The Sinful Heresy of Imagination

Imagination seems to be a heretical word for some Christians.  If something is imaginary it is made up, not real, untrue.  In a recent discussion about some stories from the bible I used the phrase “in my imagination” to explore what some of the characters might have been thinking or felt.  I imagined, for instance, that Matthew’s readers would have understood his apocalyptic renderings better than we because they had experienced the destruction of Jerusalem.  I imagined what was going through the mind of the woman who touched the hem of Jesus robe in search of healing.  I wondered if we might try to imagine what was going in the minds of those left treading water as Noah floated off. 
Those imaginings were not well received by some.  To introduce the imaginary into bible study is to pollute the pure, obvious, literal and holy meaning of the words that God has given us with that which is nothing more than made up fiction.  Oh how sinful!  Asserted one participant, he did not imagine but knew what some of the people in the bible thought and felt because the Holy Spirit had spoken to him about it.  He reminded me of a former parishioner.  Most every conversation began with her saying that “it has been given to me to tell you…”  Neither of them could be accused of any guile.  A little gullibility on one hand and avoidance of responsibility on the other, but not guile.
The episode reminded me of a conversation I had with my mother many years ago when she was appalled at my use of the word story to refer to anything from the bible since to her a story was a fairy tale, but I digress.
It seems to me that it is only through imagination that we are able to wallow in scripture, probe its depths and discover the new ways in which God may be speaking to us through its words.  But, I imagine, that can be a fearful thing to many.  It is a fearful thing to fall into the hands of the living God whose Word is living, active and sharper than any two-edged sword.
A well rehearsed static religion is safer than one that is dynamic, moving and often unpredictable.  For one thing, having settled on it, one is sure to avoid being misled by false prophets and phony messiahs, unless, of course, they are the ones who have defined the terms and conditions of the well rehearsed static religion.  If some interpretation is needed, as it always is, it’s safer to ascribe it to the infallible work of the Holy Spirit than to take responsibility for one’s own fallible thinking.  Finally, it relieves one of the burden of wrestling with scripture as Jacob wrestled with the angel.  
For my part, our ability to imagine is a part of what it is to be created in the image of God.  We cannot, as God can, imagine a universe and speak it into being, but we can imagine, and from our imagination bring much into being.  Consider art, literature, developments in science and technology, and, most of all, our ability to imagine new ways of understanding God’s Holy Word. 

News of the Past

Like many small communities, Waitsburg, Washington has a weekly newspaper that is widely read and relied upon.  And, like most small town weeklies, it has a column devoted to news of the past.  Below are two brief items from 1885 that speak for themselves.

The trial of James Close for the killing of two Indians held the attention of the court all day Saturday and was given to the jury until 6 o’clock in the evening.  After a number of ballots, the jury returned a verdict of guilty of assault and battery.  Among thinking people the verdict is a strange one as it makes killing an Indian a misdemeanor and not a crime. 

Last Monday morning the lifeless body of J.A. Keats was discovered hanging to an improvised gallows – two rails and a cross bar – the road side between Pendleton and Adams, Oregon, the work of questionable vigilantes.

Sadly, I imagine that one might find similar news from the past, and not so distant past, in most of the communities where each of us lives.  It makes me wonder what inspires so many people to put so much faith in the moral superiority of “the good old days.”

It’s That Day Again

Thanksgiving has always been a puzzling holiday for me.  Feasts of thanksgiving to God, or gods, have been a part of human history for a very long time.  Our American Thanksgiving has it’s origins in an improbable myth of happy Pilgrims and happy Indians joyfully gathered at a feast that is reenacted each fall at elementary schools all across the country.   
I suppose that one could offer a psychological explanation of our fascination with the day and it’s story as a mild form of admission that this happy, peaceful melding of European and native cultures is the way it was supposed to have been, and by remembering it the way we do, we hope to, perhaps, change the way it really was, or, at least, disremember the way it really turned out.  On a more optimistic note, it could even be a way for us to remind ourselves of how we might begin living into the future.  
For my part, I am grateful that this most secular of all holidays is the one holiday that has not yet become a commercialized free-for-all.  It still remains a day for gathering, whether at home, the local rescue mission or some other place, to eat, visit, tell stories and remember that for which we give grateful thanks. The Macy’s parade and a football game have become permanent markers of the day, taking their places right along with turkeys and pies.  It may the be kickoff to Black Friday when the mythical gentle merging of cultures becomes the reality of shoving hostilities at big box stores, but that can wait.  For the moment, at least, we can pause and be thankful.  As we prepare to joyfully welcome family into our home, I am also grateful for the years that we had a Thanksgiving feast at church.  People came because they really wanted to be there, really enjoyed each other’s company, and really filled the place with great food.  There was something very special about Thanksgiving as community.  
May each of you be blessed this Thanksgiving Day, and may each of us give thanks to God our Father for all his gifts so freely bestowed upon us.

