Daniel: Can you keep a Secret?

“But you, Daniel, keep the words secret and the book sealed until the time of the end…[g]o your way, Daniel, for the words are to remain secret and sealed until the time of the end.”
The community is inundated about once a year with newspaper ads, television spots, mass mailings and door hangers promoting the ONE DAY ONLY appearance of some world famous expert on prophecy who will unlock the secrets and unveil the meaning for us in our day in order that we might be prepared for That Day, which is upon us.  The book of Daniel will be a prominent feature of the talk.
It is blatant carnival hucksterism, but it works.  The room will be packed and the people mesmerized.  The out of town preacher will stitch together a very believable and apparently logical story.  He will do it with energy, flourishes, a backup band, terrific terrifying slides, and an altar call. 
Some local clergy will seize on the momentary outflowing of emotional turmoil over the imminence of the Last Judgment to beef up worship service attendance as well as, perhaps, tithing.  Others will be confronted by a few parishioners wanting to know if maybe this guy really does know what he’s talking about, and why have they never heard that sort of truth telling from their own pulpit.
In a few weeks he will have been all but forgotten but for a core of true believers who will already be working on next year’s performance.  It’s not a bad thing.  Among those who pay any attention at all will be some who want to know more about God and Jesus, about faith and atonement, and about what this Last Day stuff is all about.  They may not go to the nearest church to seek out the clergy, but they will ask their questions at coffee, over a beer or in a conversation with friends.  Will they encounter well formed and well informed “ministers” among the baptized when they ask those questions?  I hope so.
Lord Jesus Christ, you stretched out your arms of love on the hard wood of the cross that everyone might come within the reach of your saving embrace: So clothe us in your Spirit that we, reaching forth our hands in love, may bring those who do not know you to the knowledge and love of you; for the honor of your Name. (BCP)

Is Life Planned by a Heavenly TripTik?

A portion of Isaiah’s 30th chapter reads, “…your Teacher will not hide himself anymore, but your eyes shall see your Teacher.  And when you turn to the right or when you turn to the left, your ears shall hear a word behind you, saying, ‘This is the way; walk in it.’”
I once dealt with a young man who was so convinced of a particular meaning of the literal truth in these words that he would wait for holy inspiration to tell him which way to walk to work.  Oddly enough, he went on to a successful career in a field rife with ethical ambiguity.  More common is the assertion that God is in control of everything that happens, and that God’s plan for one’s personal life is something like a heavenly AAA TripTik complete with turn-by-turn directions to a final destination, including all the stops along the way.  For those of you unfamiliar with the ancient technology of an AAA TripTik, it’s something like a paper version of a talking GPS guiding you from point A to point B with many stops in between.  The main difference is that the Triptik also describes all the details of points of interest along the way.  
That view of what it means to say that God has a plan for your life, it seems to me, misses the whole point of everything God had to say through the prophets.  The holy voice that says, “This is the way; walk in it,” is not talking about sidewalks or roadways.  It is talking about the moral choices one makes in one’s life.  God’s plan, both personal and corporate, is all about what it means to live together ethically.  The prophets, illuminated by Christ’s teaching, provide challenging standards for what that means.
One of the temptations we embrace is how much easier t is to ignore God’s moral imperatives while pestering God for detailed instructions on important life decisions as well as on the minutia of daily life.  It’s so much easier to assert that God is in control of everything while we go about the business of screwing things up with our ego driven selfishness.  It’s a win-win for us.  We can avoid taking responsibility for ourselves and our communities while boldly asserting that whatever crackpot idea we’ve come up with is a part of God’s plan.  We can confidently rest in the blessed assurance that we have accepted Jesus Christ as our personal savior while ignoring most of what he, and all of scripture, have to say about the ethics of life together.  Moreover, we can arrogantly assert that our culturally formed way of life is from God himself, and, therefore, is the way of life everybody else should adopt.
It must drive God crazy to have to put up with us.  Frankly, I’m amazed that God can love us so much that he would send his only begotten Son.  That his plan for salvation somehow includes the whole of creation is what gives me hope.  It certainly won’t come from our end.

