Thoughts While Waiting for the Plane

How many congregations are held hostage by the arrogant, the rude, the self centered and self righteous? It only takes a few, maybe one or two to pull it off. Pastors, staff and leadership obsessed with church growth, pledge dollars and keeping everyone happy can themselves become obsessed with the few who threaten to leave, call the bishop or cut their pledge. The irascible Paul did not seem to worry too much about that, even as he was trying to plant new congregations in hostile territory. “Am I to come to you with a stick, or with love in a spirit of gentleness?”, he writes to the church in Corinth as just one example of his willingness to set standards and enforce them.

Yet contemporary congregations are often subject to imprisonment by a few members who appear to have little recognition or care that their behavior dominates parish life to the point of distraction and destruction. One person wants a building improvement project not in any parish plan or budget, nor especially desired by others, but makes it an issue backed up with a threat to leave or reduce financial support if their wishes are not catered to. Another person, demands that the clergy adopt ways of worship and teaching more congenial to their personal understanding of the faith backed up with threats to leave or reduce financial support. Another doesn’t like the music, or Sunday School superintendent, or the way the church is cleaned, or the presence in the congregation of “that person, “ or any of a dozen other things, and each of them threatens to quit or reduce giving unless they are appeased.

It happens all the time and pastors, being the accommodating persons they tend to be, are likely to bend over backwards trying to make everybody happy, or at least not angry, in order to salvage members and meet budgets. Somehow that doesn’t seem right. What would happen if pastors had the gumption to say, “What you want is simply not going to happen, and here’s why. I don’t want you to leave and hope you will stay and even consider raising your pledge, but right now we cannot accommodate your special request.”?

I think you can do that without stifling grassroots creativity and initiative, nor interfere with the important job of providing pastoral care, the need for which may well be buried under a variety of inappropriate behaviors.

Escape to the Cave

We leave in less than a week for a couple of days in Rome and then a sampling of a few of the ancient sites in Greece, with special anticipation for the new museum near the Acropolis. Blog posts could be few over the next sseveral weeks. Maybe this is my escape to Elijah’s cave, the one where I hear the still small voice telling me to go back home and get to work. But what an escape. I’m eager to go.

Discerning God’s Voice

Russian icon of prophet Elijah. Илия пророк с ...Image via Wikipedia

I suspect that many who earnestly desire to hear God’s voice in answer to their prayers long for that still small voice that Elijah heard. Now and then it happens, but I’m inclined to believe much less often than claimed. If there is anything at all that is normal about God’s ways, it is that God’s voice is most often heard through the lips of another human being. But how is one to discern?

I thought about that this morning when reading from the Second book of Kings about the prophets Zedekiah and Micaiah. Each was known as a prophet. Zedekiah did a credible job of dancing around with horns on his head assuring King Ahab that victory in the upcoming battle would be his, all in the name of God. Micaiah was suspect from the start, a real party pooper of a prophet, and started out with some lame sarcasm before unleashing the word of God in very plain unadorned language. Which one was the truth teller? Ahab wasn’t sure so he hedged his bets by going into battle disguised as an ordinary charioteer.

The Zedekiahs and Micaiahs are out in force these days. The Internet, radio, television, editorial columns, sermons and religious gossips have a lot to say, all in strident voices and all in the sure and certain name of God Almighty. Is God present in some of it, any of it?

My own guess is that the more one stridently claims the authority of God in the words they utter, the less likely God has anything to do with them.

When I look back at the times I later came to recognize as moments of God’s presence in the words of another, they were all moments of quiet conversation with the other not even aware of how powerfully God spoke through them into my life. Some were pastors, some colleagues, some friends, and a few total strangers. In each case I was not immediately aware that God was speaking, but was aware of an enfolding and comforting love that drew me in toward goals that I could not see along paths that I did not know.

In today’s clamor of competing voices all around I can find a real kinship with the psalmist who wrote:

Psa. 55:4 My heart is in anguish within me,

the terrors of death have fallen upon me.