Judgment, Second Comings and End Times. Bah!

I could start by saying that Advent is an odd season of conflicting lessons: part hope, part despair, part mercy, part judgment, part delight, part fear.  Moreover, it’s plopped right down on top of the secular Christmas dominated by shopping, Santa, schmaltzy television, and the myth of cheer filled parties with which most of us have little personal experience.  I could start that way, but why?  Those of us who observe the season through liturgy and the lectionary know all of that.  Many of my more Evangelical clergy friends have long since synced the themes of their services with the timing of appropriate television holiday reruns.  Advent, to them, is a time for decorating the church and breaking out the Christmas carols.  We even have a popular local production of “The Gospel According to Scrooge” that shamelessly rewrites the Dickens classic. 
What I really want to write about revolves around judgment, the second coming, and end times.  
The gospel record makes it clear that, while Jesus was capable of, and had the authority, to forgive all of them for what they were doing even as he hung on the cross, judgment of some kind yet lies ahead for each of us.  That has to be a terrifying thought.  Can I really and truly rely on his promises once my life has been exposed to close examination in every detail?  Will he say, “Well Steven your name was penciled into the Book of Life, but I also have a very big eraser, and the audit of your record is not looking too good.”?  Maybe this is where a true leap of faith is required.  Will his promise of mercy trump judgment?  What if there was not enough water in my baptism?  What if I failed to use the right words in my profession of faith?  What if my many confessions and attempts at repentance were insufficient?  What if I went to the wrong church or none at all?  Good grief, I can remember the sense of guilt I felt when called to the principal’s office even when I hadn’t done anything about which to feel guilty.  When you get right down to it, one of the big questions of Advent is how willing are we to trust God to be the God revealed in the manger and on the cross?
Which brings me to the second coming.  There are elements in each of the gospels and several of the Pauline letters, as well as the entire book of Revelation, that vividly portray a triumphant second coming in power and glory to vanquish all God’s enemies, and, because we are God’s children, all of our enemies too.  You cannot work your way around that.  What troubles me about that is how similar that vision is to the messianic expectations of the Jews of Jesus’ day.  It’s almost like saying that when Jesus comes back he’ll get it right this time and finish the job the way he was supposed to.  I wonder.  If “It is finished” is what Jesus said from the cross, then it is finished.  As I read it, what happened on the cross and at the open grave is the completion of all that had to happen.  Indeed, as I read the Revelation to John I keep coming across passages declaring completion, not of some act yet to come but of all that has already happened.   I’m not sure what the writers were up to, but this I know.  Too many have been misled too often by false prophets scaring the daylights out of gullible people about the imminence of that day.  What we need to do is keep our eyes on Jesus and follow where he has led without concern for any of that.  
And that means that I’m not waiting around or preparing for his second coming.  Nor am I overly concerned about end times.  My end, at least in earthly terms, will arrive soon enough.  The time I now live in will be ended, which also means that his second coming will have occurred.  What will happen to me when I die?  Perhaps my soul will rest in cold storage until the general resurrection.  Perhaps I’ll be welcomed into Abraham’s bosom until I am ready for my new and glorious body.  Perhaps it will all happen at once.  I’m not sure it makes much difference, or that I will care.  However, if they sing Amazing Grace at my funeral, I will come back and haunt them.  It’s an amazing hymn but it gets old after so many repetitions.
So what am I to do as I wait for my judgment, my end times, the second coming of my Christ in which I go to him this time?  I guess I’ll get on with learning more about what it means to be a follower of Jesus, a Christian, a proclaimer of the Good News, and see what I can do about improving on a very spotty record.  Advent is a good time to reflect on that.  Any advice is most welcome.

