Tuesday, August 30, 2016

Growing older

I will reach my "full retirement age" soon. Social Security reminds me of this and then lets me know how much money I will leave on the table if I don't wait a few more years to tap into my benefits. I wonder if they know something I don't know.  I have read a couple good books on aging this year.  Aging Matters is a good one I wish I had read a few years earlier. R. Paul Stevens is the author and he  is positive that we, who are older, have a calling for the rest of our lives. Just recently, a friend about my age wondered if I ever felt dissed by people because of my age. Stevens says that's part of aging, too because aging is a problem in our modern age. Elders are honored in the East but in the West the aged are considered obsolete. Unless you are running for Congress or President.  John McCain is 80 and still admits to a soft spot in his heart for Brittany Spears. Trump gets under Hillary's skin when he questions her health or stamina. Hey, it's ok to have some health issues you've put a lot of miles on that body. I have aches all over and when I did a header off my mountain bike a few weeks ago I took some ibuprofen and I marveled at how much better my body felt - even my teeth felt better. Ian Brown, the Canadian journalist, has a pretty funny book out called Sixty. It's a diary of his 61st year. It's pretty graphic about things we older folks like to keep quiet about but he might be more worried than most of us about how he compares with other people his age. I mean you can still look pretty good in your sixties. I hear comments about how good my legs look when I visit my mom in her memory unit from some of the women in their nineties, who as I said, are on a memory unit.

From the reading I've done, it seems like some people approach aging purely as a physical process - how can they eat, exercise, stay busy, make their money last, enjoy life, as long as they can. Others like Brown are more focused on what they are losing. Stevens deals more with the spiritual side of aging. True, he says, we are transitioning from doing to being. But, that's a good thing. There is more time for prayer, study, reflection, spiritual growth and people who are important in your life. Perhaps, as you get older you don't have to work for pay as much so there is more time for volunteering where you like, or ministry, or being with people older than you are, or younger like grand kids.

Our culture tries to tell us to cram as much as we can in our later years. Get that place or RV you always wanted. Make out your bucket list and start working on that. Some older people find time is heavy on their hands, others seek to make the most of the more time they feel like they have. Aging can be a time to experience"our days" as the gift they are.

Aging has hazards too as Stevens not so gently reminds us. There are special temptations that afflict us as we grow older. They are not new temptations but they affect us in our older years differently. Pride can make us too talkative and we may be losing some of our  filters. Envy is well illustrated by Ian Brown's book when he canvasses the well known who are his age. "Oprah is richer than God...and I am not. It's a slap in the face to think of how hugely influential she is... ok but she is as close to the end as I am...yeah, baby! Christie Brinkley is looking pretty good still but she is getting on just like me."

Many aging people have stored up a brooding anger, Stevens says, making us use our energy to do more harm than help. Of course, there is the picture of the elderly by the seaside resort or playing golf all day or amusing themselves to death with one pleasure after another or just vegging in front of the tv. Unorganized sloth is what Stevens calls it. It's not a time management problem but a soul problem; John Cassian the monk wrote that the old can pass their old age in lukewarmness and in sloth and so obtain authority not from the ripeness of their character but from the number of their years.

Greed infects us as we think about all we might have done, or accomplished or how much time we have left to do it. With more time and maybe more money gluttony beckons us to upgrade our consuming. Last is lust which we know is not a problem for the elderly, right, (there are even meds for that). Someone said old men get married; old women get lonely. Truth is we are sexual beings all our lives. In older age intimacy and affection have an opportunity to grow. It may also be true that "the lights are on but the voltage is low" but love is made in many ways.

Stevens quotes a prayer from an anonymous abbess who knew she was aging. "Lord, keep me from becoming too talkative and thinking I must have something to say on every topic...Keep me from the thought that out of my immense treasures of experience and wisdom I must use it to benefit others.... in the end I may need a few friends.... Keep me from the endless recital of details....grant me patience to listen to the complaints of others but keep my lips shut about my own aches and pains....when my own memory does not agree with others teach me humility and make me less self assured...keep me gentle... not as a saint it's too hard to live with some of them but a harsh old person in the devil's masterpiece...make me sympathetic and not sentimental, helpful and not bossy, help me find merits where I had not expected, talents in people in whom I thought possessed none. And, Lord, the grace to tell them so. Amen

Saturday, August 27, 2016

Living robustly in a flattened world

Commenting on Romans 8:31-35 Eugene Peterson writes: The seven questions here thrust us into recognizing a resurrection defined life, the whole world robust with God's eternal, embracing love. Hard as it is for minds flattened by secularism to imagine, this is the resurrection world in which the followers of Jesus live.

Charles Taylor, the author of A Secular Age, says there has been a shift today from God in the center of life to us in the center, an anthropocentric shift is what he calls it. To the modern self there is no greater good than human flourishing. In the past, Christians talked about their ultimate goal as glorifying God. Now it's human flourishing or seeing how God's goals fit into a human centered groove. Faith is more about fulfilling our own potential than what God is doing. God may have a plan for me but for the world - not so much or at least I don't think about it as much as my plan. Second, there is no need for day to day grace in a secular world.  We don't live like that. Grace initially is good but after that we make our own grace. Third, the mystery has faded. The mystery of God, the universe, human life, everyday living. We are confident we can figure life out. From DNA to space exploration, we have this under control. We go to church to find out "how to" do stuff as Christians. There is no mystery there either. God is the architect but we have lost a sense of the incarnation. So, even our relationship with God is impersonal. There are no miracles day to day, God is silent, God does not guide us. Fourth, God is not transforming us. Spiritual formation is less God's work and more our own. We are not so much transformed as evolved. Religion is about an interior life, fulfilling my purpose. The big picture is us not what God is doing cosmically

Modern life is flattened by individualism. We make our own meaning. "I can fix this..." "I advise myself" "I don't really need anybody else"

Modern life is flattened by efficiency. The best thing is the most efficient. It doesn't matter how it affects people. EpiPens increase in price by 600% because it's a business and businesses exist to make a profit. We build bigger churches with more parking and pastors and bigger budgets because we can do more if we have more people. We plug into the latest technology because it makes us more productive even if we have less face to face time. If it's more efficient and more profitable what's to question.

