Enemies; what are they good for?

What is it about enemies that make them so necessary to us?  We have them in a variety of ways expressed through the nasty edged gossip about others that we share with one another, the life long grudges that separate family members, the blood feuds between neighbors, and, most of all, the national enemies that inspire large armies with the latest weapons.  
I wonder about all of them, but most of all about national enemies that inspire large armies with the latest weapons.  Even small government conservatives and fringe libertarians agree on one essential role of government – the national defense.  If nothing else, they want a big, strong national defense establishment to protect us against our enemies.  It’s ironic, considering that many of the so called founding fathers feared a standing army more than anything else as a threat against the young republic. 
The key to understanding this is the concept of enemy.  There is no point in having beefy armed forces if there is no enemy against whom they can protect us.  The issue isn’t about defense at all, it’s about the need to have an enemy.  I’m convinced, in spite of border clashes all over the place, that large scale acquisition of empire by conquest is  a thing of the past.  The 20th century put an end to that.  That doesn’t keep significant members of the public, including some leaders, from raising the specter of WWII all over again in the form of a revitalized Russia or greedy China as they do their best to scare the hell out of us.  It takes only a moment of casual observation to learn that the big nations now know that building empire has little to do with territory and everything to do with market share.  
If not invading armies of major powers, then who?  We have a number of useful candidates.  Hordes of illegal aliens, meaning Mexicans, invading us from the south.  That’s a good one.  Terrorists, meaning Muslims of any stripe but especially Middle Easterners, is another good category of enemy.  What exactly a large nuclear tipped military is supposed to do about that is unknown, but it doesn’t really matter, because what we need is an enemy, and these two are adequate in the absence of anyone else. 
Why?  Is it that we need an enemy to more clearly define who we are as Americans?  Is that what enemies help us do?  Maybe we need them to give us a way to flex our muscles and prove our national manhood.  I don’t know about groups of women getting together for general conversation, but in any sizable group of men there will always be a few who only speak in a pugilistic tone of voice, accompanied by fist thumping and finger pointing, because its the only way they think anyone will take them seriously.  North Korea does that a lot.  They just look like idiots.  Do we Americans act that way too?   
Jesus Christ, Carl Jung, Rene Gerard, Pogo, Luke Skywalker and Harry Potter all have one thing in common.  They recognized the role of enemy as an expression of our own “dark” side that must be recognized and faced if we are to be made whole and healthy.  Externalizing the role of enemy the way we do, both as persons and as a nation, is a psychological (and political) recognition of that truth, but one that, by keeping its locus external, enables us to avoid recognizing it as a truth about us.  A window through which we can see our enemies is so much better than a mirror reflecting our own image.
In the meantime, the news isn’t all bad.  We’ve got the biggest military establishment in the world, which means we also have a very profitable military-industrial complex, underwritten by the taxpayer, and providing the best in killing power to buyers in every jerk water trouble spot with enough money to pay for them.  For special friends, we’ll even throw in “foreign aid” in the form of chits redeemable for armament.  It’s a living.

PS  Some of my military friends will take offense, claiming I’m ignorant and disrespectful of the service to their country to which they have dedicated their lives (literally).  They would be wrong about that.  That’s not what I wrote about.

Getting back to the Basics

I don’t remember exactly when, but a very long time ago, in my formative youth, I listened to the Easter story of the resurrected Christ walking with two disciples on the road to Emaus as he explained to them how both Moses and the prophets spoke clearly about the Christ.  I thought it would be terribly useful for him to repeat that to me in person because it wasn’t clear at all that the Old Testament had much to say about the Jesus I knew.
Of course there were the Advent, Christmas and Easter readings from Isaiah.  Very poetic about the suffering servant and all, but not persuasive in explaining Jesus as Son of God and Messiah.   
It took years, but one day while reading in the 59th chapter of Isaiah, it occurred to me that God was saying, in fairly clear language, that God in God’s self would be the Messiah.  I started looking for other references in scripture in which God declared that he, himself, would be the long awaited savior.  Not that there were not many other Messiahs, anointed by God to perform some saving function in a particular place at a particular time: Moses, Joshua, Gideon, Zerubbabel and Cyrus to name a few.  But time and again, in the Psalms and through the prophets, God declared that it would be by his own arm, his own strength and his own presence that the people of God would be fully and eternally rescued from destruction and death.  
I’ll leave it to you to do your own searching in scripture, and hope that you find it rewarding.  The point is that in Jesus, God was fully and materially present in our world to do exactly what God said that he would do.  I think that’s probably what Jesus explained to those two disciples on that road to Emaus.  I think that’s what Peter and Paul finally understood.  It’s what makes Jesus different from any other prophet.  He was not a man especially blessed by God’s Spirit to proclaim a greater truth.  He was God incarnate doing what God always said he would do when the time was right. 
Theologians reading this post are likely to mutter something like, ‘yeah, so what’s new about that.’  But I think the average Christian has not been exposed to that line of thinking, and I’m going to test it out this spring when I start a new mid-week bible study for a group that has not had one for many years.  We shall see. 

