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.