Friday, November 23, 2012

Defenders of Freedom!

While the nation was saved from a political cliff with Obama's reelection, defenders of freedom need to pay close attention to what's happening in the States. Conservatives know that it's always easier to pass restrictive legislation on the state rather than the Federal level. For some 40 years, conservatives have been bent on taking over local school boards and state houses; they have largely succeeded in many parts of the nation. People who love freedom, and the great pillar of freedom, public education, need to vigorously reclaim local school boards and state houses.

Sunday, November 18, 2012

Russia, 1919 - America's Undeclared War

"Bring the American boys home from Russia."

Following the armistice of 1918, American soldiers landed at Archangel, along with British, to defeat the Bolsheviks, restore the White Russians to power, hoping that Russian would again open the Eastern front against the Central Powers. When Lenin finally consolidated the powers of a new Russian government, America withdrew its forces, but not until 174 Americans had died there.

Senator Hiram Johnson
Hiram Johnson, a progressive Republican from California, spoke on the Senate floor, January 29, 1919:

"Why did we enter Russian? I answer, for no very good reason; and we have remained for no reason at all. And what is our policy toward Russian? I answer we have no policy. We have engaged in a miserable misadventure, stultifying our professions, and setting at naught our promises. We have punished no guilty; we have but brought misery and starvation and death to the innocent. We have garnered none of the fruits of the victory of war, but suffer the odium and infamy of undeclared warfare. We have sacrificed our own blood to no purpose, and into American homes have brought sorrow and anguish and suffering."

"Bring the American boys home from Russia."

Savage Peace, Ann Hagedorn p.79


Substitute Iraq for Russia, and we have another tragic misadventure for which America and the world continue to pay the price.

America then, and now again, is faced with the gravest temptation of Empire - that might makes right, and that we have the right to police the world according to our interests.

It never works; it never will.

Saturday, November 17, 2012

18th Amendment and Billy Sunday

When enough states approved the 18th Amendment, Billy Sunday declared: "The rain of tears is over. The slums will soon be a memory; we will turn our prisons into factories, our jails into storehouses and corn cribs, our men will walk upright. Now women will smile, children will laugh, hell will be for rent." Savage Peace, Ann Hagedorn, p.50

This foolish pronouncement could come only from the lips of a perverse moralist (which Sunday was), attributing to a single cause (alcohol) all that's wrong, and believing that prohibition would usher in a new era, if not heaven itself. Such is the foolishness of moralists, and how wrong they are. Sunday, meanwhile ignored the call of women for suffrage, anti-Semitism, lynchings and the on-going cruelty of Capital and its war against the workers of America.

Can only hope contemporary moralists could learn a lesson from this - to pay attention to the real issues facing America (greed, racism, poverty, jobs, school funding, war, environment, universal health care) rather than the illusory issues of a woman's right to health choice and marriage equality for LGBTQ persons.

Thursday, November 15, 2012

Abortion, Contraception - Fundamentalist Dilemma

"Unwanted pregnancies and abortions drop dramatically when free contraception is available."*

Fundamentalists of various sorts - Protestant and Roman Catholic - who oppose abortion continue to stumble over the most effective means for lowering abortion statistics - contraception.

As was heard from Paul Ryan on the Roman side of things, and from various and sundry pro-birth folks who are mostly on the Protestant/evangelical side of things, contraception is itself an evil, a contradiction of god's plan and purpose for women and their wombs!

Which leads me to the conclusion: the various voices that oppose both abortion and contraception are simply pro-birth - no matter what, no matter where - a pregnant woman must carry to term her child, and if that child should, in some way or other, threaten the mother's life, as we recently saw in Ireland, too bad!

"Mama, you have to die, here and now. Your life is of no further value. It's the life of the fetus, the child, and the birth-process, that now trumps any claims you might have to life. Sorry about that. Well, actually, we're not sorry. You should have kept your legs crossed! Shame on you. Such a slut you are!"

The fundamentalist dilemma - what to do?

Everyone knows that laws prohibiting abortion will simply drive it underground, and, of course, the wealthy will always have access to it, for they can pay their way around any and all laws. Or, if they choose for little Susie to have a child, they have the means to pay for it, what with nannies and various care-givers ... or give the child up for adoption through an expensive attorney who will quietly make all the arrangements for another family of means to have a child.

There is simple solution: contraception.

But we've seen a growing of number of Protestants join their Roman Catholics sisters and brothers in opposing contraception.

I, for one, have never understood this.

That's like saying, "If you get an appendicitis, don't remove it ... suffer through it. It's god's will for you."

This kind of thinking makes a fetish out of the body, especially the female body, as if the body itself, and its many functions, is sacred and out of bounds. Which is about as silly as saying, "I need to defecate, so I'll do it here and now, because this is what my body wants." This is how dogs behave, and cows and chickens. They are their body, and what their body wants determines their behavior. That's just fine for dogs and cows and chickens, but it's not what human behavior is all about, as human behavior is morally driven, not physically driven. Driven by thought and consideration for the larger picture and what compassion and love might mean. No guarantees, of course, that humans will make the right decision, but surrendering the responsibility of making decisions is an act that diminishes our humanity and only makes matters worse.

The fundamentalists have given over to the body, at least when it comes to conception and birth, absolute determination. Whatever happens physically is now the final reality to which we must now bow down, in some kind of a strange fertility cult.

