Thursday, July 6, 2017

The return of the Blogger and The Travails of Hagar

I am not a very disciplined blogger. In fact, as most of my friends know, there are many other areas of my life where I lack discipline. After a very long hiatus, two posts in one day! I almost wrote silence rather than hiatus, but then I have not been silent. Preaching at least once a week, and nearly every week this past winter, I have had lots of opportunities to speak. Now that I am called upon to preach much less often, perhaps it is time to return to writing.

I did have a chance to preach at the end of June at All Saints Church in Littleton, NH. The portion of Hebrew scripture appointed for that Sunday was part of the story of the patriarch Abraham and has rather complicated family. It is not a story of great faithfulness, at least not human faithfulness. The longer story begins with God's promise to Abram, as his name was at the beginning of the story, that he would have a son. Over time, however, he and his wife Sarai remain childless. Then, perhaps not entirely trusting God's promise, Abram and Sarai hit upon a plan. Sarai will give her Egyptian slave girl Hagar to Abram and she can give birth to a son. In time Hagar becomes pregnant and, as a result, "looked with contempt on her mistress." Sarai deals with this by treating Hagar harshly and Hagar runs away.

The story might have ended there, but God had been paying attention and an angel speaks to Hagar in the wilderness and tells her to return to Sarai and Abram, promising that the child growing in her womb will be a son and that she should name him Ishmael, which means God sees. Hagar follows the angel's instructions and gives birth to a son. 

The story might have ended there as well, but God was still paying attention. God appears to Abram again, gives him and Sarai new names, and promises that Sarah, in spite of her age, will give birth to a son. In due time she does give birth to a son and they name him Isaac. Now that she and Abraham have a son, Sarah decides that Ishmael and his mother must be sent away. Abraham agrees and provides them with a loaf of bread and a skin of water for the journey. Of course these meager  provisions run out before long. Once again in the wildernesses without hope, Hagar recoils from the prospect of watching her son die. She places him under a bush and walks far enough away so she can longer see him. But the God who sees sees Ishmael and Hagar and opens her eye so she can see a well of water. As the story of Hagar and Ishmael ends we are told that "God was with the boy, and he grew up....and his mother got a wife for him from the land of Egypt." While the cast of human characters have been bumbling along, not trusting God's promise, and falling prey to jealousy and revenge, God has remained faithful. 

For the God who sees the lives of the Egyptian Hagar and her son Ishmael are, in Jesus' words, worth more than many sparrows. The children of Abraham often have trouble remembering that, remembering that the refugee fleeing danger in Syria is as precious in God's eyes as we are. The God who sees, in the person of Jesus, is Immanuel, God with us, and not only with but for us. For Christians, that is those who share life in Christ, that life is to be life with and for others

When we moved to New Hampshire last year one of the things that was very encouraging was how the Bishop of the Episcopal Church in New Hampshire used the words our children. For Rob Hirschfeld our children doesn't mean the children who belong to our congregations. It means all of New Hampshire's children. Although New Hampshire Episcopalians can't meet the needs or solve the problems of all the children in the state, we can with them and for them in small ways and great ones. We can become their friends, people they can turn to and depend upon, people who will share their joys and successes, as well as their losses and sorrow.  

Friday, June 30, 2017

Potter Anniversary

Ross Douthat, a conservative columnist for The New York Times marked the 20th anniversary with a column The Muggle Problem. Douthat thinks that central problem with the series is not that it portrays conflict as being between good and evil, Dumbledore's Army vs the Death Eaters. What bothers him is that the wizarding world has no real interest in Muggles, no desire to integrate them into the wizarding community. He may be right about that, but I think he's missing the point. Although he's right that the wizarding world is a meritocracy and that getting the Hogwarts admissions letter is a bit like getting one from an Ivy League university, I think he misses the underlying critique of meritocracy in the series.

The battles in the series aren't only about the future of Hogwatrts and  the wizarding world. The Dark Lord's quest for power, if it were successful, would be as disastrous for Muggles as it would be for wizards. As Douthat himself points out Voldemort and his minions want to see Muggles "subjugated or enslaved."  What prevents that from happening are the young heroes of the series - Harry, Ron, Herminone, and, most surprisingly of all, Neville Longbottom.

In spite of what Douthat seems to believe, meritocracy is not bad. What is bad, perhaps even worth labeling as evil, is a meritocracy which exists solely for itself, in which real and often remarkable talents are used only to enrich those who possess them and not for the common good. When Harry uses his magical powers to protect his cousin from dementors, risking his own future at Hogwarts, we see meritocracy at its best. When Lucius Malfoy beats his house elf with his silver-headed cane, we see a man of great abilities who cares nothing for anyone but himself and those who can enrich him. That's the kind of evil meritocracy against which Harry and his friends risk their lives, a meritocracy that would destroy both wizards and Muggles.

