Bearing The Light of Christ From Epiphany Into Lent: How’s that working out?

We have come to the end of the Season of Epiphany that began on January 6th with the story of the visit of the wise men to Bethlehem and the baby Jesus.  I wrote a column then about how Epiphany is not only a season for reflecting on what it means that the light of Christ had come into the world, but what it has meant that the light of Christ has gone out into the world.  Lessons during the season from the New Testament illuminated what Jesus said and did that bore the light into the world beyond the people of Israel, and how his followers did the same throughout the entire Roman Empire.  Even readings from the Hebrew Scriptures demonstrated God’s saving love for foreigners, even enemies of Israel. 

The suggestion posed at the start of the season was to invest time in asking ourselves how well we have continued bearing the light of Christ in our own daily lives.  Well, here we are, the season has ended.  Lent is upon us.  Amidst COVID and the death of over 900,000 Americans, in what ways did you bear the light of Christ?  Amidst a booming economy accompanied by unwanted inflation, in what ways did you bear the light of Christ in your daily life?  Amidst a European war, where was the light of Christ in your daily life?  Amongst strangers and neighbors who have chosen to follow crackpot conspiracies that challenge the foundations of our democracy, where was the light of Christ in your daily life?  How well did you do?

If you are like me, probably not all that well.  Daily life got in the way.  What was said in early January soon became forgotten.  Anxieties, complacency, selfishness, the usual human traits, have a way of submerging disciplined reflection about how we have borne the light of Christ.

Lent is here.  Unlike the Feast of Epiphany, the services for Ash Wednesday call us to observe a holy Lent by a more intentional time of self examination.  Maybe a good lenten discipline this year would be to set aside a time each day to reflect on what it means to you in your life to be a follower of Jesus Christ who bears the light of Christ in your own way, in the place where you are, in the things you ordinarily do. 

There is a world of difference between claiming to have accepted Jesus as your Lord and Savior and following Jesus as a disciple bearing God’s light as one who loves unliked neighbors, alien neighbors, even enemy neighbors.  It is a way of nonviolence in a violent world.  It is a way of peace in a world bent on war.  It is a way of advocating for godly justice, as did ethical prophets like Amos and Isaiah, even when ungodly justice is the norm of society.

God does not expect perfection.  If that were possible, there would have been no need for God’s Word made flesh to be born.  We are not a people, contrary to Calvin, utterly depraved, but we are erratic people of good intention easily distracted, inconsistent in our discipleship, with occasional doubts about how much to trust Jesus.

That’s not a condemnation, it’s just a reality, but “God so Loved the world…”  We are to love as Jesus loves us in spite of our weaknesses.  Nevertheless, we can give a little intentional thought to doing better than we have.

Lent is only 40 days, not counting Sundays.  It’s not too much to ask that some small part of each day in Lent be dedicated to reflection on what it means to you in your ordinary life to bear the light of Christ.  I will give it a try.  Please join me.

The Midterms Are Critical. Using The Right Words in the Right Way Is Even More Critical.

There is frustration among the various shades of liberals and progressives. How can so many Americans be so easily seduced by Trumpism, right wing anti democratic nationalism, white supremacist propaganda, and media personalities who traffic in blatant lies attacking the roots of the American Ideal?

A few answers can be guessed at.  Some are fearful that a nation in which the white middle class no longer sets the rules will become a place of racial vengeance inflicted by persons of color against whites.  Deeply cherished core values of family, security, and social stability appear threatened to be replaced by anything goes. Some people, quite a few I suspect, favor a form of authoritarian democracy without having the slightest idea what that means.  

Another answer is that liberals are fond of policies sold as what the government can do for you to make life better.  That doesn’t sell well to Americans raised to believe in self reliance, a value cemented into the American Ideal early in the 19th century.  What they want is a government that will create conditions in which self reliance can succeed. They are the same liberal policies long sold the wrong way with the wrong words. Liberal political strategists can’t seem to get their heads around how to use the right words in the right way.  With all the best intentions, they keep coming off as Ivy League elitists.