Fundamentalist pro-birthers have managed to box themselves in, with no way out. Hence, their agitation and bizarre statements about rape. In a world where logic and reason and compassion have been discarded, all that's left is the Queen of Hearts - "Off with their heads" - and a hellish world where nothing makes sense. 

They're in a tough place, and they know it. They have no escape from their own pro-birth logic, and now with Obama's re-election, their prayers have failed to win their god's favor, or, the devil has somehow triumphed over their god, or, their god is submitting this nation to judgment by giving the devil free reign.

They are truly stuck in a strange and sad world.

*Christian Century, Nov. 14, 2012, p.8

Friday, November 2, 2012

Ancient Israel Wanted Clout - from F. Buechner

Today's reading (Nov. 2) from Frederick Buechner's Listening to Your Life really caught my attention.

Here it is:

Israel did not want to be a holy nation. Israel wanted to be a nation like all the other nations, a nation like Egypt, like Syria. She wanted clout. She wanted security. She wanted a place in the sun. It was her own way she wanted not God's way; and when the prophets got after her for it, she got rid of the prophets, and when God's demands seemed too exorbitant, God's promises too remote, she took up with all the other gods who still get our votes and our money and our 9 AM to 5 PM energies, because they are gods who could not care less whether we are holy or not, and promise absolutely everything we really want and absolutely nothing we really need. ~ Nov. 2 reading, Listening to Your Life - excerpted from The Clown in the Belfry.

The church in America is Ancient Israel all over again. We've sold our soul to the gods who promise us clout, security, and a place in the sun.

Gods who couldn't care less about our holiness and are more than happy when we substitute narrow-mindedness for faith, snottiness for discernment, and overly-scrupulous concerns for private/personal behavior - centered in the genitals - for the purposes of life given by Jesus in his hometown sermon. 

We despise the prophets, like a Jeremiah Wright, who call our "greatness" to account, who reveal the false gods for what they are, who shine the light of grace on narrow-mindedness, snottiness and petty morality and dare to call down God's judgment upon us.

We preach health, wealth and happiness and are more than content to ignore the Prophets and turn Jesus into some kind of a mental-health guru who will turn us into business geniuses, transform our marriages, guide out children into prosperous careers, eliminate acne and dandruff, make our nation strong, feed our needs for oil, prevent global warming, trample our "enemies" and make us happy.

But the happiness never arrives.

We still have acne and dandruff.

And God still waits for us to hear his Son in the Nazareth Synagogue.

Friday, September 28, 2012

Art and Its Social Power

My son's final post to his Peace Corps blog includes a number of reflections on the work there and his hopes and dreams for the future.

One paragraph caught my attention - his reflections on the social power of art.

Here it is:

I have art sitting in my parents place waiting to be framed that will always remind me of my time there. And have a huge new appreciation for art since Swaziland as country very much lacks creativity in art and thought. And I have created my own style called Dotillism (kind of like Pointillism). Art is such an important aspect of life and when it goes away it is the kind of thing that lowers life's experience. The Power of Art is one of the most underrated world powers. Hollywood has cornered the market on it and maybe someday some how it will really figure out how to help make big change through it's work instead of just entertaining the world. But the world outside the US almost needs the entertainment more then we do. In Swaziland, the lack of art is something that needs to be addressed on top of many of the issues that appear in the newspapers. Because creativity helps solve problems and creative thought is something to be encouraged. There are lots of individuals working daily to figure out how to make their lives better, Swaziland is a young country and small with both of those type of insecurities but technology like Facebook, internet and cell phone are transforming the people there. In the 2 years I was there pretty much every Swazi joined Facebook, got a much better cell phone many now have Blackberrys (or the Chinese knock off versions) and they communicate through status updates & messages more than talk, phone or email. Since it is the best & cheapest way to communicate there. I hope the best for the country as it struggles to find its voice in the big world and for them to find democracy.

You can check out the final post HERE!

Saturday, September 8, 2012

Capitalism, Communism and Marx

American Capitalists understood that Marx was right about the enslaving social conditions of Capitalism, and that's why the Robber Barons hated him, and still do.

On the other hand, Stalin and the Communists "embraced" Marx, much as Western Culture embraces Jesus - the Communists quickly employed Marx to further their own tyrannical purposes.

Both American Capitalists and Stalinist Communists knew that Marx was mostly right - the one group rejected him and made him the supreme enemy of God and Country; the other group "embraced" him and squeezed the life out of him.

Tuesday, August 28, 2012

Talking to an Anti-Abortionist

I have supported the right of a woman to choose abortion for as long as I can remember.

Because I believe that a woman has a right to manage her own body.


Last night, I had a lengthy conversation with an anti-abortionist.

Needless to say, it was frustrating for both of us, as we probed deeper into our values and the kind of world in which we want to live.

In a nutshell, my anti-abortionist relative believes that the inalienable right of the fetus to exist, along with the rights of the father, trumps the mother's interests in all regards.

In a nutshell, her womb doesn't belong to her, but to the fetus, and to the father, and likely to God.

My relative will gladly absolve women of all responsibility to insure a full-term pregnancy and delivery (we didn't get into rape and incest - though I think I know where that would go: pregnancy is the will of God and a blessing - he also thinks Akin is just a kindly kook who has as much right to be in Congress as anyone else).

