Sunday, February 28, 2010

Second Sunday of Lent 2010

Genesis 15:1-12, 17-18
15:1 After these things the word of the LORD came to Abram in a vision, "Do not be afraid, Abram, I am your shield; your reward shall be very great."

15:2 But Abram said, "O Lord GOD, what will you give me, for I continue childless, and the heir of my house is Eliezer of Damascus?"

15:3 And Abram said, "You have given me no offspring, and so a slave born in my house is to be my heir."

15:4 But the word of the LORD came to him, "This man shall not be your heir; no one but your very own issue shall be your heir."

15:5 He brought him outside and said, "Look toward heaven and count the stars, if you are able to count them." Then he said to him, "So shall your descendants be."

15:6 And he believed the LORD; and the LORD reckoned it to him as righteousness.

15:7 Then he said to him, "I am the LORD who brought you from Ur of the Chaldeans, to give you this land to possess."

15:8 But he said, "O Lord GOD, how am I to know that I shall possess it?"

15:9 He said to him, "Bring me a heifer three years old, a female goat three years old, a ram three years old, a turtledove, and a young pigeon."

15:10 He brought him all these and cut them in two, laying each half over against the other; but he did not cut the birds in two.

15:11 And when birds of prey came down on the carcasses, Abram drove them away.

15:12 As the sun was going down, a deep sleep fell upon Abram, and a deep and terrifying darkness descended upon him.

15:17 When the sun had gone down and it was dark, a smoking fire pot and a flaming torch passed between these pieces.

15:18 On that day the LORD made a covenant with Abram, saying, "To your descendants I give this land, from the river of Egypt to the great river, the river Euphrates...."

Psalm 27
27:1 The LORD is my light and my salvation; whom shall I fear? The LORD is the stronghold of my life; of whom shall I be afraid?

27:2 When evildoers assail me to devour my flesh-- my adversaries and foes-- they shall stumble and fall.

27:3 Though an army encamp against me, my heart shall not fear; though war rise up against me, yet I will be confident.

27:4 One thing I asked of the LORD, that will I seek after: to live in the house of the LORD all the days of my life, to behold the beauty of the LORD, and to inquire in his temple.

27:5 For he will hide me in his shelter in the day of trouble; he will conceal me under the cover of his tent; he will set me high on a rock.

27:6 Now my head is lifted up above my enemies all around me, and I will offer in his tent sacrifices with shouts of joy; I will sing and make melody to the LORD.

27:7 Hear, O LORD, when I cry aloud, be gracious to me and answer me!

27:8 "Come," my heart says, "seek his face!" Your face, LORD, do I seek.

27:9 Do not hide your face from me. Do not turn your servant away in anger, you who have been my help. Do not cast me off, do not forsake me, O God of my salvation!

27:10 If my father and mother forsake me, the LORD will take me up.

27:11 Teach me your way, O LORD, and lead me on a level path because of my enemies.

27:12 Do not give me up to the will of my adversaries, for false witnesses have risen against me, and they are breathing out violence.

27:13 I believe that I shall see the goodness of the LORD in the land of the living.

27:14 Wait for the LORD; be strong, and let your heart take courage; wait for the LORD!

Philippians 3:17-4:1
3:17 Brothers and sisters, join in imitating me, and observe those who live according to the example you have in us.

3:18 For many live as enemies of the cross of Christ; I have often told you of them, and now I tell you even with tears.

3:19 Their end is destruction; their god is the belly; and their glory is in their shame; their minds are set on earthly things.

3:20 But our citizenship is in heaven, and it is from there that we are expecting a Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ.

3:21 He will transform the body of our humiliation that it may be conformed to the body of his glory, by the power that also enables him to make all things subject to himself.

4:1 Therefore, my brothers and sisters, whom I love and long for, my joy and crown, stand firm in the Lord in this way, my beloved.

Luke 13:31-35
13:31 At that very hour some Pharisees came and said to him, "Get away from here, for Herod wants to kill you."

13:32 He said to them, "Go and tell that fox for me, 'Listen, I am casting out demons and performing cures today and tomorrow, and on the third day I finish my work.

13:33 Yet today, tomorrow, and the next day I must be on my way, because it is impossible for a prophet to be killed outside of Jerusalem.'

13:34 Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the city that kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to it! How often have I desired to gather your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you were not willing!

13:35 See, your house is left to you. And I tell you, you will not see me until the time comes when you say, 'Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord.'"
Who is that? Who is that who "comes in the name of the Lord"? Jesus? It doesn't have to be. It could be us. It could be you, or me. It could be anybody, or everybody.

It's in Luke that Jesus sends his disciples out by twos, with nothing more than sandals, and tells them to stay where they are welcome, and to offer a blessing on every home they enter. He also tells them that blessing will stay with the family, or return to the disciples, depending on whether or not it is accepted. In any case, it will cost nothing to the disciples. Could he mean the same thing here? Could he mean quite simply those who have ears had better listen, but if they don't, there's nothing anyone else can do? Could he mean you won't see your salvation until you accept that it comes in the name of the Lord? But that's a double bind, because who is this "Lord" anyway? The Pharisees would know; even Herod would know. But would we? "We" Gentiles? And why would we know?

There are riches in these readings almost beyond description. The covenant with Abram; the assurance of Psalm 27; the call to holiness of Paul's letter to the church at Phillipi. Any one of these would be the basis for a lifetime of study, for more books and one person could read. How do we understand them in the context of a single sermon, read them into an "upbuilding discourse"? Consider, to begin with, just the story of Abraham.

The verses above present him just as God has made a promise to him that his descendants will be as numerous as the stars in the sky. Which is great; but all Abram wants is an heir, a child of his (and Sara's) own. And when they get that child, God tells Abraham to sacrifice his only son on Moriah. But it's worse than that, because we know that story and how it comes out. It's worse than that, because when Abram complains that he still has no son, despite God's promises, God doesn't promise Abram as many sons as he has camels, or as many sons as he has sheep. He promises Abram as many descendants as there are stars in the sky. Which is great for them, as they'll be the heirs of the covenant; but for Abram? What can such a promise mean? He just wants a kid now. But he accepts God's crazy extravagance. He accepts it as the promise God made the first time. And still, it's even worse than that! "[Abram] believed the LORD; and the LORD reckoned it to him as righteousness." Now what kind of story is this? What kind of person is this? Who is this "Lord," that Abram believes this?

The Lord tells Abram that the Lord is Abram's shield, and Abram's reward will be very great; so great, in fact, Abram won't be able to live to receive it. "The LORD, says the Psalmist," one of those heirs of Abram whom Abram never knew, "is my light and my salvation; whom shall I fear? The LORD is the stronghold of my life; of whom shall I be afraid?" And still we are no closer to an answer, but this faith is clearly as near to the Psalmist as her(!) lips, as intimate as her (why not?*) own heart. The assurance is certainly as extravagant as anything God ever promised to Abram:

When evildoers assail me to devour my flesh-- my adversaries and foes-- they shall stumble and fall.

Though an army encamp against me, my heart shall not fear; though war rise up against me, yet I will be confident.
It's an extravagance we don't usually associate with Lent; but there it is. The extravagance of God doesn't end with Abram. And it doesn't quite make sense, either. It's rather like our salvation. What does it mean to be sheltered by the Most High? What does it mean to not fear, to be confident in all situations? What does it mean, except to be able to go out into the world? What else could it mean except to "celebrate with all the bounty that the LORD your God has given to you and to your house"? If we aren't saved for service and celebration and sharing, what good is salvation? We can't all be Abram, after all.

