How Important is Biblical Consistency?

I’ve been reading The First Paul by Borg and Crossan, not because I’m fond of Borg and Crossan, but because a friend studying for ordination to the deaconate has it for a text, and I’m reading with her. It’s an easy read, in many ways quite well written, but I dislike its lack of footnotes and bibliography and its sweeping generalizations about historical details and their meanings. What amuses me is their tight focus on the discrepancies and conflicts between Luke and Paul, within the letters of Paul, and between authentic Paul and Pauline letters. That they are there is obvious, but how significant are they?

It seems a reasonable question when I reflect on the stories my wife and I tell about events in our lives. A disinterested observer might wonder if we experienced the same events. Our versions differ on when, where, among who and what – although the main thrust or themes are pretty much the same. The same is true for the events and their meanings that I write or talk about on my own. I tend to adjust them to fit the purpose of their telling and the audience to whom they are told. For that matter, I’m not altogether certain about the details of important events that happened years ago. On the other hand, we have a daughter who precisely remembers almost everything in her life from the age of two on (she’s 45 now) whether they happened or not.

That’s the way we humans recollect. If God did indeed inspire the words of Luke, Paul and Paul’s successors, either in their writing or in the survival and transmission of them, and I believe God did, it is not for the purpose of demonstrating literal inerrancy. It is for the purpose of revealing truth, both Godly and human, within and through what is recollected. I suppose there is some merit to Borg and Crossan’s close examination of discrepancies and conflicts as an academic exercise, or as a thrust and parry in their duel with literalists. It does help explain the difficulties of incorporating gentile converts into this new religion and how the nascent church began to come to terms with Greco-Roman culture. But I also think you can make too much of it, and they do.

Crazy Throw-Away People: A Question with No Answer

A couple of nights ago, at an hour when no one in their right mind should be up and about, a guy dowsed himself with a couple of cups of gasoline, lit himself on fire and died. From what I know, he wasn’t mad at the world, wasn’t trying to make a political statement, and, by all accounts, didn’t fully understand the consequences of his actions. He was just crazy, that’s all. What do we do with poor crazy people? Insurance covers almost nothing at all, if one has insurance. Combinations of mental illness and poverty leave many living at the dark edges of society, unemployed, unemployable, and generally ignored as long as they are not a danger to themselves or others. Street drugs and cheap booze often become the medications of choice partly because that’s what’s available.

This guy was not a danger to himself or others, not until a couple of nights ago.

The story was a short two-paragraph blurb in the local paper. By the end of next week no one will remember or care, except for the medics who could not save him and the police who are trying to piece together his story. They won’t forget because it was too gruesome to forget. I imagine that will be the same for the few onlookers who emerged from somewhere out of the night. For the rest of us, he is just another throw-away human being. We never knew he was there, and his passing will have no impact on our lives.

We have a half dozen very effective non-profit organizations in town who take seriously their work with the impoverished mentally ill, but there’s a limit to what they can do that begins and ends with those who are able to voluntarily seek and receive help.

That’s not right. It’s not right that good mental health care is a restricted commodity. It’s not right that a nation of our wealth and ideals can be so oblivious to throw-away people. It’s not right that the health care debate in congress is more about protecting the insurance industry than it is about health care. It’s not right that, in the name of civil liberty, we simply let the impoverished mentally ill self-destruct. It could be that other nations do no better or even worse, and that’s not right either.

Cheap Grace and Mature Discipleship

A few days ago someone brought up the question of cheap grace as something he saw troubling the contemporary church of his community, just as Bonhoeffer saw it in his. That person wanted a more forceful emphasis on costly grace as an antidote. I sympathize, but at the same time am extremely cautious because the demand for costly grace can very easily be turned into a demand for God to separate the wheat from the chaff right here before our eyes on our personal naming of the unrepentant sinfulness, hypocrisy and unworthiness of those whom we accuse and have already judged.

