What Were They Thinking?

Inattention is one of those fuzzy words that can mean just about anything from “What were you thinking?” to “Were you thinking at all?”  We had a couple of house fires in our community this last week (very rare for us) that may have been caused by momentary inattention.  I was thinking about that as I drove downtown.  In fact, I was thinking about it so much that I nearly drove through a red light and stopped at a green one.  Inattention. 
It seems to be something that happens to us when we are preoccupied by something that removes us from a full awareness of what is around us, what we are physically doing, and what the consequences of our doing it might be.  Perhaps you seldom, or even never, experience that sort of inattentive moment, but I think most people do.  
Teen agers seem to be more prone to an abundance of those moments that others, but we have learned to blame that on their underdeveloped brains.  Those of us of a more mature age can probably claim that our brains have need of a rest from a life of clear, sharp attentiveness.  That leaves those in the middle whom we can accuse of laziness, lack of discipline, selfishness and the like as suits our disposition and prejudices.  
I wonder what God thinks about that when he observes the inattentive way we treat our environment and each other.  What are they thinking?  Are they thinking at all?  Time and again we pray to God for the redress of issues that we ourselves have caused, with no apparent awareness of our personal culpability or any serious intention to behave differently.  Preoccupied with ourselves, our wants and needs and our stiff necked, closed minded world views, we are simply inattentive most of the time.  We are particularly inattentive to what God has to say about that.
I’ve come to the conclusion that rather than focusing on church dogma, environmental issues, tax policies, consumerism, abortion, homosexuality, immigration and the rest, it would be more productive to focus on a different list.  Paul has a good one to start with that some of us will hear this Sunday.  What would happen if we who say that we follow Christ actually put away anger, wrath, malice, slander and abusive language?  What if we just limited it to that and didn’t worry about all the other do and don’t lists in scripture?  I wonder how that would change us, everyone around us, and maybe even some of those big public policy issues?  Ha!  What am I thinking?  What would happen to my status as a curmudgeon?

Pork and Not Pork

I went on a rant yesterday about organization and reorganization.  I want to continue the theme today about excessive government pork projects.  This morning’s news had an article about the millions funneled into West Virginia by the late Senator Byrd with all best intentions.  His fondest hope was that these many projects would be the engines to lift the state out of its bottom of the heap economic condition.  They didn’t. 
It reminded me of several communities I worked with many years ago.  In one case a reasonably large city that had fallen on rustbelt hard times was represented by an influential member of congress who was able to direct many building projects into the city center and around the county.  They created some high paying but temporary construction jobs, and, when the dust finally settled, what they got were buildings and highways, but the economy was still in the tank.    
The attitude of the community leadership was that unless they got federal and state grants for big projects they were doomed to failure.  For them, the new highway or building was the future, a future that would somehow resurrect the greatness of years gone by.  It was a depressing scene well suited for Faulkner or Williams. 
Obviously I’m masking the city’s identity.  At least thirty years have passed and reports are that it has begun to prosper again in entirely new directions. A smaller but stable community, it has taken advantage of the projects bequeathed to it by adopting a new attitude.  Finally recognizing that their great days of yore are not coming back, they have envisioned a new future for themselves that honors the past without being burdened by it.  Healthcare, education and tourism have become important economic engines that are comfortably yoked with heavier industries that still have a place, albeit a mature and smaller place.  The millionaires of a century ago are gone.  The average family income is modest but solid.  It’s a good place to live and a good place to visit.   
The lesson, if there is one, is that there is nothing inherently bad or porkish about major federally funded building projects as such.  They become pork when they are built just for the sake of building something without a clear vision of how they will be employed for the long term well being of the economic base of the community before they get built.  Visions like that cannot be built on dreams of past glory or an unrealistic future of striking the mother lode.  They must be built on clear thinking that balances the pragmatism with imagination.  Sadly, it appears that did not happen in West Virginia, nor, I suspect, in many other places.  
And, lest my conservative friends in the rural district in which I live rush to jump on the usual harrumphing bandwagon, I have just two words to say: Farm Bill.