5 Fear and trembling come upon me,

and horror overwhelms me.

6 And I say, “O that I had wings like a dove!

I would fly away and be at rest;

7 truly, I would flee far away;

I would lodge in the wilderness;

8 I would hurry to find a shelter for myself

from the raging wind and tempest.”

But, perhaps like Elijah listening at the mouth of the cave to that still small voice, I would only hear the words, What are you doing here? Go back and do the work I have given you to do. Maybe discerning God’s presence in the words of another begins with ignoring the one dancing around with horns on his head spouting sure and certain proclamations that seem very unlike the words of God made flesh.

A Tea Party America?

For some reason I am on the e-mailing list for a number of local Tea Party groups around the country. The first thing that jumps out is that every local mailing is written by the same person with only minor editorial adjustments to make each appear local. I’ve even had some reasonably cordial e-mail correspondence with a few of the local leaders. So the second thing that jumps out is their genuine fear of Obama and everything they believe he stands for, the federal government in particular, government generally, and their love of some unarticulated vision of a free America. They are Libertarians in the extreme combined with some of the historical characteristics of the old English Ludites and later American No-Nothings. In the mix is a complete lack of recognition that the previous administration trampled all over the constitution with near total disregard, indeed with almost gleeful public affirmation of the unlimited and unchallengeable power of the presidency. So it isn’t that they fear a strong executive leader with unparalleled power, it’s that they fear a certain kind of national leadership, whether democratically representative or otherwise.

With that as a preface, I wonder what sort of America we might be if they were in control of the government they so dislike. Would representative democracy take on the form of the Long Parliament under Cromwell? One thing that’s obvious is that a great many people would be armed and self-authorized to uphold whatever standard of justice they deemed appropriate at the moment. That aside, what else would it look like? Libertarian philosophy certainly maintains a high place for defense, so we would probably have greatly beefed up armed forces and local police. Would there still be agencies to protect the food supply, certify medicines, finance highways, subsidize transportation systems, and the like? Would preferential tax treatment for the REA, TVA, and other power systems be eliminated? How about farm subsidies? Would the national parks still exist? Would Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid exist? What sort of tax structure would exist, who would pay them, and what would the distribution of income look like? What would happen to the constitution and two-hundred years of Supreme Court interpretations? What would happen to decades of civil rights and environmental laws now on the books?

I know they are rabidly anti-communist, but what pops into my mind is an image of a cold winter in 1919 Russia, or any one of the early Mel Gibson movies. More important, how has it come to pass that there are so many Americans so fearful of their own country and the world about them?

9-11 & 12-7

Sixty-eight years ago and eight years ago America was shocked out of complacency and into the horrors of global conflict. Those who died are remembered in sadness for the persons they were and could have become, but even more as symbols of inspiration to a new and greater good for all. It is right that we stop to remember and to pray. In our remembering let us bring to mind all that our constitution stands for. Let us remember that it is by rule of law that our freedoms are maintained even more than through force of arms. Let us pray for the wisdom and courage to live up to and into our highest ideals as a people, as a nation.

Holy but not Magic

Holy but not magic. I wonder how often these two words get used interchangeably? Many of the street people I used to work with in NYC had been through a variety of 28 day gospel mission sobering up sessions where they learned that if they really and truly accepted Jesus as their personal savior their addictions would be cured and life would become good. Becoming a believing Christian held out the promise of a magical cure. Maybe that’s not exactly what was taught, but that’s what was learned. It was learned well. The carrot of Christ was always just a few steps ahead of them, always promised but seldom reached. That’s a dramatic image, but I see the same way of thinking and believing acted out in the words of ordinary every day Christians who imbue faith, the right kind of faith, with what can only be understood as magical powers. It creates several big problem for Christian evangelism.

First, it makes it very difficult to share the faith with a skeptical public that has little time for that sort of naïve childishness. Second, mere magic robs our faith of its “numinous mysterium, tremendum, fascinans”, replacing that with something more akin to professor Albus Dumbledore. Third, it tears to shreds the idea of miracle.

