Wednesday, October 30, 2013

Psalm 146

God's in charge. Hallelujah! God's in charge for good.
God, You do not forget the poor, the suffering, the needy, the outcasts, the left outs, the weak, the miserable, the powerless, the shut out and shut down, the discriminated against, the outsider (the alien, illegal immigrants in our midst), the abused, those trafficked for illegal gain, the violated, the voiceless, the helpless, the downcast, the overlooked, the overwhelmed, the lied about gossiped about talked about contemptuously, the widows, the orphans, the lost children, the lost and confused…..take them under your wing; be their Rock and the Shield about them and Lift their heads; be the Place that is higher than they are; give them strength of soul, Protect and Keep and give them your Peace. Remember them today. God is in charge. Hallelujah!

Tuesday, October 29, 2013

The Pope's message to us

In early October, Pope Francis visited the town of Assisi where his namesake lived. Francis of Assisi was known for his ministry to the poor. Coming from a rich family, he famously gave up his wealth and chose to live and work among the poor. In Assisi, Pope Francis affirmed the Church's ministry to the poor. "This is a good occasion to invite the Church to strip itself of worldliness", and he called on the clergy and the Catholic Church to, " relinquish all vanity, arrogance and pride, and humbly serve the poorest members of society." Pope Francis means what he says. He lives in a small apartment rather than the much finer papal digs at the Vatican. He is driven around in a 20 year old Renault clunker given to him by a priest. So, when he heard of the scandal about the German bishop who was spending tons of money on renovating his residence (a reported $42 million!), he summoned him to Rome where he was suspended from his duties two days later. The press reported it is not unusual for Catholic officials in Germany to live in style. Most of them, the press said, drive high end Mercedes or BMWs. Nor are expenditures in the millions for housing renovations uncommon. A specialist on church finance in Germany said that the German Church officials are not too eager to follow in their Pope's frugal footsteps. But, there is one concern they have and that is if their parishioners learn of their high spending ways, they may not give as much. They don't have much to worry about yet. With assets in land and bonds, the diocese of Cologne's total wealth is much greater than the Vatican's. And German Catholic Christians have to give 8 to 10 percent of their incomes to their churches, by law! Plus, the state pays Church groups an annual allowance. This sweet deal amounted to $12 million for Christian groups in 2012! At the same time the German Church is bleeding members. In the past three years, they have lost over 400,000  worshippers from their membership rolls. Will Pope Francis's call to get back to the nitty-gritty mission of the Church be heard in Germany, and if it is, will it be enough to change the culture of "bling"? I am not holding my breath but I am not Catholic or German so I will wait and see how his message plays out. I appreciate his message and the way he practices what he preaches. It's a message we need to hear in the US too. Among Protestants, as well as Catholics. What if we had a spiritual leader who eschewed the privileges and perks of power, and did not care a bit about status symbols, and lived simply, and told us to depend upon God for our needs, and was comfortable living and ministering among the poor and told us to do the same…. what sort of difference would that make… oh… wait a minute… we do, don't we.


Godric is Frederick Buechner's fictional life of a very real 12th century English saint. Buechner follows the very real chronology of Godric's life. He was a peddler, a merchant who sailed his own ship along the English coast, and a steward to a very rich man. In 1100 he made a pilgrimage to Jerusalem. Soon after he sold all his goods, left home, and lived the life of a hermit for the latter half of his life. Reginald, a monk of Durham, was commissioned to write the Life of Godric. The passages from the last chapter of Buechner's book are free translations from Reginald's biography. Godric died in 1170. That is the rough sketch of his life which Buechner works with. Godric was known for his love of animals, especially snakes. In Buechner's book Godric names them and talks to them. Tune and Fairweather are his companions throughout his life. Reginald noted that two serpents showed up at his cell the day of his death as if to stand vigil. In Buechner's retelling, Godric did not welcome Reginald's visits and the questions he needed to ask in order to write Godric's life. Godric did not want a "saintly" biography. For he knew himself, and he did not confuse himself with a saint. At the end of his life, Reginald read Godric parts of the book he had written. Here, Reginald described Godric's physical appearance at the end, "His beard was thick, and longer than ordinary, his mouth well shaped, with lips of moderate thickness. In youth his hair was black, in age as white as snow. His neck was short and thick, knotted with veins and sinews. His legs were somewhat slender, his instep high, his knees hardened and horny from frequent kneeling to pray. His whole skin was rough beyond the ordinary until all this roughness was softened by old age. Such was the external appearance of this saint." When Godric heard this passage, he cried out, "THIS SAINT!". "Then there was a roaring in my ears as if all the blood I have in me was sucked into my head at once with pain so cruel I think my skull will fly apart. Reginald goes pale as death and hastes to me. I push him off. Blasphemer, Fool, I cry out. Half blind, I crawl away and when he seeks to succor me, I turn and would have bit his hand had he not leaped aside."

