A More Responsible Campaign Season?

My docs say that I’m supposed to stay away from things that might over excite me for a week or so.  They even took away my fire department pager.  That pretty much left it to convention coverage as I dozed in and out of whatever it was that they were giving me.  The one thing I’ve been wondering about is the disappointment expressed by so many pundits that no one has brought out the pit bull to tear apart McCain and the Republicans, and that people such as the Clintons and Biden were just not hitting the home run ball of slash and burn politics. 

To be sure, our centuries are filled with outrageous attacks and counter attacks during presidential campaigns, but there is a huge difference today.  Today we have instantaneous, twenty-four hour news coverage flowing out to all people everywhere with increasingly little reserved judgment, or even competent analysis, from so-called journalists.  Moreover, at least in some parts of the country, hard-core right wing radio, and some television, dominate the airways with gross distortions of truth mixed in with entirely made up ‘facts,’ vomited out by commentators unafraid to vilify anyone with whom they disagree.

Have we sunk so low that “Swift Boating” is the expected norm for presidential politics?  Have presidential politics become the place for setting up and then destroying another candidate’s reputation, honor, dignity and humanity?  I hope not, and the speeches and crowd reaction at the Democratic convention proved otherwise.  Perhaps the Republican convention will do likewise.  We saw a taste of that grassroots change in our own community just a few weeks ago in a non-partisan race for Superior Court Judge.  One candidate and his supporters came out swinging with a small town version of Karl Rove political action.  The other simply presented himself with honesty and forthrightness.  The latter won by a landslide.  Maybe that’s a hint that the American voting public is tired of being duped by vicious, malicious political manipulators.

The Curmudgeon Considers Prayer

How often do we implore God to give us that which has already been given, and in abundance? I’m struck by that question each morning when I come to a little responsive prayer in our Daily Office that seems to ask of God what is already ours, and I wonder if God, sounding a lot like Jackie Mason, doesn’t’ shrug his shoulders in near disbelief and say, “Alright, already, I gave it to you! Pick it up and use it dummy! What’s your problem?”

Grant us your salvation: Haven’t we already got that pretty well established in Christ?

Clothe your ministers with righteousness: The clothes are in the closet, put them on!

Give peace in all the world: Everything needed for peace is ours already, it’s just that we like war better.

Guide us in the way of justice and truth: And what would that guidance look like if not the gospels and prophets?

Let your way be known on earth: Is that the same thing as saying something like, “Lord, I’ll just sit here in my study while you go out and do some work spreading the news about you. Let me know when you’re done.”

Let not the needy, O Lord, be forgotten: “There are some needy people our community God, or at least so I’ve heard. Someone really ought to remember to do something about that I hope you will not let them forget to do it.”

Nor let the hope of the poor be taken away: I’m astounded that we actually pray this while engaging in deliberate political and economic policies that often trample the hope of the poor while, at the very same time, we extol how anyone can make it in America if they just try hard enough.

Create in us clean hearts, O God: OK, there is one thing God has not yet done.

A Clerical Curmudgeon’s Confession

I’ve got a morning routine, and I surprise myself at how disrupted my day becomes if I cannot adhere to it. Part of it is ritual. At somewhere between 5:30 and 6:00 I get restless and turn over to find faithful Andy staring me in the face wagging his tail. Once he sees my eyes open, even a little, there is not much chance of rolling over for another few minutes of sleep. Then it’s a quiet exit for the two of us leaving my wife and Riley behind – Riley being another dog – a trip to the bathroom, lights on in my study and three cups of coffee to be made in the kitchen. With cup in hand it’s back to the study for Morning Prayer with all the psalms and readings for the entire day of offices. That’s the ritual part. But for me, Morning Prayer is not so much ritual as deep meditation that can lead to prolonged conversation with God or an investigative side trip into some question raised by the readings.

One of the blessings of retirement is that I seldom have an early morning conflict that interferes with my morning routine, but when one does I’m off kilter the rest of the day. We also travel more now, and Morning Prayer sitting on the toilet in the hotel bathroom so as not to wake up my wife is just not the same thing. I’ve tried the bathtub, but that’s even more uncomfortable. You would think it easier at clergy conferences, especially since they are held at a Roman Catholic retreat center, but some other early riser will almost always find me and sit down for a bit of cheerful conversation. Which brings me to my confession. I am not a congenial person in the morning. I imagine that even God is happy to maintain a certain distance. It takes that morning routine, including plenty of prayer, to bring me into a state of mental coherence and reasonable likeability. Only faithful Andy can tolerate me in that first hour or so.

