Wednesday, December 21, 2011

A Perfect Christmas?

Have you ever had a perfect Christmas?

Me neither.

Of course, as a parish pastor I try very hard to make the celebration of Our Lord's birth as special and memorable as possible. The altar guild decorates the nave and chancel with poinsettias and evergreens. We put up the Christmas Tree and light the candles on the Advent Wreath. We plan special choral music to delight the ears of the worshippers who probably won't be with us again until Easter. And yet, something always seems to go a tiny bit askew.

Last year I took it into my head to memorize the Christmas gospel from the second chapter of Luke. Allow me to confess that I had been--in my wild and misspent youth--a Shakespearean actor. I planned to deliver the gospel lesson with full musical accompaniment, using the text from the King James Bible--the language of Shakespeare himself. I was certain that my stirring recitation would transport the congregation to the lowly stable in Bethlehem on the wings of histrionic revery.

In a voice which John Gielgud would have envied, I began:

"And it came to pass in those days that there went out a decree from Caesar Agustus that all the world should be taxed..."

The pianist began to play "O Little Town of Bethlehem." And just as I was hitting my vocal stride, a little girl, about four years old, broke loose from her obviously embarrassed parents and began to run laps around the front pew! I watched as every head in the nave turned in the direction of this juvenile outlaw. I could see her parents squirm--not knowing how to arrest their rambunctious offspring. I pushed on through my glorious recitation.

No one heard a bloody word of it.

It's funny, but the things we tend to remember the most about Christmas are the imperfections. The year the tree caught fire. The year the dinner burned. The year we got lost on the way to the in-laws' house. The year we spent Christmas in the hospital.

No Christmas is ever quite perfect. Indeed, the very first one was far from perfection. It involved an unwed teenage mother in a culture hostile to unwed mothers. It involved a family living in poverty. It involved an oppressive government edict. It involved homelessness. It involved a baby born in the most disgusting and unhygienic conditions--in a barn amidst animal waste and filth. The "family" waiting for the delivery were strangers at the bottom of the social food chain--shepherds, the equivalent of garbage collectors but without the high salary.

And yet, a baby was born, and that was all that really mattered. A little baby--nothing could be more perfect. A baby, tiny and innocent, awakening our spirit of gentleness. Making hope possible.

May the peace and love and joy of Christmas be with you, my friends. A Merry Christmas and a blessed New Year to all!

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Yes, Virginia, There Is a Saint Nicholas

It was my last year in seminary. I was broke most of the time and depended on a student loan to pay my rent. I had an auto loan to pay and the not-inconsiderable premium on my car insurance, too. And then there were textbooks to buy, gasoline, and--oh yes!--food. The tiny stipends I received from supply preaching jobs were stretched very thin.

But every month, I'd get a cheerful little greeting card in the mail. The cards would remind me that someone was thinking of me and wishing me luck. There was never a  return address on the envelope, and the each card was signed cryptically "Me."

And contained a crisp $100 bill.

I do not know to this day who "Me" was, but that individual's anonymous act of generosity each month lightened my burden during a difficult time and reminded me that there is goodness and kindness in this world. Those cards--as well as the monetary gifts they contained--made me feel loved and valued.


Icon of St. Nicholas from Greek Orthodox Church in Tarpon Springs, FL



For centuries, each December Christians have remembered Saint Nicholas, a fourth century Turkish bishop renown for his acts of anonymous charity. The legend of this saint (who, by the way, was known to have attended the Council of Nicaea and may be one of the historical figures responsible for trinitarian orthodoxy) includes the story of his rescuing three impoverished young noblewomen from lives of prostitution by secretly throwing bags of gold through the window of their home at night. The gold provided their dowries.

This story illustrates Nicholas' devotion to the teaching of Jesus in Matthew 6: 3-4:

"But when you give alms, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing, so that your alms may be done in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you."

Jesus teaches us--and Nicholas embodies--a beautiful gift of faith: kindness for its own sake. The secret gift is not given in expectation of thanks or reward. Rather, it is done out of love for another human being. It is done out of the hope that the giver has the ability to be a blessing to others. It is done out of the faith that God has provided daily and abundantly, and that God's goodness will not be lacking tomorrow. And it is done without imposing the burden of gratitude or a sense of inequality upon the recipient.

Down with the corpulent "Santa Claus"--a symbol of pampered greed and indulgence. I'd love to see Saint Nicholas reinstated in our popular culture as the holy man he assuredly must have been--a symbol and a reminder of Christ's call for selflessness, mercy, and faithful generosity.

May you all have a very blessed season of preparation for the celebration of the birth of Our Lord. And, as Nicholas is the patron saint of Russia, S RazhdestvOm!

Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Prepare Ye the Way of the Lord! (More Reflections of Advent)

"Then they said to him, 'Who are you? Let us have an answer for those who sent us. What do you say about yourself?' He said, 'I am the voice of one crying out in the wilderness, Make straight the way of the Lord!'"
                                                                       (John 1: 22-23)

John the Baptist. I love this guy. He's got to be one of my favorite New Testament characters. He's the ultimate radical priest--totally out of the mainstream. I see Jay Bakker and Shane Claiborne following in his footsteps. John's the kind of a guy who doesn't need a church building or an organization. He's out there with the people, talking to the disenfranchised, the confused, the wounded. He's in the bars and the shopping centers and the free clinics. Yes, he dresses a little funky and he enjoys a weird (if totally organic) diet, but he's in touch with what people need to hear, and he's not afraid to tell it like it is.

I love John, who always makes an appearance in the Revised Common Lectionary around the second or third Sundays in Advent, for his wonderful eccentricity. I respect his humility ("The one who is more powerful than I is coming after me; I am not worthy to stoop down and untie the thong of his sandals." Mark 1:7), and I just really dig his intensity ("You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? Bear fruit worthy of repentance!" Luke 3:7-8)

I've got to confess that there are times when I feel like getting intense and shouting at the crowds: "Hey! Listen! You sorry, lazy-assed excuses for Christians! WAKE UP!! GET YOUR ACT TOGETHER!!!"

(But I'm usually a little more subdued. I can't help it. I'm Lutheran.)

An esteemed colleague of mine recently compared John the Baptist to a 12-step program. We are a sick, tired, and addicted culture, and the first thing we need to do is admit that we have a problem. John calls us to repentance, a word which, in its original Greek, simply means a change of mind. You see, our culture has turned Christmas, originally the observance of the birth of a child born in poverty, into an orgy of excess--partying and spending like an addict binging on crack. As if lavishness and wrecklessness can somehow feed our spiritual hunger. But John calls us to a change of heart and mind. He calls us to an admission that what we're doing doesn't work, and will ultimately lead us back to emptiness.

We cannot have Christ, John tells us, until we are ready to receive him. We need to prepare for his coming. An alcoholic may win the lottery, but he'll just piss away the fortune without thought or gratitude and wind up as broken as before. We simply can't receive a blessing unless we know it's a blessing--and know how to accept and respect it.

If I could play John the Baptist this Advent, I would call my fellow citizens to repentance like this: I would challenge us to embrace the truth that we are all our brothers' keepers. Our indiviudal liberties are only of value if they can be used to promote peace and security for others. Otherwise, our freedom is only an excuse for our selfishness.

I would want to call the Church to repentance, too. I would challenge our image of God. Can we wash away the idea of God as either distant, punishing judge or cosmic ATM machine, and embrace the God who is Emanuel--God with us? Can we see our God in the faces of others around us? Can we learn to love God in this way? And can we accept and hold on to a conviction that true religion will not be understood by how we think of God, but by how we relate to each other?

If we are not ready to love the crying baby on the bus, or in the grocery store, or in the next pew over, how can we love the baby in the manger?

God bless you, my friend. Thank you for your visit.

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

The Apocalypse Cometh (Reflections on Advent)

Chris Gleaseon was a forty-year-old triathlete from New York state who came to Philadelphia last Sunday to run in the Philadelphia Marathon. A quarter of a mile from the finish line of this punishing race, Chris collapsed. He was rushed to hospital, where he was pronounced dead some time later. He left a wife and two children.

The sudden death of this virtuous and talented athlete, attorney, husband, and father--knocked down in the very heart of his active and productive years--might cause some to question the justice or mercy of God. Indeed, some internet chat sites have, I'm told, already pondered the divine implications of this unexpected and emotionally crushing tragedy. How could a just God do such a thing? How could anyone believe in or worship such a monstrous deity?

I don't know if there's any answer to those questions. I certainly feel for Mr. Gleaseon's family, and I will include them in my prayers. What I do know, however, is that moments of tribulation such as this have a way of getting us to ask ultimate questions. The shocking upheavals we experience can destroy our faith or deepen it.