Bumbling in DC

As I read the Washington Post article on Top Secret America, I was reminded of how governments, large and small, tend to deal with bureaucratic issues by reorganizing.  It’s easy to poke fun at the federal government because it’s so large that it’s bumbling efforts at streamlining through reorganization take on a comedic dimension, or at least it would be if it didn’t cost so much.  
Legislators, desiring to show the folks back home that they are on the ball, offer all kinds of bills reorganizing this or that as if moving something around or changing its name would accomplish anything.  Their usual performance includes emotionally charged attacks on whatever form of organization currently exists followed by the promise of a salvific Eden under their proposed reorganization.  They mean well, for the most part, but legislatures are not very good managers, they are policy setters, and when they dictate management decisions masquerading as policy, they are usually wrong.  
I have some sympathy for them.  I have served as a commissioner of local government agencies in several communities.  Small though we may be, the fact is that we lay commissioners are limited in what we are able to know about the intricacies of the agencies for which we are expected to set policy.   Having also had some experience trying to influence decisions made in DC, I have an inkling about how hard it is to be one of 535 legislators trying to find a way to arrive at a majority vote on important matters about which only a few have any in depth understanding and the underlying strategy is to make the other party lose regardless of what might be best.
Senior managers in the executive branch don’t fare much better.  For one thing, they are both limited and directed by legislative authorizations.  For another, it is just so tempting to engage in empire building, which is most easily done by acquiring, hoarding and brokering information.  Finally, as I wrote to a friend the other day, I think DC is the most seductive place in America.  It is there that otherwise decent human beings are seduced by power: having it, getting close to it, influencing those who have it, and basking in its glow.  Adam, Eve, the serpent and the fruit of the forbidden tree are in the minor leagues compared to Washington. 
Lest we be misled to think that this is a modern problem, or even an American problem, I offer one of my favorite quotes;

We trained hard, but it seemed that every time we were beginning to form up into teams, we would be reorganized.  I was to learn that later in life we tend to meet any new situation by reorganizing, and a wonderful method it can be for creating the illusion of progress while producing confusion, inefficiency and demoralization.

Petronius Arbiter

66 A.D.

Boogeyman Frightens Big Business. Oh My!

Yesterday the U.S. Chamber announced its three part plan for encouraging job growth.  First, deregulate business (meaning stop financial industry reform legislation).  Second, continue the Bush tax cuts for the very wealthy that are scheduled to be eliminated soon.  Third, repeal health reform.  Their main complaint in the news snippets I heard and read had to do with the uncertainty that has been thrust into the market place because of these three things, and uncertainty, they claimed, is the boogeyman of investment that scares big business and inhibits the creation of new jobs.
Uncertainty about markets is, of course, the bedrock of private enterprise competitiveness.  In fact, uncertainty is the bedrock of any form of competition.  Consider, for instance, any ball game where rules establish the core structure and limits of the game but uncertainty about what the other team will do is what makes competition possible.  What is important is that the rules be known and understood.  When it comes to major reforms of the financial and health care industries, that will take a while, particularly since these industries have become expert at manipulating the existing set of arcane rules to their benefit with little regard for the welfare of the nation as a whole.  Now they have to work at figuring out how to do the same with a new set of rules that are not yet promulgated, only legislatively authorized in general terms.  It would be so much easier for them to just keep things the way they are.
What kind of uncertainty is bothering the Chamber’s big business clients the most?  They way I figure it, they are most uncertain about how and where to find the loopholes and opportunities for a quick killing in a newly regulated financial industry, a more competitive and efficient health care system, and a way for wealthier people to legally avoid paying taxes.  They do not want to change the way they do business, and they may not know how, so the trick is to figure out ways to weasel through new rules with as little change as possible.  What a pain!  Why not just leave well enough alone?
The U.S. Chamber is supposed to be an organization promoting the health of a strong private enterprise economy, with an emphasis on smaller businesses, local communities, and open, fair competition.  They can do better than mouthing the same old ‘no regulation is good regulation’ nonsense that only benefits would be monopolists and oligarchs.

