Tuesday, October 27, 2015

War Wagon Parade

A parade of war wagons
Through my neighborhood
Dark, hulking, war wagons.
Throbbing engines, darkly tinted windows
Moving slowly through the neighborhood
Bringing children to school
SUVs, 4x4s, tricked-out vans
Parents and children
How different in Europe
Everything smaller
Fuel efficient
But, heck, what do they know?
Nothin’ but a bunch of weak-kneed socialists
Too soft to know better
So, hats off to the war wagons
Onward Christian Soldiers
Tons of steel and darkened glass
Wow, ain’t God good?
The war wagon parade

Friday, October 23, 2015

Jeremiah and the Benghazi Hearings

In today’s (Oct. 23) lectionary, Jeremiah the Prophet is confronted by “insolent” men who called him a liar (Jeremiah 43.2).

I think, too, of the young men who gave counsel to King Rehoboam (I Kings 12.6-11) ... while others urged the king to ease up, the young men, who had grown up with Rehoboam (mostly in the lap of luxury, I’m sure) told him to double down on the people. Out of the houses of their ease, they despised the people and couldn’t have cared less.

Who were the insolent men who called Jeremiah a liar?

Who were the young men who told Rehoboam to up the ante on cruelty?

Yesterday, catching bits and pieces of the Benghazi “hearings” - I didn’t hear a lot of “hearing” going on, but saw lots of grandstanding and insolence.

Watching Trey Gowdy yesterday, Mike Pompeo and Jim Jordan, the only words that repeatedly came to mind were “insolence” and “cruelty.”

I saw neither patriotism nor love of truth, but only a partisan hatred of The Secretary, a hatred that has deformed those who harbor it.

I was proud of Hillary yesterday ... she was in the hot seat for 11 hours ... and conducted herself with aplomb. 

When faced with insolence and cruelty, she responded with intelligence, wit and firmness. 

If nothing else, she proved herself a candidate for the Presidency. 

Thursday, October 15, 2015


Family leave? Hardly.
Day care at work? Maybe.
Health care? Still uneven.
Child care? Expensive.

Stay home with a sick child?
Lose pay?
Lose job?
What a choice!

Send a sick child to school.
Worsen the condition?
Infect other children?
What a choice!

How does a family do it?
If they're not rich ...
How does anyone do it?
Without a lot of help.

Yet, some deny job protections.
And sex education.
Some deny the value of a woman’s choice ... and say that every pregnant woman has to give birth, even still birth, if that’s the deal.
And some just say No!
To universal health care.
To family social supports, if these supports come from Uncle Sam ... especially if they’re from the Uncle Sam ... “we can’t have no socialism in this here country, because we believe in the law of claw, and the survival of the fittest ... because Jesus said that somewhere, at least that’s what the preacher said, and I’ve got my gun to defend m’self and a bullet with your name on it.”

"If you want help, go to church."
They say.
But most churches can't help.
Beyond a meal or two.
Maybe a babysitter a time or two.
Maybe a dime a time or two.
Certainly a prayer a time or two or three or more ... and the last time a prayer fed a hungry family or provided child care, I don’t remember ... but the one praying felt mighty good about it and gave the single mom a tract on salvation and the coming judgment of God.

Some say, again and again:
"Pull yourself up by your own bootstraps."
And then cut off the bootstraps.
And then take away the boot.
"Because some folks are just not deserving."
They say.

A discrepancy, I’d say!

Wednesday, October 14, 2015

A Young Man Reading His Bible

A young man, neatly dressed, suit and tie, hair combed back tightly, on the Red Line to downtown, reading his Bible ... from the look of it, somewhere in the Minor Prophets.

He was so ernest, so intent ... yet I felt a great sadness for him ... wondering if anyone with any skill or knowledge was guiding him.

When the Ethiopian Eunuch was reading the Bible on his way home, God sent Stephen to him, to help. The man confessed he didn’t understand what he was reading, and Stephen provided guidance.Individual Bible reading is a good thing, if one knows how to read it, much like reading any piece of literature.

One simply doesn't pick up Plato and start to read ... or if one does, sooner or later, at the very least, some googling will be in order. And perhaps consulting with others, or enrolling in school.

Whether it be the Gideons and their "miracle stories" about the man in the hotel room, ready to take his own life, but at the last minute, reading a Gideon Bible and turning to God for help ... or any of the miracle stories told by evangelicals on TV and radio and pulpit, people are set up for a spiritual crash. Much like telling an adolescent to get behind the wheel of a car and jut go - God will guide you.

Whether it be Augustin or Calvin, St. Teresa or Mother Teresa, the spiritual life requires community, and never a community of ignorance, but a community of learning, scholarship, study and reflection.

"Put a bunch of cabbage heads together and all you get is slaw" is true enough for so much of evangelicalism ... no wonder things get so crazy as parents who "trust the LORD" let their little baby die because they don't believe in doctors.

Or a 19-year old boy is beaten to death by his parents and others who wanted him to confess his sins, whatever that means.