It has always vexed me slightly that the lectionary passages for the First Sunday of Advent deal with an apocalypse--a vision of the end times involving death, cataclysm, and tribulation. This year's gospel reading comes from the thirteenth chapter of Mark (Mark 13:24-37 to be exact) in which Jesus' disciples, arriving in Jerusalem for the Passover, marvel at the grandeur of the great Temple. Jesus warns them that the days  are approaching when these stones will crumble, and everything will be thrown into chaos. The time will come--and without warning--when the world will go dark (no light from sun or moon) and confusion will reign (the very fixed stars in the heaven, believed to give order and guidance, will fall). This could be a description of any horrific event from a natural disaster to a war to the sudden death of a husband and father.

The Day of Tribulation doesn't have to be an end-of-the-world scenario, but it will be the end of someone's world--at least as they understand it. Personally, I have no time for the faulty and ridiculous "End Times" theology of Hal Lindsay, Herold Camping, and the other Left Behind heretics (FYI: For a wonderful debunking of this moronic doctrine which has, unfortunately, captured the imagination of so many American Christians, I recommend you read Barbara Rossing's 2004 book The Rapture Exposed from Westview Press). Rather, I believe the Day of Tribulation is inescapably part of everyone's life.

"Truly I tell you, this generation will not pass away until all these things have taken place. Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will not pass away." (Mark 13: 30-31)

Indeed, every generation seems to face a Day of Tribulation. The Great Depression, the Second World War, the Cuban Missile Crisis, the assasination of John Kennedy, Viet Nam, 9/11. All of them days of great darkness, confusion, and uncertainty. In a single moment reality is changed, beliefs are shattered, a world vanishes. Everything is disturbed--everything, but the presence of Jesus Christ for those who will see him.

"Beware, keep alert, for you do not know when the time will come." (Mark 13:33)

It is easy to be spiritually sleepy when all is going according to plan. Sometimes I feel that we Americans have been very good at creating a particularly drowsy form of Christianity, one which is formulaic and rote: Confess yourself to be a sinner. Confess Jesus as Lord who died for your sins. Go to Heaven when you die. One, two, three. Simple. Now you can doze off spiritually, knowing you've got all the answers.

"And what I say to you, I say to all: Keep awake." (Mark 13:37)

Before the Day of Tribulation comes, before the crisis strikes, NOW is the time to seek God.

And who is this God we seek? Not some cosmic Santa Clause who sits off at a distance and hands out random blessings and punishments. Not even a God who exists; rather the God who IS existance. Not a God who loves, but the God who IS love. With us, in us, all around us. Who is this Jesus? Not just a man who suffered and died centuries ago, but the God who entered into OUR suffering, who is alive and real in the friends who stand with us in our tribulation, in the acts of charity we give and receive, in the sympathetic smiles, and the listening ears. The one whose words outlast the centuries. Who is this Holy Spirit? Not some feel-good feeling, but God at work in us, our ability to know, to understand, to use our natural talents and our wisdom. What is this Heaven? Not some distant place beyond death, but a place of eternal life in the presence of God with whom we are living right now.

Keep awake. God is here.

May the hope of Advent be a blessing to you. Thank you so very much for reading.

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

A Loving God & Eternal Punishment (Reflections on the Feast of Christ the King)

"And these will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life."
                                                                                          Matthew 25:46

Kind of a bummer this "eternal punishment" business, don't you think? I mean, haven't you ever asked the question, "If God or Jesus or whoever is so loving, how could they send anyone to hell?" I find some insight into that question in the assigned gospel lesson for the Feast of Christus Rex--Christ the King, which is the New Year's Eve, if you will, of the Christian liturgical calendar. But first, allow me a bit of self-indulgence:
I just really love old Christian artwork--especially that which adorns old churches and cathedrals. The above is from an altarpiece by the 15th century Flemish painter Jan Van Eyck depicting Christ wearing a crown. Classy, isn't it?

Also, I'm kind of a history buff, so I feel inclined to tell you that the Feast of Christ the King is the newest feastival to enter the Christian liturgical calendar. In fact, it's actually less than one hundred years old. Roman Catholics began to celebrate the last Sunday in the liturgical year as Christ the King in 1925 when it was instituted by Pope Pius XI. After the horror of the First World War, when new technologies allowed death to come falling from the sky from airplanes, from under the sea via submarines, on the breeze in the form of poison gas, and whistling through the air as automatic weapons' fire; when a generation of young men were slaughtered in the most grizzly and wasteful ways possible; after the world saw what kings, czars, and kaisers were capable of doing, it was time to look for better leadership. The wise Pope Pius, seeing in the rising Benito Mussolini yet another false messiah, encouraged the faithful to look to Jesus Christ alone.

Okay. Got that out of my system. Now back to the original subject.

The appointed gospel lesson for Christ the King is Matthew 25: 31-46, in which Jesus describes the coming kingdom of heaven by saying that the Son of Man, when he comes in glory, will separate the peoples just as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats. Now, being a city fellow, I'm not that much aquainted with the art of shepherding; however, a glance at some referrence material is enlightening.

Sheep, representing the righteous folks in this parable, tend to be gentle. They gather together in groups for mutual protection. They have an uncanny ability to recognize faces--those of humans or other sheep--and can form relationships. They are rarely violent, and even the rams do not participate in combat unless they are of relatively equal strength to their opponant. Sheep don't pick on smaller sheep.

Goats, on the other hand, come armed. They have horns which stick up to impale enemies. They are fiercely individualistic, and will knock down any barrier that seeks to contain them. They are vastly more likely than are sheep to attack a human, and are aggressive with each other. They have a voracious and indiscriminate appetite, and, although they can be domesticated, will easily revert back to the wild.

In Jesus' parable, the "sheep" people give of themselves in acts of mercy and compassion for others--feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, welcoming the stranger, visiting the sick and those in prison. Jesus tells his followers that when they have done such an act of charity for "the least of these," they have also done it for him.

The individualistic "goat" people, by contrast, mistreat the poor and marginalized by ignoring them. It is this lack of pity which, according to Jesus, earns them their punishment.

I certainly do not believe that true faith in Jesus has anything to do with subscribing to Church doctrines. I believe that a follower of Christ the King is one who is in daily dialog with Jesus, asking, "Lord, what would you have me do?"

The answer will always be, "Love one another in mercy, sympathy, and compassion, as I have loved you."

The old saying goes, "Virtue is its own reward." I believe the opposite is also true: Iniquity is its own punishment.

What paradise is there for the "goats" of this world? Can there be any true joy in aggression? I don't think so. We can't kill our way out of global terrorism. We can't penalize or jail away crime and violence created by poverty and want. We can't build a wall high enough to keep out the needy, nor can we horde enough wealth to stave off our own illness and death. Fighting the battle to see ourselves as superior and others as less will be an endless fight leading only to frustration.

Jesus does not need to "send" anyone to hell. There are plenty of people--angry, aggressive, rapacious, unfeeling and uncaring--who are living in hell while they are alive. A hell of their own making.

The sheep of the parable seek the highest virtues of mercy and compassion--not in order to be recognized, but because these virtues are to be cherished for their own sake. To their own surprise the sheep discover that where love is present, so is Jesus. And where Jesus is, there is the kingdom of heaven.

God's blessings to you, my friends. (And to my Russian friend, zdravstvujtye, and my most sincere spasiba!)

Sunday, November 13, 2011

On the Penn State Sexual Abuse Scandal

This post is a departure from my usual articles on Christian apologetics or reflections on the weekly lectionary. I am writing it as my reaction to the the child sexual abuse scandal that is currently being reported on the Penn State campus in State College, PA.

Some months ago I attended a Christian writers' conference on the campus of Philadelphia Biblical University. During a lunch break, I found myself sitting on a bench in the University's quad, reading a Somerset Maugham novel, eating a sandwich, and generally enjoying the sunshine and minding my own business. Suddenly, I was approached by an energetic lady with a fudgesicle and a thick Georgia accent. She asked if she could sit with me, and, after I offered her a napkin for the melting fudgesicle, introduced herself as Angela Williams.

"The Lord told me to come and talk to you," she said.

I was a bit surprised by this intelligence, but I was certainly willing to hear what Ms. Williams--and the Lord--wanted me to know. She explained that she is the founder of an organization called VOICE Today which provides advocacy for victims of childhood sexual abuse. She inquired if I had ever known a victim of such abuse--which I have--and explained that, in this country appoximately one out of four girls and one out of six boys will be sexually abused or molested in some way before their eighteenth birthday. Ms. Williams asked if I had ever preached on this subject, and I sheepishly had to confess that I had only done so once, and that had been many years ago.