Men, Boys and Teachers

My neighbor across the street is a grade school teacher.  So is a friend living a few blocks away.  Both are men.  Men as grade school teachers are pretty rare these days, and that’s too bad.  What could be more important to grade school boys than a good male role model to encourage and guide them into a love of learning?  What could be more important to grade school girls than an adult man modeling what responsible, caring manhood is all about?  That’s a bit of hyperbole of course, but the point is that good male role models are a bit hard to come by, particularly men who are not parents and who are able to spend day after day as important parts of a child’s life.  That seems to be most especially true in the pre-pubescent years when beliefs and attitudes about what it means to be a man are firmly embedded.

Somewhere along the way toward opening career pathways for women, we shut down a few for men, and I’m not sure why.  It seems that, in some communities, men who are grade school teachers are demeaned as people who couldn’t make it as high school or college teachers.  What is that all about?

So here’s to my neighbors!  May God prosper their work and the gifts they offer to our children.

Which reminds me, a decade ago my female colleague in a near by city complained about how few women led congregations in our region.  At our clergy gatherings shortly before my retirement I was the only male who led a congregation.  That, of course, is not true for every denomination in our area.  Our local ministerial association is dominated by congregations that are unlikely to see any female clergy in the near future, and association notices have sometimes gone out with the salutation, “Brothers.”  But I digress and am about to get angry, and so to bed.

Hidden Hermeneutics

We always have spirited discussions in our Tuesday morning lectionary study group, but today’s got a little more spirited than usual.  Part of it had to do with our tendencies to use unstated hermeneutics with roots deep in our separate traditions to pronounce interpretations that are not easily supported by the text itself.  The text, of course, was Matthew 16.13-20, Matthew’s version of Peter’s confession.

It wasn’t simply that we all read it from a post-resurrection point of view, but that we read into it meanings that are not all that present.  Consider my friend Randy who seemed to read “…Messiah, the Son of the living God” as the same thing as “Lord and Savior” as that phrase is used in contemporary language to mean the totality of the doctrine of salvation through the death and resurrection of Jesus as the unique, one and only way to salvation.  I have no objection to that interpretation as long as the pathway to arriving at it is made clear, but for my friend that pathway was so thoroughly integrated into his theology that our demands that he articulate it just led to irritated confusion.  Not that we were picking on Randy, we all do the same thing all the time.

We went on to talk about what it means to have the authority to bind or loose.  Most of us, me included, jumped at the assumption that we were talking about forgiving or not forgiving sins.  But Bob objected.  Nothing in the text supports that interpretation.  One has to conflate it with John 19.20-23 to come up with that. In so doing it is wise to remember that in John the authority to forgive or retain sins is not given to Peter, but to the eleven after the resurrection. More than likely, said Bob, it has to do with the authority to permit or prohibit behaviors, ways of worship, or teachings, which is an interpretation that Ray Brown also recommends.  That not only makes more sense, but it is also supported by the text itself. 

These are cautionary matters that we must keep in mind not only when preaching but even more when teaching.  We must guard against the hidden hermeneutic.  In fact we need to dump that word altogether, and use ordinary words to explain to those we are instructing exactly how it is that the traditions of our particular denominations and our own individual study have led us to the interpretation we offer. 

Without Them No Greatness is Possible

Harlan Miller, Mr. Miller to most, was something of a hermit.  Raised on a farm in the early 20th century, self-educated in the classics and the modern world up to but not much past the 19th century, he was badly wounded in North Africa during WWII.  After years of recuperation he learned to survive on a tiny pension and SSD while doing a few odd jobs here and there.   Whatever family he had died somewhere along the way, with the exception of one distant cousin.  The church became his family but in a way that kept intimacy at arms length.  His weekly dime or quarter, or maybe penny, filled the offering plate to over flowing.  Now and then he’d make a gift to someone of a special tea he liked, or maybe gladiola bulbs from his yard.  Late in his life the youth group fixed up his shack for the winter, but it wasn’t quite enough to fill in all the cracks.  He never missed an adult bible study if he could help it and would occasionally offer his well educated 19th century wisdom.  In his final months he was lovingly tended by a retired fire department EMT, and I think he liked it even as he complained about his keeper.  After his death we found his daily diary going all the way back to high school, all written in Latin.  Only the war years were missing.  Nothing exciting, just the record of an orderly, simple, impoverished life.  He left everything to the church.  It wasn’t much but those who knew and loved him each took a little something.  I have a roughly carved hooded monk holding a prayer book.  The folded flag normally given to the nearest of kin rests on the bookshelf in the rector’s office. He lived in the wrong century, but he was somehow a link to the dogged tenacity of those who came to settle here, not a link to those who made it and for whom streets and buildings are named, but to those who worked and lived hard lives that saw little reward.  Empires are built on such as these and without them no greatness is possible. Who will remember Harlan Miller?  Who remembers any of the millions and millions of Harlan Millers?  Will a president point up to the gallery during the State of the Union and introduce Harlan Miller?  “He farmed, he learned what he could, he got shot, he survived, he lived a long time and died in poverty; let’s all give a hand for Harlan Miller.” I believe that God remembered and laid out a feast to welcome him home.  His shack was “sold” to Habitat for Humanity. The day the shack was torn down people with metal detectors searched the back yard for the fortune he was said to have buried.  No one found a thing.  A brand new house is being built on that property today.  I helped lay the sub-flooring.  Some family, not so very different from Harlan Miller, will soon live there with maybe a little better chance and a little more opportunity.  May God bless and prosper them.