Perhaps what he had in mind are some strands in American Christianity that appear to have an odd relationship with grace that can look a bit cheap. There are churches in which sin and the sinful nature of humanity that is always teetering on the edge of eternal damnation but for one’s acceptance of Jesus as one’s personal savior is coupled with the expectation of a constant cycle of backsliding and re-acceptance through public confession and appropriate tears, followed by more of the same behavior, often with the excuse that ‘the devil made me do it.’ It can look pretty cheap, even tawdry.

Grace is free and unearned, but it is not cheap. When the salvation of the world is accomplished through the incarnation of God in Christ Jesus there can be nothing cheap about it. But it still remains free and unearned. What it doesn’t accomplish is freedom from the natural consequences of our behavior. For instance, the natural consequence of my running up a poorly anchored ladder was a broken ankle. The natural consequence of the genes I inherited was a heart attack, in spite of a healthy life style. The natural consequence of my occasional arrogance, anger and judgments are strained relationships and genuine hurt to others. You see where this is going? The free gift of God’s grace, through which we have forgiveness of sin and all other benefits of Chris’s work, does not absolve us of the ordinary consequences of our behavior or the conditions in which we find ourselves.

Consider, for instance, the story of the woman caught in adultery. The hypocrisy of her accusers was blatant, but Jesus did not condemn or even shame them. He simply exposed their own sin to the shame they generated for themselves and sent them away to ponder it. He did not condemn the woman either, and in my imagination I hear him say something like, “Look, you almost got stoned, and if you keep on behaving like that you will be stoned, so go forth and don’t do that again.”

That is why we need to associate the grace of forgiveness with confession, repentance and the hard work of reconciliation through which healing and restoration can, but does not always, take pace. We have been called into the ministry of reconciliation, and, as the community of the Church, we are the body of Christ continuing the healing work of Christ. We enter into that ministry not to become saved, but because we are saved. It is a sacrificial offering of thanksgiving.

If that sounds like a call to mature discipleship, it is. And that is what Bonhoeffer was about when he wrote on cheap grace in his book, The Cost of Discipleship, which was a key element in the training of new clergy who would be able to continue the work of Christ in a Germany ruled by Nazis and a Protestant Church that had largely surrendered to them. Not all were ready for it.

Not all are ready for it in our own day either. We are surrounded by people who have never heard the good news; they are new to the Christian faith; they are long time Christians with only a superficial understanding of what that means; they are anyone and everyone in any condition of life. Whoever they are and however come into the presence of the Church, they are to be welcomed with the radical welcome of Jesus himself. Mature ordained and lay discipleship does not make demands on others for an adequate demonstration or proclamation of their faith. Mature discipleship exudes the radical welcome and love of Christ into lives that desperately need it. Mature discipleship calls others to begin their formation as followers of Jesus from the place where they are, in the place that they are, and as they are able. Mature discipleship offers through Christ the free gift of God’s grace. But it does not promise unnatural relief from the natural consequences of our behavior or the conditions of our lives.

In the tradition of my Church, the collects for Friday are the collects for mature discipleship in the recognition of what costly grace really means. That’s a good place to close this post and seek your own contribution to the conversation:

Almighty God, whose most dear Son went not up to joy but first he suffered pain, and entered not into glory before he was crucified: Mercifully grant that we, walking in the way of the cross, may find it none other than the way of life and peace; through Jesus Christ your Son our Lord.

Lord Jesus Christ, you stretched out your arms on the hard wood of the cross that everyone might come within the reach of your saving embrace: So clothe us in your Spirit that we, reaching forth our hands in love, may bring those who do not know you to the knowledge and love of you; for the honor of your name.

Servant Leadership and Monkeys

Every now and then the business community bandies about the idea of servant leadership as the only effective form of leadership. There is even the Greenleaf Center for Servant Leadership basing its programs on Robert Greenleaf’s 1970 booklet “The Servant as Leader.” The rise and fall of servant leadership coincides with its periodic popularity leading to overuse of the phrase and only a superficial understanding of what it means. Then it’s back to the old way of doing things until the next time the idea is discovered.

