The RNC, Riley, and Suitcase Trips

I’ve tried to keep up with the Republican convention, but have time for only bits of the live action filled in with reliable (fake) news reports. Ticking off untruths and bald faced lies soon outstripped my abilities, but they were to be expected from this gang. What has troubled me more is the eerie similarity to public rallies in early 1930s Germany. The technology has changed but the script is nearly identical. It was widely believed by too many people then, and I fear they may again.

I shall take a mental health digression with a sappy little piece about our dog Riley and the romance, or lack of it, of suitcase trips. Word of warning, my editor is off working in her studio, so this gets published with the proofreading capabilities of my fading eyes.

Riley, our West Highland Terrier, has lived his entire fourteen years in one house with one fenced yard. His daily walks around the block defined his neighborhood of familiar sounds, sights and smells. But the lure of travel was firmly fixed in his doggy imagination. He knew suitcases meant we were getting ready to go away without him. His howls of sadness were unconsolable. Short car rides could not satisfy. They were either boring, or ended up at the vet. What he wanted was to go on a suitcase trip. Well, he’s had his chance.

We’re moving. In the last stages of belongings being packed and loaded onto a truck, we moved into a hotel for a few nights before catching a flight across country. Riley, at long last, has got his suitcase trip. I don’t know what his doggy hopes were, but doubt this is it. The romance isn’t there, he’s made that clear enough. No matter that he has the familiar smell and feel of his bed and blanket, a hotel room is not a house, and certainly not his house. Maybe it’s good that he’s deaf, nearly blind, and and sleeping is what he does best. He can’t be left alone in a hotel room, so has to go with us on each of our many last minute errands, which are never anywhere dog friendly, and always end up back at the hotel room.

He got a reprieve last night when friends let him lounge, sniff, and explore the large back yard at their farm. Alas, it lasted only a few hours.

We’re not sure what the airplane ride is going to be like, but suspect it may include a dose of doggy pacifier just to be safe. Maybe I’ll take one too. The other end isn’t going to be much of an improvement. It could take two weeks for our household goods to show up. And how many days to get the place habitable? Eventually he’ll discover the old smells and familiar furniture, out of place in a strange house and neighborhood. It’ll work out, but it’s tough being an old dog taking his first big suitcase trip, away from home, never to return.

And now, if we must, back to the convention.

The Rock From Which You Were Hewn: Isaiah, Paul, Orthodoxy & Our Wayward Ways

The ancient prophet Isaiah reminded the wayward Israelites of his day to “Look to the rock from which you were hewn, and to the quarry from which you were dug.” The apostle Paul, echoing it, reminded his readers not to be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of minds to more clearly discern the will of God. To which he added the practical advice not to think of one’s self more highly than they ought. Every person, each according to their ability, has talents and skills useful to the building up of the community.

Both wrote in difficult times of religious and civil strife beset by internal and external violence that tore at the norms of society people thought were reliably fixed. Both the Israelites of Isaiah’s day, and the nascent Christians of Paul’s were pummeled by other religions, changing social standards, difficult economic conditions, unstable governments, and a desire to remain faithful. But faithful to what?

Jew or Christian, the easiest path was to stick with the tried and true, the social ways and values that felt comfortably established, and call them true, orthodox, the right way to be a Jew or Christian. Those unhappy enough with the old ways might contemptuously toss all aside to seek a new way of living in a new way of being faithful to a new god. A third path gave absent minded lip service to the gods while declaring they were what today is called spiritual but not religious.

They’re all wrong, said Isaiah and Paul. Don’t confuse the social standards you were raised with to the authentic relationship with God into which you have been called. Don’t look to society. Look to the rock from which you were hewn. In Paul’s words, do not be conformed to this world. Understanding what that means has vexed every generation because every generation assumes what they were raised to believe as core social norms must be the rock from which they were hewn. Changing and challenging values cascading about them must, therefore, be the world to which they are not to conform. It isn’t. It’s just society evolving, for good or ill, as it always does.

