"For now we see as if through a flawed pane of glass..." (I Corinthians 13:12)

Monday, December 10, 2018

Unexpected Joy!

I suspect most of us have been in a home where there was a new baby. …unforgettable sights, and sounds—the smell of burped milk on crib sheets, mingling with the smell of baby powder. Bright colors in the nursery; twinkling musical toys, gurgles and coos, baby-talking grandpar­ents.
Or, watch a child a play. They can use anything: an old spoon and a pile of dirt; the box in which a very expensive toy was shipped.
And it doesn't matter where they are. I know it's more and more unusual in the age of television and video games and personal earphones; but some children still can entertain themselves without electronic media: creating games, and sometimes even entire civilizations, while strapped in the back seat of a mini-van.
Where there is a healthy child or baby, there fre­quently is joy, for children haven’t yet been jaded by materialism, or cruel experience or cynical influences. And nowhere is pure, unadulterated joy more clearly expressed than on the face of a child at Christmas: lost for hours in a Christmas catalogue wonderland; nose pressed against the toy store window; eyes wide and mouth agape on Santa's knee. Anyone who says that to give a child a gift at Christmas is to make Christmas commercial just never looked deeply into the innocent eyes of a child antici­pating Christmas.
Leave the child alone! Soon enough he'll learn the “true meaning” of the season—how to keep his joy in check—like the rest of us. I was visiting a church some time back, enjoying the role of participant in the pew. On the row in front of me was a little boy, oh, maybe two years old. His mother was wrestling with whom I assumed was his baby sister—not yet walking, but plenty active. The little boy was standing in the pew, ch­ewing his fingers and looking around.
When his eye caught mine, I made a fatal mistake: I winked at him, and I had his full attention. He turned around to face me, and stood there, smiling. He wasn't disturbing anyone or anything; he wasn't climbing over (or under) the pew, he wasn't tearing pages out of the hymnal, he wasn't laughing out loud. He was just smiling and drooling. But his mother rather harshly jerked him around by the arm, sat him down roughly, and, in a stage whisper audible for several rows, said, "Quit that! You're in Church!" (Have you noticed, or is it just me? Parents often make more disturbance correcting a child than the child was making to begin with!) As the little fellow rubbed a tear from his eye, his mom actually said—she actually said, "That's better."
Has it come to that? Can we not smile at each other in church?
Even the joy of Christmas, it seems, must be curtailed. The lights and the glitter and the tinsel, we're told, are commercial and take away from the "true meaning." I don't know; I think "JO­Y!" is a part of the "true meaning." And I think it’s OK if some of the joy spills out into parts of life that aren’t “spiritual.”
I was on an elevator, and overheard part of a conversa­tion—the annual litany—you know it; you’ve probably memorized it: "They start putting Christmas decorations up earlier every year! They used to wait until after Thank­sgiv­ing; now they start before Hal­loween! Christ­mas has become so commer­cial! They ought to put Christ back in Christmas!"
She actually thought it possi­ble to take Christ out of Christmas!
I wanted to take that pathetic wom­an aside and assure her that Christ was, indeed in my Christmas, and that he’d be in hers, too, if she wanted him. We can ignore Christ, but that doesn't mean he's not pres­ent. We can drown out the sound of his voice with the clatter of shop­ping malls, and we can lose sight of him in the traffic; but we cannot take Christ out of Christmas, be­cause we didn't put him there! 
It's not our job to "put"—or to “keep”—Christ in Christ­mas. Christ never left Christmas! It’s our job to recognize his presence, and in that presence to recognize “Emmanuel: God with Us”. 
I suggested in a sermon many years ago that the very lights and glitter that spell "commer­cialism" to some can be to us symbols of "JOY!" They can point us to the presence of Christ. But, one woman said, as she shook my hand after church, "No. God made the straw. Man made the tinsel."
Why is it difficult to be joyful? Is it because we've allowed ourselves to be more present to pain and violence and stress? Is it because the voices of grief and sad­ness, hunger, fear, human oppres­sion, arrogance and corruption in public office are louder than the voices of hope and peace and Joy and love? Why might that be?
A text from Zephaniah has a word for us: It’s late in the 8th century, BCE. Ahaz is king of Israel; but he’s Assyria’s vassal. Hezekiah followed Ahaz, and instituted sweeping reforms in government and in the religious practices of Israel. But then his son, Manasseh, and his son, Amon led Judah into the lowest depths of political, religious and moral corruption ever seen in the history of God's people. 
Finally, Josiah—who was only eight years old—became king. Since he was a minor, Judah was governed by a regent. Josiah was tutored by priests, who instilled in him the love of the Lord. As an adult Josiah would institute an age of great faithfulness and moral integrity. The writer of 2 Kings wrote, "Neither before nor after Josiah was there a king like him who turned to the Lord as he did..." (2KI 23:25 NIV).
While Josiah was still a minor, the prophet, Zephaniah, came on the scene. He was cousin to the King, and a great, great grandson of Hezekiah, the only other “good” king in Judah, after David and Solomon. He influenced Josiah as King.
The following text is a song of joy; but it seems almost totally out of place, because the rest of the book has some of the gloomiest passages in Hebrew scripture. The Lord will invade the darkness of Judah's heart like a person with lamps who ferrets out secret and hidden sins (1:12). The result will be a terrible day of judgment, a "bitter" day "of distress and anguish," "of ruin and devastation," "of darkness and gloom," "of clouds and thick darkness," "of trumpet blast and battle cry" (1:14-16)! Words spoken while Josiah was still a boy, when Judah was still reeling from the evil influence of previous kings. They are the words of a prophet driven almost to despair by the sorry conditions of Judah's life.
Then, abruptly, the clouds part, and unexpected light breaks through:
On that day it shall be said to Jerusalem:
Do not fear, O Zion; do not let your hands grow weak.
17The Lord, your God, is in your midst, a warrior who gives victory;
he will rejoice over you with gladness, he will renew you in his love;
he will exult over you with loud singing
  18as on a day of festival.
I will remove disaster from you, so that you will not bear reproach for it.
19I will deal with all your oppressors at that time.
And I will save the lame and gather the outcast,
and I will change their shame into praise and renown in all the earth.
20At that time I will bring you home, at the time when I gather you;
for I will make you renowned and praised among all the peoples of the earth,
when I restore your fortunes before your eyes, says the Lord.
(Zephaniah 3:16-20 NRSV)
Joy is kindled where least expected: in the recognition of the distance between God's vision and intention for humanity, on the one hand, and the realities of life as it really is, on the other. Escapism? Pollyanna optimism? I don't think so.
I think we have in this text one of the clearest examples of a process of biblical formation spanning several generations. A prophet confronts a situation and announces the will of God for that day and time. The message is clear: judgement is coming. The prophet's work ends there; but, there's no last chapter. No ending.
Sometime after the prophet is gone—in this case, a half-century later, Jerusalem falls to Babylon, and the people are dragged into exile. The prophet’s words become reality. But even in exile, God is present. Under divine guidance, the leaders of Israel persuade the people to turn back to God. A remnant survives and returns to Jerusalem, and the covenant is renewed.
Later, the sacred writings were collected, including much of the present text of Zephaniah. And in the process the above text is added: a tag—a closing doxology. The last chapter finally is written. It is the testimony of a people who had survived exile, and who could look back and see the hand of God through it all. It was placed in the text for later generations, a testimony written by those who had lived the last chapter, saw that whole process and could rejoice that, even in the worst of circumstanc­es, God can and will redeem.
God made the straw. Man made the tinsel. But we've read the last chapter. We know Jesus didn't stay on the straw. We’ve read the last chapter! He went home to Nazareth. He went to the cross. And now he sits at the right hand of God, from where "He shall reign forever and ever; King of kings, and Lord of lords. Hallelujah!" 
And from that place, his glory so overpowers the glitter of our puny celebrations that when we really become aware of his presence, there’s no problem with commercialism; there’s no problem with lights and tinsel and Santa Clause. If we can maintain the prophetic perspective of those Israelites who looked back on their history and saw the hand of God in it all, all these things take their proper place in the scheme of things which are summed up in the words of this season: “His name shall be called, ‘Emmanuel’—God with us,” the only appropriate response is gratitude and "JOY!"