Many have argued the frustration of differing views could be solved with better civics education.  Perhaps, but I’m from a generation where civics was taught in every year of primary and secondary education. I can’t see that it took hold all that well. Basic civics combined with the more realistic, honest story of American history might do better.  However, it would mean giving up romantic patriotism as history, but without giving up the retelling of heroic achievements.  Reactionary, jingoistic patriots seem to think that unless history is sugar coated to remove anything unpleasant it will disgrace and destroy American ideals. It won’t.

How easy would it be to teach American history more honestly?  Not easy at all I think.  I was surprised by replies to a recent  Country Parson column I posted on a FB page.  Using humorous satire, I said if the U.S. was required to have one official religion (as Michael Flynn has demanded), it should be the Episcopal Church. I was surprised at how many posted comments were blind to the humor and satire, thought it was a serious proposal, and had not the slightest knowledge of the context in which it was written.  There appear to be many out there who are deaf to nuance, think only in concrete terms, who give little thought to long term consequences, and have difficulty assessing possible futures. Perhaps not surprisingly, these same people also seem unusually gullible.  We all enjoy fantasy, but some are unable to tell the difference between fantasy and reality.  Maybe they find comfort in the way fantasy pretends to make sense of the world’s mysteries better than reality does.

Liberals, if they want to win elections, must learn to speak in concrete terms, explain how new policies will strengthen cherished core values, and talk about improving conditions for prosperous work rather than handing out benefits.  No one values handouts, few want an obvious hand up, most want a fair chance.

There are some caveats.  Trumpism, its antecedents and  descendants, have been fixtures in American politics from the very beginning, and will be for years to come.  It’s the gut level anger of people who chafe under government regulations imposed on them by more powerful elites. That anger can be assuaged for a little while but not forever.  

Far more dangerous are those who like Koch and Mitch McConnell favor return to a democracy dominated by the power of oligarchical wealth promoting its own interests as if they define the good of the nation as a whole. They have the money and political skill to create their own self-contained fantasy worlds at the same time that they would happily allow a new form of Jim Crow to keep the lower classes in their places.

Hope for liberals to pay attention to and understand all of this is limited. Their record isn’t promising.  One more thing is needed.

There must be a responsible conservative loyal opposition.  Not all progressive ideas are good, and some good ones reach too far fueled by good intentions but with not enough thought given to efficiency, effectiveness and pragmatic implementation.  Responsible conservatives are the restraining forces demanding evidence and accountability. Responsible conservatives, by nature, dislike change for change’s sake, and are reluctant to move from contentment with the way things are to the unknown of something new and untried. From time to time they will take the reins of power, giving the nation a bit of respite, even at the cost of sliding a little backwards. Sadly, we don’t have a responsible conservative movement.  We have the Trumpers’ fascism on one hand and Koch/McConnell oligarchical democracy on the other.  One would destroy democracy, the other would rule it. 

An Episcopalian Answer To Michael Flynn

Michael Flynn is said to have proposed a single state religion for the authoritarian America he envisions. What religion would that be?  I want to throw a hat into the ring.

Obviously, it should be the Episcopal Church and for some very good reasons.

1. The Episcopal Church has long standing historical experience as the official state religion for the largest and richest of the American colonies prior to the unfortunate disagreements with King George III.

2.  Being oddly democratic and hierarchical at the same time, it knows how to deal with autocrats and would be autocrats.

3.  Having moved well beyond the prejudices of the 17th and early 18th centuries, it would happily consent to persons of faith practicing  according to the customs of their religion, whatever it may be, as long as it was done decently and in order.

4.  While Episcopalians talk about things decent and in order, they do not know what they mean by that, but are assured the heretical Presbyterians do know, and are willing to consult with them.