The Flicker’s Revenge

The FLICKER is back.  This time with a double attack, one on the north side of the house and the other on the south.  It made significant progress in drilling holes while we were gone.  This is war!  I am now armed with a soft-pellet BB gun pistol.  I don’t want to kill it.  I don’t even want to hurt it.  I just want to harass it enough to make it leave.  I don’t know how it knows, but it does.  It used to sit up there mocking me as I tossed pebbles at it from too far away.  The moment I got home from K Mart, it changed tactics from long term siege to hit and run raids.  
Larsen, I keep yelling at it, Larsen.  Larsen’s house is freshly painted, a tasty newly decorated Flicker treat.  Go next door and eat their house.  They’re gone most the time anyway and probably wont notice.  No, it just sits in Larsen’s tree making noises at me, waiting for me to go back inside.
Lord, when I pray each morning to save us from the time of trial, I am talking about that damn flicker.  I’ll bet that when Paul complained about the thorn that kept him humble there was a flicker involved.  When Luther unleashed the ink pot at the wall, there was a flicker involved.   When the rebels fired on Ft. Sumpter they were aiming at a flicker.  The crash of the housing market is due to flicker damage.  OK, enough of this.  I need to go do a little target practice.

Religion – The Enemy of Spirituality

Spiritual but not religious.  Good Grief!  Not that again.  How often do we have to go over that ground?
An ongoing locker room conversation led to an hour or two over coffee.  If you are spiritual but not religious, I asked, what is religion?  He had a quick, definitive answer.  Religion is to be forced into a community where you are told what to think and believe, and be threatened with eternal damnation if you don’t.  This was religion as he knew it from his youth, and it seemed unlikely to him that there could be any other kind.  Moreover, the religion of his younger life asserted that one’s personal relationship with God through Jesus Christ was all that mattered, it was an individual thing, and if that’s the case, what good is religion or the weekly gathering of so-called believers whose claims to be Christian are highly suspect based on their daily behavior?
What if religion is something different from that, I asked?  We explored what, for him, was a brand new idea.  That religion, the Christian religion, is made up of the rituals and traditions that serve as conduits through which we enter into a more profound communion with God.  That no one set of traditions and rituals serves all people well, and some people not at all.  That however important our individual relationship with God through Christ might be, we cannot lose sight of the fact that Jesus was all about restoring, healing and calling people into community.  There is something essential about being spiritual that can only be found in community with others.  
Consider that our whole conversation was an act of community in community: a lapsed fundamentalist talking with an Episcopal priest in a coffee shop owned and staffed by Greek Orthodox.  It was church, but only for a moment, and it depended on there being other churches, organized, in buildings, centers of regular worship, places from which the Word is sent out into the world.  
I wonder where our hour or so will lead.  Maybe another conversation some day.  My desire is for doors to be opened through which he can encounter the love of God in Christ who commands faith, but faith not chained by fundamentalist dogma, rather a faith in which he is invited in to conversation and community with God Almighty.  He may never join a religion, but perhaps he will make enough peace with it so that religion is, for him, no longer the enemy of spirituality.

Technology, Isaiah and the Kingdom

Today I heard a sermon on the durability of hope embedded in Isaiah’s image of the peaceful kingdom that stands against the transient coming and passing of technological change.   The message was illustrated by a couple of YouTube “Did You Know” videos about the accelerating speed of technological change.  While the intent of the sermon was to anchor us in the greater reality God’s salvation promises, the immediate effect was to discomfit some part of the congregation who already feel left behind by obsolete computers, the Internet, social networking, and a society that makes little sense to them.  If, as the video claimed, that what we are teaching in our best schools is obsolete before the kids even graduate, how can anyone ever hope to keep up with the knowledge needed to succeed?  
The answer is that keeping up with operational knowledge of the latest in technology is not the most important thing to teach.  In fact it’s impossible.  Moreover, technological change is only one aspect of change in contemporary life.  Social, economic and political change is fast, accelerating and global.  Coping with that requires a different kind of teaching, and modern day Luddites digging in their heels to slow things down, or turn them back, may gain a little public traction for a while, but are doomed to failure in the end. 
More important is to ground students in the discipline of life long learning; in the art of using creative reason to engage the unknown and unpredictable; and in the wisdom bequeathed to us from generations past.  The ability to quickly accommodate one’s self to rapid changes is a worthy skill, even a necessary skill.  But without a sense of direction and intentionality, one becomes not much more than a human pin ball being banged around by the direction and intentions of others.  Some marketers depend on that, but that’s for another time.  
I made the point in a recent post that too many, maybe most, adult Christians operate from a faith based on no more than an inadequate fifth or sixth grade Sunday School curriculum.  If what I think about the need for life long learning in the secular world is true, it is even more important in the world of the Church.  It’s more important because the kingdom is more important than what is happening with technology, society, economics and politics.  While everything else has only transient existence, the kingdom Isaiah envisioned twenty-five hundred years ago, the kingdom Jesus said was at hand two thousand years ago, is the same kingdom that is at hand today and will be tomorrow.  How can we know that if we become intent on keeping up with technology but are complacent about living with a juvenile faith?  How can we know that if we teach our children how to be life long learners about everything except God?  The three legged stool of Scripture,Tradition and Reason is more than a decorative Reformation artifact.  It is the key to a mature Christian Faith.