Such hideous perversions emerge out of the cloud of ignorance, a miasma of death hanging over all of it, where good is bad and bad is good - a world turned totally inside out and upside down, a world always isolated from the larger currents of religion and culture.

I wonder what will happen to that ernest young man on the train reading his Bible?

Will he find someone to guide him to maturity of faith? Or will he slip into some hideous realm of hyper-legalism and violence?

I hope not.

But history makes it painfully clear that when isolated from the large and refreshing streams of Christianity and human culture, even the clearest water soon grows murky and fetid.

Thursday, October 8, 2015

“As a Christian ...” What does that mean?

Christians, it seems, pretty much believe everything and anything, in one form or the other, and behave accordingly:

Death penalty, abortion, war, Confederate Flag, drugs, sex, immigration, age of the earth, flat-earth, after-life, did American’s walk on the moon or not, homosexuality, women’s rights, rape, welfare, socialism, capitalism, Trump and Carson and Sanders and Hillary ...

And the religious stuff: Jesus, God, Holy Spirit, salvation, damnation, predestination, inspiration, the devil, hell, heaven, baptism, communion, nature of the church, papacy, and a myriad of doctrines, like infralapsarianism or supralapsarianism, millennialism, post-millenalism, pre-millenialism, many of which are convoluted beyond description ...

And Baptists (how many different kinds?), Presbyterians (a bunch of them, too), and Methodists, Episcopalians, Lutherans, Free Church, “debts” or “trespasses,” Pentecostals, dunkers, sprinklers, tongue-speakers, high-church, low-church, Reformed, Lutheran, Independent, non-denominational, store-front, King James Bible, pantheism, panentheism, theism, atheism, spiritualists, free-thinkers, revivalists, covenanters, extemporaneous or scripted, robed or bluejeans, clerical collar or button-down shirt ... pulpit or stage, organ or band ...

Seems to me that “christians” manage to believe just about everything on any given topic ... and behave in ways that pretty much cover the possibilities; so, what the heck does it mean when someone says, “As a Christian ...”

Perhaps it has some meaning in countering what “some other Christian” has to say about something, especially if that “christian” claims universality for her or his belief, such as “the only christian position on abortion is absolute prohibition.”

Well, then, “as a Christian,” I support a women’s right to choose. 

So there ...

For some, when I hear, “as a Christian,” it carries the sense of “Well, that’s settled!” As if “the christian” no longer has to think about it. That it’s been resolved for the ages, flowing in some kind of a pipeline direct from the throne of god.

I think there was a time when “as a Christian” meant “I’m going to heaven,” with the veiled threat to another, “And if you’re not a Christian, like I am, then you’re bound for hell and eternal flames. And, if that’s your choice, to be stupid, instead of smart, like I am, then I don’t give a damn, so to speak.”
But such things seem hardly worth anyone’s time these days. Even hardcore “christians bound for heaven” seem to have a harder time with all of this damnation stuff these days. What with all the hell-on-earth in which millions have to live every day of their life. 

Very few are comfortable enough to just say, “Here’s how I see it!” Adding, “as a christian,” gives it boost, a little more legitimacy, weight, value, or so we might think. As a christian, and I r 1 (end of discussion, eh?), it helps to consult the broader tradition, which pretty much says everything that can be said about anything, contradictions and all (how bloody christian history has been) ... but in the final analysis, one can only say, “Here’s how I see it” and maybe add a few whys and wherefores, and maybe even say, “I’m a christian, as I see it” ... but in the end, it’s all just opinion, and we’re stuck with that. Like it or not.

So, what’s the value of saying, “As a Christian ...”? Other than affirming what we we all know, and some would like to ignore, that Christians pretty much believe the entire spectrum of possible ideas on just about everything ... and behave accordingly.

The only option: live with it, state your case, with appropriate conviction and humility, and be kindly toward others ... especially those who live in hell-on-earth, and be ready to fight for them, set them free, and ready to challenge those who would perpetuate that kind of hell-on-earth in order to create their own private heaven-on-earth world in gated communities of privilege and power.

Maybe it’s best to say, “As a human being ...” but, then, that has it’s own issues, too!

Smile, you’re on candid camera!

Saturday, September 19, 2015

Reading Psalm 56 Upside Down

I've read Psalm 56 many a time, especially in hard moments of ministry, and have found it of great comfort and encouragement.

