Where You Are Today Is No Accident

One of my Facebook friends posted the following text that someone had shared with her: “Where you are today is no accident.  God is using the situation you are in right now to shape you and prepare you for the place he wants to bring you into tomorrow.  Trust him with his plan, even if you don’t understand it.”  I imagine it was intended to give hope and encouragement.  For a nanosecond, it does, but then a few questions are bound to rise up.
Today, on the feast of The Holy Innocents, does anyone believe that God planned and was using the death of innocent children in Bethlehem to shape someone, their parents perhaps, for a better life tomorrow?  I’ve been to two heroin overdose incidents this week.  Does anyone seriously think their being addicts overdosing on bad heroin was in God’s plan to shape them for a better life?  My dishwasher flooded the kitchen this morning.  A hose coupling broke.  Was that part of God’s plan?
That kind of thinking is just plain lousy theology.  Which is not the same thing as saying that God cannot be present in any situation, accidental or otherwise, offering the opportunity for something good to emerge from it.  Moreover, something good emerging from a bad situation does not magically make everything all right.  What was bad, hurtful, unjust, or immoral is still bad, hurtful, unjust or immoral, but it is possible that, through God’s presence, something worthwhile might yet emerge, and it most certainly would require a little cooperation from you and me.  
There are only two words in that unoriginal broken down aphorism worth paying attention to: trust him.  Not trust him with his plan, just trust him.  That’s all.  Accidents happen.  Evil people do evil things without God’s permission or intent.  You and I do dumb things that no doubt have God shaking her head in disbelief.  What I am certain of is that I can trust God, as I know God in Christ Jesus, to be there with an offer of grace and direction.  That’s not the same thing as believing that God caused me to be in whatever condition I find myself, even as he leads me in a new a better direction, a direction I may or may not go in.
Let me put it a different way.  Paul matured enough in his faith (his trust in God) to let God lead him to his final days in Rome.  I have no doubt that God knew, in whatever mysterious way God knows, that the trip would involve many unpleasant hardships, but that does not mean God planned or caused those hardships.  It only means that Paul could trust God to lead him through them to the completion of his ministry.  The completion of Paul’s ministry may have been God’s plan, but God had to rely on the unreliability of a human being.
If you are not happy with that, you have three choices.  One is to say that God is in charge of absolutely everything and we have no choice except to perform as God has planned for us.  Another is to claim that there is a plan, and unless we find and follow it we are condemned to hell.  The third is to assert that the devil is the ruler of this world, and we are the victims of his plan of destruction with our only hope being God’s partial and tentative victory over him.  Oddly enough, I know some who hold all three positions at the same time.  Curious that.

That’s not what I find in the gospel record, and I don’t think you can find it either except by stitching together a patchwork of verses separated from their context.  

With Whom is God not Pleased

The angels appeared above the shepherds to sing God’s glory and to announce peace on earth to those with whom God was pleased.  What about those with whom God is not pleased?  Who are they?
I’m a Christian, God is pleased with me.  You’re not a Christian, God is not pleased with you.  I get peace.  You don’t.  Is that how it works?  Many think so, usually with a caveat or two such as, you’re a Christian if you have accepted Jesus as your personal Lord and Savior, or you have been born again, or you have been slain by the Spirit, otherwise you’re a Christian in name only, but not really, so God is probably not pleased with you.
When I pick up the scriptures to search out what God says is not pleasing to him, this is what I find: oppressing the poor and others, cruelty, acts of injustice and unfairness, and worshiping other gods are on the list.  So too are religious practices that claim to worship God but are a self righteous cover for behaving in ways that are oppressive, cruel, unjust and unfair.
As for worship of other gods, most of us are not big on the pantheon of historic gods, except for entertainment or intellectual curiosity, but contemporary gods abound:  cars, money, sex, careers, power, social position, clothes, celebrities, sports, drugs, you name it.  We worship this stuff.  We construct rites to honor them.  We sublimate our lives, and the lives of those we say we love, to them.  Some of us do it while claiming the name of Christ.  Others figure all that God stuff is a fairy tale.  These other gods are more available and reliable.
If God creates the world, God loves the world, and God redeems the world from it’s own ways of error and sin, then I don’t believe anyone has to be outside the circle of those with whom God is pleased.  Stepping outside that circle is something we do all by ourselves, and it has more to do with our beliefs, attitudes and behaviors than it does with whether we confess Jesus Christ with the correct formula that unlocks the doorway in.
So who is God pleased with.  I think God is pleased by those who by word and deed, by what they say and how they live their lives, proclaim the good news that the kingdom of God has come near.  I’m not very good at it.  It’s a work in progress.  


