Is a funeral the time or place for a thundering sermon on the need for repentance? Is it the time or place to confront the alleged unbelievers who will be present with the reality of their mortality and God’s demand that they accept Jesus Christ as their personal savior or risk eternal punishment in hell? One member of a recently deceased parishioner’s family thought so as we sat around the table planning the funeral. A look of astonished disappointment crossed his face when I said that I would be preaching a message of God’s abounding and steadfast redeeming love, and that, in the midst of our tears, we would be celebrating resurrection life.
I found a similar theology at work a few nights ago at a community wide prayer meeting in the small rural town where I serve a congregation several times a month. There were fifty or so gathered from most of the nearby churches. Many prayers offered up pleaded with God to flood the valley with his Spirit to drive out the devil, who had so obviously taken over the lives of almost all the young people and many others as well. More prayers asked for strength as believers “stood in the gap” fighting against the onslaught of depravity in all its evil forms. There seemed to be little recognition that Christians might be the bearers of the light of Christ who, as members of the Body of Christ, might continue Christ’s work of forgiveness, healing and reconciliation.
I think I understand where this kind of theology comes from, and there is no question that it can be constructed from biblical sources. But it also seems to me to be a theology of fear rather than hope, a theology that cannot hear the angel’s message “fear not,” and is therefore armed to the teeth to do battle with the devil, constantly expecting the devil to win if anyone lets down their guard for even a second. One product of that kind of theology is the extension of fear driven, battle oriented thinking into other realms of life: family, politics, the work place, relationships of every kind. It can suck the joy of living right out of one’s soul, and sometimes it can generate physical danger for others.
I want an Apple iPad! I don’t need one. I can get along very well without one. But I want one just the same. It’s not a matter of conspicuous consumption. No, it’s entirely different. It’s just such a cool toy, and, at my advanced age, it resurrects the same feelings I had as a little boy paging through the toy section of the Sears catalogue to find the one special toy that lit up my imagination and fantasies. The iPad is that toy: an absolutely unnecessary gadget to be had for no other reason than the fun I can anticipate, in spite of the wisdom of age that reminds me that toys seldom deliver a full measure of anticipated fun. I want an Apple iPad. The big problem is, who can I go whine to until they either give in or send me to my room? I could talk to God about this, but I already know his answer. Maybe I could ask Joel Osteen.
I started observing how people exhibit awareness of their surroundings years ago during a midwinter consulting trip to Alabama where I was picked up at the airport by clients and driven into town. It was cold and rainy. The car was full. The driver was undeterred by the rain and saw no reason to use the wipers. It didn’t take long for the windows to fog over as well, but that didn’t bother him either. With near zero visibility, he sped down the road as if he had x-ray vision. I asked him about it. He was a bit surprised. He simply hadn’t noticed. That started my informal decades long study of environmental awareness, by which I mean awareness of the environment in one’s immediate vicinity.
I saw some of that yesterday. It was raining hard, but more than half of the cars coming from the other direction were not using wipers at all. The ditches are sometimes filled with cars of drivers who were unaware that the roads were icy, and multi-car accidents are caused by drivers unaware that they cannot see in the fog. But the roads are only one venue. Consider the loud cellphone users who are not rude people but simply unaware that they are intruding on the environment around them. The same goes for those having conversations in quiet places such as the theater or church. Speaking of church; good, friendly, hospitable folk express total surprise that someone new was there. They are simply unaware. My work means that I sometimes go into the homes of others at unexpected times where I encounter residents who are simply unaware that the floors are dirty, the garbage is spilling over, or the tub has needed cleaning for at least a year. We can be mindlessly unaware of the poverty in our own community, the abuse going on in the house next door, the hurt in a friend’s voice, the child’s cry for help, or someone’s desire to know more about God.
The examples seem endless, and I don’t think it has to be a matter of rudeness, ignorance or stupidity. It more often has to do with a simple lack of awareness of one’s surroundings. That lack of awareness is the preface to the age old question: What were they thinking!? Surprisingly enough, there is a theological point to all of this.
Being aware of your environment, of what is going on around you, is a part of what means to follow Christ. Jesus led a life of awareness. He was always and everywhere fully present to those around him and to the place where he was. It is part of what enabled him to bring the kingdom of God into the lives of others. We can do that also, at least some of the time. None of us can be fully aware all the time. but we can do a good deal better than we do. I have a reputation for being a bit absent minded, but it has more to do with where I left the keys or a book. Now and then, deep in thought about something, I’ve found myself walking a block past the place to which I was going. Eyesight and hearing can set limits on how much awareness is possible. So can cultural myopia and lack of education. We have our limitations and moments, but, as disciples of Jesus Christ, we can be, we must be, more intentional about being aware of what is going on around us, more aware of the nearness of the kingdom that is at hand, more aware that it is through us that the kingdom is made known to others.