It's a Psalm regarding David, when the Philistines seized him in Gath (as the notes say).
Of course, the Philistines are the enemy, and David the victim of their cruelty and great evil. Poor David, we assume, and with him, we shed tears and give thanks that god is his side, and sooner or later these evil Philistines (is that not a redundancy?) will meet their just end - defeat at the hands of the righteous David.
But this morning, I read it upside down.
I found myself reflecting on two moments:
1) Recently, the Kim Davis Affair, and how easily we can isolate ourselves from all questions about our behavior and assume, with plenty of encouragement from friends, family and fellow-believers, that we're in the right, without question, god is on our side, and the enemy is the one who opposes us.
2) My reading of "Empire of the Summer Moon" - about the Comanche and Texas - the clash of two powerful, violent cultures, both given to war and conquest, both wanting land. In the case of the Comanche, land that belonged to them because of their conquest of other tribes, their successful use of Spanish horses, having defeated both the Spanish and the Mexicans, but unable to defeat the Americans, because of their overwhelming numbers of settlers moving westward, their diseases, weapons and the buffalo hunters. Violence on both sides, incredible violence. In the hands of the Americans, it was all turned against the Comanche, the only good one being a dead one. And, for the American, it was their Christianity that gave them the right to this land; it was their manifest destiny. The Indian, unbaptized and pagan, had no rights whatsoever. And if the Comanche are cruel and violent, just wait: Americans know how to be just as cruel and violent, and then some, and all in the name of god.
How different is this Psalm when read upside down.
David might have asked himself:
1) Why do the Philistines see me as enemy?
2) Is it because of my "faith in god," or because I want their land, I want them gone, I want them defeated and dead?
3) Is it because I believe in manifest destiny: god gave this land to us and told us to kill everyone in it, including women and children and even livestock?
Given what I know of David and history, it's no longer possible for me to read this Psalm sympathetically. It's way too easy to read it and simply see "the other" as "enemy" and myself as "the righteous one." Way too easy to exonerate myself and vilify the one "hurting" me.
If David were a counselee, a good counselor would likely explore with him how he's offended and hurt others. How his beliefs and attitudes put others off and alienate them. How his views of life are essentially narcissistic, and his self-serving view of god is the root of violence toward others. A wise counselor would explore this sensibility, "that god is on my side exclusively, and what the Philistines have is mine to take because god said so."
I have read this Psalm in times of turmoil, and been comforted by it, and may well read again in that light.
But it's a dangerous Psalm that can easily blind the reader to her or his own sin against others, and blind the reader to the humanity of the "enemy."
It's a Psalm that needs to be read upside down.

Thursday, September 3, 2015

I Have My Work Cut Out for Me!

For much of my career (ordained #PCUSA, Jan. 1970), I've been aware of the great divide in this nation: Ecumenical Protestantism, Progressive Judaism and Liberal Catholicism on one side, and on the other side, Evangelicalism and Fundamentalism.

For lots of reasons, I suppose, I've always reached out to Evangelicals and Fundamentalists - no big deal, I'm sure - like a cup o'coffee or a hamburger and some conversation. I wanted to be a bridge builder.

Can't say that it ever worked! Generally, they believed I wasn't even a Christian, or, at best, a very poor one. Though I've never thought of Evangelicals and Fundamentalists as "not Christian," though I was never comfortable with their "conversionist" theology, me being a "covenantal" thinker, with infant baptism as the liturgical cornerstone illustrating God's sovereignty in these matters. Many a time, I was told they would be praying for me, and on a number of occasions, I asked them not to pray, since their prayer was mostly a call to God to change me into their own image - hardly a prayer of love, and surely not a prayer for learning together about God's greatness.

Anyway, the divide has only grown wider ... what was at one time a silence between the two sides has now escalated into a shouting match, as Evangelicals find themselves on the losing side of the Marriage Equality question.

Evangelicals certainly have had their day in the sun, you might say, ever since Ronald Reagan learned how to play them to his political advantage, and there was a time when they felt on top of the heap, and crowed ever day, with books and sermons, that Ecumenical Protestantism was on its last legs, and there would be a new Evangelical America free of abortion, without Marriage Equality, with Bibles and prayers in the schools along with creationist curriculum.

Well, that certainly didn't come to pass, and now the sun seems to be shifting a bit, with Evangelicals now confused, because it seems that their god is no longer working things out as had been expected. And all of this is turning into a deep and violent anger.

The current state of affairs is very disheartening. I don't even know any longer how to talk to an Evangelical ... whatever we might have had in common 30 years ago now seems to have evaporated.

Evangelicals, led by the Huckabees and Santorums, have hardened in their thinking and politics in light of Marriage Equality - because what they truly what is a theocracy, not a democracy. Sadly, much of this Evangelical fervor now is tangled up in Southern Nullification, old-line racism, State's Rights, misogyny, and guns.

FOX News has chimed in on this, too, with full voice, and GOP candidates have joined the fray, all trying to out-Bible one another, yacking endlessly about "religious freedom" and the rights of believers to "practice their faith."

It's a first-class mess, and I have no idea how to deal with it, other than to be what I am - and to articulate my vision as clearly and compassionately as I can, and do so with passion, too, not laying down in front of the Evangelical freight train, but countering it with clear and incisive theology and ethics.

I have my work cut out for me.

Tuesday, September 1, 2015

Before More Damage Is Done

There are times when the very word "christian" rests bitter in my mind and heart.

What with the media's fascination with evangelicals and their bigotry, and what with the megachurches trumpeting their special brand of power and miracles, with their steel-jawed preachers and their bosomy beauties, in the minds of many, this is what Christianity is all about.

Meanwhile, more thoughtful Christians, and, yes, there are plenty of them, sit back, mostly stunned into silence, hoping the whole mess will sort itself out.

