My Lenten news fast has been only a partial success, but it has reinforced an observation I made some months ago. Cable and many of the Internet news sources spend more time speculating on what the news could, should, might be than on what has actually happened – unless it involves a shooting or high-speed chase.
I generally rely on the BBC to be a quiet and reasonable voice of the news with that peculiar British penchant for grammatical correctness. Which left me wondering at this morning’s unpunctuated headline:
“A boat packed with more than 250 migrants heading for Europe illegally sinks off Libya, reports from Libya and Egypt say.”
I had no idea there were legal and illegal ways for a boat to sink and hope they say more about that.
Not an especially nice start to the day. We had a couple of inches of unexpected snow down in the valley and a foot or more of it in the foothills. The thirty mile drive to Dayton, WA was an adventure to say the least. Little Grace Church has a small congregation as it is, so the combination of weather, travel and illnesses meant an even smaller gathering of just eight, including me and my wife. My brilliant exposition on John’s gospel was received with warmth, if a bit on the luke side. What they really wanted to know was who the heck was Melchizedek, and how did he relate to Jesus? See, they really were listening to the lesson from Hebrews. It was a very sensible question, and it goes back to the obvious fact that we have a tendency to stop serious teaching after confirmation, if we were serious about it even then. They really do want to know. Our job is to find the right means and venue to meet that need. In a small rural congregation we can just switch gears in the middle of the service and do that, but it brings to mind that the greater church simply must pay more attention to adult Christian education.
For a decade or more there has been way too much angst over the question of church growth. Unless a congregation was growing Sunday by Sunday it was deemed to be symptomatic of a dying Christianity. It seems to me that there are two things wrong with that. First, above all, we who are called to be leaders in the church are given the duty of boldly proclaiming the Good News of God in Christ Jesus. That, and not counting, is our primary obligation. Having said that, I confess that I’m just like anyone else and like to look at the number the ushers give me, dutifully enter it in a book, and report on it to the diocese at year-end. The second problem has more to do with local demographics. For instance, the community I live in has grown very little over the decades. It’s a slow moving river of new arrivals barely outpacing recent departures. But two things have changed. The dominant ethnic influx is Hispanic not Anglo. The choice of denominations and congregations has exploded.
In past generations there were a handful of congregations representing the main American denominations of Protestants and Catholics. Everyone was expected to affiliate with one of them, just as everyone was expected to also join a local service club or fraternal organization. It’s just what one did. Now we have a multitude of congregations representing not only the old, but also whatever new twist or opportunistic endeavor can be imagined. The same number of people are given an enormous choice of worship opportunities in more varieties that Campbell’s has soup. On top of that is the absence of any cultural expectation that anyone must affiliate with any religion or belong to any civic organization in order to be an acceptable citizen of the community.
Boldly proclaiming the Good News of God in Christ, and in my case, according to the Anglican traditions of the Episcopal Church, is the appropriate response. Growth may come or growth may not, but the Word will be boldly proclaimed. But what bold proclamation means needs further examination. Of course it has to include bold, effective preaching, as well as comprehensive Christian education. However, it also has to include bold use of the best and most effective vehicles of communication with congregants and the broader community. That does not have to mean throwing hymns up on a projection screen. It does have to mean knowing how, where and through what the emerging majority get their information, how they process it, and how they make decisions using it. It also has to mean that clergy, and other congregational leaders, cannot be egotistically stubborn about not knowing or using those vehicles. And maybe that’s enough to get some conversation started.
In spite of my Lenten news fast, word has seeped through that some on-air personality has announced that the Obama administration is leading the country to fascism. Tonight I overheard a Newt Gingrich claim that the current administration is engineering the biggest power grab in American history that could lead us toward a dictatorship. Apparently he doesn’t like the idea of regulatory standards for non-bank financial companies. Refraining from any kind of rant, I thought I would simply offer a portion of one definition of fascism from Wikipedia. I’m sure there is room to argue with it, but it’s close enough. Take a look and then ask yourself whether any of it sounds familiar to you, any echo of recent political leadership perhaps?
