Memorial Day

Originally intended by mothers, wives and daughters of those who died in the Civil War as a day to remember the terrible cost of war, a day for healing, a day to pray for peace, Memorial Day has become a day to remember all our loved ones, especially those who served in the armed forces and died while on active duty.
It has become common place to pray for those who gave their lives for our freedom, and so, from time to time, we need to be reminded that few gave their lives, their lives were taken from them by the violent tragedy of wars that have not always been about protecting our freedom, but were engaged in for other reasons.  Nevertheless, they died in service to their country, doing their duty as they were called to do it, expecting to come home to a better way of life, but paying the ultimate cost.
Let us offer our prayers for each of them, commending their souls to Almighty God that, their sins forgiven, and abounding in the steadfast love of God, they may rest in peace.  Let us offer our prayers for our leaders, that the time may not be far off when wars will cease and nations will live in peace with one another.  Let us offer prayers for each other, that we may be slow to urge sending our young men and women into harm’s way.  Let us offer our prayers in the name of the Prince of Peace who died once for all.
Not all victims of war died during war. Some carried their wounds throughout their lives.  They too deserve our prayers, and our unending commitment to do something about that.

Mr. MIller

Memorial Day is coming up, so I offer my annual note about Harlan MIller.  Mr. Miller, as most everyone called him, died in abject poverty, an old man having no immediate family, and only one shirttail cousin.  He was used to it.  He’d been born into poverty and knew very little else his entire life.  Just the same, he was as self educated as a man could get from books of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.  It left him stuck in an intellectual time capsule, but with the ability to write his daily journal in Latin.
He got drafted early in WWII.  A little training, and then to the invasion of North Africa.  It didn’t take long.  He was blown up and littered with shrapnel.  He got out of the hospital about the time the war ended.  Back home he wasn’t much use to anyone.  Too many wounds, too few skills; it was easier to become a hermit.  And hermit he was till the day he died.  Yet he found his way to the church, seldom missed a bible study, offered curt one sentence advice to women on how to act like proper nineteenth century ladies, gave irises for the garden, and sometimes a small bag of tea to those he knew had a fondness for it.  A few pennies in the plate was an honest tithe, one of the few.
The rector of the parish was the executor of his ancient will.  I was the rector.  When all was done and his tiny shack sold for the land it was on, two congregations, one in Canada, each received about $10,000, the fortune of a lifetime.  It was, perhaps, the most generous gift either congregation will every receive.
Maybe I’ll put an Iris on his grave this year.  Mr. MIller.  How many Mr. MIllers were there, and are there still?

Revealing Revelation

Our five week study of Revelation with the small rural congregation I serve a few times a month is over, and I’m glad to see it go.  It’s my least favorite book in the bible.  In fact, least favorite is saying too much.  I do not care for it at all.  There is so much in the bible worthy of deep study, and, if we are Christ centered, none is more important than diving into what Jesus is reported to have said and done in the light of the prophets who preceded him. 
As far as I’m concerned, Revelation is a side bar, a distraction, but a powerful one for many.  Its fantastical visions and images captivate imaginations, titillate fears, and challenge the ability to distinguish what is real from what isn’t.  
Some believe that, because it is the last book, it must be the most authoritative, the final word so to speak, the book against which all other books in the bible must be measured.  Some believe that it reveals the blueprint for the end of time, and it is ignored at one’s peril.  Some have been persuaded by popular books and preachers who literally scare the hell out of them, or into them, through artful use of the book’s visions.  In spite of Christ’s repeated assurance of salvation, they are certain that people they know are destined for eternal punishment in hell, and are fearful that they also may be headed that direction.  For some, there is a lingering suspicion that all this stuff about how much God loves us is just a game of godly gottcha.
So they entered the study of Revelation with wide eyed anticipation that it might unlock some great secret of the universe, an inside scoop on what God is up to, a code to tell them when the world will end, and, maybe most of all, to confront once again the thundering threats of damnation that some idiot preacher had nailed onto their hearts during their formative years. 
I don’t know if our five weeks together were a disappointment.  I think we made progress in demystifying it.  We teased out the more important themes of hope, healing, reconciliation and restoration.  We emphasized the certainty of God’s triumph over evil: it is not a battle yet to be fought, the outcome of which is uncertain.  We explored the geopolitical setting in which John received his visions.  We discussed ancient and contemporary (to John) religions that were competing with Christianity.  We followed a few strands from Revelation back to passages in the Hebrew scriptures.  Time and again I argued that Revelation must be measured against the rest of scripture, especially the gospel stories, and not the other way round.  We tried hard to understand the role of metaphor, but it was difficult.  I was caught off guard when, in our final session, a question was raised about whether Babylon and Rome were literally, not metaphorically, the same, and that the Babylon of the Hebrew scriptures was the same city as modern day Rome.
Disappointed or not, they did ask for another round of bible study to be scheduled in the weeks ahead, and that’s a good thing.  I’m going for something simple next time.  Amos maybe.

