Friday, November 17, 2017

I Shudder to Pray these Lines

In this time of seemingly daily revelations and accusations of misconduct by people in positions of power and public responsibility, I was challenged and shaken by the prayer of Psalm 17:3,5. “If you (God) try my heart, if you visit me by night, if you test me, you will find no wickedness in me; my mouth does not transgress. … My steps have held fast to your paths; my feet have not slipped.” As much as I aspire to live a righteous life as a faithful disciple of Jesus, I am all too aware that my voice, steps, and heart are not in full congruence with Jesus. As I long for the confidence to dare to pray these lines, I shudder. Nothing was so abhorrent to Jesus as self-righteousness.
Out of the sordid messes that are being exposed, seems to be coming at least a remote possibility of a cultural shift that no longer gives prominent people a pass on living by the standards of decency we should be expecting from ourselves and those all around us. The sense of outrage is understandable and justified. Having said that, I am wrestling with how to express and affirm outrage without plunging into deadly self-righteousness. I am seeking to discern the boundaries between passing thoughtless, casual words and acts and persistent patterns of misconduct. I am puzzling over what kind of repentance and penance could precede restoration. Most of all I agonize for a path to healing and wholeness for those who have been wounded.
Public attention is focused on sexual misconduct at the moment, but careful attention to each instance exposes abuses of power and manipulation of money. I remember reading Richard Foster’s 1985 book Money, Sex, and Power and his observation that the ancient monastic vows of poverty, chastity and obedience were antidotes to the lure of these traps. That sexual abuse is more about power than sex is axiomatic. Sex is reduced to a weapon for demeaning and oppressing those who are considered weak and inferior. Not far below the surface of all of these recent revelations is a tangled web of money, sex, and power.
When a prominent figure we disagree with gets caught in this web, we are prone to gloat and assume it grows from their worldview. When a prominent figure we have respected get caught in this web, we are prone to regret and rationalize and hope for restoration. The reality is that hypocrisy runs rampant in all ideological, political, philosophical, and theological camps. Conservatives violate their own loudly proclaimed calls for traditional moral rectitude. Liberals violate their own loudly proclaimed calls for the rights and dignity of women, children, and the poor and weak. No profession or social identification is immune. Not government or politics, not sports or entertainment, not business or community service, not religion or education. I have had way too much experience with money, sex, and power misconduct among my clergy colleagues.

I wish I could offer a satisfying conclusion, but I cannot. Instead, I come back to being prompted to pray from Psalm 17 this morning. While I cannot, dare not, pray those lines as though I had somehow achieved them without falling into self-righteousness, I am praying that my stumbling steps to follow Jesus will bring me to an ever closer approximation of what they affirm. Yes, and a gratitude that, as Paul wrote in Romans 5-6, by God’s grace the righteousness of Jesus is imputed to me. I also pray for both the people around me every day, and those in faraway places of prominence, that they, too, will aspire to such a prayer. “If you (God) try my heart, if you visit me by night, if you test me, you will find no wickedness in me; my mouth does not transgress. … My steps have held fast to your paths; my feet have not slipped.”

Monday, November 13, 2017

Not “Whom can I trust?” but “How can I be trustworthy?”