He spoke of the 50 million abortions since 1973 (Roe v. Wade), observing, "Think how many presidents we've lost, and scientists and business leaders."

At that point, I pretty much lost my ability to think clearly, and I said, "We live in different worlds. I don't want to live in your world, and you don't want to live in mine." He nodded his head and sighed sadly. End of conversation.

The ideological divide is deep.

I'm not sure there are any bridges left.

Sunday, August 26, 2012

A Letter to Christian Friends

I am an American citizen - America is where I was born and live and will likely die. My life is connected to the character and wellbeing of the nation. As it goes, so I go; not the other way around, though I hope to have some influence, not simply as an individual, a lone-ranger of sorts, but in community with others who share a similar vision of faith, hope and love.

I strive for the Kingdom of God here and now, anticipating, in my own broken way, what God desires for God's creation and all of its creatures, great and small.

As such, I cannot hide my head in some spiritual sand. I cannot hold my breath, so to speak, until the flood of history ebbs, and I'm rescued by Jesus and taken to some sweet abode far, far, away.

This is not what Jesus intended.

As Jeremiah so wisely suggested to the exiles in Babylon - Pray for the city wherein you are, for your welfare is reliant on the city's welfare.

I am connected to America - its welfare is clearly my welfare.

With that in mind, I've been lately asking: What would the world, or America, look like if the Lord's Prayer petition were fully inaugurated: Thy kingdom come, thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven?

Would there be unemployment?

Would there income inequality? Would some live in the lap of luxury, often excessive in its display, while others can barely scrape by, facing horrendous decisions about paying the rent, buying food or drug prescriptions?

Would there be children living in roach-infested hovels? Dying of starvation? Trapped in the wars fought by the powerful, for the powerful, in order to gain more power?

Would there be any form of racial, ethnic or gender discrimination?

Would there be anyone who couldn't have access to good health care?

Would there be children in dilapidated schools, with peeling paint and limited supplies, while other children attend lavishly outfitted schools with all the educational accoutrements needed?

Would there be gated communities?

Would there be skid rows?

Would there be hunger?


People in prison?

Answering these questions is vital; there can be no escape from them, nor can we simply say: "Well, that's God's business. One of these days, God will provide the ways and the means for all of this being resolved. In the meantime, we have to abide in Jesus, love his word and wait for the day of redemption; that is, when we die, and leave this world behind, and our soul takes a flight of fancy into the higher realms, to be with Jesus forever."

This is not the gospel.

This is not what Paul meant when he said, "Our work in the Lord is never in vain."

Nor what Jesus meant when he called his disciples, and, at the end, commissioned them to go into all the world, and into all kinds of place, with all kinds of people, to establish the kingdom, by making disciples, baptizing and teaching them everything Jesus taught.

With that in mind, thinking of Jeremiah's advice for the exiles, and my own life, and that of my family and friends, intertwined with America and its future, I ask the question: Is there a political philosophy, system and program that moves toward this, the Kingdom of God, in any way at all?

Are there political systems that move away from this vision of the Kingdom of God?

If the Kingdom of God is coming toward us, then we go out to meet it, and lay before Jesus the gifts of our world, the gifts of our prayers and our labors.

We shall not bring in the Kingdom in its completion, of course. Only God coming toward us can and will do that.

But we can and we must contribute to that Kingdom here and now - that's what it means to be faithful to Jesus, to follow in his footsteps, to take up the cross he gives to us, to die to the self, that we might live for the love of God and neighbor.

I challenge my Christian friends to ask the Kingdom questions, and then look at the political philosophies offered to this nation - none of them are "perfect," that is, complete. All are lacking, but some are clearly more aligned with Kingdom life, dealing with the questions raised above.

We do not have the luxury of dismissing everything and hiding in a spiritual cave, waiting for God to come our way and clear it all up.

We must cast our lot and make decisions.

We must live, in other words, for something more than just ourselves, our welfare, our security, our comfort and our peace.

If you know me, you know the decisions I've made.

I'll not go into those here; you can read my other stuff.

But here, at least, let me pose the questions of the Kingdom.

And encourage the reader to hold the Kingdom in one hand and the political philosophies of the day in the other, and see how they contrast and compare.

And to ask, If I have but two options, and only one vote to cast, what option offers a greater congruency with the Kingdom of God?

Thursday, August 23, 2012

Threats to Social Security

Social Security, one of the hallmarks of America's greatness, and one of the anchors of a strong middle class. 

The far right-wing, which has now hijacked the GOP, has always hated Social Security, the only reasons being ideological, favoring a Social Darwinism, the winner-take-all version of economics.
Privatizing, even a small portion of SS, would reap billions for Wall Street, and in the end, speed up the transfer of wealth in this nation from the many to the few.

And if Wall Street fulfills its own nature, the billions given to it will mostly be lost, and we'll see again Hoover's poor houses and the further collapse of the Middle Class. 

Romney/Ryan/Rand - their perverted view of things will prevail, and the rest of America will be reduced to third-world status. 

Thursday, August 2, 2012

Ecumenical, Evangelical and Emergent Protestism

For the last 50 years, Evangelical Protestants (EvaPs) have pummeled Ecumenical Protestants (EcuPs) with a long list of complaints:

1. EcuPs have failed to honor Christ, Scripture and Tradition.
2. EcuP's decline in numbers is proof of spiritual failure.