The rock from which you were hewn is illustrated in the story of Abraham who listened to God when no one else did. Blundering now and then, as all humans do, he lived as peaceably as he could in an alien land, always in a harmonious relationship with God who defined the path he took and the values he held. It was not the path of his parents, nor the path of the dominant culture around him, but the path of living in communion with God.

Paul was a type of Abraham, with the added advantage of God incarnate as his guide. Laying aside the social values of everything he knew to be religiously true and right, he listened, reflected, then followed the path of living in more intimate communion with God, made more fully known to him through Christ Jesus. He experienced what it meant to be transformed by the renewing of his mind to more clearly discern the will of God.

Many of us too easily mistake the accepted norms with which we were raised for faithful orthodoxy, especially if we learned them in church. We too easily attack variance from them as heresy worthy of the stake. We are often too hard of hearing to listen as God speaks anew, creates anew. Some of us leap too eagerly at anything novel thrown our way, too ready to embrace a new claim of godly truth without close examination and reflective discernment.

The rock from which we were hewn is the source of true discernment.

“Hear what our Lord Jesus Christ says: You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind. this is the first and great commandment. And the second is like it: You shall love your neighbor as yourself. On these two commandments hang all the law and the Prophets.”

“I give you a new commandment that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another.”

They are the keys to the quarry from which we were dug. Measure everything by them. Give nothing higher authority. Try, as best you can, not to twist them to fit your own prejudices.

Judges & Acts: New life in a promised land

The Israelites of Judges had no permanent system of government. It was a loose confederation of the twelve tribes, each with their own way of doing things. Someone was raised up as having godly authority to lead them whenever they were threatened by another nation. Having organized militias and achieving victory, he (and one she) continued to “judge” Israel during a period of peace and fidelity to God. The people invariably fell away from godly ways, triggering the next foreign threat and a new judge. Of all the judges, only Deborah was described as being one before a threat was made known. The succession of judges came to an end with the prophet Samuel, also a judge, through whom an institutionalized kingdom came into being. That’s the basic structure in the time of judges.

Underlying the basic structure of Judges was the conviction that God had been their only king through the long passage from Egypt, and God alone would appoint someone to be God’s representative to lead them as needed, but not to be king over them. To do otherwise would violate their special relationship with God. Good intentions aside, the people were unable to remain faithful to God, and not every judge had God’s approval. It was a messy affair that worked by fits and starts. They may have arrived in the promised land, but it wasn’t working out as expected.

Like the Israelites of Judges, Christians in the time of Acts had no permanent way of organizing what it meant to be an assembly of God’s people (the Church), which was understood to be a new type of promised land that would fulfill the unrealized hopes of the old. It wasn’t a place but a new life of intimate communion with God and one another, wherever they were. They had been led not by a prophet, but by God incarnate in Jesus Christ, their true and only king. Moreover, to be one of God’s people was no longer limited to descendants of Jacob; it was open to all who chose to join. Authorized leaders were raised up to serve as judges, as various threats and opportunities arose, but with a difference. They had to have been commissioned by Christ himself, or by prayerful discernment and the laying on of hands in direct succession from the original apostles. It was an informal system with vague territorial jurisdictions and little institutional structure. Like the Israelites of old, the time came for that to change. The end of the informal structure of the early Church is hinted at in Acts, made more obvious in the pastoral letters, and confirmed by the second century letters written Ignatius of Antioch as he was on his way to Rome to be executed.

The Church of Acts was commissioned by God not to acquire territory, but to declare peace and reconciling love. Its “judges” were to proclaim the good news of God’s redeeming love to whomever would hear it, and prepare successors to take their places as judges, or as the text calls them, presbyters, deacons and bishops, terms often used interchangeably. Congregations often struggled to remain faithful to the gospel of Jesus Christ when all about them pagan religions ruled by the authority of the Roman Empire, and, like the ancient Israelites, had to be called back. But they persevered, and Christ alone remained their king. In that sense, the Church in the time of Acts revealed what the promise of a promised land looked like. Could it last?

