Thursday, November 9, 2017

Barth flaws and all

I have read Barth (Karl, Swiss theologian, writer of the Barmen Confession of German Christians opposed to Hitler, mentor to Bonhoeffer, and massive thinker of theology). Eugene Peterson said every one needs a theologian. Barth was mine. His Church Dogmatics, so many thousand of pages, I could read him for the rest of my life. In time, as I read more about Barth's life I found out about Charlotte. She was a secretary, then assistant, then collaborator on Barth's dogmatics. Then she moved into his home and had a room off his study. She became part of the family, if awkwardly. She traveled with Barth and his entourage. She was affectionately known as Aunt Lolo by his children. Of course, there were rumors and gossip about the relationship between the theologian and his assistant. But, no proof. Then, a theologian reported some new letters had come to light. The Barth family had them and released them in order to set to rest some of the wilder gossip. The letters purported to be love letters ( I have not read them) showing a new level of affection between the two. Some Christian critics called Barth an adulterer and questioned his whole theological enterprise. Even if the adultery was emotional only - for I am guessing that there is still no proof of physical adultery. It is hard for some to believe there was not. So the question is what we do with Barth's theology.

Charlotte remained in Barth's household with his wife and children until she got dementia and was institutionalized. The Barth family including Barth's wife, Nelly visited her at the institution until she died. It was an unconventional relationship. One no one really knows or understands. There are the letters of such a personal nature it almost seems shameful to peer into them.

It is a relationship only the Barth family understood. What we have is the evidence of Barth's life, his stand against the Nazis, his amazing theology. Then there are the letters and the questions.

It's like Luther the great reformer and his anti-Semitism. It's like Calvin the great theologian of the Reformation and his approval of sending heretics to the stake. It's like the Reformers purge of Anabaptism, many Anabaptists drowned, for their different views of baptism. It's like the founding fathers who found a nation on freedom while enslaving men and women. It's like many of our great presidents who failed as husbands and fathers. It's like all of us, capable of great and good things yet greatly flawed.

There are those blind spots. Jeremiah warned the human heart is deceitful and humans are the last to know sometimes. Jesus had those words about seeing the speck in someone's eye and missing the log in our own. Jesus said, do not judge. He said, the one without sin can throw the first stone. That's why we are careful not to assign glory to human beings, or put them high up on a pedestal above us, or claim greatness for those adams among us  (born of the dirt). Our fellow human beings are capable of  great theology, heroic acts of sacrifice, healing works of mercy but we are all a mix of saint and sinner. Judge lightly, forgive greatly, and respond to failure with grace and humility. There but for the grace of God, go we.

Wednesday, November 8, 2017

Reading civil war history

Trump's chief of staff, John Kelly, made a comment to an interviewer recently calling Robert E. Lee an honorable man and suggesting the Civil War could have been avoided by a greater willingness to compromise. To those who disagreed he advised taking a history course. No doubt there are history courses that prop up Kelly's beliefs. The general history that is believed down south where I live now is one of confederate pride shown by flying the flag and making monuments to nearly every confederate military man. There is a battlefield near me that does a re-enactment of the battle every year honoring the confederate dead. There is no mention of who they fought or that dozens of black soldiers were slaughtered even as they lay wounded on that same battlefield. I have been reading up on the history of slavery and race relations in the south since moving here. I have some suggestions for reading material for John Kelly. One is The Half Has Never Been Told : slavery and the making of American capitalism. It's by Edward Baptist, history professor at Cornell, who grew up in Durham, NC. In his thoroughly researched book he left no doubt in my mind that the aspirations of the southern politician/slaveholders was to advance their slave holding culture throughout the United States. The labor slaves provided was so lucrative it is not too much to say that it was the economic engine driving the whole country. Cotton was King. Slavery was designed to get the most labor out of slaves to derive ever increasing profits. Cotton picking was brutal work and slaves were driven workers. As states were added to the Union pressure increased to keep the new states open to slavery. There is no doubt the southern political machine desired to expand slavery into all the land of the United States. The war between the states was already in the works when Lincoln was elected. The Civil War was the response to his election. Secession was an afterthought. The south believed it had no choice for it's agenda to be accomplished. Here in the south there is still talk about the great "lost cause" and the war for states rights and the honorable generals like Lee who fought for their principles. Principles that were based on the brutal subjugation of the black race whose lives were stolen from Africa, and continued to be stolen at every slave auction. Hardly, an honorable enterprise.