Fascism is a radical, authoritarian nationalist ideology that aims to create a single-party state with a government led by a dictator who seeks national unity and development by requiring individuals to subordinate self-interest to the collective interest of the nation or race. Fascist movements promote violence between nations, political factions, and races as part of a social Darwinist and militarist stance that views violence between these groups as a natural and positive part of evolution. In the view of these groups being in perpetual conflict, fascists believe only the strong can survive by being healthy, vital, and have an aggressive warrior mentality by conquering, dominating, and eventually eliminating people deemed weak and degenerate.
Fascist governments permanently forbid and suppress all criticism and opposition to the government and the fascist movement. Fascist movements oppose any ideology or political system that gives direct political power to people as individuals through elected representatives rather than as a collective nation or race (individualism, liberalism, representative democracy); that is deemed detrimental to national identity and unity (communism, laissez-faire capitalism, non-nationalist and class conflict oriented labour movements); that protects and empowers people deemed weak and degenerate (egalitarianism) and that undermine the military strength and military ambitions of the nation (pacifism). They also oppose traditionalists and conservatives who may seek to preserve any of the privileges, institutions and cultural values that fascism seeks to overthrow.
“Almighty and most merciful God, we remember before you all poor and neglected persons whom it would be easy for us to forget: the homeless and the destitute, the old and the sick, and all who have none to care for them. Help us to heal those who are broken in body and spirit, and to turn their sorrow into joy. Grant this, Father, for the love of your Son, who for our sake became poor, Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.” -The Book of Common Prayer
Here are reflections on three encounters I had yesterday in my community. To be sure, there were other more encouraging encounters as well, but these are common enough. Perhaps they are in your community as well.
A middle class wage earner with a safe job is upset that some working poor can claim income tax credits that not only eliminate their federal income tax obligations but provide a refund as well. That they are poor, working, paying a host of other state and local taxes as well as FICA, and that this refund might make the difference between just being poor and absolute destitution does not seem to enter into the conversation.
A local convenience store clerk, himself among the working poor, has Mike Savage turned up so loud on the store radio that everyone can hear him. He thinks this extreme bigot, who deliberately incites as much internecine hatred as possible, is very intelligent, someone who really knows what’s going on and is telling the truth about America. Now he knows who to blame for this poverty, and it includes the Asians who own the store he works in.
Local conventional wisdom believes the stimulus package is only and nothing but pork-laden earmarks. The economy could be fixed just by getting rid of all that pork. But the news that stimulus funds will help rebuild some local infrastructure, a VA facility and solve some long standing pollution issues has been greeted with joy as receiving, at long last, what we have always deserved.
Any argument to the contrary is certain to be rejected as nothing but more of that vast left-wing conspiracy leading us toward either Socialism or Fascism (take your pick).
Does the Gospel have anything to say to this?
Where does the Sunday sermon come into any of this?
What prophetic boldness is required of faithful preachers?
What would be the cost of that boldness?
What does Holy Week and Easter have to say to any of this?
Let’s face it, as we get into these last days of Lent moving toward Holy Week and Easter we also get into some of the most obscure parts of John’s gospel. Congregations are left with heads spinning, and, even if they read along, have got to wonder what on earth he was talking about. This coming Sunday is a good example. Some Greeks (Greek speaking Jews?) want to see Jesus, and Philip and Andrew go off to find him. We never know if they got to see him because as soon as the two found Jesus and told him about the Greeks, Jesus launched into a discourse on an hour that has come, grains of wheat, his troubled soul, glorifying this and that, and a sound that might or might not have been thunder. Gathered around a table with a half dozen other preacher/theologians I can rejoice in plowing through the fertile soil of every word, but try to wrap it up in a sermon that doesn’t sound like a lecture and tell me what you get.
Maybe that’s the point. We are on the cusp of the single most impenetrable of holy mysteries. It is the very hinge of history and the center of our faith. But it absolutely refuses to be confined by our limited powers of logic or words of philosophical understanding. It can be captured better in a child’s coloring book than in a hundred tomes of erudite study. Yet, once planted, it can grow into the most profound of shared faith able to endure thousands of years of abuse and nay saying. We are the planters. The seed is of incalculable worth. With it we need to be both bold and careful, risky and gentle, and ever awed by the power that lies within.
Maybe I should just keep quiet this Sunday and hand out coloring books and crayons.