Perhaps it will ... I get the feeling that evangelicals have gotten about as crazy and mean-spirited as they can get, short of resorting to arms and killing the "heathen" (I guess some of the swamp-bred militias are doing just that, or at least, want to).

I have always believed that Americans are mostly sensible. Religious, yes, but with a certain restraint and will not long tolerate religious extremism, of any kind.

I have always believed, as well, in the primal character of the Spirit of God, the Creator God - that the Spirit always hovers over the chaos and darkness, calling for light, and bringing forth a degree of order, process and progress toward cohesion, creating an environment in which life can emerge, evolve and prosper.

How it works, I don't know, but it works; that much I know.

I can only hope that it works soon enough, to contain the monstrous distortions of the Christian Faith, these days combined with the fascist instincts of wealth and power, before any more damage is done.

Friday, August 14, 2015

Homosexuality: The Conservative "Last Stand"

Andrew Hodges, author of "Alan Turning: The Enigma," describing the findings of scientists by the mid-20th century regarding the mind and human development: "... nineteenth and twentieth-century science had been peeling the onion of the mind, and had dented the concept of responsibility with 'mental illness', shell-shock, neurosis, breakdowns and so forth. Where was the line to be drawn? The conservative fear was that every kind of behavior would be excused by appeal to some irresistible, uncontrollable, force majeure. ... they sought a non plus ultra [nothing beyond this] to the pretensions of mental determinism, a barrier against the flood of threats to traditional values unleashed by the Second World War. They found one in homosexuality: the new men's talk of 'conditions' and 'complexes' was not to be allowed to excuse a deadly social evil, corrupting and weakening everything in its path" (p.579).

It's hard for me to fathom the relentless social/moral fears flooding the conservative mind: to approach the world in fear, in terms of threat and loss, believing one's self to be surrounded by enemies.

Though, of course, I have my own set of fears regarding the ever-present threat of fascism (the easy answer to complex questions), and where fear is high, fascism is just around the corner.

Yet, my Christian Faith provides a basis of confidence: "Fear not."

And "perfect love" (meaning complete, no piece missing) "casts out fear."

The conservative mind will gladly take away freedom in order to maintain social morality. And no better arena in which to engage the "liberal enemy" than the arena of sexuality, both homosexuality and women's bodies.

Here is the fulcrum on which the conservative mind balances ... lose here, and everything is lost.

Whereas I say: win here, and everything is gained - freedom and democracy grow all the larger.

Thursday, July 9, 2015

Sorrow for Evangelicals Who Oppose Marriage Equality

Watching evangelical pastors condemn Marriage Equality while "quoting" the Bible is very much the same, I think, as those who cited Scripture to justify the persecution of Jews, the enslavement of people of color and the denial of rights to women.

Let's face it - in the conversation of faith we call "the Bible," every kind of voice can be heard, from the sublime to the mean. So, merely quoting the Bible, citing some passage of Scripture, means nothing, any more than picking up a novel, grabbing a piece or two of it, and then claiming to know the mind of the author, or at least the whole of the plot.

I feel a great sorrow for evangelical pastors who cannot cross over into a more enlightened world-view. They fear losing something, when in fact, it's all gain.

But truth be told, "condemnation" works in many a pulpit; it's easy to preach and fun to wallow in.

In all previous chapters of condemnation, from the Inquisition to the fight against civil rights, condemnation has proved wrong, though bolstered by plenty of Bible-thumping, or at least claims to "tradition."

Condemnation doesn't work.

The stance against Marriage Equality is failing, and will continue to fail. Sure, there will always be some who "fight the good fight" in their own skewed mind and world, as there are still those who subscribe to a flat earth and a geocentric view of the solar system.

I pray for evangelical pastors who are making a "brave stand" on their condemnation of Marriage Equality. They are on the wrong side of history with very little on which to base their claims. They know they're on shaky ground but cannot escape the clutches of their own traditions. And their congregations pay them to stay as they are.

It's all very sad.

Tuesday, June 2, 2015

Jefferson's Wall

One of the driving pieces of the Puritan migration to the New World was to escape state-imposed religion, which has never worked very well anyway. But state after European state used religion to buttress national interests and power, and people went to prison because of it, or were tortured and maimed, property confiscated and prohibitions imposed, with one version of religion trumping all others in service to national interests.

All of this history is clearly before us.

But over the years, many of the descendants of those who came here to be free of state-imposed religion decided that state-imposed religion, if it were their religion, the right religion, would be just fine.

The effort to formally establish religion has never ceased, and in recent years has gained momentum, driven largely by various forms of evangelicalism.

These interests added "under God" to the Pledge of Allegiance and initiated the National Prayer Breakfast, in the early 50s, among other things, and struggled to establish state-mandated prayer in public schools, which ultimately the Supreme Court decided on June 25, 1962, in "Engel v. Vitale."

Jefferson's "wall of separation" was wisely raised up, to protect both religion and government from one another, that they might remain good neighbors, talking with one another, helping one another, but neither assuming control of the other.

