The Wikileaks revelations unleashed the usual media furor of partially verified fact, unreflective opinion, speculation based on rumor, all ad nauseam through the twenty-four hour news cycle, and then, nothing.  It went away, replaced by the startling news of an upcoming royal wedding and snow on the East Coast, in winter no less.
Now that some calm has returned, it’s time to consider a few things.  I have no idea what motivates wikileakers, but the public reason is to broaden public engagement in the business of government by making public as much private government correspondence as possible.  It raises serious questions about the limits of privacy, candor and truth telling.
If truth telling is a moral imperative, does it have any limits or mitigating conditions?  Of course it is the old Kantian question that has been answered in many ways, but I guess it’s worth wading into once more because it never has been resolved to universal satisfaction. 
I’m reminded of a flip remark I made just a few days ago that caused my sister-in-law to ask, “Don’t you have any filters on what you say?”  Filters?  Apparently it is important to sometimes filter what one says in order to maintain a semblance of harmony.  Filtering implies that what might be unnecessarily hurtful not be made public, even if it is a truth, because making it public will do no one good and may do harm.  The letter to the Ephesians enjoins us to speak truth in love for the purpose of building up, not tearing down.  We all know people who use words, even truthful words, as weapons of intimidation and malicious hurt.  On the other hand, we also know people who, out of fear or an obsession with maintaining harmony, ignore, withhold and deny essential truths that need to be recognized.  Where is the boundary and what does it look like?
If this is true about our personal lives and relationships, might it also be true about the ebb and flow of communications between agents of government?  Are there conditions under which communications ought to be privileged?  If filtering is the right thing to do under particular conditions, what are those conditions?  
A common text word is TMI, too much information.  What you are telling me is more than I need or want to know given the status of our relationship.  Perhaps there are people who need and want to know the details of your love life, physical ailments, tidbits of juicy gossip, or breadth and depth of your knowledge, but I am not one of them.  TMI can also occur when someone who knows a truth about another makes it public to the harm of the other.  TMI at the personal level can have disastrous effects.  Lives can be ruined.  That’s one reason why the law recognizes certain rights to privacy as in doctor-patient, lawyer-client and pastor-penitent.  
Is the same true in the public arena of international relations and public policy?  Do agents of government need the ability to communicate truthfully with each other but withhold it from the public to protect truth telling?  What might be the appropriate limits?
The corporate world is adamant about its right to privacy, secrecy and privileged communication.  Patents, copyrights, trade secrets and the complex negotiations surrounding buyouts and mergers are the stuff of civil lawsuits and criminal investigations.  Is there any parallel between what is legal for the corporate world and what is necessary in the realm of public policy?
These are not easy questions.  We do not want to be lied to by our government, especially when lives are at stake.  We are angered by stonewalled secrecy that prevents us from knowing who has been invited to influence important public policies.  On the other hand, we recognize the need for secrecy (call it confidentiality) in everything from weapons development to matters that, if made public, could jeopardize the public welfare.
As for wikileakers, they seem to me to be no more than common gossips about whom scripture has much to say:
Prov. 11:13  A gossip goes about telling secrets, but one who is trustworthy in spirit keeps a confidence. 
Prov. 20:19  A gossip reveals secrets; therefore do not associate with a babbler. 
Sir. 19:6 …but one who hates gossip has less evil. 
Sir. 19:12  Like an arrow stuck in a person’s thigh, so is gossip inside a fool. 
2Cor. 12:20 For I fear that when I come, I may find you not as I wish, and that you may find me not as you wish; I fear that there may perhaps be quarreling, jealousy, anger, selfishness, slander, gossip, conceit, and disorder. 

Pondering Question

I’m pondering a piece on the ethics of Wikileaks and kindred sites.  That also has to consider the practical question of what conversations and information are best kept reasonably confidential so that candid thoughts can be shared and complex issues worked out through the sifting of bad ideas, good ideas and crazy ideas.  