Friday, November 30, 2018

A Gospel of Exclusion

“The simple claim of our faith is that Jesus of Nazareth destabilizes the human world, makes something new happen that is human, and requires us to get on with life in a new way. So the real issue is not, how do miracles happen? The real issue is, what shall we do with Jesus? Shall we trust him like the man and obey him like the sprit and be raised? Or shall we continue in our recalcitrant disbelief that leaves the world closed and close to death?”[1]

Heresy generally has been understood as a matter of incomplete or partial, rather than erroneous, articulation or living of faith. Another approach might say that heresies usually are formulated as either/or dichotomies, while the realities of life and faith normally confront us as both/and continuums.

As an example, some churches emphasize eternal salvation to the relative exclusion of temporal ministries of compassion, while other churches tend to reverse that focus. Either approach is incomplete.

Ironically, heresy frequently aligns with secular categories: conservative and liberal. Jim Wallis, founder and Editor of Sojourners magazine, says conservatives tend to emphasize personal accountability, while liberals are more likely to emphasize social accountability. His point is confirmed by those conservative Christians who demonize his call for a balance between personal and social responsibility.

The same Bible that has John 3:16 and Acts 2:21 also has Matthew 25 and Luke 4:16-30. Conservative Christians emphasize salvation and evangelism to the relative neglect of giving the cup of cold water and feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, etc. Progressive Christians are more likely to neglect evangelism in favor of political influence to help the poor. Both approaches border on heresy, not from error, but from an incomplete proclamation of a divine Word.

My own denomination essentially abandoned evangelism in the mid-20th century, and today numbers about 15% of its 1955 membership. The churches that maintained an evangelistic emphasis have become, by default, the “voice of the church.” As a result, two generations of “spiritual-but-not-religious” North Americans are conspicuous by their absence from organized communities of faith. They have perceived (rightly or wrongly) that “the church” has become self-absorbed, judgmental and uncaring.

Part of the problem is that the evangelistic message and strategy that worked in the first half of the 20th  century became increasingly ineffective in the last half of that same century. The message was, and is, still valid; but confrontational strategies replaced the simple approach of “lifting up Christ” and drove people away, rather than attracting them. Spiritualized 19th century jargon failed to connect with a public already turned off by incongruities between that language and the behavior of their perceived stereotype of “the church.”

But the final nail in the coffin was (1) the marriage of the entire church to the language and strategies of the marketplace, and (2) the marriage of the evangelistic[2] churches to, and their consequent total absorption into, the political right. Today the loudest voices from the evangelistic church, and thus the default stereotype of all churches, is virtually indistinguishable from the political alt-right. [NOTE: some will argue, with some merit, that the political alt-right is the offspring of the Christian right. Either way, the partial gospel proclaimed is relatively oblivious to “the least of these”—the most vulnerable of society.]

