I have a friend in England who writes that he is giving up on the Constantinian/Nicene Church and seeking the pre-Pauline Church where the true religion must lie. I’ve bee pondering that for a week or so. What the heck would pre-Pauline be? His ministry and writing existed only during the first thirty years of Christianity. To be sure, the nascent church developed throughout a lot of the Roman Empire without Paul’s help, so there were obviously ways to be Christian without being specifically Pauline. But doesn’t that beg the question? There is no pre-Pauline Church. There is just a Pauline way of being Christian among a small variety of other ways of being Christian all developing at the same time.
Disappointed but not surprise, that was my reaction to the House vote on the stimulus package. I was disappointed but not surprised by the recalcitrant right-wingers who now make up the Republican Party, and, sadly, disappointed but not surprised by the Democratic leadership who allowed the bill to be larded up with goofy stuff that has little or nothing to do with rebuilding infrastructure. And disappointed but not surprised by my own member of congress who seems to have learned everything she knows about politics and economics from Rush Limbaugh and James Dobson. I have some small amount of hope that the Senate will do better, providing decent fodder for the conference committee to come up with a final draft that has real merit.
Republican congressional leaders are calling for substantial changes to the stimulus package. They want to put the emphasis on lower taxes and not on infrastructure spending, which they have conveniently labeled as pork. Minority leader Boehner alleged that lowering taxes to put a large amount of cash into the hands of consumers is the only tried and true fix. I don’t think he actually said ‘fix’ but that’s what it would be.
It is a tried and true method to fail under conditions such as the ones we have now, and I’m surprised he hasn’t figured that out. That kind of cash infusion would cause a spurt in consumer and small business spending of one sort or another that is not altogether different than a quick fix for an addict. A moment of euphoria, and then nothing but crash.
The kind of spending the administration seems to have in mind would form the backbone of investment in reconstructing the national infrastructure on which and through which long term economic prosperity depends. The jobs that will be created, along with requirements for machinery and materials, will have long term, multiplier effects enabling the national economy to achieve some solid footing. There are problems. Members of congress, governors and mayors will still try to get funding for projects that may have popular political appeal but add little to substantive economic health. The same goes for thousands of small special interest groups who see a chance for their long held pet project to at last get some money. For instance, we have a local museum that would love to get in on some of that, but, as great an asset it is to our community, that is not what this work is about.
Finally, there are those incredibly disingenuous, shortsighted politicians who keep whining about what this will mean to the deficit and national debt. These are the very same whiners who did not blink an eye to fund the war in Iraq with heavy borrowing. They didn’t care a bit about going into debt for a phony war whose primary long term return on investment can only be counted in the lives of the dead, but they whine about deficit spending to rebuild the foundation of our economy.
We’ve now had two Sundays exploring what it means to be called by God into service. I’ve discovered over the years that there are two misconceptions about that, and they both have a certain basis in scripture. The first is that God has a particular plan for our lives, and that finding and living into that plan is one of the primary tasks of a Christian. One never hears if God has a particular plan for non-Christians, but that’s for another time. The second is that a call to be of some special service to God, as the disciples were called by Christ to follow him, must mean a dramatic change of life in almost every way. Do you realize how many otherwise good people have agonized themselves into a paralyzing tizzy over that stuff?
It never seems to occur to those seeking God’s plan for their lives that what God might actually be saying is that wherever you are and in whatever you are doing, there is a more Christ like way to be, and that that is what God’s plan is all about. It’s not about finding the right path so much as being more Christ like on the path you are already on.
The same goes for the apparently more explicit call to follow Christ into some kind of specially assigned service. Didn’t Jesus say to his disciples something like, “Look around you. The field we are standing in is the one ripe for harvest.”? There are, to be sure, those who are called to extraordinary work in extraordinary places, but it seems to me that God most often calls us to do particular work in the places we already are among the people we already encounter.
In fact, I think that what God most often does is give us the work of opening our eyes to a larger horizon of more opportunities to be accomplished in new ways that challenge us to actually become that new creation we keep hearing about. I just don’t think God tells us to do it his way or walk the plank. I think he lays before us opportunities without number, and, if we let him, engages with us, participates with us, in the decisions we are perfectly free to make.
You might wonder if I, as a priest, am not waffling a bit on this. After all, was I not called to the particular ministry of ordained clergy? Yes, I think I was. Being the slow learner that I am, it took me a long time to become prepared for that call, but even then, I don’t think God said, “OK here’s what were going to do. We’re going to start you off in one of the largest churches in one of the largest cities and then work your way down to a congregation of 20 in rural Washington. How’s that for a plan?” Rather, I can hear God saying, “Steve, you have made some unusual choices in your ministry, not quite what one might expect, but it’s been fun hasn’t it, and we’ve had a great time doing it together. I’ve got some ides about what you might do next, but you haven’t done too bad making your own decisions. Let’s see what you have in mind and we will keep working together.”