"I hope," she said, "I can encourage you to face this evil with courage and boldness." After the disclosures this past week of the abuse at Penn State, I realized it was time to bring up the subject with my congregation, and to have a frank and mature discussion with my young confirmation students about the dangers they may face.

For the record, I applaud the actions taken by the Penn State Baord of Trustees this past week. Just as there is some small relief in knowing that the alleged vicitmizer, Jerry Sandusky, will be brought to trial, the dismissal of those who had silent knowledge of Sandusky's alleged misdeeds is also a blow for justice. Child abuse is a crime, and the reputaion of any institution is always of secondary importance to the safety of children. The message sent by Penn Sate's Board of Trustees is that NO ONE--not even the venerable Joe Paterno--should ever turn his or her back on the welfare of a child.

To use an oft-quoted saying attributed to the 18th Century Irsih philosopher Edmund Burke: "All that is necessary for evil to triumph is for good men to do nothing." The inaction of Paterno, Athletic Director Tim Curley, University President Graham Spanier, and others--if they did, indeed, have knowledge of child abuse--is every bit as heinous in its way as the abuse itself. Such inaction must never be tolerated.

In the Old Testament book of 2 Samuel, we read the story of the rape of Tamar (chapter 13). She is a young girl, who, like so many other victims of sexual abuse, was vicitmized by someone she knew and trusted. She was assaulted by a member of her own family, a brother, who should have been protecting her. Although the crime is reported to her father, King David, the king elects to do nothing about it (verse 21). This inaction brings more pain, ruin, death, and destruction to David's house. I am convinced that this story, supposedly three thousand years old, is just as vital and true today as ever. There is no excuse for ignoring sexual abuse. Consequences will follow, as my Roman brethren have learned through the legacy of cover-up and denial that continues to scar a denomination representing half of the Christians on the planet.

So what do we do?

First: Start talking about the issue. In schools, at home, in church, anywhere.
Second: Teach children about safe touch.
Third: Train adults to look for signs of abuse and the correct response to make when they suspect a child has been abused.
Fourth: All institutions involving children should make their policies clear. Failure to report means dismissal--even if you are the greatest coach in the history of college football, you are not above this policy.

Finally, I would recommend that you check out Angela Williams' organization at http://www.voicetoday.org/. It's time.

Thank you for reading.

Thursday, November 10, 2011

Spiritual Cowards (Reflections on Pentecost 22)

"...but from those who have nothing, even what they have will be taken away"
                                                                             Matthew 25: 29b

One of my old high school teachers used to say, "I prefer honest arrogance to false modesty." I'm not sure I agree with him as I'm pretty put off by any arrogance--be it honest or false. Nevertheless, I've got to admit I'm fascinated--in much the same way people are fascinated by political tyrants and seriel killers--with that monument to American arrogance, greed, and self-importance known to the world as Donald Trump.

Yup. I'll admit it: One of my guilty pleasures is watching NBC-TV's The Apprentice, the reality show hit in which young business men and women attempt to convince the pompous Obama "birther" that they deserve a position in his mega-million dollar real estate corporation. It all comes down to which contestant proves to Mr. Trump that they can make him the most money. Those who dare big can win big, and those who are timid get the sack.

Jesus' parable in Matthew 25: 14-30 reminds me of an episode of The Apprentice. A rapacious robber baron goes on a journey, leaving three servants, in whom he has various degrees of confidence, in charge of his estate. Servant #1 is given what would be the equivalent in today's money of about 1.7 million American dollars. Servant #2, presumably a less capable man, is entrusted with just shy of a million bucks. Servant #3 gets just over 300 grand of the boss' loot.

The first two servants invest their holdings, and each manages to double their money. Poor old #3, a pusillanimous wuss, is more afraid of losing the boss' dough than he is eager to make a killing. He knows the boss can be an angry jerk, and he's terrified he'll screw up. So what does he do? He digs a hole and hides the money until the boss gets back.

When the chief returns, he praises the first two servants for their wise investments and promises them raises and bonuses. The third guy, however, gets a royal chewing out. The boss demands to know why this guy didn't even bother putting the money in the bank to earn interest (This suggestion was, technically speaking, a violation of the Jewish law of the day. Nevertheless, it was totally in keeping with boss' greedy bottom-line philosophy). When the poor slob can't answer, the boss tells him, "You're fired!"

Now, just forget for a moment that this story involves money. There are plenty of smiling TV evangelists who will tell you that God wants you to live your best life and be prosperous financially. Yada yada yada. What if you're just a middle-class stiff like the rest of us?

What if this story could be about our spiritual wealth? Let's consider that our Lord has left us in charge of our intellects and our ability to  love each other and to find meaning in life. Let's take inventory of the people who surround us, our natural talents, our health, and the time we're alotted on the planet. Just what are we supposed to do with these things?

Allegorically, I recoil against casting Almighty God in the Donald Trump role--that of the ruthless boss. Nevertheless, the cold truth is that one day we will each have to account for our time and the way we used what we have been given. And if our fear has been greater than our desire--spiritually or otherwise--we will be that much the poorer.

Sometimes I sense a great spiritual cowardice. When I first came to Philadelphia some seventeen years ago, there were about 60 congregations of my denomination within the city limits. Today, there are little more than 40--most of which have a weekly worship attendance of fewer than 100 people. I've seen congregations hoarding vast financial assests, terrified to spend a nickle, because the congregation fears closing more than they desire to share the Gospel. These churches close anyway.

I wonder just what it is that we fear? Are we afraid to admit our own unbelief, so, out of cultural politeness we maintain a nominal but spiritless Christianity? Are we afraid to engage each other in matters of faith because we fear admitting that we know less than we "should?" Do we fear that pursuing a life of righteousness, virtue, and transcendence would make us less interesting people than we currently imagine ourselves to be?

I don't want to be a loser in my life. I want to know at the end of my days that I've invested my love, my intellect, my compassion, my curiosity, and--yes--even my meagre financial resources in the service of God. If I don't question, if I don't reach out to others, if I don't risk myself, I will certainly end up with nothing.

Thank you for reading. Leave me a comment, will you? It's good to know you've been here

Wednesday, November 2, 2011

Sainthood for Amy Winehouse (Reflections on the Feast of All Souls)

Most popular music I just don't get. I was raised in the era of classic rock. Growing up, I'd hear my dad's 1960 vintage RCA record player crooning 1940's pop standards, show tunes, and a little classical music. So I had no idea who Amy Winehouse was. I just knew her as a current pop diva whose outrageous lifestyle and substance abuse made her the butt of late-night talk show hosts' jokes. Then she drank herself to death last July, and the jokes weren't funny any more.

But I was listening to NPR a few weeks ago, and I caught a snatch of Amy and Tony Bennett singing that great old Johnny Green song, "Body and Soul." They sounded swell together--slow and nostalgic like a lingering dance in a smokey nightclub. So, on a whim, I took myself down to the Barnes & Noble and sampled Amy's Back to Black CD.

Wow.

This London-born girl, whose native dialect made her speech almost unintelligible to American ears, sang kind of like Billie Holiday. She had a throaty, bluesy sound, and I thought to myself as I listened to the track samples, "This kid's really good."

And then I thought: Twenty-seven years old. Damn. How sad. How very, very sad.

You see, I have this really stupid, romantic, sentimental spot for doomed artists and poets. In the years I've spent in parish ministry, I've often been called to stand at the graves of gifted, lovely people: beautiful souls full of talent and love and promise, who, for one reason or another, just couldn't seem to get it together. Alcoholics, addicts, the family screw-ups, the ones who couldn't catch a break. They frustrate the hell out of the rest of us, but they have such God-given spirit that we always forgive them. And they break our hearts when we lose them.

So they're not famous like Amy Winehouse. They don't have to be. They were special to us, and that's all that matters.

This is being written on the November 2nd, the Feast of All Souls. In the Lutheran liturgical calendar, the significance of this feast is combined with that of the Feast of All Saints (November 1st) because we teach that sainthood is not dependent on canonization by the Church. Indeed, a saint is nothing more than a sinner who is made whole through God's grace. In that way, we are all saints.

I've also come to believe over the years that every human life is an epic. We all know the dizzy joys and crushing lows. We all pay the price for being human. And we are all beloved by God. It's only a question of whether  we realize it or not.

The other morning I sat at a table at my local bakery, enjoying a bagel and coffee, and thinking about my All Saints Sunday homily. For some reason I remembered that corny old gospel song, "His Eye is On the Sparrow." It's a referrence to Matthew 10:28:

"Are not two sparrows sold for a penny? And yet not one of them will fall to the ground apart from your Father."