Buechner's Godric is saying that the external appearance of a saint does not tell the whole story. As Buechner has Godric tell his story -alongside Reginald's account - it's clear this "Saint" knows he is a sinner who has been saved by God's grace made known to him in Jesus Christ. And he never forgot it. How could he? Reminded as he was by his sins. That's the way it is with saints.

Friday, October 18, 2013

Being Adequate

I have become the substitute Bible study leader for the men's Bible study group in our church. Really, this week was only the second time I have done it. I have been a pastor a long time and led many such studies. But this group intimidates me. Most of the men are older than I and have had successful careers. They have met together for a long time and are students of the Bible. They meet for breakfast but what they want is a Bible study. The man who has been their pastor and is now the area Bishop is their usual leader. They have high expectations. So, it surprised me this past week when one of the men asked who was leading the study because the Bishop was away. I raised my hand, and the group's facilitator, kiddingly, said, its that new guy from Alaska. The man who asked the question looked my way and commented, well you're an adequate replacement. Hmm, I was not sure how to take that. Then, later reflecting on why his comment took me back for a moment, I wondered why. When I shared this moment, and a laugh about it, with a friend, she said, well you know schools are evaluated on whether they make adequate yearly progress. So, adequate is not a bad thing. No, it is not, but why does it sound like it is. I mean would we vote for a political candidate whose campaign slogan was: Vote for me, I will be adequate! Or, if you were looking for a cardiologist to do a bypass on you how would you feel if a friend told you about a doctor and described him as one who would do an adequate job on you. You were looking for a more than adequate heart specialist, weren't you. See, we tend to see adequate as average and so we don't want to settle for that. We want to be more than, and certainly not, barely. But, is adequate so bad. Adequate gets the job done. An adequate teacher will get you reading and counting to a hundred. You can take it from there. An adequate carpenter can build a house. An adequate writer can write a book. Adequate parents raise good kids. An adequate pastor studies the Biblical text and preaches an adequate sermon which is faithful to the text and he/she shows up at the hospital when you need him/her. An adequate baseball player can hit .275 and field his position or win 15 games with an ERA of 3.00.  Adequate is ok. More than ok, it is good for most things in our lives. If we shoot higher we may end up there; if we shoot lower we won't. Being adequate can bring contentment, it's honest, and it lowers expectations which usually lead to disappointment, anyway. There is a law of averages which pertains to all of us. So, go out and be adequate.

Middle age

Middle age is being revised upward. Where age 40 to 60 used to comprise middle age now it is more like 55 to 65. A 45 year old may be offended if you refer to her as middle age. I feel quite "middle aged" in my men's Bible study group where half of the men are older than me, many years older in some cases. They are getting on very well, too. Studies tell us many adults are only getting launched into their adult lives at 30! And we have heard that 75 is the new 60 and so forth. Still there are some not so subtle signs one cannot miss that point to middle age. You might be middle age if: you not only feel like taking a nap most days but you actually do, or if you groan a lot when you bend over or stand up (my granddaughter asked my wife why grandpa makes so many funny noises, he's just old I guess), or if 9:00 has become bedtime instead of the time you leave home to do something, or if you watch what you drink after 6pm because - well if you know, then you might be middle aged, or if you prefer NPR to noisy radio stations, or if you add more fiber to your daily oatmeal, or if you would rather watch Masterpiece Theater than Modern Family, or if you have started calling your daily walk your workout, or if  you regularly substitute a salad for french fries and only eat one side of the bun with your hamburger, or if you have toyed with the idea of having a light beer, or if your dentist is talking about refilling your fillings, or you suddenly have an inordinate interest in your blood lab reports and what all those numbers mean, or if you are losing hair in places you always had it and start growing it in places you never did. If you are noticing some of these things you may be middle age.

