A Few Thoughts on Congress

I just can’t figure out my member of congress (WA 5), a conservative Republican by the name of Cathy McMorris Rodgers who is attractive, charming and a whiz at constituent services. The first two attributes are always helpful to any politician, although they have little substantive value. The third is the key to staying in office. When she first ran for office she made it clear that she was a Christian candidate who would represent Christian values within the context of a conventional conservative mindset. Now in her third term and rising in the leadership ranks, she has become something of a hard line right-winger, and her position on the issues of the day bear little resemblance to anything Jesus did or taught. Moreover, she opposed every economic recovery proposal, is a leader in stopping any kind of legitimate health care reform, and has appeared on television encouraging the ‘birthers’ and the ‘deathers.’ She has left the conservative main-stream shifted to the fringe.

What the district needs is a Democratic Party able to put forth a candidate strong enough to make a decent race of it, but that has not happened and is not likely to happen. Without credible electoral opposition, the natural tendency of elected representatives who have an inclination to be extremely liberal or extremely conservative is to drift farther and farther toward the fringe, and that is not healthy for our democracy.

Limited By Our Imaginations

I’ve been contemplating this passage from Ephesians that was read in many churches last Sunday:

Now to him who by the power at work within us is able to accomplish abundantly far more than all we can ask or imagine, to him be glory in the church and in Christ Jesus to all generations, forever and ever. Amen.

A power at work within us that is able to accomplish abundantly far more than all we can ask or imagine is an idea that leads to all kinds of difficulties. For one thing, as in “Bruce Almighty,” I can ask and imagine an awful lot but it tends to come out as the sort of stuff I might demand from a genie in a magic lamp. Indeed there are some preachers of the gospel of prosperity who proclaim that that is exactly what I should be doing. If it doesn’t come to pass there are two possibilities. First, I must not be a real Christian of real faith with the right kind of prayers offered up to the genie in the sky. Second, there is no genie in the sky and I’ve been lied to by those sneaky Christians all this time: nothing more than a heavenly bait and switch routine to sucker us into church. It’s one of the serious stumbling blocks that stand between the Church and a very skeptical, but spiritually hungry, public.

The problem with an abundance of something more than one can ask or imagine is that one cannot ask or imagine it. And that is compounded by the added problem of some mysterious power at work within us. If demonic possession is no longer taken seriously, why should some divine possession be treated with any credibility? Isn’t that the province of the rubes who dance around, swoon and get slain by the spirit, whatever that means?

As one who firmly believes that what Paul wrote really is true beyond our wildest imaginations, the questions I need to wrestle with are: true in what way, and how can I make that truth known so that it makes sense to the ones I most want to reach? It was a great deal easier for generations up through the Reformation, and has become progressively more difficult from the Enlightenment on, at least in the western world. It was easier because an imminent spiritual realm was commonly held to coexist along side the material realm. It was unnecessary to convince anyone of that. It was only necessary to provide a convincing argument that God’s Spirit at work within us trumped any and all other spirits that might be lurking about.

It has become harder because we have debunked almost all of that nonsense about the spirit world through logic, science and medicine, and I think that was right. We have debunked the nonsense. But debunking the nonsense also shrank the arena for the reality of God’s Sprit to be made readily known, and it did not eliminate a gnawing spiritual hunger.

Flowing into that void has been a variety of spiritual twists and turns that are well within our ability to ask or imagine, and that has brewed up some very weird teas that make early Gnosticism seem tame by comparison. It is precisely because these newly brewed teas are within our abilities to ask and imagine that the scandal of our Christian message is so hard for many to take seriously. It is too far outside our abilities to ask or imagine. There probably should be a conclusion to this. I’m working on it.

My Near Arrest

I have some sympathy for the cops in the Prof. Gates case. A couple of guys seen trying to push in a front door does look a bit suspicious, and I am reminded of my own near arrest. Earlier this summer we visited our oldest daughter in the well-to-do suburb of New York where she lives. Everyone but me left to do morning errands, and eventually I went out the back door, down the driveway and off on a quick one mile jog. A neighbor, knowing that no one was home, called to report a suspicious white man sneaking out of their house and briskly walking away. I was on the return leg and a couple of hundred yards away when I saw two patrol cars in front of the house, then a neighbor, then my daughter’s car coming back home, then a bunch of people all pointing at me. The way I later heard it was that the cops were ready to come pick me up when my daughter showed up to ask if the old guy sauntering toward them was the suspicious intruder, and if so, he was her dad the priest. If they had stopped me, what would have been their protocol? Safety first! After all, the suspicious person was thought to be a possible burglar. That would have meant the old spread eagle on the side of the car, a quick pat down, and a search for ID. Embarrassing as anything, and if I had got angry about it things could have become pretty nasty. The president was right. Gates’ arrest was stupid, but everything up to that point appears to be good sensible police work.