Good King Wences Last Looked Out On The Feast of Steven

As a young boy, the song became one of my all time favorites because it was all about me, although why it was sung at Christmas time when my birthday was in February was confusing.  It would have been better had it been sung by Gene Autry, but you had to go with what you got.
“Good King Wences Last Looked Out On The Feast of Steven.”  At least that’s the way I heard it, and it made sense.  Señor Wences was a popular ventriloquist on the Ed Sullivan Show, so why shouldn’t there be a King Wences?  Probably a Spanish King of long ago, although I was a bit suspicious of the snow laying round about, cold and crisp and even, because I figured Spain was a sunny, warm place, perhaps something like Florida.  I was old enough to know they had made a terrible spelling mistake, Stephen rather than the proper Steven, but it was forgivable.  My teacher sometimes made the same one.
That’s a memory that resurfaces each December 26 as I begin to hum the tune, and it reminds me to consider the children in church who are hearing the old stories and songs that are old to us, but new to them.  The hermeneutic of the young is inventive.  Searching for a context into which words might fit, words that are themselves unfamiliar, will result in some strange takes, but if the words are important, children will do what they can to make sense out of them.
We want those words to be important, so we might want to consider how to craft contexts that go in the right direction.  I think that is part of what the popular Godly Play program is about, and I think that’s what pastors try to do with children’s sermons, but seldom achieve.  
Once upon a time, there was a young man who was a follower of Jesus.  He liked to tell the story of Jesus to anyone who would listen, and he was very good at it.  But he died at a young age, so we remember him each year on the day after Christmas to remind us to do what he did and tell the story of Jesus to others.
Once upon another time, a time when there were a lot of bad kings, there was a very good king who lived in a very cold country.  His name was Wenceslas.  It was a cold, windy, snowy day after Christmas, and the king was remembering about Stephen.  He looked out and saw a poor man struggling in the snow to find wood for a fire.  King Wenceslas went out into the storm to bring the poor man into the castle for food, drink and warmth.  We sing a song about him to remind us to be kind and generous, even if it isn’t easy or convenient.

I might have understood the song better had I heard it explained that way, although I would have been terribly disappointed to learn that it wasn’t about me or a king related to Señor Wences.

The Obligatory Christmas Article – Bah!

You’ve noticed, I suspect, that many, maybe most, newspaper and magazine columnists feel obliged to churn out the obligatory Christmas article.  Radio and television news media salt most every broadcast with something Christmasy.  Around here it’s usually something on house decorations, a parade, or cops shopping with kids.  Pastors are no different, at least from what I see in parish newsletters and on websites.   It’s enough to make me begin mine with Bah Humbug!
I enjoy the holiday season as much as anyone.  The decorated houses look great.  Downtown in our small city is alive with traffic.  Restaurants are full.  Festive concerts abound from the symphony, to country rock, to the eighth grade choir, and everything in between.  Non Advent observing churches have been at it for weeks.  Which brings up a question.  How come the Adventists don’t observe Advent?  But I digress. 
All that I love.  I’m not too fond of the nonstop sentimentalized, sugar coated, made for t.v. movies.  There are only two plots, and there’s not much difference between them.  As one friend noted, they must not pay their writers much, and they’re overpaid at that.
The holiday season is so predictable, and if there is one thing I’ve come to know about God it is that God is not predictable.  There is nothing that prepared Elizabeth, Zachariah, Joseph or Mary for what was about to happen to them.  The shepherds were caught off guard and terrified.  Herod was blindsided.  Only the wise men seemed to have a clue, and they got lost.  The true meaning of Christmas came crashing into an unprepared world through the lives of unprepared people who did the best they could with what they never wanted to do in the first place, and for whom the true meaning of it all remained a mystery to be held and pondered. 
My friend David, a recovering fundamentalist, has a hard time with that.  He was taught that all these folks were so fully in tune with God that they performed like a well oiled team responding to the plays as they were called in by angelic quarterbacks.  
God doesn’t seem to play by those rules.  Most pastors have had people ask for help to discern God’s plan for their lives, and they are sure it can be done because there are many books and pamphlets that say so.  That’s not how it works, or at least that’s not how it has worked according to the scriptural record.  God just interrupts normal life to show up out of nowhere needing a quick meal and directions to Sodom, to light a bush but not burn it up, to call a child into the life of a prophet, to call a shepherd out of the field and onto a throne, to confront a young woman with an unplanned pregnancy, to call fishermen out of boats to become disciples, to knock and enemy off his horse and make him an apostle.  