Monday, November 6, 2017

Another mass shooting

There was a Time when you could die for any reason. Thirty was old age and if you lived til forty you were blessed. There were plagues that wiped out villages. Famines that lasted years and years. Cruel Landowners busted up heads just for. Childbirth was iffy and children born didn't have much to look forward to. Most people went to Church although they didn't read and understand much. What they did know was death. Death was all around them. Images of skulls and the scales of judgment on their buildings reminded them to keep death in their plans. Mento Mori they were called: Be Mindful Today Might Be The Day You Die. Christian teachers like Thomas A'Kempis taught people to order every day and thought as if it might be their last day. Tragedies were more or less expected. Suffering was part of life. Live like it.

Today we don't live with much of an awareness of death until it comes in a mass shooting. Then we are reminded of death, unpredictable, irrational, deadly. We watch scenes of crying and candle lighting. Police search for a motive to explain the inexplicable. We feel vulnerable in public places for awhile. We upgrade security systems. We call for more gun controls. The NRA lobbies for no change. Nothing happens. Until the next one and then the cycle repeats.

In the background are the shouted threats of nuclear missile exchanges. Guam is a target, Alaska and some day New York City. Trump thunders and South Korea and Japan shake. A Government report  -in a government that can't say climate change - says that climate change is placing our planet in critical danger.  Ecological catastrophes are forecast. Future wastelands are envisioned.

How is it that we have so little fear of death? It seems like it ought to change our plans and re-order our priorities, at least. We might want to give a thought to how we will spend the day. What we will say to people, especially our loved ones. The good we can do we can do. Acts of mercy and love are not to be put off and joy is not to be denied.


Ordinary saints

Dorothy Day is the best example of a saint we have today. She lived during most of the 1900s. She founded the Catholic Worker, a social justice movement that served the poor, social misfits, and all sorts of damaged people, including broken and alcoholic priests. She became a Catholic not because she had to to do her work but so she could survive it. At age 79, and still doing the work, she said, I feel like an utter failure... the older I get the more I feel that faithfulness and perseverance are the greatest virtues." The Catholic Worker fed, clothed and housed the poor in New York City through the depression and after in tenements and on a couple of farms in the country. Day was constantly in motion writing for the Catholic Worker newspaper, raising funds for the work and speaking. Take as many steps as you can, she said. Bear witness, stand fast, huddle together in faith and community and Dream of a better world. And she said work on your spiritual life - it can take up to three hours a day. Dorothy was an activist but she was something of a mystic too. She took her coffee with a side of the Psalms every day. She followed the teachings of Jesus. Some criticized her for being too spiritual, others for not being Christian enough. She was called a Communist for her support of striking longshoremen, a troublemaker for her civil disobedience which earned her jail time even at age 79! Few called her a saint til after her life. She said don't call me a saint it's just a way of dismissing me. She was a layperson who put her faith to work every day. Three things it was said of Dorothy that fueled her drive: prayer, the sacraments (she was at mass daily), and works of mercy.

She took a vow of voluntary poverty so she could live like the people she served. She lived in the same tenements, used the same outhouses, suffered through hot summers and cold winters. Eating what was at hand, wearing a few clothes, having no need for modern conveniences she allowed herself a record player to listen to opera and she needed coffee. She loved the ocean and the land with its flowers but she was able to find beauty wherever she was. She was happy, content. Christ understands us when we fail, she said and God understands us when we try to love.