May. Bah!

Eliot declared April to be the cruelest month, but I think May is a worthy competitor, at least where I live.  Here, May brings weather that unpredictably gyrates from sunny and hot to rainy and cold.  In between it’s just overcast.  Newly manicured lawns and patios are trashed with locust seeds and other tree generated detritus, while garages are filled with cottonwood tufts, and both are dragged muddily through the house by pets and people alike. 
One day I’m in my summer uniform of shorts, tee shirt and flip flops (slippers).  The next I’ve got on winter clothing that needs to be put away, and soon.  The fireplace may not yet have seen its final blaze until fall.  But it is possible that the air conditioner could get an unexpected workout. 
It’s the fickleness of the whole thing.  Whatever happened to the romantic ideal of a seamless, gentle transition of spring into summer?  I thought May was supposed to provide that.

It’s that Time Again

Pentecost is upon us, and each year I am reminded of how hard it is to grasp the idea of the Holy Spirit.  I was part of a group years ago that regularly met to discuss things theological.  It included Anglicans, Roman Catholics, Conservative Jews, Reformed Jews and Russian Orthodox.  Quite a gaggle of religious types.  Oddly enough, no main line Protestants.  Don’t know why.
Anyway, the one thing that eluded us was an ability to talk with each another about the Holy Spirit in ways that made sense to each other, which may have something to do with each of us not being able to make much sense to ourselves either.  The Russian Orthodox generally solved the problem by waving their hands in the air and proclaiming it to be a holy mystery, thus delivering us from any more anguish about it.
So what about regular Christians and wannabe Christians sitting in the pews on Pentecost Sunday?  The only redeeming thing for them is that it won’t be as confusing as Trinity Sunday the week following, perhaps explaining the usual low turnout for Trinity Sunday.  For one thing, what does Pentecost mean?  Isn’t it one of those freaky symbols wizards and witches use to summon up dark forces?  Just how much about Jewish festivals can one inflict on a congregation without running out of time to deal with the Holy Spirit?
Then there is the problem of tongues of fire.  Were they real tongues of fire, or just something that looked like tongues of fire?  Maybe something like St. Elmos’ Fire?  Oops!  Don’t want to go down that road or we’ll end up on Sesame Street.  What about those languages.  They’re not the same thing as glossolalia, right?  Which brings up another word to stay away from.  And we are still not at the power and presence of the Holy Spirit.  We’re just dancing around the edges. 
In any case, it’s a story about something that happened a very long time ago to a people we do not know living in a strange place under conditions we cannot apprehend.  It doesn’t seem to have anything to do with us, and, if it means that we are supposed to act like those Pentecostals down the street, well that’s just too weird, and we’re not going to do it.  Episcopalians don’t do silly things.  So there!
How to make the Holy Spirit understood as a tactile, physical presence with real power, and not as some vague metaphorical something or other that the preacher goes on about now and then?  That’s the problem.  I’m still working on it.  We shall see what happens on Sunday.