Son of a gun if--just at that very moment--a sparrow didn't kamikaze into the window directly in front of my table. BOOM! and then fell to the sidewalk with a thud. Now, I'm not really that into birds, but I found myself feeling very sorry for this little creature as he fluttered, stunned on the pavement. He had landed upside down and struggled to right himself. I didn't know what to do. I wondered if I should go outside and scoop him up and take him to the animal hospital. While I sat there, some guy left the bakery, saw the dazed critter on the pavement, and tore off a piece of his bagel for the bird.

No fall goes unnoticed. No life is insignificant. And God's mercy and compassion are for everyone.

Now, as the days get shorter, darker, and colder--before the cultural insanity of what Americans call "The Holidays" swallows us up--I think it's right that we remember those who have fallen. Not just those who fell in battle or specific national tragedies like Columbine or Katrina, but all of the souls--the saints--who mattered to us. Let's make time to mourn them, miss them, remember them. Let's think of how much they mattered, and maybe we'll realize how much we  matter.

"Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted."
                                                                        Matthew 5: 3-4

Blessed are you, my saintly friend. Thank you for reading.

Thursday, October 27, 2011

A Radical Christian

Martin Luther by Cranach-restoration.tif



No. It's not me. Calling me a radical Christian is like calling Donny Osmond an outlaw rocker. I'm referring to the feisty, often foul-mouthed, fiercely intellectual, tell-the-truth-and-damn-the consequences hero of the Christian faith pictured above: Dr. Martin Luther.

When Luther nailed his 95 Theses--an invitation to debate the accepted doctrine of the Roman Catholic Church--to the door of the Castle Church in Wittenberg, Germany on Halloween 1517, the theological fertilizer hit the fan with a splat (metaphorically speaking, of course!). Our world has never been the same since. AND, when you consider that he lived in an age when defiance of the Church could mean burning at the stake, well, you've just got to admire the guys' jewels (Again, I speak metaphorically).

Of course, I'm a Lutheran and so I'm pretty biased, but I think that an examination of Luther and his life and time would be pretty poignant about now. In the midst of the Arab Spring and the Occupy Wall Street movement, a look back at a successful revolution might be in order.

In Luther's day, supposedly pious churchmen openly colluded in the oppression of the masses. Fear of damnation was used to keep people in line--which also meant keeping many in poverty. Luther challenged the power system for its lack of charity as well as for its open greed and corruption. It was Martin Luther who introduced the concept of separation of Church and State. He also championed the cause of public education. His conviction was simple: if people knew the truth, their lives would change.

"...and you will know the truth, and the truth will make you free."
                                                                                     John 8:32

I often wonder what Luther would think if he were living in America today. I'm sure he would see that, 500 years after his own time, we are still very much slaves to sin--mostly the sins of greed and sloth. The biggest lie we too often believe is the lie that says, "There's nothing you can do about it."

Yet Luther did do something. He named the abuse and challenged the Church to correct itself. His defiance set off a spark that changed Western history. Sometimes I wish that we modern-day American Protestants had a little more PROTEST in us. I pray that we can see--from the life of a 16th Century German monk or the actions of a Tunisian street vendor--that one human life can make a difference to the world. We could use a little Luther about now.

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Now I trust all of my fellow Lutherans out there are ready to sing a rousing chorus of "A Mighty Fortress is Our God" for Reformation Sunday (October 30). This little ditty being, of course, the unofficial international anthem of Lutheranism. I do lament, however, that there aren't too many other songs we identify with the Reformation, and those in our hymnals seem to be a bit on the dull side, musically speaking. I have, therefore, taken it upon myself to compose a little up-beat rhyme which I humbly submit for your approval:

                                         
                                                           THE 95 THESES JINGLE
                                                      (sung to the tune of "Jingle Bells")

John Tetzel came to town,
And said, "Listen to me:
All your souls are bound
For Purgato-ory!
If you buy what I sell,
To Heaven you will go;
You can save your soul from Hell
If you cough up the dough!  Oh...

"Indulgences! Indulgences!
C'mon, don't be a dope!
They can save your precious soul,
They're each signed by the Pope!
Indulgences! Indulgences!
Buy quick before you die.
You'll help to build St. Peter's Church
And your poor soul won't fry!"

When Luther first got wind
Of old fat Tetzel's spiel,
He said, "This man has sinned;
His doctrine is not real!
If folks could read God's Word,
They'd know this is a heist.
These 'Blessed Coupons' are absurd,
Our hope's in Jesus Christ."  Oh...

Theses! Theses!
One to ninety-five.
Luther nailed them to the door
To keep true faith alive.
Theses! Theses!
Nailed to the old church door:
Put your trust in Jesus' blood
And don't rip off the poor!

Yes. I know. I have WAY too much time on my hands. Thanks for stopping in, my friend.

Thursday, October 20, 2011

What's Up With Tattoos? (Reflections on Pentecost 19)


Image result for tattoos for women

"You shall not make any gashes in your flesh for the dead or tattoo any marks upon you: I am the Lord."
                                                                                              Leviticus 19:28

Say what?

I came across the above curious little verse while researching the assigned lectionary readings for the 19th Sunday of Pentecost. The liturgical theme of the day is all about the Law of God and the greatest commandments, so the Hebrew scripture lesson goes back to the big law book that is Leviticus. This always makes me a bit uneasy because there's some pretty freaky weird stuff in Leviticus. Like this prohibition against tattoos.

Truth be told, I'm kind of fascinated by tattoos and tattoed people. My daughter's left arm alone has got more art than the Louvre. And two of my favorite Christain evangelists, Jay Bakker and Nadia Bolz-Weber, each sport more ink than the press room at the New York Times. I think all three of them are pretty righteous people (although I don't actually know Jay or Nadia personally, but I still think they're really cool!), so I don't see why the ancient Hebrews got their shorts in a knot over a little skin art.

My guess is that the anti-tattoo stance came about because other tribes in the ancient Near East were into tattoos. The Hebrews wanted to be a people set apart from the other nations, so they chose to go tattoo-less. Today it's just the opposite--your ink marks you as unique and individual. It's a form of self-expression. To the ancient Jews, however, the lack of ink showed the world that they were unique: they were the people of Yahweh.

The Revised Common Lectionary, the set cycle of Bible readings used for Sunday masses by Lutherans and others, pairs Leviticus 19 and its laws--mostly laws respecting human dignity and fairness, by the way--with the Gospel lesson of Matthew 22:34-46 in which Jesus is asked which commandment is the greatest. Jesus gives it to them straight:

Love God.

Love everybody else.

That's it.

The love Jesus is talking about is God's love. It's not about passionate emotions or feelings. It's about respect and care. It's a doing kind of love. As you want it to be done for you, do it for others.

If you want to be acknowledged, acknowledge.
If you want to be fed, feed.
If you want to be respected, respect.
If you want to be healed, heal others.

It may be hard to love the concept of God. But anyone can love another person. This is the spiritual path, and it supercedes everything else.

So what about the law against tattoos? I say, "Screw it!" We don't have to live our lives based on a four thousand-year-old tribal code--even if it is in the Bible. As a Lutheran, I take the Bible seriously, but not literally. Luther always taught that if we got hung up on every word of scriptural law and tried to make ourselves righteous by strict observance, we'd turn into idolatrous slaves and turn the Bible into "the paper Pope."

(And if you know anything about Luther, that last part wasn't a compliment!)

So here's a shout-out to all the beautiful, pious, spiritual and tottooed out there. Yes, for my own part, I have to go along with my man Jimmy Buffet who called skin art "a permanent reminder of a temporary feeling." But I'm cool with however the rest of you want to express yourselves. That is, as long as we all remember that our ultimate expression has to be one that sees the love of God in the faces of our neighbors. Then we'll know we've kept the law and drawn nearer to the beating heart of God.

I love you, my neighbor. Thanks for dropping in.

Wednesday, October 12, 2011

Spirituality of Taxation (Thoughts on Pentecost 18)

"Give therefore to the emperor the things that are the emperor's, and to God the things that are God's."
                                                                       Matthew 22:21

Some years ago when I was leaving the seminary for my internship with a parish in New York, I tried to save some cash by hiring a cut-rate moving van company. When the truck pulled up in front of my apartment and the crew got out, I met three of the scariest looking dudes I'd ever seen. One look at these goons told me they'd surely done time in the joint.

"Please be careful with my stuff," I asked the head creepy guy as the crew began to sling boxes and furniture into the truck with simian abandon.

He snorted, spat phlegm, and grunted the least comforting words anyone in my situation could hear: "Don't worry, Dude. I'll treat it like it's my own."