It was unavoidable for the ancient federation of Israelite tribes to become a nation governed in the usual way by a king. In no other way could it become a unified people identified by their shared faith in God rather than their tribal loyalties. We know the story of how hard it was for a people to cease being tribal Hebrews and become Jews, a people of God unified by their religion no matter where they lived. In like manner, it was unavoidable for Christianity to become an assembly (Church) of a new people of God unified by their religion no matter where they lived without also creating an institutionalized structure to carry it from generation to generation and across national borders.

The history of the Church following the time of Acts is as rocky as the history of Israel following the time of Judges. Interdenominational rivalries, subordination to civil rule, engagement in religious and civil wars, and odd ball turns to other gods while still claiming Christ’s name has given us no better claim to be a people of God. Yet, for all the trouble we’ve put God through, ‘he’ hasn’t given up on us. The redeeming power of Jesus continues as the beating heart of the Church. Faithful disciples continue to proclaim the good news of God in Christ Jesus guided by those truly ordained by the Holy Spirit through the laying on of hands. As followers of Jesus Christ, we are already living in the promised land, even if not fully experiencing it. It is not ours exclusively. It is a land of open borders. Anyone may enter. Our holy obligation is to welcome all who enquire.

Stumbling Onward

We’re stumbling through the process of moving across country. Nothing is working smoothly as planned, but somehow it’s working. The buyer of our current home is a treasured friend, so we’re determined to present it in pristine condition. Predictably a few things decided to act up with only a few weeks to go. It means repair services are competing with box packing. A Cool Hand Luke “failure to communicate” left us speculating about which date two weeks apart was the right one for closing on the new house. That said, I keep thinking about how Judges and Acts are alike in many ways, with Acts completing the promise of Judges, or did it? A new Country Parson column is on it’s addled way.

Moving in the Time of COVID

Country Parson is preparing to move. Relocating seems harder now than it did twenty years ago when we last moved. Finding the time to read and write has become a challenge, so columns may be less frequent for a month or two. The header photo of our beautiful intermountain valley will have to change to reflect our new location, so stand by for that. Right now, I’m packing books, and making hard decisions about which to keep.

The Church & Antisemitism: a centuries long struggle

An old high school classmate is dedicated to combating antisemitism and believes the institutional Christian Church is the primary vessel that has carried and nurtured it through the centuries. It’s led to some interesting conversation.

He’s not entirely wrong, and it creates a problem of cognitive dissonance that’s hard to resolve. On the one hand, the institutional church is the vessel that has carried the faith grounded in following Jesus in the way of love that proscribes any form of antisemitism. On the other hand, it has carried toleration, even encouragement, of violent oppression of Jews and Judaism. From Augustine’s City of God through Luther’s spiritual kingdom, reform minded theologians have tried to separate the two strands with limited success. Jesus transcends human prejudicial limitations, but we are formed by the social standards in which we are raised, and that means our prejudices infect personal beliefs and attitudes, including our religious faith. The institutions we create to organize our societies for long term endurance cannot help but become centers of persevering transmission of our collective prejudices as well.

That partially explains but doesn’t excuse the church for its centuries of Jewish persecution. In the name of the church, Jews have been consigned to ghettos, prohibited from trades, exiled from life long homes, forced to convert, tortured and killed. European history from the late Roman Empire through WWII knows of few years when Jews did not live under heavy burdens of social, economic and political discrimination that culminated in The Holocaust.

But he is wrong when he suggests the Christian Church is a hypocritically fraudulent religious institution proclaiming Jesus as Messiah, the Prince of Peace, while it’s been the world’s primary agent of violent Jewish suppression, among its other heinous crimes. It faithfully proclaims that God’s self revelation, once exclusively given to the descendants of Abraham, has been poured out on all humanity through Jesus, whom we recognize as the Word of God made flesh. It is a revelation commanding Jesus’ followers to love God, love themselves, love their neighbor, and love others as Jesus loves them. There is no room in God’s own commandments for the presence of antisemitism, nor of any other racist or ethnic prejudice.