Psalm 12:1-2,4
Help, O Lord, for there is no longer anyone who is godly; the faithful have disappeared from humankind. They utter lies to each other; with flattering lips and a double heart they speak. … those who say, “With our tongues we will prevail; our lips are our own—who is our master?”
These words that started my Psalm prayers yesterday morning jumped out at me shouting about the flood of sexual harassment accusations, confessions, and revelations that has recently been unleashed. Indeed, it seems no there is not anyone who is godly, not on the right or on the left, not in sports or entertainment, not in politics or business, not even in religion – religion that loudly proclaims exaggerated moral rectitude. And I join the Psalmist by screaming, “Help, O Lord! Can anyone be trusted? Does anyone have even a modicum of decency?”
The ones we are hearing about are considered to be stars, or at least think they are stars. They have all lived as though they believed that since they are stars, their victims let them do it, as though coercion and intimidation were consent. Is this a societal sea change in which the victims will no longer be silent and blamed, or is this only a momentary peek behind the curtain of domineering power?
I am all too aware that I cannot distance myself or the ordinary people around me from vulnerability. I cannot blame the stars for fostering an atmosphere that excuses me or anyone else from culpability. Along with Shakespeare, I recognize that a too vigorous assertion of innocence arises from guilt. “The lady doth protest too much, methinks,” is not limited to Lady Macbeth. That I do not think I ever said or did anything inappropriate with a girl or woman, does not excuse me from inappropriate things I have thought or seen, which may have slipped out unguarded. I am also aware of my flaws as a child and youth. Each month, when I pray Psalm 25:7 “Do not remember the sins of my youth,” with proverbial tongue in cheek, I have regarded age 25, like the number of the Psalm, as the boundary for the sins of my youth. Now that I am in my 70s, I speculate about moving it up to 40, 50 or even 60.
To be sure some of the accusations and incidents go back years, even decades, beyond the legal statute of limitations. Begging the question whether time heals, whether they have been repeated, whether the perpetrator has made a change, whether the motives for bringing the accusations are pure? While I certainly know I have grown and changed since I was an adolescent, hopefully for the better, I continue to wrestle with some of the same issues I did then, hopefully with more insight and maturity. Yet, when these old allegations are dismissed, all too often more current improprieties are exposed. I would suggest that brushing them off as obsolete is inadequate. They must be acknowledged and a suitable attitude of penitence and evidence of having made amends and embarking on a healthier path.
As a follower of Jesus, I certainly affirm forgiveness, second chances, and restoration. Nevertheless, the consequences of some things rightly persist through life. In my pastoral experience, I support the lifetime prohibition on contact with children for those who have molested or abused children. Similarly, I think those who have abused the unique position of pastoral care or counseling to take advantage of a vulnerable person should never have the opportunity to be trusted in that setting again. So where are the boundaries for resuming service after sexual misconduct? I don’t have an answer, but I would err on the side of caution in limiting opportunities and in setting up supervision and accountability. Presuming on grace in an unwise way sets up the prospect for repeat offenses. Yet, I do believe that with appropriate penance and candid confession, offenders may find new, protected roles in which they can serve.
I am very aware that the current highly charged environment false, unverified, distorted accusations can be made for political, revenge, or malicious motives. But asserting “fake news” is not vindication. More often than not, initial denials must be recanted or “modified” or are simply proven wrong. Blaming victims, the media, or political or business opponents is not exoneration. Those making such accusations also need to be held accountable for both the veracity and motivation for their claims. I know people who have paid dearly when they have been wrongly accused. Nevertheless, power people, stars if you will, are accustomed to diverting attention from their own culpability by attacking victims or the bearers of bad news. Recognizing the troubles that typically descend on those who accuse a prominent person of sexual misconduct, the benefit of the doubt goes to the accuser unless or until the veracity of their claims has been honestly discredited.
The misconduct of prominent people makes the news, but Psalm 12:1 despairs that any are left righteous. We have debated whether celebrities (entertainment, sports, etc.) should be considered role models. We are aware that even disowning that role, celebrities do influence the tenor of the culture. This is perhaps even more apparent for those who are in positions of public leadership in government, business, and religion. Some ordinary folk, even subconsciously, take a cue from the culture and in effect say to themselves, “If it’s OK for them, it’s OK for us.”  So does anyone who feels they have power over another feel permitted to abuse that relationship? While I know there are some women who are sexual predators, this is largely a male phenomenon. That it is more about power and dominance than sex is axiomatic. That is not to say anything about the relative righteousness of women and men, only to observe the unhealthy, ongoing impact of male power dominance in our society (The US is not alone, but we need to address ourselves and not divert attention to someone else).
As painful and grotesque as this season of sordid revelations may be, perhaps it does offer something healthier for our society, in which victims are taken seriously, in which women and children are respected, in which power people are held accountable, in which the unspoken acceptance of dominance and abuse is exposed and discarded, in which we can embark on a journey of rebuilding trust.
The Psalm and the current social environment beg the question, “Can anyone be trusted? If so, how do you know whom you can trust?”  We have too many examples of those who have abused their positions of trust to count on saying, “I trust my pastor, or president, or doctor, or therapist, or favorite news reporter.” The closer we have been to someone who has betrayed our trust, the harder it will be to believe we can trust someone else, even if we have known them well to be trustworthy for a long time.  No blood or urine test will tell us whom we can trust. Repair of trust is a prolonged, arduous journey.

My suggestion is to ask a different question. Rather than asking “How I can know whom I can trust?” we should be asking, “How can I be and signal to those around me that I am someone who can be trusted?” The answer does not come in a formula or prescribed program or set steps to follow. It is, as Eugene Peterson describes it, a long obedience in the same direction. 

