A Black and White Vengeful God?

God is vengeful.  It’s right there in black and white.
So say more than a few believing Christians who were well taught that whatever grace might be, it is delivered by the hand of a God who is quick to anger, unforgiving, and ready to condemn for all of eternity.  Years of Sundays devoted to the Good News of God in Christ Jesus, and long standing involvement in adult bible studies, cannot erase the damage done.
I wrote a newspaper article some years ago about the progressive nature of biblical revelation, how it is a constant unfolding of new and deeper understanding, always headed in the directions of inclusiveness, love and reconciliation.  I was slammed in a letter to the editor by a local pastor who demanded to make it known that there is nothing progressive in the bible.  It is all of a piece, and no part takes precedent over another.  All is equally true and inerrant. 
How sad is that?  I’ve tried to explain to those in my classes that God can only speak with the vocabulary that his listeners can understand.  The early followers of the God of Israel had a vocabulary that could accommodate neither monotheism nor the mercy of a God who loves his people and desires to engage with them for their wellbeing.  What vocabulary did they have?  It was the vocabulary of the gods of Egypt and Mesopotamia who were ruthless, capricious, numerous, needy and vengeful.   Nevertheless, as God spoke through successive prophets, he constantly pushed the vocabulary envelop in new directions, until we receive the full unveiling of God through Jesus Christ.  However, it seems that that it came to us in the form of a very complex origami package.  Two thousand years later we are still trying to unfold what that full unveiling is about.  God, it seems, is not done speaking.  That insight is hung on banners outside many UCC churches, and I think they’ve got it right.
That should not be hard to understand, but it seems that too many Christians have been treated with some kind of repellent.  They nod yes and go right on trying to read this or that text in it’s plain as day black and white meaning according to their early 21st century vocabulary, and without the slightest concern for how it relates to anything else in scripture.  The fact that God is not an American, that the two thousand years of Hebrew scripture cannot be judged as if nothing developed over those two millennia, and that the people of Jesus’ day cannot be imbued with contemporary American ways of thinking just does not penetrate.  
Oh well, I’ll keep on trying.

To Whom Do We Owe Our Freedoms?

Facebook has become a constant reminder of what dominates the thinking and conversation of some people.  That is particularly true for those who harp on the same thing day after day.  Over the last six months or so I’ve seen a multitude of posts from a predictable number of “friends” who have gone on and on about how we owe the freedoms we enjoy to our military might, and the fighting men and women who put their lives at risk for us. 
I have tremendous respect for the service rendered to our nation by those who serve in the military.  It deserves to be honored by more than the occasional parade and a “support our troops” bumper sticker.  It certainly deserves to be honored by more than supercilious posts on Facebook.  Honesty would be a good place to start, and a good place to begin with honesty would be to acknowledge that much military action has little to do with defending our American freedoms, and more to do with establishing, sustaining and defending American economic and political interests that, however important they may be, do not pose a danger to the American way of life.
A more important step toward honesty would be a closer examination of to whom and to what we owe the freedoms we enjoy.  What are those freedoms, and how did they come into being?  Never was there an army that conceived of a representative democracy.  Never was there a navy that contemplated what the law of the sea might be.  In a republic such as ours, the military is an agency of, and subordinate to, something larger and more important, and that is the will of the people as represented through freely elected representatives, within the context of a constitutional framework adjudicated by an independent judiciary.  Moreover, it is all underwritten by generations of philosophers, theologians, the press, and a variety of thought and opinion leaders operating in the political arena.  
To whom do we owe the freedoms we enjoy?  To thinkers, writers, teachers, publishers, and (good grief) politicians acting, as they sometimes do, in the best interest of future generations.  To whom do we owe the preservation of our freedoms into the future?  To an educated and politically involved electorate.  If there is a real threat to the American way of life, it no doubt lies there: an uneducated electorate with little recognition of their ignorance or desire to change.
As for Facebook, I prefer people who harp day after day on kittens, children, and sunsets. 