The result is a broken church represented by an ineffective testimony from the so-called Mainline churches and a counterproductive counter-testimony from the default typecast of the church of the 21st century. Both messages are incomplete.

The 21st century church wallows in relative heresy.

And the “spiritual-but-not-religious” millennial generations can see it; ergo, their absence. Isn’t it ironic that a relatively secular spirituality is calling the church’s bluff?

The political/ecclesiastical right calls for the elimination of governmental participation in the care of the poor. Many progressives, including me, also favor the smallest government possible for the effective application of Constitutional mandates.; however, the political right projects no compensating strategy for dealing with poverty. Churches, non-profits and philanthropic individuals and organizations already participate, although many do so selectively, and their combined resources are inadequate to meet the need.  

The political/ecclesiastical right focuses disproportionately on welfare fraud and voter fraud, both of which represent miniscule problems in the total scheme of things. Most progressives would gladly participate in a credible strategy to eliminate any kind of fraud; however, no compensating strategy is offered to deal with valid poverty or with legitimate accessibility to the polls for all legal voters.

The list goes on: the voices that form the public image of church meld with conservative political ideologies, and their consensus principles, by default, exclude full participation of many people in the life described in both the Christian Gospel and the American Constitution.

Exclusion. The intention behind any creed, including heretical creeds, is to identify and articulate authentic faith. Nothing wrong with that; however, in the process the emphasis virtually always becomes the elimination of error, rather than the advancement of truth. While the two purposes are not mutually exclusive, neither are they identical. Ultimately, the purpose of credal formulae historically has been to exclude any who are wrong (understood as “any who disagree with me/us”).

Well, to that extent, the church has been exceedingly successful in the last half-century.

But Brueggemann offers hope:

“The key religious question among us is whether there is ground for an alternative rooted not in self-preoccupation or in deadening stability, but rooted in a more awesome reality that lives underneath empires, that comes among us as odd as a poem, as inscrutable as power, as dangerous as new life, as fragile as waiting. The poet names the name and imagines new life, like eagles flyng, running, walking.” [3]

That’s the way it looks through the flawed glass that is my world view.

Together in the Walk,

[1] Walter Brueggemann, A Gospel of Hope (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2018) Kindle edition Location 394
[2] I intentionally use “evangelistic” rather than “evangelical.” They are not the same thing.
[3] Brueggeman, op. cit. Kindle Location 384.

[1] Walter Brueggemann, A Gospel of Hope (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2018) Kindle edition Location 394
[2] I intentionally use “evangelistic” rather than “evangelical.” They are not the same thing.
[3] Brueggeman, op. cit. Kindle Location 384.

Tuesday, October 16, 2018

Two Kinds of People:

It’s said there are two kinds of people: those who divide people into two kinds, and those who don’t. Over/Under toilet paper mounting, ketchup/no ketchup on French Fries, Coke/Pepsi, steak-and-potatoes/sushi-and-escargot… 
I’m re-reading John F. Kennedy’s Profiles in Courage. It comes to me that a general dichotomy of perspective has existed from day one in the USA. It appears as early as the process of designing the Declaration of Independence in 1776. It is a dichotomy of perspective that almost sank the good ship USA before it was launched.
Basically, the two positions are (1) the union is primary. (2) the separate states, regions, precincts; indeed, individual persons, take priority. The latter was based upon a fear the colonists brought with them: that all centralized government (and especially a monarchy) would become tyrannical. Their solution was as little government as possible. It remains a valid concern.
The former was based on the democratic ideal of a centralized, representative government deriving power from the people.
It’s tragic and historically self-destructive when those different positions are seen as opposing, rather than mutually edifying.
In 1776, the divisive issue was slavery. It was not settled until the Emancipation Proclamation of 1863. Sadly, when slavery was abolished, the two sides found another whipping boy and continued—indeed, the same two sides continue today—to find ways (1) to defend the union at all costs or (2) to play the secession card when things aren’t pleasing. It’s been that way since 1776. And it’s bi-partisan.
In the years leading up to the Civil War, the debate raged. To preserve the balance of power, the Missouri Compromise, engineered by Henry Clay, allowed Maine to enter as a free state, and Missouri as a slave state. The compromise stipulated that subsequent states would be admitted, alternating between free and slave.
As tensions heated up, it became increasingly evident that the stalemate over slavery was irresolvable. Massachusetts Senator, Daniel Webster, a skilled and refined orator and statesman, and Missouri Senator, Thomas Hart Benton, rough-hewn, self-educated and fiercely independent, took similar stands in favor of preserving the union, and it cost them their political careers. The free states insisted that the union must abolish slavery, and the slave states threatened—and eventually made good on their threats—to secede.
From the beginning, America essentially has been the product of these two sides: (1) preserve the union at all costs, (2) my-way-or-I’m-gone. Both have been bi-partisan. Hard-headedness has no party; and compromise is seen by hard-headed people as weakness, surrender and betrayal. Our history is paved, not on negotiation, compromise or diplomacy, but rather in wheeling and dealing and partisan dominance.
Post-WWII prosperity seemed to make the partisan slugfests in Washington irrelevant. But it was still there, and that same prosperity provided the doorway to the next level of the Union vs. territorial dominance debate. First through TV (the Vietnam War and the 1968 Democratic Convention in Chicago, etc. came into our living rooms, exposing to the world that the American Camelot had clay feet) and now through social media, the uproar and disorder have come out of the smoke-filled rooms to infect the general public. The age of innocence is past. 
There still are those who place a primary value on the union itself; and there still are those who say “If you don’t do what I want, I’ll take my marbles and go home.” And, again, I find all parties equally guilty.
I am a unionist. I am a Christian, and the writer of Ephesians identifies unity as the “secret of God’s will” (Eph. 1:10). I believe nothing is more important to God that the unity of creation. That’s a theological belief, and I have a right to hold it and share it. I have no right to inflict it on anyone or legislate it into the fabric of our nation. (Besides, I think the Constitution already has woven it into the national fabric.)
I also am a conflict resolution consultant, and I believe any difference can be resolved, if—and only if—both parties truly want resolution. Unfortunately, fewer and fewer people want resolution. Most just want to win the fight.
Even for those willing to seek resolution, the effort too often fails because the problem is defined in terms of solutions—or desires or preferences—rather than in terms of needs. When identified needs take precedence, solutions usually present themselves, and usually are better than anything either party previously sought.
In the case of our nation’s internal feud, what if we define our needs as “to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defence (sic), promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity?”[1] Of course, there still would be issues of definition. We don’t agree on what “justice” means, or “general welfare;” or even “common defence;” therefore, we’re back to square one: what “needs” are raised by considerations of “justice”? What needs are exposed in a consideration of “the general welfare?
A good consultant will push until those needs are identified and until everyone’s needs are met. It can be done! I’ve seen it happen in dozens of family conflicts; I’ve seen it happen in industrial settings between management and labor, I’ve seen it happen between a school board and a teachers’ union (my funniest experience involved a PTO—with a “pushy” president with attitude—and the school administration); I’ve seen it happen in a deadlocked, totally ineffectual city council, and I’ve seen it happen in church after church.
It can happen! We are better than this. And we are better together! “A house divided against itself cannot stand” (Matthew 12:25[2]).
That’s the way I see it through the flawed glass that is my world view.
Together in the Walk,

