Friday, August 22, 2014

The Death of Optimism

The first of Douglas John Hall's books that I read was Lighten Our Darkness. It began with a very sobering paragraph.
The Subject of this book is the failure of a people and the courage that can come to those who contemplate this failure in the perspective of the cross. The people are the North Americans. (page 15)
Hall, as anyone who has read or heard him knows, is a steadfast critic of the official optimism of both his native Canada and the United States, an optimism which has infected the churches of those two countries as well. In the nearly forty years since Lighten Our Darkness was published it has become harder and harder to hang on to this official optimism. Too many things are going wrong, sometimes with deadly results, as in Ferguson, Missouri this past few weeks. Too many of those who were only recently optimistic about the future have become discouraged even cynical. Even leaders and members of the once optimistic mainstream (or oldstream) Christian denominations are having a hard time remaining optimistic about their denominations' futures.
Like the death of Christendom, the death of optimism can be a good thing for the disciples of the Crucified One, as well, perhaps, for all of those who live in North America. There is great wisdom in knowing that our best efforts at achieving something good will, in some measure, fail. There will be unintended consequences, and for the Christian there will always be what T.S. Eliot called the last treason, doing the right thing for the wrong reason. Especially in crafting political solutions to society's problems, Christians need to follow the advice of Jacques Ellul and be ready to part company with a movement or a party when it move in the wrong direction. Christian realism and humility can lead us to two important conclusions. First, humility leads us to admit that our convictions and opinions might be wrong and that those with whom we disagree might be right. Second, realism leads us to an awareness of our fallibility, of how our best laid plans will fall way short of perfection.
Our awareness of our fallibility should not lead us to inaction. We are called to discipleship by One who knows our frailty, who asks us, not for perfection, but for faithful following. Discerning where God is at work in the world and how we can share in that work is no easy matter, but in the world where optimism has died, we are called to hope, not in our own efforts, but in God's love and providential care of creation. 

Wednesday, August 13, 2014

Uncivil Disobedience

One evening when I was an undergraduate some friends teased me when I chose not to take a shortcut by driving in the exit to a dorm driveway. After all I was willing and publicly disobeying the law in protest of the war in Viet Nam. Why would I go out of my by choosing not to disobey the Do Not Enter sign? The reason was obvious, at least to me. That minor act of disobedience would not have been at all civil, but simply selfish, showing disrespect for a law that inconvenienced me.
I thought of that night today as I watched a man jaywalking with his young son. We live in a town with many downtown crosswalks paved with bricks, so jaywalking seems to me to be a fairly insignificant act performed for one's own convenience. When I see an adult doing it with his or her children I wonder what lesson is being learned by the children. Are rules meant to be obeyed only when it is convenient? I once mailed to a man a piece of litter he had thrown from his car. After calling mu office a few times when I wasn't there he left a simple message: he would refrain from littering when I was around.
When I was struggling with my commitment to pacifism I recall someone observing that we learn nonviolence not by refusing to kill someone but by refusing to respond violently to the small aggressions we experience on an almost daily basis. As Jesus said faithfulness in small things prepares us to be faithful in greater matters. (Luke 16:10)
It seems that uncivil disobedience is becoming more common in this country. When I ignore posed speed limits or fail to stop at stop signs, I am participating in uncivil disobedience. Unlike the civil disobedience in which I have participated, these actions are not done in obedience to a higher law or in protest of injustice, but simply for my convenience. Unlike the acts for which I was arrested more than forty years ago, these acts are preformed with the hope that I won't be arrested.
I'm not sure that these fairly minor crimes are eroding a commitment to the laws that keep order in our country. There have always been those who disobey laws that they find inconvenient and there are those, as in the case of Cliven Bundy, who are seen as heroes for their acts of disobedience. I might have been more amenable to seeing Bundy's actions as civil disobedience if he hadn't been protected from the consequences by armed supporters. When I refused an improper order from my draft board I was protected from the consequences only by a determined attorney and a wide circle of friends.