It has been said that modern humanity has lost its sense of enchantment. Perhaps, but the popularity of enchantment based entertainment tells me that modern humanity is hungry for it as long as it is rooted in human(ish) design and control. Skeptics may express disdain for the naïve magical thinking of some Christians, but that’s only because they put it on a par with their own magical pretending, which their pretended rational skepticism knows to be mere entertainment.

Christianity is not about magic. it is about the holy. It is about the unknowable God being made known through God’s self-revelation in the words of prophets and the flesh of Jesus Christ. It is about the ground of all being in love so pure that it frightens mere mortals. It is about that love pouring out and dwelling with humanity and all creation in ways that entice, seduce, inspire, draw and guide. It is about holy mystery that cannot be solved but only lived into. It is a mystery that draws us through our own time and place into God’s eternal time and place.

Christianity is also about miracles, and that’s where things get sticky. Magic is about the human mastery of nature such that it can be manipulated with a word or gesture. Miracle is about God engaging in the lives of human beings in wholly unexpected ways that can, and sometimes do, violate what we think we know about the “laws of nature.” Unfortunately, there have been and continue to be some Christians who believe, and practices that declare, that God can be induced to produce a miracle through the right kind of faithful prayer or ritual. That’s magical thinking and it’s wrong. The power of God to enter into our lives in miraculous ways cannot be limited, nor can it be manipulated. It can be faithfully and hopefully requested but not induced. My own experience is that God most often works through subtle guidance and coincidence. Your experience may be different. In any case, keeping magic and miracle separated by a goodly distance is serious business.

As Christians we are about the holy not the magical.

Radical Hospitality

I got distracted yesterday. Sermons at rural Grace Church, where I serve a couple of times a month in my retirement, have become conversations. One can do that with a very small congregation. Our conversation about the Syrophoenician woman in Tyre and the deaf mute man in the Decapolis swerved around to the importance of doing good things for people less fortunate than us. That sort of doing is always important, but I think we missed the point. We can do good for others but fail to extend hospitality. We are particularly poor at extending the sort of radical hospitality to which I think these stories point.

Radical hospitality is what this is about. Mark’s narrative brackets Jesus’ Galilean ministry with the gentile territories of Tyre on the one hand and the Decapolis on the other. In each he extended the ministry of radical hospitality to those outside the comfort zone of Galilean Jews. The difficulty with which he responded to the Syrophoenician woman becomes for us an object lesson to guide us through the breakdown of our own prejudices. The comfort and ease with which he healed the Decapolis man is where we are headed. Each of them is outside of the allegorical comfort zone of Galilee, wherever our own Galilee might be.

As long as I’m stretching a point, I’ll go on to say that these healing stories are not so much about physical healing as they are about restoring wholeness of being at two levels: within the local context of one’s life, and between one’s self and God. Note that Jesus did not ask the woman or the man to follow him, become Jews, move to Galilee, or anything of the kind. Each was honored in the place where they were and made whole in the context of that place. We don’t know what the woman did, but it is said that the man went about enthusiastically exclaiming his new way of being in relationship to himself, his community and God.

From that point of view, radical hospitality honors the other without trying to make them over into something else, something more like you and me. Radical hospitality opens up the possibility of exploring new ways of being within the context of authenticity. That is to say, within the context of one’s community, ethnicity, history, family, etc. I think that is a huge step beyond merely doing good for someone less fortunate. It’s also a huge step beyond our usual sort of hospitality that opens our doors to others if they want to come into our space to become as one of us. In my case that means to become a North American rooted in northern European ways nurtured by various Pagan mythologies encased in the Anglican tradition of the Christian faith as expressed by the Episcopal Church.

OK, that’s enough rambling. The whole train of thought needs some reflection and development.