Wednesday, October 16, 2013

Charming Billy

What is the power of a lie? What lies do we tell ourselves to get by? What lies do we tell others because we believe they cannot bear the truth? Or what lies do we let others believe because we have and they have believed them so long that no one really knows the truth any longer? Or believes it matters? How does a lie take on a life of its own? In Alice McDermott's haunting book, Charming Billy, Billy's adult life is based on a lie told him by his best friend. A lie that was told him because it was feared he could not bear the truth. Then, as Billy's life spiraled out of control into alcoholism, his friends and family conspired together with Billy in a complicated web of other lies. The one big lie beget other lies. The story of Charming Billy (there is a lie), opens at the repast after his funeral where family and friends have gathered to pay respects and tell the lies that have helped them cope with Billy's life - and had helped him cope for some 60 years of living. It is not that Billy was a bad person. On the contrary, he was hailed as a good person, someone who would give you the shirt off his back. Someone who courageously lived in the face of the great grief of his life. Someone who denied himself, took up his cross and obediently adhered to his church obligations and kept his marriage vows. His was an unhappy life, everyone agreed, but no one criticized him for that. They understood. But, what did they understand? It was not the truth. It was the tangled web of lies that they used to make sense of his life (and so did he). They understood the truth they had made up out of their lies. Not that they were bad people either, just people trying to understand, trying to be helpful, using everyday, ordinary lies to survive life. It's what we do. In Charming Billy, we see how tragic even the most simple, most helpful, lie can be and we are left to wonder how the truth could have set Billy free.

Tuesday, October 15, 2013

Captain Phillips

Captain Phillips is a stunning movie but not for the reasons you might think. It does have a great acting performance by Tom Hanks who plays the real life captain of the Maersk Alabama that was hijacked by Somali pirates in 2009. It does have spectacular camera shots of this great hulking tanker which looks so enormous in port and then so tiny when it is adrift in the ocean. It does have a massive display of American power at sea when the warships show up and dwarf the tiny life boat which is being navigated by three Somali pirates holding one US captain captive. It does have a suspenseful chase scene as the Somali jerryrigged skiff chases down the ginormous cargo ship and is then boarded by four utterly fearless pirates. The director, Paul Greengrass, directed the last two Jason Bourne movies so he knows something about creating - on the edge of your seat - dramatic effects. But what separates this film from other Jason Bourne type action adventure films is the focus on the pirates. The pirate actors are Somalis who live in the United States now. This is their first acting performance. The actor who plays the Somali captain is already being talked up as a possible Academy Award nominee for best supporting role. The film takes us into the Somali village where the pirates live. At dawn the Somali warlords sweep into the village in their humvees brandishing their heavy weapons. They roust the men and boys out of bed and yell at them to get to work. Herded down to the seashore, the Somali fishermen jump into their water worn skiffs and head out to land the next big prize. They are fishing for a cargo ship (the fishing grounds are fished out by industrial sized fishing vessels) and hoping for a large insurance payment. The Somali captain tells Hank's character about a recent six million dollar payment for a Greek vessel they hijacked. Six million! Hank's character, Captain Phillips, is amazed. That's a lot of money, he says. We have bosses, his Somali counterpart replies. In such exchanges the Somali pirates are humanized. They are not terrorists as the Somali captain assures the cargo ship crew. We will not hurt you, they they say over and over and you begin to believe them. "We are just fishermen", they tell their captives. "Fishermen, who kidnap people, isn't there anything else you can do?" Captain Phillips puts the question to the Somali captain. "Maybe in America, maybe in America", is his answer. It is clear these Somali pirates don't have many options. The difference between their lives and those of their hostages is bigger than the relative sizes of the ships they sail.