5.  Being open minded, they are willing to allow all other religions and denominations to apply for most favored status.

5a.  Episcopalians are known to be especially fond of Lutherans, Jews, Muslims, Buddhists, some Methodist, and Pope Francis.  They look forward to the time of Pope Frances when Rome will finally come to Cantebury.

Beatitudes According To Luke & The Christian Life

Most congregations will hear Luke’s version of the Beatitudes next Sunday.  It’s more concise than Matthew’s and has a slightly different emphasis on what it means to be poor.  The sheer familiarity of the passage is the biggest stumbling block to absorbing its deep meaning for the Christian life.

If God in Christ Jesus blesses the poor, hungry, bereaved, reviled and excluded, it can only mean that those who bear the light of Christ, no matter how feebly, must do the same in the way they live, speak and act, including the positions they take on important matters of public policy.

The sentences that follow the blessings declaring woe to the rich, well fed and contented are not condemnations. They are more in the form of warnings like Danger, Danger!  The rich are in danger of assuming they deserve to be rich, and it’s no fault of theirs if the poor are forced to remain poor.  The well fed can take it for granted, failing to apprehend the injustice of hunger.  Those comfortably contented can dismiss the conditions of life that oppress others. They can become exclusive, looking down on those left behind.

We are called to continue the work of blessing as followers of Jesus Christ, and to be wary of our own temptation to unmerited self righteousness.

The Chinese Question: Wherre Do We Go From Here?

Author’s note: Given my impaired vision, writing these columns is a team effort involving my wife Dianna and good friend Prof. Tom Davis.  Now and then Tom advises significant additions and amendments, as he did with this column, and I want to acknowledge them with notations in the text.

In1823 President James Monroe announced the Monroe Doctrine that asserted any European interference in the Western Hemisphere would be considered a direct threat to the United States.  Never fully enforced, it nevertheless became American policy well into the 20th century.

Somewhat related, at the outset of WWII, was Japan’s assertion of an East Asia Co-prosperity Sphere. The war was a disaster for Japan’s desire for empire, but the post war years still gave it near dominance in the economic affairs of the region.

More closely related is China’s determination that East Asia is within its undisputed sphere of influence, and will not tolerate political or military interference in the region coming from Western powers.  Frankly, given China’s status as the other great power in the world, it’s at least as rational a policy as was the Monroe Doctrine.  But the 21st century is not the early 19th.  The interdependent global market place can accommodate China’s assertion of its doctrine, but not its energetic enforcement.  Still, it represents the frontier where military bravado and diplomatic maneuvering will be played out for decades to come. 

Virulent anti-communist Americans need to get two things clear about this situation.  First, China has no interest in expanding its borders, the Taiwan question excepted.  However, it is intent on creating an economic empire that dominates as much of the world as it can.  Second, there are relatively few communists in China. Marx, Lenin and Mao are historical realities having had an enormous effect on modern day China, the biggest of which was the failure of communism.  The Communist Party in China exists now as a political oligarchy dedicated to the success of a state managed private/public market, heavily regulated, but making room for the right kind of entrepreneurs.   Hints of democracy, of a sort, that have emerged in recent decades have been squelched by the one man rule of Xi, but I suspect that when he’s gone his policies will also drift into the background.  Too many Chinese have traveled widely, experiencing the greater world, too many have received Western educations, too many have glimpsed a wider variety of views via the internet, and too many local politicians have experienced the power of local voices making their wants heard.  It won’t lead to Western democracy, but it will lead to something far different from Xi’s way of doing things.

Things might have been different had Obama’s Trans Pacific Partnership been endorsed by Congress and the American public, but it wasn’t. Nationalist isolationism combined with labor union fears put a stop to it.  Our nation has paid the price.  Well, what’s done is done. We need to move on.