Dorothy broke up plenty of fights in the soup and bread lines and in the shelters. Hurt people can  carry a lot of anger. She lived in the midst of people who were frustrated and demanding ready to lash out at any time. She didn't talk about love much but she tried to love by listening, giving space to work out issues, and meeting basic needs.

Dorothy didn't start a church and she was not a pastor or priest. Simply she lived and practiced a faithful life following the way of Jesus. It is a good example for the church today.


Tuesday, September 19, 2017

Nashville manifesto

A few weeks ago some 150 Evangelical leaders posted their Manifesto on Human Sexuality. While it got a little press, as a news item, its importance faded pretty quickly. After all, what they said was pretty much what you would expect that group to say. Also, their timing was a tad off coming as it did during a major hurricane and North Korea firing off missiles, and Neo - Nazi groups marching in our streets.  They affirmed their opposition to same sex marriages and transgender folk. No surprises there. I noted the usual cast of characters signed the document along with one of our local pastors at First Baptist Jacksonville.

Of interest to me was Article 5 which "denies that physical anomalies or psychological conditions nullify the God appointed link between biological sex and self conception as male or female." There are two choices, folks. You are either Adam or Eve and it is simple as that. I don't imagine the Evangelical Leaders have had a chance to talk to anyone with  "Anomalies" or persons with "Psychological Conditions"relating to their sexuality. (I have a met a few who have dealt with such psychological  conditions related to their homosexuality and in several cases their psychological condition was caused by the treatment they received from Evangelical Leaders.) It is just too bad for them. God didn't mess up but they sure are in a mess when it comes to Evangelical Leaders. To be fair, the Evangelical Leaders do affirm "that those born with physical disorders of sexual development are created in the image of God and have dignity and worth equal to all other image bearers." It's just that as the Manifesto says later, "we deny that sexual attraction for the same sex is part of the natural goodness of God's original creation." And that, it is a sin to approve of homosexual immorality or transgenderism and it is even a matter about which faithful Christians should NOT agree to disagree (article 10). Sound a bit harsh? Find out what that believer thinks about homosexuality before you invite him, or her to the church potluck!

James Bryan Smith in his book, The Magnificent Story, writes, "instead of starting with original sin, we ought to start with our original goodness." God created and then saw everything was very good. Smith points out that we are essentially beautiful, good and true. The original image of God cannot be distorted or marred or vandalized by our sin. Sin however separates us from God, from others, and from ourselves. Some Evangelicals see sin as an abnormality, or abnormal psychological condition some people need to get over before they can be accepted by God or God's people. I have seen sin as the reaction some people created in the image of God have experienced in the abusive ways they have been treated by Christian leaders and other church people. If they are not normal like Adam and Eve, they have called abominations to the Lord, coerced to change their sexual attraction, forced to leave churches unless they change. I have met many persons who have wandered from church to church looking for a church home that welcomes them until they have given up.

I attend a church where we all have different kinds of "anomalies" and we have a healthy mix of all sorts of psychological conditions. Some of the people in my church have been "lost sheep" like the ones excluded from the synagogues in Jesus day whom he reached out to, especially. Funny thing though is each and every one is created in God's image and while we take seriously the damaging effects of sin, we also take seriously that  Jesus dwells within us by faith and that Jesus is our hope of glory as Paul says, and that our life is already hidden with Christ in God. Ray Anderson wrote some years ago, "this means there is something of us already abiding in the very presence of God through Christ."

I have learned a lot from this church. Most importantly, as humhan beings we all have abnormalities and are beset from time to time with a wide variety of psychological conditions. What we need is the Gospel, the Good News of God in Jesus Christ. We don't need more bad news that only leads us further into despair.

James Torrance said. "Christ does not heal us by standing over us against us, diagnosing our sickness, prescribing medicine for us to take, and then going away, to leave us to get better by obeying his instructions, - No, he becomes the patient. He assumes the very humanity which is in need of redemption, ...and by his life, death and resurrection, our humanity is healed in him. We are not healed through Christ, because of the work of Christ, but in and through Christ."

Jesus has opened up to us a life of selfless love. That's a tough one but it's what we all need and if we are going to follow Jesus, that is where the journey leads.