Good walls make for good neighbors ...

Those who cherish their faith in God should be well-advised, that efforts to establish a religion backed by state interests can only fail it's intended purpose of instilling virtue in people's lives. It has never worked and never will.

If the state uses religion to further its own interests, religion is no longer religion in the sense of pointing us toward God, but only a tool to further some limited purposes which are mostly about power and money.

And if a religious body uses the state to further its own interests (as we saw in the Middle Ages), the religious body soon begins to look, talk, act and feel very much like the state, with soldiers, bankers and attorneys working over time to impose upon the people a particular religious expression, and woe to those who would violate it.

People of faith need to consider these matters with great care. The evangelicals of our day who so easily speak of "getting prayer back into the schools," and using Charter Schools to foster a sectarian creed, are making a huge mistake, often caught up in their personal version of the "culture wars" (one of the worst ideas every coined, because God is God in all realms - there is, in God's love, no competing cultures, no culture wars; only human vanity and the the lust for power that uses religion as a cover for its base interests).

People of faith (and these days, that encompasses a much wider horizon than previously imagined in the Western World) need to jealously guard their traditions from the intrusion of other religions or the power of the state. Every religion needs to respect the others, too, and the state serves its religious purpose best of all when it legislates religious freedom for all forms of faith and respect for the essential practices that characterize various creeds, without endorsement or establishment.

Religion, by its very nature, seeks the wellbeing of the land in which it resides ... but base instincts also drive religion to control and dominate. It's these latter instincts that Jefferson's "Wall" seeks to mitigate, both for the health of religion and that of the state. And with that Wall well built, religion can flourish and do what it does best - to provide encouragement and strength to its adherents to live well to the best of their ability, to encourage a nation to be just in its regard for all of its citizens, with a special effort on behalf of the poor and marginalized and to address the state when it appears that the state is veering off into some form of hyper-nationalism and its attendant militarism.

Jefferson was right, and it's in our best interests to heed his advice. Build the Wall high, maintain it well ... it has enough doors and windows in it to allow conversation and mutual regard, but preserve the Wall, and in so doing, the character of good government and the character of a living faith are more likely to be preserved and served.

Monday, June 1, 2015

Good Preaching!

Good preaching - okay, I'll have a go at it.

Preparation, preparation, preparation - and that's many years, and still learning, still preparing.

Writing, writing, writing - nothing hones the mind, the thoughts, the ability to give expression to the inexpressible. 

Humility, humility, humility - give it your best shot, and know that it fell short. Period! It was probably good, but there's always another Sunday.

Trust, trust, trust - when spoken in hope for the wellbeing of another, a changed social condition, the welfare of the world, God does something with such efforts.

Energy, energy, energy - deep and penetrating care for the Word, the world, scholarship, politics and hope. If you care about it, preach about it. If you don't care deeply, find something about which you care deeply, and go from there. At such a point, a little pulpit-pounding might just happen, and that's okay, too.

To this, I'd add: use a text, or something similar there to. Have the notes at hand, and let the congregation know that you produced something requiring labor as well as spirit.

Use a lectern, or pulpit - waltzing around on the chancel, platform, is mostly a preacher-centered look-at-me device.

Anyone with thespian proclivities can dazzle an audience, but preaching isn't about dazzle, it's about grace and justice, and those are both amazing things and hard things, requiring a lot of emotional and intellectual effort well-harnessed by training, by sermon-text and by humility.

Nothing wrong with flair - let the Spirit lead, but like a horse, if the preacher is going to pull the wagon, some serious equipment/equipping is needed. Dashing off here and there across the field may be pretty to watch, but in the end, to be of value, the horse is harnessed for the day's work.

Well, that's enough for this morning ... a Sunday morning in Amsterdam.

Monday, April 27, 2015

Healing, Humiliation and Prayer

The life of faith, always ambiguous in its results ... frustrating at times, since there is no guarantee that prayer, or anything else we might call upon, will consistently "work."

In Mark 6.13, the disciples are hugely "successful" in their efforts to cast our demons and, by oil-anointing, to heal the sick.

What a spiritual high for them it must have been.

Yet, in Mark 9, the disciples have a "mountain-bottom" experience - they can't heal a boy with convulsions. After Jesus heals the child, the disciples inquire as to why they failed. Cryptically, Jesus replies that some "demons" respond only to prayer (NRSV; other texts add fasting), leaving the disciples scratching their heads, I'm quite sure, as this leaves us wondering, too.

But Mark has a point - at no point in time can the disciples "patent" a process of healing ... sometimes it happens, and sometimes it doesn't, and there's no clear explanation of it.

How humiliated the disciples must have been when they failed, and worse, when the scribes went after them. Had the disciples perhaps been earlier boasting, after their earlier success? Heck who doesn't engage in "spiritual boasting" now and again, if not with others, at least within our own spirit?

Mark addresses the simple reality: sometimes it works, and sometimes it doesn't, and there's no pattern to be claimed by the disciples, no method that "guarantees" anything.