[1] The preamble to the Constitution of the United States, in which the framers laid out the purposes for the Constitution and for the government created by that same Constitution.
[2] Abraham Lincoln quoted this text in his speech accepting the Illinois Republican nomination for US Senate, June 16, 1858.

Wednesday, October 3, 2018

The Maelstrom

There’s an old saying: “Any system will work for you if you’ll work the system.” There’s another saying, credited by many to Mahatma Gandhi: “Beware of the illusion that you can create a system so nearly perfect that nobody has to be good.”
Western culture has been in love with “systems” since the emergence of the Greek city states; yet, system after system has gone down the drain. In every case, it was not the system that failed; rather, it was human ethics and morality that failed.
Take the myth of “free market economics” for example. Free markets don’t exist except in theory and in text books. Eventually, some person or entity will control any unregulated market and will make it work for its own benefit. Too frequently such selective benefit is obtained through unethical—and often illegal—means. Almost always, some segment of society becomes ultra-rich, while another segment becomes disadvantaged (economic survival of the fittest). Then, some segment of society (usually some structure of governance) responds with a sub-system (regulation) that will level the playing field and give everybody an equal shot at success. When that happens, even the illusion of “free market” disappears.
Essentially, our choice is not whether the market is controlled but, rather, who will control it: the players on the field, or some (theoretically) objective regulatory body. Obviously, since there always will be at least one fox in the hen house, the players on the field can’t be trusted. Enter that regulatory structure to police the market. The problem here is, there’s no guarantee that the participants in the regulatory body are trustworthy either. The big players in the market can buy enough regulators that they continue to accrue benefit, to the disadvantage of the rest of the market. So much for “free market” theory.
The problem with trusting systems is that systems always are administered by humans, and humanity is broken. “Beware the illusion that you can create a system so nearly perfect that nobody has to be good.”
Soviet Communism didn’t fail. Human corruption and lust for power broke it. Socialism doesn’t fail. It is dragged down by the same manifestations of human brokenness. Democracy and free enterprise, the fair-haired love children of 18th century American idealism, are no more. In their place is a corrupt, capitalistic oligarchy. “Beware the illusion that you can create a system so nearly perfect that nobody has to be good.”
Systems cannot succeed or fail, because they have no life of their own. They have no inherent value. They are tools. Nothing more. They can be used for the common good or they can be misused to create an ideological or economic dictatorship.
As another example, take the American system of jurisprudence, so much at the forefront of American awareness of late. It is being dragged into the maelstrom, not by some flaw in its design, but because humans are unwilling to allow it to fulfill its designed role in the checks and balances of the tripartite government created by the genius of our American founders. Instead, our system of jurisprudence is being ravaged to satisfy a jingoistic obsession to guarantee the dominance of one ideology over all others.
Democracy thrives on lively debate, and nothing has been more destructive of democracy and the American experiment than the effort to shut down all but one perspective. It’s one thing for the partisan pendulum to swing from one side to the other. That’s what happens in a healthy democracy. But, when one party controls all levels of government, it becomes possible for that party essentially to shut down the voting process through gerrymandering and through disenfranchising a significant population (basically, people of color in the current example) by enacting laws to prevent “voter fraud” (which is an extremely minute problem. The reality is that voter fraud efforts generally end up disenfranchising more legitimate voters than preventing fraudulent voters.) At that point, the polling booth is a farce, and government “of the people, by the people, and for the people” no longer exists. “Beware of the illusion that you can create a system so nearly perfect that nobody has to be good.”
The free exchange of ideas is the lifeblood of democracy, and access to the polls is the heart that pumps that lifeblood. America is spiraling into the aforementioned ideological dictatorship. 
A pastor friend recently posted on Facebook: "We need conservative Republicans, liberal Democrats, and everything in between. We are better together... but not if we demean one another and aren’t listening to one another."
So, while Democrats and Republicans square off and point accusing fingers at each other, a large measure of the fault lies with another element, namely the non-voter, including the pouting, “Bernie-or-bust” boycott of the polls. Not voting is not a protest; it’s a surrender. 
“Any system will work for you if you’ll work the system.” And when you don’t work the system, you surrender to those who do. 
Please vote on November 6 (or whenever your area is holding the mid-term elections this year).
That’s the way I see it through the flawed glass that is my world view.
Together in the Walk,

