Memorial Day – Harlan Miller Day

It’s Memorial Day weekend and time for me to write my annual column on Harlan Miller.  Regular readers will recall that Harlan was a WWII veteran who was badly wounded early in the war, spent several years in the hospital, and lived out his very long life as an impoverished recluse here in our valley.
Memorial day, as we all know, is not a day for honoring veterans, but a day for remembering those who were killed in war even as we pray for an end to war between nations and peoples.  It is a day not to romanticize war, but to shed tears for its tragic inhumanity.  War may sometimes be necessary, but it is never good, and most wars are far from necessary.  
Harlan, like many others, did not die on the battlefield, but war killed him just the same.  It robbed him of his ability to hold a decent job, stripped him of the ability to enjoy the fullness of intimate friendship, and trapped him in a purgatory of existence between youth and his fervent hope for a new life in God’s presence that would have to wait an earthly lifetime.  He died alone and poor, and today I will put a flag and some roses on his grave. 
Now and then I see newspaper ads, billboards, and Internet postings calling vets like Harlan heroes.  I think that’s a disservice to them.  They are not heroes, at least not in the popular sense of what heroism is.  They are men and women who simply did what they were called to do, they did their duty, whether drafted or volunteered, as members of our armed forces.  They did not give their lives for us.  They did what they could to not lose their lives, but they were taken from them just the same, and often for reasons that history has not looked upon kindly. They deserve both honor and thanks, but to call them heroes puts and unscalable wall between us and their humanity.
Moreover, we do not owe our freedom to them.  Armed forces are coercive instruments of conquest and control; history seldom grants them first place in the pursuit of freedom for the ordinary citizens of a nation.  More often they become the agents of suppression and oppression.  With few exceptions, that has not happened in America.  Freedom, the freedom we cherish as Americans, is the product of, and ultimately protected by, courageous political inquiry and debate in the public arena.  The Revolutionary War gave us independence from England, but the constitutional convention gave us our initial freedoms.  WWII stopped the dictatorial conquest of a large part of the world, but the voting and civil rights acts gave minorities full access to the freedoms others had enjoyed for decades.  Armies did not march with women demanding the right to vote.  Armies did not have the back of King’s nonviolent civil disobedience to end segregation.  Most of our wars have had nothing to do with defending our freedoms, and everything to do with establishing American power and authority over other peoples, if not for the cause of Western democracy, at least to stop movements violently opposed to it. 
Some may have been necessary for a variety of “realpolitik” reasons, but they were sold to the public as protecting our freedom because the public would not have tolerated sending their sons and daughters to be killed in the cause of “realpolitik.”   Nevertheless, they were sent.  Those who died in battle, and those who are yet to be buried, deserve not adulation as heroes but honor as ones who did their duty as their country sent them to do it.  We can honor them best not by romanticizing their deaths, but by working for the cessation of war.

What I Know About Gardening

We enjoy gardening, but are not obsessive about it.  With little direct sunlight, ours is mainly a yard of green, many shades of green.  We tried to grow a traditional English garden for a few years, but without enough sunlight, it was a dud.  Then we went into vegetable gardening.  Another bust.  I couldn’t even grow a radish or carrot.  So we are green, many shades of green.

As for the lawn, my theory is that if it is green and not prickly, it’s probably not a weed.  In any case, it’s lush, and without the benefit of Chemlawn or the like.  The neighbors are baffled by that.

The garden part of the yard, which is extensive, is rich with trees, bushes and plants, some flowering, the names of which I remember vaguely if at all, but then the birds and squirrels don’t know them either, so I’m in good company.  Anyway, my weed theory about the garden is that a weed is a perfectly fine plant growing where I don’t want it to grow.  So we do a little weeding now and then to keep things from getting out of hand, and the result is that visitors ooh and ah over it as long as they don’t get down on their hands and knees to look too closely.  The preventative is gin and tonics served on the patio.  Beer drinkers don’t care much one way or the other.
And that’s what I know about gardening.

What Legacy Shall We Leave?