Tuesday, August 12, 2014

Peter on the Water

I struggled a bit with the Gospel story for yesterday (Matthew 14:22-33). My problem wasn't with walking on water but with how Peter seemed to have ordered Jesus to order him to walk on water: "Lord. if it is you, command me to come to you on the water." It struck me that Peter had decided what he wanted to do and was looking for Jesus to bless that. How often in my own life have I decided what I wanted to do and asked God to bless that decision? I can't even begin to count the times I have done that and how often I ignored the ways in which God was telling me not to go ahead.
I do remember vividly one time in my late teens when I was sure that I should do something a bit risky to protest the war in Viet Nam. My mother, speaking I think for God, told me that burning my draft card was not a very good idea. I didn't burn it and found other, less risky and more effective, ways to protest.
My other problem with Peter was that his desire to walk on water meant that he would have to get out of the boat, leaving the community of the disciples behind. Peter clearly wanted to be with Jesus, but was not willing to wait until Jesus was in the boat with all the disciples. Over the past twenty of thirty years I have come to a deep appreciation for and dependence on the communities of friends that God has given me. Even though I have often been tempted to walk away from some of those communities, I have discovered that when I honored a commitment to stability in community God has been able to work in wonderful ways in my life. It has been in those communities that I have heard most clearly God's voice and have been given the strength to obey. It has been in those communities that God has worked to convert me, to transform me more fully into the person God created me to become, the person who is a beloved disciple of Jesus. 

Tuesday, July 29, 2014

Risky Discipleship

I have been influenced, as many of my friends know, by the work of the Canadian theologian Douglas John Hall. The first book of his that came into my hands was Lighten Our Darkness, which dealt forthrightly with the failure of the North American myth of progress. Although I owned copies of his three volume work on Christian theology in a North American context, I didn’t begin to read it with any seriousness until I came across a distillation of it, The Cross in our Context. I still have about one hundred pages to read in the final volume, Confessing the Faith, but, as often happens, a section of the book prompts me to think a bit about the context in which we find ourselves now, a context which is not entirely the same as Hall’s when he wrote the trilogy in the late 1980s and early 1990s. The threat of nuclear annihilation seems less real than it did thirty years ago, although we now are more concerned about the possibility of nuclear weapons being used by terrorists. Certainly environmental degradation has continued and we are now very much aware of the threat posed by climate change. The list of ethical challenges that we face seems endless and it is not surprising that we at times feel overwhelmed and would much rather avoid dealing with any of them. We might be tempted to provide a negative answer to the question posed by the title of a Milton Mayer book, What Can a Man Do?

That is, however, not a response that I am willing to make. As Hall asserts, “fatalism…is not a Christian option.” (Confessing the Faith, p. 418) Christians are, after all, disciples of the Crucified One, and walking in the way of the Cross is not simply an option. Ethics that are worthy of the label Christian must be grounded in our Christology, in our understanding of what it means to belong to Christ. The work of the Holy Spirit is not to comfort us in the popular understanding of that word but to strengthen us for discipleship in the world, discipleship that leads us to share in God’s transforming work in the world.       

I understand that in responding to the call to this kind of costly and risky discipleship we will often be out of our comfort zone. This will not only be true for us personally but also for the congregations to which we belong. Far too often we have seen those congregations as refuges from the world and not as training schools for discipleship in the world. This has to change. “However improbable it may seem that middle-class Christianity in North America might renounce well-practiced craft of providing insulation against the cold winds of the future, responsible Christians are committed to think and act as if change were actually possible.” (Confessing the Faith, p. 418)

It will require both discernment and courage for us to respond faithfully to the question posed by Milton Mayer’s book title. God is already at work in the world and our task is to discern what God is doing and what God is calling us to do to share that work. Courage because, as I have already said, we will often be very far out of our comfort zones. But that is the nature of faith, not a matter of accepting certain propositions about God or knowing all the answers, but trusting the Answerer. “The faith will be confessed in our ethical praxis only by those who have the courage to subject themselves unguardedly to the peculiar darkness of our time and place and to trust that light enough will be given.” (Confessing the Faith, p. 419)