Maybe you already have some thoughts on the matter and would like to drop me a line, which you can do either here as a comment or in a “private” e-mail.  In any case, what you offer may influence what I eventually write, so have at it.  

We Can Do Better Than That

A clergy friend of mine (BA, M.Div., D.Min.) is without full-time work of any kind.  Her position as an associate in a medium size congregation was eliminated for budget reasons.  Two years have passed, and she has struggled along with several part-time minimum wage secular jobs and Sunday supply work.  That means no health insurance.  To be sure, she will get appropriate care through the largesse of local hospitals if something catastrophic happens, but there is no routine or preventive care.
I know her story because she is my friend.  In a nation of high unemployment, and with re-employment tending toward temporary and part time jobs at low pay with no benefits, how many other stories just like it could tell of those who are sliding into a dark and lonely pit just like the one she is in. 
Each week the local paper features yet another family for whom a fund has been set up to help pay the enormous costs of cancer care, transplant surgery or some other hideous medical expense.  They are featured because friends have become their public advocates trying to marshall a charitable community response to an extraordinary need.   But how extraordinary is it when it is a weekly occurrence and probably just a glimpse of other needs by other persons for whom there are no advocates, at least not advocates who know how to get newspaper publicity?  Besides, the many local funds, however well meaning, never raise more than a fraction of the costs that will have to be borne somewhere by somebody.
Are these the people whom some commentators claim just need a kick in the butt to get them going?  Are they the weaklings who should be taking care of themselves and not whining for a public handout?  No, they re not.  When we tell their stories one at a time they become real people in need of real help, and, at least to me, that help needs to come not from inadequate and chancy charity, but through a renewed public commitment to a different kind of health care system for our country. 
I read somewhere that that great humanitarian Josef Stalin said that the death of one man was a tragedy but the death of thousands was a statistic.  We have allowed voices from one side of the debate to speak as if facts were opinions, and the collective misery of thousands mere statistics.  We can do better than that.

Earmarks. Harrumph!

I have mixed feelings about earmarks.  I know that they are a popular symbol of congressional pork, wasteful spending, and all the rest, but I also know that, as a percentage of federal expenditures, they are small potatoes.  Some part of them are payback for political favors.  Some part of them are intended to help boost a local economy with unneeded projects that have little to do with sustained economic vitality.  My own favorite targets are military earmarks for things the military does not want or need.  But just as often, I think earmarks come from the wisdom of deeper knowledge about local needs that a member of congress has gained through close working relationships with community leaders.  My community, for instance, benefits from small earmarks that are helping us plan for the completion of much needed highway improvements.  Universities, especially Land Grant universities, benefit from earmarked grants that lead toward improvements in agriculture and agricultural products.  Inner city neighborhood benefit from earmarked grants that help build cultural infrastructure.  And so on.  
I’m slightly amused by those who angrily harrumph about earmarks as if stopping them would balance the budget.  It’s not just a naive harrumph, it’s ignorant.  And let’s face it, there is something mildly amusing about harrumphing ignoramuses.  
What helps is to be able to plainly see in the legislation both the earmarks and their sponsors.  That way they are easily open to public scrutiny.  If you are interested in taking a look for yourself, ardent earmark foe Senator Coburn of Oklahoma has published a database of earmarks in the current legislation.  He may be one of the great harrumphers, but at least he’s not ignorant about it.

The Raw Story

blue christmasImage by bunchofpants via FlickrBlue Christmas services are becoming more common, and I think it’s a good idea.  They are the honest recognition that this is a very difficult season for many people.  Most of us know from our own experience that the jolly party scene is an over rated myth in any case.  Yet the nightly television barrage of sentimental holiday stories speaks to the deep seated human desire for something wonderful to happen during the season.  In their own way I think they also remind us that the likelihood of it happening is mostly the imaginary creation of script writers. 

It gets complicated by the fact that we have two seasons going on at the same time.  One is a secularized holiday combining the best of European pagan solstice celebrations, often with a thin veneer of the Christmas story.  There is a lot about that that I like, especially the decorations and cookies.