Sadly, the same thing happens in church leadership, and it started early. Jesus periodically called his followers into servant leadership, and demonstrated what that meant by his every word and act. On a quick review, I can count seven distinct moments when Jesus instructed his disciples on the meaning of servant leadership and called them to that way of life. Their most common reaction was to debate among themselves about who would be the greatest among them and closest to the right hand of Jesus in his kingdom.

The basic idea of servant leadership is for the leader to assure that those for whom he or she has responsibility are provided the information, tools, training and support needed for them to do the work to which they have been called.

Clergy who aspire to servant leadership often start off on the right foot, but quickly get seduced by the old “whose back is the monkey on” gambit most vividly reviewed in a 1974 Harvard Business Review article entitled, “Who’s Got the Monkey?” by William Oncken, Jr. and Donald L. Wass. Capable parishioners come to the clergy in charge with great ideas to seek approval and implementation. Being an enthusiastic servant leader wannabe, that clergy person approves, authorizes and sends them off with blessings and promises of all the support they need. So far so good.

Not many days later, the same persons return with a problem or two that is keeping them from getting their great idea off the ground. Being a good servant leader, our well intentioned clergy person assumes the role of servant and agrees to take on the problem, fix it, and get them on their way of new ministry. The parishioners came in with a monkey on their back, put it on the back of the clergy person, and left free and clear with no responsibility for anything except to complain at a later date about how the pastor let them down when they had such a great idea.

That’s when servant leadership gets turned upside down and falls apart. Paul waffled around trying to get it right when he encouraged the Galatians to each carry their own loads and bear one another’s burdens at the same time. Servant leadership is exemplified by the feeding of the five thousand. The disciples had a great idea; ‘Everybody’s hungry. Let’s send all these people into town for some fish and chips and maybe they’ll come back for more teaching.’ Jesus agreed it was a great idea but the disciples could themselves do the feeding right there. ‘How, they said? We’ve only got a couple of fish and a few chips.’ Jesus said, OK, let’s say a blessing and start with that – go to it. The disciples tried to get rid of the monkey on their back by putting it on Jesus but he wouldn’t fall for it.

Servant leadership is not about avoiding responsibility or hard work. It’s about taking on the responsibility and doing the hard work of assuring that members of the congregation are provided the information, tools, resources and support they need to do their work. It takes time. Some parishioners are content to be experts at monkey transfer. Others have no idea that being a Christian might actually entail their own calls to ministry and the work that goes with it. Others are willing to start but have trouble following through. Although it is a truism that 20% of the members do 80% of the work, it’s not always the same 20%. People come and people go. Some do great work and then need a rest. Some plod along year after year, the work horses of the essential but mundane. Some can only be interested in short term projects or events promising a bit of favorable PR for themselves. The servant leader stands in the middle seeing that each is provided equitable access to needed information, tools, resources and support, but steadfastly refusing to accumulate monkeys on his or her back.

A Few Thoughts on the Power of Fear

I have touched on this issue before, but it has come back with force in these last few weeks, and that is the pervasiveness and power of irrational fear. Fear, however it’s defined, is not always a bad thing. There are things one should be afraid of, or should at least give cause to some serious anxiety. Irrational fear is different, and by it I do not intend the standard range of phobias, fear of flying for instance. What I have in mind are what might be called political or even spiritual fears that have no, or very little, foundation in observable facts. They are fears that take possibilities of extremely low probability and exaggerate them into near reality. In the same way, they are fears that turn blind eyes toward serious danger in pursuit of safety from imagined danger.

An interesting if fairly minor case is recent polling that shows a higher favorable rating for Cheney than Pelosi. A June 5 Gallup survey has Cheney at 37% favorable and Pelosi at 34%. Neither is high, but what is driving the shift is a PR effort to display Pelosi as an out of control ultra liberal intent on stripping away American freedom under the weight of oppressive government. The fact that Cheney has an eight-year track record of doing that very thing is easily ignored because he acted to keep us safe from some vaguely defined but very scary enemy. The particular issues generating fear of Pelosi are even more vaguely defined and seem to arise mainly from the reputation of her San Francisco district.