Thoughts on Heritage

The high school from which my wife graduated 50 years ago is in a district of just one square mile, assuring that it will always be relatively small and tight knit.  The many who have lived their entire lives in or very nearby are deeply and intimately dedicated to the school and what it stands for in a way I have not ever experienced.  Consider that these people were together from kindergarten through grade 12 as one unified class.  Those who remained in the area have only deepened their loyalty to the heritage that is theirs through that school experience.  
Indeed, heritage is the word I heard over and over again during our few days in Oklahoma.  Oddly enough, it was never defined, just assumed.  Exactly what is the heritage of which they are so proud and to which they are so loyal?  It was never said.  The most common meaning of heritage has to do with cultural traditions and values, and I was fascinated that those traditions and values seemed to be assumed without the need to articulate them.  As a visitor, even an informed visitor, all I could do was guess as to what they might be.
If I ever get the chance to sit down for a good long visit (interrogation?) with a couple of their leaders, I’d like to find out what they think that heritage actually is.  It must be something important because they are certainly loyal to it.  My one guess is that, however defined, it might serve as something of a bulwark against the anxieties of uncertain times and undesired change.
Does any of that have to do with church?  It does in my mind.
It made me reflect on how we deal with heritage in the mainline Protestant church world.  Do we clergy, who are deeply loyal to the traditions and values of our denominations, ever try very hard to articulate what they are to the people who sit in the pews Sunday after Sunday?  I don’t think so.  Good people desiring a nurturing and nourishing worship experience wander from Presbyterian to Methodist to Episcopal to Lutheran to Baptist without ever recognizing the serious theological traditions and values that underly each of them. 
For example, when I arrived in the parish from which I retired, I discovered an erstwhile member trying as hard as she could to remake it into something more out of the holiness tradition.  I doubt if it ever occurred to her that being Episcopalian in the Anglican tradition was anything other than local custom.  Moreover, I doubt if she knew much about the holiness tradition either.  She just liked the style of worship and conservative theology that she saw in local congregations and read about in books from popular sources.
The point is that, regardless of denomination, most mainline Protestant clergy are lousy at articulating what it is that makes their particular tradition a unique part of the Body of Christ with unique gifts to offer.  If there ever was a time when the heritage of a denomination could be assumed because everyone who is a part of it has always been a part of it, it is long gone.
There is no such thing as generic Christianity.  The particularities of our denominations have real meaning.  They cannot be assumed.  They need to be well taught and well understood, not to further divide us, but for two other reasons:
First, so that members worshiping in a particular tradition more fully understand how that tradition leads them into deeper communion with God in Christ.
Second, so that we all may more richly benefit from what each has to offer to the whole.

Benevolent Marginality 1 & 2

The other day I wrote about being all but invisible on a visit with an elderly relative on a trip back to Oklahoma.  A good part of the long weekend was spent in high school reunion activities at which I was a spouse.  Reunion spouses are not invisible, but they do occupy a position that might be called benevolent marginality at two different levels, BM-1 and BM-2.  Many of my wife’s classmates still live in or near their small town, and their spouses, at benevolent marginality level 1, are well integrated into the social life and culture of the place so that, while not classmates, they are friendly with everyone else who is local and considered to be valued auxiliaries needed to make up the whole.  I, on the other hand, was a spouse from a distant and unknown land who had met and married this local girl in a large, strange and far away city.  That put me in benevolent marginality level 2.
Persons in BM-2 are welcomed but quickly ignored by all except those who are curious about what might have attracted their classmate to this reasonably well groomed and apparently decent alien.  Has he shown himself to be worthy of her?  Is he close enough to their standards of acceptability to be considered an appropriate mate?  Does he have any exotic tales to share?  Will he listen to and respect the tales we tell?  Do we want to make a place for him as an honorary BM-1 level spouse?  Fortunately, my wife has sufficient standing among her classmates, with enough cousins still living nearby, to ease the transition, and I was granted a 3 day pass with an option to renew on a future trip.  It might have helped that her brother and sister were also at hand.
I wonder if that is more or less the way that most congregations treat newcomers?  I know that every congregation is proud of how open and welcoming they are, but the truth is seen by how strangers and visitors are welcomed at the door, by those sitting nearby, at the Lord’s table, and at coffee hour.  And that truth is almost always benevolent marginality.  BM-1 may be accorded to those who look and act as much like the respected members of the congregation as is possible for a visitor, especially if they are accompanied by or related to someone.  BM-2 will be accorded to most others.  A third level, BM-3, will be accorded to those who look and act sufficiently like those we do not want to associate with and whom we hope will quickly leave.   I’ve been a visitor in enough congregations to be fairly certain that this is the norm, not the exception.  
There is, however, an exception, and I’ve experienced it only a few times because I find it excruciatingly unpleasant.  The exception is in congregations with greeters so well trained and organized that I feel like I’ve walked into a used car lot to be hustled by an over eager and hungry sales person.  
Good Lord, there has got to be a better way!  Which reminds me, I wonder what we might learn about greeting, welcoming and including others by the way Christ did it?  I wonder how hard it would be to welcome each person, known or not known, as if he or she was Christ?   Wouldn’t that be an interesting thing to try?