What is Spiritual Maturity and Who Gets to Judge?

Comments on a couple of preceding posts have raised two important questions: what is spiritual maturity and who is to judge?

As to the second question, God, of course, is the only true judge, but that does not keep us from making our own provisional judgments, even when we claim otherwise. That leaves us with two challenges. The first is to be forthright about the provisional and often prejudiced nature of the judgments we are going to make anyway. The second is to do what we can to more clearly understand the idea of spiritual maturity and the signs that might point to it.

At the outset I want to erase from the board the phrase ‘spiritual but not religious’. For the purpose of this discussion, spirituality has to be understood as a quality of the Christian faith reflecting one’s relationship with God as informed by the life, teaching, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, and inspired by the Holy Spirit. Other religions have their own ideas about what spirituality is, and a great many persons are certain that they are quite spiritual without having a clear idea of what that means. None of that counts for the purpose of this discussion.

Given that, I’d like to first tackle the question of maturity, or more particularly psychological maturity. To do that I’d like to borrow from the noted mid-twentieth century psychiatrist Will Menninger. He suggested that we could best understand maturity as an ability to: recognize and deal with reality; accommodate change with relative ease: be free of excessive symptoms of tension and anxiety; be giving; relate to others in mutually satisfactory ways; and be life long learners. I’m willing to go with that as a rough outline of maturity, and hope you will too.

Turning to what the spiritual content of maturity might be, I look to Paul and his words of counsel to the churches in Rome:

I appeal to you therefore, brothers and sisters, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship. Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds, so that you may discern what is the will of God—what is good and acceptable and perfect.

For by the grace given to me I say to everyone among you not to think of yourself more highly than you ought to think, but to think with sober judgment, each according to the measure of faith that God has assigned. For as in one body we have many members, and not all the members have the same function, so we, who are many, are one body in Christ, and individually we are members one of another. We have gifts that differ according to the grace given to us: prophecy, in proportion to faith; ministry, in ministering; the teacher, in teaching; the exhorter, in exhortation; the giver, in generosity; the leader, in diligence; the compassionate, in cheerfulness.

Let love be genuine; hate what is evil, hold fast to what is good; love one another with mutual affection; outdo one another in showing honor. Do not lag in zeal, be ardent in spirit, serve the Lord. Rejoice in hope, be patient in suffering, persevere in prayer. Contribute to the needs of the saints; extend hospitality to strangers.

Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse them. Rejoice with those who rejoice, weep with those who weep. Live in harmony with one another; do not be haughty, but associate with the lowly; do not claim to be wiser than you are. Do not repay anyone evil for evil, but take thought for what is noble in the sight of all. If it is possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all. Beloved, never avenge yourselves, but leave room for the wrath of God; for it is written, “Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord.” No, “if your enemies are hungry, feed them; if they are thirsty, give them something to drink; for by doing this you will heap burning coals on their heads.” Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good. (Rom. 12)

I don’t think any of this comes easy, and again Paul, I believe speaking for himself, had something to say about what he had to go through to gain it:

Therefore, since we are justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have obtained access to this grace in which we stand; and we boast in our hope of sharing the glory of God. And not only that, but we also boast in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not disappoint us, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit that has been given to us. (Rom. 5.1 ff)

I have learned to be content with whatever I have. I know what it is to have little, and I know what it is to have plenty. In any and all circumstances I have learned the secret of being well-fed and of going hungry, of having plenty and of being in need. I can do all things through him who strengthens me. (Phil. 4.11 ff)

That ought to be enough to get a conversation going on spiritual saturity.

Money, Power and Anger

In my previous post I said something about the deep fear that appears to be propelling much of the opposition to Obama administration initiatives on health care and economic recovery. I see that fear acted out locally through outbursts of accusatory anger from persons who, in years past, would have held themselves above that sort of behavior, at least in public. I think that what we are dealing with has more to do with deep psychology and spiritual maturity than anything else. Behind every angry, accusatory outburst is a story, and it seldom has anything to do with the immediate target. It just happens to be convenient.