The other is so different.  It’s the season in which we remember the shame of a young unmarried pregnant woman, her reluctant and equally shamed husband to be, several hard journeys, a lack of common hospitality, danger, murder and escape in which somehow, and most improbably, God’s presence is made known through choirs of angels that almost no one hears, a handful of shepherds, a couple of loony prophets, and some wayward astrologers who could read the stars but not the politics of the times.

I do love the way we dress it up with children’s pageants, massed choirs, music filled midnight masses and all the rest.  I wouldn’t change any of it.  But I also know how powerful the story, in its raw form, can be for those who are struggling through this blue time of the year.  It is that raw story in which, as John says, a light shines that cannot be defeated by darkness.  Here, in the dark and among the least of us, is where God is present, hope is present, and our brokenness, the brokenness of the world, begins to be healed.  It’s the raw story that I talked about over a cup of coffee with the victim of a Sunday morning house fire for whom there is nothing merry about this Christmas.  Trees, lights, parties, carols and all the rest have become repugnant.  Chestnuts roasting on an open fire is a frightening thought.  But the raw story of the nativity of our Lord is a story of hope.  I wonder how we best offer that gift this year?  How can I?  How can you?

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What I Want to be When I Grow Up

I’m an Episcopalian who grew up in the Lutheran Church where, with most of my friends, I underwent the arduous multiyear task of studying for confirmation.  I don’t recall falling in love with bible study or the catechism, but I do recall wanting to learn more and dig deeper.  The questions so carefully scripted in Luther’s catechism were interesting, but they were not my questions.  We were to memorize his carefully scripted answers, but they were not my answers.  I’m not sure how I got confirmed.  Maybe the pastor just got tired and gave up.  For whatever reason, God type questions kept me interested in many other things.
European history revolved around God questions.  Philosophy emerged from God questions.  America, with it’s Puritans, Pilgrims, Virginia Anglicans, Maryland Catholics and Rhode Island Baptists lurched into being with God questions.  I was fortunate to have a high school civics teacher who used an anthology of great thinkers as our text book, and that introduced me to Augustine, Luther, Calvin, DesCartes, the Enlightenment, Edwards, American pragmatism and more.  The theme of God questions ran through them all.
As I reflect on my life, I’ve had a generous taste of just about everything and anything one could imagine or hope for.  I always attributed that to my poor judgment and intellectual curiosity, but the experts now say it’s a learning disorder affecting those with short attention spans.  What dull people they must be, those experts I mean.
Anyway, here I am in my late sixties with several universities and a thirty year career in government, teaching and business preceding yet another career in ordained ministry, still interested in God questions that keep on changing and answers that remain elusive.  That drives some people crazy, especially those whom I have led and taught.  Why can’t I just say what is irrevocably true like other pastors do?  One of them said that what he wanted was a one handed priest so he wouldn’t have to keep on hearing “on the one hand this, but on the other hand that.”  
It turns out that I am a thoroughly convicted Nicene Christian who, nevertheless, happily engages in arguments with the creed because it is too Greek and not Jewish enough.  I am an ardent Anglican rooted in the Mennonite writing of Yoder and whatever Rene Gerard is.  I love Polkinghorne even though I understand only half of what he writes and none of what he says (some English accents are meant only for the written word).  I look forward to becoming an educated man when I grow up, but it seems an unlikely thing.  I managed to get through grade school without memorizing the multiplication tables, and that alone dooms me. 
With that in mind on this late, rainy, gloomy dark winter day in our fogged in valley, I think a glass of wine and Times crossword is in order. 

When Does a Book Become Holy?