From Under The Cloak of Invisibility

Ever heard someone say, I sure would like to be a fly on the wall to hear that conversation? I’ve come close. I got to spend the better part of a day with my wife’s elderly step father. Although I’ve known him for almost thirty years, his framework for understanding the world and family relationships was well established before I came along, and there is very little room in it for me. So as the conversation flowed and ebbed, I observed as if under Harry Potter’s cloak of invisibility. I suspect that his world view is a more typical American view than many of us would expect.

Family, for him, are his close relatives, people he has known for sixty years or more, and those closest to my wife and her siblings in their early adult lives. All others are incidental adornments to be treated kindly but of no real consequence. The memories of the way it was are more real to him than anything in the present, and our visit was an opportunity to dive into them, bringing them onto the stage of life once more for an encore of tears and stories. There is nothing wrong with that, and much to be treasured, but it is a well defined and limited world that allows in little light from outside.

The rest of humanity has its place and function. In fact, those places and functions are also well defined. For him, every person is identified by their race, and every race is assumed to have certain behavioral characteristics that are well known to him. White people are further subdivided into sets according to their countries of origin, each with incontrovertible characteristics of their own. Brits, for example, are very nice, bright, and utterly inept at anything practical.

Surprisingly, none of that is expressed with the slightest indication of contempt or sense of superiority. It’s just the way things are in his world, and he assumes it’s the same for everyone. At the same time, it leads into a world of implied threat and fear. Certain races are known to be thieves. Those people are around him all the time, so the threat of being robbed is always present. Some races are known to cheat, and so the fear of being cheated is always near at hand. And never trust a mechanic who might be English or Mexican.

It’s a fascinating thing to be an all but invisible witness to the unfolding of his world, and to spend time reflecting on it. It’s not very much different from the world my mother lived in, nor, I suspect, from a world that is very common throughout the country. I think it is a very different world from my own, but is it?

Church as Sanctuary for the Insecure

I wonder when church becomes a sanctuary for the self righteousness of the insecure?
For some reason I have been reflecting on particular people I have encountered in church leadership positions ever since I was in junior high.  I just finished a Jack London short story called “The House of Pride.”  Maybe that’s what triggered it.  Anyway, among them were always a few for whom life in the congregation was an arena in which to display their superior religiosity, which often came in the form of greater faith than anyone else, more pious devotion to tradition and ritual than anyone else, more moral righteousness than anyone else, and,most of all, more assumption of the right to influence decisions than anyone else.  
It took time, but it finally dawned on me that they also were often more insecure than anyone else.  It’s hard to say exactly what that means, but, just from remembered observation, it seemed that they were uncomfortable in their own skins, uncertain of their place in secular society, and envious of those who appeared to be humbly self confident in a wider variety of situations and conditions.  Church was a place where they could achieve the illusion of superiority, and exert a greater degree of control over others.  I’ve often wondered what that might have to say about their family lives as well.
It reminds me of why I’m not very fond of the theology of an old hymn that reads in part, “Rock of ages, cleft for me.  Let me hide myself in thee.”  I do not believe that Christ, and by extension the church, is a place in which to hide, there to feel secure in one’s insecurity, rubbing it with religious salve that can make it very hard for others to find their own place of blessing.
Church is sanctuary, but it is sanctuary for the purpose of offering rest, restoration, healing and nourishment to be sent back out to do the work we have been given to do.  It is not supposed to be an emotional hidey-hole or a platform for the emotional abuse of others.
Healthy congregations require effective pastoral leadership that is aware of the presence of such persons, makes room for them as beloved of Christ, but does not give them room to act out to the detriment of others.