Bribes, Mussolini and Gullibility

Several ultra conservative house Republicans have said, in so many words, that phone calls from their major financial backers threatened to withdraw all future funding if they voted for the Boehner Plan B.  You may recall that the speaker intended to bring his own fiscal cliff plan to a vote in the house as a way to put pressure on the administration.  His Plan B would never had made to the floor of the senate, but it didn’t get even that far.  He had to withdraw his own bill because he was forty or fifty votes short in his own party.  Which brings me back to the ultra conservatives.
What they all but admit is that their votes have been bought and paid for by a small cadre of very wealthy persons who have no intention of allowing any tax rate increase in any form that might affect them.  Moreover, they are equally intent on driving American public policy as far toward laissez-faire as they can, and damn the consequences to the deadbeat leeches in the 47%, and their near cousins, the malleable little people who think they are middle class.
In my mind, it’s an incredibly blatant form of bribery.  What continues to astound me is how many people, whom their policies would economically and socially tear to pieces, can be relied on as true believers with unquestioning faith that Obama really is a socialist, and that a Teaparty style political agenda would be good for the country.  Thank goodness our republic is robust, and is unlikely to fall, for very long, under the spell of a bunch of right wing Mussolini like billionaires and their erstwhile but gullible followers. 

Worthy Fruit

What are fruits worthy of repentance?  John told those who came to him for baptism to bear fruit worthy of repentance.  So what would those fruits be?  That was a part of what my sermon last Sunday was about. 
These worthy fruits come with two problems.  The first has to do with repentance.  It doesn’t seem to matter how often we go over the meaning of repentance, the idea that it requires some deep expression of remorse over a particular moral failure is buried so deep that anything other than that is a hard sell.  The second has to do with what is required for something to be worthy.  Walking the Camino de Santiago de Compostela?  Climbing the steps of St. Peter’s on one’s knees?  Wearing a hair shirt with ashes?  Perhaps not quite that.  
Our contemporary American practice is to require some kind of public shaming, preferably the sort of shame that will stick for a good long time, allowing others a generous opportunity to tut-tut.  We don’t officially shun offenders, we just make them feel like they have been.   After all, wasn’t Lent intended to be a period in which those who had been excluded from Holy Communion because of notorious sins be lovingly restored to the bosom of the Church at Easter?  How good of us good people to be so forgivingly good to those notorious sinners. 
John, despite all the viper language, seems to have a different idea.  The mark of repentance, the fruit worthy of repentance, is to continue doing the ordinary work of daily life in the sure and certain knowledge that one is always walking in God’s sight.  That, it seems to me, was the great good news that his listeners heard.  By entering the waters of John’s baptism they bypassed the rigors of becoming acceptable to the guardians of the temple, something that was unlikely to ever happen, and came out as very much like the same person who went in, and yet dramatically changed as ones who, walking daily in God’s sight, led their ordinary lives in entirely new ways.  
So, and this is what we struggled with, by what do you measure the fruits of your labor?  Are they worthy of repentance?  That is to say, are they worthy of being gained while God is watching?  That gets to be a very interesting question.  Do I buy and sell in a way I want God to see?  Do I farm land, employ others, work for my boss, engage with my family and friends in ways that I want God to see?  Do I treat sales clerks, strangers, cops and crooks in ways that I want God to see?  In other words, as I go about my daily life, more or less as I always have, am I doing so in God’s company?
Think about it.   It could be that climbing the steps of St. Peter’s on one’s knees is easier.  Well, maybe not easier, but preferable to the discipline of walking in God’s sight.