Wednesday, November 8, 2017

Thoughts and Prayers

The recent church shooting in Sutherland Springs, Texas has again prompted many public officials to offer their “thoughts and prayers” for those so tragically affected. As this has become an all too commonplace ritual the chorus of “no more prayers, we need action” is reaching a crescendo. Some religious folk have pushed back, defending prayer and attacking some as anti-Christian. I have no illusion that adding my voice will make any difference in this divisive cacophony, but as one who has focused on cultivating my own prayer life for decades, I feel compelled to at least articulate my perspective. Perhaps because I feel somewhat misunderstood if not slandered by all of these voices.
First, I want to acknowledge that for many, many people, church going, religious people, to say “I’ll pray for you.” is a polite and mildly pious way of saying, “I care about you and what you are going through right now.” A perfunctory prayer invoking God’s blessing may be said  and even repeated at times of routine ritual. I don’t want to denigrate this practice, only recognize it as a courteous gesture in some circles.
Second, I want to say a bit about what I believe is a common but immature and limited understanding of what prayer is. I have often observed that if you listened to much of public prayer, and I am sure plenty of private prayer, you’d get the idea that we think God is stupid and needs to be informed by us about what needs divine attention and what to do about it. Jesus said, “Your Father knows what you need before you ask him.” (Matthew 6:8)
This attitude betrays a couple of further flaws in our typical thinking about prayer. I am uncomfortable, at best, at the various assertions that “prayer works” as though prayer was something instrumental by which we enlist or manipulate God into doing what we want. I have no objection to enlisting others as partners in our prayers, but I do not believe, as seems to be implied all too often, that if we can amass enough people praying about something, we can compel God to act on our behalf.
To somehow demand that God comfort those who have been wounded by something as tragic as these mass shootings and not also demand that God prevent people who are angry or mentally ill or whatever from obtaining and using guns or any other means to perpetrate violence is at best hypocritical and exposes the flaws of an instrumental understanding of prayer. This goes to the deep and insoluble dilemma of why God permits evil at all. Theologians and philosophers have explored this deeply for centuries, and though the insights may be correct enough, we are left puzzling in some anguish.
I remember well a very helpful series of articles on intercessory prayer by Roberta Bondi in The Christian Century several years ago. She built them around understanding God’s relationship with us as a friendship, but not in a superficial, flippant way. Prayer, then, is conversation between friends about what is important to both of them, and about seemingly trivial daily details. Friends might also ask for each other’s help, but not in term of demands or coercion. I think this two way interaction is at the core of maturing prayer.
Third, my experience and conviction is that by praying I am purposely getting close enough to God to begin to see the things that concern me through God’s eyes and to get God’s perspective and priority that may direct my attention somewhere totally different than I was thinking about in the first place. So I don’t pray to change God but to invite God to change me. We learn to pray in this way from the prayers that are in Scripture. I have prayed through (not just read) the Psalms every month (5 a day) for over 45 years. I pray through the prayers in the New Testament Epistles twice a month. I practice lectio divina which prompts me to pray with the Scripture passages I am meditating on each day. These practices continue to stretch my prayers into territory I would not explore on my own.
I suggest contrasting the Lord’s Prayer and some of the classic prayers of the giants of the Church with our instrumental, self-oriented, limited prayers. Jesus prayed for the glory and kingdom of the Father to come to earth and for delivery from evil (“the evil one” which can rightly be understood as a person who perpetrates evil) . The prayer attributed to Francis of Assisi prays that we will be directed to the hurting people around us rather than our own interests. The prayer of Richard of Chichester  (which you may know from the song in Godspell) asks that we better see, love, and follow Jesus.
God’s perspective includes stimulating me to take action based on what I believe is from God, trusting the Holy Spirit to nudge me as I go. One cautionary word here, this is not an instrumental use of prayer either, as we post-Enlightenment, pragmatic Westerners are prone to. It is not that God sends me a Mission Impossible tape with my assigned mission. Praying (without ceasing - 1 Thessalonians 5:17) to be sensitive to these nudges and to watch and listen for them from unexpected sources. Even deeper, such prayer shapes my heart to be increasingly congruent with the heart of Jesus. It changes who I am toward a closer approximation of the mind of Christ.
If I may connect this with prayer prompted by tragic events such as the shooting at the church in Sutherland Springs, Texas, I would suggest that we start by asking to have God’s perspective on the victims and those who remain to grieve, and on the shooter and all of the people and forces that brought him to this horrific point, and on the medical, social, law enforcement, political and all other folk affected by this event. Then begin by asking for God’s perspective for what can be done about this trend in our society. That may move me to seek out someone who is grieving to comfort them, as I pray that those closer to these victims are doing. That may move me to reach out so some I know who is angry, violent, or having mental health challenges to encourage and support them in getting help before they are drawn into violence. That may move me to get involved in local, regional, and national efforts to reduce violence of all kinds. That may move me to advocate for legal actions that would reduce the risks associated with all sorts of weapons and instruments of violence. These things are not actions as opposed to prayers, nor are they only outgrowths of prayers, they are prayers!

With all that I have written here and taught and practice about prayer for decades, I still must confess, as the Apostle Paul did in Romans 8:26, that “we do not know how to pray as we ought.” I am frequently aware that the churnings in my heart that urge me to pray are just too deep for words. Exploring that is beyond the scope of this piece, but I would say that daily I am thankful for the Holy Spirit’s groaning intercessions.