Well that's just great, I thought. I don't know how this guy treats his crap. I want him to treat it like it's MINE!

I have this idea, you see, that if we're caring for something that does not belong to us, we just might, out of some sense of decency, show it a bit more respect. The real truth is, however, that absolutely nothing really belongs to me. I mean, I didn't bring anything into this world, did I? Theologically speaking, everything belongs to God. And maybe if I think of everything as being property of someone else--like GOD, for instance--I just might think twice about how I use it. That goes for the earth, the people I encounter, and the material resources I am privileged to use.

In Matthew 22:15-22, Jesus' political foes try to trap him with a very political question. Is it lawful to pay taxes to the occupying power? It's a simple Yes or No question designed to get Jesus jammed up. If he says yes, he alienates his base. If he says no, he commits treason and can be arrested. His answer: Give the emperor what belongs to the emperor and God what belongs to God.

But then, doesn't everything belong to God?

Personally, I don't think that rendering to Caesar and rendering to God are mutually exclusive.

There's a heck of a lot of noise in America today about the evils of taxation. A very vocal and, I think, misguided minority is hogging the microphone, trying to tell us that we are taxed enough already, and that the great panacea to America's woes will be to reduce taxation and the size of government.

But let's not forget why taxation exits in the first place. We come together and pool our resources becasue we cannot do on our own that which we can do collectively. We protect our neighbors from violence--natural or man-made. We educate our people. We build roads and shelters. We care for our sick, aged, and weak. We nurture our environment. We strive to create peace through international cooperation and acts of charity. We promote justice. We encourage and preserve our culture. None of these things sound particularly heinous to me.

Frankly, I'm more concerned about the soul of a nation that doesn't want to tax. To me, the message seems to be, "Nothing is more important than getting to keep what is MINE!" This culture of selfish consumption is poison to our spirit. And Jesus warns of it over and over again.

So tax me. If taxing me will heal a blighted neighborhood, enhance a school, advance a medical cure, give my brother or sister a job, rehabilitate a wounded veteran, or buy milk for a hungry child, tax me some more.

It's only money.

And it doesn't belong to me, anyway.

Thanks for stopping by. Leave me a comment and let me know you were here, will you?

Thursday, October 6, 2011

Does Heaven Have a Dress Code?

Some Bible passages really bug me.

The Gospel lesson for the 17th Sunday of Pentecost (That's Lectionary 28 if you're keeping score at home) is one of those pain-in-the-you-know-where stories. It's the Parable of the Wedding Banquet (Matthew 22: 1-14). The story goes like this: A king is throwing a wedding banquet for his son. He invites a bunch of his vassels, but they scorn the invitation. When the king learns that they have mistreated and, in some cases, actually murdered the slaves he's sent to command their attendance, he retaliates by sending in his troops to slaughter the vassels and burn their city.

(Lovely guy, isn't he?)

The king then sends out his slaves to invite anyone they encounter--any sorry dufus they meet on the road--to join the feast. This makes for a good enough party until the king notices that one of his guests isn't wearing a wedding garment. Since the poor slob can't give a good explanation of why he's in the banquet hall of the roayal palace in his cut-offs and flip-flops, the king calls the royal bouncers to tie him up and toss him out.

This king is really a sweetie. Can you guess why I get a little uncomfortable with interpreting the king in the parable as analogous to God?

Granted, I've got a retired guy in my parish who probably can't wait to hear me preach on this parable. He's one of the last of the coat-and-tie types, and he gets really pissed off when folks show up to Sunday mass looking like they've just washed their cars. A big part of me sympathizes with him, too, because I really fear that we in America are turning into a nation of slobs. I mean--for cryin' out loud!--we actually watch Jersey Shore!

But I digress...

Personally, I don't give a rip how people look when they come to mass as long as they come.

But as to the parable: Matthew's version of this story differs from other sources, so he's probably editorializing a little for his own audience. Really smart Biblical scholar guys think that Jesus' original version may have gone something like this: A king threw a wedding feast. The swanky people he invited didn't want to come, so he opened his doors to the dirty, funky, common folks instead. Amen.

I like this version better, don't you? It's got a lot more mercy and grace in it. Jesus' point in telling this story to the priests and Pharisees may have been that our history or pedigree is not what makes us God's children. If we lack the passion for righteousness--for mercy, love, equality, and compassion for others and the joy of being God's creatures--someone else will be invited to the party in our place. Someone else will fulfill God's plan--maybe someone who is not a bit like us at all.

I think it's a good idea to read this story and cast ourselves in the role of the priests and Pharisees. We may be missing the real party because we're so busy trying to preserve the institutions of our congregations or denominations. That is, we've done church for so long we've forgotten how to be church. Also, I think that as Christians we've grown accustomed to interpreting the "new" wedding guests as ourselves while seeing our Jewish forebears as the "disinvited" ones. This interpretation may be a bit closer to Matthew's original intention, but it doesn't do anything for us except make us feel smug. And smugness is so unattractive, don't you think?

(Now if you want to get real technical about this, we can probably guess at why Matthew adds the violence to this story. The killing of the slaves who bring the invitation can be seen to reflect the killing of the prophets and the death of Jesus himself. The violent retaliation in which the city is destroyed could be intended to allude to Rome's destruction of the Jerusalem Temple in 70 CE. In this analogy, the old chosen ones, Israel, have been punished and God has chosen a new people, the Christian Church. This is interesting historical speculation, but knowing it is not bringing me any closer to God. Plus, it's disturbingly anti-Semitic.)

The interpretation of this parable that floats my boat is to see it as a description of God's inclusiveness. In verse 10, the slaves gather everyone--the good and the bad, the saints and the sinners. They're the people off the street, the people whom Jesus loved.

Of course, we're still stuck with the problem of that dude who violated the dress code. Let's assume for the moment that he actually owns a wedding garment, and that he's just being rude by not bothering to wear it. I mean, my mom always taught me that one dresses to compliment the host or hostess, but this guy can't seem to make the effort. (I'd hate to see anyone kicked out just because they couldn't afford a nice shirt and tie, you know?) What might this guy represent?

Here he is in his smelly t-shirt, eating the free food and taking advantage of the hosted bar. He might be like a lot of church folk--believing in a sense of God's mystery, but not passionate enough to do anything about it. He comes to church out of a sense of obligation, and turns to God only in moments of want or distress.

There's a word for people like that: superstitious.

Now you ask, what is the difference between religion and superstition? In superstition, we try to appease God, thinking that our actions--be they prayers, rituals, or half-hearted observances--will change the way God behaves toward us. In true religion, however, we ask that the way God is--beautiful, giving, creative, loving--will change the way we are towards God and our fellow creatures.

I don't know about you, but I want to come to God's party properly dressed. I want to be covered in my own humility and willing to let myself be changed. I want to be welcoming to all the other guests, and I want my presence to be a compliment to my very gracious host.

Thank YOU for being a guest on my blogsite. I'm honored that you've stopped by. Please feel free to leave me a comment. It's always great to hear from you.

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

Jobs, Justice, and God's Grace






"And about five o'clock he went out and found others standing around; and he said to them, 'Why are you standing here idle all day?' They said to him, 'Becasue no one has hired us.' He said to them, 'You also go into the vineyard.'
                                                                                         Matthew 20: 6-7

I used to see them standing idle.

Like the laborers from Jesus' parable in Matthew 20: 1-16, they stood on street corners in Los Angeles, waiting for some contractor in his big Chevy pick-up to come and offer them a day's work. I was a middle school teacher, and as I drove to my own work every morning through the streets of LA's Harbor District, I'd see groups of about six or seven Mexican guys just hanging out, waiting. Maybe they'd get lucky and someone would put them to work painting a house or digging a trench. I'm pretty sure they didn't get paid union scale. My hunch is that many of them were illegal, just working for whatever they could to get by. If no one needed them that day, they'd go home with nothing.

I used to feel for those guys. Granted, I've never been out of work for too long a stretch myself, but I remember how it felt when I was a kid and my dad lost his job. I was about ten years old, and I came home from school one day to find my dad already home. He was never home before me. It felt weird. He and my mom were standing in the living room facing each other. People don't stand in living rooms, I thought. They sit on ugly, overstuffed 1960's era furniture and watch TV. Even as a ten-year-old I could tell that something was wrong.

"Daddy doesn't work for Douglas anymore," my mom told me (Douglas being the aeospace giant that employed half of our town). Unfortunately, Daddy didn't work  for anyone for the next fourteen months.

Fourteen months. Unemployment benefits ran out. Savings vanished. Debt. Food Stamps. Pride kicked to the curb. "Sorry, kids, we can't afford it."

And you only have to be out a short time to get a long ways behind.