Thursday, September 13, 2018

Discriminating Taste

I’m glad I don’t have “discriminating taste.” I am able to enjoy a very broad variety of culinary experiences. I even prefer McDonald’s Columbian coffee, and their Sausage McMuffin is one of my favorite breakfasts.
Don’t get me wrong. I enjoy the high-end restaurants, too, when we can save up enough discretionary cash. And my wife and I love working together to create gourmet extravaganzas. Sometimes we succeed. Sometimes we don’t. Sometimes we throw it in the trash and go out.
She and I enjoy traveling together, and one of the best parts is exploring new restaurants away from home. One rule to which we adhere pretty closely when we travel is not to eat in a chain restaurant that has a location near us. We like to find little hole-in-the-wall, out of the way diners and cafes. Just in case, we carry a supply of antacid in the glove compartment.
We have a favorite restaurant in San Diego. Island Prime sits on the banks of San Diego Bay, and from its patio we can see the Coronado Bridge and the Navy yard and the skyline of the city. There always are sailboats, and once we watched an aircraft carrier coming into the harbor after being out to sea. Gratefully, Jo Lynn’s sister and brother-in-law also like the restaurant, and so a trip there is always on the agenda when we visit.
I have a favorite restaurant on the east coast, too. It’s The Crab Shack (not Joe’s)—and I’m talking shack—on stilts out over one of the inland waterways between Savannah, Georgia and Tybee Island.
When we go to Galveston, at least one trip to Guido’s is mandatory. 
In Branson, Missouri it’s Chateau on the Lake or (my most favorite, both for the cuisine and the ambiance) Top of the Rock.
Back home it’s Mike’s Place or Pasta Grill. But, if Jo Lynn is at book club, I can be content with a ham and cheese or peanut butter and jelly sandwich.
I have preferences and favorites; but, I don’t have discriminating taste.
I understand “picky.” I remember disliking some foods as a child; and I resented being forced to eat it or sit at the table until it was gone (I almost always won that battle of wills, because my parents had to get the kitchen cleaned up and wouldn’t leave a dirty plate on the table.) But, I remember. I get it. And I get having preferences. I have preferences.
What I don’t get is culinary snobbery. While I hate doing it, and am embarrassed doing so, I will send food back if it’s not prepared right. On a recent special night out with our San Diego family, at a restaurant that usually is very “top shelf,” they were having a bad night, and almost nothing came out as ordered—or even what was ordered. More than one plate was returned to the kitchen and dessert was comp’d. We still like the restaurant, and probably will go back; but, that was a night we’d rather forget.
But, some folk relish the opportunity to send food back, and seem to look for reasons to complain about the food or the drinks. I remember a late friend (may he rest in peace) who once said, as we walked into a restaurant, “I expect to be treated like a king.” The restaurant we were entering was not a place familiar with royalty!
I eat because I’m hungry; and the food before me rarely is so bad that I can’t eat it. If I’m hungry, I want to eat, and I don’t get any satisfaction from declaring “I didn’t care for it,” and pushing it aside. My philosophy is simple; it came from my parents: “Don’t waste food.” Regrettably, if I stick too rigidly to that philosophy, food that doesn’t go to waste goes to waist.
Some people get a sense of identity from their culinary preferences. I just get a sense of huffing and puffing when I bend down to tie my shoes.
Maybe I should be a bit more discriminating, if not in my taste, at least in my portion control?
So much for what I hope comes across as a bit of Andy Rooney-ish (may he rest in peace) diversion from my usual dark writing. I’ve had enough heaviness for this week (double entendre intended).
That’s the way it looks through the flawed glass that is my world view.
Together in the Walk,

Tuesday, August 28, 2018

The Whole Creation is Watching

I had a conversation with our grandson last night. He’s a church nerd, like his grandfather and his father (our middle son, who is an elder and the choir director in his church, and who also is an effective lay preacher.) Our grandson is a responsible young adult with a blossoming career in Intelligence Technology. His faith runs deep, and he’s brilliant, like you’d expect one of my grandsons to be.

Last night, he expressed concern about the lack of direction and focus in his church. Understand: he’s a millennial, and millennials don’t have much time or interest for meaningless head religion or emotionalism. Millennials want to know how to follow Jesus and become more like him; and that quest usually leads to a spirituality expressed through relationships and tangible actions of love and compassion. They're not seeing that in the church.