Saturday, October 28, 2017

Knowing God Face to Face

The last few weeks the Lectionary readings from the Hebrew Scriptures has taken us through the career of Moses. This coming Sunday, we read that Moses died at the Lord’s command (Deuteronomy 34:5). Then comes this amazing summary of Moses’ life, “Never since has there arisen a prophet in Israel like Moses, whom the Lord knew face to face.” (v. 10).
Let me get out of the way one of the least important puzzles in this line: the timing of the writing of Deuteronomy, as scholarly debates over timing and Mosaic authorship have been a battleground and test of theological pedigree for generations. Taken at face value (literal interpretation for those who insist on that terminology), this means at least that Deuteronomy took the shape we know after Israel had accumulated some history with prophets with whom Moses could be compared. If that line was written after the Exile or Return to compare Moses to Elijah or Elisha, Isaiah or Jeremiah, Ezekiel or Daniel is remarkable. I don’t wish to get sidetracked into the arguments about Deuteronomy, except to point out the supreme uniqueness of the Lord’s face to face relationship with Moses that set him above all of the writing and speaking prophets with all of their revelations and visions and explore what Jesus meant when he said that the pure in heart would see God (Matthew 5:8) and what kind of relationship Jesus’ disciples can expect today.
Also, let me be clear that I know we are talking about metaphorical language. Psalms 115:4-8; 135:15-18 mock pagan idols with their anatomical body parts. From creation and the burning bush to Pentecost, the presence and power of God are compared to wind and fire (those images are worth pursuing all by themselves) which are real but mysteriously untamable – both benevolent and dangerous. Even with all we know today about meteorology and chemistry, they evoke mystery. Often (especially in the Psalms) the face of God is used as a way of speaking of God’s attention and protection for the covenant community. But the Lord’s face to face relationship with Moses was singular.
One of the conundrums here is that in Exodus 33:18 Moses asked to see God’s glory, and God responds by saying that “you cannot see my face; for no one shall see me and live.” (v. 20) Yet with anthropomorphic images of hand and backside (v. 23), God’s goodness passes by Moses. When Moses came down from the mountain with the second tablets of the Law, his face glowed after having been in the intimate presence of God. (vv. 29-35). Apparently this phenomenon recurred whenever Moses went to speak before the Lord (often assumed to have been in the Tabernacle, though that is not specified in this passage). Interestingly, somewhat in contrast to the tone of Exodus, 2 Corinthians 3:13 suggests that Moses wore a veil on his face so the people would not see that the glow was fading, rather than in awe of the unapproachability of God’s glory.
 As I prayed through Psalm 27 yesterday, I came to verse 8. “‘Come,’ my heart says, ‘seek his face!’ Your face, Lord, do I seek.” And I remembered Psalm 42:2. “When shall I come and behold the face of God?” These seem to me to express a deep longing to for intimate encounter with God that goes beyond the way the face of God is used to indicate God’s attention elsewhere in the Psalms. While Jesus didn’t use “face,” his Beatitude from Matthew 5:8 also expresses the intensity of this yearning. “Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God.” In his book Purity of Heart is to Will One Thing, Søren Kierkegaard explores this in great depth. Purity of heart is not some moralistic achievement but to have a heart in which the will to see God has purged all other desires. Such pure hearted folk will see God.
This yearning to see the face of God is at the core of all Christian mysticism and contemplative life. Spiritual disciplines and practices do not achieve a glimpse of God’s face. They only prepare us to recognize it when God’s face is turned to us. So what do we see? Some have ecstatic visions such as described by Teresa of Avila and portrayed in Gian Lorenzo Bernin’s sculpture. Others, such as Mother Teresa of Calcutta looked for God in the faces of suffering people. Father Peter Sylvester of the Society of the Divine Word (Bordentown, New Jersey), was my personal spiritual director from 1992 to 1997. He encouraged me to get a standard wall calendar and write in each day’s block a line or two at the most identifying when I was most aware of the presence of God that day. I have continued that practice, though now I add it as a note in the calendar on my phone.
This has been a beneficial tool for keeping me alert to God who is present and active whether I am paying attention or not. While I am hardly a Teresa of Avila or John of the Cross, occasionally I am overwhelmed by an ecstatic awareness during the silence of my centering prayer. At other times, thinking back over a day’s events surprises me with the realization that God was right there in the turn of ordinary activities. Each day I do ask if God has brought someone who is in pain to be an icon for me through whom I can see Christ. More often than not, I am aware of the merciful God forgiving my failings and protecting me from my own foolishness and desires that contaminate the purity I long for in my heart.
I don’t know what Moses wanted or expected when he asked to see God’s glory in Exodus 33:18, but it must have been spectacular that left him glowing, which glow was refreshed when he went to speak with God (vv. 29-35). Deuteronomy 34:10 suggests that this was unrepeatable. Yet, Jesus suggested a real seeing of God to the pure in heart. And even the usually coolly rational Apostle Paul had his own ecstatic vision that he was not to describe (2 Corinthians 12:1-7) and he wrote of the Spirit interceding for our inadequate prayers with sighs too deep for words (Romans 8:26). But most of the time, even for the great mystics, we see may the face of God in the ordinary present moments of our lives. Jean-Pierre de Caussade described this so eloquently in The Sacrament of the Present Moment (originally titled Self-Abandonment to Divine Providence). He used the word “sacrament” in the sense of revealing the presence or reality of God or Christ. He suggested that if we focus on some glorious past experience, either historical or personal, or if we concentrate on anticipating something coming in the future when conditions will be more amenable, we will miss seeing that God is present to us in the present moment. So, don’t live with nostalgic longing for some time in the past we thought was better than now or with regret and shame for a past that still haunts us. And don’t live as though something better will come along before the eternal Kingdom, as though the present is too mundane or corrupt for God to be here. No! Live in the present moment, and be alert to how God will come to you, maybe even surprise you.
Just a last note. I know some of my Protestant friends will be uncomfortable with my allusions to Roman Catholic mystical and contemplative thinking. My experience suggests to me that many if not most Roman Catholic folk are as uncomfortable as Protestants are. We have all been shaped by the rationalism and empiricism of the Enlightenment that robs us of the wonder of mystery. Most of my relationships with others who share my contemplative aspirations are Protestants, though I have found great spiritual fellowship with many Roman Catholic folk. In our time many Protestants are writing and teaching along these lines. Having said that, just as monks and nuns preserved the manuscripts of the Scripture through the darkest centuries of the Church’s history, they have also preserved the classic literature of Christian contemplative living, for which I am deeply thankful. Theological disputes will go on, and all expressions of Christianity are susceptible to distorted, corrupted thinking and practices. I must say I grieve what seems to me to be a loss of integrity in much of the Evangelical tradition in which I was raised and educated. Nevertheless, I am finding joyful, authentic followers of Jesus in diverse Christian traditions, and we grow stronger as we recognize and affirm each other.  Again, as with the scholarly issues around the timing and authorship of Deuteronomy, I do not wish to get sidetracked into arguments about which Christians are safe to relate to, but to encourage and nourish all of us who long to see the face of God and experience the presence of Christ.