How? Darned if I know.  I’m just an average informed onlooker speculating about these things.  A few final thoughts. It seems to me it would be a good move to rejoin what’s left of the Trans Pacific Partnership.  Keeping American naval forces where they are now sends a message, if nothing else.  An expensive message it is, but it’s still the game the world likes to play, so there you are.  Tom Davis points out that The Quad (Australia, India, Japan and the U.S.) is organized to form a more robust challenge to the Chinese intent of seaway domination. He also notes that India’s growing population, economic power and democratic government may soon have as great a world status as China.  In other words, China is not free to do as it will outside its borders. 

A presidential meeting on neutral territory would be a good thing, even if it delivered little more than a photo-op. Reengagement with trade negotiations is a must.

Most of all, Americans have to get used to the idea that China is not an enemy to overcome, but a powerful competitor to be met with open eyes seeking a mutually beneficial, but well-guarded, relationship.   What we need to avoid is making the smaller nations of East Asia into economic pawns that destroy their lives while foreign investors make billions.  It’s a moral imperative easy to state but hard to see through. 

If experienced China hands  read this, an unlikely event, they will no doubt smile condescendingly at such naive guesswork.  Perhaps, but sometimes simple observations are not so wide of the mark. 

Answering God’s Call: What’s A Call?

Congregations in liturgical churches have been hearing a lot of scripture about what it is to be called by God.  Some have been called to live lives as prophets, and some to bear prophetic messages only once.  Some have been sent to far off cities, and some to stay where they are, proclaiming God’s word there. Some have been overwhelmed by the awesomeness of God’s presence, some by angels, and some by the still small voice of God.  What connects them is the sure certainty of the call.  

Jesus called twelve to be his companions on the way as he walked from town to town.  Others followed as they were able, compelled by his charisma – a nascent form of call that may or may not have borne fruit.

To be called by God is compelling, but it is not irresistible.  One is always free to say no, and many do. Jesus loved the rich man who was unwilling to follow Jesus’ call because it meant he would have to lay aside his riches.  Who knows what became of him?  Maybe he was among the several hundred who gathered on Pentecost to be filled with the power of the Holy Spirit, or maybe not.  

The mythical story of Jonah, who was swallowed by a big fish only to be coughed up on a beach three days later, is a morality tale about the compelling call of God to which one can say no until the only possible answer is yes.  And even then Jonah complained about it because God didn’t perform according to Jonah’s expectations. 

All who have been baptized into the body of Christ have been called in some way, probably a unique, one of a kind way. Regular worship and being fed by the Holy Eucharist strengthens the call.  Nevertheless, it can go unheard and unheeded.  Again, God’s call is always compelling, but not always irresistible.

Good and faithful people yearning to know what God has in store for them often expect something dramatic to introduce it, making it clear.  Most often that call is from wise friends and pastors reminding them of Jesus’ call to follow him in their daily lives.  I guess it seems too simple, too prosaic to be a genuine call from God, but there it is.  That’s the way God calls most people – through  persons ordained to proclaim God’s word and announce God’s call.

Pay attention. Listen.  God’s call to each of us is not something we have to search for.  It’s not hidden away.  It’s there in plain sight, recorded in the gospels, proclaimed from the pulpit, nourished by Holy Communion. It’s practiced in daily life. 

Is God’s call ever so compelling that it changes daily life in significant ways?  Yes, sometimes it is, as when one is called to surrender one’s other career plans in favor of ordination.  It’s always compelling but never irresistible.  If you are willing, it will happen.  It’s never forced.  The hard part is confusing what you want, or think you want, for what God is calling you to do.  As they say in AA, let go and let God, don’t try to steer.  There is no key, no magic formula, no workbook test that will give you the answer. It’s a holy mystery, relax and live into it.

The rich man could not let go and let God, he could not let go of his riches.  What might you be holding onto that prevents you from hearing the simple, plain call from God for a revitalized way of life?  The Samaritan woman at the well had nothing left to let go of, but she needed to hold dear something new, God’s love for her.  What do you need to pick up and hold dear as the sign of God’s love for you?  Jonah whined and complained every step of the way. What are you whining and complaining about that distracts and slows your path of following Jesus?