The Holistic God of Psalm 104

I wonder who wrote Psalm 104, and when?  Whoever and whenever, it is a radically revolutionary piece of theology, something of a poetic hand grenade tossed into the milieu of religious beliefs and myths that dominated the Mediterranean world.  
In that world, an endless array of divine agencies were held responsible each for a particular form of creation or condition in the environment.  Each nation and tribe had its own pantheon of gods with enough cross fertilization to create combinations and permutations to challenge any mathematician.  It’s an easy thing to assume that they simply invented these deities to explain mysteries that would someday become plain old boring scientific facts.  Maybe so, at least in part, but I also suspect, as with Otto, that all those myths were also tinged with an authentic sense of the divine.  
And that brings me to the radical poet of Psalm 104.  He, or perhaps she, in thirty-five brief stanzas, praised the God of Israel as the singular creator and sustainer of all creation, including the ebb and flow of environmental conditions.  The psalm reflects a holistic understanding of creation with appreciation for the place of every creature and every condition.  Even the dreaded sea monsters are made not to be feared but to be appreciated as evidence of God’s sense of humor and joyfulness.  The God of Psalm 104 is not capriciousness nor does he required propitiation.  What he has done he has done beneficently, and the appropriate response is simply praise and thanksgiving.  There is no longer any need or place for a pantheon of gods.  They are not only displaced, they are eliminated as having never existed. They were never more than shadows, vague indicators of the greater truth revealed by God through the people of Israel.
I imagine that the kind of thinking revealed in this psalm would have been seen as a great offense and real threat to nearby peoples, if they were aware of it at all.  I also imagine that more than a few Israelites had their doubts when they first heard it.  
What of our own day?  Fundamentalists of every stripe in every religion have a hard time with new and radical revelation.  They are easily offended and threatened, and react accordingly.  On the other hand, just because some idea is promoted as a new revelation doesn’t’ make it so.  It may not even be new.  Then there are those who are unwilling to consider the divine at all in any form.  As the second letter to Timothy says: “…The time is coming when people will not put up with sound doctrine, but having itching ears, they will accumulate for themselves teachers to suit their own desires…” (2Tim. 4:3)

Balaam as Spiritual Hero

Balaam, at least the Balaam that appears in Numbers, has become something of a spiritual hero for me.  Elsewhere in scripture Balaam is condemned as one who tried to curse Israel, but whose curse was turned by God into a blessing.  In Numbers, Balaam is portrayed as one of integrity.  Who he understood God to be is unclear.  Certainly it was not Jahweh.  What is clear is that he would accept no payment nor offer any prophecy except that which the Lord gave to him.  It must have been hard to stand before the king backed up by his army and say, not once but several times, Tough luck your majesty, but God has blessed these people and there is nothing you or I can do about it.
Balaam’s integrity as a holy person is worthy in and of itself, even if he did not know the God whom he faithfully served.  As a Christian I believe that God’s self revelation to humanity is progressively recorded in the words of Holy Scripture, and is most fully and truthfully revealed in Christ Jesus as we know him in the gospel records.  That does not stop me from considering that God may be speaking to and through persons of integrity who do not share my faith or understanding of who God is.  
Balaam’s courage to be faithful to God’s message is astounding.  Fail to do as the king orders and it’s off with your head.  Not many of us are likely to lose our heads, but how often has a major donor or influential member threatened to do some sort of damage if the pastor doesn’t toe the line?  One pastor, whom I know well, has lamented that he often felt constrained in his preaching for fear of offending powerful members of his congregation.  I imagine that is not all that unusual, and I regret those times when I also failed to be bold in proclaiming the Good News of God in Christ.
The Balaam of Numbers has much to teach us, but his mention in 2 Peter 2:16 (KJV) also has its uses.  A friend of mine used to mutter a portion of it under his breath during vestry meetings: Behold “…a dumb ass speaking with a man’s voice…”
So here’s to Balaam, and here’s to his ass.  May there be more such as they.