I’m as surprised by, and unprepared for, Christmas as was Joseph.  That’s part of what keeps it so fascinating.  I have no idea what God has in mind for the remainder of my life, and considering the adventures that have taken me through the past seventy years, I’m almost afraid to guess, but I do trust him, or her, as the case may be, if there is a case.

Rabid Gun Rights Aficionados Have a Point

NPR ran a story about guns and gun control.  Part of it included an interview with a gun lobbyist from Colorado who rehearsed the usual litany about the inviolability of the Second Amendment, which he understands to establish a universal, unlimited right, and how the nation would be safer if more people carried guns, especially teachers.  It wasn’t until the end of the interview that he said something more revealing.  It was the because clause.  Everything in his prior argument was because our freedoms are being taken away and we cannot trust the government.
That’s the key isn’t it?  At least for him, the gun arguments are a way of expressing his irrational fear that his freedoms are being stripped away by a tyrannical government.   Several local acquaintances are of the same opinion.  It’s all about anxious fear that freedom is being taken away.  To me their fears are irrational to the point of being psychotic, but are they?
In some ways they are right.  Their freedom to prevent others from enjoying the same rights they have always had has been steadily eroded over the last forty years.  The laws will no longer prop up a huge arsenal of segregation practices that they once endorsed.  They are still enormous issues in our society, and will be for years to come, but with the laws no longer behind them, the customary practices that continue to give them life are slowly dying.   
Their freedom to rely on white men to hold the reins of power is gone.  A black man is in the White House.  Some are even generals and admirals.  Women lead legislative bodies, and are named to top posts in government and business.  The local preacher is more likely to be female than male.  Hispanic sounding names keep getting on ballots.  Gays and lesbians are pouring out their closets, sometimes onto the sacred turf of manly men sports.  Moslems are everywhere.  Hordes of illegal immigrants and outsourced jobs are ruining the economy, and it doesn’t take much of that kind of talk to craft a comprehensive story line that relishes a Rambo like response as the only one left. 
Then along comes the NSA to put the Good Housekeeping Seal of Approval on even the most bizarre conspiracy theory.  “Aha, they really are conspiring to get me!”  After all, just because you’re paranoid doesn’t mean they aren’t out there.  A hoodied robber in every 7-11.  A kidnapper in every Walmart parking lot.  Carjackings at every corner.  Gang signs on every teenager.  Oh we got trouble right here in River City and only my weapons will keep me safe from THEY and them and probably from you too.

It makes a certain kind of sense from that point of view.     