How is it that the Dow can fall 400 points on such threatening news such as the president could get tough with banks? Are hundreds of thousands of investors like you and me calling our brokers demanding to sell, sell, sell because we are worried that the big banks might be reined in a bit? Of course not. But these big swings are not all that irrational. The really big money managers, the ones managing the trading for pension funds, mutual funds and large corporations know that any little bit of “bad news” is a perfect opportunity to do two things. Go short on some futures and then dump huge volumes of stock into the market. The first in can sweep the profits out from under everyone else. Then it’s a matter of deft timing to start buying back at bargain prices to start the cycle all over again. Other than the thrill of the game, what else do they get out of it? They get bonuses based on the money they made on the way down and the money they made on the way up, with a little pocket change thrown in from fees on each trade. In the meantime, what happens to your pension fund, 501k or IRA? Ah c’mon, get serious, who cares?
At the same time there are authentic trends at work that are influenced by real corporate profits, employment, weather, global economic conditions and the like. The problem for you and me is telling the difference, trying to stay focussed on the fundamentals, and investing our funds through people we can really trust. Who to turn to? Well not me, that’s for sure. Just because I write on this stuff now and then doesn’t mean I know what I’m talking abut. I offer my commentary with no more competency than Glen Beck (I can’t think of anyone with less competency than Beck. When it comes to blithering idiocy, he’s my idol). I have a couple of trustee responsibilities, which means that I have had to find the people I think I can trust. I feel comfortable with what I’ve done and hope you can feel that way too. Good luck.
Is it possible to be stunned but not surprised? I was stunned by the recent Supreme Court decision on corporate and union political expenditures, but not surprised. It was not surprising given the makeup of the majority on the court, but just the same I was stunned at the blatant immorality of it.
The Supreme Court has not always made good decisions. During its history it has made abominable decisions that undermined our most treasured constitutional rights. In time those decisions were corrected, but not before doing their damage. It’s one reason why overturning 60 year old laws and previous court decisions is not unheard of. But for the most part the court has overturned old laws and previous decisions in the direction of correcting egregious violations of civil liberties and human rights, and of providing greater protection for those at greatest risk of suffering abuse and injustice.
Those kinds of decisions have often irked some conservatives who have long railed against “activists judges.” In truth they love activist judges, just not judges predisposed to protect our civil rights and the most vulnerable among us. What they have wanted are judges predisposed to protect the interests of large corporations, the wealthy and others wielding power and authority that is held to the exclusion of lesser mortals. Now they have five of them on the Supreme Court and they love them. The ruling today that unleashes unlimited corporate and union political spending is morally bankrupt, shameful, reprehensible, and one more attack on the integrity of the political process (which has precious little integrity as it is).
Oddly enough, many of my conservative friends who are so delighted with the Republican Party as it exists today, and thrilled with the five conservative members of the Supreme Court, are the very ones most likely to be harmed by their policies and actions. They are retirees, small business owners, farmers and workers in large companies. They remind me of chickens inviting the coyote to protect them. With pleasure gleaming in their eyes they look forward to celebrating:
- Lower taxes on those many times wealthier than they as long as a pittance is dropped in their cups.
- A health care system ruled by corporate greed and misfeasance so that is has become the world’s most expensive, least efficient and overtly abusive to those in greatest need.
- Corporate (and union) control over political campaign advertising, and the elections that follow, for candidates bought and paid for who will enact anticompetitive policies benefitting corporations while limiting consumer protections.
- Erosion of civil liberties in the name of security.
- Economic policies advertised as conservative but leading to the same old recessions and depressions.
- Open season on rapacious use of land and resources.
- Promises of reduced deficit spending and national debt while implementing policies aggravating both.
It simply boggles my mind.
My friend is not a wealthy woman. In fact she has lived most of her life teetering on the edge of poverty. She’s been a social worker, owned a restaurant, tried to make a go in the antique business, and now serves as the Christian education director for a local church. Last year her hours, and income, were cut in half. When you cut a church salary in half there isn’t much left. However, she has been able to live at below market rent in a church owned house, and that helps.