While asserting:

1. EvaPs are more faithful to Christ, Scripture and Tradition.
2. EvaP's numbers prove their faithfulness.

Reading EvaP books and articles, it's obvious: reliance on numbers is overwhelming. Ask an EvaP about evangelicalism, and very quickly one will hear a long list of statistics - new churches, numbers in attendance, missionaries sent out, money rolling in, students in seminary, and so on.

This litany of statistics reflects the American Spirit of entrepreneurial success, which tends to isolate success from a host of contributing factors that make the "success" less a matter of personal achievement and more a matter of "luck," or in the Christian vocabulary, a matter of providence, or grace.

If the Bible has anything to suggest, it's likely this when it comes to numbers:

1. All human greatness is of God.
2. All such greatness becomes arrogant.
3. God brings down all such arrogance.

God is kind enough to take the torch from all movements and bring it elsewhere, that it can burn afresh.

EcuP was clearly on top of the game after WW2 and throughout much of the first half of the 20th Century, and then "decline," with EvaPs now dominating the playing field.

Yet, in the early years of the 21st Century, we see similar signs of decline in EvaP that were evident in EcuP decades ago.

EvaP will continue to slide, as Americas prove, once again, how fickle and shallow are their religious pursuits - more interested in losing weight, looking good and being assured that God loves them, no matter what, and after death, going to heaven with all of their friends, while their enemies can just rot in hell.

And so it goes.

And where it goes in the next 50 years remains to be seen.

Perhaps there's hope in what might be termed Emergent Protestantism (EmeP), a fascinating amalgam of the various energies of EcuP and EvaP, driven by missional imperatives in a post-modern, post-christian, world.

Perhaps a chastened Protestant Christianity can learn again the power of gratitude and humility; that we are creatures, one and all, great and small, of grace, and by grace, called to be the light of the world and the salt of the earth (gentle metaphors), letting the world see our good works that the world might give glory to our Father in heaven.

Wednesday, August 1, 2012

To Protestants ...

To Protestants ...

Unless we advocate believer's baptism and deny the validity of infant baptism, then we're likely a part of what's called Ecumenical Protestantism. Evangelical Protestantism, influenced by its Anabaptist antecedents, generally dismisses infant baptism and relies upon believers' baptism as the only acceptable mode of entrance into the church, and as proof of faith in Christ.

Within each group, lots of flaws, some of them even fatal. One of the fatal flaws of Evangelical Protestantism is its unrelenting search for "something better." This flaw generates a deep restlessness, often a hyper-critical stance vis-a-vis other Christians, even within their own ranks, and frequently leads to schism.

While EvaP has been more than willing to offer criticism of EcuP, calling the church "dead," and declaring that ECO (Covenant Order of Evangelical Presbyterians), for example, will find "something better," EcuP has been reluctant to find the holes and offer careful criticism of the weaknesses inherent within EvaP.

EvaP has had pretty much a free ride in America in the last 50 years, puffed by the media and enjoying the success of numbers - which, by the way, seems to be the chief indicator of faithfulness. The more numbers a church enjoys, evidently the more faithful it is.

Sort of like the old Presbyterian notion that wealth proved God's blessing.

Both "proofs," of course, fail to stand up when measured by the Bible.

EvaP is riddled with holes:

1. Biblical studies often more driven by ideology than sound exegesis and historical studies.
2. Heavy reliance on numbers as "proof" of faithfulness and all the subsequent techniques needed to sustain numbers.
3. Preaching often driven by therapy rather than the biblical story, with its traditional focus on the individual, rather than God, and the need to "win God's favor."
4. Preaching that relies heavily on inspirational stories, heavy on the miracle end of things.
5. The Anabaptist notion that one must do something in order to win God's favor is the heart of evangelicalism greatest weakness. Like it's Anabaptist ancestors, it's driven by anxiety - "have I done enough - and pride - "look at what I've done."
6. The greatest weakness is its ceaseless quest for something better, never satisfied, and reluctant to give thanks and appreciate where it is.

As an Ecumenical Protestant, I'm well aware of our flaws, several of which are fatal, as well. Thanks to the EvaP, most EcuPs know their flaws well.

But our commitment to justice, equality, a trained and connected clergy, and sound biblical scholarship have served us and our culture well. That American Protestant Christians should find great appeal in EvaP is understandable and lamentable, saying a great deal about the character of American faith, and the failure of EcuP to sustain adult education.

Much work to be done on all fronts.

EcuPs need to deepen their own culture, find the best within it, sharpen and expand it, and for crying out loud, quit crying, and don't be afraid to challenge the EvaPs.

They need the challenge, and with honest and careful criticism, we might actually make a better impact on American and global culture.

Wednesday, July 25, 2012

Positive Thinking and Love

Americans love Positive Thinking - in the late 19th Century, Acres of Diamonds by Baptist Minister, Russell Conwell (a fitting last name), then on to Dr. Norman Vincent Peale, a Methodist Pastor who served for years at Marble Collegiate Church in New York City, known for his The Power of Positive Thinking.

From Peale to California's Robert Schuller and his Possibility Thinking, and then, as of late, Joel Osteen, who seems to have but three sermons in him: all of them based upon, 1) God wants you to be happy. 2 ) God wants you to be without disease. 3) God wants you to be rich.