Tuesday, October 24, 2017

For Whom Are You Thankful?

In my meditation on the Epistle for this coming Sunday from 1 Thessalonians  2:1-8, the warmth of Paul’s affection for these folk in verse 8 (and continues through the chapter). “So deeply do we care for you that we are determined to share with you not only the gospel of God but also our own selves, because you have become very dear to us.” This is characteristic of the thanks for people that permeates the prayers of the New Testament Epistles. Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s I Loved this People echoes this theme with which I have resonated for every congregation I have served in pastoral ministry, most poignantly in time of pain.

Now in my “retirement” as I pray each of those prayers, I am prompted to remember those with whom I have served with great gratitude. In this time of my life, I am particularly thankful those who have shaped me through the years. Each day’s parade seems altogether too fragmentary a sample of those who have left their mark on me. I’m not going to attempt to make public a comprehensive list, but I have collected some stories that strike me as having been of remarkable significance.

Those of you who have been following me for some time know that I have prayed through the Psalms monthly since 1970 or 71. (the date +30, +30, +30, +30, skipping the lengthy 119 and using it by itself on the 31st) Having used the prayers of the New Testament Epistles to guide congregations in praying for the church, this past year I added them to my routine. As I have an inventory of 15 such prayers, I get through them twice each month. I have found that to be an exceptionally stretching for my prayer life in this transitional time of life (“retirement,” moving to Wisconsin, caring for Candy with her Alzheimer’s).

For your convenience, I have copied the prayers of the New Testament Epistles here with the dates I use each one each month noted. Notice how often God is thanked for the people to whom the letter was written. How might this shape your relationships with people dear to you?