On another front, gun sales have exploded. The data are not easy to gather, but one source had background checks up 22% January over January, and background checks do not include gun show and private sales. On air interviews reveal gun purchasers driven by fear that Obama will soon outlaw guns and begin confiscating them. Others believe that if more of us were armed society would have a greater defense against gun toting murderers. Then there is the inane holdover idea from the Cold War that an armed population will be the last defense against the commie invaders who are sure to come. Commies are passé but have been easily replaced by imagined armies of terrorists of some sort.

From Ronald Reagan on, the public has been sold on the idea that government is part of the problem not the solution, that any and all government programs are wasteful bureaucracies (except the ones that provide subsidies to my industry), that private industry can always do everything better and more efficiently, and that market forces work better than any form of governmental regulation. The result is two fold. On the one hand is self-imposed ignorance about some blatant failures in the market place. The second, related to the current health care debate, is an equally self imposed ignorance about the current private health insurance system ruled by bureaucratic providers of plans with strict limitations and controls having more to do with corporate profits than individual and public health.

The irrational fear associated with it has an operating assumption that any government provided health insurance would be wasteful, take away individual choice, and ration out health care to people other than me. Related irrational assumptions ignore the easily researched fact that American health care consumes a far greater share of GDP than any other developed nation, and does so with great inefficiency. American health care is like an old, decrepit municipal water system: one that takes in millions of gallons of fresh water and loses half of it through leaks and breaks before it can get to a tap.

A self-imposed ignorance about national debt avoids any recognition of the cost of our current wars, and an irrational fear of national debt is fired by a dreadful lack of understanding about the hows and whats of programs such as Medicare and Social Security. Irrational fear drives middle and lower class Americans to favor tax policies giving breaks to the wealthy on vague promises that somehow they also will benefit. Intentionally engendered fear drives a good deal of advertising and too much news reporting. We are told to fear that our breath smells bad, that we may not find the right mate, that our latest gadget is technologically obsolete, that we are eating the wrong foods, that e-coli, salmonella and germs of all sorts are threatening our lives, that obscure incidents in one place are evidence of an epidemic of something of which we should be very afraid. We are inundated by twenty-four hour news broadcasting reveling in sensationalism and unreflective fear mongering, and talk radio that is even worse.

All of this infects our spiritual lives in harmful ways. The perfect love of God that drives out fear becomes nothing but a nice and very impractical sentiment. The commandments to love one another, to bear one another’s burdens, to become agents of reconciliation, become minor footnotes to sermons heard on increasingly infrequent days given to worship. Pulpit words warning of the power of the devil who rules this world, of sin that surrounds us and hell that awaits us, take the words of Jesus and twist them into fearful threats intended to frighten a fearful people into a shallow faith. Whatever faith they might inspire, they also feed fear driven beliefs, attitudes and behaviors in ordinary daily life. They deprive the love of God, the reconciling life, teaching, death and resurrection of Christ, of their most essential meanings, and they make it harder for the Gospel to be heard by those who need to hear it most.

Health Care as a Percent of GDP


The Kaiser Family Foundation published a study,  including this chart of 2003 data,  comparing American health care costs to other developed nations and the only thing that has changed is the percentage of our GDP allocated to health care today, around 17%.  This in the face of those who are screaming bloody murder that we could end up with some expensive health care albatross such as England or Canada.  We already have a health care albatross hanging around our necks.  Nevertheless, the conservative opposition would rather continue the current inefficient, wasteful, expensive non-system.  Go figure.

I posted this yesterday with a graph leading it off.  It was displayed for a while but has now become nothing but a little blue box with a question mark inside.  Don’t know how to fix it.

On Mesa Verde

The people incorrectly called Anasazi, but the name is in the text books so we’re stuck with it, were relatively modern people living on the Mesa for several hundred years on either side of the first millennia C.E.   On the other hand, their technology was about where the Mesopotamians were four or five thousand years ago.  Given that, it’s amazing what beautifully designed and well constructed three and four story structures they built, complete with painted plastered walls inside and out.  Their skills at dry land farming were without equal, and their pottery and basketry beyond description.  So when the guides tell you that they got up and down from the cliff dwellings via crude toe and handholds, it’s got to be a lot of BS.  I have no doubt that they had some very sophisticated and reasonably safe way of going up and down. 