A Few Thoughts on Western Libertarian Ideology

In 1981, Joel Garreau wrote a book about the Nine Nations of North America, regions separated by settlement patterns, language, political outlook, density of population, etc.  Out where I live, in the intermountain plateau of the West, we were labeled the Empty Quarter because of our sparse population density.  Characterized by romantic images of the Old West, we were said to be an independent minded collection of folks a tad on the contrarian side.
A more recent author, Colin Woodard, made a few minor headlines not long ago with his take on the Eleven Nations of North America.  My region is now called The Far West, which, he asserted, is intensely libertarian.  Voting patterns seem to point in that direction.  Our congressional district has lived up to that label in recent elections, and even more on the editorial pages of local papers, but Tom Foley came from here, and the voices of those who are not of the far right are growing louder, so there may be more political diversity than some imagine.  
It is a fascinating contradiction to me that those holding the dominant libertarian view are unwilling to recongize that they can exist at all in this region because government largesse (read taxpayers somewhere else) paid for it, and yet they distrust government, especially the federal government, confident in their  assertion that everyone needs to stand on their own two feet, like they do, without expecting a handout from the nanny state. 
Let’s review.
The Indians who inhabited our part of the Far West were relatively peaceable and prosperous until European settlement began to push them out of the way.  Assuring a future for continued European settlement and development required federal armed forces to build forts and conduct wars of attrition to make the region safe for white settlers.  Who paid the cost?  Well, apart from Indians who paid in disease, lives and land, Eastern taxpayers did.  And let us not forget the Homestead Act of 1862 and its successors.
The 19th century towns that arose, especially those bustling with gold rush fever, were rough places of saloons, brothels, and greed.  Rough places required rough justice, vigilante justice, and it didn’t take long for the good people of our communities to demand strict gun control, hire legitimate law enforcement officers, establish fair courts, all to make towns safe for good church going families.  It took a while, but local governments leaned hard on those who felt free to shoot the place up.  They also leaned hard on would be settlers who were not white Europeans, but that’s another story.
Bringing transportation to the region required generous federal incentives to railroad companies; direct federal investment in river navigation; and federal, state and local investment in roads and highways.  Among other things, government investment in transportation opened up global markets for Western grain, most of which is exported.  The local population’s share of those costs was not much.  The greater burden was carried by taxpayers from other parts of the country.
Rural electrification didn’t come until the 20th century as one of those dastardly socialist FDR New Deal programs.  Those same programs began the process of damming the Columbia and Snake rivers to prevent floods, create cheap hydropower electricity, enable the irrigation of the high desert, and opening barge traffic to Pacific coast ports.  It transformed our area into one of the nation’s most productive agricultural regions.  Who paid for all of that?  
In each case, the cost to the national taxpayer was seen by legislators as an investment in the future of the nation as a whole.  No individual person in Ohio, Virginia, or New York would see any direct benefit, but they were required to pay their share just the same.  It was an investment that paid off handsomely.  Local folks who took advantage of all this government largesse became prosperous, if not rich.  The nation’s Gross Domestic Product soared.  I’m sure that most Easterners didn’t recognized that their return on the investment came on grocery store shelves, lumber for houses, gold in their teeth, etc.
It helps, of course, that various farm bills have been enacted to underwrite, subsidize, and promote farms not only as an investment in food self sufficiency and export opportunity, but also to prop up a treasured American way of life that few enjoy but many revere.
Westerners like their wide open spaces with easy (local) public access.  They have it through national forests, national parks, national monuments, national wilderness areas, BLM lands, and more.  They especially like that, even though the rest of the country owns it, they can treat it as their private domain and not worry too much about the cost of maintaining it.  
None of this is bad, and none of it takes away from the grit, determination, and courage that it took, and takes, to make it out here.  It can be a hard life.  Not many are up to it, but it’s foolish to hang that grit, determination, and courage on the fiction that it was all done by pulling one’s self up by one’s own bootstraps through the self sufficiency of rugged individualism that had no need of government help or interference.
The extreme libertarian ethos is a mirage that, perhaps, will dissolve away.  I hope so.

