Friday, July 25, 2014

The Librarian's Son

My friend Wendy Dakson has two posts on her excellent blog Past Christian that draw upon the work of Neil Postman. I have to admit that I had never even heard of Postman until I read the two posts and I am sorry that I didn't read him years ago. I have begun to read Amusing Ourselves to Death which was published nearly thirty years ago. In it Postman argues that the pervasiveness of television has shaped public discourse in this country and threatens to reduce almost everything to entertainment. Although I have for a while realized that the network's morning news shows have more entertaining than enlightening, Postman's assertion still came as a bit of a shock and I am still struggling to see all the ways in which aspects of our culture have been changed by television.
I hope to write more about Postman but for the present I want to write a bit about the written word. I grew up in a house with lots of books. My father, whom I never knew had been a college professor before alcoholism began to kill him. My mother became a librarian. I can not remember learning to read; it seems that I always could. In high school I was offended when my English teacher told me I couldn't do a book report on C.S. Lewis's Till We Have Faces because I wasn't old enough to understand it. (I might have suggested that he wasn't old enough to understand it either, but that would have landed me in trouble.) By the time I was in high school my mother worked at the library at Amherst College. Because the college students who worked there wanted jobs at the circulation desks where they might have some time free to study the task of reshelving was given to high school students. It was probably while putting books on the shelves that I first came across Till We Have Faces. I know that was how I discovered The Sterile Cuckoo, a book not nearly as good as Lewis's but still one that I enjoyed.
Although I do watch a fair amount of television, probably too  much, texts still fascinate me. Even the look of letters on a page or on a computer screen has an almost magical quality for me. In reading Dakson's two posts I recalled how some of my earliest religious experiences were related to texts. As a cradle Episcopalian I was in church most Sundays and at other times as well. I can't recall when or how I began a particular practice after receiving Communion. Sitting in my pew as others received I would open The Book of Common Prayer to a particular collect:
Grant, we beseech thee, merciful God, that thy Church, being gathered together in unity by thy Holy Spirit, may manifest thy power among all peoples, to the glory of thy Name; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who liveth and reigneth with thee and the Holy Spirit, one God, world without end. Amen.
I can't now recall much of what were my frequent meditations on that text, but it seems to me to have been the beginning of a practice which continues to this day. A prayer, a hymn, a passage from the Scriptures are all there for me as words upon a page, words that I not only heard or said or sang during worship but words to which I can return over and over again, discovering in them new meaning. new power.

One final and curmudgeonly reflection on words. I borrowed a copy of Postman's book from our local library. There are perhaps not as many underlined and circled words as in other library books that I have borrowed, buy why did someone have to put a circle around every appearance of conversation in one paragraph? And, more importantly, where did that person get the idea that he or she had the right to deface someone else's property in that way?

The librarian's son has spoken. 

Monday, July 21, 2014

The Not So Holy Land

The Boston Globe's columnist Jeff Jacoby has a piece on the conflict in what some call the Holy Land.  Jacoby cites a recent Pew Research Center poll which shows that support for Israel has dropped significantly among Democrats and other liberals in the past twenty-five years. Although he acknowledges in passing that this may be due in some measure to "facts on the ground," he focuses mostly on what he calls "a skillful war of ideas" and asserts that the genesis of that war was in the Kremlin.
If there is a war of ideas one of the ideas is that people who have lived in that land for generations have some rights. There are Palestinian families who treasure the keys to homes from which they were driven as the modern state of Israel was established and to which they will probably never return. Is it unreasonable to ask that there be some balancing of the rights of Palestinians and the rights of Israelis?

Jacoby trots out, as many other conservatives do, the notion that the goal of a Palestinian state is somehow suspect because Palestinians "had never been considered a nation...." The same could be said for a large number of the countries in the world, including our own. Wanting an independent state after centuries of being ruled by others is not an aspiration to be dismissed cavalierly.

Jacoby's column has the provocative title "Democrats Losing Moral Clarity on Israel." Is it possible that what the polling data points to is that Democrats have a better grasp of the moral complexity of the conflict? That Democrats find the expansion of settlements more troubling than Republicans do? That liberal Christians like me don't see uncritical support of Israel as a tenet of the faith as some evangelical Christians do?