When does a book become holy?  A clergy friend of mine got into trouble when he tossed a bible onto the floor as a demonstration that we do not worship a book, we worship God.  As an object lesson, it was less than successful.  For many in the congregation, the book itself, its pages, cover and binding, represented the physical manifestation of God’s Holy Word and presence far more than any sacrament.  I found it   difficult to get some adult learners to dare to write in their bibles, especially to write notes.  Some years ago we organized a clean up crew to tackle the church basement.  In it we found boxes of bibles all turned to green mold.  Several were simply unable to witness the disposal of them into the dumpster.
So when does a book become holy?
I’ll share my own story.  Each day I rise to pray the Morning Office guided by the Daily Office Book in two volumes.  The set I have been using is about fifteen years old.  The imitation leather covers are tattered.  The bindings are broken.  Pages are ripped with some falling out.  Others are coffee stained, and a variety of hand written notes overlap one another.  The volumes might have survived another year of gentle home use, but we travel a lot, and one more round of being shoved into a suitcase or backpack would have destroyed them.  So I bought a new set and began using it with the onset of Advent a few weeks ago.
What to do with my old, beat up and essentially unusable Daily Office Book (in two volumes)?  I tossed the first volume into the recycle trash, then sat looking at it and thinking.  It was only a book, but it had been my daily companion for years.  Through it I had opened my heart and mind to conversation with God, more thoroughly studied scripture, been inspired and repelled by psalms, and discovered that prayer, scripture and daily life in community are all part of the same thing.  That inanimate book resting in the trash had become a powerful symbol of the presence of the living God.  It had become a holy book.
I took it out and squeezed it into a case next to its companion volume where it will rest in peace until that day when our children assemble to clean out the house and decide what to do with all the useless junk their parents had accumulated.  

Green Beans & Green Bay

Green beans and Green Bay.  Those are two codes phrases in our house. 
Cut Green BeansImage via Wikipedia
For us green beans has come to mean a day consumed by simple, unimportant tasks that could have been accomplished in an hour or less if we had more important things to do.  Why green beans?  It has to do with a long ago visit to my mother-in-law, who was rapidly sliding into Alzheimer’s.  She spent an entire day buying green beans at a nearby grocery store.  She had to remember, forget and remember again, that it was green beans she was after.  Then it was a matter of getting to the store, remembering why she was there, buying the beans, finding her way home, remembering that she had done it, remembering why she had done it, and remembering to cook them for dinner.  All in all it was an exhausting day.   We smile now and joke about our own days of getting nothing done but green beans.  There was no humor in it then because we didn’t fully understand what was happening to her.
I am more aware now than I was then about how much courage it takes for one entering dementia to keep on with the ordinary demands of daily life; how hard even the simplest tasks can become.  It’s not as if they don’t know.  Not long ago I was on a hotel balcony and overheard a wife yelling at her husband to pay attention and remember a certain thing.  I could tell by their voices that her anger was the anger of a broken heart, and his response was from a man knowing that he should remember, trying very hard to remember, and equally broken hearted at not being able to do it.  What was he trying to remember?  Whatever it was it was just green beans.  What is important is love.   But I digress, which is something I can do, sometimes at length.
That brings me to Green Bay, another household code phrase.  Once upon a time our son, then a teenager, asked me about Green Bay.  I had done a little consulting there not long before, and so regaled him with everything I knew about it from history, to demographics, to economics to politics.  After my introductory remarks of about twenty minutes, he explained that he only wanted to know about the Packers, not too much.  That teenager is now in his mid-forties, and I have forgot everything I ever knew about Green Bay.  Just the same, his mother will silently mouth tGREEN BAY, WI - AUGUST 11: Wide receiver James...Image by Getty Images via @daylifeo me now and then, “Green Bay,” as a not so subtle hint that I have gone on too long about that which is of little interest to anyone else.  It can happen. 
Green beans and Green Bay.  Preachers, I suspect, have a tendency toward each, perhaps more than the average person.  Parish councils, by whatever name, wallow in them.
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The Endurance of Rural Congregations

Holy Spirit dove windowImage by hickory hardscrabble via FlickrThe little rural church I serve, along with two other retired clergy, has two dozen members, if you carefully count everyone whether there or not.  No one is young.  The church growth gang (now called church transformation) calls it a declining and dying congregation.  The thing is, it’s been there for over a hundred years and has never had more than a couple dozen members.  People come, people go, people die, people come.  Now and then it has tolerated clergy attempting to be full time, but, for the most part, it has got along fine with a long line of supply clergy.