Which brings us back to Jesus. "I tell you, you will not see me until the time comes when you say, 'Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord.'" And when else would we see him, unless we already recognized him? Could this be the meaning of the journey to Emmaus? Could this be the reason we don't see Jesus among us now, because we simply withhold the blessing, the Μακάριοι, the congratulations? Could it be our salvation is as simple as that? Could it be Jesus is as close as the person on the street, or next to us on the subway, or in class, or at work, or in the pew? Could it be Jesus comes to us through a computer screen, a comment on a blog, an e-mail? If we were to say "Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord!" to everyone we meet, wouldn't we see Jesus then? And wouldn't that be the faith of Abram, to accept what the Lord has offered us, even if it wasn't what we expected, even if it wasn't what we thought we needed? And wouldn't that be our salvation, as close to us as our breath and our lips and our own hearts? And wouldn't it be nice to pronounce a blessing, to offer congratulations to everyone, as someone who comes to us in the name of the Lord? (Yes, even to Richard Dawkins.)

Wouldn't that be a grand salvation?


*There are at least three songs in the Scriptures, spontaneous praise of God attributed to women. Why not some of the Psalms, if only as a thought experiment?

Picture from Vanderbilt University Special Collections.

Friday, February 26, 2010

Schadenfreude for Lent

This is too much fun to leave in comments below. Once again Sharl comes through for me.

It seems Richard Dawkins has found out that he's not universally "a greatly liked and respected person." To get the story, start with the the Times article, then go to Ruth Gledhill's blog. I'm not really enjoying this, because I don't know Mr. Dawkins and don't really wish him any pain. But I will say, as Ms. Gledhill intimates, that he seems to have attacked only a bloodless concept, and not realized he was addressing actual human beings, and not all of them the people he associates with, and who are his friends, family, and colleagues.

I'm not enjoying this because I've been through it, as I mentioned in comments below. The first lesson a pastor learns is that, while your friends and family may love you, and even your co-workers may respect you, some of the people in the pews will quickly come to despise you, and not necessarily for anything you do, but simply for what you represent to them. And what you represent is authority: some will respect it, some will reject it, and some will simply hate you. They won't think they are vicious; they will assure you it's "nothing personal." But they will sharpen long knives for you, and make you wonder if they don't stay up nights imagining slights they can turn into deceits, the better to ruin you, or at least make their misery, yours.

I see the same thing on blogs all the time. It's terribly easy to imagine anyone in a position of authority enjoys power you don't have, and further that they aren't really people with feelings, but things, objects, which deserve only your derision and curses. Ms. Gledhill touches on this point:

I resisted the temptation to ask him why, if he prefers not to fan flames, he even wrote The God Delusion, or lent his name to His distress at what has been going on in his forum suggests he has never really understood why so many people of faith found The God Delusion offensive. The strong language he himself uses to describe religious belief has a lot to do with it. Church Mouse recently blogged about how Dawkins upset a lot of Christians with a strongly critical article in The Times where he fastened on the utterances of US preacher Pat Robertson on Haiti to condemn an entire religion, describing Robertson as standing 'squarely in the Christian tradition.'

Do Dawkins' own followers, suppurating their rats' rectums all over his long-suffering staff, stand squarely in his atheist tradition?

See how easy it is to turn a person into "other"? I rejected Pat Robertson's ignorant statements, too. But I know better than to call him the absolute representative of all things Christian. Still, not enough Christians struck back at Mr. Dawkins for him to notice (he would have passed it off, anyway; and perhaps that says something about the nature of Christians. Though I imagine more Christians have heard of Mr. Robertson than Mr. Dawkins, and still the majority of Christians in the world are unaware of the existence of either gentleman.), so he finally hears it from his own "followers." People he probably never meant to have as followers; but then, he probably never imagined he was talking to real people about real people (as The Church Mouse points out*). He probably, like those people in the pews so determined to hate their pastor, never imagined anyone beyond the circle of his attentions was anything than "other." Which is something religion is supposed to teach you about.

I'm thinking evolutionary biology never touches on that subject. But maybe that's uncharitable of me. Ah, well, it's Lent. Add it to my penance; I have a lot of that to do, a little more won't make much difference.

*It doesn't quite fit in the foregoing, but I have to quote The Church Mouse on at least one point:

What seems to infuriate Dawkins most is that he believes he has disproved religion already, so if you are still a believer you must either be a total idiot, or are deliberately trying to fool the general populace for malicious reasons. The thought that other people might listen to his arguments and still disagree simply doesn't seem to compute. In fact, it seems to be making him angrier and angrier.
I don't know about the "angrier and angrier" part; I'll take the Mouse's word for that. But I think the analysis is spot on: unable to conceive of a viewpoint beyond his own, unable, in other words, to conceive of a "wholly other," Dawkins is reduced to vituperation. Which isn't surprising, in the least.

Thursday, February 25, 2010

More thoughts on Pearls, and Pigs, and Lent

Unintentionally picking up on what I said here (because I hadn't said it yet), Sharl pointed me here. Which has some interesting things to say:
To all my nonbelieving, sort-of-believing, and used-to-be-believing friends: I feel like I should begin with a confession. I am sorry that so often the biggest obstacle to God has been Christians. Christians who have had so much to say with our mouths and so little to show with our lives. I am sorry that so often we have forgotten the Christ of our Christianity.

Forgive us. Forgive us for the embarrassing things we have done in the name of God.

The other night I headed into downtown Philly for a stroll with some friends from out of town. We walked down to Penn’s Landing along the river, where there are street performers, artists, musicians. We passed a great magician who did some pretty sweet tricks like pour change out of his iPhone, and then there was a preacher. He wasn’t quite as captivating as the magician. He stood on a box, yelling into a microphone, and beside him was a coffin with a fake dead body inside. He talked about how we are all going to die and go to hell if we don’t know Jesus.

Some folks snickered. Some told him to shut the hell up. A couple of teenagers tried to steal the dead body in the coffin. All I could do was think to myself, I want to jump up on a box beside him and yell at the top of my lungs, "God is not a monster." Maybe next time I will.

The more I have read the Bible and studied the life of Jesus, the more I have become convinced that Christianity spreads best not through force but through fascination. But over the past few decades our Christianity, at least here in the United States, has become less and less fascinating. We have given the atheists less and less to disbelieve. And the sort of Christianity many of us have seen on TV and heard on the radio looks less and less like Jesus.
It's a nice sentiment, but I have to say, I don't feel responsible for all the stupid things done in the name of God, or Christ, or Christianity. I'm humble, but I'm not that humble. I won't apologize for my beliefs, but neither to I want to proselytize from them. Not, at least, unless I get to define rather strictly what "proselytize" means. And when I'm through, it might not mean "proselytize" any longer. So maybe I don't want to do it at all.

The other thing is, I don't feel compelled to give atheists reasons to believe, or fewer and fewer reasons to disbelieve.* That inevitably brings us back to the question of the existence of God, and while that's an interesting chestnut in philosophy of religion circles (mostly for freshman, in fact), it's a red herring I'm quite willing to leave behind.

Is God a monster? No. But the fact that you may believe that is not my fault, and correcting your error is not my responsibility. And I'm tired of people, on either side of the argument, trying to make it my responsibility, or assuming that it should be. You don't believe? Fine. You do believe? Fine. Let there be a commerce between us, either way you come down. This is not a litmus test, this is not an entrance requirement, this is not a position upon which there must be judgment so that we can move on to "Judge not, lest ye be judged." What part about that do we not understand is absolute and, as Dom Crossan said, the sign of an unbrokered basiliea tou theou?

Lent is not a time for guilt and remorse (although it's been that for centuries, thanks to the Church and other misunderstandings). Lent is a time for reflection, self-examination, contrition,humility, and service to others. You know, the usual Christian stuff. If it isn't as joyful as Advent, it's because it ends on a less happy note. But that doesn't mean it's all about hair shirts and mea culpas for not being all that someone else expects us to be. Unless that someone else is God.

*To be fair, this is a valid position and concern for evangelicals, i.e., those of a certain theological persuasion. I am not among them, and never have been. My soteriology does not teach me that my salvation depends on your salvation. So if we are part of a faith community, we can agree on certain fundamentals. If we are not part of a common faith community, we can find other grounds for peace and mutual respect. Let there be a commerce between us, but one without money, one where food and wine are without price.