What I see driving these outbursts, at least for the time being, is wealth, or more precisely, money. Money can be a measure of power, and together money and power can be very seductive, disorienting one’s moral compass and eating away at one’s soul. Whether we like it or not, to have money is to have control over our own lives, the environment around us, and sometimes over the lives of others. Having it gives us a sense of security against the vagaries of the future. But it’s more that a sense of control for some people. It’s power: the power to be superior, better, higher, more important. For most of us, to lose money is to lose a sense of control over our lives and environment. The more money we lose the more control we lose. For those heavily invested in the sense of power they get from money, heavy losses mean loss of self, of ego, of meaning of life.

I suspect, but don’t know, that such persons are more often men than women. I am certain that they are persons accustomed, at least in their own minds, to calling the shots. They tell others what to do and expect it to be done. Using cash as a tool, they intend to direct the use of their largesse, often with the expectation of some kind of reward such as obedient loyalty, lavish gratitude or at least a brass plaque. They do not gladly suffer those whom they see as their inferiors and who will not cooperate. Oddly enough, at bottom, they are persons of enormous psychological insecurity and spiritual immaturity.

In a recession like this one, the illusion of control and power is rudely stripped away from them. The markets are ignorant of who they are and don’t care to know. As individual persons, they are utterly irrelevant to the national economic ebb and flow. Self-satisfaction at the brilliance of their self-made wealth is destroyed in gyrations of the Dow, and there is not a thing they can do about it. Well somebody has got to take the heat. Not them of course, but somebody wasn’t watching. Somebody didn’t realize that they are among those who are not supposed to be affected like the masses. Somebody, paid by them to do their bidding, was supposed to keep that from happening and somebody screwed up.

Those minor megalomaniacs may be the extreme, but they are not alone. On the milder side are many more ordinary people who are also losing control and damn angry about it. Consider, for instance, the elderly (not me of course, I’m only 66). No matter what their condition in life in younger years, they lose more and more control as they enter into true old age. Others have taken their places in the councils of the community. Their opinions are not sought, their friends are dying and no one asked their approval for the transfer of leadership to a younger generation. Their bodies no longer respond to their demands. Doctors, pharmacists, family members, and sometimes bankers and lawyers now make decisions for them that they used to make for themselves. They have to trust without being able to verify. It’s a very vulnerable place to be. It’s hard to maintain trust under such conditions, and anger might be the only way to express that frustration.

You and I are not exempt. I confess to my own occasional anxiety over money, and whether my retirement investments will recover their value. Younger friends with growing families have their own anxious agendas: can they meet the bills this month, is my job secure, can I find a job, will my 401k be worth anything and all the rest. But Christ calls us in another direction. What we treasure is where our heart will be and we are encouraged to treasure the love of God and the discipleship of being followers of Christ more than cash. We are encouraged to consider the lilies of the field and lay our anxieties aside. Echoing Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount, Paul encouraged the church at Philippi with these words:

Finally, beloved, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is pleasing, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence and if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things. Keep on doing the things that you have learned and received and heard and seen in me, and the God of peace will be with you.

The problem is that they can sound like so many useless platitudes unless our understanding of them is grounded in faith. It was one of the hardest lessons for me to learn when I was a young man with a young family. In those days I taped a copy of Matthew 6:25-34 to the refrigerator door. I looked at it every morning before leaving and told God that I hoped it was true, but I could sure use a little concrete evidence. Now I have over forty years of concrete evidence, and frankly I’m amazed because at times I certainly did my best to get in God’s way, and my best was pretty good.

Health Care Hopes?

I’ve been in a conversation about health care over at Allan B. Bevere’s place. That, combined with driving today for a couple of hundred miles listening to a bit of this and that talk radio, has been an enlightening experience. There is genuine fear out there that America is spending itself into bankruptcy, and the most serious threat is anything the president has proposed about health care reform. There seems to be no recognition that our health care costs are the highest in the developed world at 17% of GDP, as opposed to a range of 8% to 11% for other nations. For that we get the least comprehensive coverage, an excessive waste factor due to high insurance company overhead, endless delays and bickering over what is and is not covered, and plenty of room for fraud.

Critics trot out an entire menagerie of horror stories about delays in treatment and surgery, sloppy medicine and bureaucratic bungling in nations with socialized health care, and all of them are true. Which is why we are not interested in having those kinds of systems. What they fail to mention is the over abundance of stories just like that and worse that populate our own health care system.

There is an absolute conviction that any federal government program is, by definition, wasteful, inefficient, bloated with bureaucracy, and detrimental to individual freedom. Is that true? As it turns out, at least according to several government and industry sources, private insurance company overhead in 2004 as a percent of all health insurance payments was about 14%. That’s compared to around 2%-5% for Medicare (You can look this stuff up for yourself on the web; it’s all easy to find.) I’m sure there is a lot of fudge factor in these numbers, and one has to be careful that apples and oranges are separated, but it’s hard to believe that a thorough audit could eliminate a nine-point spread.