Not Just Guns – It’s Mental Health Too

Gun enthusiasts have been quick to come down hard on the nation’s failure to provide adequate mental health care to those who need it most.  They are absolutely right.  We are lousy at it, and not just for those who need it most.  Mental illness needs to be addressed on a much broader scale than that. 
Years ago we closed down most of our state run mental hospitals, our insane asylums, because they were inhuman.  Many were.  We said that the mentally ill could be treated at the community level more effectively, at less cost and with more dignity.  That was true, but we never did it.  Moreover, mental illness has retained it’s patina of something sufficiently embarrassing to the rest of us that it must be kept in the closet, under the rug, locked in the basement, anywhere but admitted in decent society.
The past few decades have provided us with some extraordinary medicines that do amazing things to relieve the symptoms of mental illness, but prescribing them has fallen mostly to primary care givers who are not well trained in their use.  What choice do they have?  In our community we have only one psychiatrist in private practice.  The Yellow Pages list a slug of therapists of varying qualification.  At least, for the most part, they do no harm, and maybe some good.  So it’s the primary care physician who doles out the pills, and for goodness sake don’t ever suggest that mom or dad’s little helper has anything to do with mental illness.
As for those with serious mental illness, I have to give credit to the ones who have learned to cope with their psychoses most of the time.  Street drugs and alcohol help dull the pain, even if they make the psychosis worse.  It’s a deadly trap.  Homelessness is not that bad if you’ve got it figured out.  Holding a job is impossible, but one can learn to ignore the “pick yourself up and get a job you lazy bum” jibes from more decent people.  
We have two ways of helping them.  If they are crazy enough when they come into the ER, our Crisis Response Team can usually, but not always, find a bed for them in a city over a hundred miles away.  It’ll be a short stay, just long enough to detox and work on a new regimen of meds.  Acting out more often becomes a crime, and it’s off to jail, our number one mental health warehouse in the county. 
I don’t know what’s going on in your community.  In ours we are finally beginning to address our needs.  Both hospitals and several other agencies have a task force working on identifying our most pressing mental health issues.  The United Way has it’s own task force, and will dedicate as much as a third of it’s funding next year to a targeted mental health project.  The county will soon be receiving a small percentage of certain sales tax revenue dedicated to mental health.  All are working together to coordinate for significant impact on projects yet to be identified, but with intent to begin funding them by the spring of 2013.
In the meantime, one of our hospitals is about to offer the third in a continuing series of symposia aimed at helping physicians, nurses, hospital staff, pastors and other care givers improve the skills needed to attend to the emotional well being of others and themselves.  Another group has conducted two community wide workshops on the impact of Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACES) on emotional health and behavior.  The long standing work of other organizations that have for years helped dysfunctional families and abused spouses are getting more widely recognized.  It’s a start.  Not a very big one, but a start just the same. 

OK, I’m Finally Taking a Shot at the Gun Issue

I started several times to write about guns and the American obsession with violence as entertainment.  Nothing seemed to work.  I kept running into local people, whom I know well, convinced that any gun control legislation, in any form, is a threat to their freedom as guaranteed by the Constitution.  Some of them are among those who believe that we should arm teachers and encourage everyone to go about armed at all times.  Old west vigilante justice has been romanticized without any memory of why western folks got rid of it in favor of the rule of law and, yes, the banning of guns in public places. 
Some of that attitude is generated by fear, and, as one posted just today, fear not only of other armed persons, but of one’s own government.  Having a stash of weapons is one way to make sure that the government does not turn into a Stalinesque police state. Not everyone is that extreme in their views, but the NRA and fellow travelers have convinced many that having any gun they want without limitation is an unalienable right, an indelible mark of what American values are about.  Some have been convinced that there is a secret agenda to outlaw and confiscate all weapons.  Even ordinary hunters get nervous at the idea that their favorite rifle or shotgun might be restricted in some unknown way they might not like.
Lingering in the background are world events such as our decade of war in Iraq and Afghanistan, uprisings in Libya and Syria, the drug war in Mexico and the multitude of war lords wandering around parts of Africa.  I don’t know what effect they have on the American psyche regarding guns, but imagine that it’s substantial.
There is something else contributing to all of this, and I think it is the flood of gratuitous violence in contemporary entertainment in which firearms play a staring role.  Even more than television and movies, the most popular computer games seem to be all about war, revenge, crime and the successful resolution of all issues through killing, the greater the slaughter the higher the score. 
The result is that guns have become objects of worship, idols to which absolute loyalty has been pledged without the slightest consideration of the consequences.  Garry Wills wrote a scathing article about guns as our modern day Molech, the insatiable god that required the blood sacrifice of children in the days of ancient Israel and surrounding nations.  He may have overstated the case, but not by much.  Led by the gun lobby, fueled by irrational fear, and nurtured by outer fringe libertarian ideals, guns have become idols that seduce otherwise decent people into the most vile heresy.  If Satan is the great deceiver, then this is a good example of what the satanic looks like. 
I do not want to condemn my friends and acquaintances who have fallen into this way of thinking, and I have not yet figured out a way to write or speak that might lead them into a reasonable conversation without blowing our relationships to smithereens.  To use an apt metaphor, they have a hair trigger on this issue, and cannot tolerate even the slightest suggestion that we might need some form of gun control legislation.  Having a pastoral relationship with some of them makes it even more difficult.
As for me, I’d like to see guns and gun owners licensed in a way similar to how we license cars and drivers.  It would require training and passing a test to get a license.  Assault type weapons would be outlawed, as well as excessively large ammunition clips.  To me, that’s a reasonable approach well within the intent of the Second Amendment.  Would there still be scoff laws?  Probably.  Would it solve all gun related problems?  No.  So what!