Of Pearls and Pigs--Second Thursday in Lent 2010

"Don't offer dogs what is sacred, and don't throw your pearls to pigs, or they'll trample them underfoot and turn and tear you to shreds." Matthew 7:6, SV.
Huffington Post is one of the places on the web I go regularly; but I've always avoided any posts there about religion, because it always draws the most negative and, from my perspective at least, ignorant comments.

It is proof that religion is very much a part of American life that so many people are so sure they have the last word on the subject when, like the average person on matters of Constitutional law or just civil law, or physics, or molecular biology, or evolutionary biology, or music, the fine arts, even business, they know next to nothing. But they are too ignorant to realize how ignorant they are, which is their sword and shield.

I shouldn't even be saying this, except that my blog is no lightning rod for attacks by atheists and non-believers, and I can control the comments here to keep it from being that. But if you read the comments to the inaugural post by Paul Raushenbush, a post in which he explicitly calls for a "Middle Way":
HuffPost Religion hopes to offer a sane middle way for people who wish to approach religion with both heart and mind, and who believe we can have disagreements without demonization.
As a start, it would help if religious people acknowledge that non-religious people can be moral, and if atheist people would acknowledge that religious people can be intelligent. Hopefully these truisms will become evident as HuffPost Religion provides a way for people to hear from one another.
You will find that the comments are, by and large, a demonization of religious people, and an insistence that religious people cannot be intelligent.

So Thomas Aquinas and Augustine of Hippo and Søren Kierkegaard and Georges Lemaitre, to name but a few, you are known as idiots to the commenters at Huffington Post. Sorry, but they know best.

Well, they don't, of course. And I wish Rev. Raushenbush well in his venture, and I'll stop in if only to read posts from Joan Chittester (though not from Jim Wallis, who is overexposed and under-spiritualized, in my not humble-enough opinion), but I won't linger, and I won't comment.

Lent is hard enough as it is.

Wednesday, February 24, 2010

"Am I My Brother's Keeper?"-First Wednesday of Lent 2010

The question remains:

The widow of an Internal Revenue Service employee killed when authorities said Andrew Joseph Stack III flew his plane into an office building has sued Stack’s wife, saying she should have warned others about her husband.

According to the seven-page lawsuit filed in Travis County court, Sheryl Mann Stack had a duty to “avoid a foreseeable risk of injury to others,” including Vernon Hunter, who was killed Thursday.

“Stack was threatened enough by Joseph Stack that she took her daughter and stayed at a hotel the night before the plane crash,” the suit said.


Dan Ross, an attorney representing Valerie Hunter said, “There are reasons why we wanted to get a lawsuit filed early, not because we wanted to hurt anyone or anything like that.”

He said that his client is interested to know if any insurance proceeds might be available that the Hunter family would be entitled to.

“This is the proper way to determine what assets, including insurance, would be available for Mr. Hunter’s wrongful death,” he said.
One comment from the link:

I wish someone in the legal profession would chime in here and let us know just what exactly the Hunter family could stand to gain from this lawsuit. Mr. Stack committed suicide, which rules out any life insurance payout, doesn’t it? He set his house on fire. No insurance payment there, right? It just seems to me that Mrs. Stack and her daughter are victims here, too. I’m just asking.
I understand the explanation by the lawyer, and don't even challenge it. The legal grounds, though, for Sheryl Stack warning others about her husband's intentions, is unclear. Perhaps discovery is supposed to reveal that. But lawsuits are not supposed to be filed on purely speculative grounds, even if a valid cause of action is presented. And I don't know what that cause of action would be, aside from some version of "failure to warn."

One thing, though: the appellation of "hero" so quickly applied to Mr. Stack after the incident, now fades in the light of day. In movies there are explosions and deaths, and we are trained to cheer the protagonist who causes, or avoids, all this carnage, just as we believe (from the student papers I've just read) that owning a gun is a requisite to personal safety and self-defense. In real life, of course, the majority of us are safe without firearms, and being in possession of a weapon seldom makes you invisible and bulletproof, otherwise no police officer would ever be shot. In real life, bullets go where physics takes them, not human will. And violent actions destroy real human lives, not mere abstractions like political positions.

Monday, February 22, 2010

First Monday of Lent 2010

He thought of the jungle, already regrowing around him to cover the scars they had created. He thought of the tiger, killing to eat. Was that evil? And ants? They killed. No, the jungle wasn't evil. It was indifferent. So, too, was the world. Evil, then, must be the negation of something man had added to the world. Ultimately, it was caring about something that made the world liable to evil. Caring. And then the caring gets torn asunder. Everybody dies, but not everybody cares.

It occurred to Mellas that he could create the possibility of good or evil through caring. He could nullify the indifferent world. But in so doing he opened himself up to the pain of watching it get blown away. His killing that day would not have been evil if the dead soldiers hadn't been loved by mothers, sisters, friends, wives. Mellas understood that in destroying the fabric which linked those people, he had participated in evil; but this evil had hurt him as well. He also understood that his participation in evil was a result of being human. Being human was the best he could do. Without man there would be no evil. But there was also no good, nothing moral built over the world of fact. Humans were responsible for it all. He laughed at the cosmic joke, but he felt heartsick.

--Matterhorn: A Novel of the Vietnam War, by Karl Marlantes (New York: Atlantic Monthly Press 2010).

Sunday, February 21, 2010

First Sunday of Lent 2010

Deuteronomy 26:1-1126:1 When you have come into the land that the LORD your God is giving you as an inheritance to possess, and you possess it, and settle in it,

26:2 you shall take some of the first of all the fruit of the ground, which you harvest from the land that the LORD your God is giving you, and you shall put it in a basket and go to the place that the LORD your God will choose as a dwelling for his name.

26:3 You shall go to the priest who is in office at that time, and say to him, "Today I declare to the LORD your God that I have come into the land that the LORD swore to our ancestors to give us."

26:4 When the priest takes the basket from your hand and sets it down before the altar of the LORD your God,

26:5 you shall make this response before the LORD your God: "A wandering Aramean was my ancestor; he went down into Egypt and lived there as an alien, few in number, and there he became a great nation, mighty and populous.

26:6 When the Egyptians treated us harshly and afflicted us, by imposing hard labor on us,

26:7 we cried to the LORD, the God of our ancestors; the LORD heard our voice and saw our affliction, our toil, and our oppression.

26:8 The LORD brought us out of Egypt with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm, with a terrifying display of power, and with signs and wonders;

26:9 and he brought us into this place and gave us this land, a land flowing with milk and honey.

26:10 So now I bring the first of the fruit of the ground that you, O LORD, have given me." You shall set it down before the LORD your God and bow down before the LORD your God.

26:11 Then you, together with the Levites and the aliens who reside among you, shall celebrate with all the bounty that the LORD your God has given to you and to your house.

Psalm 91:1-2, 9-16
91:1 You who live in the shelter of the Most High, who abide in the shadow of the Almighty,

91:2 will say to the LORD, "My refuge and my fortress; my God, in whom I trust."

91:9 Because you have made the LORD your refuge, the Most High your dwelling place,

91:10 no evil shall befall you, no scourge come near your tent.

91:11 For he will command his angels concerning you to guard you in all your ways.

91:12 On their hands they will bear you up, so that you will not dash your foot against a stone.

91:13 You will tread on the lion and the adder, the young lion and the serpent you will trample under foot.

91:14 Those who love me, I will deliver; I will protect those who know my name.

91:15 When they call to me, I will answer them; I will be with them in trouble, I will rescue them and honor them.

91:16 With long life I will satisfy them, and show them my salvation.

Romans 10:8b-13
10:8b "The word is near you, on your lips and in your heart" (that is, the word of faith that we proclaim);

10:9 because if you confess with your lips that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved.

10:10 For one believes with the heart and so is justified, and one confesses with the mouth and so is saved.

10:11 The scripture says, "No one who believes in him will be put to shame."

10:12 For there is no distinction between Jew and Greek; the same Lord is Lord of all and is generous to all who call on him.

10:13 For, "Everyone who calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved."