Since the 1990s, surveys have been consistent: 95%, plus or minus two or three percent, of North Americans believe in God. Since the 1980s, Millennials have been asking, “OK; I believe. Now what?” “What’s next?” And the church has been caught off guard—distracted—busy with infighting and denominational self-justification.

During the 1950s the American church began a decline that has not been reversed. Sadly, the decline has been related more to politics than to theology or biblical doctrine.

Post-WWII fear of the bomb and of the rise of Communism sparked a growing us-versus-them mentality which was fanned into a flaming paranoia called McCarthyism. The negative effects of McCarthyism are still present; indeed, they have worsened until, today, America is a house so severely divided that many are questioning whether our nation can survive.

Historically, the church always has been vulnerable to schism, and so it was sucked quickly into the political vortex of growing partisan belligerence. The denomination I serve was the fastest growing church in America; but, the issue that eventually divided us was purely political. A prime stimulus behind McCarthyism was Mao Zedong’s movement in China. In 1949, Mao’s People’s Republic of China forced Chiang Kai-shek’s Republic of China into exiled in Taiwan (Formosa).

Our United Christian Missionary Society had stations in China, and faced a dilemma: should our missionaries cooperate as guests of Mao’s government, should they remain neutral, or should they actively resist the Chinese government because it was Communist? The UCMS chose neutrality; nevertheless, some missionaries were forced to leave, and there were incidents of persecution.

Back home, our denomination was divided on the question, and it eventually became the straw that broke the proverbial camel’s back. In 1955, 800 delegates, who opposed neutrality and advocated resistance, walked out of our national convention in Cincinnati and formed what is now known as the Christian Churches and Churches of Christ.

The Restoration Movement[1] emerged as a venue for the reconciliation of the diverse denominations of Christendom. Ironically, it now is three distinct and often quarrelsome denominations—adding to the divisions of Christ’s Body, rather than reconciling them. The original split in 1905[2] was almost totally over doctrinal issues and biblical interpretations; however, while the same kinds of theological issues were present, it was political partisanism that provided the critical mass behind the 1955 split.

Other denominations have experienced similar divisions (more political than theological), and the differences between evangelical and mainline churches are more political than theological or biblical—conservatives and evangelicals generally siding with Republican ideology and mainline bodies more likely to align with Democrats.

And Millennials are calling bullshit. That’s not what church is called to be. Although we are blessed with some wonderful exceptions in the congregation I serve, Millennials typically are no-shows when it comes to organized religion. They call themselves “spiritual but not religious,” and in the process caricature all organized religion as rigid, judgmental, and generally unlike Jesus. It’s difficult to fault their conclusion.

Meanwhile, the declining church struggles to remember or to re-envision just what it is that Jesus called it to be and do. We fight over whether evangelism is more important than ministries of compassion. We debate when and how—or whether—Christ will return to rule a physical, geographical kingdom on earth. We fight and divide over who should be included and who should be excluded—and how we should treat the excluded. We argue whether to feed the hungry unless they deserve it. Highly visible church leaders square off in defense of political figures whose ethics and morality are indefensible.

And Millennials are calling bullshit. Just stop!

“The whole creation is on tiptoe to see the wonderful sight of the (children) of God coming into their own!” (Romans 8:19 ~ J. B. Phillips)

The whole creation is standing on tiptoe, watching! (And at this point I’m going to adapt a part of my favorite blogger’s post from July 26):

“(It sees) us pointing fingers and declaring who is right and who is wrong.

“(It sees) us choosing party over country.

“(It sees) us judging one another for the color of our skin.

“(It sees) us shooting one another.

“(It sees) us not doing a damn thing, really, to stop the influx of opioids into every community in this country.

“(It sees) us calling each other names and throwing jeers and crafting insults and using whatever supposed hot take we’ve come up with for the day to exact our rage on the world.

“(It sees) us refusing to work together.

“(It sees) us choosing power over love and profit over people.

“(It sees) us hiding behind our social media accounts so that we can be snarky without any accountability for it.

“(The whole creation sees us.)

“And we should be ashamed of what we’re showing (it).”[3] 

That’s the way it looks through the Flawed Glass that is my world view.

Together in the Walk,


[1] Led by Thomas and Alexander Campbell, Barton Stone, Walter Scott, and others in the early 19th century.
[2] The 1905 split gave rise to today’s non-instrumental Church of Christ.