Romans 1:8-10                                                                           1, 16
First, I thank my God through Jesus Christ for all of you, because your faith is proclaimed throughout the world. 9For God, whom I serve with my spirit by announcing the gospel of his Son, is my witness that without ceasing I remember you always in my prayers, 10asking that by God’s will I may somehow at last succeed in coming to you.
Romans 15:5-6, 13                                                                     2, 17
May the God of steadfastness and encouragement grant you to live in harmony with one another, in accordance with Christ Jesus, 6so that together you may with one voice glorify the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ.
13May the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace in believing, so that you may abound in hope by the power of the Holy Spirit.
1 Corinthians 1:3-9                                                                    3, 18
Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ. 4I give thanks to my God always for you because of the grace of God that has been given you in Christ Jesus, 5for in every way you have been enriched in him, in speech and knowledge of every kind—6just as the testimony of Christ has been strengthened among you—7so that you are not lacking in any spiritual gift as you wait for the revealing of our Lord Jesus Christ. 8He will also strengthen you to the end, so that you may be blameless on the day of our Lord Jesus Christ. 9God is faithful; by him you were called into the fellowship of his Son, Jesus Christ our Lord.
2 Corinthians 13:7-10                                                                4, 19
But we pray to God that you may not do anything wrong—not that we may appear to have met the test, but that you may do what is right, though we may seem to have failed. 8For we cannot do anything against the truth, but only for the truth. 9For we rejoice when we are weak and you are strong. This is what we pray for, that you may become perfect. 10So I write these things while I am away from you, so that when I come, I may not have to be severe in using the authority that the Lord has given me for building up and not for tearing down.
Ephesians 1:15-23                                                                      5, 20
I have heard of your faith in the Lord Jesus and your love toward all the saints, and for this reason 16I do not cease to give thanks for you as I remember you in my prayers. 17I pray that the God of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of glory, may give you a spirit of wisdom and revelation as you come to know him, 18so that, with the eyes of your heart enlightened, you may know what is the hope to which he has called you, what are the riches of his glorious inheritance among the saints, 19and what is the immeasurable greatness of his power for us who believe, according to the working of his great power. 20God put this power to work in Christ when he raised him from the dead and seated him at his right hand in the heavenly places, 21far above all rule and authority and power and dominion, and above every name that is named, not only in this age but also in the age to come. 22And he has put all things under his feet and has made him the head over all things for the church, 23which is his body, the fullness of him who fills all in all.
Ephesians 3:14-21                                                                      6, 21
For this reason I bow my knees before the Father, 15from whom every family in heaven and on earth takes its name. 16I pray that, according to the riches of his glory, he may grant that you may be strengthened in your inner being with power through his Spirit, 17and that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith, as you are being rooted and grounded in love. 18I pray that you may have the power to comprehend, with all the saints, what is the breadth and length and height and depth, 19and to know the love of Christ that surpasses knowledge, so that you may be filled with all the fullness of God. 20Now to him who by the power at work within us is able to accomplish abundantly far more than all we can ask or imagine, 21to him be glory in the church and in Christ Jesus to all generations, forever and ever. Amen.
Philippians 1:2-5, 9-11                                                                7, 22
Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.
3I thank my God every time I remember you, 4constantly praying with joy in every one of my prayers for all of you, 5because of your sharing in the gospel from the first day until now.
9And this is my prayer, that your love may overflow more and more with knowledge and full insight 10to help you to determine what is best, so that in the day of Christ you may be pure and blameless, 11having produced the harvest of righteousness that comes through Jesus Christ for the glory and praise of God.
Colossians 1:2-12                                                                       8, 23
To the saints and faithful brothers and sisters in Christ in Colossae: Grace to you and peace from God our Father.
3In our prayers for you we always thank God, the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, 4for we have heard of your faith in Christ Jesus and of the love that you have for all the saints, 5because of the hope laid up for you in heaven. You have heard of this hope before in the word of the truth, the gospel 6that has come to you. Just as it is bearing fruit and growing in the whole world, so it has been bearing fruit among yourselves from the day you heard it and truly comprehended the grace of God. 7This you learned from Epaphras, our beloved fellow servant. He is a faithful minister of Christ on your behalf, 8and he has made known to us your love in the Spirit.
9For this reason, since the day we heard it, we have not ceased praying for you and asking that you may be filled with the knowledge of God’s will in all spiritual wisdom and understanding, 10so that you may lead lives worthy of the Lord, fully pleasing to him, as you bear fruit in every good work and as you grow in the knowledge of God. 11May you be made strong with all the strength that comes from his glorious power, and may you be prepared to endure everything with patience, while joyfully 12giving thanks to the Father, who has enabled you to share in the inheritance of the saints in the light.
Colossians 4:2-4                                                                         9, 24
Devote yourselves to prayer, keeping alert in it with thanksgiving. 3At the same time pray for us as well that God will open to us a door for the word, that we may declare the mystery of Christ, for which I am in prison, 4so that I may reveal it clearly, as I should.
1 Thessalonians 1:2-5                                                               10, 25
We always give thanks to God for all of you and mention you in our prayers, constantly 3remembering before our God and Father your work of faith and labor of love and steadfastness of hope in our Lord Jesus Christ. 4For we know, brothers and sisters beloved by God, that he has chosen you, 5because our message of the gospel came to you not in word only, but also in power and in the Holy Spirit and with full conviction; just as you know what kind of persons we proved to be among you for your sake.
1 Thessalonians 3:10-13                                                           11, 26
Night and day we pray most earnestly that we may see you face to face and restore whatever is lacking in your faith.
11Now may our God and Father himself and our Lord Jesus direct our way to you. 12And may the Lord make you increase and abound in love for one another and for all, just as we abound in love for you. 13And may he so strengthen your hearts in holiness that you may be blameless before our God and Father at the coming of our Lord Jesus with all his saints.
2 Thessalonians 1:2-4, 11-12                                                    12, 27
Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ. 3We must always give thanks to God for you, brothers and sisters, as is right, because your faith is growing abundantly, and the love of everyone of you for one another is increasing. 4Therefore we ourselves boast of you among the churches of God for your steadfastness and faith during all your persecutions and the afflictions that you are enduring.
11To this end we always pray for you, asking that our God will make you worthy of his call and will fulfill by his power every good resolve and work of faith, 12so that the name of our Lord Jesus may be glorified in you, and you in him, according to the grace of our God and the Lord Jesus Christ.
2 Thessalonians 3:1-2, 5                                                           13, 28
Finally, brothers and sisters, pray for us, so that the word of the Lord may spread rapidly and be glorified everywhere, just as it is among you, 2and that we may be rescued from wicked and evil people; for not all have faith.
5May the Lord direct your hearts to the love of God and to the steadfastness of Christ.
2 Timothy 1:3-4, 16-18                                                             14, 29
I am grateful to God—whom I worship with a clear conscience, as my ancestors did—when I remember you constantly in my prayers night and day. 4Recalling your tears, I long to see you so that I may be filled with joy.
16May the Lord grant mercy to the household of Onesiphorus, because he often refreshed me and was not ashamed of my chain; 17when he arrived in Rome, he eagerly searched for me and found me18—may the Lord grant that he will find mercy from the Lord on that day! And you know very well how much service he rendered in Ephesus.
Philemon 1:4-7                                                                          15, 30
When I remember you in my prayers, I always thank my God 5because I hear of your love for all the saints and your faith toward the Lord Jesus. 6I pray that the sharing of your faith may become effective when you perceive all the good that we may do for Christ. 7I have indeed received much joy and encouragement from your love, because the hearts of the saints have been refreshed through you, my brother.