The Feast of the Holy Innocents

It’s the Feast of the Holy Innocents, a troubling “feast” if there ever was one.  
How is it that this horrid event is not cited elsewhere in non-biblical literature?  Maybe it never happened.  Why would God, who engineered his own Son’s escape, not do something for all those other children in Bethlehem?  Who wants a God like that?  Luke’s infancy narrative knows nothing of this event.  Was he wrong?  Was Matthew?  In any case, how can we call the slaughter of toddlers and infants a feast?
Whether the event, as described by Matthew, happened or not, the fact remains that Bethlehem was not a large town.  I don’t know what its size would have been in Jesus’ day, but certainly not over 500 or so.  There would not have been a large number of infants and toddlers.  Their slaughter by the notoriously blood thirsty Herod, whose record of killing enemies, friends and family knew no bounds, might not have even been noticed.  
As gruesome as the story is in itself, it should also remind us that within the freedom God has given us is the freedom to act in the most despicable of evil ways.  It should call to mind our own culpability in the slaughtering of innocents today through domestic violence; sexual, psychological and physical abuse; the horrors of child soldiers molded into amoral killing machines by ruthless adults; withholding of necessary and available health care from those in need; and so it goes. 
We cannot blame God for what Herod did any more than we can blame God for what we have done, or been tolerant of.  We can be thankful that not even the evil darkness of Herod’s violence could overcome the light of Christ, infant though he was.  From that flickering infant light has grown a greater light of triumph over all death.  If, on the one hand, we have shared some degree of complicity in the slaughter of innocents, with the other hand we are given the opportunity to witness to that greater light through the words and deeds of our lives.
I wonder what that would mean for ordinary Christians leading ordinary lives of relative comfort and safety?

What Are Supply Clergy?

What are supply clergy?  Are they merely ordained persons who are authorized to use the costume, magic words and hand motions needed to legitimize  an hour of worship while the life of the congregation goes along without them quite well, thank you very much? 
That appears to be the way they are seen and used by more than a few small congregations without regular clergy.  I think there are several reasons for it.  First, some supply clergy, mostly retired, see themselves that way.  They are disinterested in the pastoral care of the people whom they serve for a few hours, and maybe never again.  The life of the congregation is of little concern to them.  A bit of extra income and a chance to exercise their rights of ordination are what it’s about.
That fits in well with congregations who need a clergy person from time to time, but have no interest in letting some stranger into the intimacy of their lives together, and, perhaps, some resentment toward larger congregations with beloved full time pastoral leadership.
It isn’t always that way.  Along with two others, I’ve been supply clergy for a small, rural congregation for eleven years.  Before I retired, I celebrated an evening service once a month, but another retired clergy celebrated a morning service with them twice a month.  She moved away, and now I’m the one who is retired and serve them twice a month, sometimes more.  Two other retired clergy each serve once a month as available.  I am very fond of this little congregation.  Their spiritual, emotional, physical and economic welfare is important to me.  Home visits, hospital calls, funerals and just hanging around with them are an important parts of my life.  The thirty-mile drive is a breeze on country highways where ten or twelve other cars are heavy traffic.  With a little effort, we will start a midweek adult bible study this spring.
It still does not make me their pastor.  I think it has to do with the idea that, as supply clergy, I could walk away tomorrow.  Indeed, I am free to travel at my convenience, even over major holidays, something I would never have done when serving as a full time pastor of a congregation.  It also has to do with their recognition, maybe embarrassment, that they can only afford to pay for an hour a Sunday plus travel, and anything else they receive from supply clergy is a gift that they might hope for but cannot ask for.
It’s a tricky place with a lot of psychology wrapped around insecurity involved.  I wonder if there is a better way to do it?

