Two Surprises on Easter Two

Last Sunday we worshiped with our daughter at her church in Edwards, Colorado.  It’s the Episcopal Church of the Transfiguration that worships out of two Interfaith Chapels that double as community centers, one in Vail and the other in Edwards.  We worshiped at the one in Edwards.  Jennifer has always been ebullient about her church, which is great, but I had the idea that it was little more than a house church struggling to stay alive, and renting space in an old gym somewhere.
What we encountered was a large, growing, healthy congregation of adults of every age and a slew of children.  On the second Sunday of Easter, with ski season over and only locals hanging around, well over a hundred attended the 10:00 a.m. service in Edwards.   I have no idea how many attended the earlier service in Vail.  That was surprise number one.
Surprise number two was learning that the Interfaith Chapel and Community Center is home to several congregations, each worshiping on their own day and at their own time.  The local synagogue, for example, was holding Hebrew classes at the same time we were worshiping.  During the week, the building is used for a charter school, Salvation Army services, and more.  The building itself is new, and designed especially to meet the needs of the multiple ministries envisioned by the local foundation that was created to own and manage it.  

Transfiguration’s rector, Brooks Keith, told me that a dozen years ago the congregation was small and struggling to stay alive.  I’d like to know more about what led to the change.  Whatever it was, it generated at least one congregation filled with energetic members who willingly enter into the work of discipleship both within the congregation and out in the community.  

It’s Good Friday but I’d rather talk about Green Times

Green is my color.  I love the green of spring and summer.  The green liturgical season of ordinary time is my favorite.  Though surrounded by high desert, we live in a green valley up against the Blue Mountains, which brings me to blue.  Deep ocean blue is a close second, so we sometimes get away to Seattle for a blue water fix.  But the best are weeks spent on Maui where greens and blues abound.  Maybe it all has to do with growing up in Minnesota surrounded by trees and always near a lake.  It took me a while to learn to love the open prairie and arid high country as well.  Summer visits in rural Kansas were a beginning, but a greater appreciation began to mature during years of business travel throughout the Northern Great Plains.  More years in New England and NYC brought it home.  As much as i enjoyed them, I developed a claustrophobic feeling not being able to see the uninterrupted horizon.  So here we are, in a green valley out in the high country of the intermountain plateau, and, thanks be to God, able to get to the ocean whenever we want. 
There is probably a theological gem in here somewhere.  If you can find it, good for you.

Fron Page News: Armored Personnel Carrier Invades Town; Population Under Martial Law!

The front page article in the local paper was about a surplus armored personnel carrier the city received from the Army to transport SWAT teams throughout a two county region.  No one anticipates a lot of use for it, but we have had a couple of armed standoffs in the last few years where protecting officers was a high priority.  It will make its appearances mostly in parades and at fairs.  The kids will love clambering over it, and veterans will tell stories around it. 
You would think it would not be controversial, but among more than a few letter writers and commentators on the Internet, it has become a symbol of the militarization of our police forces orchestrated by a government bent on stripping us of our freedoms and turning the nation into a totalitarian state.  
One hardly knows what to say.  They can’t be dismissed as just so many nuts because they have such a loud voice, and, for some reason I fail to apprehend, that voice has captured the imagination of tea party types who seem to live in constant fear of the very government that is the foundation of the nation of which they say they are patriots, and that is now their enemy.  As a minor aside, those same voices seem unaware of the differences between local, state and federal governments, but that’s another issue.  
I visited with a friend on our local SWAT team who, being politically conservative himself, could not understand it.  He is not, he said, the government, and besides, the job of the SWAT team is to protect the public from really bad guys, not confiscate guns or enforce martial law.
Apparently he was confused.  As far as the loud voices are concerned, you are the government, I said.  You are the very image of everything they are afraid of.  If you are not in on the plot to enforce martial law, then you are being manipulated by those who are.  That’s the (tea) party line, no deviation from it is allowed, and no evidence is required to support it.  He just looked at me. 
In my lifetime I have never seen so many otherwise normal people so steeped in fundamental ignorance about American history, civics, and economics, nor so convinced of what they believe that it’s not possible to engage in open conversation.  The truly sad part, to me, is that we have serious issues that need the benefit of honest, well informed debate, and we’re not getting it.  Instead we get Faux News and company, with modest competition from the ever rambling CNN and hyperbolic MSNBC.  When they fade out, the banner is taken over by a small army of Internet commentators who are very good at reaching a very wide audience.  We are not bereft of quality news sources in print, on the Net, and over the air, but who wants calm reasoned thinking when demagoguery is so much easier and more fun?
For what it’s worth, there are other voices that are heard in our community: conservative, liberal, and in-between.  But they tend to talk mostly among themselves, not too loudly, and generally quite polite.  Me among them.