On the Road

This blog is not a travelogue.  I generally do write travel journals for our own record, but there is a possibility that I might offer post some reflections about this trip a bit later on.  Two days on the North Rim of the Grand Canyon is barely enough time to begin thinking about it.  We did not go to the more popular and tourist oriented South Rim, and, being the person that I am, it was probably a good thing.  Tomorrow we visit Mesa Verde National Park, which has long held a fascination for me.  Perhaps more later.  However, Sunrise Sister is a much more poetic thinker and is probably posting something profound this very minute.  You might check her out.


Kanabian Scenery

Country Parson posts are generally about theology, politics or economics.  This is something of a break.  Except for our move from the NYC area to Walla Walla some years ago, cross country car trips have not been our thing, but how else can one see some of the spectacular scenery of the American West?  So here we are in Kanab, Utah on the second day of a trip that will take us to the Grand Canyon, Mesa Verde and back home through parts of Colorado.  What surprised me today was how many lush green valleys we drove through on the way from Salt Lake to here.  We’ve driven the Salt Lake route before, and flown in many times (you gotta change planes somewhere), so I expected what we had experienced: high very arid desert.  There is certainly enough of that around, but the beautiful green mountain valleys were a surprise.  Now here we are in Kanab, which all the Kanabians know is the take off point for all those John Wayne westerns and a dozen or so other movies and television series.  Tomorrow we are going to drift down to the Grand Canyon and spend a couple of days there before moving on.  In the meantime, I’m letting things theological, political and economic fade into the background, or maybe not, you never know.

The Fall and Rise of the Episcopal Church

Recent polls have revealed a continued pattern of decline in the so-called mainline churches. Their aging congregations are being replaced by younger, more energetic Evangelicals and Pentecostals, and they are doomed to become mere remnants in the Protestant fold. Fortunately, trend is not destiny.

My Episcopal Church is indeed aging and our average Sunday attendance is falling. But that isn’t all bad. At a recent clergy conference, one of our young priests acknowledged that we were being pushed toward the edge, and the sooner the better he thought. What do you suppose he meant by that? I think of two things.

One is that recent national church conventions have been so consumed by big global issues that local worshipers felt left out and ignored. Successive resolutions proclaiming decades of evangelism, commitment to youth or the abolition of world poverty were great ideas but had no impact at the local level and did nothing to help local congregations with local issues of their own. I know that the homosexual question has raised the most headlines, but for most congregations in most dioceses it quickly became a fringe issue of limited local import. The main thing it did was illuminate how out of touch the national church was in the eyes of ordinary pew sitting church goers.

The second is that too many of our aging congregants and clergy have became complacent and defensive. Complacency has sapped the vitality of a faith that claims to follow in the way of a Jewish carpenter who was unafraid to proclaim God’s grace and love anywhere, at any time, to anyone. Defensiveness has become the response to an ethos of scarcity. We may talk a lot about a theology of abundance, but far too many congregations set that aside in favor of an ethos of scarcity, and they are very defensive about it.

Being pushed out to the edge means opportunity for rebirth and reenergization with new clergy and new leadership who will work from the bottom up, and not the top down. It does not mean that Episcopalians will become ersatz Evangelicals. I does mean that we will become more bold about proclaiming who we are as followers of Jesus Christ according to our traditions.

We are a part of the greater Body of Christ that treasures an expression of liturgical tradition anchored deep in the earliest practices of the Church. We treasure our tradition of a continuing conversation with centuries of theologians and spiritual guides in a fearless engagement with scripture that is not hemmed in by a literalist fence. We treasure the apostolic succession of ministry, but above all, we treasure the sacraments and none more than the Eucharist, the very presence of God in Christ in the bread and wine of Holy Communion. Without that we cease to be Episcopalians. We may always be a relatively small American denomination. That’s not the point. By casting off old habits, complacency and defensiveness we can more richly feed the spiritually hungry in our own unique way.