The small rural congregation that I now serve a few times a month is aging. The youngest of us is in her fifties, and the majority are in their seventies or eighties.  In recent sermons, I’ve been asking the question of legacy.  What legacy does this congregation desire to pass on to the future generations?  Will there even be a future generation?
Previous generations found ways of transferring a sense of purpose and mission from one to another.  Never a large gathering, the congregation has served it’s members and the community faithfully and well for over a hundred years.  Will there be another hundred years to come?  It’s a good question.  The town isn’t growing, but it isn’t declining either.  Local conservative Evangelicalism has given a generally bad name to church life, so the number of “none” in this church filled town continues to grow.  It isn’t simply that the “none” have failed to choose a denomination; most of them have only the vaguest idea of what Christianity is even about, however much they might claim a belief in something akin to God as we understand God to be.  We cannot assume that there is a pool of easily catchable fish out there ready to swim into our denominational nets.
I think there is another, more important, stumbling block than a growing number of “nones”, aging members, or the demographics of the community, and that is the century long tradition of serving members and the community.  What about a tradition of serving God?  The long standing mission statement of the congregation is to know God and make him know, but when serving members and community becomes the measuring stick, the God part becomes invisible. 
To confess and follow God as made known in Christ Jesus must come first, and then the serving of members and community will take on the powerful, Spirit driven energy of doing God’s work through the church, rather than the church doing its own good work with an occasional reference to Jesus.  And that brings me to the question of legacy.
Many families are passionate about wanting to honor the good name that their parents and grandparents had bequeathed to them, and even more passionate about wanting sons and daughters to do the same. “Remember who you are.”  “Be proud to bear our name.”  “You have an obligation to uphold the traditions of our family.”  Whether for weal or woe, it’s a common theme.  So what about our congregations?
Shouldn’t the legacy we have received, and the one we want to pass on, be to remember who we are as followers of Jesus Christ, stand proud to bear the name of Christ, and take seriously our obligation to uphold and pass on the best of two thousand years of tradition?  Do we want to become a small handful of old people worshiping behind locked doors until the last one dies?  Or do we want to proclaim by word and example the good news of God in Christ no matter how old or few we become?
Our little church building and the congregation that worships in it will be remembered, but for what?  That is the question.

Accepting Jesus as Lord and Savior or Surrendering to God’s will. Which?

I had an interesting conversation the other day with someone who wondered if we Episcopalians could learn and thing or two from certain Evangelicals who are more than comfortable in asking (demanding?) whether one has accepted Jesus Christ as their Lord and Savior.  Are we Episcopalians too reluctant to claim and use the name of Jesus?  We also recognized that the Evangelical approach has become an enormous stumbling block to many who are put off by it and by other assumptions about what Christianity is about.
What, we wondered, if we took another tact, one that asked of ourselves and others whether we are willing to surrender to God’s will as made known in Jesus Christ?  There is a significance difference.  For one thing, I have no idea what accepting Jesus Christ as my Lord and Savior means.  It has become so much of a bumper sticker phrase that, for me, it has lost all meaning.   It has a ring of certainty to it that implies that whatever it means, it answers all questions and is itself the destination for all who will be saved, but from what and for what? It also seems to imply a sense of ownership.  Having accepted Jesus as MY Lord and Savior, I now own him in some way.  I doubt that’s what they mean, but that’s what it sounds like.
Surrendering to God’s will as made known through Jesus Christ is another thing altogether.  It’s a little scary.  It requires us to inquire what we can know about God’s will through what Jesus said and did.  Even a cursory reading of the gospels leads in many directions that drive us back into Hebrew scripture, forward into other texts of the New Testament, and deep into our own hearts and minds, and the contexts of our lives.  All those directions cross over and under each other in confusing patterns.  To make a comparison, they can take on the appearance of an impenetrable maze when, in fact, they are a labyrinth (three dimensional) that, if followed, leads unerringly to God’s presence, but not by any straight path.
Surrendering to God’s will requires knowing Jesus, not accepting him.  If requires walking with him, talking with him, eating with him, and trusting that he is God incarnate who loves us.  He is a most confusing Savior who desires both to be worshipped as God incarnate and take up residence in our hearts as our most intimate companion.  Surrendering embarks us on an adventure in life and living where our plans and intentions engage in unpredicted and unpredictable events and outcomes.  Like the most romantic of adventures, danger lurks, and injury and death are real possibilities.  But so also is a fullness of life beyond measure, and the assurance of our safe arrival home. 
I’m not sure how well that will sell out in the religious market place, but perhaps it can inspire us to be more bold about claiming and using the name of Jesus.  Who knows?  Maybe there will be others who will want to enter into such a life with us.  We don’t go on our adventures alone.  We go in the presence of one another.  In our best moments we lift each other up, help each other with our burdens, and learn to live in respectful tolerance of our many differences.  We celebrate our victories and mourn our losses.  Sometimes we lose heart or become bored.  We abandon our adventures and sit on the wayside watching life pass us by.  By and by Jesus always comes along to sit with us for a spell, and then together we begin again.
That’s a little of what a life of surrender looks like.  Wonder if can sell?