Several years ago I had the privilege of preaching for a congregation of about a dozen members of a search committee. One of the things I said was that in the final battle between Harry and Voldemort what was decisive was not who was the more talented wizard. What mattered was who was the better person. Harry, I said, was willing to die for his friends. Voldemort was willing for the Death Eaters, who were never his friends at all, to die for him. That, I think, is what Rowling was trying to get us to see. Whatever gifts we have, whatever brilliance, out merit lies in our willingness to use those gifts, that brilliance, for others. As Harry might say, that's brilliant. 

Obamacare Repeal and Replace

Jeff Jacoby, a conservative columnist for The Boston Globe,  wrote recently about the “unhinged rhetoric” of critics of the GOP health care bills. I wrote to Mr. Jacoby, agreeing in part with his column, but expressing my opposition to the GOP bills in personal terms.

I agree that there is more than a little unhinged rhetoric in the debates about health care legislation. However, as the CBO analysis states, either of the current bills would result in millions of Americans no longer having health insurance. Without regular access to health care, the consequences for some of them could be disastrous.

Two years ago my my primary care physician noticed something that turned out to be a leaky heart valve. Echocardiograms over the next year revealed that I have an aortic aneurysm. The aneurysm isn't large enough to warrant surgery now but I may need surgery in the future. What would have happened had I lacked health insurance is, of course, not possible to say with any certainty. What is clear to me is that I have a better chance of making it to my 80th birthday because I have health insurance.

Unhinged rhetoric aside, the current bills would do more to hurt than help Americans get health care.

Friday, February 20, 2015

Blessed Assurance, Jesus Is Mine

A friend of mine reminded me of this hymn recently. Although not one of my favorites it is one that I like. But I have a problem with it. 

Jesus is not mine and the idea that he might be possessed by anyone is not only bad theology but dangerous. That be a redundant statement. Bad theology is always dangerous, but this piece of bad theology is very dangerous. 

Believing that Jesus is somehow my possession leads very quickly to the belief that I have the whole truth, that I am right and everyone else is wrong. If I am relatively powerless this delusion may only make my friends uncomfortable. If I have power, especially military power, this delusion can be deadly.
It is this delusion that has become deadly with the so-called Islamic State. But it is also this delusion we encounter among some Christians who not only claim that they know Jesus but act like they know him perfectly. When you put it that way it's obvious that they are deluded. We can never know another human person perfectly, so how can we know Jesus perfectly? How can we claim to know, with no possibility of error, the answer to WWJD? (What would Jesus do?)
Recognizing that we are not infallible, that our understanding of the truth is always gong to be in some measure wrong, is an important virtue for Christians - and everyone else - in this age. What if the church, as the Canadian theologian Douglas John Hall wrote thirty years ago, "began to understand that it really does not possess any truth? What if it began on earnest to think of itself as being possessed by a truth that forever eludes it?" (Has the Church a Future? p. 106) If, as we Christians confess, Jesus is the Truth, then Hall is right in asserting that our "ideas and doctrines and theological explanations" of Jesus are not the truth. They are, at best, glimpses of the truth, like things seen through a glass darkly, and they are, at worst, self-serving attempts to hijack Jesus, to claim divine sanction for our own desires.
The kind of humility which I think we need does not mean that we have to stop bearing witness to the Gospel, to stop speaking and acting as Christians. Far from it. It is arrogance and not boldness that we need to avoid. The awareness that we may well be wrong should not stop us from acting or speaking boldly. It should, however, compel us to listen after we speak, to reflect after we act, and to stand ready to change. We need to trust the promise that we find in John 16:13. "When the spirit of truth comes, he will guide you into all the truth." Trust it as a promise, as something that is already happening, but is not completed.  

Monday, January 5, 2015

The Improvising Christian

Many years ago I had an experience of God's love that brought me to tears. It was one of  those experiences, and there have been others during my life, that deepened my relationship with God. What happened more than once as I talked about the experience with others was that I received advice about what I needed to do after such an experience. Spending at least 30 minutes in prayer each morning was just one of the prescriptions that I was given.
Some of the prescriptions I tried; others I ignored. As my friend and colleague Polly Bowen says, there are no cookie-cutter Christians. The Christian life is an improvisation, not only for each of us but also for the congregations to which we belong. We can get helpful advice from others as we discern how God wants us to go deeper, but it's only advice, not a prescription. Congregations can learn from the experiences of other congregations, but thinking that we can simply do what they did and have the same results is foolish.
I am beginning my fourth year as a Priest Associate at Trinity Church in Topsfield, Massachusetts. It is a wonderful community and like every other congregation to which I have belonged it needs to discern what God has in store for it this year. That discernment is likely to be improvisational, a trying out of different spiritual practices and of different new ministries. That discernment will involve a fair amount of listening, to one another and, as each of prays in our own ways, to God.