Luke 4:1-13
4:1 Jesus, full of the Holy Spirit, returned from the Jordan and was led by the Spirit in the wilderness,

4:2 where for forty days he was tempted by the devil. He ate nothing at all during those days, and when they were over, he was famished.

4:3 The devil said to him, "If you are the Son of God, command this stone to become a loaf of bread."

4:4 Jesus answered him, "It is written, 'One does not live by bread alone.'"

4:5 Then the devil led him up and showed him in an instant all the kingdoms of the world.

4:6 And the devil said to him, "To you I will give their glory and all this authority; for it has been given over to me, and I give it to anyone I please.

4:7 If you, then, will worship me, it will all be yours."

4:8 Jesus answered him, "It is written, 'Worship the Lord your God, and serve only him.'"

4:9 Then the devil took him to Jerusalem, and placed him on the pinnacle of the temple, saying to him, "If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down from here,

4:10 for it is written, 'He will command his angels concerning you, to protect you,'

4:11 and 'On their hands they will bear you up, so that you will not dash your foot against a stone.'"

4:12 Jesus answered him, "It is said, 'Do not put the Lord your God to the test.'"

4:13 When the devil had finished every test, he departed from him until an opportune time.
How near? How near, in fact, is near enough? How near does it have to be before you feel it, respond to it, act on it? As near as your breath? As near as your heartbeat? As close as your skin? Under your skin? Beneath your tongue? Drawn in and pushed out of your nostrils?

"Word" is "Logos" to Paul, but "breath" is "pneuma," which also means "air" as well as "spirit." It's logical, actually. Without breath you have no air; without breath or air the body has no spirit. Without spirit, you are not alive. How close is your spirit to you? How much does the Logos move you? What if, somehow, you could pack up your sorrows, and give them all away? Then would you feel saved?

Saved? Saved? Yes, saved. If you could pack up your sorrows, would you feel saved? Would you feel safe, secure, able to act on the Logos that is as close to your as your own skin, as intimate as your own breath, "as permanent as death, implacable as stone"? Would you act then? Is that all it would take?

It's hard to understand hard actions as salvation. We need some assurance, first. We need to know the hard part will lead to the good part; but what if we knew the hard part was faithfulness, and the easy part was action? Would we feel safe then? Would we feel saved?

Paul says this salvation is on your lips and in your heart. If it isn't in those places, where else would it be, and what good would it do you? And if it is in those places, what good is it if it doesn't make you act? If it doesn't lead you, drive you, compel you, to behave accordingly? What good is your salvation, if it doesn't make you feel safe? And if it makes you feel safe, why wouldn't you then do what's necessary?

You could go out into the wilderness, and not be afraid. You could go out to where God is most clearly seen, where there are no distractions, no confusion, no mistaking something else, some false idol, some human made object, for God. Where money is useless and the noise is from nature and the sights are God's handiwork. You could go out into the wilderness and not be afraid; if you felt safe.

The wilderness is not a place, of course; it's s state of mind. You could be in the wilderness right now, sitting before your computer, reading these words. You could be safe right now, but in the wilderness tomorrow morning, when the work week starts again. What salvation do you have there, in the place where you don't feel safe? What good is your salvation, if there is a place where you don't feel safe?

Is safety justice? It can be. "A wandering Aramean was my father," but God brought the ancestors of Israel to a place of safety, and then told them to take care of the aliens among them. They were safe because God had made them safe, and that meant they had to remember the lessons of justice, and where their safety came from, and why they should not be afraid, even of the aliens who lived with them, the ones who were not children of Abraham. They weren't better than those aliens; God didn't despise those aliens; there was no reason for the children of Abraham not to feel safe. Because the word of God was as near to them as their lips and their hearts.

Are you safe only at home? What about the journey, then? If you could pack up your sorrows, could you leave them behind and go on the journey, and feel safe? Could you pack up your sorrows and be safe? Are your sorrows what keep you secretly comfortable, secretly secure? Are your sorrows what keep you safe, and you don't really want to pack them up, don't really want to give them away? Are your sorrows what keep you out of the wilderness, out of the truly unsafe places, out of the places where you know you should be but you are afraid to be? If somehow you could pack them up and give them away, would you? Because wouldn't that be the ultimate safety, to know you'd given your sorrows away, and you had no reason to be afraid, no reason to fear the outcome of the next unsafe but just thing you did, of the next unsafe moment when you reached out to another person just because the word was on your lips and in your heart and you knew that faith was directing you, leading you, compelling you? And you knew that you were safe, and saved, and salvation was all it was about, but not the salvation by and by, but here and now? The salvation of your heart?

If you could feel that safe, or even expect to feel that safe at the conclusion, would you go on the journey? Would you pack up your sorrows and give them all away, if you could lose them, would you do it? Would you dare to feel safe, to be saved, so you could go on the journey and not fear the dangers? Would you do that? Would you?

What have you got to lose? If the Logos is in your heart and on your lips, then you "shall celebrate with all the bounty that the LORD your God has given to you and to your house." And you will be safe.


Picture from Vanderbilt University Special Collections.

Song for the First Sunday of Lent 2010

Music now. Sermon later.

Saturday, February 20, 2010

"There are no atheists in foxholes...."

A short excerpt from a new novel to be released in April. The characters are two African American Marines in the bush in Vietnam.

He was silent for a moment. Then he said "Ever'one here think it easy for me. I be this good little church boy from Mississippi with my good little church-goin' Mammy, and since I be this stupid country nigger with the big faith, I don't have no troubles. Well, it just don't work that way." He paused. Jermain said nothing. "I see my friend Williams get ate by a tiger," Cortell continued. "I see my friend Broyer get his face ripped off by a mine. What do you think I do all night, sit around thankin' Sweet Jesus? Raise my palms to sweet heaven and cry hallelujah? You know what I do? You know what I do? I lose heart." Cortell's throat suddenly tightened, strangling his words. "I lose my heart." He took a deep breath, trying to regain his composure. He exhaled and went on quietly, back in control. "I sit there and I don't seen any hope. Hope gone." Cortell was seeing his dead friends. "Then, the sky turn gray again in the east, and you know what I do? I choose all over to keep believin'. All along I know Jesus could maybe be just some fairy tale, and I could be just this one big fool. I choose anyway." He turned away from his inward images and returned to the blackness of the world around him. "It ain't no easy thing."
--Matterhorn: A Novel of the Vietnam War, by Karl Marlantes (New York: Atlantic Monthly Press 2010).

Friday, February 19, 2010

What I have not yet heard...

According to NPR this morning, Joe Stack, the man who flew a small plane into a building in Austin yesterday, left behind a wife and children.

According to Stack's own "rant" on the web, his wife's income was, for one year at least, less than $13,000.00.

Now, follow the bouncing ball:

1) Life insurance won't pay for a suicide.

2) Stack burned his house down, leaving his family homeless.

3) He destroyed what might have been another valuable asset, a private plane.

4) He took his own life, cutting off any potential income he might have provided for his family.

5) He has left them in undoubted shock and pain and bewilderment.

And yet some people want to proclaim him a "hero." Use him as an example of their political support. Use him as a basis for their jokes.


Friday after Ash Wednesday-2010

Interesting story on NPR yesterday morning. It seems the "Christmas Day Bomber" may have been radicalized by Guantanamo Bay. He held a conference on the "War on Terror" of the Bush Administration at University College in London. Three of the speakers were former Gitmo detainees.

"I would have talked about how inside this tiny prison cell where you have no access to the rest of the world, the one thing that gives you solace is the Quran," Begg said. "The only thing that's familiar to you after they have taken away your clothes and taken away your family and taken away your environment and the very air that you breathe, the only thing you can see that is familiar is when you open that book."
Far from being a deterrent, a symbol that strikes fear in the heart of our enemies or protects Americans from "dangerous people," Gitmo has proven to be an instigator; a spark in a pile of gunpowder, a match struck in a fireworks warehouse.

We have met the enemy, and he is us. This should be a very familiar theme in Lent.