Right now congress is debating how to craft a health care reform bill and pay for it, and it’s going to be rough. Paying for it is a budgetary issue that cannot take into account whether the nation as a whole can lower its total health care costs as a percent of GDP. It can be concerned only with the effect on the federal budget. Moreover, congress is loathe to do anything to curb insurance company excesses, and will probably end up with some addition to our current Rube Goldberg contraption providing second rate coverage for many of the uninsured without changing anything else. Conservatives will gloat that they stopped socialized medicine, but they will have done so at an enormous cost to human suffering and waste. If that’s the case I hope the president vetoes it and tells them to start over.

Goldman Sachs and the American Ethos

Much of the Christian Century Network blog conversation over the last year or so has been about the need for a new economic ethos in the United States, one that is based on honest productivity, fair compensation tied to real contributions, equitable distributions of compensation that mitigate against extreme differences between the very highly compensated and everyone else, and a national character that is not driven by unwarranted consumerism.

The recent news of a $3.44 billion second quarter for Goldman Sachs combined with their announced bonus pool of $11.36 billion is a troubling, but not unexpected, sign that things may not be headed as hoped for. There seems to be some mystery, and more than a little suspicion, about how they generated that $3.44 billion in earnings. Was it from the expansion of credit to small and medium size businesses? Or was it from some financial version of three card monte? And how does one generate over $11 billion in bonuses from $3 billion in earnings? Moreover, exactly who would be eligible for a share, and what did they do to earn it? In related news it has been reported that the banking industry is gearing up for a fight to kill the Consumer Financial Protection bill that would, among other things, make contracts for loans and credit cards simple and easy to read.

The point is that an industry’s corporate culture based on engineered duplicity and greed does not come easily to a conversion experience. They live and succeed in a world governed by greed, and however many of their colleagues go to jail for malfeasance simply culls the herd of competition and sharpens the taste buds of their avarice.

The easy thing to do would be to lay all the blame on Wall Street, but that would be unfair and self-deluding. Goldman Sachs and other investment bankers provide a necessary service that makes the ebb and flow of credit possible; the very ebb and flow of credit that allows main street shops to stay in business, new startups to borrow the capital they need, houses to be built an cars to be bought. There is nothing wrong with that. We need it. But couldn’t they do that with less greed driven compensation?

If we look a bit closer it becomes obvious that most of us play by the same rules that we condemn on Wall Street. We actually lust after the debt laden over consumption that we abhor when we are not a part of it. Economic recovery, to many, means getting back to building millions of oversized, overpriced houses, and inefficiently manufacturing cars in too many plants, selling them through too many dealerships, and plying us with ads encouraging inappropriate use of predatory consumer credit to keep it all going.

The virtues of a more ethical society that we so highly praise would mean more new kinds of jobs at less extravagant wage and salary levels producing a wider variety of products and services of more utilitarian value in smaller lots. Population shifts might result in a greater distribution of people into more modest cities located in more environmentally sustainable areas. These are not changes that we are likely to endorse in real life. They could mean the loss of jobs and products we are used to. Cities in unsustainable places such as L.A., Los Vegas, New Orleans and the like could become much smaller. Credit cards would be harder to get. Houses would be less expensive, probably smaller, and one would have to have a decent down payment to get in. A flatter corporate structure would mean less opportunity for income potential as a rising corporate bureaucrat. That might make teaching, family medicine, general farming and the like more attractive as long term careers. Who wants that?

The fact is that we are inclined to go along with a more authentic, transparent and equitable private enterprise based economy until we see that unique opportunity to slam dunk our neighbor and gain an unassailable competitive advantage. Then the old game is on again in a rampage of legal but morally questionable greed driven consumerism.

Maybe we are on a path that will not go in that direction. I hope so. But it will not be a comfortable path for some, and it may take a full generation to become comfortable with a new and better way of being American.

God and Chance

Chance is one of those words we use a lot without thinking much about its meaning. In general use it seems to mean unpredictability. A chance event is one that could not have been predicted. No doubt some statistician would be happy to predict a certain chance happening as a probability of once in so many thousands of events, which is an essentially useless prediction of any practical value.