Tuesday, August 14, 2018

When Winning Is Losing

A growing number of people are having exceptional difficulty accepting any information that does not match what they choose to believe. “Fake news” and “alternative facts” have become throwaway terms used by people even at the highest levels of public service.
It’s not a new thing. In the 90s we talked about people living in information cocoons. The newer terminology is information bubble. Same thing, as far as I can tell.
Along with the cry, “Fake News!” is a refusal to accept any fact-checker that disagrees. Evidence is irrelevant; just another part of the fake news conspiracy. “My mind is made up; don’t confuse me with facts!”
The phenomenon is an expression of a reality I’ve discussed in several previous blogs, viz., the “I’m right!” syndrome. I’d rather risk my grandchildren’s safety and health than be proven wrong. It really is not about ideology or philosophy or creed. It’s all about me.
Several recent conferences held in major universities and research institutions in the USA and Europe have examined the current glut of fake news and propaganda. They report that, even though all citizens are sometimes vulnerable to fake news, misinformation is predominantly “a pathology of the right.” Due to vicious attacks on mainstream media, conservatives are even suspicious of fact-checking sites.[1]
The reports conclude that fake news and hateful propaganda appear at both extremes of the political continuum but is significantly more heavily concentrated toward the right. The uncritical re-posting of such misinformation on social media is of particular concern. The consensus is that, regardless of the intention of persons who re-post it on social media, “it operates to harden ‘us-vs-them’ stances, to normalize prejudices, to create scapegoats, and to mock and discredit truth-seeking endeavors of universities, religious institutions and faith leaders, non-partisan policy research centers, journalists, and other concerned citizens.”
A colleague shared that an acquaintance refused to accept data even from Pew Research Center, a world-renowned and respected, trustworthy source of social scientific research.
My colleague followed up by scrolling through several months of Facebook postings by her acquaintance, and used Media Bias/Fact Check[2] to see how the acquaintance’s preferred media sources are rated in terms of factual reporting and bias. Of 43 posts, 16 were unrated, 26 were rated from “far right” to “extreme questionable”, one was listed as “right center”. None were listed as “Least Biased” or to the Left.
Obviously, the acquaintance got all her information from sources, I’m guessing, that reinforced her already existing biases. In my observation, that is the norm.
What may not be as obvious is my colleague’s evaluation that Media Bias/Fact Check is “the most comprehensive media bias resource on the internet.” While my own bias leans toward agreeing with her evaluation, the question comes to mind: who set up the categories of media bias in the first place? Conservatives will cry, “Foul!” and automatically assume the study is biased and invalid. The problem boils down to an unwillingness on both sides of the aisle to accept the standards of evaluation favored by those on the other side.
Conservatives deny sources that refute their beliefs, and liberals reject sources that support conservative biases.
We’re all biased.
We’re all biased.
Until all of us—ALL OF US—accept and deal with our own biases and prejudices—until all of us accept and deal the reality that we are fallible creatures and we know nothing—we will continue to be a divided, adversarial culture sliding out-of-control toward self-destruction.
We know nothing. The most universally accepted scientific principles are but conclusions based upon the preponderance of evidence. We can, and do, believe in these principles and accept both the evidence and the conclusions. We live our lives in the faith that these principles are valid. We even take them for granted. But, we don’t know. Anything. Even the preponderance of evidence fails us occasionally, as in the virtual guarantees by the poll-takers that Hillary Clinton would be elected President in 2016.
My statement is not new. It’s straight from Plato’s allegory of the cave. It’s reflected in St. Paul’s first letter to the church in Corinth (13:12): “Now I know in part.”
The danger is that when we assume or presume that our partial knowledge is absolute, or even when we accept our knowledge as incomplete but judge it superior to others’ partial knowledge, we do two things: (1) we erect divisive barriers and create antagonistic factions, and (2) we deny ourselves and our culture the natural growth and advancement that comes from exploring the unknown and examining unfamiliar ideas and principles.
Humanity always has advanced on the shoulders of those who have been willing to venture into the unknown, from sailing beyond the “falling-off” place in a flat world to walking on the moon, from testing and trying new combinations to create light bulbs to virtually eliminating smallpox and polio from the planet.
Political experimentation has seen humanity ebb and flow from tribalism to monarchy, from Pax Romana to feudalism to the Magna Carta to Democracy. There have been spin-offs and rebellions and aberrations, and always there have been those whose obsession with power and wealth have led societies down destructive paths, from Hitler to Jim Jones and David Koresh.
But, with all the advancement in human technology and ideology, no one can say our species has yet produced a political system that effectively actualizes “liberty and justice for all.” And our species will not produce such an ideal as long as belligerent factions choose to hurl insulting names and epithets at each other, rather than to enter with integrity into open, honest dialogue. Remember: dialogue is, by definition, two-way. It involves at least as much listening as speaking.
I believe in the human ability to resolve conflicts, to discover common ground and to build upon that common ground to make life better and better for everyone. I believe in that ability; but I see very little human willingness to exercise that ability.
What I see is, “I just want to win the fight.”
That’s the way it looks through the flawed glass that is my world view.
Together in the Walk,

Saturday, July 7, 2018

Naming the Demon

I just read a post on Facebook, supposedly (and I have no reason to doubt it) written by a young Latino woman whose mother was a legal immigrant, but her father was not. She made it clear that her father wasn’t a burden on society, but rather was a hard worker and contributor. Well and good. It’s a point we can and should applaud.
Then she launched into another strain that I think may cut to the core of the undeniable divisiveness in America [“A house divided cannot stand.” ~ Jesus of Nazareth, Matthew 12:25; Mark 3:5; Luke 11:17 ~ also, Abraham Lincoln, June 16, 1858, in a speech accepting the Illinois Republican Party's nomination as that state's US senator (a campaign which he lost)]. She wrote:
“I was raised in Oregon, and started learning about politics in my private middle school. I remember that we were encouraged to write about America’s problems and that I was brainwashed to think that America was some unfair country. When I started high school, more and more people started hating America because it was the cool and hip thing to do. Then I thought to myself, “why do I hate America?” And I couldn’t find a reason to hate it.” (italics mine)
The implication is clear, and I have no reason to doubt that she validly perceives some effort to “brainwash” her. I have no doubt that there are schools, churches, clubs, and other social groups that indoctrinate their constituents in virtually any kind of ideology from religious doctrine to socio/economic castes to politics to issues of science vs. creationism ad infinitum.
While her implication is clear, and quite possible accurate, she continues to generalize from her statement that she was brainwashed, and the implication grows into an indictment that all liberals hate America and believe America is bad and unfair.
I’m sorry she had a bad experience while growing up—an experience that skewed her thinking into a divisive us vs. them (us =  good/them = bad) mentality. 
There is a world of difference between hating (or loving) America and demonstrating an integrity of honest self-evaluation. The patriotic hymn, “America the Beautiful” has these words in its second refrain: “God mend thine every flaw.” To deny or ignore our flaws and to make no effort to correct them is, in my opinion, an unpatriotic act of abuse and neglect. On the other hand, the effort to correct our flaws is an expression of patriotic love.
In my limited observation, I see conservatives (Republicans, Libertarians, Tea Party, Alt-Right, et al) finding fault with America every bit as much as I see liberals doing so. The two polarities simply point to different faults, based upon their different ideologies. 
The partisan antagonism that divides America is a self-feeding demon that has become an end in itself. It focuses on symptoms, while ignoring (or denying) causes. And it justifies a growing refusal to consider any possibility that the “other party” may have something of value to offer.
Divisiveness is not the result of our different ideologies. It is the creator and sustainer of them
And we continue to feed the demon.
That’s the way it looks through the Flawed Glass that is my world view.
Together in the Walk,