Sunday, August 20, 2017

Recycling History

Statue of Joseph Stalin decapitated in Budapest in 1956
The recent controversies over the removal or preservation of Confederate monuments has prompted some exploration of the nature of history. Some have said that removing these monuments is tantamount to revising and even erasing history. Others believe that removing them is a necessary act of contrition in the journey toward healing the divisions in the country. Others have said that that the monuments should be preserved in a way that teaches about a dark era in US history so we might do better in the future. Still others have said that these monuments are important to their personal, family, and regional history and feel devalued by their removal. Many voices from divergent perspectives have echoed the refrain that those who are ignorant of history are doomed to repeat it.

That idea has been invoked identifying any number of parallels between current trends in the US and the world with totalitarian and dystopian eras from the past, frequently Nazi Germany. Sometimes these come with “Woe is us; we are doomed!” complaints. Sometimes they are met with lists of exceptions that preclude a return to such a past, at least in terms of specifics. Often these represent contradictory political and social presuppositions.

On Sundays, I move my lectio divina on the passages from the Lectionary from one week to the next, so today (August 20, 2017) I read from Exodus 1-2 about the enslavement of the Hebrews by the Egyptians in the time between Joseph and Moses. Exodus 1:8-15 suggested to me a different historic parallel to explore. The new Pharaoh saw that the Israelites were gaining in numbers and power, and he was afraid they might turn against the Egyptians. The text doesn’t say they were slaves yet, but it would appear that the Egyptian economy have benefited and perhaps even become dependent on the Israelites. So they set taskmasters over them to oppress and enslave them. The more the Egyptians oppressed the Israelites, the stronger and more numerous the Israelites became, setting the stage for God to raise up Moses as liberator to lead them in Exodus.

Demographers have been projecting that “non-Hispanic whites” will be less than half of the US population sometime around the middle of this century. In some circles, this is fueling the drive for greater equality and justice for “non-whites” (many are observing that the US is becoming “browner” day by day). In other circles, this reality evokes a fear not unlike that of the Egyptians of Exodus 1-2. “They” are getting too many and too strong, changing the US in uncomfortable ways, taking “our” jobs, etc. So as in ancient Egypt, the forces of liberation and oppression are on a collision course.

Before you write off what I am saying by objecting to my use of the words “liberation and oppression,” know that I understand that these are complex and convoluted issues, and the voices of “liberation and oppression” are not all in harmony with themselves, and there are people of good will and evil intent whose energies and inconsistencies muddle the identification of two clear sides – “liberation and oppression.” My point, rather, is to prompt the consideration of how what we are seeing played out in our time reflects human history that is far more deeply rooted that the era of the Confederacy of the nineteenth century or European fascist and Marxist despots of the twentieth century. My hope would be that consideration of the Israelite Exodus from Egypt will give us greater, more nuanced insight into the struggles of our own time and situation.

I would suggest that the debates about what to do with Confederate monuments have become the tangible touchpoint or lightning rod for the profound issues facing us in our own time. While I know some of my friends (of both pro and anti-monument persuasions) will object vigorously to this, my sense is that the Confederate monuments are not the issue, rather they have become symbolic turf on which the battle is currently being waged. Objecting that certain Confederate personas represented in the monuments were neither racist nor pro-slavery but heroic defenders of their homes from the northern aggression, does not change that many in the white supremacist movements have adopted them as champions of their causes. Nor does it change the reality of the persistent injury they perpetuate for the descendants of US slaves. Whether historically precise or not, these monuments have been endued with the meaning of white racism by both the most vigorous defenders and attackers of these monuments.  This is much the same as Moses’ plea to Pharaoh to let the Israelites go into the desert to offer sacrifices was indeed a ruse that set the stage for the Exodus.