What they all have in common is a high regard for wealth and the wealthy, and how the wealthy love them.

In A People's History of the United States, historian Howard Zinn comments on Conwell's Acres of Diamonds that the message was anyone could get rich if he tried hard enough and suggests that Conwell held elitist attitudes by quoting the following from his speech:
"I say that you ought to get rich, and it is your duty to get rich.... The men who get rich may be the most honest men you find in the community. Let me say here clearly .. . ninety-eight out of one hundred of the rich men of America are honest. That is why they are rich. That is why they are trusted with money. That is why they carry on great enterprises and find plenty of people to work with them. It is because they are honest men. ... ... I sympathize with the poor, but the number of poor who are to be sympathized with is very small. To sympathize with a man whom God has punished for his sins ... is to do wrong.... let us remember there is not a poor person in the United States who was not made poor by his own shortcomings. ..."
Theologically, they're all Anabaptists, in that they teach human action as the prerequisite for divine favor ... if you do such and so, then God will do so and such!

Such thinking is, in fact, pagan: the gods are remote and not particularly interested in humanity, but if you say it right, do it well, and use the formulae suggested by the oracle, priest or preacher, you, too, can have what you want.

All of this has created a self-serving motif in American Christianity, built upon snippets from the Bible, told with amazing stories of health, wealth and happiness.
The self-centered message fits well with American Evangelicalism which has always taught self-concern - "Here's what you need to do, say, believe, to go to heaven and escape the fires of hell."

Going forward at a crusade to save your own neck, or doing such and so to get wealthy - it's one and the same for Americans, who seem to love, above all else, themselves.

Tragically, self-love is a hideous tyrant.

Self-love has no room for other-love.

In fact, others are often seen as wanting in character, or deserving of their sorry lot in life. Charity may be indulged, but the kind of changes needed to make for a healthy society are resisted.

Self-love allows no room for real love.

And must drive out real love in order to survive.

Wednesday, June 27, 2012

Did Jesus Teach Us What to Believe?

Jesus said very little about belief, and almost everything about behavior.

Fundamentalism, on a whole, is all about belief and getting to heaven upon death, with a heavy prescription on individualistic behavior; Evangelicalism would like to style itself a bit more progressive, but it's a tough road for Evangelicals because they tend to share the same belief- and behavior-systems of fundamentalism, though they may hold them a little more loosely.

Jesus comes to us with a message of social compassion - the Kingdom of God, "thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven." It didn't take long, in the history of the church, for the Empire (Thank you Constantine) to gut this message and turn it into an eschatological device, leaving this world to the Empire, and the next world to the church (nothing could have been further from the mind of Jesus).

Evangelicalism, whatever it really is, and fundamentalism, and Lutherans (with Luther's two-kingdom theology) perpetuate this arrangement. Paul's message on giving and care (e.g. 2 Corinthians 8.10-15) and the early church's practice of communal ownership hardly dovetails with the fiscal message of the current GOP (less of everything except business, and let nature take its course, which is a form of radical social Darwinism, if you will; I find it fascinating that those who reject biological evolution welcome it with open arms when it comes to "survival of the fittest" in society).

Fundamentalists and Evangelicals are pretty much peas in the same pod; I have yet to hear any one of them offer a clear and working description of who they are, though the Fundamentalists have an easier time with their Fundamentals.

Frankly, Evangelicals remind me of the guy who passes gas at a party, and then when folks smell it, quickly looks at the guy next to him. Sorry about that, but, in reality, if you want to spark a fight among Evangelicals, ask them to define it.

How much better for "Christians" to set aside belief-arguments and begin to look at the Sermon on the Mount, the Book of James, the Prophets and the deeply ethical passages of Paul. Jesus of the Gospels (not the Reformation - see N.T. Wright) can revolutionize the church, and the church can then be "the salt of the earth" and "the light of the world," as it practices the kindness of God (Matthew 5.43-48).

I realize that quoting Scripture rarely helps; we all have our favorite passages that we haul out of the closet when needed.

The above note was posted in a FB thread, June 27, 2012.

Wednesday, June 20, 2012

Thoughts about Peace and Violence

Jesus says to his disciples, Love your enemies.

Here is where we meet the power and depth of love - not a feeling, mushy and gushy, but a way of life, a form of behavior, deeply and wonderfully ethical. The word love describes an ethic that is honorable and fair - as Jesus notes, just like God, who makes his sun rise on the evil and the good and sends rain on the righteous and on the unrighteous.

In the world described here, God has no enemies, but treats everyone with fairness, and that’s always kindness - with regard to sun and rain, two essential components necessary to life.

Of such things, God deprives no one … because God is love.

Jesus then adds to this commandment, so that you may be children of your Father in heaven.

In a world full of violence, where nation takes up sword against nation, with hardly a thought about consequences; in a world where politicians win elections by promising a strong military and preemptive strikes as needed, Christians have got to do some serious thinking about Jesus, the one they claim to follow.

I sometimes wonder if Christians follow other gods, the gods of war - as history is full of Christians killing Christians, and Christians, and in the name of Jesus, conquering other peoples and even enslaving with hardly a thought.

The great challenge facing Christianity in the early part of the 21st century is violence, and the place of Christianity in the nations of the world, especially for Christians who live in powerful empires, or are caught up in war zones in places like Nigeria or Sudan.