Finch Feeding and Hockey

We’ve been watching the fall finches for a couple of weeks. I don’t know where they go in mid-summer, but spring and fall brings them to our feeders by the dozens. They jostle each other for position and have no hesitation about knocking each other off the desired perch, or even body-checking in mid-air in order to keep each other from landing. The prescribed penalty box seems to be the top of the feeders where there are no seeds. They are intent, and our dogs wandering in and out of the house don’t appear to faze them much. I wonder if finch feeding is what gave Charles Schultz the idea for bird hockey games played on the frozen rink of the birdbath with Snoopy as the coach. As far as I can tell, the main difference between finch feeding and hockey is the lack of bench clearing fights. That and the lack of sticks, puck, scoring and referees, but those are minor points.

Well, that’s the end of that profound thought. Maybe I’m not getting enough oxygen.

The Untamed Tongue

The tongue. What an amazing thing it is. Consider what James has to say about it:

…[T]he tongue is a small member, yet it boasts of great exploits. How great a forest is set ablaze by a small fire! And the tongue is a fire. The tongue is placed among our members as a world of iniquity; it stains the whole body, sets on fire the cycle of nature, and is itself set on fire by hell. For every species of beast and bird, of reptile and sea creature, can be tamed and has been tamed by the human species, but no one can tame the tongue—a restless evil, full of deadly poison. With it we bless the Lord and Father, and with it we curse those who are made in the likeness of God. From the same mouth come blessing and cursing. My brothers and sisters, this ought not to be so. (James 3:5-10)

What has me reflecting on these words is the nightly television regurgitation of violent hate speech masquerading as a legitimate expression of public expression combined with commentators who seem to rejoice in manipulating information, or just make it up, for no purpose other than to tear down, humiliate and attack. My brothers and sisters, this ought not to be so, and it’s even worse when it’s done in the name of Jesus Christ.

I recognize that this is not something new. We’ve had this kind of hate speech from colonial days on. It has been a staple in every presidential campaign from the start. What makes it different today is the saturation level. Everything is instantaneously transmitted to everyone and then repeated ad nauseum with inane “analysis” added to the mix. There is almost no time to stop, reflect, study and discern.

I would like to think that this is a “them” problem. You know; “it’s all their fault,” “they should stop,” etc. It’s not. It often starts at a very low level, right in our congregations, by professing Christians. I confess that, as an ordained minister but practicing curmudgeon, I sometimes find myself among the crowd of “they.” A bit of barbed wit with a sharp turn of phrase is just the thing to put someone at a disadvantage or tweak them into an injudicious response while assuming the role of smug innocence. Gossip and rumors rule the ebb and flow of congregational information byways causing untold hurt and damage along the way. Hoards of denominational wannabe leaders make it their business to “be in the know” about everyone and everything while offering their opinions about all of it. James was right. We can tame just about anything but our tongues, and the fires we can set with them can be huge, dangerous and murderous. God have mercy on us.

Consider then with me the words of the letter to the Ephesians. I’m going to see if I can make it through 24 hours, which will be easier if I can stay away from the health care issue.

Eph. 4:29 Let no evil talk come out of your mouths, but only what is useful for building up, as there is need, so that your words may give grace to those who hear. talk come out of your mouths, but only what is useful for building up, as there is need, so that your words may give grace to those who hear.

Intercessory Prayer – Real or Imaginary?

A few nights ago a television commentator had some things to say about intercessory prayer. What got him started was a report of a minister who proudly claimed to pray each day for President Obama’s demise in some horrible way, and he was certain that God would oblige. The commentator was not amused and went on to express doubt in any kind of intercessory prayer for any purpose to a God who may or may not exist.

Well, I can’t help him with his doubts about God. He’ll have to struggle with that on his own. But he did get me thinking about what intercessory prayer actually is and whether it has any efficacy. Oddly enough, a good place to start is to leave God out of the equation altogether. Any reader of English from anytime prior to say the mid 19th century will discover a lot of praying going on between ordinary people. It was common for an inferior to pray to a superior for some particular boon. Equals might pray to each other for favors to be granted outright or perhaps traded. To pray, in that sense, meant to ask something of another. Today we don’t use the word pray in that sense, and we are not as sensitive to the rules of class distinction, but we still do it.

