Country Blessings

Each Wednesday evening a small group from rural Grace Church in  Dayton, Washington assembles for Compline, usually at a ranch house about five miles out of town.  It sits in a fairly narrow valley along the Touchet River where it comes down out of the Blue Mountains.  I don’t think there can be anything as pleasant as praising God and giving thanks at the end of the day while gathered at a ranch on the banks of a mountain stream surrounded by evidence of God’s blessings.  Just down the road toward town are fields of orchards.  Their fruit will be on tables before the year is out.  Out in front the pastures are dotted with cattle.  A three day old calf explores her new world, bounding from place to place with tail held high.  She will be butchered one day.  Her life will nourish our lives.  Wheat fields roll up the hills across the road, the grain they produce will most likely be exported to feed the hungry in lands that cannot raise enough for themselves. 

A friend raises wheat on a couple thousand acres of rolling foothill land.  He’s got a spot up on top of one of the hills that he calls his church.  Looking out in one direction are mountains and in the other are the treeless, rolling hills of the Palouse.  In one direction it’s national forest, and in the other it’s dry land wheat, cattle and horses.  He says that prayer is mostly a matter of worrying with God: worry about whether the seed will germinate, whether the rains will come when they are needed and stop when they are not, whether the grain will ripen, whether the harvest will go smoothly, whether the price will be good, and then start the prayerful worrying over again.

None of it happens all by its self.  It takes more than hard work, it takes intelligent, well educated hard work, but it’s hard work that engages at a very basic level with God’s creation.  It’s hard not to recognize the holiness of it that affects the blessing we say at meals.  It’s not just the food on the table for which we give thanks.  There is a certain Eucharistic quality to it.  Not only is God’s spirit of creation present in all that lies before us, but so also is the creative work of human beings who have labored to make it possible. 

I wonder if those who have never spent time in the country can truly appreciate that?  What do you think of when you say grace?  Do you say grace?

Perception is Reality is Truth so be Afraid, be VERY Afraid

Yesterday’s mail brought a solicitation from some left of center group screaming bloody murder that, if we didn’t act now, the ultra religious right bigots would take over government and shove their brand of Christianity down everyone’s throats.  Our liberty would be lost forever.  This morning I got a fear mongering call from the NRA warning that the “gun hating Congress” would soon pass HR 45 (a bill that would require a license to own a gun) and our liberty would be lost forever.  Those are only two examples of a very common propaganda tactic that uses extreme political hyperbole to do nothing more than incite fear, suspicion and hate.  I’m really fed up with it.

For the first thirty years of my career I was employed in local and state government and by a large association representing business interests.  The lobbying I witnessed and engaged in was, on the whole, a vigorous representation of what each participant saw as important to the overall well being of the community and the nation within the context of what was also important to the well being of particular communities, industries and companies.  The intent was always to reach a workable compromise that everyone could live with. That started to change somewhere in the 80s. 

First came new colleagues who quickly revealed themselves to be primarily interested in their conservative evangelical Christian agenda, and considered the job to be a conduit for working on it.  Then came political strategists claiming that the ‘other side’ was staking out such an extreme position that any compromise would only end with ‘our side’ losing.  Therefore, we needed to stake out an equally extreme position in order for fair negotiations to take place.  It made a certain amount of sense as long as it wasn’t examined because that would reveal that the ‘other side’ was not very extreme at all, and ‘our side’s’ defensive tactic simply tilted all the weight in our direction with no intention of fair negotiation. 

To be sure, it was a tactic employed both on the right and the left, but the right had it down pat and did it better.  Truth became a matter of perception, or, as the popular phrase goes, perception is reality.  Who cared what the facts revealed as long as there was at least some evidence or argument that could be twisted to form a perception that could be sold as truth, the scarier the better.   The selling of the Iraq war was, perhaps, the epitome of that art, but not the end of it.  We are seeing some of that tactic being used in the Sotomayor nomination, and certainly in the two knucklehead communications that have come to our house in the last few days.  I believe it’s a dangerous game to play.  It’s a game that is potentially destructive of liberal (in the traditional sense) democracy.  I’m not sure how to put a stop to it except to encourage as many as possible to stand up and say “knock it off” every time a call or solicitation comes their way, even for causes with which they might otherwise agree. 