Right now they have the services of three experienced, well respected pastors who provide both continuity and variety.  A skeptical colleague wondered out loud about how long they will last when we are gone.  My guess is at least another hundred years.  Fifty years before I came on the scene they were served by a local professor who was also an Episcopal priest.  Others have included clergy skilled in mission work, new clergy trying out their wings, another professor, and even a high church priest who may have been the only one who knew what to do with a maniple. 

That’s all be beside the point.  Small rural congregations don’t really depend on seminary educated clergy.  It’s nice to have them, but not a necessity.  They don’t even depend on a flow of new families with young children.  They do depend on the economic viability of the towns they are in.  Dying towns beget dying congregations.  But if a town can sustain itself, an otherwise healthy, small rural congregation will just keep on going.  It has more to do with the spirit of the place and the Spirit that fills it than with experts on church growth and transformation.

What might be the nature of that Spirit filled spirit?  From what I can tell, it is the genuine love and care between members, and for the community, that transcend the petty irritants of small town life in which there are no secrets.  It’s the joy of worshiping whether with or without music.  It’s the making of parish decisions, sometimes with more than a little contention, right in the midst of a Sunday morning service.  It’s the embrace of whomever comes in the door, no matter who they are, with a naive lack of awareness that their embrace may be more than a stranger desires or can stand.  It’s the genuine concern for others in the community who are suffering or in need.

It requires one more thing. It requires an openness to a subtle indwelling of the Holy Spirit. By subtle presence I mean an atmosphere of the Spirit’s presence, unseen and unheard, yet there.  I don’t think you can make that happen whether by loud proclamation or through sophisticated consulting.  A small rural congregation without that subtle presence may indeed be declining and dying, and we have all seen that happen.  One with that subtle presence will probably continue from generation to generation as long as there are generations to be had.

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You Brood of Vipers! Who Me?

The gospel lesson for the Second Sunday of Advent has that wonderfully scornful line rumbling out of John’s mouth, “You brood of vipers.”  For the first time, I began to think about where else it is uttered.  A total of three times in Matthew’s gospel, once from the lips of John the Baptist and twice from Jesus himself.  It is directed at the religious and political elite all three times.  It appears once in Luke, also from Jesus.  
Each time it is connected with the need to demonstrate deeds worthy of a repentant life.  John warns the Sadducees and Pharisees who were coming, not to watch but to undergo his baptism of repentance, to bear fruit worthy of repentance.  In Matthew 12 Jesus also demands fruit worthy of repentance and suggests that those fruits are found not only in deeds but also in words.  Later, in Matthew 23, he demands deeds of justice, mercy, faith, and an honest self examination that turns one away from a life of greed, self-indulgence and unmerited self-confidence as a moral guide to others.
Whatever Matthew was up to, using the “brood of vipers” line in three strongly worded condemnations of smug self-confidence in a loudly proclaimed faith that bears little fruit has got to demand our attention.  I don’t think Matthew intended his audience to read it as a curious bit of history about John, Jesus and some self-righteous religious types hanging around in Palestine.  I think that these words are intended to come crashing through the ages right into our own hearts and minds.  They are about us. 
Our casual identity as Christians can too often take the form of regular church attendance, pledging and maybe even engagement in bible study or some worthy project, but without any connection to daily living in other areas.  On the other hand, we can also be tempted to confuse faith with an overly compulsive obsession in the rituals of worship.  As did the Pharisees and Sadducees, we come to Jesus seeking his company and lingering on his words.  We come for the comfort and consolation of Jesus meek and mild and get a tongue lashing for not bearing fruit worthy of repentance.  Wow!  Who wants that?  Is it possible we should actually pay attention this time?  Or maybe we could just hurry to the manger to adore the little baby who demands nothing more than his mother’s milk and a clean diaper.