A Brief Reflection on the Passing of Lent

I am one of those who look forward to Lent as a season for quiet reflection and a slower pace of life.  It always comes as a surprise how quickly it passes, how soon it’s over, how little time I devoted to quiet reflection, and how unchanged my pace of life remained during those few brief weeks.  
Maybe that’s why I treasure Holy Week and the Great Vigil of Easter so much.  It captures the essence of Lent in seven short days.  It is not simply a matter of attending a quiet Eucharist each day, or the very intentional remembrance of the gift of holy food and drink on Thursday, or the vigil at the cross on Friday.  I also do my best to drop out of normal obligations and civic duties during Holy Week.  The United Way, Housing Authority and Diocese all get along without me.  On Saturday evening, at the Great Vigil, the darkened church offers few distractions.  The long series of lessons are given opportunity for reflection by the offering of canticles and hymns between them.  Almost too soon comes the announcement that He is Risen and Easter has arrived. 
I rejoice at the return of Alleluias, which, rather stubbornly, I will not give up after Pentecost as is the practice of some.  I rejoice at the renewal of life and hope that never died and never will.  I rejoice at the good news we are called to share.  But a part of me misses the Lent in which I did not fully participate.  And I give grateful thanks for the Holy Week that prepared me for Easter’s joy. 

Preserving State Wealth by Preserving the Wealthy? I’ve got a better idea.

My wife says that I get really morose on Good Fridays, and that probably explains this post.  Why else would I be writing about state finances instead of atonement?
I’ve been involved in an interesting exchange of e-mails with my state senator, a Republican who used to be centrist but has tilted farther to the right in recent years.  The issue pivots on how to restructure the state’s budget to be more fiscally responsible. It’s pretty much the same set of problems facing most states these days.  The State of Washington has a long history of significant operating fund deficits as measured by tax revenue against expenditures.  They have been financed, and the budget balanced, by a combination of federal monies and fund transfers.  With federal money on the decline, something has to be done to bring expenditures closer to locally raised revenues.  The last time they met was in 1997, and I haven’t checked to see if that was just a one time event.  
Washington does not have an income tax, so state revenues are dependent on sales taxes, a gross receipts tax on businesses, and various fees.  The state portion of the sales tax is 6.5%.  The gross receipts tax rate is around .005% except for services at about .02%.  No doubt someone will correct me if I’m wrong about these rates.  Anyway, buried in the tax code are a number of credits and exemptions enacted over the years to benefit particular industries and companies.
Washington also allows for initiatives and referenda, and an ultraconservative, small government character named Tim Eyman has mastered the art of authoring initiatives that not only cut taxes and fees, they also shackle the ability of local and state legislators to raise taxes except by super majority votes or public referenda.  His initiatives were an easy sell for several years.  As one of my friends once said; “Lower taxes? Who wouldn’t vote for that?  It’s a no brainer.”  He has less success these days, now that some of the effects have begun to show themselves in declining levels of service and maintenance.
Obviously it’s a tough issue that cannot be resolved without pain.  My argument has been that, unless the legislature is willing to look at both revenue and costs, the outcome is likely to lead the state down a hill that first hurts those who are least able to defend themselves, and then heads toward a lower standard of living for all.  My senator’s argument has been that our tax system is just fine, we raise enough money, and the various credits and exemptions are all job creating incentives that are working the way they are supposed to, so our entire focus must be on reducing expenditures.  I don’t know enough about the credits and exemptions to judge with certainty, but my guess is that’s a lot of baloney.  He’s also begun to spout the Wisconsin line that greedy, uncooperative public employees are the cause of our problems.  I guess he figures that will appeal to the right wingers, and he’s right, but, I think, morally wrong.
There’s a line going around on Facebook that nails it well.  It reads: Remember when teachers, public employees, planned parenthood, and PBS crashed the stock market, wiped out half of our 401Ks, took trillions in TARP money, spilled oil in the Gulf of Mexico, gave themselves billions in bonuses, and paid no taxes? Yeah, me neither.
Of course we need to rein in spending and use our available resources in a more efficient and intentional way.  It’s not that the state has wasteful programs.  To the contrary, it’s hard to find anything that is not contributing to essential needs.  But the legislature enacted too many good ideas with no clear idea of how they would be paid for over the long term, and with too much faith in a booming economy and federal revenue sharing.  
We also need to take a hard look at revenues.  I am among the few in Washington who favor an income tax as a far more equitable way to raise public funds.  It seems unlikely that will happen anytime soon.  But we could make an audit of the various exemptions granted to businesses with an eye toward making the wealthiest and most powerful interests participate with the poorest and least powerful interests in the restructuring of the state’s finances.  We could, but we won’t.  The legislators don’t have the courage to do it.  
What it all comes down to is that we are banking on the return of booming economy driven by Boeing, Microsoft and high wheat prices to raise revenues.  It’s worked before and it might work again.  In the meantime, small government right wingers are rejoicing in their opportunity to return the quality of life in the state to where it belongs, the late 19th century before radicals like Teddy Roosevelt started messing things up.
I’ve got an idea.  Why don’t we take all the sales tax revenue and bet it at the roulette tables in the Indian casinos!  Better yet, we could go down to Oregon and invest it all in Power Ball tickets!

