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.

What Does it Mean to be People of the Way

The people who followed Christ in the early days were said to be known as the people of the way.  A recent post elsewhere on the blogosphere said something about ‘the way’ as being preferable to Christian, and Sunrise Sister offered a comment on one of my recent posts using the same phrase.  So how exactly might we understand ‘the way’ as a useful descriptor of our faith in our own day.

Maybe we should start by proclaiming that we are followers of Jesus.  If we are following him, what does that look like?  On the one hand it implies a direction that does not necessarily require that we know exactly where we are going or what the trail ahead might be like.  We only have to trust the one who is leading us.  I’m reminded of some memorable guided hikes we have had throughout the mountains of Hawaii and a few in the Everglades.  We had preliminary promises of wonderful sights and sounds, some warning that the terrain could be a bit rough, and no promise about what the weather might be.  Since we had never been that way before, the actual destination was a bit vague and known to us only as a spectacular water fall, a view you can find nowhere else, plants or birds you have never seen before, and so on.  Of course, it also involved our own desire to see and experience these new things.  On a few of them we agree that, had we been on our own, we would have turned back, but since our guide was pressing on, and because we trusted him/her, we pressed on also.

Following Jesus on the way is a little like that.  We have some vague notion of what we will experience at the end of our trek but, as Paul said, it’s as if we see it only through a dark glass.  Jesus promised that to walk, as he put it, in the way of the cross, would be the way of life and peace, but he never promised that the trail would be easy or that we would not encounter stormy weather.  Whatever it is that we have to endure along the way is worth it because we know that the end will reveal the best of the best of the best, and we will even experience some of it along the way.  There are many times we would turn back, or just stop where we are, if it were not for our guide in whom we trust.  So, after catching our breath, a quick lunch, and maybe a refreshing swim in a nearby pool, we press on.   That’s one way of thinking about what ‘the way’ might look like.  It’s the mystical side: the side where we acknowledge that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God.

On the other hand we might want to get more practical.  It’s the side where we meet Jesus of Nazareth, a man born of woman.  I don’t think that following Jesus means to walk around in a bathrobe and sandals, without a home, relying on the generosity of others for our daily needs.  I do think it means carefully watching and learning from how he engaged with others, and what he said and taught.  The way that Jesus engaged with others should be a pattern for the way in which we engage with others.  What he said and taught should be the pattern for the habits of our own hearts and the disciplines of our daily lives.  

Perfection in doing that is not ours to achieve, but if we are to be his followers we must make a decent attempt.  Set aside everything else and concentrate for a while only on the book of Acts.  Consider Peter, who finally came to terms with Jesus the Christ and himself as one to lead the new ‘way’.  Yet see how different Peter’s ways of engagement are from those of Jesus as recorded by the evangelists.  He’s got the right idea but sort of bumps along often talking when he should be listening, demanding when he should be asking, arguing when he should be reconciling, and vacillating when he should be firm.  Is Paul not the same?  There are times when he can’t even get along with his closest colleagues, and he tends to hold grudges against those in his church who don’t do things according to his way of doing things.  In spite of that, they are the ones laying the foundation for the way in which we have come to express our faith in God through Jesus Christ.   Although we are followers of Jesus, we are more like Peter and Paul in our ways of doing it.  

In the end, to be a follower of Jesus and to walk in ‘the way’ has got to involve our whole being: our beliefs and attitudes about God and who Jesus is, as well as our beliefs and attitudes about one another; the habits of our hearts that guide our daily lives, especially in the moral decisions we make;  and the discipline we commit to as ones who will continue to listen and learn from God in Christ Jesus.  I suppose all of that can be attempted without subscribing to religion as such, and most particularly by avoiding church, but I can’t see a lot of success going down that path.  I’m more inclined to think that we need the sacraments of the church, the fellowship of others who also want to be followers of Jesus on ‘the way’, and the guidance of those who have been called and trained to teach, presuming, of course, that all of that is actually present in any given church.

A Doubt Shared By All

Here we are on top of poor old “Doubting Thomas” again.  What strikes me is not that Thomas doubted, but that Jesus honored his doubt and met him where he was with an invitation to intimacy and not condemnation.  What is even more striking is that it is in moments of great doubt where the resurrected Jesus met almost everyone.  Who was it that did not doubt?  The women in Mark’s gospel met the good news of the resurrection in the moment of their grief filled doubt about who would roll away the stone.  Matthew says that the disciples went to Galilee to meet him and, that even as they worshiped him, they also doubted.  Yet they were met with his invitation to go forth in his name to all nations.  Luke describes the entire band of disciples as disbelieving the resurrection witness of Mary and the other women, and immediately tells the story of the two on the road to Emaus who (for grief and doubt?) could not recognize Jesus until he invited them into the communion of breaking bread.  And that is followed just as quickly by his appearance to the whole frightened and doubting band during which he invited them to touch, see and share in a meal.  The same is true in John’s accounts with Jesus inviting them to also receive his peace and a portion of his spirit as Elisha received a portion of Elijah’s spirit.

I think that is important.  Jesus met each and all of his followers in their doubt, however it was expressed.  He never chastised, well maybe a little but gently.  He always invited them to explore their own doubts through greater touching, feeling, seeing and sharing in the most intimate of ways in what can only be understood as the most holy of Holy Communion.  In many ways, our faith rests on their testimony, but is that really enough?  Do we also need that personal and holy invitation to communion with the risen Christ?  Is that a part of what inspires all the spiritual hunger about us that drives some to search out a god they can be close to and others to deny gods of any kind?  For me, it is the sacramental presence of Christ in the Holy Eucharist that satisfies, but I suspect that even the immediacy of the bread and wine is too remote and mysterious for many.  Perhaps the key to this can be found in the prayer we traditionally assign to Thursday in Easter Week:

“Almighty and everlasting God, who in the Paschal mystery established the new covenant of reconciliation:  Grant that all who have been reborn into the fellowship of Christ’s Body may show forth in their lives what they profess by their faith…”

If we cannot learn to show it forth, it’s not likely to be a faith that will resolve many doubts, illuminate hope or reveal the resurrected Christ.

Free Speech and Bigotry

The Constitution, First Amendment

  • Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the government for a redress of grievances.

The free speech part is a vitally important part of our heritage and national law.  It’s what enables us to allow even the most reprehensible forms of speech to be allowed in a variety of public places.  However, legally allowed is one thing and toleration is another.  There are forms of speech that are vicious, hate filled and incite the worst of human behavior and thought.  We are accustomed, at least to the idea, that Christian leaders must, in some way, stand against such forms of speech, and we see that in response to Klan and white supremacist rallies that are held from time-to-time and in place-to-place.  

So what kind of response is called for when such a voice gains a significant place through a nation wide platform such as AM talk radio?  I’m not talking about the ordinary right wingers who fill the airways with their ranting every hour of the day and night.   I may vigorously disagree with almost everything they say as being utterly inane, but for the most part, it is not pathologically toxic to the well being of our society.  There are a few radio talk show hosts, such as Chicago based Michael Savage, who are.  Savage is broadcast in our area over at least two different local stations, and his program is a cornucopia of hate filled racism, egregiously twisted versions of the news, and language intended to incite the very worst in human behavior by appealing to the very worst in human prejudice and bigotry.  Under the Constitution he has every right to speak, and we are compelled to defend that right, but that is not the same thing as entitlement to a nation wide radio audience.  I suggest that you listen to a couple of his shows – listen all the way through and then tell me what you think.