Have a Heart

I took a class today to get recertified in CPR.  It’s something I have a tendency to let lapse for a year or two before finally getting to it.  It’s amazing how the protocol has changed over the years.  I was first certified at 16 as a part of lifeguard training.  Not long after I had to use that skill twice with the old back press arm lift method.  As it turned out, both victims lived.  As the years passed I had to do CPR once more, this time using chest compressions and mouth-to-mouth breathing.  That victim died.  It was a long time ago and I hope never to do it again, but the training is vital to being prepared. 
Not only have CPR protocols changed, so has the equipment now available to those providing first aid.  Your local Red Cross and most medical supply stores sell small collapsible face masks to aid in rescue breathing.  At the same time there is now a much higher reliance on chest compression done rapidly for a long time than on rescue breathing.  Automatic External Defibrillators (AEDs) analyze heart rhythm and instruct first aiders on when a shock is needed.  Cell phones summon help from almost any location.  Most communities are now served by paramedics who bring advanced life support services to the scene, or well trained EMTs who provide the best in basic life support.  What a difference from the converted hearse with driver and marginally trained attendant that were the standards of my youth. 
It seems to me that clergy especially ought to be able to perform CPR.  After all, we encounter people at their worst and most vulnerable moments when they are under the greatest amount of stress.  The parish from which I retired also has two AED units, one near the usher’s table and the other in the sacristy.  May they never be used, but should the need arise, there are enough trained parishioners and staff to use them.  
Here endeth the lesson.

Talking Trinity on More than One Sunday a Year

Miroslav Volf wrote a masterful piece in the November 2nd issue of The Christian Century  how Christians understand the Trinitarian God as One and God as Love as opposed to the ordinary ways in which the Muslim world thinks that Christians believe.  I even sent a copy of it to my nephew who has wondered about these things.  Yet, as masterful as Volf was, I wonder if he might need to spend more time explaining that to Christians than to Muslims.  More particularly, perhaps he needs to spend more time teaching pastors about it.  Oh wait, he’s already spent a lifetime doing that. Right, well, moving on.
Consider the Apostles’ Creed.  It is a straightforward, literal statement of faith, and then it suddenly veers into metaphor by saying that Jesus is seated at the right hand of the Father.  There it is in plain language, two separate and independent beings, one of whom is next to, inferior to and not the same as the other.  Oh, we say, but that’s a metaphor.  OK, so why not take everything else in the creed as metaphor?  Who gets to say that this phrase is metaphor and the others aren’t? 
The problems gets played out in another way through the common language of Christian godtalk.  Some churches, and many average Christians, are stuck on the word Jesus.  God, as Father, is little more than a space holder used (along with the well worn ‘just’) between every fourth or fifth word of a prayer.  Occasionally someone will go through spasms of Holy Spirit language.  That usually happens as part of an argument about how their baptism is more authentic than yours, or that the brilliant idea they want you to adopt is a gift directly from the Spirit. 
I’m not sure there is an easy way around this.  It is not easy to apprehend the concept of God as One yet known to us as Father, Son and Holy Spirit.  It is impossible to comprehend it.   It is comforting to know God as both transcendent and intimate, but, as for me, I have to choose one or the other.  I cannot hold them together in the same moment. 
We need to be more disciplined about teaching those under our care about the importance of the Trinity, giving them ways to more comfortably use Trinity language in ordinary conversation.  As it is, we generally devote to that just one Sunday a year, Trinity Sunday, a Sunday conveniently located near Memorial Day, and, if we are lucky, sloughed off onto a seminarian.  A sin to which I can only plead mea culpa.