What I find most interesting about her is her natural ability to attract a ragtag community of misfits for whom she provides a home. I don’t mean a place to live, although every bed in her house is always filled; I mean a place of warm welcome for those who are not warmly welcomed in polite company. Her household is a menagerie of characters that would stretch Damon Runyon’s imagination. Yesterday I visited one of them in a local nursing home where he is probably dying of esophageal cancer. A brilliant man whose depth of knowledge encompasses most of the ancient philosophers, a few of the more recent ones and a smattering of theology from a dozen religious traditions. He’s also struggled with drugs, mental illness and life just barely off the street. A little later I got a call about another one. He had just died after a difficult life of early promise, personal failure, drug abuse, prison, homelessness, rehab and kidney failure. In the last six years or so he reestablished his sobriety, hoped for a transplant and began to enjoy the beauty of God’s creation.
I got to thinking about where my friend’s human menagerie might fit in God’s household and was struck by two episodes in John’s gospel. One is Nicodemus’ nighttime visit with Jesus and the long conversation they shared. The other is Jesus’ midday visit to the well of Jacob and the long conversation he had with the Samaritan woman. In a metaphorical sense they establish boundary markers for God household. One end is anchored by the educated, wealthy and powerful elite. The other end is anchored by the most public sinner among those who are the most reviled. Both are included in God’s household. Neither would be welcome in the other’s household.
My friend’s is a household of cultural lepers. It is often noisy, chaotic and lacking in social graces. It’s also a beacon of God’s redeeming love. Thanks be to God.
I met today with a friend whose beloved died in a terrible accident. She’s a life long Christian of substantial faith and well indoctrinated with a particular way of understanding how God works in the world. She explained that she knows God has a plan for each of us, and it must have been in God’s plan for her beloved to die on that day, but why did God have to plan for it to be such a terrible death? The idea that God has a plan for each of us who claim the name of Jesus has a natural corollary: God’s plan for those who do not or will not claim the name of Jesus is that they are destined for hell. It’s a way of thinking that makes it natural for one to assume that God’s plan has been executed in Haiti, or in any other massive disaster.
That is not how my tradition understands the way of God’s planning, but I have heard it articulated without the slightest doubt by life long Episcopalians. Who knows where they picked it up, but they have it more firmly cemented in their minds than anything they ever learned in Confirmation, adult bible study or from the pulpit. I wondered with my friend if she would consider the possibility of chance conspiring in a sequence of unpredictable events that had little to do with any plan of God’s. That novel idea offered a glimmer of hope for her but also teetered on the edge of blasphemy. It seemed almost a temptation to doubt the omniscience of God, and that would be apostasy, the very sin from which there is no hope of redemption.
Where would anyone get that idea? Out of the bible of course. Consider the Letter to the Hebrews in the 6th chapter. The writer plainly states that “…it is impossible to restore again to repentance those who have once been enlightened, who have tasted the heavenly gift,…if they then commit apostasy.” It is impossible! Not even God can do it! Apostates are doomed and that’s all there is to it! I enjoy studying the Letter to the Hebrews and believe there is much wisdom to be mined out of it, but I am perfectly willing to argue with its writer and demand to know how on God’s green earth he can reconcile that view with the God’s faithfulness demonstrated over and over again in spite of Israel’s unfaithfulness or with the weight of the teachings of Christ as recorded in the gospels.
On the other hand, if one has been brought up to never question the bible in any way – to never, like Job, confront God with one’s own hard questions, then it is a truly frightening prospect to enter into any territory that might possibly come too near to apostasy. One’s eternal life is at stake. Given the propensity of certain people to yell out charges of apostasy at the drop of a hat (or the appearance of a homosexual), a fence of fear is easily constructed around Holy Scripture that prevents the full intimacy of communion with God that I think God desires. Oddly enough, it is that very scripture that is filled with stories of God’s people who dared to live into that intimacy, and whom we remember as heros of the faith.
Perhaps there is a conclusion to this brief essay, and maybe you could write it. I’m going to bed.
The Wit & Wisdom column in the January 22 issue of “The Week” magazine cited economist Howard Scott as having said: “A criminal is a person with predatory instincts who has not sufficient capital to form a corporation.”
OK, it’s a horrible exaggeration, but it’s also funny and certainly seems to fit the mold of the gang on the top floors of Wall Street these days.
I commend to your reading the 1995 book by Michel-Rolph Troullot, Haitian born professor at John Hopkins, titled “Silencing the Past: Power and the Production of History.” Among other things it provides a brief but well written account of the early history of Haiti, but more important, it explores how the academy in dominant cultures silences the past in the process of writing their own histories. No doubt every culture, whether dominant or not, practices silencing the past, but it is the academy in the dominant western cultures that has written the authoritative story of civilization. In view of all the Haitian commentary surfacing these days, it will be worth your time.