It’s getting close to our annual trip to a warmer, sunnier place, and I am getting anxiously eager. The only thing I dislike about winters in our valley is that they are very dark and gloomy too much of the time. It’s not just that the days are short and nights long. Even in the so-called daylight, the very dense overcast and frequent fog keep the valley so gloomily dark that it reminds me of the setting for hell in C.S. Lewis’ The Great Divorce. This annual sojourn of ours seems to be something I need to restore my normal cheerful outlook on life because each year at this time I find myself sliding deeper into a very dark place in spite of my discipline of the Daily Office and great joy in celebrating and preaching. It’s not as bad as the priest in Fr. Melancholy’s Daughter, but I certainly know more than I care to about his condition.
I want to suggest to the many bloggers celebrating the end of eight years of Bush doctrine that they might set their sights a bit higher. The conditions that enabled the Bush era to come into being and made it look very attractive to a majority of voters began with Ronald Reagan and GHWB. That adds up not to eight years but twenty. To be sure, we had eight years of Clinton as something of an intermission, but it’s well to recall that his own personal style encouraged the sort of wild, speculative risk taking that, in the end, proved to be the one added ingredient needed for certain disaster. It’s going to take some time to get this mess straightened out, and part of that straightening has to do with a realignment of the Republican Party.
The market is taking another out of control hit today. It’s a volatile market, some say. Others call it erratic. A couple of days ago it took a big hit on news that some banks were doing worse than expected. Wow, who would have suspected that? In spite of the euphoria of the inauguration and reassuring news from some sectors of the economy, the entire market fell like a rock. Then, for no really good reason, it rose the next day to recovery most of the loss. I guess the inauguration euphoria kicked in. Today, it’s another free-fall on news that Microsoft may cut 5,000 jobs. It’s hard to know exactly what is going on with the market because it appears to behave in totally irrational ways.
It reminds me of a grade school recess soccer game with thirty kids on each side all trying to chase a ball in uncontrolled pandemonium. But it’s not even that. The big time market traders who initiate these wild swings are nothing but hyperactive, amateur gamblers rushing about from rumor to rumor hoping to place their bets before someone else does with absolutely no idea of what game is being played. They would object, of course, after all, they have their MBAs and advance degrees in economics. I think that’s nothing but a thin cover for their ignorance. In the meantime, those of us who are relying on our investments to fund our retirements are getting pretty tired of being jerked around by people who treat our savings as if they were their own poker chips to play around with.
Some recent blog conversation elsewhere in the CC network focused on the question of the authority of scripture, with some concern about whether there is any left. I’ve been thinking about that, and it seems to me that in recent years, perhaps each of the last two thousand years, there has been a large group of Christians who have been tethered by twin assumptions. The first assumption is that the authority of scripture is both clear and trumps all other authority. The second assumption is that that same authority of scripture is most clear in underwriting “my” worldview, cultural norms and moral judgments.
When “my” particular worldview, cultural norms and moral judgments are called into question, then the authority of scripture that underwrites them must have been eroded by those who question “me,” and therefore at best they must be heretics, but they’re probably apostate.
I have a very high regard for the authority of scripture, but I don’t worship the bible. It’s not my God. I love studying it. Every word seems to reveal and illuminate God’s truth in ever new ways. Like the old proverb about not being able to step in the same river twice, it is a moving, living thing so that the same verse says something different each time I read it, and I become changed so that something of a new person meets something of a new word with each reading. In my classes I have taught that our (not very exclusive) Anglican way is to wallow around in scripture letting it wash over and through us, always remembering that the voice of God speaking through these words may be saying something entirely new.
In a sense that’s a problem. It sounds too much like relativism. For some people, who are not fond of a world where nothing is certain and nothing can be relied on as a safe and solid place on which to stand, scripture, at least, should be unchanging, clearly revealing the plain and obvious absolute truth.
The current pope certainly seems to feel that way as long as the absolute truth of scripture is consistent with Catholic doctrine. Closer to home, our local paper featured a Sunday pastor’s column written by another who apparently also feels that way. He stated that Christians believe this and materialists believe that. Those are the two options, and by his argument, if you are not a Christian who believes what he believes, then you must be a materialist, or fellow traveler, and therefore both godless and damned. Perhaps he would reject that reading of his article, but that sure the way I took it. That saddens me. I think it strips scripture of too much of the riches God with which God has endowed it.
Sitting down for an afternoon snack, I decided that the hardest thing to do in life is make a piece of cake and scoop of ice cream come out even at the last bite. But that’s not what’s on my mind. Earlier today I heard a portion of an NPR program featuring a couple of atheists talking about their beliefs. What struck me is that the most important thing in their lives is the God in whom they do not believe. They spend their days thinking about God and planning how to convince others that God does not exist by doing what they do – think about God a lot. I think their problem may have more to do with religion than with God, and more particularly with what they see as dangerous fundamentalists, wussy Mainline Protestants, and superstitious Catholics. Being Episcopalian myself, we can accommodate all three images without too much difficulty. In the end, I’m not too worried about it. At least they are making more people think about God and faith, and besides, as I recall, this is God’s world and what God purposes to do, he does. We do not need to enter into battle with atheists, we need to be more bold in proclaiming the good news of God in Christ.
If you have had an experience with a cross continent train ride, would you please share it with me. Did you take the Canadian or U.S. route; east to west or west to east? What time of year? Would you do it differently? Was it worthwhile? Did you enjoy it?