Remembering Pearl Harbor

Like June 6, December 7 has become a national day of remembrance, more by custom than by formal resolution of governors and presidents.  The attack on Pearl Harbor marked our nation’s official entrance into WWII, the good war as Studs Terkel called it, and, with the stirring music of Victory at Sea ringing in our ears, we can be seduced into an inappropriate romanticizing of it.  At least that was my experience as a young man in my mid twenties when I first visited Pearl Harbor in 1968.
Because of the people I was with, we were given a VIP tour aboard the admiral’s barge.  Our small group spent a long time at the Arizona Memorial.  One of us, much older than I, noted a name he recognized from his very small Minnesota hometown.  He cried.  I didn’t understand.  I was a history buff and mesmerized by everything I saw.  At the time, surrounded by the tropical beauty of Hawaii, it seemed more heroically romantic than tragic.  Since then I’ve been back several times as an ordinary tourist.  I think it’s a place everyone should visit if they have the chance, but not without also visiting Punchbowl, the National Cemetery of the Pacific.
The tens of thousands of grave markers in a parklike setting high above Honolulu do not honor romantic heroes.  They mark the graves of ordinary young men, and some women, who had no intention of dying, who only wanted to survive to go home, who did not fully understand what it meant to kill another human being, who were probably scared out of their minds, but who, nevertheless, did what their country called on them to do.  William Manchester wrote “Goodbye, Darkness: A Memoir of the Pacific War,” the record of his cathartic journey to visit the battle sites of the Pacific that had haunted his nightmares for decades following his service in the Marines.  It’s a reminder to his readers that war should never be romanticized, sentimentalized, or trivialized.  But neither should it or it’s lessons be forgotten.
We must remember, not to celebrate, but with a certain gravitas leading to renewed commitment to work harder for life than death, harder for justice than oppression, harder for peace than war.