Seattle by the Sea

At the moment we are in Seattle and have spent quite a bit of time down by the waterfront, riding on the ferry to and from Bainbridge, and just messing around.  I’m not sure what it is about boats and ships, but put me on a boat of any kind and I’m happy.  They bring back memories of the sailboats I owned and loved in my youth.  The big floating barge like hotels loading up passengers for their seven day cruises do not count.  But the smaller passenger liners docked nearby that really do look like ships call to me from somewhere deep inside.  I really don’t care much where they are going, I would just like to be on one sitting in my deck chair having the steward bring me my very hot, strong cup of tea.  I think the problem is that I read too many sea stories and naval histories when I was young, and they warped my psyche.  Maybe it’s a good thing that we live in a valley surrounded by small mountains and high desert.  Otherwise who knows what fool thing I could get myself into. 

Giving up Freedom to Gain Security

I had a disturbing morning.  I stopped in at the local Republican headquarters to get a McCain button for a friend of mine.  Actually I’m going to offer him a choice of that or an Obama button, and I think I know which he will choose.  But I digress.  The elderly volunteer tending the store asked if I would be willing to sign a petition demanding stronger immigration enforcement, including the requirement that local governments act for and under federal authority in a way that looked an awful lot like a set up for an old fashioned eastern European police state.

When I said that was not something I supported he let me know that, as a “Minuteman,” he had personally witnessed the flow of illegal Mexicans across the Arizona border, could attest to the great danger they pose for our national security, and told me of the egregious high cost of illegal immigrants leeching off the American taxpayer, a cost so high that it is greater than the cost of the war in Iraq.  I expressed some skepticism about the numbers and he allowed as to how disagreeing was an American right, and we owe that to the troops in Iraq fighting to preserve that right for us.  Knowing I was getting into hot water, I opined that the whatever they were fighting for, it was not my democratic American rights, that the war was a mistake that should have never happened, that we need to responsibly bring it to an appropriate conclusion, and that I didn’t know what any of that had to do with illegal Mexican immigration.  If he hadn’t been in his mid-eighties I think I could have been in physical danger.  As it is I think he was on the border of serious heart palpitations. 

So what is the story?  The right wing, anti-immigration Center for Immigration Studies claims that illegal immigrants had a net cost to the federal budget of $10 billion in 2002.  Various fear mongering users of their report have twisted and contorted their data to make it seem even larger.  But for all of its prejudicial slant, the CIS study has some ballpark validity, keeping in mind that the GAO has time and again reported to Congress that the issue is more complicated than that and no study so far can be trusted 100%. The same GAO has also time and again reported to Congress that the inefficiencies of the Department of Homeland Security have bungled the enforcement mechanisms already in place.  They are not helped by employers wanting large numbers of low cost workers and consumers wanting their low priced products.  It means that although Illegal immigrants pay a lot in taxes and add value to some part of the economies in which they work, they also use a variety of social services that cost as much or more than they pay in taxes.

But what about the idea that they cost as much as the war in Iraq?  The Washington Post reported last March that the Iraq war was running about $12 billion a month, with a total cost so far of somewhere around $566 billion, not counting Afghanistan or the domestic cost of lost and broken lives.

I have no doubt that we have a serious immigration problem to be solved, but running around like a bunch of racist Chickens-Little hysterically crying that the sky is falling seems just a bit childish and terribly naïve about the danger of wanting national security (and purity?) so much that the treasured rights of hard won American liberty would willingly be given into the hands of an authoritarian state masquerading as a democracy. 