 

Turning, Turning We Come Round Right

The Shaker hymn “Tis the gift to be simple” ends with the phrase, “Till by turning, turning we come round right.”  I don’t know what inspired those words, but I think of them every time I come across the 18th chapter of Ezekiel where God puts to rest the idea that it is God who visits the sins of the father on generations of sons yet to come.  In that same chapter God twice declares that God takes no delight in the death of anyone, not even evil persons, and only desires that each turn away from death and toward God who is the only source of life.  The chapter is filled with turning: the turning of good persons who end up doing bad things, the turning of bad persons who end up doing good things, and the turning of each again.  It is that turning and turning again that is my life, and undoubtedly yours also. 

Ezekiel can be read to imply that one’s turning away from evil and toward God must coincide with one’s death if there is to be hope for salvation.  It almost sounds like a roll of the dice, and I don’t think that is what God meant.  It seems to me that the entire passage opens the door for us to begin apprehending God’s desire for a universal salvation that will be realized centuries later in Christ Jesus.  In our turning, turning, it is God in Christ who will see that we come round right.  The author of Hebrews envisioned that as happening through the constant intercessions of the resurrected Christ whose saving act was accomplished once for all.  At the same time, I am convinced that God never takes away our free will, so that it is possible, and perhaps probable for some, having been turned round right, to choose one last turn and go head long into the darkness of that which is not life.  It is the last turning that C.S. Lewis imagined so well in The Great Divorce. 

Questions yet remain.  For instance, is it in this life only that we make that last fateful turn, or, as Lewis imagined, is that last opportunity in another time and space when one confronts the reality of God in Christ?  As followers of Jesus, how can we best share that good news with those who have not heard it?  How essential is baptism and/or a confession of Jesus as one’s personal savior to that final turning?  How essential is church membership and attendance?  Is the word ‘essential’ appropriate at all?  Maybe we would be better served talking about the role of Christian discipleship, the sacraments and membership in dedicated assemblies, and leave the question of essentiality behind.

I Favor an Empathetic, Activist, Strict Constructionist

I didn’t have much time for TV news today, but it took less than half of the twenty seconds I devoted to Wolf Blitzer to hear a commentator bring up the boogeyman of the virtues of Supreme Court justices who are strict constructionists as against the loose cannons who are (empathetic) judicial activists.  I wonder if someone can explain to me what a strict constructionist is?  I know some conservatives claim that activist judges are those who legislate from the bench.  Help me understand how any Supreme Court decision is not a form of legislation insofar as the very act of interpreting various laws and lower court decisions in the context of the Constitution must always turn the law, at least in some small way, to a meaning it did not have before.

Now and then I hear someone bring up the issue of original intent, which is patently ridiculous on the face of it.   However brilliant our founding fathers were, their intent had to be limited, and was limited, by their own time and culture.  As I recall from my undergraduate courses, that matter was decided in Marbury vs. Madison way back in 1803.  So why is that old hoax still be floated around?

I’m really looking forward to seeing if the current GOP leadership can come up with something new and creative this time, but my guess is that they are in mortal fear that we may get a justice who is actually committed to upholding the highest values of our nation as expressed in our Constitution.  

Why do I write? Darned if I know.

I’ve been thinking about why I write this blog at all.  I’m not sure I remember why I started except that I think it had something to do with my wife suggesting it.  It began mostly as a writing exercise without much interest in who my readers might be or what they might think about it.  It’s not really a personal journal.  I’m not much interested on line group therapy, and I’m not very good at telling pithy stories with a great moral at the end.  For me it has become a platform for sharing ideas on things theological, economic and political with an eye toward developing something like a conversation with anyone who might be interested.  My only disappointment has been the discovery that none of the other clergy in my diocese read, or are even slightly interested in reading, what I have to say.  But then, why should they?  I’m sure that what I have to think and say is of no more value than what they have to think and say, and invitations to log on and wade into online conversation around the subjects I choose can appear, if nothing else, presumptuous in the extreme.  On the other hand, I’ve been blessed by several regular readers who have had important, insightful things to say, and if I ever get to Southern California or up into Manitoba I’d like to meet a couple of them face-to-face.  