My neighbor went on vacation this summer and asked if I would keep a key to his house as well as an eye on it. His assumption was that out of our neighborliness and mutual trust I would agree. Another neighbor has a key to our house, and I’ve often asked him to look in on things during our winter absences. These are neighbors trusting one another with all that they have and assuming that each will do good for the other. It is very much a form of intercessory prayer. How many more examples might there be? When a sick friend asks you to go to the store or help around the house, is that not an intercessory prayer? A child asking for homework help? A panhandler asking for a dollar? Parents who ask teachers to look after their children, or worried spouses asking physicians to look after their loved ones? A co-worker asking for assistance? Someone asking for love, friendship or just a listening ear? How many more can you think of? They are all forms of intercessory prayer by one human being to another.

That kind of prayer has some essential predicates. The one who offers the prayer and the one who receives it must have some knowledge of each other. There must be a certain level of trust between them. The one answering the prayer must have both the ability and willingness to do so. There must also be some ethical or moral standard by which the prayer and the rightness of a response can be measured. The recent market debacles and all the local scams that cheat people out of their money reveal our ability to be too easily deceived, more than a bit gullible, and often motivated by barely disguised greed. But with that said, a stranger asking from us a favor of great value will no doubt be turned down. Even a friend asking for something we deem hurtful, illegal or immoral may be rejected. Other friends asking for one thing may be answered by our gift of something altogether different based on our judgment about what they really need, want or would be good for them. It’s an imperfect system but it’s in use all the time. It’s simply a part of our daily lives.

Why then is it so hard to apprehend intercessory prayers offered up to God? Our shared faith proclaims that no one knows us better than God; to God all hearts are open and from him no secrets are hid. If God’s love for humanity is so great that he would be manifested in the flesh of Jesus Christ, why would we doubt that God’s presence with us does not continue at that very intimate level? Do the same predicates apply? In a sense I think they do, except that God already knows each one of us and desires for us all that is good. The question is, do we know God, or, at least, are we open to the possibility of knowing Go? Maybe that’s all it takes. I think there also needs to be some level of trust that no matter how clumsily we may offer up our prayers, the one who loves us most will receive them. A big problem for us is that God’s ability and willingness to answer our prayers as we have offered them is not beholden to our limitations. And finally there is the moral question: the morality or immorality of our prayers will not be hidden from God, and whatever God’s response, it will never be immoral.

All of that is good as far as it goes, but it opens up a tangled thicket of confusion and conflict about issues of theodicy. Not when, but why do bad things happen to good people? What is the source of evil and how come God doesn’t do anything about it? Why do the wicked prosper and the innocent suffer? All legitimate questions and all probed in depth by the psalmists, so we know that they are the eternal questions and not just our own.

One response to that is to tell God to take a hike. We don’t need him. He’s notoriously unreliable. We can attend to these matters ourselves because we don’t really trust God to do the right thing, and we already know what the right thing is anyway. It’s a common response. It provides some short term ego satisfaction. And it almost always turns out bad in the end.

On the other hand, we Christians are called to a life of formation in the Christian faith that requires the courage to walk into that thicket willing to be taught and learn in ways that are not always satisfying but are always holy. They are ways that lead us, bit by bit, to participation with God as agents of his answers to intercessory prayer bringing real presence to the prayer attributed to St. Francis.

Lord, make me an instrument of your peace.

Where there is hatred, let me sow love;

where there is injury,pardon;

where there is doubt, faith;

where there is despair, hope;

where there is darkness, light;

and where there is sadness, joy.

O Divine Master, grant that I may not so much seek

to be consoled as to console;

to be understood as to understand;

to be loved as to love.

For it is in giving that we receive;

it is in pardoning that we are pardoned;

and it is in dying that we are born to eternal life. Amen