Friday, July 6, 2018

America the Beautiful

We sang “America the Beautiful” in church last Sunday. 
I know the danger of mixing patriotism and religion: "civil religion", it's been called. And yet, there are those who expect at least a nod toward the flag on Sundays related to patriotic holidays. Some of my clergy colleagues really bow their necks and rigidly oppose what, admittedly, can be a deadly cocktail. Oh, they may condescend to mention it in a prayer or something. And, quite frankly, I don’t disagree with their theological reasoning.
For me, I find it more constructive to go ahead and include some patriotic expressions in the worship service, and to use my pastoral role as teacher to set what I consider an acceptable context for such inclusion. For example, last Sunday, here was my invitation to the Table (as Disciples of Christ, we observe communion weekly).
“As a minister, I struggle with patriotic holidays: Independence Day, Memorial Day, Flag Day… Not that I struggle with patriotism. I’m a combat veteran; I served under fire—served under the flag that stands to my right when I’m in the pulpit.
“I participate, when the pledge of allegiance is recited. Sometimes I tear up when I hear the national anthem—or the Marine Corps Hymn. I vote. I’ve held public office. I write my Congressional representatives on a regular basis. On national holidays we fly the flag at our house.[1] 
“I’m just not at peace bringing all that into this room. Oh, I have absolutely no problem displaying the flag or singing patriotic hymns. I’m just concerned about misplaced priorities. I’ve seen church fights over whether the American flag is on the wrong side of the platform. Patriotism and religious faith never have been a beneficial mixture. 
“In this room, this table is central. And at this table I hope we remember the words of that late addition to the pledge of allegiance: “under God.” And there are two ways to read that: (1) “One nation under God.” And I’d have difficulty affirming today that we are, indeed, a nation under God. (2) “One nation; under God indivisible…” And few would deny that, today, we are a nation divided.
“And so, in this room, I bring my love of country to this table, where I celebrate the God under whom rests the only hope I know for this nation to be, truly, indivisible. You are invited to share the loaf and the cup, and to remember the one whose sacrifice can truly unite us.”
But, I digress. We sang “America the Beautiful” in church last Sunday, and I felt tears beginning to sting my eyes. It wasn’t just the hymn, although it can be a source of emotion. What brought me to the verge of tears was a new insight into Katharine Lee Bates’ words[2], especially in the refrain. Each refrain is a prayer:
America! America! 
God shed his grace on thee 
And crown thy good with brotherhood 
From sea to shining sea!
America! America!
God mend thine every flaw
Confirm thy soul in self-control
Thy liberty in law!
America! America!
May God thy gold refine
Till all success be nobleness
And every gain divine!
America! America! 
God shed his grace on thee 
And crown thy good with brotherhood 
From sea to shining sea!
As we sang on Sunday, I realized that each of these refrains was a prayer of humility, asking that God guide our nation through and away from the human temptations motivated by greed or lust for power. And, given the depraved condition of our nation’s public life, it occurred to me that, on the eve of our nation’s birthday celebration, nothing was more appropriate for worship.
Postscript: Originally, I wrote in the paragraph above, “…the depraved condition of our nation’s public life today…” But, upon only a brief reflection, while America has authored eras of great and noble altruism, scientific and technical achievement, and charitable embracing of the down-trodden (both domestically and globally), our nation, from the beginning, has endured, sometimes just below the surface and sometimes out in broad daylight, a disgraceful flaunting of jingoistic, chauvinistic greed and lust for power. Indeed, it is precisely those decadent qualities that our founders sought to avoid by the creation of the Declaration of Independence, the Revolutionary War, the Constitution, and the Bill of Rights, as well as in much that has been legislated since our founding.
And, while there is no political or economic system that is immune to the impact of such corruption, the work of our founders, with its self-correcting checks and balances, is thus far the single most effective human effort both to avoid and also to correct its damage.
America! America!
God mend thine every flaw!
That’s the way it looks through the Flawed Glass that is my world view.
Together in the Walk,

[1] Except for this year. I recently reorganized our garage, and the flag somehow is still in hiding!)
[2] Actually, the words we sing are “third generation”—a second edit (1911)—of Bates’ original poem, which was written in 1893.