Psalm 72

Throughout scripture God reveals what it means to be a good ruler of people.  Psalm 72, for instance, says these are the characteristics of a good king who has been filled with God’s righteousness: 
  • Rules with righteousness
  • Gives justice to the poor
  • Defends the needy among the people
  • Rescues the poor and crushes the oppressor
  • Delivers the poor who cry out in distress and the oppressed who have no helper
  • Has pity on the lowly and poor
  • Preserves the lives of the needy
  • Redeems the poor from oppression because their blood is precious in his sight
My ultra conservative friends, Christians one and all, object saying that “you just want to take our money and give it tot he poor.”  That common and simplistic answer is dead wrong, but widely believed.  
A few days ago Mr. Romney made a $10,000 bet about something.  I think it had to do with health care.  I can’t make a bet like that, but I’ll give a nickel to anyone who can find  passages in scripture suggesting that God would like us to:
  • Eliminate almost all government
  • Do away with regulations
  • Offer enormous financial incentives to those who are already quite wealthy
  • Give corporations all the rights and privileges of personhood.
  • Invade other nations for specious reasons
  • Live in fear of anything and anybody that is not like us
  • Let the poor sink or swim, it’s up to them

Bultmannia

I ran into a local acquaintance the other day, a very conservative Presbyterian certain that his denomination is going down the tubes because it no longer respects the authority of scripture.  What it’s really about is homosexuality.  It’s a sin.  He’s against it.  The Church should not tolerate it.  It’s been a driving issue in his conversation for at least ten years.  His arguments were tightly formed, legally impressive, academically well researched and morally certain, at least to him.  I say were because the tide of theological opinion seems to be turning against him, and I’m guessing that a tide that is turning, in spite of his unassailable arguments, must be driven by heretics.
Indeed, said he, a majority of the Presbyterian leadership are followers of Bultmann.  They all studied him in seminary, and now they are following him down the path of extreme demythologizing to the point of denying the Resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth.  Bultmannia has consumed the Presbyterian Church.  It’s not really about homosexuality, it’s about the authority of scripture, and this is the proof.
I had no idea Bultmann was a Presbyterian, or even a Scot for that matter.  We Episcopalians certainly read bits and pieces of Bultmann in seminary, but I don’t recall him being the center of our studies.  I guess Princeton was different.  Oh well, I hear much the same from some Anglicans.  It’s not about homosexuality, it’s about the authority of scripture.  
I asked my acquaintance if it could be that the other side takes the authority of scripture just as seriously as he does, but hears the Spirit speaking through it in different ways.  Not if you’re following Bultmann was his reply.  
We wished each other a blessed and merry Christmas as we said goodbye.

It Came Upon A Midnight Clear, but we were not listening

Carol singing is popular this time of year.  Maybe door-to-door caroling not so much, but the familiar tunes echo through every store, mall and gathering place.  Christmas pageants are filled with them.  They’re on the radio nonstop.  Even we Advent observers are itching to sing them, and do.  There is one in particular that haunts me each Christmas season because it speaks such an uncomfortable truth.  If I am ever forced to live on a desert isle with only one Christmas carol, this would be it. 
It Came upon the Midnight Clear
Edmund Sears (1810-1876)
It came upon the midnight clear, that glorious song of old,
From angels bending near the earth to touch their harps of gold”
Peace on the earth, good will to men, from heaven all gracious King.  The world in solemn stillness lay to hear the angels sing.
Still though the cloven skies they come with peaceful wings unfurled, and still their heavenly music floats o’er all the weary world;
Above its sad and lowly plains the tidings which they bend on hovering wing,
And ever o’er its Babel sounds the blessed angels sing.
Yet with the woes of sin and strife the world has suffered long:
Beneath the heavenly hymn have rolled two thousand years of wrong;
And warring human kind hears not the tidings which they bring;
O hush the noise and cease your strife and hear the angels sing!
For lo! The days are hastening on, by prophets seen of old, 
When with the ever circling years shall come the time foretold, when peace shall over all the earth its ancient splendors fling,
And all the world give back the song with now the angles sing.