Easter at Grace

I failed to line up a musician for Easter Sunday at little Grace Church in Dayton, WA.  Our singing is normally led by a member of the congregation who noodles out an approximation of the tune on the organ, but she’s on vacation.  Easter has often been adorned by music majors from one of the colleges in Walla Walla, but my contacts there have dwindled to nothing.  Nevertheless, we will rejoice in our celebration of the Resurrection.
We, borrowing a suggestion from the Methodists, will lustily sing a cappella in our usual multipart, multi keyed harmony.  The church will be overflowing with flowers brought in by the arm load by a ninety year old member who will have “borrowed” them from her neighbors’ yards.  Amid the solemnity of an Episcopalian Eucharist, we will shout out our Alleluias, and not take ourselves so seriously that it prevents us from breaking out in spontaneous laughter at almost anything.  The blessing and dismissal will have been offered, but the Eucharist, the celebration, will continue, possibly in the church, but more likely down at the Country Cupboard bakery, as is usual on Sundays.  
If you have ever wondered whether Grace is a real place, look it up on the web.  It’s not fancy but they do have their own website: www.gracechurchdaytonwa.org.

He is Risen? Who Cares!

Interesting conversation in our Tuesday morning lectionary group.  It began with the usual quandary about how best to preach to those who come only once or twice a year. One of our group enthused about how when they hear that Jesus rose from the dead it will, or at least can, change their lives forever.  He’s seen it happen.
I doubt it.  Once upon a time, when I was a child in the 1950s, it could be assumed that most Americans were nominally Christian in the sense that they had been exposed to the basic words and images associated with Christianity that were a part of everyday life.  It was also assumed that the large numbers of Sunday school graduates who failed to show up for church the Sunday after Confirmation would return again in a few years with their own children.  That did not happen, at least not in huge numbers.  In any case, the Easter sermon could assume a shared base of knowledge upon which a greater understanding could be built. 
I suppose I could do a little research and tease out the numbers.  I’ll leave that up to you if you’re interested.  What you will probably find is that we have a couple of generations who know little of Christianity, other than the dribbles they get from the media, because they have never been part of a church community.  Others may know slightly more but were so put off by childhood experiences that it all seemed pointless.  Some of them will come to church on Easter, as they might on Christmas, not to touch something familiar from their youth, but as a kindness to a well meaning relative insisting on their presence, or, perhaps, as an interesting adventure not unlike attending an obscure off Broadway show just for the fun of it. 
In other words, we cannot assume anything about what they know or don’t know about Christ.  We can assume that they are well informed about Harry Potter.  The astounding announcement that He is Risen! is just as likely to have no meaning whatsoever.  Their lives seem to go on just fine without whatever it is that Christians say is essential to life.  A couple of hours in church to satisfy grandma or enjoy the music is not a lot to ask or give, so why not, at least this year. 
If we are going to be serious about bearing the Good News of God in Christ. then, I think, we need to put ourselves into the shoes of Peter, Paul and others who took it into unfamiliar territory.  Like Paul, we are addressing a bunch of Athenians who have hundreds of gods, none of which they take seriously, but of whom we are certain they are seeking something that can only be answered by Christ.   Who is Christ?   That may be one question in need of answer.  More important is, Why should they care?  What possible difference can it make?  And there had better be a better answer than if you don’t believe you’ll burn in hell.
Crafting a sermon to meet conditions such as these is difficult.  If there is a really good one around, I haven’t heard it.  Fortunately for me, I don’t have to do it.  The little, rural congregation I will lead on Sunday may have as many as 25 in the pews, an amazing 78% increase over normal attendance (eat your heart out mega-church), but most will be life long Christians.  We will celebrate the Resurrection with all the vigor we can muster.  Our greater problem is how to equip these saints to go out into the community to address the Easter and Christmas crowd over the next 363 days.  We Episcopalians seem to have a problem with that other E word.