Monday, July 14, 2014

WWJD? Is the Wrong Question

Posting about yesterday's sermon pushed me to thinking about the fact that the sermon wasn't all that good. Yes, I tried to proclaim the Good News that God has liberated us and given us a new life in which we can love others,  not as freely and extravagantly as God loves us, but a whole lot more than we have been used to. But the sermon was a bit muddled and I can only pray that somewhere in the muddle someone heard Good News.
As I continue to read James Alison I found myself agreeing with his assertion that "What would Jesus do?" is not the right question. Although, as Alison points out, at its best WWJD? may push us to remember the stories about how Jesus interacted with people, WWJD? might well be seen as implying that Jesus is absent, that we're on our own in whatever situation prompts the question.
But Jesus isn't absent, so the right question is, "What is Jesus doing and how can I share in it?" That requires some discernment and at times we may see that some of those who are cooperating with Jesus aren't Christians! That's a bit embarrassing, but we can get beyond the embarrassment, admitting that we may be latecomers to the action but we're here now.
I'm trying to answer the important question as I look at the humanitarian crisis on our southern border. What is Jesus up to? Perhaps, and this is just a perhaps, Jesus is bringing these vulnerable children here to enlarge our hearts. Jesus is working, and I'm pretty sure about this, through those religious leaders who are providing care for these children and advocating more a compassionate response from government. Citing Scripture about God's establishing of borders is not, and I'm pretty sure about this as well, is not what Jesus is doing.

Sunday, July 13, 2014

Beyond Competition

I court disaster when I preach. My mental manuscript is often more than a bit disorganized and that was the case this morning. In preparing for this morning I had not only read commentaries but also was reading a book by James Alison, Jesus the Forgiving Victim. I have read a lot of Alison's books and essays and find that he helps open up the Scripture for me. A central point in this book is that in Jesus we meet One who is not bound up in rivalry with us or with the Father, One who occupied the place of shame, One who forgives us and invites us into the Father's heart. With the Parable of the Sower as the Gospel text (Matthew 13) and Paul writing about living in the Spirit as the Epistle (Romans 8),  I thought I had a good chance of making the point that life in Christ was life without rivalry.
Courting disaster also means being open to small miracles. Today that involved my remembering what I saw on the television after the World Cup game in which Germany defeated Brazil. There on the field players could be seen hugging players from the other team. There one could see that the players had moved beyond competition, that the competition of the game had not bound them up in rivalry. It was, as I shared the story this morning, a glimpse of what life in Christ can be. Life in which competition - business competition, political competition, the competition of ideas - does not control us. Life in which we can look at our competitors with love.

My friend and professor Milton Mayer told a story about a Quaker meeting for worship during Word War II. Present at the meeting was the activist clergyman A.J. Muste who stood up to speak. What he said shocked Milton - "If I can't love Hitler I can's love anyone." - and Milton wanted to stand up and argue with Muste. However Milton knew that would be a violation of the norms of Quaker worship and  he sat quietly with Muste's statement, allowing it to challenge him. Can we begin to see the possibility of loving Hitler, of wanting for him, not what Hitler wanted for himself, but the human flourishing that God wants? Can we condemn his words and actions and still want what is best for him? 

I hope we are growing into that possibility.   

Saturday, July 5, 2014

Wearing Your Religion on Your Sleeve

The owners of Hobby Lobby may have run into a problem they didn't anticipate. Even before the SCOTUS decision there were questions raised about the consistency of the owners' objections to certain forms of birth control. Stories were circulating about the company's retirement fund's ownership of stock in companies that produced some of those contraceptives.

And then there was China, which is the country where many items sold by Hobby Lobby are manufactured and a country with a terrible record on workplace safety.

There is a danger when you publicly assert your religious moral convictions that someone will turn a spotlight on you. Some might cry, "Foul," but I think it is altogether appropriate to examine carefully the business practices of a company that claims to be operating on religious principles. One might hope that Hobby Lobby would take a stand and stop buying goods produced in China. one might also hope that those of us who have raised the question would take a look at our own purchasing practices and stop buying things that were made in sweatshops.