Ethics, J.S. Mill and a New Hit Musical

I taught a short introductory class on ethics for my firefighters a couple of weeks ago.  I guess they enjoyed it because they’ve asked for more, but it was a bit of a rocky start.  It seems that people who rarely think of anything in the abstract, think of ethics as something that is just a way of sort of somehow knowing the difference between right and wrong, good and bad.  So considering various ways of talking about ethics from descriptive, normative and critical points of view was a new experience.  It also came as a surprise that ethical thinking has had a lot to do with the kind of political system we’ve crafted for our nation and the political views we hold for ourselves. 

When we covered the basics of utilitarian ethics I figured that at least one historical name would sound familiar, if nothing else.  How, I thought, can one get out of high school without reading at least something from John Stewart Mill?  What a silly idea that was.  But it also occurred to me that I hadn’t actually read any Mill in almost fifty years so who was I to talk?  So here I am, deep into “On Liberty.”  I’m struck once more by how fresh and contemporary he is, and never more so than in his advice about what makes for a “healthy state of political life.”

In politics, again, it is almost a commonplace, that a party of order or stability, and a party of progress or reform, are both necessary elements of a healthy state of political life… Each of these modes of thinking derives its utility from the deficiencies of the other; but it is in a great measure the opposition of the other that keeps each within the limits of reason and sanity.

Our current problem, it seems to me, is that the Republicans have lost their identity as true conservatives who are intent on conserving the trusted means of order and stability within our society.  Their leading public voices yelp angry, reactionary words that bear very little similarity to anything like our treasured heritage and national values, but do sound dangerously close to the Argentinean ultra-nationalism of the not too distant past.  The only good I can see coming out of that is that, in another fifty years or so, someone will produce a hit musical featuring Dick Cheney in the role of Evita.

 

Funerals and the Love of God

I wonder if you have noticed a trend that has been building in our area over the last several years?  The obituary pages of the local paper report an ever increasing number of persons who have requested that there be no service of any kind following their death.  I think that is very sad and very hurtful.

A few, not many, of my former parishioners had talked to me about not wanting a service in order to spare their loved ones of yet more grief.  There seemed to be three reasons most often offered.  One was the memory of some horrific funeral they had attended that was an overly long combination of inappropriate eulogies or preaching of condemnation to hell for almost everyone present, sometimes including the deceased.   Another was an overwhelming sense of guilt about their failures as a member of their family, failures that had been left unreconciled and unredeemed until too late.  The third was a genuine desire to relieve their loved ones of the burden of yet one more event of sadness and grief.  It was as if they thought they could just sneak unnoticed out the back door in order to let the party of life go on without them being missed. 

They always changed their minds after a little conversation, but I see by the paper that that doesn’t happen always and everywhere.  Moreover, I’m convinced that some persons make that decision out of spite and long held grudges.  They can leave this world inflicting one last deep wound that gets even with a last act of revenge.

A funeral, memorial service or interment is a time not so much for closure as reconciliation.  Some non-religious families understand that and do what they can with backyard celebrations of life, or something similar.  For Christians it is also, and much more, a holy time of recognition that, in Christ, reconciliation also means redemption and new birth into new life.  That’s what makes it so rewarding to celebrate as we grieve, laugh as we cry, and tell stories until there are no more stories to be told.  The prayers and blessings offered invoke the power of God to flood this particular time, place and gathering with his abounding and steadfast love.  It is in the context of this Christian love where healing can begin to take place that will allow us to honestly confront and forgive the sins of omission and commission of the deceased, our own failures in our relationship with them, and discover anew the opportunities for love that had always been there and often experienced. 

Oddly enough, there is a prayer in the marriage service of our Book of Common Prayer that, I think, is even more profound for moments like these.  Amended slightly for funerals, it would read:

Eternal God, creator and preserver of all life, author of salvation and giver of all grace: look with favor upon the world you have made, and for which your Son gave his life, and especially upon this family here gathered.  Make their life together a sign of Christ’s love to this sinful and broken world, that unity may overcome estrangement, forgiveness heal guilt, an joy conquer despair.  Amen.