Perhaps to keep in check the church's inclination to boast: "my god can beat up on your god," and so on.

Sort of like preaching: that one Sunday when it all came together and the angels sang ... and the preacher goes home to write a book about "successful preaching."

And then the following Sunday, with the preacher in full control of the method, full of confidence and self, and the sermon lands like a cow pie in the field - kerplop! And the preacher goes home humiliated and sad. And later in the afternoon, Jesus stops by and says something about prayer.

Oh well, there's another Sunday coming ... and another chance, and maybe it'll work ... and maybe it won't. Jesus my LORD!

Monday, March 9, 2015

"There Must Be No Handouts"

So many of the GOP candidates echo the refrain: "There must be no handouts!" As if those crossing our borders are looking for a handout. Heck no, they're looking for work, for a future, for hope, for safety - they're looking for an honest job to feed their families.

Ride an LA bus for awhile ... handouts? Are you kidding? ... they toil morning, noon and night, washing our dishes, cooking our food, mowing our laws, hauling our trash, emptying our bed pans, fluffing our pillows. Yeah, right - all looking for a handout.

Frankly, the GOP reminds me of some doddering old man who believes his neighbors are ripping him off, stealing his apples, letting their dogs crap on his marvelous lawn, borrowing things and not returning them - obsessing about this into the late hours of the night and peering all day long from behind a pulled-back curtain.

Deep and dysfunctional paranoia.

Sadly, certain crowds in America lap it up like kittens on a bowl of cream. Screaming their approval: "Yeah, no one's gonna take advantage of us. No way. Deport 'em all. Build those walls. To hell with them; they're no good anyway!"

Meanwhile, the real rip off is going on 24/7 in corporate America and Wall Street, to the tune of billions, and now trillions, and to cover their larceny, point to the poor and scream loudly: "You're not gonna get a handout from us!" And scream it again and again and again, until everyone is numb, too numb to see the crime being committed by the powerful against our nation.

All of this would be bad enough, all by itself, but when silver-tonged preachers, well-greased with cash, mouth these alarmist remarks against the immigrant, the poor, and their children, the crime is magnified infinitely, flying in the face of the very Jesus they purport to worship.

But, then, let's not forget, Jesus was betrayed with a kiss and crucified with a lot of religious folks standing around nodding their heads in agreement as the Roman Soldiers drove home the nails.

Thursday, February 26, 2015

That to Which I Am Utterly Devoted ...

Wow, and then some ...

Tillich takes to task "orthodox Lutheranism" for two shortcomings: 1) to contrast the salvation of the individual with the transformation of historical groups and separating them; 2) to contrast the realm of salvation with the realm of creation, and separating them ... leaving the Kingdom of God as something beyond time and space and history, something which the "saved" enter upon death.

"Finally, this view interprets the symbol of the Kingdom of God in a static supernatural order into which individuals enter after the death - instead of understanding the symbol, with the biblical writers, as a dynamic power on earth for the coming of which we pray in the LORD's Prayer and which, according to biblical thought, is struggling with the demonic forces which are powerful in churches as well as empires."  ~ Vol. 3, p.356.

Much of the 20th Century Evangelical World fell into this trap, on the one hand, and on the other, in its "reconstructionist mode" in the last 40 years, envisions itself as "God's mighty army marching off to war," conquering this world for Christ, eliminating all ambiguity, and in such war (possibly literal), ushering in the Kingdom of God as a utopian end of history, with Christians in charge and "everyone bowing the knee," whether they like it or not.

If a former orthodoxy led Christians out of the world, allowing the orders of the world to lumber on without complaint or challenge, the current kind of Christianity, extremist and angry, will bring incredible disorder to the world by conquering the various orders and bending them toward a full and complete Christian hegemony, which has never worked, and never will, since the creative impulse of God's love engenders creativity and spontaneity and freedom rather than absolute control and management.

There are different kinds of Christianity, some of which are decidedly dangerous; some of which are purposeful and driven by justice and peace and a serious hope that, at least in fragmentary ways, history can be transformed and actually reflect the Kingdom of God on earth as it is in heaven.

To this end, and to these purposes, I devote my life.

Friday, February 20, 2015

Troubling Texts in the Bible

Anyone else do the PCUSA lectionary this morning?

The readings from Deuteronomy and Titus proved unpleasant, not in any sort of spiritually challenging manner, but in the rawness of hatred of "the other" (Deuteronomy 7.12-16) and the imposition of "quietness" on the slave and "submission" of women to their husbands (Titus 2.1-15).

There was a time when I would engage in all sorts of exegetical/social/historical/critical gymnastics to soften these hideous passages. But that's not fair to the text - no sense in making it say something else. The text says is clear. And it's troubling to me in ways similar to hearing someone shamelessly promote the exceptionalism of the United States while banging the drums of war in order to secure global domination, or hearing those who demean others because of their race, economic status or gender.

I turn away from such people, and I turn away from such texts.

I confess that my "sacred text" suffers from these evils, and has been used to promote "righteous" war, the abuse of women and the institution of slavery.