The Legacy of Old, White Males

I am at the CREDO conference for retired clergy of which I wrote in an earlier post.  I cannot say that I am having a terrific time.  Eight days of meetings meant to help me reenter daily life with renewed vigor and vision is about four days too long, as far as I’m concerned.  Besides, I’m not unhappy with the state of my vigor and vision.  But it has been worthwhile in its own way.
At one of our evening gatherings someone noted that we are a very white, male gathering.  Of the 39 of us, only a handful are women, and none are of any color other than pasty white.  Partly it’s a generational thing.  Clergy of our age come from a time when there were few ordained women, and fewer clergy of some ethnicity other than Northern European.  Most of us, it seems, were raised in the Northeast and Mid-Atlantic states, thus narrowing the scope of our backgrounds even further.  So it should not come as a surprise that we are old, white and male.
However, we are also the generation whose legacy to the Church has been the ordination of women, the slow transformation toward a more inclusive Church, and a recommitment to economic and social justice here and abroad.  Stumbling but persevering efforts to include anti-racism and anti-sexism training for all ordained and lay church leaders, implementation of programs to protect our children from sexual abuse, and a decades old screening process to weed out potential abusers from the ranks of clergy wannabes, are also legacies bequeathed to the Church from this generation of old, white males.  
It’s not that we did all these things willingly or in unison.  We have also been a cantankerous, stubborn, and skeptical generation that often had to be pushed, pulled and kicked into the future.  Some small portion of us couldn’t take it and bolted for the presumed safety of newly formed ersatz “Anglican” denominations, or the golf course, whichever came first.  But the fact remains that it is a generation that held the reins of power in the Church, and guided it in new directions, as it was led to do through prayerful discernment of God’s will.  
That’s not a bad legacy.  Now the questions is, how does one leave all that behind and get on with life in a new way?

Four Faces of God

The readings for Morning Prayer on the Feast of the Ascension included the passage from Ezekiel where he was confronted by heavenly creatures bearing the image of God, and whose heads had four faces: human, ox, lion, and eagle.  It’s an image similar to one found in Revelation, and it reminded me of how often it has been used to symbolize the four gospels.  I never can remember which gospel goes to which face, and this morning I began to wonder about other symbols.  For instance, whether the four faces more fully represent our humanity, or what it means to be made in the image of God, and to bear that image into the world?  I have no doubt that others have covered the same ground, but, since I am unfamiliar with whatever they had to say, here goes my own take.
We’ve become accustomed to the language of Freud and Jung, who parsed our personalities into their component parts, and farmed them out to psych labs and instrument designers who have given us all kinds of fun ways to pigeonhole ourselves with interesting names and acronyms.  I am, myself, an INTJ, if anyone cares.  Perhaps God gave Ezekiel another way to look at what it means to be fully human.
We have the human face we present to the world, the one that enables others to recognize us, that enables us to express ourselves, and that both entices and offers judgments of everything and everyone within our sphere of awareness. It is an enigmatic face that both reveals and hides, and it can never permit full knowledge of self and others.  Yet, perhaps it reveals enough and hides enough to make do. 
There are also parts of us that behave in more primitive, instinctive ways.  Like an ox, we can be plodding, not too bright, a carrier of burdens, and hauler of whatever we have been hitched to, passively munching and working our way through life, sometimes wondering if there might be more to it.  Lions and eagles are different.  Like a lion we can prowl for prey, not suffer fools gladly, impose our wills on everything including other lions, if we can.  Some part of us is able to gracefully soar like an eagle grace into the unlimited vault of sky, seeing all with perfect clarity and focus, swooping to capture what we want before it knows that it’s been taken.  But we will eat road kill if necessary.  We can be all of these, and we are to one degree or another.
Oxen, lions and eagles are generously endowed to do well what they are able to do.  They have nothing to hide and no shame to feel.  There is no duplicity in them.  Yet they constrained to their assigned places in the order of creation, fated to live it out within the most limited of choices to be made.  They are moderated, perhaps integrated, behind our human face, our complicated, many layered, duplicitous human face, not as demons to be purged nor as Jungian shadows to be brought to the surface, though they might be both.  In a more healthy sense, they are important parts of who we are.  We need them to be complete.  God knows that.  Our inmost parts are not hidden from him, however well we might hide them from ourselves, and he showed them to Ezekiel, not to frighten but to demonstrate that they are essential to who we are as bearers of the image of God.
Perhaps there is more to be said at another time.  We shall see.