Hurricane Irma

Hurricanes are major life disrupters. We just had one which scored pretty much a direct hit on Florida. That's right - on the whole state. The Keys were wiped out along with both the southern east and west coasts. Then the eye came over the center of the state so most inland areas felt the effects of Irma, as well. Jacksonville in the far northeast corner of the state experienced devastating winds and flooding from rain and storm surge. Where I live, about 25 miles west of Jacksonville, in a rural county, it was a mess of downed trees and power lines. We were without power for about a week. Although we saw lots of water our house did not flood like some others near us did. We spent a few days camping out at home and then moved over to our son's house only a few miles away where there was power.

The first couple of days were ok and my wife and I felt like survivalists living off the grid. Then, it got hot and we were sweaty, stinky survivalists and the pride we had taken in surviving was wearing off. We have a septic system so we had to stop flushing too or risk a backup. More stink. While I could relieve myself out in the wilds my wife was not going to use a cup inside. So by the third day, we were making daily treks to our son's house and then just moved in.

Hurricanes disrupt as I said. The routines of life are out the window and mostly what you do is figure out the next meal, the night's sleep, and where the nearest bathroom is. There are no lights so you make do with a flashlight and you make coffee with a camp stove. We had those and the power company was working hard to get people up and running. Many people down south of us and in the Caribbean Islands were really suffering with much less.

I was going to write about lessons learned but I did not learn much. What I experienced was the helpfulness of neighbors, the concern of family, and the community of church. Getting through this monster storm and its aftermath reminded me of what really matters and helped me make connections with people who cared. I saw the storm bring out the best and worst in people. At times, I felt my best and my worst.

One of the best descriptions of a Florida hurricane I've read comes from Zora Neale Hurston's, Their Eyes Were Watching God. Here is a small portion of it.

"The wind came back with triple fury, and put out the light for the last time. They sat in company with the others in other shanties, their eyes straining against crude walls and their souls asking if He meant to measure their puny might against His. They seemed to be staring at the dark, but their eyes were watching God."

If I learned anything, that might be it.


Friday, July 21, 2017

One little word

Eugene Peterson was a Presbyterian pastor for many years. Then, he taught Spiritual Formation at  Regent University in Vancouver, B.C. He has written numerous books on the Bible, Spiritual Formation and Pastoral Ministry.  I have read most of them. I use The Message, Peterson's translation of the Bible, for personal reading and for Scripture reading in public worship.  Eugene Peterson has been more than a helpful guide to the practice of Christian ministry, for me, he has been close to indispensable. I don't know if I would have survived as a pastor for 37 years without his writings. I know other pastors who would say the same.

So how did it happen that one little word called his entire body of work into question? One word and a Christian bookstore chain (Lifeway) was ready to pull all his books including The Message. One word and countless Christian bloggers were throwing him under the bus. One word and some Christian publications were calling for a re-evaluation of his life work. How did that happen? The little word was yes. Peterson said yes to the question of an interviewer who asked him if he would marry a same sex couple who asked him to do the ceremony. He said that over the years he had gotten to know several gay people who were also Christians and he admired their Christian commitment and service. So, he had changed his mind.

He did not change his mind about Jesus Christ. He did not change his mind about the Bible. He had not changed his theology. But, for some Christians he said a word that called into question for them everything he had ever said or written.

A day later it was reported that Peterson retracted his one little word. His critics breathed a sigh of relief and felt better about reading his other words.

Peterson is 84 years old. He has never been in the publishing game for fame or glory. He does not own a tv nor does he use the internet. He is clueless about the current state of our nasty social media culture. He is more at home in a medieval monastery in the wilderness than in a coffee house using wifi.

I believe he changed his mind. I believe he said yes and meant it. I believe he was blindsided by the blowback from the evangelical world. I believe someone retracted the statement. I believe he did not know what he was stepping into when he spoke his mind to the interviewer. Now he knows. I doubt whether he will have any more words to say to us.