For me, no sense in ducking the matter with sight-of-hand interpretations. These are troubling texts because they support attitudes and behaviors that have brought great harm to the world.

For me, the Spiritual Presence in our world today says something else about how to welcome and affirm "the other" and that slavery and misogyny are terrible evils. Whether it be a Martin Luther King, Jr. or an Anne Lamott, there are great and small voices lifting up the "better angeles" of faith, hope and love.

As for the text, I find much value in the prophets and their challenge of xenophobic traditions and how Jesus challenged the power of Jerusalem; I find hope in all the other texts that enabled leaders and missionaries and scholars to lay the foundation for the fight against slavery and misogyny, to craft the struggle to deconstruct national barriers and to welcome "the other."

The larger tradition offers me guidance: the text pitted against the text, and personal perceptions against personal perceptions. Leaving me, as God intended, with the task of making real decisions, for which we I am responsible.

Jesus stepped beyond the rules and laws of the day and cherry-picked the text to formulate his summary of it all: to love God deeply and to love the neighbor as the self.

As Luther said before the tribunal: "I can do no other, so help me God. Amen!"

Wednesday, February 18, 2015

Taxing Churches

I oppose the taxation of churches.
It's taken awhile for me to get my head around this one, and, no doubt, some will suggest that I have a vested interest in this matter, being a Presbyterian minister, though now retired.
Whatever the origins of the policy and how it evolved over the decades is quite beside the point for me, though it pays to know the story.
But history aside, what we have now are thousands of small congregations, urban and rural, some very tiny, carrying on ministry, much of which is worthy - the Friday Night Pot Luck in honor of Mabel's nephew who has recently enlisted in the Peace Corps, or the funeral luncheon after Mary's memorial service, or Bill teaching Sunday school, Fred and Alma visiting the nursing home every Saturday morning, the guest preacher who holds up the kingdom of God, and a thousand other little things that never make the radar screen of life beyond a ten mile limit.
Suddenly imposing taxes would, I fear, put these enclaves of faith, hope and love out of business. 
Yes, I know - we all read and hear about the megachurches and their excesses, the lavish life-styles of their pastors, and the millions held in their bank accounts. Well, so it goes - they will have their day in the sun, and their day of demise, too. Yet even here, we need some careful analysis: who can discount in toto the ministries of many a megachurch? Is there a complete absence of good there? 
For every church scandal that hits the front page of my daily RSS and email feeds, there are a million good deeds, kind words and tuna casseroles sustaining millions of people across the land, in places where megachurches don't exist and never will. 
What have is something quite different than the news-grabbing megachurches. What we have are small spiritual communities, sometimes dysfunctional but of great value to their members and their communities, scattered here and there: First Presbyterian, 39 members; St. Norbert's, 150 members; Hope Methodist, 19 members; Christ the King Lutheran, 63; Pilgrim Congregational, 78 members; St. Paul's United church, 207 members; Community Bible Church, 49 members; Glory Pentecostal Church, 43; Faith Baptist, 63 members ... these are all Christian places. But we can also add to this list Jewish Synagogues, the growing number of mosques and Sikh temples, Buddhist and Hindu gathering places.
The megachurches and large synagogues would find ways to pay their taxes, but most of the little places of light and love would likely close their doors. 
This is price way too high to try to sort out the good, the bad and the ugly.

Tuesday, February 10, 2015

Butterflies and Bullfrogs - Creation, Evolution and Celebration

Sometime in early college, maybe earlier, when I had a chance to think about it, I became an evolutionist, a theistic evolutionist. I believed that God created the world, and gave it life, and its life took off, evolving from one from to another. At every moment, the creative impulse of the Creator was there ... always and forever moving the universe along with love, for billions of years. 

I love this kind of a world - it's big. I mean, really big. And I like big things, loud things, like thunderstorms and diesel locomotives ... and waterfalls and fast cars and airplanes.

My scientist colleagues know that the world, the universe, is really, really big, and I find in their musings something of the greatness of the God in whom I have found myself living all these many years.

For me, there can be no religion that denies the material world, for the material world is of God, a marvelous creation full of wonder and mystery and bewilderment for us, mostly always exceeding our grasp at the moment, and I think it'll be that way for as long as human beings ponder and probe. I think the material world has an infinite dimension to it, and if not infinite, at least really big, big enough to keep us studying for millions of years.

To look at the Grand Canyon or any other structure of the universe and to see the expansive nature of God is great joy for me. It's big in its material form, it's big in its immensity of time; it's just big! And somehow or other, that bigness is God for me. But as big as it is, there's a kindness to it, a gentleness that creates butterflies and bullfrogs, and dancers and poets, and little girls and boys who love Gummy Bears and ice cream.

I know that others see something else, and that's okay ... I'm just glad when anyone sees anything that's great and large and mysterious and wonderful. Who find in the world they see love and passion and justice and mercy. 

For me, I see a great personality, a great love, whatever, at work in the eons, the ages ... and love has left its mark, because love creates life, a myriad of forms, large and small, enduring and momentary, much of it consigned to the mud, compressed over millions of years to be found by us, dug up and put on display in museums.