Still a little unclear about the concept....

Walking into the classroom building this morning, I passed a small "whiteboard" with a hand lettered sign on it, clearly set up by someone in the school administration. Funny I didn't notice it before, but it displayed a stick figure drawing with a large circular head, smiling and proudly displaying a black cross above the two dotted "eyes," clearly meant to indicate the ashes of Ash Wednesday. And to be sure you got the point, the caption read:



Thursday, February 18, 2010

Thursday after Ash Wednesday-2010

In comments below, Rick quoted Chesterton:

Historic Christianity rose into a high and strange coup de théatre of morality -- things that are to virtue what the crimes of Nero are to vice. The spirits of indignation and of charity took terrible and attractive forms, ranging from that monkish fierceness that scourged like a dog the first and greatest of the Plantagenets, to the sublime pity of St. Catherine, who, in the official shambles, kissed the bloody head of the criminal. Poetry could be acted as well as composed. This heroic and monumental manner in ethics has entirely vanished with supernatural religion. They, being humble, could parade themselves: but we are too proud to be prominent. Our ethical teachers write reasonably for prison reform; but we are not likely to see Mr. Cadbury, or any eminent philanthropist, go into Reading Gaol and embrace the strangled corpse before it is cast into the quicklime. Our ethical teachers write mildly against the power of millionaires; but we are not likely to see Mr. Rockefeller, or any modern tyrant, publicly whipped in Westminster Abbey.
It gave me the excuse to mention this:

If the leper was removed from the world, and from the community of the Church visible, his existence was yet a constant manifestation of God, since it was a sign both of His anger and His grace: "My friend," says the ritual of the Church of Vienne, "it pleaseth Our Lord that thou shouldst be infected with this malady, and thou hast great grace at the hands of Our Lord that he desireth to punish thee for they iniquities in this world." And at the very moment when the priest and his assistants drag him out of the church with backward step, the leper is assured that he still bears witness for God: "And howsoever thou mayest be apart from the Church and the company of the Sound, yet art thou not apart from the grace of God." Brueghel's lepers attend at a distance, but forever, that climb to Calvary on which the entire people accompanies Christ. Hierarchic witnesses of evil, they accomplish their salvation in and by their very exclusion: in a strange reversibility that is the opposite of good works and prayer, they are saved by the hand that is not stretched out. The sinner who abandons the leper at his door opens his way to heaven. "for which have patience in thy malady; for Our Lord hateth thee not because of it, keepeth thee not from his company; but if thou has patience thou wilt be saved, as was the leper who died before the gate of the rich man and was carried straight to paradise." Abandonment is his salvation; his exclusion offers him another form of communion.
Michel Foucault, Madness and Civilization: A History of Insanity in the Age of Reason, tr. Richard Howard (New York: Vintage Books 1988, p. 6-7).

Ritual served many purposes in communal life. Sometimes I think it even served to create community, however flawed that community was.

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

"Because I do not hope to turn..."

I received an e-mail from a friend, a fellow pastor. I won't quote it in full, because I haven't asked his permission to do so. But he calls the ashes of Ash Wednesday a "black badge of courage," a sign of one's conviction, faith, and belief. A sign the wearer believes in God, through Jesus Christ.

He presents this in the context of Christian belief being a "touchy thing;" perhaps, he says, it is even dangerous, even in America. I know of people who would immediately argue with the sentiment, affirming my friend's statement even as they mean to deny it. Dangerous? Well, perhaps; depending on how you, as a Christian, choose to affirm and display your faith.

Do you have the courage, for example, to be humble? Do you have the courage to be last of all and servant of all? At one point in church history, Lent concluded with a service in which the King of England would gather beggars into the sanctuary, and kneel down, and wash their feet, as Jesus did in the Gospel of John. Do any of us have the courage to do that, now? To end our Lenten fast that way? To begin our Lenten journey in that spirit?

Ash Wednesday 2010

I am reading (Simone Weil's) essays as a part of my Lenten reading...She says that we "...must experience every day, both in the spirit and the flesh, the pains and humiliations of poverty...and further we must do something which is harder than enduring in poverty, we must renounce all compensations: in our contacts with the people around us we must sincerely practice the humility of a naturalized citizen in the country which has received us."

I keep reminding the young people who come to work with us that they are not naturalized citizens...They are not really poor. We are always foreigners to the poor. So we have to make up for it by "renouncing all compensations..."
Dorothy Day, from The Dorothy Day Book, p. 11.

Joel 2:1-2, 12-17
2:1 Blow the trumpet in Zion; sound the alarm on my holy mountain! Let all the inhabitants of the land tremble, for the day of the LORD is coming, it is near-

2:2 a day of darkness and gloom, a day of clouds and thick darkness! Like blackness spread upon the mountains a great and powerful army comes; their like has never been from of old, nor will be again after them in ages to come.

2:12 Yet even now, says the LORD, return to me with all your heart, with fasting, with weeping, and with mourning;

2:13 rend your hearts and not your clothing. Return to the LORD, your God, for he is gracious and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love, and relents from punishing.

2:14 Who knows whether he will not turn and relent, and leave a blessing behind him, a grain offering and a drink offering for the LORD, your God?

2:15 Blow the trumpet in Zion; sanctify a fast; call a solemn assembly;

2:16 gather the people. Sanctify the congregation; assemble the aged; gather the children, even infants at the breast. Let the bridegroom leave his room, and the bride her canopy.

2:17 Between the vestibule and the altar let the priests, the ministers of the LORD, weep. Let them say, "Spare your people, O LORD, and do not make your heritage a mockery, a byword among the nations. Why should it be said among the peoples, 'Where is their God?'"

Isaiah 58:1-12
58:1 Shout out, do not hold back! Lift up your voice like a trumpet! Announce to my people their rebellion, to the house of Jacob their sins.

58:2 Yet day after day they seek me and delight to know my ways, as if they were a nation that practiced righteousness and did not forsake the ordinance of their God; they ask of me righteous judgments, they delight to draw near to God.

58:3 "Why do we fast, but you do not see? Why humble ourselves, but you do not notice?" Look, you serve your own interest on your fast day, and oppress all your workers.

58:4 Look, you fast only to quarrel and to fight and to strike with a wicked fist. Such fasting as you do today will not make your voice heard on high.

58:5 Is such the fast that I choose, a day to humble oneself? Is it to bow down the head like a bulrush, and to lie in sackcloth and ashes? Will you call this a fast, a day acceptable to the LORD?

58:6 Is not this the fast that I choose: to loose the bonds of injustice, to undo the thongs of the yoke, to let the oppressed go free, and to break every yoke?

58:7 Is it not to share your bread with the hungry, and bring the homeless poor into your house; when you see the naked, to cover them, and not to hide yourself from your own kin?

58:8 Then your light shall break forth like the dawn, and your healing shall spring up quickly; your vindicator shall go before you, the glory of the LORD shall be your rear guard.

58:9 Then you shall call, and the LORD will answer; you shall cry for help, and he will say, Here I am. If you remove the yoke from among you, the pointing of the finger, the speaking of evil,

58:10 if you offer your food to the hungry and satisfy the needs of the afflicted, then your light shall rise in the darkness and your gloom be like the noonday.

58:11 The LORD will guide you continually, and satisfy your needs in parched places, and make your bones strong; and you shall be like a watered garden, like a spring of water, whose waters never fail.

58:12 Your ancient ruins shall be rebuilt; you shall raise up the foundations of many generations; you shall be called the repairer of the breach, the restorer of streets to live in.

Psalm 51:1-17
1:1 Have mercy on me, O God, according to your steadfast love; according to your abundant mercy blot out my transgressions.

1:2 Wash me thoroughly from my iniquity, and cleanse me from my sin.

1:3 For I know my transgressions, and my sin is ever before me.

1:4 Against you, you alone, have I sinned, and done what is evil in your sight, so that you are justified in your sentence and blameless when you pass judgment.

1:5 Indeed, I was born guilty, a sinner when my mother conceived me.