Moving Away From Diversity

The news from Iraq this morning was discouraging. People fled from a Shiite village near Mosul as Sunni militants approached. They found refuge in a nearby Christian village but they will not be able to stay there forever and will probably end up fleeing to southern Iraq where Shias are in the majority. While the official position of the Iraqi government is to oppose partition of the country along ethnic and sectarian lines, is it possible for Iraq to remain a united and diverse country? 
One can lay some of the blame for the situation in Iraq on the failure of the government to live up to its commitment to include Sunnis. But wasn't that failure also a symptom of a more widespread trend in the world? The sectarian cleansing of northern Iraq by the Islamic State of Syria and Iraq (ISIS) looks a lot like the ethnic cleansing a generation ago in what was once Yugoslavia and the genocide in Rwanda. The quest for purity, whether ethnic or sectarian or ideological, often ends in blood.
The news here in the United States is also discouraging. Here in Massachusetts we appear to be evenly divided between those who support and those who oppose Governor Patrick's plan to house in he Commonwealth some of the refugee children from Central America. While legitimate questions can be raised about the plan, there is something very disturbing about the argument of some Baystaters that the children  don't share our culture. And it's not just around this particular crisis that we see responses like this. A recent Facebook comment about the situation in Gaza asserted that all Israelis are scum and should be killed. A performer, some of whose concerts have been cancelled recently, referred to his critics as "unclean vermin" and once referred to President Obama as "a subhuman mongrel." (He did apologize for that remark.) Even if we were to disregard such crude and racist comments we could still see examples of the tribal tendency in our country. Ideologues on both the right and the left see themselves as the real Americans. Liberal Christians and conservative ones often see other Christians as not really Christians at all.
I am reminded of a comment that Tom Clancy made after the September 11 attacks. Until then, he said, he hadn't thought of New Yorkers as living in the same country that he did. I am also reminded of one line from Janis Ian's Society's Child - "stick to your own kind." We do have a tendency to do that, to flock together with people like us, to be a bit uncertain about whether people in other parts of the country are so unlike us that we really have nothing in common with them. There is probably nothing terribly wrong about that, but when we begin to let those tendencies and those questions become dominant we add to the world's trouble. It's not that saying that the President is not a real American is tantamount to sectarian cleansing. Far from it, but there is a danger that our tendency to make such judgments makes the move towards the partition of Iraq, though not the sectarian cleansing, acceptable.  
I don't know if Iraq can remain a nation of diverse people. We don't seem to be doing all that well with the challenge here. What I do know is that the more divided we become the less ability we will have to help other nations to live peaceably with diversity.      

Friday, July 25, 2014

The Librarian's Son

My friend Wendy Dakson has two posts on her excellent blog Past Christian that were prompted by here reading of a Face Book post on the use of hymnals rather than projection screens in worship. I agreed with the author of the post when I read it but found that Dakson's two posts made a much wider and very valuable argument about worship. In her posts Dakson draws 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, but 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.     

Saturday, June 14, 2014

What's the Problem with Marruage Equality?

I have been musing for a while about why some conservatives are so vehemently opposed to marriage equality. I recognize that for many of them the objections are based upon their religious convictions. However at least some of these people have accepted in other areas of life that what they would not do because of their convictions others are legally allowed to do. One may believe that drinking alcohol is wrong without trying to reestablish prohibition. So why is marriage equality such a problem for them?
I think, and I certainly could be wrong about this, that for many of these folks their opposition has roots in patriarchy. Marriage has for most of its history been the union of unequal partners. Why, until recently, was the proper way to address a letter to a married woman "Mrs. John Smith"? It was a vestige of patriarchy. Marriage equality is an assault upon patriarchy. Although I would make no claim that there is perfect equality in all same-sex marriages, I suspect that there is an unacknowledged fear among some who cling to patriarchy that marriage equality will challenge the inequality of their marriages. If two men can establish a marriage of equals, then why shouldn't opposite sex couples do that? And if two women can show us that a marriage doesn't actually need a man, what happens to the idea that the husband is always the head of the household? (Actually, most of the married women that I know think that idea is a joke.)
I am convinced that marriage equality is a gift to all of us, even to those who oppose it so vehemently. It can teach us about equality in relationships and begin to free us from thinking that culturally created gender roles are permanent. It can do that only if we let it shed much needed light upon marriage as we have understood it. 