Thoughts on the European Economy

The austerity program in Europe doesn’t seem to be working all that well.  Restructure your debt, and live within your means by immediately and drastically cutting government expenditures, sounded like good common sense advice, and certainly something had to be done.  Bureaucracies in the so called PIIGS nations (Portugal, Italy, Ireland, Greece, Spain) were bloated and inefficient.  Guaranteed social benefits were overly generous and unfunded.  Deficit spending and national debt had climbed to unsustainable levels.  Banks were under capitalized.  What a mess!
What appeared to be the common sense solution just is not working.  As it turns out, Keynes was right, you cannot financially starve a country into prosperity.  All it produces is a deepening recession accompanied by very unhappy citizens verging on riot and revolution.  Add some strong arm tactics to put down civil unrest and it’s a path toward authoritarian rule. 
So what might work?  How about focussing on reforms of a more prosaic nature?  Some of these countries, Greece and Italy especially, are well known for massive tax evasion by just about everyone.  The very rich report only a fraction of their income.  Lower classes don’t report at all.  Shops collect the VAT on every sale, but forward only a portion, or none, to the state.  It’s hard to run even a slimmed down government under circumstances like that.  Honest enforcement of the tax laws might produce enormous revenues for the state without jeopardizing anyone’s well being.
What about reducing bureaucracies through attrition while enforcing simple rules promoting efficiency and punishing bribery?  It would require a change in organizational culture, but, I suspect, a welcome one.
What about phased in changes to working hours, retirement ages, and paid leave benefits in ways that would enable ordinary families to prepare and adjust without feeling like they have had it shoved down their throats?
Instead of shutting down public expenditures altogether, what about a carefully designed plan of additional investment in appropriate infrastructure, both physical and social?
It would still require a massive restructuring of debt, and, perhaps, Greece at least would still find its way out of the Euro and back to the Drachma.  It would not be a quick fix, but it might stave off a European wide depression while setting the groundwork for long term economic recovery.  
To me, that’s common sense.

Beware The Jabberwock My Son, and also the Triennial Convention of the Episcopal Church

The Episcopal Church is preparing for its regular triennial convention this summer.  The House of Bishops will meet in sessions separate from the House of Deputies, which is made up of some 800 clergy and laity.  Either house may propose legislation in the form of a resolution, but each house must agree, in identical language, for a resolution to pass.  Deputies will have received a five pound notebook of papers to help them prepare for it.  Over nearly two weeks they will debate close to a thousand pieces of “legislation” that will have been parsed by committees holding open hearings.  The whole thing is an embarrassment of bureaucracy complicated by arcane rules of order, and the ridiculous idea, solemnly held, that all this so called “legislation” has real meaning for the kingdom of God, the world, the nation, the church and the ordinary people sitting in the pews.  Some of it does, but only some.
What got me going on this was a recent gathering where a several persons who are deeply involved in Convention took great pride in boasting about its size, length, number of resolutions, complexity of process, and the mind numbing endurance it takes to attend the many committee hearings scheduled for the odd hours of early morning and late night as if, somehow, all this exhausting vertical motion represents forward movement. 
That’s just not right!  If egos are well served by such a large, complicated gathering, so be it and God bless them.  But all the essential business of the church could easily be handled in half the time, through relatively simple procedures, culling resolutions to those that actually have something to do with the life and ministry of the church.
Twice I have been a deputy to Convention, and have been dumfounded at the time spent in floor debates about commas, prepositions, adjectives, and adverbs.  Additional time was spent on resolutions by the dozens commending, condemning, and instructing everyone from the United Nations to Congress and the President on a variety of issues, few of which will even be remembered within a week or two.  Grandiose plans for ministry in every conceivable area of interest are worked up with great enthusiasm only to be left unfunded, unheralded and unlamented.  Hearings on very complex and important subjects requiring serious scholarly study become arenas for the expression of personal opinion and emotional conviction testified to without fear of contradiction.
It’s not all bad.  Daily worship in the company of so many brothers and sisters in Christ is an amazing experience.  Small group bible study is always worthwhile, especially since it mixes up people from every part of the communion.  Now and then a genuine spirit of prayerful discernment descends upon the gathered, often through the gifted words of a chaplain.  The exhibit hall is a riot of churchy stuff to tempt even the most miserly, and there are a lot of freebies.  A supply of New York Times crossword puzzles and few good books help keep the mind sharp while interminable babbling issues forth from floor microphones.  New friendships are made, networking between interest groups takes place, and there are abundant opportunities for interesting conversation.  
Just the same, we can do better.  I hope we do.  I bet we don’t because we won’t.