1:6 You desire truth in the inward being; therefore teach me wisdom in my secret heart.

1:7 Purge me with hyssop, and I shall be clean; wash me, and I shall be whiter than snow.

1:8 Let me hear joy and gladness; let the bones that you have crushed rejoice.

1:9 Hide your face from my sins, and blot out all my iniquities.

1:10 Create in me a clean heart, O God, and put a new and right spirit within me.

1:11 Do not cast me away from your presence, and do not take your holy spirit from me.

1:12 Restore to me the joy of your salvation, and sustain in me a willing spirit.

1:13 Then I will teach transgressors your ways, and sinners will return to you.

1:14 Deliver me from bloodshed, O God, O God of my salvation, and my tongue will sing aloud of your deliverance.

1:15 O Lord, open my lips, and my mouth will declare your praise.

1:16 For you have no delight in sacrifice; if I were to give a burnt offering, you would not be pleased.

1:17 The sacrifice acceptable to God is a broken spirit; a broken and contrite heart, O God, you will not despise.

2 Corinthians 5:20b-6:10
5:20b We entreat you on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God.

5:21 For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.

6:1 As we work together with him, we urge you also not to accept the grace of God in vain.

6:2 For he says, "At an acceptable time I have listened to you, and on a day of salvation I have helped you." See, now is the acceptable time; see, now is the day of salvation!

6:3 We are putting no obstacle in anyone's way, so that no fault may be found with our ministry,

6:4 but as servants of God we have commended ourselves in every way: through great endurance, in afflictions, hardships, calamities,

6:5 beatings, imprisonments, riots, labors, sleepless nights, hunger;

6:6 by purity, knowledge, patience, kindness, holiness of spirit, genuine love,

6:7 truthful speech, and the power of God; with the weapons of righteousness for the right hand and for the left;

6:8 in honor and dishonor, in ill repute and good repute. We are treated as impostors, and yet are true;

6:9 as unknown, and yet are well known; as dying, and see--we are alive; as punished, and yet not killed;

6:10 as sorrowful, yet always rejoicing; as poor, yet making many rich; as having nothing, and yet possessing everything.

Matthew 6:1-6, 16-21
6:1 "Beware of practicing your piety before others in order to be seen by them; for then you have no reward from your Father in heaven.

6:2 "So whenever you give alms, do not sound a trumpet before you, as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and in the streets, so that they may be praised by others. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward.

6:3 But when you give alms, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing,

6:4 so that your alms may be done in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you.

6:5 "And whenever you pray, do not be like the hypocrites; for they love to stand and pray in the synagogues and at the street corners, so that they may be seen by others. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward.

6:6 But whenever you pray, go into your room and shut the door and pray to your Father who is in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you.

6:16 "And whenever you fast, do not look dismal, like the hypocrites, for they disfigure their faces so as to show others that they are fasting. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward.

6:17 But when you fast, put oil on your head and wash your face,

6:18 so that your fasting may be seen not by others but by your Father who is in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you.

6:19 "Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust consume and where thieves break in and steal;

6:20 but store up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust consumes and where thieves do not break in and steal.

6:21 For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.
Alexandra Penney invested most of her cash with Bernard Madoff, and there she lost it. She wrote about her experience on a blog, and has now published it as a book, The Bag Lady Papers. She was destitute, impoverished, ptochon. Even though she owned two properties, managed to sell one without facing foreclosure, still owns the other, published one best-selling book (and this may be another), and founded the pink ribbon campaign for breast cancer. Oh, and she had family who could and presumably did help her out with her cash flow problems.

She admits about her losses that: "in a relative sphere, it wasn't all that much." But she was afraid of being a "bag lady." She's afraid of loss; deeply, deeply terrified about it.

I actually know people like this, people who grew up comfortably, even very comfortably, who suddenly find that the money they imagined would never go away, takes a step or two away. Not so far away they are bankrupt, can't pay their bills, lose their house. But suddenly, it isn't an ever-present presence. And just that much loss, that much removal of the sense of money always being what they can lean on, is terrifying: deeply, profoundly terrifying, a vision of what might happen to them if the money "ran out." These are the people afraid that "poor people" are going to take away what they have, who are only envious of what they possess and want to take it from them by force. Alexandra Penney owned a house in the Hamptons and one in Florida, and what scared her? Her loss of money. Because money is power; because money is security. In the interview, she learns to barter to get her hair colored and styled; as opposed, of course, to people who barter for a meal, or a place to sleep.

Or just a bag, to carry their possessions in.

It's true. We are afraid of the poor. And it is like we are all foreigners to each other. What fresh hell is this?

"For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also."

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

I read the news today,

oh boy:

Kenneth Starr, the former special prosecutor who took on President Clinton over the Whitewater and Monica Lewinsky scandals, will be leaving his post as dean of Pepperdine University School of Law this spring to become president of Baylor University in Waco, Texas, the schools announced Monday.


In a statement posted on Baylor's website, Board of Regents member Joseph B. Armes said Starr was "a fifth-generation Texan who, throughout his distinguished career in law, the academy and public service, has been an articulate advocate for Christian ideals in the public square."
It's not exactly stunning that I say Mr. Armes and I clearly have very different views of what "Christian ideals in the public square" are. The article pays more attention to Starr's advocacy for Proposition 8 in California than his involvement as the Special Prosecutor of Bill Clinton.

I will say, in defense of Baylor, that it is a fine school which has always provided a fine education despite the administration. Or, well, that's the Baylor I knew through friends who went there 30 years ago. Times do change, after all:

Baylor is different from public universities, [Bradley Toben, Dean of the Baylor Law School] said, a difference underscored by Baylor 2012, which calls for the the world's largest Baptist university to marry biblical principles with cutting-edge research.

The goal, according to Jeff Reeter, managing partner at Texas Financial Group in Houston and former chairman of the Baylor Development Council, is to allow Baylor to "focus in on academic excellence with a backdrop of biblical truth."

"Baylor has a unique position in our world that many in academia think is a difficult position," he said, noting the often-mentioned conflict between science and biblical beliefs, including creationism or intelligent design. "We feel that is part of our calling. I think Baylor believes the two things can not only coexist, but they can powerfully coexist."

A new president will need to understand Baylor's "faith mission," Toben said.

"I think it's very important that the next president understand Baptist culture," he said. "Matters of faith, morals, values become very important in animating a university with a faith mission.

"At the law school, for instance, we impress upon our students that they had better be in this profession because they have a deep, internalized desire to serve others."
The Southern Baptists (from which Baylor stands apart, or used to) did an excellent job of "serving others" during Hurricane Katrina. But hiring Ken Starr as the school's President does make me wonder who the "others" are who students will now be encouraged to serve.

Sunday, February 14, 2010

The Medum is the Message

Here's the saddest thing about the discussion I prompted over at Echidne's place: the acceptance that PR, be it in the form of press releases or press conferences or public announcements or appearances on TV, provides valuable and useful information that is otherwise unavailable. It's the assumption that PR really matters.

But when all is said and done, PR is just PR.

Press releases and press appearances and even press conferences are no substitute for real information, but we seem to assume that they are, that PR is not only truly valuable, but the only thing of value. How else to interpret this comment at olvzl's post:

The complaint is that these individuals and organizations don't get heard. The question is not who's responsible for the information, the one purveying it or the one consuming it. The issue is a practical one about perception. Most people are lazy when it comes to researching the world around them. This puts the practical onus on the entity with something to say.