Thursday, June 5, 2014


I awoke suddenly very early this morning feeling very sad. I had been dreaming about putting containers of food in a freezer but I have no idea about what connection there was between the dream and my sadness. Deciding that trying to go back to sleep would be futile, I parked myself on the sofa in the living room, played solitaire on my phone, which didn't make me any happier, and thought about sadness - mine, that of people I love, the world's sadness.
For a few minutes I entertained useless thoughts about how I have no real reasons to be sad.  After all I am more prosperous than most other people in the world, so why should I be sad? But strong emotions aren't logical and there is nothing to be gained by telling myself that I have no right to be sad. Emotions simply are.
A few weeks ago I had the privilege of being with Malcolm Boyd, whose Are You Running With Me, Jesus? played a significant role in the journey that led to my being ordained. Malcolm is still very insistent that prayer is one of the most important parts of the work that we do as people committed to justice. Real prayer, honest prayer is what is needed, and these days honest prayer will often be a lament.
Someone said recently that we need to reclaim our capacity to lament. The people of ancient Israel understood the importance of lament, at least that is what I see when I pray with the psalms, and Jesus, we are told, lamented when he looked at Jerusalem. The world is a sad place and denying it, saying that God is in heaven and all is right with the world, only makes it sadder.
In 1976 the Canadian theologian Douglas John Hall published Lighten Our Darkness: Toward an Indigenous Theology of the Cross. Hall began the Preface of the book with these words: 
The subject of this book is the failure of a people and the courage that can come to those who contemplate this failure in the perspective of the cross. The people are the North Americans.
Hall is right that it takes courage to face our failure and that we can find courage as we see that failure in the light of the cross. We have adopted in both his country and mine an almost official optimism that denies the presence of darkness, that refuses to lament. Hall took as his title a phrase from one the collects for Evening Prayer in the Book of Common Prayer. How can we pray that collect with any integrity if we refuse to admit that "our darkness" is real? How can we move to honest confession of our failure when what we too often hear from our elected officials is the far less than honest "Mistakes were made"?
Perhaps my early morning sadness was a gift, a nudge from God who wants me to be honest in my prayer, who wants me to lament.


Monday, June 2, 2014

Unity, Not Uniformity

In her sermon on Sunday, my colleague Jo Barrett focused on Jesus' prayer that we all might be one as he and the Father are one. Although she did not say it, it seemed clear to me, sitting in a pew, that she understood that the unity of the Trinity is a unity of love. I think the language of the Nicene Creed, drawing as it does on categories from Greek philosophy, is not at all helpful today if it ever was. What meaning does "one in being" or "consubstantial" have for us? Apart from love these terms sound very hollow.
If the unity of the Trinity is not a matter of uniformity, then the unity of the disciples of Jesus need not be a matter of uniformity. Just as it is orthodox teaching that the Father is not the Son, so it might be considered orthodox to say that Baptists are not Roman Catholics and to mean that both are recognizable as members of the one Holy, Catholic, and Apostolic Church which is the Body of Christ in the world. 
Several years ago when I was teaching at a Roman Catholic high school I spent some time thinking about what gift the various denominations of Christians  offered to the Church and the world. I am thankful for the social teaching of the Roman Catholic Church, for the Baptist's clear teaching about the necessity of a mature commitment to Christ, and for other gifts that have enriched my life as an Anglican.
In her serm0n Jo used her own experience of being awakened by the dawn chorus of birds as a image for the offerings of praise that the different churches in our community make. Reflecting on that image now I remember being part of a chorus several years ago. Another member told the director that she didn't think we sounded right. The director asked her to stand next to him as the chorus repeated what we had just sung. When we stopped singing she said that the music sounded right from that perspective. Perhaps we can't hear how the offerings of all the different denominations become one. Perhaps only God can hear that.

Monday, May 26, 2014

Memorial Day

Yesterday I was talking with a couple of friends at church about Memorial Day. Not surprisingly the conversation was not about picnics but about the memorials our nation has built to honor those who died in our wars. What I found a bit surprising was the interest that both of these men had in the way our country has honored the women who served in our armed forces. In one case, that of the women who flew airplanes during World War II from the factory to the air bases, the honoring took a while in coming.
Honoring those who served and died has not always been an easy matter. In the years after the Civil War some communities that sent men to serve on both sides were involved in fights over which war dead they should honor. After Viet Nam many of those who had supported the war and of those who opposed it failed to welcome back those who had served with the gratitude and honor they deserved. 
There are lessons to be learned from our nation's less than perfect history. Perhaps the most important one on this Memorial Day is that those who serve, even in wars that we oppose or wars that end in defeat, are owed our thanks.