Friday, October 4, 2013

History lesson

A high school nearby held a meeting last night to discuss the school budget but some people had another item on their agenda they wanted to bring up. The high school was named after Nathan B. Forrest who was a Confederate general, slave trader, and KKK leader. Some students and parents said it was demeaning to have to go to a school which bore a name that reflected a shameful past and honored a dishonorable person. Others showed up to defend Forrest and his honor. Still others wondered what difference it made. That was then, what matters is now. Florida is full of place names that honor Confederate generals and leaders who were no friends to Native Americans or African Americans. Jacksonville, with it's larger than life statue of Andrew Jackson on his horse in the center of downtown, honors a slave owner and war hero in the Indian Wars. As President Jackson he oversaw brutal relocation policies for Indian tribes. He was an avowed racist but some would argue that so were many others at that time. So,what is the point of history. Is it only now that matters? How many place names do we change today as sensitivities have changed. More to the point, how many people even care?

That was the point of another meeting last night. This was held at a church. The speaker was an African American professor and principal of a local school. He spoke on race, reconciliation and the Church. He talked about the need to know our histories if we want to be able to understand each other and treat each other with respect. Racism can be defeated by understanding which exposes our stereotypes and prejudices. The Gospel declares that in Christ we are all created in God's image and equally loved and made one body although we may be many ethnicities. But, the breakdown of racial stereotypes and prejudices needs an understanding of who we are and where we come from. So we don't keep repeating the past. Slavery, Reconstruction, Jim Crow laws, the Civil Rights Struggle, Integration - these topics are not just Black History but all our history as US citizens. We don't need to know it to dwell on the past or cast blame on any group for what happened in the past. We weren't there but we are here. If we don't know the past, we can't understand the present and act in reconciling ways. Why did the Trayvon Martin killing trigger such strong emotions? Why are some people offended by the name of a high school? Why did President Obama call for a conversation about race in this country? Why is Sunday morning the most segregated hour of the week? Why do many white people not see a race problem in our country while many black people do?

The professor who spoke at church last night advocated reading black history and visiting museums that keep that history alive. When we were in Birmingham, AL this summer we visited the Civil Rights museum there. As we walked through the exhibits explicitly detailing the racial history of this city in the context of the wider Civil Rights movement, we were deeply moved. We went across the street to the place where four children died attending Sunday School as a bomb exploded outside their church. Their deaths are marked by a small statue and their names are on plaques near the room where they died.  They are there for us to remember.

There were videos of the violent attempts to put down the demonstrations and marches for racial justice in the city and beyond. There were soundtracks which reverberated with the names and insults shouted at blacks who participated in the demonstrations. It was surreal to stand there watching and listening in a mixed group of black and white persons. I did not know the black persons on my right and left. I wondered what they were experiencing as we heard the profane language and saw the violent attacks on people for the reason of their race. As I felt the tears in my eyes, I wondered if they shed tears for their people, too. I had this thought to reach out and say to someone, I am so sorry for what happened. Forgive us. Pehaps, I should have. But, it felt so awkward, not out of place but out of time. I wasn't there. They weren't there. But we are here and with knowing came understanding, and compassion, an awareness of race, and an awareness of the need to work for racial reconciliation.

Wednesday, October 2, 2013

Breaking bad

No one ever accused me of being on the cutting edge of cultural trends. That's why after hearing so much about the tv show Breaking Bad for five years, I finally decided to check it out. Right about the time season 5 ended the show for good I began it. I have watched two episodes. I can see how people got hooked on it. It's well done. It's about as good a portrait of the absurdity of sin (it makes no sense) as could be. Walter White is a hardworking high school chemistry teacher who works another job to provide for his family. He is a decent person. Who is also struggling with his job, his marriage and his health - as he discovers his hacking cough is actually lung cancer and he has only a short time to live. In a conversation with his brother in law who works for the DEA he hears an amazing thing. There is a ton of money to be made dealing drugs, especially crystal meth. So he figures with his knowledge of chemistry and a former student, now drug dealer loser, as a team, they could make lots of money. He will die soon anyway and his family will be set for life. A simple plan. But right from the beginning we see it is anything but simple. His venture goes from bad to worse and he is in a mess. The thing is it didn't have to happen that way. He had choices which involved humility, honesty, confession, community, etc, but he chose the other way, the wrong way. And everything unravels. I guess it must unravel for 5 more years before the show ends. Mercifully, it only lasted for 5 years, it often lasts much longer before we realize there is only one way: humility, confession, forgiveness, and community. That's the only way that makes sense of life.