For the next fifteen years, until he took his retirement, my father's work history was spotty: a couple of months here, a couple of years there, punctuated by lay-off notices and some outrageous and always unsuccessful self-employment schemes. It was very hard for a boy to see what that did to his dad. My dad was of the generation that believed that good, honest people worked for a living, and bums didn't. Being out of work made him feel like a bum.

When I read the story of the laborers in Matthew's gospel, I don't get too outraged over the indignant attitude of the one's who've worked an entire day for the same wage as the ones who've worked only an hour. Rather, I feel a tremendous sense of relief for the ones who have been left standing in the marketplace, fearing that they will go home with nothing with which to feed their families. How grateful they must have been to the man who gave them a job!

Jesus' parable teaches us about the Kingdom of God--the ideal of a world in which perfect obedience is given to the Lord of Creation. In this kingdom, mercy and grace are valued over our human ideas of justice and "fairness." The landowner gives each laborer the sum they bargained for--"the usual daily wage." Isn't this what we all bargain for when we ask, "Give us this day our daily bread?"

Indeed, the landowner was abundantly generous in rewarding those who worked for only an hour. To my way of thinking, however, his greatest act of generosity was that he allowed them to work at all. In so doing, he gave them more than their wages. He gave them their dignity.

Today the U.S. unemployment rate is rocketing towards 10%. President Obama has proposed a jobs plan that will cost this nation billions of dollars. The deficet hawks will certainly try to bring this plan crashing to the ground. But this old religious guy wonders if they ever consider what unemployment does to the soul of this country. Have they counted the cost to human dignity? To self-worth? What happens to our spirit when we are left standing idle in the marketplace?

This parable is usually interpreted to mean that God's grace is sufficient for all, and that it is not up to us to decide who is more or less worthy of God's bounty of forgiveness and care. For me however, it will always be a picture of compassion--of hunger, despair, and rescue.

Let me know what this story means to you, will you? And thanks again for stopping by.

Thursday, September 8, 2011

An Imam at Ground Zero

It's hard to believe that the tenth anniversary of the terror attacks of 9/11 is already upon us. Certainly this anniversary and its terrible memories will find a prominent place in my Sunday masses this week. I will preach on its significance, and the congregation will pray for peace and for comfort for the families of those who were lost on that day.

There will be no prayers, however, at the ceremonies at New York's Ground Zero this year. Mayor Michael Bloomberg has chosen to ban clergy participation at the memorial ceremonies (click on link to read article). In a way, I have to agree with the mayor's decision. This will be, after all, a public ceremony. As such, the constitutional separation of Church and State should be respected. The victims of this tragedy were of many faiths and some of no faith at all. As one who has performed hundreds of memorial services myself, I believe the emphasis at such observances needs to be on the wishes of the living; therefore, it is only right that the preferences of the victims' loved ones be honored. Similarly, if any faith is to be represented, it would only be proper that all faiths are represented.

Okay. I get that.

But there's a big part of me that wants to see an imam at Ground Zero.

Yes. I know. The presence of an Islamic cleric at the scene of an act of radical Islamic terrorism may seem to be an egregious offense. But what could be more offensive, more degrading to humanity, than the terror attacks themselves? I wonder if our fear of giving offense isn't hindering our ability to create reconciliation.

Let me explain. If you were to enter the Lutheran church building where I conduct services, you would see prominently displayed as the focal point of the room a cross. You can, of course, make a cross of gold or silver and wear it around your neck as a lovley ornament; however, Christians know that the cross was really an instrument of cold-blooded torture and death--a tool used by an oppressive people to punish, subjugate, and terrorize, the people they had conquored.

Yes, sick as this may sound, when we worship we look to the image of a man being tortured to death by terrorists. This man, in the midst of the worst pain, injustice, and abandonment imaginable, speaks words of comfort and forgiveness (See Luke 23: 32-43). When we see him in his great pain, we know he is also in our pain--our human pain. When we hear his great compassion and love, we have to believe that this can also be our compassion, our love.

In a way, I see 9/11 as America's Calvary. We survivors stood at the foot of the cross and watched helplessly as terrorists did their worst. We also witnessed sacrificial love as many first responders offered up their lives for strangers.

But it was not just America that was wounded on that day. Decent, observant, God-fearing Muslims around the world must have felt the wound--a terrible sting of shame for what some perverted minority did in the name of their faith. What pain must burn in their minds knowing that in the conventional thoughts of Westerners, Islam will forever be associated with unthinking, murderous evil.

Yes, Mister Mayor, you've made the right call. The expedient, politically safe call. But I am still looking to our American Calvary and waiting for the words, "Father, forgive them." I would long to hear a Muslim cleric, perhaps representing the many Muslims who also perished on that awful day, say prayers for peace, forgiveness, and reconciliation on the anniversary of Islam's darkest hour.

Pleae let me know what you think. Thank you, my friend, for stopping by.

Thursday, September 1, 2011

Love, Atheists, and the Wrath of God (With Special Guest Michele Bachmann)

Some years ago a friend of mine was asked by his young daughter if he believed in God. "Do you mean," he replied, "do I believe that there's some old man up in the clouds who you ask for favors and he gives you things? No. I don't believe in that."

Shortly thereafter, my friend was diagnosed with cancer. He endured a very serious operation to remove a brain tumor. The operation had the potential to leave him blind or otherwise impaired. I had the chance to speak with him once he was sufficiently recovered from his surgery to talk on the phone. He was still very weak and exhausted from the ordeal, but his eyesight, memory, and motor skills seemd to be intact. He could only speak for a few minutes. "I just want you to know, Owen," he said, "that when I woke up from the surgery, I told God I loved him, and that I knew he loved me."

I don't believe that my otherwise skeptical friend's reaction was the result of a "no-atheists-in-a-foxhole" sort of desperation. I really want to believe that he experienced the true and overwhelming joy of being, and felt the love of God flowing through that experience. I'd give anything to ask him if this were so, but, unfortunately, his cancer turned out to be more aggressive and he died several months after his operation.

Still, I rejoice that he found some relationship with God through his experience. When we know how awesome life and creation can be--possibly because we are at the risk of losing life--how else can we respond but with love? The author of the First Letter of John said it all: "Whoever does not love, does not know God, for God is love." (1 John 4:8)

I believe that God is loving us every day in millions of ways. The love of God takes the form of the colors we see, the wind we feel on our faces, the smells, the tastes, and the myriad relationships we experience. God is loving us in the affection we know from one another, in our intellects and imaginations. Why would we not want to love in return?

It always amuses me that the so-called "militant atheists" such as Dawkins and Hitchens don't have a problem with others experiencing God. It just seems that they don't want anyone to have an opinion about the experience. "Please!" they seem to say, "Don't relate to the experience. Don't express gratitude, and, whatever you do, don't celebrate corporately! That sort of behavior might be--dare we even say it..?--WORSHIP!"

But the love of God makes me want to worship. I want to build a magnificent building for the purpose of celebrating God. I want to sing, to write music, to tell stories and share feasts. I want to create, and to make my own life a work of art that responds to the glory of creation.

Ah. But this is where I hear you saying, "Well that's okay for you, Pal. But what about when your glorious 'phenomenon of existence' turns out to be ugly and destructive? What about earthquakes and tornados, and hurricanes, and stuff like that? Just how lovey-dovey are you feeling now?"

I should add that this is being written right in the aftermath of Hurricane Irene--who just breezed through my part of the US leaving billions of dollars worth of damage and not a few fatalities in her wake. The age-old question, I feel certain, is again being asked, "If God is love, how can love kill innocent people? And who would want to love a god like that anyway?"

That's a toughie.

Granted, Congresswoman Michele Bachmann claims that natural disasters and mass devastation are just God's way of telling Washington politicians to reduce the size of government.

Okay. In fairness to the congresswoman, she did admit that she was just kidding when she said that. Nevertheless, information from the Association of Religious Data suggests that some 31% of Americans surveyed may believe that God acts as a punishing judge, and that natural catastrophes like Irene are signs of Divine Wrath. Here's what I think:

FIRST, like the ancient Hebrews, I do believe that all natural phenomena are, in fact, manisfestations of God. God is in the act of creating. The movement of tectonic plates (remember we on the East Coast were also just surprised by an earthquake in Virginia. I grew up in Southern California where earthquakes are common, so I didn't even feel it--even though it scared the living snot out of lots of other folks!) and the natural evaporation and condensation of the water cycle are what created mountains and rivers in the first place. The earth is constantly changing, and it's a good thing because we couldn't very well have survived under the same conditions in which the dinosauers thrived. What may seem destructive to our human interests today may, in fact, be giving rise to other forms of life. It's all in your point of view. In any event, the creative changing of the earth is constant, so it cannot be seen as a referendum on current morals or political philosophy. Sorry, Ms. Bachmann.