Sunday, May 25, 2014

Equal Value - Equal Claim

This past week I was at Episcopal Divinity School for my final meetings as the Trustee elected by the alumni/ae. As we prepared for Thursday's Commencement we were treated to a Wednesday afternoon panel of the honorary degree recipients. The Rev. Gay Clark Jennings, President of the Episcopal Church's House of Deputies spoke abouit her commitment to the principle that is the title of this blog post. For Jennings, and for me, all members of the Church have equal value, and therefore equal claim on the Church's resources. That Gospel principle was clearly at work in the description of the life of the Church recorded by Luke in the Acts of the Apostles: Awe came upon everyone, because many wonders and signs were being done by the apostles. All who believed were together and had all things in common; they would sell their possessions and goods and distribute the proceeds[j] to all, as any had need. (2:43-45) While I am sure that Luke's picture of the earliest communities of the followers of Jesus is somewhat romanticized, his inclusion of this description points to how important this aspect of community life was to Luke's community, even if it rarely if ever lived up to this ideal.
Christian communities have rarely lived up to that ideal, nor have Christians in our society today advocated for that ideal as one for our country. Only a few of us have suggested that the resources of this country are to be shared by all. Only a few of us have made the connection between our theology of creation - The earth is the Lord's and all that is in it (Psalm 24:1) - and our social ethics.  Making that connection is, of course, not enough. There remains the complicated work of engaging in public policy discussions about the role of government in meeting the needs of all of us. Should government provide, as President Nixon proposed, a guaranteed family income? Should government provide enough food assistance so that people do not go to bed hungry? Or should government leave to the churches and other institutions responsibility for providing for the needs of the least among us? 
In the spirit of Episcopal Divinity School I take a both and approach to such questions. I believe that religious communities have an important role to play in the work of distributive justice and that it would be a mistake to leave the work entirely to government agencies. Not only are we called to serve those in need, but in serving them we can discover the necessity of moving beyond service to advocacy. We can begin to ask, as Dom Hélder Câmara did a generation ago, why so many people are poor. We can begin the hard work of social analysis to discover the systemic causes of poverty. And we can advocate loudly and persistently for the elimination of those systemic causes.
Engaging in this work may well get us into hot water. Dom Hélder Câmara was accused of being a communist when he asked that question, and we are likely to be called, if not communists, unrealistic or utopian. But is it unrealistic to work for a world in which children aren't condemned to being hungry? Is it unrealistic to believe that those who are in the image of God should not be abandoned to lives of poverty? Is it unrealistic to hope and pray and work for God's will being done and God's reign of justice coming on this good earth? No, it isn't unrealistic. It is, in fact, the most realistic of hopes imaginable.  


Thursday, May 15, 2014


This coming Sunday's Gospel includes a difficult saying: "Do not let your hearts be troubled." How can our hearts not be troubled when hundreds of girls are kidnapped by armed thugs in Nigeria? How can our hearts not be troubled when people mock those who engage in hashtag activism, e.g.,  #BringBackOurGirls? How can our hearts not be troubled when we remember the events of September 11, 2001? To paraphrase something our son once said, if we're not troubled we're not paying attention.
Jesus, who challenges us in this difficult saying, was often troubled as he witnessed the suffering of those around him. So it's not about hiding our heads in the sand, nor about looking away when we get close to suffering, nor about remaining silent about injustice. It is, I believe, about drawing upon the strength of our relationships - with God, with one another - and not falling into despair that can immobilize us. It is about doing the things we can to challenge injustice, to relieve suffering, doing what we can now while having the long view that Martin Luther King, Jr. had when he said that the moral arc of the universe bends towards justice.
So we carry on, knowing that the little that each of us can do today may not have a dramatic impact on the world, but knowing also that surprising things can happen when we speak up or show up or act up.

Sunday, February 16, 2014

The 10th Commandment Meets the 1st, 2nd, and 3rd Steps

The summer I turned 16 Susie became my girlfriend. She was a wonderful person but I have to admit that one of the reasons that I wanted her to become my girlfriend was that two of my friends were also courting her. When she settled for me - and it was settling - I exulted in my victory.

Those competitive feelings are not at all surprising. We live in a society which might be said to be based on violating the Tenth Commandment - thou shall not covet. Most advertising tries to get us to want something that someone else has, something that will make our lives, if not perfect, a lot better. And it's not only things that we covet. I find myself wishing that I had that person's good looks - these days it's often that person's head of hair - or that person's talents. or that person's prayer life, or that person's reputation.

That kind of wishing, that covetousness is deadly. It saps my energy and it keeps me from seeing how many and wonderful blessings I have received. It keeps me from recognizing that I have enough. When Jesus, in the Sermon on the Mount, calls us to a deeper righteousness, the righteousness of not committing adultery in our hearts, he is calling to overcome covetousness, to stop looking at the blessings that other's have and wanting them and start looking at the blessings that we have received.

But how am I to do that? Certainly not by any ability of my own. But when I can admit that I am powerless over covetousness and that my life is unmanageable, when I can believe that God's power can restore me to sanity, and when I can turn my life over to God, a miracle happens. I stop thinking that if I had...whatever, life would be perfect. God empowers me to see myself and others around me as God sees us, as beloved and blessed children of God, and to know that I have enough.