Judgment in Joshua

Joshua is not an easy Old Testament book to read. There's a lot of violence, warfare, and killing. Guess we shouldn't be surprised - it is a book about the displacement of the Canaanites from the Promised Land. They didn't agree that it was time to go so they were forced out. In Joshua 8 is the story of the battle of Ai. As in most of the battles of Joshua, it is clear that the battle belongs to the LORD. The human military factor does not add up to much. These Old Testament battles are presented as the judgment of God against the Canaanites. The execution of the King of Ai is depicted as the outcome of God's sentence of judgment. So says John Goldingay who is a good guide to some hard to understand stuff in Joshua. Goldingay goes on to say that we should be glad God does not act in judgment on us the way he did on the Canaanites. But, he also reminds us it might be good to be just a little scared about the way we modern nations deserve God's judgment to fall in this way, not least because of what Jesus said about God judging the nations when they are separated like sheep from the goats.

Shutdown, day 2

Shutdown, day 2. So as one Republican lawmaker said, see, we shut down the government and it wasn't the end of the world! No, it wasn't. Even the stock market usually so sensitive did not react negatively. Yet, national parks were locked up and tourists inconvenienced. Thousands of federal workers were furloughed without pay including FBI agents and others who work in supportive jobs for our  security forces. It all depends on one's definition of essential. It still amounts to a lot of people out of work and wondering if they will get paid for this involuntary leave. The service academies are waiting to see if they will have to cancel this weekend's football games because they cannot travel without support personnel. I imagine some angry phone calls from the military brass may light a fire under some members of Congress. The crazy thing is this is all about health care. As the phones lines lit up yesterday and the web sites crashed from overwork, there were a lot of people excited and appreciative that they could finally get health insurance - like most of the rest of us. People in low paying jobs, people with previous conditions, young people and old people were finally able to get help. On any reading of the situation that would seem to be a good thing. One we should be proud of as a society. Isn't it ironic that on the day it became possible a few powerful people were trying to keep them uninsured. And they were willing to bring the whole country to a halt to do it.

Tuesday, October 1, 2013


This morning most of us woke up to the fact that the government of the United States of America is shut down. Most essential services are still available and Congress is getting a paycheck, no doubt. Vacationers whose plans included a visit to a national park or monument may be the most frustrated when they have to make new plans for the day since those government funded destinations are closed. Campers will have to pack up and move from national campgrounds. Unless we work for the government and are furloughed for a time most of us will feel little pain initially. The stock market may react with some down days and that hurts our retirement portfolios. But even if our pain and suffering today is not catastrophic, we might consider where we are at in this country. Politics used to the art of compromise. There would be budget battles and some give an take and then a budget would be adopted by the deadline. That was the work of government. Most of us didn't give it much thought. Today is not like those days. Today, some political groups are willing to shut down everyone's government if they don't get their own way. There is no compromise. There is no sense of the common good. It is my way or no way. The working relationship between Congress and the White House isn't working. That concerns you and me. Andy Crouch has written a new book entitled Playing God. Its about power and its uses. In this most recent Washington debacle we see power wielded in the most negative way and it reinforces our suspicions about power, that is, that power is always corrupting. He writes we see "the Tea Party can embrace a basically Nietzschean (the Will to Power) vision in which our society is like the small Texas town in an old fashioned Western, where the only hope for God-fearing good people is the arrival of someone who will wield decisive power to drive out the forces of disorder." There is no middle ground. Only one way is right. Power cannot be shared. Crouch's premise is that power is not bad; it can be a force for good. Think Creation. So he shares an alternative version of power: Power is the force that can be used "in the creation of flourishing environments for variety and life, and to thrust  back the chaos that limits true being. In doing so it creates other bodies and invites them into mutual creation and tending of the world, building relationships where there had been none: thus they then cooperate together in creating more power for more creation. And the process goes on." In Crouch's view power is not used to win a battle against our opponents but is used to create places where people thrive. Power is not used to force people to work together until one group sees the opportunity to grab all the power. Instead, power is the force we use to cooperate to create better environments in which people can flourish. In the Gospel we see the power to reconcile those who have great differences. In our country's current struggles we see very clearly the great differences among people on display. Each side wants to win but we all lose. One last thought from Crouch: "The worst fate one could wish for would be to end up alone with one's power, for then there would be no one left with whom one could tend and shape the world."