The Devil Made Me Do It

Psalm 37 suggests that living in a right relationship with God provides sure and certain protection against the ravages of evil that surround us.  John’s first letter struggles with the dichotomy of living a harmonious life of Christian love amidst a world under the control of the evil one.   As a result, a good many Christians have been taught since Sunday School that the devil is the ruler of this world and that we are in a constant battle with him, the outcome of which is in doubt.  If one can confess Jesus as personal Lord and Savior in just the right way and really, really mean it, then life will become just peachy all the way round.  

I find these images troubling on two fronts.  First, the whole of scripture simply does not lend much credence to those views.  There does not seem to be any evidence that a right relationship with God is an insurance policy against bad things happening or the presence of burdensome challenges.  Second, Satan, if anything at all, is depicted as little more than a master of deception who has no real authority and who cannot stand in the presence of God in Christ or anyone who calls upon the name of Christ. 

In fact, it is deception itself that lures Christians to excuse their behavior with some version of “The Devil made me do it.”  That bald faced denial of personal responsibility permits a sort of bifurcated life with a devil on one shoulder, an angel on the other, and the helpless human between being tugged this way and that, but always able to avoid any personal responsibility for what happens whether for good or for bad.

As I see it, the great source of evil that surrounds us is of our own making, a product of our selfishness, quarreling, greed and contempt for the lives of others.  As followers of Christ, it is our responsibility to boldly stand as agents of God’s love where there is none, God’s light where there is darkness, God’s reconciliation where there is no forgiveness, and God’s peace where there is strife.  Moreover, we are called to be forthright when we fail to live up to those standards by confessing our own sins, accepting full responsibility for them, and seeking each other’s forgiveness and God’s.  Finally, we are to be even bolder in proclaiming that whatever battle three may be between God and the forces of evil has already been won, decisively and permanently, on the cross and at the open grave.  

Obviously this train of thought is incomplete, but you get the direction.  Where would you take it?

Anxiety and Leadership

Bishops in the Episcopal Church are elected by a general convention of clergy and lay persons in the dioceses that they will serve.  Following their election they must be approved by a majority vote of sitting diocesan bishops and diocesan committees of priests and lay persons before a consecration can take place.  In years gone by those approvals were offered without much close examination of the person elected.  If the requirements of the canons were met, it was assumed that the local diocese had done a good job of it themselves, and it was probably inappropriate for others, who had no personal knowledge of the bishop elect, to second guess those at the local level and whose bishop this person would become. 

All of that has changed.   It was triggered in part by the election of Gene Robinson in New Hampshire, the first openly gay bishop living with his partner, but exacerbated by very public issues with other bishops who have been found in violation of church canons and secular laws, bishops who have lost the confidence of their flocks, bishops who have departed for other denominations – some of them attempting to take the entire diocese with them, and so on.  Furthermore, it is now more clear that a diocesan bishop is not simply a local church leader, but a bishop of the whole church, both of the Episcopal Church in America and also of the World Wide Anglican Communion.  As a result, we now see bishop candidates examined under a microscope to expose every aspect of their personal and professional lives as well as the details of their public and private theologies.  On the whole I think that’s a good thing.  But it has been infected by high anxiety about leadership that has made a necessary close examination into a public tearing apart of a person’s personal and professional life to the point of destructive humiliation.

Moreover, I believe that this anxiety over leadership is not centered in the church at all, but in a combination of the way we get news and a national psyche that is rife with high anxiety about leadership in general.  

First the news.  In days not long past, national news meant news about issues or events of national importance, and it got reported in the local paper (sometimes) and on network radio or television during an evening half hour broadcast.  News of tremendous local importance was reported locally, but probably not nationally, so that local events appeared to their audiences to be unique, and they knew very little about similar events of local importance elsewhere.  The advent of 24 hour cable news channels and the Internet changed all of that.  Now we are submerged in cascades of stories about events of national importance, local importance and no importance at all that are parsed out ad nauseam, frequently in voices implying conspiracy, doom or catastrophe.  Suddenly we know that what happened in some obscure town out on the prairie is just like what happened in a major coastal city and it looks like an epidemic has burst out of nowhere.  Public figures are subject to scrutiny of every aspect of their lives, partly for legitimate reasons, but partly just for the humiliating entertainment value of it.    

I believe that that alone has led to an increase in the anxiety level of the national psyche, but these last eight years of political leadership in Washington drove it to previously unknown heights as America simply lost all faith in its elected leaders.  Coincidentally, those same eight years exposed failures in religious leadership in every denomination at every level through repetitively explicit reporting of every sordid detail.  Now we’ve discovered that major elements of corporate leadership have been systematically looting the national treasure box for years.  All of that adds up to an extraordinarily high level of anxiety over any kind of leadership at any level for any purpose.  Who can trust any leader under any circumstance?