To affirm this, and celebrate it, is to affirm God, and to celebrate Creation - something really big, big enough to delight us and keep us from getting uppity. 

I'm an evolutionist - makes sense to me and affirms what my scientist friends find in our world, a world trustworthy to the eye and mind and heart, a world that intrigues, but doesn't trick; a world of much mystery, but not unkind deception.

I'm a theistic evolutionist who loves the imagery of Genesis 1 - a God of great order creates a marvelous world full of marvelous forms ... and the imagery of Genesis 2, the God of dirty hands - who takes a little mud and forms a creature and dares to blow God's own breath into it, and it lives - a little bit of mud, and a little bit of God, all wound up together in something quite beautiful, and sometimes downright mean and nasty, too. Our meanness, I don't think is of God, but of our mud trying to hold on to the breath of God, and it's a lot of work, and sometimes the mud gets scared, and angry at other mud flopping around. And yet the breath of God holds on to the mud, too, and keeps pumping breath into it, for another day, another go at it. 

Anyway, that's how it is for me, a theistic evolutionist ... 

Wednesday, February 4, 2015

"You're Wrong. Flat-out Wrong"

"You're wrong. You're flat-out wrong."

So writes the Apostle Paul in his letter to the Galatians (today's lectionary, 4.21-5.1).

Paul cared deeply about the Galatians, and so he writes: "You have adopted another gospel. What's wrong with you?"

Lots of time could be spent on the whys and wherefores of Paul's dispute with the Galatians, but it seems to me much of the issue rests upon two elements: 1) Christian freedom in Christ, and 2) in Christ, by the Spirit, the Fruits of the Spirit.

It seems that the Galatians, after their initial enthusiasm in Christ decided that the Gospel needed some dressing up, and what better clothing to put on the Gospel than the froo froo of the Jerusalem Establishment and a few other things to boot. And with that, says Paul, you've given away your freedom, a freedom hard-won by Christ, and you've descended into a dark world filled with rotten fruit.

What strikes me here is Paul's willingness to "judge" ... call it discernment, call it whatever you will, but Paul says, "This is flat-out wrong."

Of these two systems, says Paul, only one can work - one produces enslavement, the other liberty.

In a world of competing world-views, American Christianity faces something similar - I'll let the reader figure out what I have mind - and Paul might well say, "Open your mouth, and challenge the system that's more about enslavement and the tools of enslavement: fear, oppression, strife and quarrels."

"But," you say, "isn't Paul engaging in strife? Quarrels?"

Indeed, he is. And so does Jesus, and Jeremiah and Moses, too, to name only a few.

And so it goes in our tangled world. So, who's to judge?

Well, Paul for one.

Some strife and quarreling arise out of the struggle for power, dominance and control, and the lies needed to win.

Some arises out of a concern for liberation, justice and the things that make for peace. Think Martin Luther King, Jr. (and how he was bothered by this, and I can hear the same distress in Paul, here and in his letters to Corinth, too. It's not fun to engage like this, but it's needed).

And there are tests to be applied.

The system Paul opposes produces little good and lots of harm, even as it looks so very tempting, what with all of its "success," and the "assurance" that such success produces.

On the other hand, the system Paul espouses, the Gospel he proclaims, produces a great deal of good, summed up in the Fruits of the Spirit and above all else, Freedom! The clean, clear, air of freedom in Christ.

Paul is wiling to engage in strife and quarreling because he cares about people, he's committed to the Gospel, God's restorative justice, and restorative justice requires truth, and truth needs to be defended now and then, in a world where lies can so easily capture mind and heart.

Thank God for Paul's willingness to engage a system of thought in which he saw danger and his willingness to simply, clearly, say of it: "It's wrong. Flat-out wrong."

Wednesday, January 21, 2015

Praying for Franklin Graham

Several days after Franklin Graham's assault on Duke University, it occurred to me to pray for him.

To add his name to my prayer journal - Forty Days of Prayer.

At the first thought, I said "no!"

Two days later, thought about it again, and this time, painfully wrote his name on one of my prayer pages.

A few days later, praying for him is a bit easier.

I must pray for him, as I must for my "enemies."

And enemy he is - standing foursquare contrary to everything I value, everything I seek in the name of Christ, everything for which I hope.

Yes, he's my enemy.

So, what do I pray for?


Who am I to specify anything to God on his behalf?

And I certainly will not pray for God to "change" him ... for I could only offer to God a few things that correspond to my set of values.

So, how do I pray?

I say Graham's name, and then say "Jesus my LORD," and note the date; I will do this for Forty Days ... or longer, as the Spirit leads.

Does this make me a "prayer warrior" or anything like that?

I doubt it.

Am I patting myself on the back?

Sort of.

As I see it, it's important, and it's good to pray for him, this way ... to offer him up to God, value-free, without prejudice, wish or desire, trusting God in the matter.

Four days into it, it was easier this morning to pray for Franklin Graham.

Jesus my LORD.