It’s easy to give in to hatred and war. But Jesus offers us a different way of life. A way of life that fulfills the description of what God desires of us: to be the salt of the earth and the light of the world.

Thursday, April 26, 2012

Is John Ortberg Wrong?

Ever since my encounter with the Text, a long time ago (Ha!) in seminary days, and Peter’s walk on the water, I’ve seen that passage as a commentary on Peter’s impulsive and individualist approach to faith and life. In other words, this is no story to be mined for the typical American “you-can-do-anything” approach to life.

Peter was wrong to get out of the boat!

His moment of exultation lasted only a moment, his 15-minutes of fame, if you will. Glory of this kind is always a passing fancy, a story without substance, an experience without purpose (which seems to be very much a part of the American religious story).

Jesus saves Peter from the waves, of course. 

But here’s where the story turns important. Not only for what is said. But for what isn’t said.

Jesus doesn’t invite Peter to try it again.

Nor does Jesus invite the other disciples to try it, either.

Jesus takes Peter in hand and they both return to the boat.

It’s in the boat where the fellowship of faith is experienced, and that was the point of Jesus coming to them. Not to invite them out on to the waves, but to join them, or at least, as Mark puts it, to “pass by them,” as God “passed by Moses in the cleft of the rock,” to reveal God’s glory. 

In Mark and John, there’s no Peter doing his thing. But only in Matthew, and there, Matthew makes it clear when Jesus says to Peter, “You of weak faith; why did you doubt?” Not his ability to walk on water, but that it was the LORD coming to them. 

Peter’s impulsive move contradicts one of the central tenants of Christianity spirituality - waiting. Waiting on the LORD. Peter couldn’t wait, and that can only end badly, for everyone!

Impulsively, Peter leaves the boat, even as he did in the post-resurrection account in John. Peter dives into the water, wanting Jesus for himself, abandoning the work of his fellow-fisherman who have just taken a miraculous haul of fish and need help.

Peter is always about Peter … and he wants Jesus all to himself.

Which is why Jesus instructs Peter to “feed my sheep.” It’s not about Peter; it never is. It’s about others; it always is.

When I first read Ortberg’s book, I was taken with the story as he re-tells it. Yes, and wow, “you can be just like your rabbi; you, too, can walk on water. But ya’ gotta get outta of the boat first.”

It makes for great American preaching.

It appeals to our narcissistic instincts and our “Jesus and me” attitudes.

It appeals to our pride of power, and our daring-do stories.

But is it faithful to the text?

Is this what God wants us to hear?

Is this the Gospel?

I think not.

And more, I think Ortberg is wrong on this point. Seriously, terribly, tragically, wrong, misleading so many who are hell-bent on their pathway to the American version of faith.

It’s not about daring-do and water-walking - this is not what faith is all about, because faith is defined by love, by the Beatitudes, by mercy and compassion, forgiveness and bonding in Jesus, and through Jesus to the fellowship of faith and to the whole wide world. 

Faith about loving one another as Jesus loves us, by washing feet and putting our lives on the line, not for personal achievement, but for the sake of one another.

Faith is all about getting back into the boat with Jesus! It’s about feeding and tending the flock.

Peter has always been willing to abandon the others to secure his own place.

Peter has a lot to learn.

So do we!

Thursday, April 19, 2012

Dank, Damp and Dark Places

As I write, and read in these morning hours, I'm overwhelmed and saddened by the drift into ignorance occurring in this nation right now. The megachurches have recruited millions who "love Jesus" and know nothing about him, other than the hope that he might help them achieve the American Dream.

Combine this with the far-right's love of military might (all they read in the Bible are the books of Samuel and Kings, along with some verses ripped from Revelation), combined with a long-standing hatred of FDR and the "welfare society" he allegedly created ... sorry, I'm going on, but there are times I feel like I'm slogging through some dank, damp and dark places where hope is lost amid violence, ignorance and a vast self-interest ... I go on too long.

Wednesday, April 18, 2012

Rich Fools

The Parable of the Rich Fool by Rembrandt, 1627.

"It's hard for the wealthy to enter the Kingdom of Heaven" because they consistently fail to recognize their dependence upon the goodness and kindness and decency of millions who've made this a great country in which the wealthy could be creative and enjoy success. Their failure to acknowledge their dependence and only build "larger barns" - a form of market manipulation - (see parable of The Rich Fool) ultimately renders them "the fool." Please note: in this case, it's God who terms the man, "Fool" - Luke 12.13-21.

Wednesday, March 21, 2012

Seven hours and then thirty minutes on March 15, 2012

From my good friend, colleague, and occasional poet, Bob Orr:

It was last Thursday,
and I had worked with others for seven hours
at a Habitat house over in Ypsilanti.
I came home dirty, and sweaty. 
I peeled off my clothes and put them in the washer. 
I stepped into the shower and tried to keep from going down 
the drain myself.  Tiredness and aching muscles engulfed me. 
With a change of clothes, a shower and dinner,
my energy began to recover. 

Then the weather became the news.
Dexter, Michigan (19 miles northwest of Ypsilanti) was in the path of a storm. 
It dumped two inches of water and golf-ball-size hail. 
About five o'clock a tornado with winds exceeding 130 mph hit the ground for thirty minutes
leaving a path 7.2 miles long. 
Two hundred residents were displaced, but no one got hurt.
A hundred homes were damaged and ten were destroyed. 