The problem, as I see it, is that it can lead us to be so intent on microscopic analysis of potential leaders that truly gifted potential leaders will increasingly be unwilling to subject themselves and their families to the ordeal.   That leaves two groups willing to take a shot at leadership positions: the not so gifted who can be counted on for mediocracy, and the con-artists who figure it will be easy to put one over on the public.  That, in turn, can lead to a jaded public expecting nothing better of their leaders and so satisfied with a parade of the unqualified and criminal.  We already have a few states that have perfected that kind of leadership over many decades, but I don’t think we want them to become the model for all of us.  

To bring all of this back to the church, I think it is a good and proper thing that we are now more aware of the national and international importance of the leadership decisions we make at the local level.  Closer scrutiny is a good thing.  At the same time, we need to dispose of our anxiety driven paranoia and allow truly gifted, but fully human, persons to put themselves forward at God’s call to do the work they are most qualified to do.  

On a Happier Note

We attended the annual spring picnic at Whitman College for foreign students and their local host families.  We are the host family for a freshman student from Bulgaria, and he is one among a hundred or so from every part of the globe.  Tonight we heard remarks from graduating seniors representing Sierra Leon, Japan, Mongolia, Latvia, Spain, Germany, Laos and France.  What strikes me is how sophisticated they are, how well versed not only in their native languages and American English, but usually a couple of others as well, and how self confidently well spoken they are.  Their four years here will have engaged them with a fine education at a top liberal arts college, but also in a small and somewhat rural town where they are brought into an intimate relationship with America at its roots.  Some of them are going on to graduate school right away.  Others are off to other adventures.  Our graduating Latvian friend, for instance, with his degree in environmental studies, is going to China to help American students at a Chinese university because he is also fluent in Mandarin.  If these students, and others like them at other colleges and universities, represent the future of world leadership then I am quite optimistic about what their generation can achieve toward a more cooperative and less combative community of nations. 

No One Has Died Yet

Out to lunch with our college age Goddaughter, we listened to a lot of stories.  We had a great time and are so delighted with all her achievements.  But some of her stories were about parties with too much drinking and invulnerable, immortal young adults insisting that they could all drive by themselves because no one has died yet.  No one has died yet?  We’ve probably got 50,000 people living in our valley, and that includes the residents “up on the hill” (the state prison).  Every weekend we rack up a dozen or so drunk driving arrests.  With a little luck, and on first offense, they only have to spend a night or two in jail on charges of DUI, pay a hefty fine and attend the mandatory classes.  If they are a little less lucky, they only kill themselves, but mostly they kill someone else.  Then it’s no longer drunk driving, it’s vehicular homicide, and our judges are not very lenient.  But what’s a prison term to the life long guilt of knowing that you are a killer?  What’s a prison term to the ones no longer living and the families who must grieve for the rest of their lives?  What’s this ‘no one has died yet’ stuff?  I’ve spent enough time working with young adults, and remembering my own youth, to know that my outrage is just the nagging of an ‘old man’ whose words can be easily ignored.  I never met a drunk driver yet who meant to do any harm, and especially not to the ones they loved best.  They were only having a little fun, just harmless fun.  I wonder if it would make a difference if they could come, which they can’t, with me and the coroner as we call on the wife, mother, husband, or father to tell them that their beloved is dead because of a drunk driver.  

Decisions and Consequences

The human capacity to make bad choices simply astounds me.  Bentham probably had it right that people, in general, desire to make choices that lead to pleasure and avoid pain, so it is painful indeed to witness deliberate choices that have such predictably painful outcomes yet are made with the illusory hope that something good will happen.  Most of the street people I used to work with never intended to live the way they did, and they usually had some sort of plan for making a new decision today that would lead to a better life tomorrow.  Most of those plans made no practical sense, and the predictable outcomes were not promising.  Two teenage girls I know, both fetal drug and alcohol babies themselves, are pregnant and have some vague idea about becoming good moms living ordinary small town lives in comfort.  But with little education, poor coping skills and no job prospects, their day-to-day decisions are leading them farther into a Dickensian darkness in spite of the competent care and wise counsel they have been receiving from others. 

Part of it has to do, I suspect, not only with the failure to look ahead at the probable consequences of any given decision, but also with the inability or unwillingness to do so.  Whether that inability is inherent or due simply to a lack of education and training, I don’t know.  An old Club of Rome report once asserted that the huge majority of human beings live in tiny little worlds of concrete immediacy with no desire or ability to think in the abstract, envision a long term future, or calculate consequences, and had a deep suspicion of, rather than appreciation for, those who do.  The Club of Rome is not known for the accuracy of its own thinking, so take it for what it’s worth.  The point is that it’s not just about street people or teenage moms.  The net is far broader than that.  For example, it seemed to me that the so called tea-baggers of recent weeks displayed pretty much the same kind of decision making incompetence.  They are scared to death, want immediate action to relieve their fears, and the action they want would almost certainly lead in the opposite direction.  Many of my very earnest right-wing friends seem to fall into the same hole right along with the far left-wingers of my acquaintance.  They are both driven by fear and half baked ideas anticipating hoped for but highly unlikely good consequences while ignoring undesired but more likely bad consequences.  Every now and then, one of them actually gets enough power to act and we end up with something like Gingrich’s Contract with America and its disastrous results.