OK, rant over, for the time being.

Fear, Intimidation & Preaching the Gospel

I had a nice long, pleasant conversation yesterday with a friend, mostly about the bible and what it means to be saved.  At one point she observed that preachers who throw a little fear of hell and damnation into their listeners have been successful in turning people to Christ.  She’s absolutely right.  Some have been successful, but it makes me very uncomfortable.  Why is that?
Part of my discomfort comes from the secular world.  Management researchers, teachers and consultants have known for decades that using fear and intimidation to motivate workers is counter productive, even destructive.  That has not stopped the practice by those who believe that the only alternative is to be weak and disrespected by subordinates.  It’s another example of how some people are unable to think in terms other than black and white, this or that.  In the corporate world, the masters of fear and intimidation have sometimes been able to build hugely successful organizations, but I cannot think of one that has not crumbled in the end.  Fear and intimidation can achieve momentary success, but it can’t sustain it because it sows the seeds of its own destruction. 
In like manner, I can’t see how scaring the hell out of people in order to drive them to Christ can be a source of life giving hope and joy.  Keeping them, it seems to me, can only be achieved if they are continually beset by fear and anxiety that any slip up will cast them into hell, and there is nothing life giving and joyful in that. 
Secular experience aside, it just doesn’t seem Christ like.  How does fear and intimidation square with “Love one another as I have loved you?”  How does it square with Jesus’ unwillingness to condemn anyone with whom he came in direct contact, no matter what their condition in life may have been.  In every case he sought healing and reconciliation for them.  Now and then he came close to condemnation of vaguely identified groups, except that his words implied their own self condemnation for their unwillingness to recognize and participate in God’s reconciling love.  A few of the Pharisees, temple leaders and some Galilean towns come to mind.
A few of my fundamentalist acquaintances would counter argue that they are simply warning others about the consequences of not accepting Jesus as their personal Lord and Savior, and how is that different from what Jesus did?  It’s a good question.  The answer, I believe, is that it is God in Christ Jesus, and only God, who has the authority to make a decision about that, and we are not permitted to put limits on, or establish formulae for, God’s salvific intentions.
Jesus knew, and gifted bosses in the secular world know, how to be firm, set standards and explain consequences, and how to do that without using fear and intimidation as their method.  Those who do use fear and intimidation are nothing more than bullies who have more interest in their own prestige, power and position than they do in the well being of others, and I will lay that at the feet of preachers who rely on threats of eternal damnation in hell.

The Discipline of Forgiveness

Over the years I’ve led a few classes on forgiveness, counseled a few people struggling with how to forgive, read the usual array of articles probing the issue, and had a few problems of my own with it.
In the end, I think forgiveness is the act of not perpetuating violence.  It’s a discipline, not an emotion, although the later may be the result of the discipline.  
Perpetuating violence begins with holding a grudge  because it does real injury to the holder, something psychologists and spiritual directors have known for a long time.  The grudge holder might object that I don’t understand the depth of violence or injustice inflicted on them, and they would be right, but holding that grudge is a form of violence committed against the self, and thus a perpetuation of the violence and injustice.
Expressing it outwardly takes on some form of revenge, even if it’s cloaked in the language of justice, in which case the violence perpetrated in the first instance has been used as an excuse, or justifiable reason, for perpetuating violence on the rebound that has a high probability of rebounding again.  That is not to say that acts of injustice and violence should be without consequence.  They always have consequence, but holding grudges and acts of revenge need not be among them.   
Looking at it another way, we condemn gang turf wars and senseless shootings, but, if we are honest about it, they are magnified images of our own, more civilized, turf wars and senseless shootings as we continue the cycle of violence in our families, among our friends, and at our places of work.  We are accomplished at a less visible form of violence because we inflict it with words, and acts of interpersonal sabotage, behind which we can easily hide.  When we inflict physical abuse, we do what we can to shroud it in secrecy, or claim it as an act of self defense.  It’s not uncommon, but it’s crude.  Most of us are far better at inflicting psychological abuse in ways that are harder to detect and easier to cover up.
The excuses don’t matter.  What matters is the continuation of the cycle of violence.  Forgiveness, then, is not an emotion in which the violent act ceases to have psychological power over us.  It is a decision made to not continue participating in the cycle.  It’s what Jesus did, what Mandela learned to do, and what Girard has written about in our own day.  It seems so simple, but when it’s brought up in conversation it tends to elicit one of three responses:  a blank, uncomprehending stare; a “yes but not me”; or a “you don’t understand.”