It's not that centrist or liberal Xian organizations don't exist, it's that they don't get heard. That's their own fault and it's to their own detriment. They should not be merely issuing press releases or official statements. They should be shouting down, making loud and angry sermons about how an irresponsible minority is making them look downright evil. They should be forming coalitions to approach media outlets, corporations and political organizations and insisting that their voice be heard. They should be holding large protests and scrambling for media coverage.
But why is any of that information of any value in the first place? Pat Robertson offers no real pastoral counseling through a television camera. Joel Osteen does not conduct theological seminars. James Dobson doesn't discuss the complexities of family dynamics to a radio audience. What they do is advertise themselves, and what they have to sell. Which is fine, but that's all they do and all they are: they are in the advertising business, and what they have to sell are a few hoary cliches and well-worn ideas as smooth and inoffensive, if less decorative and functional, as river stones. The only riposte to them are the hoary cliches that, say, Jim Wallis pedals. There is nothing of value that can be said in even a 10 minute interview with Rachel Maddow or Jon Stewart, much less that can be condensed into soundbite suitable for the evening news or a bumper sticker.

It's not, of course, an entirely new question.

Every time I look at you
I don't understand
Why you let the things you did
Get so out of hand
You'd have managed better
If you'd had it planned
Now why'd you choose such a backward time
And such a strange land?

If you'd come today
You could have reached the whole nation
Israel in 4 BC had no mass communication
There is a reason Jesus came as the son of a peasant (a carpenter, if that's what Joseph was, was not a middle class figure and member of a union. Carpenters were tradesman, which meant they didn't even own land and livestock. They had to provide for their family from what they could make, on commission. There was no market as we imagine it today. Almost all trade was done by connection to a patron, not by contract and capital. If Joseph was a carpenter, Jesus grew up miserably poor.), and it had to do with his message. There is a reason Jesus spoke primarily to Jews, and only rarely spoke directly to Gentiles. There is a reason Jesus didn't seek any of the methods of "mass communication" which were available in 4th century Rome: because those means were the same means we have today, and they served the same purpose. As Dom Crossan explains it:

The Roman Empire was based on the common principle of peace through victory, or, more fully, on a faith in the sequence of piety, war, victory, and peace.

Paul was a Jewish visionary following in Jesus' footsteps, and they both claimed that the Kingdom of God was already present and operative in this world. He opposed the mantras of Roman normalcy with a vision of peace through justice, or, more fully, with a faith in the sequence of covenant, nonviolence, justice, and peace.
How did Rome do this? Simple imagery, mainly:

A coin of Julius Caesar shows his spirit descending cometlike to takes it place among the eternal deities. A coin of Augustus Caesar calls him divi filius, son of a divine one, son of a god, son of the aforesaid comet. A coin of Tiberius Caesar hails him as pontifex maximuis, supreme bridge builder between earth and heaven, high priest of an imperial people. A silver denarius was a day's pay for a laborer and, if a day laborer meant somebody who worked every day rather than somebody who looked for work every day, it would have been a very good salary. Imagine this situation: If, after three days of hard work, a day laborer held those silver denarii in his hand, how would he, could he, should he distinguish between politics and religion in the Roman Empire?....
Crossan also discusses Roman public art, which reinforced the military superiority and moral virtue of Rome, as well as the domestic pieties which defined Roman civilization and justified the nature of its existence as preferred by the gods. That's what mass communication is for: reinforcement of conventional wisdom and accepted opinions which serve to reinforce the power structure that prevails. It is, to be fair, something the church has participated in, and in which is still participates; which is why I resent ad campaigns and public pronouncements by church judicatories, especially since the opinions expressed may not be the opinions of all persons sitting in the pews, and then that raises another question: who is the church?

A proper question, because the emphasis in "mass communication" is on the "mass," not on the "communication." Whatever goes down smoothly, easily, in anodyne form, is best. I know it is outrageous when political conservatives take to the public airwaves and spout blatant if unimportant lies, but they are merely turning the tactics of left blogistan against the bloggers. That is, they are engaged in the mass dissemination of facts. But facts, and their facts? They may not be entitled to "their" facts, but complaining about the distortions of mass communication does not correct those distortions, any more than more "mass communication' does. Where all that matters is who has the megaphone and how repititious they are, facts never get in the way of a good idea. The mass dissemination of false information is still "mass communication;" it's just not the communication you might want it to be. Or, as the old adage has it: "A lie is halfway around the world while the truth is still putting on its boots." And more mass communication doesn't stop that, or even block it.

Consider this, for one example: did Christian churches begin to recognize that gays and lesbians and the transgendered were their brethren because of "mass communication," or because of personal communications? Because the idea spread on cable TeeVee and talk radio, or because it spread from person to person?

How is the truth, and wisdom, and the values of true religion, spread? By mass movements? By advertisements or 10 minute interviews where half that time is spent asking questions and none of it spent listening to the answers? Or by changing one heart, which learns those values and truth and wisdom, from another heart?

As Jesus said: "Those who have ears had better listen." And he didn't say it into a microphone.

Friday, February 12, 2010

Lent is coming, but epiphany is not yet at an end...

Tho' much is taken, much abides; and though
We are not now that strength which in old days
Moved earth and heaven; that which we are, we are;
One equal temper of heroic hearts,
Made weak by time and fate, but strong in will
To strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield.

Alfred, Lord Tennyson. "Ulysses."

It's an interesting speculation to wonder if Jesus had lived into old age, would he have been a different person, lived a different life? Would the zeal of itinerancy have burned out? Don't be too quick to answer, or you'll deny the carne of the incarnation, the very issue that we struggle with still: whether carne and psyche are one and indivisible, or are forever at war and mix only like oil and water, engage each other only like ghost and machine.

An interesting speculation that deserves more consideration.

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Wednesday, February 03, 2010

Why I am Such a Poor Pastor

It is odd to watch with what feverish ardor Americans pursue prosperity. Ever tormented by the shadowy suspicion that they may not have chosen the shortest route to get it. They cleave to the things of this world as if assured that they will never die, and yet rush to snatch any that comes within their reach as if they expected to stop living before they had relished them. Death steps in, in the end, and stops them before they have grown tired of this futile pursuit of that complete felicity which always escapes them. Alexis de Tocqueville
I had been stopped by my last post and, like the centipede asked which leg comes after which, found myself lying in a metaphorical ditch considering how to run. And then along came Davos:

Everybody in the audience was excited when Bill Gates started talking about how much extra wealth flood-resistant rice strains brought to some of the poorest rice farmers in south-east Asia. But no one talked about creating relatively small and self-sufficient agricultural communities: the model is still very much that you sell your one crop for money, and then use that money to buy whatever other food you might need.
Or, as Wendell Berry puts it: "Think locally, act locally." It's really the only way that makes sense, and takes us out of the business of being Masters of the Universe, which is a role we're not nearly as good at as we think we are. Especially since that title was first applied by Tom Wolfe in The Bonfire of the Vanities, to Wall Street traders in the 1980's. Remember the 1980's? Gordon Gecko? "Greed is good"? Wolfe wrote after all of that went smash. Then we cranked it up again, on the internet; and it went smash again. Then we cranked it up a third time, in real estate. Third time, it turns out, was the charm; it all went smash, but the people at the top were saved. Climb the ladder high enough, you become invisible, bulletproof, and immortal. And you decide you are truly a "Master of the Universe," and like the Gods of Olympus, you are now entitled, nay obligated, to concern yourself in the affairs of mere mortals. And like the Gods of Olympus, it turns out you are only human, albeit with seemingly superhuman powers, which, it turns out, aren't really all that much help to people.

Think about it: if you had the powers of Superman from the comic books, what good would they do you? Could you solve world hunger? Help Haiti recover faster from it's earthquake? Feed millions by yourself? The people who gather at Davos surely don't presume they have the powers of Clark Kent/Superman, but they presume the systems which have made them rich and notorious, give them at least superhuman powers when it comes to applying systems to seemingly intractable problems of food supply and disease and maybe housing (though on that latter you'd think we'd have learned a lesson, at least in the "Western" world.). So from atop their lofty perches, mostly created by buying enough real estate to keep the crowds away, they think globally and imagine they can then act locally. In truth, of course, they can do neither.