I'll return next week  to work on the same Habitat house,
but I'll still be thinking about the tornado of last Thursday and what it
did to so many homes and lives in just thirty minutes.

Saturday, February 25, 2012

The Widow's Two Coins

A good friend wrote a comment on my earlier piece: "Diminishing Kindness in America," and here's my reply:

G'morning Judy - read your comment on the blog, and I appreciate your thoughtfulness. The Jeremiah quote, btw, is in Mark 11.17 - Jesus cites Jeremiah's complaint that folks have turned the temple into a den of robbers - a place where robbers go after their crimes to find safety, only to prepare again for further crimes.

With regard to the widow, one of the problems with preaching is isolating a passage from its context, and then adding "value" to it to suit our own interests. Mark places the widow's story immediately after Jesus warns the disciples about the scribes, or legal experts, who devour widows' homes. When Jesus describes the widow, I hear compassion for her plight ("all she has to live on) - because she's giving to a system that plays upon her piety, her faithfulness, her love of God. But to lift this passage from its context and isolate it, and then turn it into a "Hallmark Card" moment misses the point - while she may be a woman of great virtue (that we really don't know), she's a victim of a system that has made religion a business and business a religion.

You mention kindness and government - and that's the very link Jeremiah makes - Jeremiah 5.27-31 and Jeremiah 7.5-7. He's very clear, and so is Jesus, how the system is weighted in favor of the wealthy, and their increasing wealth (see Isaiah 5.8-13).

It's a matter of social kindness, not just personal. Offering a temporary job to someone is very different than a system that provides steady jobs, with good salaries and the appropriate safety nets that folks need for their children and their health, including public transportation, job-security (a boss just can't fire them at will) and the hope for a secure retirement.

Judy, in my world and travels and ministry, I have never met a lazy poor person - I've met folks working two and three jobs, getting up at 3 in the morning to ride buses to a job that starts at 7, and then when the bus schedule fails, they lose their job. I've met poor people who are sick and still work endless hours for small wages, who put up with insult and injury, who weep about their children, and can't sleep at night. I've met poor people who never had good families to rear them, who had no friends or relatives to bail them out when they failed (and who hasn't been bailed out a time or two by their family, or their friends?).

Judy, there is so much wrong with our system right now, and it's getting worse, and we are failing the very people whom Jeremiah notes: the alien, the widow and the orphan.

As for Christians, we have to read Jesus a whole lot more, and we have to read the prophets upon whom Jesus relied. On the Mt. of Transfiguration, Moses and Elijah were there, not David. Moses and Elijah are both prophets (to simply call Moses a representative of the law - Reformation theology - misses the point). Elijah's presence is best understood when Ahab calls him a "troubler of Israel," and Elijah fires back, "Not me buddy; it's you!" And Moses is the one who confronted Pharaoh and set the people free, leading them through the wilderness, with God providing for them (hardly a do-it-yourself proposition, because God is kind).

Anyway, I stand by what I wrote about the widow, because of Mark's context and how Jesus referes to Jeremiah. Luke has the same setting: Luke 20.45-47, and then 21.1-4 ... when Jesus says, "all she has to live on," it's a sad comment on a cruel system that will never honor her, or provide for her, but only take her home when she can't climb out of her debt (which was how most homes were taken, and if she's a widow, then she likely has debt).

Judy, I appreciate the length and quality of your reply, and I appreciate the struggles of your soul on these matters. That you and I should be FB friends is a gift - when I was in South Africa recently, I was talking with some Dutchmen there, and we all had a good laugh when I said, "If you're not Dutch, you're not much!"

Carry on the good fight!

To God be the glory!


Friday, February 24, 2012

Diminishing Kindness in America

I see one of our nation’s greatest attributes diminishing - kindness.
We’re known around the world for kindness, but I see this quality of character taking quite a beating under the onslaught of t-party values and right-wing crabbiness, with far too many Christians either ignoring the progressive loss of kindness or, worse, cheering it on in some kind of an upside-down misconstrual of the gospel.

And this worries me.

As it did Jeremiah, as he watched his beloved nation slide further and further into a very dark hole, wherein the wealthy were privileged and living in pleasure and three representative categories of people were slipping deeper into distress.

Jeremiah identifies three groups who are the victims of his nation’s greed - aliens, widows and orphans. People who ordinarily have no social voice or economic clout. Only a nation with compassion and kindness will address their needs. But as Judah slipped further away from God, all the while claiming to be righteous (“The temple of the LORD, the temple of the LORD, the temple of the LORD” - Jeremiah 7), compassion died on the vine before a harvest.

Jesus quotes Jeremiah in the context of his condemnation of the temple, and his instructive warning to beware of the scribes, or legal experts, who devour widows’ homes and then say long prayers. When Jesus sits by the treasury to watch people depositing their money, nothing how easily the wealthy drop in large sums, while noting a widow who puts in her last two copper coins, he notes her situation, not as an example of giving, nor does he lift up her virtue as a giver, but she’s a victim of a heartless system that would willingly take “all she has on which to live,” and put into a treasury that can only benefit the already-wealthy. Indeed, she’s a singular example of those widows whose homes are being devoured by the legal experts for the sake of the wealthy.