Religion as Faith and Faith as Completion

Carl Jung reported on many dreams told to him by his patients.  In one of them the dreamer is told that, “religion is no substitute; it is to be added to the other activities of the soul as the ultimate completion.”  Leaving Jung’s own analysis aside, it seems to me to be an important point.  Religion, in this case, is not limited to the creed, rituals and polity of one’s tradition, but extends to the broader matter of the faith that is represented by them. 
There are some professed Christians for whom religion is not only a substitute, but an essential replacement for all other activities of the soul, however the soul is understood.  There is an old joke in which a Sunday school teacher asks a complicated question.  A child raises her hand and says she does’t understand the question but the answer must be Jesus.  For many, Jesus, and, more particularly, the correct formula for Jesus, is the answer to every question.  The world itself, in their understanding of it, is ruled by a God who is in control of every event.  Almost any reasonably good idea is justified with words such as, “The Lord has laid it on me to…,” or “It has been given to me to…”  I recall counseling years ago with an extreme case in which I finally demanded of the person, “Don’t you ever have any ideas of your own?  Is there nothing for which you are personally responsible?”  Maybe I was a tad more diplomatic at the time. 
Although that is often presented as a sign of a deep and trusting faith in God, I’m more inclined to think it is a sign of a insecurity about, and lack of trust in, one’s own God given abilities to have thoughts and make decisions.  It can be a refusal to take ownership of, and responsibility for, one’s own self.  If we are to take Jesus seriously, then we must take seriously his earthly ministry of healing that restored people to wholeness of body, mind, spirit and place.  That wholeness included faith in God through Jesus as essential to the completion of the self.  He did not always say that faith is what made one well, but it was always implied that faith was an essential component of wellness.  Spiritual wellness is one modern way to put it, and that can sound like a tepid faith so watered down that it has no meaning.  But Jesus never demanded a formulaic affirmation faith, and he was known to heal persons who had not asked for it, persons of no known religion, and persons who had been rejected by the religions of their community.  However faith was understood, it was not a substitute for everything else that contributes to a healthy self.  It was added to the other activities of the soul as the ultimate completion.  Persons healed by Jesus were sent on their way as responsible adults.
The opposite side of the issue illuminates a similar problem among self proclaimed atheists.  They also see religion as a substitute for every other activity of the soul and, therefore, reject it.  For whatever reason, they apparently cannot envision religion, as faith in God, as an essential component of human wholeness.  If some professed Christians are afraid to put any distance between themselves and God, these religious skeptics are afraid to enter into any intimacy with God.  One is afraid of their own God given independent agency.  The other is afraid that God might control everything they want to claim as their own.  They are both suffering under illusions that feed each others’ fears.