Welcome, Acceptance, and Hearts

My friend, colleague, and neighbor, Fr. Ernie, is, like me, a retired rector of St. Paul’s in Walla Walla where he served for twenty some years.  At eighty-six he just keeps going along as a gifted pastor and supply clergy for other nearby churches.  He preached recently at Grace Church in Dayton, and I got to worship in the congregation as just another person in the pews.  It’s a rare treat.  On more Sundays than not, I’m the celebrant and preacher.  It’s not only that I get really tired of hearing my own preaching, Ernie’s sermons always feed me in unexpected ways.  It was true again yesterday.  
Among other things, he said that being “saved” must mean to be welcomed and accepted if it is to have any meaning at all.  God in Christ Jesus may welcome and accept with abounding and steadfast love, but we often stand in the breach preventing others from receiving it.  That may be one reason why John the Baptist was so scornful of the Pharisees and Sadducees, breach standers of note, who came to see what he was up to at the Jordan.  Well, there was more, but I want to get to something that was said in response to the sermon.
Someone wondered it we need to be more willing to “know the hearts” of others in order to make welcome and acceptance possible.  Ernie wondered if it might be more important to know our own hearts than to try to know the hearts of others.  Those are challenging questions worthy of consideration. 
I’m reluctant to go down the path of knowing the hearts of others, especially newcomers to church, because I’ve seen too many cases where that has become a form of interrogation probing into corners that the other is not ready to reveal, or ever will be.  That’s not welcome acceptance, it’s just plain nosiness.  I’m more inclined to suggest an attitude of “I don’t know who you are or what is on your heart, but you are welcome and accepted here.”  What we must do is to signal openness to be active listeners when an other needs to share what’s on his or her heart, but even there, boundaries need to be set.  We need to actively listen to what is being said, but not pry deeper than invited.  We also need to restrain ourselves from trying to fix the other.  Let us neither prescribe solutions nor take on responsibility for their lives, as we are so apt to do.  It’s easier said than done since prescribing and fixing is what we are most inclined to do.
Knowing our own hearts isn’t much easier.  The fearless self examination required in AA is easily avoided by most of us because it’s hard work, requires confession and repentance, and demands a level of honesty with ourselves that is uncomfortable at best.  If cruising along on our own patented persona autopilot seems to work well most days, why mess with it?  Of course, problems arise for the body of Christ when that autopilot is well grounded in ignorance and programmed with prejudice.  I doubt that any of us is completely free from those bugs, but they are so easily hidden that we can deny their presence without guile.
So where does that leave us.  I think that if knowing the hearts of others or of ourselves is the price of welcome and acceptance, then we have little chance of either.  However, we can point in that direction, and do the best we can, trusting that, by God’s grace, it will be good enough.  It’s taken years, but I’ve come to recognize that God’s grace is not only essential, it is also what fills in the gaps between our incompetence and good enough.  Learning to trust in that grace may be where we need to turn our attention.

Rescuing the Poor

A tea party regular on the letters page in our local paper wrote a scathing rebuke to liberals who use generous welfare benefits to keep the poor dependent on government handouts, thus buying their votes.  The best way to help the poor, she believes, is to cut jobless benefits and other welfare programs so that the poor would be free to enter the labor market and make it on their own. 
I remember that argument from my high school days in the 1950s, along with a popular pamphlet about the danger of creeping socialism that would surely lead to Soviet style communism.  And my memory is predated a couple of decades by claims in the 1930s that the same was true about various FDR programs aimed at easing the effects of the Great Depression.  Fear more than facts.  
I would like to say that such claims are without merit of any kind, but, sadly, there is a smidgen of truth in them, a smidgen being some but not much.  Among a few well meaning persons, the desire to help the poor is prefaced by an assumption that they cannot help themselves without our benevolent support.  It’s a type of patronizing colonialism, with the poor playing the part of uncivilized childlike people who need our care and supervision.  It is also true that some persons, who live on a variety of government assistance programs and private charity, have mastered the art of survival in that context, but have no knowledge, skill, or expectation that survival is possible in any other context.  It’s not a life of ease.  It takes constant vigilance, an ability to maneuver through a Byzantine maze of regulations, and a keen eye for the gentle scam that might bring in a few more dollars.  For all of that, it’s survival, not abundance.  Well, that’s not entirely true.  For certain hedge fund managers, and their kin, manipulating the system and scamming the public has made them billionaires, but that’s another story.
The greater truth lies elsewhere.  Our regular letter writing tea partier and patronizing liberals each dismiss the poor with more than a little racism underwriting their beliefs and behavior.  Our letter writer at least cherishes the illusion that a fair and equitable market offers opportunity for anyone who is willing to work hard enough.  Some of her fellow travelers are better informed, and know that a large portion of the population will sink to the bottom, forming a permanent impoverished underclass to provide cheap labor for those who float above them.  That’s the way of life, and good for those who are higher on the food chain.  Government handouts just mess up the natural order of things, costing us money we don’t need to spend. 
At the same time, well meaning liberals spend so much time trying to save, or expand, the social safety nets provided by governments and private charities that they fail to focus on the need for systemic reforms to make the market place more fair and equitable, and to open doors that have been culturally shut against access for others.  They need to stop their patronizing, pandering ways and recognize that the poor are quite capable of functioning as mature adults in an adult world. 