All of this dressed up in religion: the use of religion to bless business, and the transformation of business into religion.

We have taken the very people Jeremiah identifies as vulnerable, and the victimized widow of Mark, and turned them into “bad people” who are parasites on the system, lazy and irresponsible, depriving the upper-crust of their self-proclaimed share of the pie.

That some should feel this way is a contradiction of our better angels, so to speak, a denial of something vital to America’s identity. But what truly disappoints me is the failure of Christians to identify this decline and lament it’s loss in the American character.

Sadly, a lot of Christians have bought the story of the t-party as if it were the gospel, and it makes no sense whatsoever, for nothing could be further from the gospel than the bitterness and crabbiness of the t-party and right-wing ranters. Their childish complaints about government and their idolization of the wealthy as “job-providers” doesn’t square at all with history, nor does it reflect anything of the Gospel.
Furthermore, it’s a message being proclaimed in many pulpit, but then, many a pulpit has become nothing more than a message-chair to ease the pains of the life and give us a good night’s sleep. Preachers go on and on about marriage, children, success and self-esteem, while Jesus slips further into the shadows of our forgetfulness.

Yes, this disturbs me deeply.

But my greatest distress is the failure of so many Christians to do anything about it.

Proclaiming the Kingdom

If the church had proclaimed the Kingdom of God, and seriously prayed the Lord's Prayer, thy kingdom come, thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven, rather than eternal salvation and the sweet by-and-by, there never would have been a slave trade, or an Andrew Jackson, a "good" Presbyterian, ordering the expulsion of the Cherokee from the Carolinas, nor would there ever have been two World Wars fought by Christian against Christian. Had the church proclaimed the Kingdom of God, Christians would have never tolerated such inhumanity or violence.

With eternal life the goal, no one really cared about the earth and its creatures. Without the kingdom at the center of the church's life, greed and violence rose up and took command. And the clergy, often the beneficiaries of the wealthy, blessed the status quo, promised salvation to the masses, and enjoyed the privilege of the few.

Is this what Jesus had in mind when he announced the Kingdom of God?

Oh well, I'm just saying ...

Sunday, February 12, 2012

Are Christians-Protestants Dumb?

Are Christians dumb?

Protestants dumb?

I don't know ... but sometimes I think so.

Is this a religious problem?

Or a cultural problem?

Or is it just me?

Am I arrogant?

Or am I dumb?

Or a little or a lot of both?

I've spent 42 years in ministry, but someone recently noted, "time in the saddle doesn't mean anything."

Then I think of writers like Borg and Wright and Crossan and Bass - are they dumb, too?

Well, if everyone's dumb, that's that.

But if only some are dumb, then what?

Are there people who have a more coherent understanding of the gospel?

Of the Bible?

Of religious history?

And how it works in the mind and spirit of humankind?

Is there such thing as learning?

Or wisdom?

I've spent my entire career in pursuit of learning.

Not that I'm an intellectual - far from it.

Not that I know anything - unlikely that I do.

But I've pursued knowledge.






And books - tons of books ... more than I could ever read, but I've read more than I would have, because of all the books.

But what do I know?

Yet I think to myself, "There must be standards" or do we live in Alice's Rabbit Hole?

There must be some measure of knowledge when it comes to religion.

Or faith.

Is there any kind of reality in our "reality"?

Is there something enduring and true and good?

Beyond the momentary moments of my life?

Your life?

Our life together?

I don't know.

I think so.

And if there are, then what?

Is there something to know?

And what happens if we don't know?

Are there some who know?

And others who don't?

Then let's get to work.

I guess that's why some called Jesus Rabbi.

He was, after all, a teacher.

With authority.

Who pointed beyond the common wisdom of the day.

Beyond religious convention.

Beyond the sheep and the goats and the temple.

Beyond land and dietary laws.

I think he pointed beyond the things that make people dumb.

So that folks might know the glory of a living God.

A covenant of peace and wholeness and healing and hope.

A covenant that always requires people to pack up and move along.

Rather than settle down and stay put.

A covenant that requires some rootlessness to be rooted in God.

I think Jesus taught that.

And if he's a living presence, and that may be the case, then he still teaches that.

And by the Spirit, if that be the case.

I don't think Jesus was dumb.

Saturday, January 28, 2012

Street-Level Southern Sensibilities

Street-Level Southern Sensibilities are defective, founded as they are in a hatred for the Federal Government (this is Civil War stuff still moldering, like John Brown's body), a hatred of unions (an invention of the North and a tool of Communism - alla Billy Graham and other right-wing sorts) and the need for a permanent underclass to make the ruling elite feel powerful and good.

Right now, our nation is locked in a Civil War of ideas, and what with Reagan and his cheery smile, and before him, Nixon and his cynical use of Christianity, the South has clearly won enormous territory in the American soul.

It's war that no one can afford to lose, not even the South.

As much as the South fought to retain slavery, it was a war they couldn't afford to win. Had the Union disintegrated and the Confederate States perpetuated the institution of slavery, the cost to all is unimaginable - the balkanization of America and an economy built upon forced labor, an economy that would have been doomed to fail.

Romney and Gingrich and all the rest are held in the grip of Southern Sensibilities.

They look to the past for guidance.

They fail to see the future!