That Christians and their institutions have not lived fully into the way of love Jesus prescribed doesn’t make them fraudulent hypocrites. Christians are ordinary people who struggle with the every day issues of life as all do. Some work hard on living into the way of following Jesus, some don’t. It’s a work in progress. The institutions created to house the faith are equally subject to error. It’s why we pray for the human family and the church in these words:

O God, you made us in your own image and redeemed us through Jesus your Son; Look with compassion on the whole human family; take away the arrogance and hatred which infect our hearts; break down the walls that separate us; unite us in bonds of love; and work through our struggle and confusion to accomplish your purposes on earth; that, in your good time, all nations and races may serve you in harmony around your heavenly throne.

Gracious Father, we pray for your holy Catholic church. Fill it with all truth, in all truth with all peace. Where it is corrupt, purify it; where it is in error, direct it; where in any way it is amiss, reform it. Where it is right, strengthen it; where it is in want, provide for it; where it is divided reunite it; for the sake of Jesus Christ your Son our Savior.

God is not finished with us. God is still speaking and creating. Listening with discernment is our constant challenge. We all have eyes clouded with bias, but we strive to see others as God sees them.

God’s Own Political Ethics For Our Time: by way of the prophets

I’m always surprised with objections to Country Parson’s political columns on the grounds that religion has no business butting into politics – that God is concerned with spiritual things, not the profane stuff of government. It suggests to me that they have spent little time with the prophets. Others are content to pluck obscure pieces of Levitical law as proof texts for single issue demands on government, while simultaneously declaring that the New Testament voids Hebrew scriptures. Jesus fulfilled the law and prophets, building on them, not erasing them. He made them more complete, not less complete. It was politics that led to his crucifixion, so I don’t see how following Jesus can avoid wading into the political arena.

With one exception, holy scripture does not record a preference for one form of government over another. The exception is God’s warning that a king for Israel was not a good idea, but they were determined and ‘he’ relented. Forms of government aside, the more important question is whether God has said anything about social and economic ethical standards to which nations should adhere? Through the voices and pens of the prophets, the answer is yes. Through them God expressed divine anger at quite a list of social, political and economic behaviors. If they’re what makes God angry, the reciprocal should establish a base for what is acceptable. Here is my take on what that might look like for governments and citizenry.

Even for enemies, do not use the food of the people as a weapon

Do not engage in ethnic cleansing

Demonstrate integrity in international dealings

Do not incite civil disorder

Provide for security of persons and possessions

Show respect for legitimate civil authority

Assure economic policies and practices are fair to all

Assure fair and honest dealings in all areas of trade and commerce

Prohibit confiscatory interest rates

Assure equal/equitable justice for all

Have awed respect for God’s holy places

Have holy respect for all acts of intimacy

Encourage sobriety

Do not prohibit God’s servants from speaking as God directs

Show respect for laborers and their work

Respect the dignity of all persons

Be honest and intentional in the worship of God in heart, soul and mind

Eliminate conditions and behavior that oppress others

Assure honest courts and judges

Make taxation fair to all

Adopt policies providing economic well being for all

Demonstrate generosity and compassion

Others might go through the prophets to compile their own lists with slightly different results, but the theme will likely be the same. What corrupts these standards is our skill at interpreting them in ways easily sold to the public as endorsements but produce results that twist and tilt them in systemically prejudicial ways. Israel and its neighbors were guilty of it three thousand years ago, and so are we and our neighbors. I frequently have to remind myself that they are neither liberal nor conservative; they are God’s good counsel for the standards societies are to meet if abundant life is to be shared equitably by all. Failure to take them seriously cannot end well.