Real Coffee Hour Questions II

A couple taking a long car trip had plenty of time to reflect on my sermon on the death of John the Baptist and wrote asking why God, or Jesus, hadn’t intervened to do something about it.  After all, it would have been so much better for everyone if John had lived to continue his ministry so that Herod might even have had a conversion.

Here is my brief answer and if you have a better one feel free to take a shot at it.

Haven’t you two got something better to do with your time?  Nothing like coming up with questions that have irritated theologians for hundreds of years.  Anyway, here goes.

Most of us want God to answer questions in ways that make sense to our way of thinking, and it goes back to the start.  Why did God like Abel’s offering better than Cain’s?  Why did God let the people of Israel sit around in Egypt for 400 years before getting them out?  The list goes on and on.  So your questions fit right in.

Why would God let John be killed, and why didn’t Jesus pull off a simple miracle to stop or reverse it?

We teach and I believe that God is fully engaged with human history, but does not often intervene with a heavy hand to do what we think should be done.  People have to work things out for themselves within the context of the overall direction and purpose of God’s creation and plan for salvation.  We humans are such slow learners and so unwilling to go where God has led, even when God’s word became flesh and lived among us.  I guess we just have to learn the hard way.

A part of Jesus work in life was to demonstrate to us that God is present with us in all things and cannot be defeated by any evil, even if it looks like things are not going too well.  It could not be a game of ‘let’s pretend.’ It had to be the real thing.  So Jesus and his disciples had to endure everything we all have to endure, and more than that.  Nevertheless, Jesus also demonstrated God’s ultimate victory in many ways including the various miracles of healing, and even the raising of the dead in several instances.  But remember, not everyone who was hungry got fed, not everyone who was sick got healed, and not everyone who was dead got raised.  Those few with whom Jesus came in contact became signs of God’s power that promises ultimate victory for all, but not for all in this life or when we demand it.

In the end, it is the death, burial and resurrection that display God’s ultimate power and our ultimate destiny.  In the meantime, God has given us all that we need to live blessed lives, but he has not prevented us from inventing our own trouble or becoming so evil that there is no visible good left in us.  God has also not crafted the world to be without danger or imperfection.  God has crafted the world to be full of limitless possibility, and I imagine that also means that there are a lot of dead ends and wrong turns.

The ‘what if’ questions are always intriguing and contribute the plot lines for great and not so great fiction such as The da Vinci Code and all those horrible Left Behind books.  But, just like Bruce Almighty, given the chance and the power we turn out to be really lousy gods (with the exception, of course, of George Burns and Morgan Freeman).  We never seem to understand the Law of Unintended Consequences.  As for me, I have daily conversations with God in which some part consists of my instructions on how things should be.  I just can’t seem to help myself, but in the end, I’ll stick with Isaiah’s 55th chapter.

H is for Hell?

Not long ago Christian Century had an interesting article about hell. Several authors offered their take on the matter, but some of the letters in the following issue interested me more. While I have my own thoughts on hell, I was a little surprised by the writers who were delighted with the article because hell was in important part of their theology, and they were happy to endorse an image of God that was loving but just, who took sin seriously, and who would not fail to punish those who rejected his love or were unrepentant in their sinfulness.  

Maybe I was just reading between the lines in my overly suspicious way, but I got the idea that there was some relish in the thought of God sentencing a variety of miscreants to eternal punishment. From occasional reading of news reports and listening to popular Christian radio broadcasts, I suspect that these miscreants probably include most who are not properly Christian by virtue of a “personal relationship with Jesus Christ,” as well as unrepentant sinners whose worst sins are that they read scripture and understand salvation in an unacceptable way.

I’m reminded of a story I read some time ago in a Pesach Haggadah. It was an excerpt from a rabbinic commentary on the parting of the Red Sea. It went something like this: an angel standing next to God and looking down on the drowning Egyptians cheered and suggested a celebration for this great victory, but God said, “Be silent, my children are dying.”

To what end will God go to keep any and every person from going where there is no life, no past, no future, no existence? To what end will God go to keep a person from becoming useless trash suitable only for the dump? If God will not force any person, to what end will a person go to avoid God’s gift and choose that which is not life? If someone does make that choice, are they ever aware of the consequences of what they have done, or do they just cease to be? Is there a place of in between when it is still not too late? That would be C.S. Lewis’ take on hell. Do you remember the fate of the devil in Dante’s hell? He kept himself prisoner there and could have left anytime he decided to quit being angry with God, but his anger was the only thing of his own that he still possessed, and he would not give that up to God.

I don’t have a good theology of hell, but I am fairly certain that ministers who relish preaching a Christianity based on the threat of hell have one hell of a religion. As for me and my household, we will follow Jesus.