SECONDLY, nothing exists without its oppposite. Because we experience light, we will also know darkness. Because we love, we will also know the pain of separation and loss. It cannot be otherwise. This means that whenever we are threatened or bereft, we are reminded of the value of what we have lost or stood to lose. Moments of disaster are also moments of increased appreciation.

THIRDLY, when nature threatens, we are also given opportunity. At such moments we recognize our own helplessness and our own interdependence on our brothers and sisters. We have an opportunity for empathy, cooperation, compassion, charity, and gratitude. Our desperation makes us grow more human, and our acts of giving and receiving kindness--our acts of love--are also a form of worship. When we reach out to help strangers--even if we see ourselves as being more "spiritual" than "religious"--we are still performing a religious act. We are connecting with love. (Hey. Want to have church right now? Click on this link and reach out to Hurricane Irene victims!)

AND FINALLY (Don't you love it when a preacher says that?), if God is sending us any message at all through weather events like Irene, it is probably this: There's a lot more water in the atmosphere these days due to increased evaporation due to increased global temperature. This means bigger and stronger storms and more destruction. If the increased gobal temperature is the result of anything we are doing--like burning fossil fuels for example--then we better get our act together and find another way to make energy before we turn this whole planet into one inhospitable mess.

When I was a little kid, my mom taught me and my sisters a table prayer which began with the phrase, "God is great, God is good..." I believe that. Nothing I've seen in over 50 years on this planet has made me change my mind.

I LOVE that you took time to read my blog. Please let me know your thoughts.

Sunday, August 21, 2011

GOD Part II


But Moses said to God, "If I come to the Israelites and say to them, 'The God of your ancestors has sent me to you,' and they ask me, 'What is his name?' what shall I say to them?" God said to Moses, "I AM WHO I AM."
                                                                               Exodus 3:13-14

Hey. It works for me.

GOD appears to an ancient man in the form of a burning bush--a bush which is in flames but is not consumed. I dig this mythology, don't you? I mean, what better metaphor for the source of all creation than a natural phenomenon which sends forth energy--light and warmth, the stuff from which life comes--and yet does not destroy?

Cooler still is the name of this phenomenon: I AM WHO I AM (which, for you Hebrew scholars out there, can also be translated as "I am what I am" or "I will be what I will be."). God is. In fact, God is the sum total of all is-ness. This is what I mean when I use the word "God." I am not speaking of some force external to myself and the universe which we all inhabit. I do not see God as some old man up in the clouds. I am speaking of existence itself.

(Even if I have illustrated this post with a picture of Michelangelo's God from the Sistine Chapel ceiling. What can I say? I just like the picture!)

Confused yet? But think about it. I'm no physicist, but I remember enough from high school to know that all matter, be it a star in the heavens, a rock, a tree, or the wonderful confection of elements which make up your fantastic brain, Dear Reader, is composed of atoms. These atoms are themselves made up of sub-atomic particles--infinitesimal sparks of who-knows-what kind of energy which combine and relate to form all that there is. To me, this says that all creation is, as the Greeks liked to say, homoousios--of one essence, substance, or being. And I like to call this essence, substance, or being "God."

This is not to say, however, that all things are God. A really smart guy named Marcus Borg likes to use the term panentheism. By this, Dr. Borg suggests that all things are in or part of God. God's nature is therfore encompassing all that is. We would not, for example, worship a tree as God or as one god in many. Rather, we would see God--as the good folks in Alcoholic Anonymous like to say--as the "higher power" which is manifest in the tree but is also infinitely beyond the tree as well. This would also mean that each of us is part of God.

(To get a much better grasp on this I recommend you see Dr. Borg's book The God We Never Knew. I'm not sure I'm doing a very good job of explaining it myself.)

Even a really, really smart guy, Albert Einstein, although opposed to the notion of a personal God, was willing to use the word "God" to mean "the orderly harmony of what exists." By such a definition, I would say that it is impossible to say that God does not exist, as God is the very nature of existence itself.

Some months back I heard a National Public Radio interview with the energetic British atheist Richard Dawkins. In this interview Dr Dawkins actually conceded to Dr. Einstein's definition of God, but added that he doubted Einstein's god was what most of us had in mind when we used the word "God." Dr. Dawkins went on to express his belief that "God," the external super parent, was the result of human imagination. He concluded that this "God" had to be at the end of all creation after matter had evolved into an organism sufficiently advanced to actually have an imagination.

Now far be it for me, a simple parish pastor from Philly, to debate the brilliant Dr. Dawkins; however, I can't help but feel that there is a slight hole in his logic. A phenomenon may exist well before we are aware of it. God as the creative force of all existence was on God's way to creating me long before I ever came into being. God, as I understand God, is the beginning, the source, and the totality of all creation.

This definition, of course, leads us to the ultimate religious question: How do we relate to God? If we reject the idea of God as a being external to ouselves and the universe and see God as "phenomenon of existence," haven't we turned God into an "it?"

Perhaps. Still, I can't quite let go of the notion that God encompasses consciousness, awareness, feelings, etc. That means God encompasses all things which make us human.

What would happen to my own sense of being if I started to relate to the connecting force of all creation as "You?"

Glad you asked. Now, mind you, this has nothing to do with physics, logic, philosphy, or anything else. It's just the way I feel. When I contemplate existence itself, the totality of the universe which includes my own self, the wonder and the mystery of it all, and I think of it as "You," I feel a physical presence with me even when I'm completely alone. Sound crazy? Maybe. But when I think of what I call God as "You," I feel God's arms around me.

Okay. So I'm a religious guy and I can't resist the temptation to anthropomorphize just a little!

In any event, we can't really have a discussion about God unless we can agree on what the word means to us, can we? I've slogged through my complex and doubtless too verbose explanation. What about you? Please feel free to share, and thanks so much for stopping by.

Wednesday, August 17, 2011

God..?

Last night I enjoyed a really jolly debate on CNN's Piers Morgan Tonight between the brilliant magician Penn Jillette and the unflappable Mr. Morgan on the subject of the existence of God. Mr. Morgan, a good Irish Catholic lad, stuck up for the Divine Being, while Mr. Jillette (who was promoting his new book on the subject) raised the banner for atheism.

Now I like Mr. Jillette. He's a heck of an entertainer and he seems like a pretty smart guy. He's also quite capable of expressing his views in an engaging and articulate way. In fact, I would even go as far as to recommend you read his essay on this encounter on the CNN website. However, as an old religious guy, I couldn't help but feel throughout last night's exchange that Mr. Jillette was interpreting the word "God" to mean something quite different from what I mean when I invoke that divine name.

The late comedian George Carlin once did a stand-up routine in which he described belief in God to be akin to believing in a sort of invisible Santa Clause--someone who is always watching and instantly knows if you've been naughty or nice. This invisible man says he loves you, but he is perfectly willing to send you to a tormenting, screaming, burning, torturous hell if you make any infractions to his rules (Carlin also pointed out that this invisible man always seems to be a bit strapped for cash!).

It can, of course, be argued that Carlin was a confrontational and frequently obscene blasphemer who would say anything for a laugh. Personally, however, I thought he was pretty darn funny, and I thank the Lord for his irreverent wit. You see, guys like Carlin and Jillette (and I'd have to include the "my-heart-is-made-of-knotted-barbed-wire" Bill Maher in that company, too!) keep guys like me honest. They force me to ask myself if I really have something of value to give which can touch people's hearts and make a difference in the world, or am I just a slick snake-oil salesman peddling old fairy tales to a gullible bunch of rubes..?

I cherish my belief system enough to want to speak of it in an intelligent, reasonable, and logical manner. I don't think that my interpretation of God, inspired through the Jewish and Christian scriptures, would violate the reason of a Jillette or a Carlin--or even a Richard Dawkins or Christopher Hitchens for that matter. Yet before we can talk about whether or not we believe in God, we have to come to terms with how we interpret the word "God."

No "invisible man" for me. No white-bearded Caucasian angry judge. Rather, I love the God who is transcendent and imminent. I'll try to explain my interpretation--with the help of some folks a lot smarter than I am--in my next post.

Until then, let me know who or what God is to you. I'd love to hear from you. Thanks for reading.

Monday, August 15, 2011

Call Me a Dirty Socialist, But...

I had my conversion in 1992.

I didn't answer an altar call. I didn't speak in tongues or weep or ask the preacher to lay hands on me. All I did was check a different box on my Voter's Registration form.

On May 9, 1992, I officially became a Democrat.