It’s time for us, you and me, to comprehend, to admit that sometimes we are the perpetrators, and to recognize that others can understand and help.

“Let no evil talk come our of your mouths, but only what is useful for building up.”  So says Paul in his letter to the Ephesians.  Good advice.

Truth vs. Culture

A Facebook friend recommended reading Pat Schatzline’s book, I Am Remnant: Discover the power to stand for truth in a changing culture.  I’ve done what I can to learn more about it, and, having learned, it’s probably not a book I will choose to read.  
I do not disbelieve in truth, nor do I disbelieve that God’s truth is revealed in scripture, and it is obvious that culture is changing.  I don’t even have a problem with the existence of certain absolute biblical truths that stand against the equivocations of whatever culture one happens to find one’s self in.  God has revealed those truths over and over:  love God; love neighbor; be a person of integrity; be an agent of healing and reconciliation; walk humbly; do justice, and so on. 
What I do have a problem with is this.  When I hear people talking about the horror of our changing culture, meaning American culture, there is an unspoken assumption that not long ago we had it right, and now we don’t.  There seems to be no recognition that culture is not a thing, but a collection of things that are hard to harmonize and always changing.  There never has been a time when it stood still, or was right.  Culture sort of lurches along responding to social, economic and technological changes in ways that seem predictable only in hindsight.
I only have anecdotal data to work with, but I’ve got seventy years worth from experiences gathered throughout North America, so I feel provisionally safe in making some observations.  One is that many of the acceptable cultural standards being abandoned by the libertine forces of Satan are most often nothing other than whatever felt comfortable and safe in a time that exists mostly in memory and is often fenced in by varieties of prejudice and ignorance.  I can’t help but hear Professor Harold Hill singing about trouble right here in River City whenever the bogey man of cultural change is brought out on stage. 

That is not the same thing as saying that I approve of, or am indifferent to, cultural change in any form.  Some of it, like the ascendency of Tea Party type movements, are frightening.  Other changes baffle me, and I have to withhold judgment.  For instance, our state’s decision to legalize limited recreational use of marijuana bothers me a lot, but I also don’t know what it means in the long term.  Sometimes it takes time to recognize God’s truth in the context of cultural change.  It took me over thirty years to discover that God’s truth as revealed in scripture rejoices in gay people who desire to live into the fullness of sacramental marriage.

What really troubles me is that the absolute biblical truth that some people want to stand for in a changing culture is what they have cherry picked from some highly debatable piece of scripture that they have clothed in their own prejudices, and hold with such ferocity that any deviation is attributed to the devil and condemned to hell.  Homosexuality is the current bugbear, followed closely by women’s rights, abortion, and race, although the later is usually cloaked in some other language.  Last week I was confronted by a man who defended God’s absolute truth against evolution, global climate change, and, of course, homosexuality.  He attributed unsavory cultural change and the satanic direction of the church to one or two people I had never heard of, and asserted that Episcopal priests don’t believe in Jesus.  It’s amazing what forms absolute biblical truth can take.
Here’s my take. God knows what absolute truth is.  You and I don’t, but we are not without direction.  Jesus did what he could to guide us toward it.  It looks a lot like a cross and open tomb.  What gets in our way is how easy it is to for us confuse our own biases, and the comfort of imagined cultural equilibrium, as truth. 

I don’t know much about Mr. Schatzline.  Maybe he’s a really nice guy, a fine Christian, and open to honest conversation.  My own prejudices and suspicions, which I must acknowledge,  incline me to want to pull back the curtain and see what is hiding behind that smile and those kind words.  Maybe it’s Harold Hill.  Maybe it’s Bp. Tutu.  I’m pretty sure it’s not Jesus.