Ever notice on science fiction movies how non-Earth planets are terribly mundane? They never have oceans or mountains or volcanoes or blizzards or tsunamis or hurricanes or deserts or swamps? There is no bio-diversity, no environment so diverse it can produce platpyi and toads and snakes and lizards and echidnes and seals and whales and squid and even transparent headed fish, or birds and mosquitos and bumble bees, and plants from Venus fly-traps to nasturtiums? Until it was discovered, who in Europe even imagined a platypus? Did you ever think anything in nature would have a transparent skull for the purpose of protecting its eyes? Planets in science fiction usually have such little biodiversity it's impossible to imagine life existing on them. How many insects and bacteria and jellyfish and bacteria exist on Pandora? How many cultures are there among the Na'vi? How many languages? How varied is the terrain?

"Global" thinking is easy, because we simply expand the tiny portion of the globe we know into a universal application. I live in the 4th largest city in the nation, and yet if I applied "global" thinking to what it is like based on the portion of the city I shop, eat, work, live in, I'd be completely wrong about the nature of Houston. How, then, am I to "think globally" about an entire planet with its diversity of terrains, environments, living things, human cultures, nationalities? Listen to the news this morning about Iraq's leaders declaring government dissidents "enemies of God," you might conclude all Muslims really are religious fanatics; unless you stop and realize more Muslims live in Asia than in all of the "Middle East." Can we really think globally? Are we that capable of getting that much outside of our own interests, our own limited knowledge of the world?

Religion actually has many things to teach us, not all them utilitarian. I've been reading more and more about the "utility" of religion, the idea being if you can't lick it (and you can't), you might as well find a place for it in the tool-box of modernity. It's that tool-box thinking that is the problem; Davos is just a symbol. not a source. But one thing I will say about the "utility" of religion is that it makes you realize you are responsible. Not in charge, not in control, not in the driver's seat: just responsible.

Responsible like that, of course, is one of the ways we don't want to be. We want the authority, but we never want the responsibility. Conferences like Davos highlight this: the captains of industry declare an end to disease or world hunger, and have a PowerPoint presentation or snappy binders and a comprehensive plan to make it so. And, of course, it always involves the status quo, only ever so much more so of it.

Which, to sound like the Stephen Patterson trained, Dom Crossan inspired, Eden Theological Seminary graduate that I am, puts me directly in mind of the basiliea (empire) of Rome, to which Jesus of Nazareth offered the basiliea tou theou.

Most modern scholars agree, that's what killed him. And Rome rolled on until it collapsed; and then came the feudal system, and the Renaissance city states, and the Enlightenment, and the Neo-Classical period, and the nation-states, and eventually, Davos. The world teaches us to call this "progress." Rome was all about what you could buy with money. So was Israel, once upon a time. Jesus said why worry? God feeds the birds of the air, and clothes the flowers of the field in finer garments than Solomon ever owned, so if God loves you, what won't God provide? But we fear the poor; and we want to remain in charge. Who knows what would happen if we challenged our systems to be humane, instead of relying on our systems to finally, this time, we really mean it!, produce humane results?

It sounds like a bad parody of an NRA slogan, but systems do not save people; systems save systems. They benefit a handful of people, who in turn think they are either deserving of the outsized benefits they reap, or can make themselves deserving by. Systems are machines which we imagine are both benevolent and caring, and will bestow upon us what we most need, if we know only how to ask. It isn't that we have moved so far away from imagining a "Father" in "heaven" who can "give us this day our daily bread," as we have recreated "him" in our image and imagine he is our servant, and like magic (the imposition of our will upon the world, without the need of our will or an agency) this servant will produce for us just what we always need, if we just learn how to access it. Or placate it; which amounts to the same thing.

O machine, O machine!

It just goes 'round and 'round, doesn't it? The same song, second verse, a little bit louder, a little bit worse. If we mention it, if we point it out, we sound like a crank, or seem as melancholy as the existential Dane, and while some imagine this would be good news for us, anyone who speaks it soon learns better.

Are these things right or wrong? There is a way to determine that, but it's not a very systematic one; and it doesn't focus us on what is, or is not, right or wrong. Those are, it turns out, the wrong questions. It's almost a cliche with me to say the right question might be: "Lord, when did we see you?" But that's never stopped me before:

Matthew 25:31-46
25:31 "When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, then he will sit on the throne of his glory.

25:32 All the nations will be gathered before him, and he will separate people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats,

25:33 and he will put the sheep at his right hand and the goats at the left.

25:34 Then the king will say to those at his right hand, 'Come, you that are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world;

25:35 for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me,

25:36 I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me.'

25:37 Then the righteous will answer him, 'Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry and gave you food, or thirsty and gave you something to drink?

25:38 And when was it that we saw you a stranger and welcomed you, or naked and gave you clothing?

25:39 And when was it that we saw you sick or in prison and visited you?'

25:40 And the king will answer them, 'Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.'

25:41 Then he will say to those at his left hand, 'You that are accursed, depart from me into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels;

25:42 for I was hungry and you gave me no food, I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink,

25:43 I was a stranger and you did not welcome me, naked and you did not give me clothing, sick and in prison and you did not visit me.'

25:44 Then they also will answer, 'Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or naked or sick or in prison, and did not take care of you?'

25:45 Then he will answer them, 'Truly I tell you, just as you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to me.'

25:46 And these will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life."
And here's the phrase, the one we so often and conveniently overlook: "'I was in prison and you visited me.'" It's easy to set that one in a false anachronism, to see it as the legitimate response to an illegitimate government (Rome, ruling over Palestine by right of might, not legitimacy of sovereignty). But it is actually a human response to a system, a system meant to solve social problems by removing certain people from society in order to make things better for the rest of the people in society. If we think of visiting people in prisons today, we think of it as something family and friends should do; we seldom think of doing it ourselves. But nothing in the context of that parable indicates the aid is only being offered to family members and friends. And why would be visit strangers in prison? To tell them we care? Or to break down the legitimacy of the prison, to de-limit the boundaries prisons are meant to set around prisoners and the rest of society? Isn't the challenge to visit the prisoners in fact a challenge to "lock 'em up and throw away the key", even to "put 'em away where they belong"? Isn't it a challenge to the very idea that systems serve the people, when in fact systems serve only a few, and make servants of the rest of us?

But that isn't what Jesus did; he did something altogether different. He said in substance, "Oh, I see, you want to be first. You want to be great. You want to be important. You want to be significant. Well, you ought to be. If you're going to be my disciple, you must be." But he reordered priorities. And he said, "Yes, don't give up this instinct. It's a good instinct if you use it right. (Yes) It's a good instinct if you don't distort it and pervert it. Don't give it up. Keep feeling the need for being important. Keep feeling the need for being first. But I want you to be first in love. (Amen) I want you to be first in moral excellence. I want you to be first in generosity. That is what I want you to do."

And he transformed the situation by giving a new definition of greatness. And you know how he said it? He said, "Now brethren, I can't give you greatness. And really, I can't make you first." This is what Jesus said to James and John. "You must earn it. True greatness comes not by favoritism, but by fitness. And the right hand and the left are not mine to give, they belong to those who are prepared." (Amen)

And so Jesus gave us a new norm of greatness. If you want to be important—wonderful. If you want to be recognized—wonderful. If you want to be great—wonderful. But recognize that he who is greatest among you shall be your servant. (Amen) That's a new definition of greatness.
That is absolutely un-systematic. You cannot be in charge of a system, or employ a system, or rely on a system, and still be last of all and servant of all. You can't redefine greatness by tinkering with a system that already establishes you as ruler over others if only because you can reach the levers of the system that they can't. Notice in that parable Jesus doesn't say feed the hungry; he says give a hungry person some of your food. He doesn't say clothe the naked; he says give a naked person some clothes. He doesn't say free the prisoners; he says lighten their burden and let them know they are still human beings, that they still matter. He doesn't say make the stranger a member of the family; he just says, "Welcome them." It isn't that hard, really. It isn't that much to ask. You don't even have to be systematic about it. Probably better if you aren't, in fact. Hard to help a person through the other end of a system. Much better if you just do it yourself. Much easier than trying to be Superman, or construct a systematic answer to this "futile pursuit of that complete felicity which always escapes [us]."