(I recall thinking at the time how relieved I was that my recently deceased father had been cremated other than buried, as he surely would've spun in his grave at my act of apostacy.)

My parents, good Christians that they were, had raised us to be good conservatives. They believed in personal responsibility and felt the government should not be responsible for protecting people from their own stupidity. This sounded like a common sense argument to me. Remember, I grew up during the Cold War. We knew the USSR was pointing missiles at our country, and  the Great Socialist Beast was bent on abolishing hard-earned private property and turning everyone into an atheist.

And then came the smiling and charismatic Ronald Reagan. He made us feel good about being Americans. I was proud to cast my first vote in a presidential election for him in 1980. I figured that after the embarrassment of the Iran hostage crisis, Uncle Ron would surely put us all on the right track. I stuck to my GOP guns throughout my college and graduate school days--no mean trick since I did my post-graduate studies at the University of Wisconsin, one of the most liberal-leaning campuses in the nation.

And then, in the early 1990's, a weird thing happened to me. I began teaching in the Los Angeles Unified School District and had my first real encounter with people living in poverty. This caused me to question things like supply-side economics, defense spending, and the effects of cuts in government social programs. I began to take a real adult look at my own convictions. I discovered that, as good a job as my parents had done in raising me to be conservative, they had done a better job at raising me to be Christian.

And I just couldn't reconcile the economic policies of the Reagan-Bush administrations with the teachings of Jesus Christ.

The Jesus I had met in Sunday School was a man who:
  • taught love of neighbor (Luke 10:27-28)
  • believd the poor were favored by God (Luke 6:20)
  • advocated redistribution of wealth (Matthew 19:21)
  • disdained accumulating riches for their own sake (Luke 12: 13-31)
  • instructed his followers to be charitable towards everyone (Luke 6:30)
  • was willing to sacrifice his own life, and
  • even paid his taxes! (Mattew 22:17-22 and Matthew 17: 24-27).

It astounds me that today in America there are those in government who would willingly grind our national economy to a screeching halt rather than suggest that anyone sacrifice an additional cent of tax money. This may be good politics, but it is incompatible with the New Testament.

My faith teaches me that the righteous act is not to protect what I have, but to give to those who have less or nothing at all. The image to which Christians look when worshipping is not the image of a king on a throne but rather the image of a man suffering, dying, and sacrificing all that he has out of love for others. It is this spirit of sacrificial love which is the heart of Christianity.

So call me a socialist, but if tax revenues are necessary to impove our schools, care for our aged, tend to the indigent sick, aid the disabled, heal our military veterans, and create dignified employment for our citizens...

...then go ahead and raise my taxes!

That's how I feel. How about you? I'd appreciate your comments, and I thank you for taking the time to read my blog.

Wednesday, August 10, 2011

Who In Their Right Mind Believes This Stuff?

Have you ever asked yourself that question?

I mean, don't we all get to a point where the whole idea of religion seems a bit ridiculous? Who can buy the notion of Moses parting the Red Sea or Jesus walking on the water? What's up with this raising people from the dead jazz? And why should we bother celebrating the stories of ancient people in the first place? C'mon. Nobody celebrates Zeus or Isis or Gilgamesh anymore. Why bother with religion at all? Who believes this stuff, anyway?

The answer, of course, is about 2 billion human beings on the planet--myself among them--who call themselves Christians. Add to this some 1.3 billion Muslims, some 900 million Hindus, some 360 million Buddhists, and about 564 million others (Yes! I counted you Zoroastrians in that number too--don't want to leave anyone out!), and the 850 million atheist/agnostic/non-religious of the world are certainly in the minority.

Obviously, we have a very religious little chunk of real estate hurtling around our sun. The question, I guess, should be why?

Now I can't speak for the other 5.1 billion of you religious folks, but I know I believe, celebrate, and order my personal ethics around the faith of my childhood simply because I want to do it. That's right: I believe because there's something in me that wants the stories of my faith to be my stories. Maybe I can't even explain it, but I know that I'm in love with the story.

One of my favorite movies is the 1994 flick called "Shadowlands." It's the story of the real-life love affair between the Christian scholar and author C. S. Lewis and the American poet Joy Gresham. There's a line in the picture which always rings true to me: "We read to know we're not alone." To me, that means that the stories we embrace, whether historic fact or pure fantasy, give us some sense of meaning and some sense of connection. Something is speaking to the eternal part of us, and we want to grab on to that connection.

Of course, just a desire for connection does not necessarily lead to real faith. We may--and I suspect many do--adopt religious myth as our story because it had been our parents' story. We don't want to throw the society into which we were born under the bus, so we go along with what we were taught. We may question it, but that questioning doesn't seem polite, so we just eventually slink away from the stories and never really examine them. I've got a hunch that the churches may be filled with these sort of passive skeptics.

For my part, however, I find I really love the mythology. Now please understand: we have misused the word "myth" pretty often. I suspect you might be interpreting the word as meaning "something that isn't true but a lot of people believe it anyway." We love to say, "That's just a myth." We're really doing the word a disservice. The best explanation of "myth" I've ever heard is "Things which never were but always are." In other words, when we speak of a myth, we're talking about a story which may not be literally true, but contains within it a universal truth. Therefore, we can't ever say that something is "just a myth." That's like saying, "It was just a nuclear accident." A true myth contains an idea, a situation, or a feeling which resonates beyond time and culture.

To me, the stories of the Christian scriptures hold timeless truths. These may not be literal truths in terms of actual historic events portrayed with ruthless accuracy, but they are true all the same. Actually, the idea that every word in the Christian Bible is literally true is a fairly recent idea. For a really good discussion on this point, I'd suggest you look up a work by the wonderful Karen Armstrong called The Bible: A Biography (Or check out anything else this brilliant lady writes. If you dig religion, you need to know Karen!). It seems rather obvious to me. If you look at the book of Genesis, you'll note that there are two creation stories placed side-by-side. There are also two versions of the Great Flood story--each with details which contradict the other. In the days before Xrox, some Jewish scribe would have to sit down and copy the scrolls by hand. You would think he'd notice the contradictions. In fact, I'm quite sure he did notice them, but he just didn't care. He was copying stories, each of which had their own viewpoints and their own merits. He was not trying to write a literal history or a scientific treatise.

Let me take you through a great mythic story in the Christian New Testament and explain what I dig about it. The Gospels of Matthew, Mark, and John each contain the story of Jesus walking on the water. You'd have to admit that this would be a pretty slick trick if Jesus could defy the laws of physics to do this. Remember, however, that these first century writers were not trying to recount literal history. They were story-tellers who had no problem with combining real people with mythic adventure. It's only us moderns who are hung up on historic accuracy. Anyway...

The story goes like this: Jesus wanted to be alone to pray, so he sends his twelve buddies ahead of him to cross the Sea of Tiberius to Capernum (or Bethsaida, depending on which version you read) by boat.  At night, a storm comes up and blows the boat far from the shore. You must know that in the first century, sailors never wanted to get too far out of sight of land. The story says that the wind was against them. "Wind" was a word which could also be translated as "spirit." So here are these guys--they're in the dark, the spirit is against them, and they are surrounded by water which, to the ancients, was a symbol for chaos. Ever been in that condition yourself? Everything's against you, and you don't know where you are?

At this point, Jesus, their teacher, friend, and guide, comes to them walking in the midst of the chaos.He's not panicked by what's going on around him. The guys in the boat freak out because they think he's a ghost. When you're in deep water and somebody else is calm, sometimes it upsets you even more. Jesus tells them not to be afraid. In Matthew's version, one of the guys, Simon Peter, refuses to believe his friend has come to the rescue and demands proof. If Jesus can walk on water, he wants to know if he can too. Jesus tells him to get out of the boat and come to him. Peter actually is able to do this, but once he takes his focus off of Jesus and considers the strong wind, he begins to sink and calls for help. Jesus reaches out his hand, saves the floundering Peter, climbs into the boat, and the storm abates.

There are probably as many interpretations of this story as there are people who have told it. Personally, I see it as a tale of encouragement when the whole world seems to be screwed up and turning against me. These elements stick out at me:
  • The guys in the boat were never alone. Somebody loved them and came to them in their time of need.
  • The chaos was not fatal. It was going to blow itself out. It always does. It's fear that kills.
  • When Jesus was with them, the storm stopped.
  • Jesus' presence brings the calm and peace because he's willing to engage with those in distress.
  • When Peter loses focus on Jesus, he starts to go under.
  • Focus on Jesus brings peace in the chaos because Jesus is loving, willing to engage, willing to make sacrifice for others, and totally committed to the belief that God's will is for abundant life.
So is that something we can believe in? Let me know what you think. Thanks for reading!