I’d like to think it would be easy, if we would just bend to the task, but it isn’t.  Our social prejudices are firmly held and hard to let go of.  Moreover, why should the poor trust the rich?  They are notoriously unreliable. 

St. Nick and You

On December 6 we will remember Nicholas, 4th century bishop of Myra, known for his compassionate generosity to the poor and needy.  Thinking about it reminded me of a recent conversation with a gathering of local clergy where talk quickly turned to examples of people who have been icons of the Christian life.
There is nothing wrong with talking about those examples.  They are all worthy of remembering, but it occurred to me that we almost always use examples of the godly lives of others to deflect useful conversation about how, or whether, we, you and I, are agents in our ordinary daily lives of God’s redeeming and reconciling work through Jesus Christ. 
Our clergy group tried to wrestle with that, but, for the most part, it ended up being a recitation of good deeds that could just as well been attributed to any local service club or well intentioned atheist doing what they can for the good of the community.  None of that is bad.  It’s all good.  But where is the good news that the kingdom of God has come near or is at hand?  How do we, as Christians, go about doing our good deeds with the light of Christ shining through?  It’s a hard question.  
For one thing, many of us have been beat about the head and shoulders by Christian do gooders demanding that we acknowledge Jesus as our personal lord and savior as they go about their work.  The kingdom of God seems strangely distant when that happens.  So we go about our work with no outward sign that it might be infused with God’s grace because we don’t want to be accused of bludgeoning someone with a bible.

Perhaps you have some thoughts on the matter, and I’d like to read them.  What I don’t want is your story of someone else’s good work.  What do you do in your daily life that others would recognize as something of the kingdom of God becoming present in their lives?  Would they ever connect that with your being a Christian?

Lurching Toward Justice

Not long ago a young friend posted on his Facebook page something he had picked up asserting that the churches of the country, not the government, have the responsibility for caring for the poor.  The short piece boldly stated that the bible says so.  I’ve heard that before in casual conversations around the Y locker room and elsewhere.
How curious!
As I pour through the scriptures, I can find dozens of passages where the people of God are commanded to care for the poor, as both individuals and society, but nowhere can I find such a commandment directed at synagogue or church.  I can find passages in Acts and Paul’s letters urging local congregations to care for the needy in their midst, but, unless I’m missing something, nothing about the needy in general.
More especially, the ethical prophets have a great deal to say about how kings, the wealthy, and society as a whole, had failed to address issues of justice, fairness and the needs of the poor.  God was not pleased.  To me the message is unmistakable, God expects society to be organized and governed so that justice and fairness extend to the poor and needy.  To be sure, Jesus and the writers of letters have little to say about government, and much to say about individual responsibilities to God.  But to carry out those godly responsibilities in daily secular life can be accomplished only by doing what one can to influence the rules by which we live together, especially as they impact the lives of the poor and needy.  
Our governments are not alien creatures forced on an unwilling people.  Our governments are not the enemy.  They are the collective wisdom of the people making decisions, through their elected representatives, about how we will live together as a society.  Over the short history of our nation, our governments, at all levels, have lurched toward a more godly form of justice, in part because some Christians have engaged their secular political lives as guided by God in Christ Jesus.  

What bothers me now is that the loudest voices claiming to represent our collective wisdom seem to be hard of hearing, shortsighted, and ill informed, but maybe that’s part of what lurching toward godly justice has to endure.   I’m reminded that Jesus healed the deaf, blind and dumb once, and he can do it again.