English translations of the Bible use the word sparingly. The Philistines who had captured the ark of the Lord wondered if their tumors were simply a matter of chance, and not the Lord’s doing. The writer of Ecclesiastes suspected that a good deal of what happens to us in life is simply a matter of chance. The meeting between the Good Samaritan and the beaten man was by chance. During Paul’s final voyage, his ship set sail for Phoenix on the chance that they might make it before winter set in. There are certainly other references to unpredictability, particularly in moments of offering up prayer while wondering whether God might change his mind about this or that, but the English word chance is not used to describe them.

Still, it seems to me that one of the wonders of creation is the role of chance. High possibility with very low probability and no means of predictability leads in so many directions of creative potentiality, so many adventures in life, and so much opportunity for unlimited fecundity. It also reveals some small part of the enormous room for God to do what God wills to do in and amongst the ebb and flow of chance events.

But living in a world of chance is hard. It’s scary not knowing exactly what will happen to us and those we love. The news is quick to report public outrage when those in authority fail to predict the exact moment of high probability events. It always seems that someone must be to blame, and that if it wasn’t for them the whole mess could have been avoided. We are even quick to blame God for not being a good enough or caring enough God when things go wrong. We do our best to arrange things to our liking and try our best to surround ourselves with ordered predictability, and it can work for a while. In the blink of an eye it can all come tumbling down – and it does. Robert Burns famous poem about the accidental unearthing of a field mouse’s winter home ends with these familiar words (in standard English):

But Mouse, you are not alone,
 In proving foresight may be vain:

The best laid schemes of mice and men
 Go often askew,

And leaves us nothing but grief and pain, 
For promised joy!

Still you are blest, compared with me!

The present only touches you:

But oh! I backward cast my eye,
 On prospects dreary!

And forward, though I cannot see, 
I guess and fear!

Paul seemed to come to that place where he could take the chances of life in stride without complaint, and without blaming God for everything. To the contrary, he rejoiced that in all things God was his constant companion and the ultimate ruler of what was to be. What was unshakably certain to Paul was the absolute possibility and probability of his eternal life, but to say that it made his earthly life irrelevant would be a big mistake. What he came to learn was that, in following Christ, some part of living in the eternal kingdom of God could be his now, and the sheer delight and wonder of that could be shared with others who could also begin living into that kingdom. Unlike the closing lines of Burns’ poem, we need not look backward only in regret, nor forward only to guess and fear. In following Christ we are able to look backward at a life redeemed and forward with delight into a world of exciting chance with new adventure lying ahead, and also with the sure and certain faith that, whatever happens, we are already safely in God’s hands for all of eternity. It is that which gives us both the strength and courage to do what we can to bring the kingdom of God into this life, leaving it with a little higher probability that God’s goodness will be more defining in the lives of others, and a lower probability that evil and injustice will prevail.

The Bedtime Nooze

I started watching CNN news this evening. The first announcement was that the story of the week was the death and funeral of Michael Jackson. The G-8? Russia? Ghana? China? I switched to a program about underwater hockey at the University of BC (that’s British Columbia for some of you). More relevant.

Kingdoms? What Kingdoms?

I am going to be the guest celebrant and preacher this Sunday at a church about 70 miles from here, and I’m struggling with the text. The lectionary has given us Mark’s story of the beheading of John the Baptist. Just that and nothing more. But consider this, what precedes it is the calling and sending out of disciples two-by-two into the nearby villages to cast out demons and heal the sick. They don’t even get out the door when the narrative changes to the beheading story. It ungraciously interrupts a perfectly coherent flow that rejoices in the return of the disciples. So why do you suppose Mark, or some editor, dumped the beheading pericope right in the middle? Perhaps it just slipped out of his hands and plopped down there by accident? No? I don’t think so either.

Kingdom language is not as prevalent in Mark as it is in Matthew or Luke, but it’s not lacking and shortly before this episode Jesus had quite a bit to say about it. Sending his disciples out two-by-two was intended to manifest evidence of that kingdom in the lives of those on whom they would call. Before we can find out how it went we get the story of Herod beheading John. When that is concluded we learn about the wonderful things the disciples witnessed on their adventure. It’s really a tale of two kingdoms isn’t it?

Now here’s the real question. Which kingdom do we live in most of the time and often fiercely defend. Is it the one of power, riches, selfishly sensuous delights, rampant injustice, hubris, cowardice and death? Or is it the other one? If we are honest, I think we know which one, and it’s the one that keeps interrupting the story of God’s work. So here’s the follow up question. What would it mean to be more like the disciples sent out two-by-two to bring the power of God’s love into the lives of the people they met in the places they visited? I don’t think it’s anything like an LDS or Jehovah’s Witness door knock campaign. I’ve got some ideas, but what do you think it might be like?