Half Baked Thoughts on Community at Sea and in Church

I recently wrote about the temporary community that rapidly developed among the 1300 passengers on our month long cruise in the Pacific, and said I would have more on that later.  Welcome to later. 
What surprised me was the ease and speed of community formation.  Some were organized by ship’s staff around shared interests such as bridge, trivia and exercise.  Others were spontaneous but developed in venues, such as the pool and theme oriented bars, designed for that to happen.
In a sense there were three distinct community groups on board.  First was the permanent crew of the navigation, deck, engineering and hotel departments.  They are Holland America employees, most having, or intending to have, long careers with the company.  Second was the temporary crew of entertainers and spa and gym staff.  Their time aboard is comparatively short and they are not likely to make a career out of serving on cruise ships.  Third was the boatload of passengers who, on a cruise as long as this one, quickly formed their own distinct community.  What I want to discuss is the passenger community.
Most people have asked us about the average age of the passengers.  Considering that it was a month long voyage on a somewhat smaller ship that prides itself on a certain subdued dignity, the passengers were almost all retired with equal distributions of passive, active, physically fit, less physically fit, and females outnumbering males by some small amount.  They were almost all white.  More were from western North America, but there was a large contingent of east coasters and a few midwesterners.  Some people were on their trip of a lifetime.  Some claimed to have been on 20 or more cruises.  Others were frequent world travelers, but not regulars on cruises.   My unverified guess is that the average age was about 75.
Cabin class was not a significant factor in community formation or recognition of status.  With one exception all public spaces and services are equally available to all regardless of cabin class.  Unless you are rude enough to ask, how much someone paid or what class of cabin they occupied was irrelevant.  A deck devoted to the largest staterooms with a private lounge and concierge had no bearing on anything else going on, and it was accessible to anyone who wanted to wander through.  There was one other anomaly.  One group of passengers were members of a travel group that buys up unsold cabin space at the last minute for “cut rate” prices.  They spent the first week together with a certain celebratory smugness about how clever they were to get such a deal.   Some people opted for evening dining at one of two fixed seatings, which meant that they spent each night dining with the same people.  Others preferred to take their chances with open seating.  That was our choice, which meant that we got to meet many others at random tables of four, six or even eight.
Like any community, passengers tended to congregate in something like affinity groups, some of which were organized and quickly came into being.  The bridge players were undoubtedly the first to find each other and form bonds that extended throughout the day and voyage.  Other instantaneous groups such as Friends of Bill W, daily worship services, bingo enthusiasts, trivia nuts, etc., enabled people to meet each other and possibly develop friendships that could extend to other parts of the day or trip.  
In a more organic way, groups tended to form around those who spent much of their day around the pool, in the hot tubs, on the aft deck, or gathering in one of the bars for drinks, music or dancing.  I imagine that each of these venues was designed not only for certain activities but also to creation the conditions in which spontaneous communities might come into being.   Moreover, on a longer voyage such as this, the role of the cruise director has much to do with facilitation, monitoring and aiding the formation of community.
The point is that small group social bonds and friendships came into being that recognized their place in and connection to the larger community of shipboard life.  To be sure, people could not go elsewhere for community.  Either they found it aboard, or they didn’t find it at all.  Small group leaders emerged, not without some bumping and shoving, in many ways.  Those with strong, assertive personalities were the first to make their play, but it all depended on whether anyone was willing to pay attention to them.  Skill and knowledge about a particular event or activity generally won out.  As important was the ability to find ways to welcome others into the group and make a place for them.
I wondered if there were any observations that could be applied to congregations.  Mega churches seem to have discovered how to engineer conditions under which community can be formed, but I’m more interested in the small congregations that populate most places.  How could we be more intentional about designing and maintaining venues leading to spontaneous community development?  How could we be more intentional about organizing affinity oriented activities that would attract persons into community?  How could we more creatively understand how our congregations are subsets of the larger community in which we are located?  How could we free lay persons to explore their full potential as leaders without having to chair committees or serve on councils?  Most important, how could we better do all of this so that everything points toward God?  It seems to me that the week’s principle worship service is key.  It sets the tone and expectations for everything else.  So what sort of tone and expectations emanate from it?