sympathetic and kindly.

Jesus never told us to stop taking out one another’s eye-splinters, but reminds us to deal with our own splinters, logs, before we jump self-righteously into someone else’s eye.

We might learn a thing or two from our Asian brothers and sisters who tend to think both/and rather than either/or. Western thinking is painfully linear, whereas Eastern thought is bit circular – think yin yang.

Our typical linear pattern has been “you’re in or you’re out” – the last 150 years has been a see-saw battle at our General Assemblies, what with the ouster of Briggs at Union in New York (and Union’s subsequent withdrawal from the Presbyterian fold) and 40 years later, Machen’s departure to form Westminster in Philadelphia … and back-and-forth it goes; either/or.

I think we’re learning – a new generation of evangelical youth are deeply concerned about poverty, the environment and justice – demoting, if you will, the hot-button issues of their parents – abortion and homosexuality.

On the other hand, a whole new generation of progressives are returning to Scripture and prayer, taking monastic or semi-monastic vows and seeking a vision of God.

Both groups and everyone in between are taking a fresh look at all the theological anchors of the Christian faith – hard-liners are not so hard any more, and those who’ve been so soft, as to be mushy, are firming things up a bit. God be praised; we’re meeting in the creative middle ground.

Convergence, emergence – a new paradigm is evolving, a both/and arrangement.

The culture wars of the 80s and 90s have exhausted us, without a clear winner.

The mainline churches are experiencing renewal, and the mega-churches have reached their zenith only to discover their own failures to make disciples rather than merely attract attendees. After all the claims and counter-claims, we go to bed at night forgiven sinners, and awaken the next day in grace – the same grace for everyone!

Is there a better idea?

Maybe for soap or cars, but we need to be very careful about matters of faith and life. We’re all in this together, and I’d rather encourage you in your journey, as strange as it may appear to me, even being contrary to my journey, but if we’re complimenting one another, praying for one another, seeking to understand and strengthening one another, then the church will prosper – for when love trumps all other laws, that’s when the world begins to pay attention!