The Discipline of Morning Prayer from an undisciplined person

I’m not sure when it began, but years ago the Office of Morning Prayer became my daily discipline for time with God.  The daily lectionary takes me through most of the bible once every two years, and I often find myself wandering off into extended readings.  Collects for each day redirect my conversation with God from the routine of the usual and often banal litany of prayerish type thoughts.  Reading the psalms once every seven weeks keeps me in touch with the best and worst of my own inner thoughts and feelings.  And I am constantly provoked to remember before God the needs of people whom I often forget and ignore (sometimes they are me).
The Office was not intended as a private meditation but as a work in community taken from the ancient hours of prayer kept in monasteries and cathedrals.  It’s a beautiful service that dictated the beginning and end of the day during my years in seminary.  I suppose that someone in a hurry could rush through it in ten or fifteen minutes, although I cannot imagine what purpose that would serve.  The comics page in the morning paper might be a better use of such limited time. But I digress.
Intended or not, I have found it to be the perfect vehicle for my private time with God, but it can be hard work, even boring work.  Days never quite get off on the right foot if I don’t have my time with God in the discipline of Morning Prayer, but some days it just seems like another burdensome obligation to get over with before the real work of the day gets underway.  I find myself dithering away with inconsequential puttering before finally sitting down in the quiet of my study to talk with God, and wondering if we might not make this a quick one.  Looking out the window, I simultaneously ask to be reminded that I am ever walking in God’s sight and deciding how best to trim the bushes.  The passing squirrel takes me away from whatever scripture is open.  A beep from the computer entices me with what must be an important e-mail from…from who?  My nose is runny, my back itches, the dog wants out, now he wants in, I have to change that light bulb, what’s my first meeting of the day, should I get another cup of coffee.  God seems to take second place to just about any trivial thought that drifts in and out of my consciousness. 
Still, the discipline of Morning Prayer holds.  What could be a quick ten minute read turns into a half hour, and then an hour.  Formal prayer turns into conversation.  Sometimes I give God a chance to get a word in.  Whatever time the alarm goes off, I know I have to allow at least an hour with God before anything else happens.  That hour is often eroded by my short attention span, but I need the whole hour in any case.  So what good does it do?  I’m not sure.  I only know that the day is not right without it.  How prayer works is a mystery to me.  Maybe it doesn’t work at all, at least not in the sense that we normally think about how things work or not work to get something done.  What I do know is that I have been led away from prayer as a laundry list of things I want God to do, and into communion with God who seems to be willing to spend more time with me than I with him.  Maybe that is what prayer is all about.

Will He Get It Right This Time?

I’m always hesitant to write about Advent because so many others have, are now, and will write about it with deeper understanding and far more wit.  However, hesitation aside, here goes. 
It’s a goofy season.  My evangelical friends don’t acknowledge it, and my mainline Protestant friends give it a quick sweep as they green their churches.  So here we are, Episcopalians, some Lutherans and most Catholics, maintaining a season held in high disregard by most, including a fair number in our own congregations.  It’s such an odd in between time of endings and beginnings.  Jesus’ kingship has been acknowledged as the king of glory and king of kings who led a small ragtag group of followers, and never rode in style on anything better than a borrowed donkey.  Now we wait for the remembrance of his birth as the baby of an unwed mother born into the lap of poverty.  How strange is that?
Amidst it all, we are reminded that the people of Jesus’ day had good reason to expect a different kind of messiah.  The prophets, for the most part, were clear.  The messiah would be a proper king backed by the awesome power of God to vanquish all of their enemies, wreak appropriate levels of revenge, and rule a renewed empire, if not the whole world.  The messiah they got triumphed over all the powers of the universe, stood the common understanding of natural law on its head, defeated death, and illuminated the path of forgiveness, healing, reconciliation, and wholeness.  But he wasn’t a proper king, and didn’t do what he was supposed to do.  
It isn’t much different today.  Many Christians are consumed by expectations of the second coming that bear all the marks of a proper kingship shared by the people of Jesus’ day.  Moreover, they have enough scriptural text before them to endorse it.  When Jesus comes again he’ll get it right this time.  Wholesale slaughter of enemies, eternal punishment of most of humanity in a flaming hell, and the eternal establishment of the kingdom of God for the elect. 
We were wrong the first time.  Why would we be right now?  Didn’t God make it clear enough that God does not work in the way we expect?  The prophets, both old and new, were not entirely wrong.  The triumph of God, the banishment of evil and the healing of all creation is what they were inspired to understand, but they wrote it down, and write it still, in the language of human greed and desire for self righteous vengeance.  
Advent, it seems to me, is a time to think about that.  Then maybe we can approach the manger on bended knee in genuine humility and without the veneer of saccharine sentimentality that so often shrouds this holy moment.