I would even go so far as to suggest that by debating how to handle the Confederate monuments is a diversion from addressing the profound evils of slavery and racism that are embedded not only in US history but in present social reality. Similarly, I suspect that the competitive citing of history documents about the role of slavery as a cause of the Civil War/War Between the States is not about the accuracy of history but about the persistence of racism today. I will add very quickly that I am well aware that the US has no monopoly on the evils of slavery and racism. They are part of the brokenness of every human society throughout history.  But I would be quick to add that comparing and contrasting their manifestation in our society with that of other societies, even if others might have actually been more cruel and worse, does nothing at all to diminish the reality of the evil of slavery and racism in our history and our current society. Using it to evade recognizing that “both we and our ancestors have sinned” (Psalm 106:6) perpetuates the wounds of those evils and inhibits the healing that begins with contrition.

When we go to a doctor with an ailment that we may not understand, we report the symptoms and hope the doctor can identify the cause and prescribe a remedy. The conflicts over the Confederate monuments have triggered an outburst of violence. That violence is not specific to the Confederate monuments but is widespread and takes a variety of forms. Many have complained about how prone politicians can be to using and even promoting dividing people for their own political ends. This, too, has been a strategy of despots for many generations. My assessment is that the debates over Confederate monument, the violence in our society, the divisions along ethnic and economic lines are all symptoms of deeply disturbing diseases of the soul. I see it in Psalm 106 again, this time verse 15, God “gave them what they asked, but sent a wasting disease among them.” (KJV translates it “leanness into their soul”). My diagnosis is that we have insisted on having what we want at whatever cost to others, and when we think what we want is threatened, we pursue and defend and insure that we get it, to the point of bringing the wasting disease of leanness of soul on ourselves.

My prescription (How dare I speak or write as though I am a spiritual physician?) is radical repentance and relinquishment of insisting on my privileges without acknowledging that they have come at great cost to others. In my work of spiritual direction and as a pastor, I have long taught that prayer is not about us telling God what needs attention and what to do about it, rather prayer is about getting in enough congruence with God to hear from God what needs my attention and what I am to do about it. In this particular area, I suggest that we be asking how to love our enemies as Jesus directed in Matthew 5:44, as how to bless those who persecute us, as Paul wrote in Romans 12:14.

Wednesday, July 26, 2017

Is “The Market” an Idol?

As I have done for 45+ years, yesterday, on the 25th of the month, I came to Psalm 115 for my daily prayer. Verses 4-8 parallel the ridicule of idols in Psalm 135:15-18. Ordinarily, these Psalms prompt me to invite the Spirit to identify idols I have created to lurk in the dark corners of my heart. But listening to the news last evening, a story about how real estate appraisers were having difficulty keeping up with “the market” in certain high activity areas. “The market” was described as an independent, self-contained, internally consistent, and intelligent entity, almost as though it was a person whose wisdom, power, and authority was indisputable, and the description of idols from my morning prayer echoed back to me.

Their idols are silver and gold, the work of human hands.
They have mouths, but do not speak; eyes, but do not see.
They have ears, but do not hear; noses, but do not smell.
They have hands, but do not feel; feet, but do not walk; they make no sound in their throats.
Those who make them are like them; so are all who trust in them.

I am not an economist, nor am I a business person or politician, so I claim no expertise in “the market.” I am sure that the information derived from a good understanding of “the market” can help make better economic, business, and political decisions. The concern that emerged from my meditation on this Psalm is with submission to “the market” as though it immutably dictates the decisions we make.

As I understand “the market” (inexpert as I am), it is that it is the composite of all of the economic decisions made by people in buying, selling, manufacturing, setting wages and prices, etc. So in the case of the real estate story on the news, when there are more buyers than homes of a particular type, and they are willing to pay more, the prices of those houses will go up. The idea that “the market” knows something, is not some intrinsic or centralized wisdom (such as a person with a brain) but the result of human behavior and decisions. Like the idols of the Psalms, “the market” itself does not speak, see, hear, smell, feel, or walk. Those qualities of “the market” are made by people, just as with the idols of the Psalms.

The real crux of the matter comes in verse 8, “Those who make them are like them; so are all who trust in them.” When we make our gods ourselves, instead of marveling at the wonder of being created in the image of God (Genesis 1:26-27), we make idols in our image incorporating our finitude and flaws. Then when we trust in our idols for the direction of our lives, we are doomed to wander aimlessly. So it is not that information from “the market” cannot inform us for good planning, but when we trust “the market” to lead us, we exchange the authority that belongs to God (through Scripture and the Spirit) and trust “the market” to guide us, we are in danger of an idolatry that will always mislead us.

I don't know if this belongs in Pilgrim Path or Writing Workshop, but I do invite interaction.