I’d like to claim purity for myself, but honest reflection doesn’t allow it.  I have had my own share of stupid decisions made with little consideration for probable consequences, and it’s only a combination of fortuitous luck and God’s amazing grace that have kept the worst from happening and the best often near by.  I doubt that the people around Jesus were much different.  The gospel record suggests that his disciples could be especially dense about decisions and consequences.  What is startling unique is that, in the light of the resurrection, they were able to make a break with centuries of tradition and custom, lay their worst fears aside, calmly assess the consequences, both near and far, and make decisions to follow where Christ had already led.  Perhaps that is an overlooked aspect of discipleship formation for our own day that could have a tremendous impact on the lives of ordinary, well educated, middle class people like me, political leadership at all levels, and a host of self-destructive social behaviors.

Clergy Conference Conundrum

Next week is our annual diocesan clergy conference with the theme “No Longer Business as Usual.”  That’s an understatement!  Ours is a mostly rural diocese with many communities losing population, some holding even, and a very few growing.  Areas of tremendous promise have been hammered by the recession, and, although their long term future holds a great deal of hope, the present is not very bright at all.  The majority of our congregations cannot afford full time clergy, a few who had do so no longer, and the very few multi-staff congregations have cut positions.  With a few exceptions, the prevailing religio-political tilt of the region is conservative, meaning that the liberal reputation of the Episcopal Church is not attractive to many who might otherwise find it to be the very place of spiritual nutrition they so desperately crave.

I wonder what that will mean to the mood of our conference.  Suppose that it becomes a conference of defeated clergy who lack the energy, imagination and courage to do anything more than hang on.  Where would the gospel be in that scenario?  Suppose, on the other hand, that it becomes a conference of clergy who rejoice in the Easter message not only of resurrection, but also of reconciliation and new hope.  What if the economy and regional political winds are shoved to the side so that greater room can be made for the good news of God in Christ?  What sort of difference would that make?  We shall see, and I will have to be careful to keep in check my own tendency to be a clergy conference provocateur.  It’s a tendency I find very hard to resist.  I’m inclined to think that sometimes we need these periods of crucifixion, so to speak, in oder to prepare us for times of resurrection.  We humans find it very hard to shed the ways of ‘business as usual’ on our own.  Sometimes we need to have it forcefully and unceremoniously stripped from us in order that we may finally recognize a renewed and reenergized vision that is not centered on us but on Christ.

Dress Codes and Christ

If you want to get a lot of bemused stares, walk into L&G Ranch Supply wearing shorts, a Hawaiian t-shirt and flip-flops (slippers).  I did that this afternoon.  All the guys standing around in Jeans held up with big buckle belts and wearing boots and sweaty hats or caps know well what the dress code is for that place, and you are in really humorous violation.  On the other hand, when we are in Hawaii we can’t help but notice their vacationing cousins wearing the same outfits as at home and looking humorously out of place.

When I worked in NYC I owned  a half dozen suits and wore one every day.  Just to be a bit loose, I ‘d sometimes wear a sport coat, but mostly those were for weekends in Greenwich. Out here in the rural Intermountain West I’ve still got a couple of suits and actually wear one for things like funerals, but only if I’m the officiant.   College and town men wear kakis on work days and jeans otherwise.  Ranchers and farmers wear working jeans and Carharts on work days, and kakis otherwise.  Women do whatever they want.  

I’m over simplifying, but the point is that men, who are reputed to have no sense of fashion, have these unwritten dress codes that send subtle, and not so subtle, messages about the place of each person in society and imply the level of respect they should receive depending on the context of time and place.  I’m not too keen on that but suspect that it’s been true for thousands of years, and probably longer than that.  The problem is that it can present an obstacle to the effective proclamation of the gospel because we are too easily tempted to judge either the messenger or the intended audience by unwritten codes of inappropriate discrimination.  I am very pleased that my former parish continues to be a place that is open and welcoming of anyone in any form of dress, but that doesn’t mean that inappropriate judgments aren’t being made all the time.  

Consider the words of James:  My brothers and sisters, do you with your acts of favoritism really believe in our glorious Lord Jesus Christ?  For if a person with gold rings and in fine clothes comes into your assembly, and if a poor person in dirty clothes also comes in, and if you take notice of the one wearing the fine clothes and say, “Have a seat here, please,” while to the one who is poor you say, “Stand there,” or, “Sit at my feet,” have you not made distinctions among yourselves, and become judges with evil thoughts?  (James 2:1-4, NRSV)

I’d like to hear your reflections.