Modern life is flattened by all our choices. I can choose my future and that choice does not have to have a thing to do with the common good. I can vote or not. I can choose a companion on e-harmony. I can choose a college. I can choose another church if I don't like the one I'm going to.

How do we get back to the Resurrection world of glory, grace and mystery? Unplug, unprogram, unwind; quiet down, slow down, simplify; connect with people: feed the hungry, harbor the homeless, visit the sick, comfort the sorrowing, forgive, bear with others who get on our nerves, pray for all.

Note: Charles Taylor's ideas were found in How to Survive the Apocalypse by R. Joustra and A. Wilkinson. The list at the end is a paraphrase of the "alms deeds" by St Thomas Aquinas

Tuesday, August 23, 2016

Just Mercy

Just Mercy by Bryan Stevenson sat on my bookshelf for months. Then, our church decided to read it and discuss it. I read it. I thought it was a book about the Biblical foundations for mercy and why Christians should practise mercy. It is that, partly, but it is told as stories. Stories about people who have been broken by life and often ended up in the criminal justice system. Some times even on death row. Often, they did not do what they where convicted of. Some spent years in solitary confinement just down the hall from the electric chair. There are stories about families not functioning well and others doing what they can to support their incarcerated family member. Stevenson, a lawyer, started working with people who were facing the death penalty. Many were children who were tried as adults and who had already spent most of their lives in prison. These are heartbreaking stories. Powerful stories. Stevenson often says he is a broken man doing what he can do in the midst of brokenness. Seeking some mercy. Just Mercy. Many of the stories are about a broken system. Many stories ask the question, do we deserve to kill? Read this book. It just might change your mind.

Why vote?

Every four years we have another election upon which the fate of civilization hangs. Should the candidate on the Right win it portends a fascist future. If the Left's candidate proves victorious we can say good bye to Christian values. Both sides court the Christian vote. In the case of the Right conservative evangelicals line up to endorse the one who will save Christian civilization or at least give it four more years. On the Left, liberal and progressive Christians hope for a more inclusive and just government. Christian leaders of all stripes encourage their followers to get out and vote. It is a sin not to vote preaches one on the Right while one on the Left sees our vote as a step against injustice. Who is right? Christians are hopelessly divided, angry and see the other side as the enemy.

Every four years is a time for change. A time for hope. A time to make America great again. A time to fix all the problems and turn us around so we are heading the right way. James Davison Hunter in his book To Change the World observes that the hope Christians place in politics is remarkable. Given the fact that so little ever changes and that nothing in politics is permanent. Yet, we have come to believe that the best way to change things more to our liking is through politics. If our side was in control (in power) then things would be better. Except, that has never worked out so well. In 315AD when Emperor Constantine was in power Christianity became the religion of the empire. But, instead of the way of Christ and His Kingdom being inaugurated, the people of God became united with worldy power, corruption and violence. Our will was done. Hunter concludes, "the rapprochement between piety and power compromised the church's distinctiveness and thus its inimitable witness to the world."

The Church is not the Republican or Democratic party. It is not the party's chaplain or conscience or the party at prayer. Politics has a job to do and Christians can take part in it. But, Christians are the "Other Place", a community where what God wants to be is partly in view. It is a kingdom where Christ is King that is above and encompasses all the other kingdoms of the world.  God may use politics to accomplish his will but the Church is where the way of God is on view. The way of God is worship, grace, forgiveness, peace, love and servanthood. Politics, not so much.

Christians are bold to say that worship, preaching the Word, observing the sacraments, praying, and singing will do much more than politics to bear witness to the Kingdom. We are forming disciples of Christ not little Republicans or Democrats. We are trying our best to follow Jesus - taking up the cross - serving and submitting to one another - not strategizing how to get our agenda passed.

The Church doesn't have a social strategy, it is a social strategy. The Church doesn't have a social ethic, it is a social ethic (Stanley Hauerwas, Will Willimon). Some Christians have criticized that statement as a copout. But, Hauerwas and Willimon have written and spoken often about social justice. What they mean is that the Church is bigger than politics and citizenship in the Kingdom trumps all worldly loyalties.

Are there significant issues of social justice that need to be addressed in this election? Aren't there differences between the political parties? Yes, and Yes, of course there are. We can be humble enough to realize we don't have the answers for our problems. We need to keep learning, talking, thinking and praying, preaching the Word, praising, celebrating the Eucharist  because we believe God did Something, is doing Something and will do Something.

Tuesday, August 16, 2016

Grace notes

I've been reading some books on Grace. It's a big, important word in theology and the Church. It comes from the Greek word, Charis, and translates the Hebrew word for favor in the Greek version of the Old Testament. It's not used all that much in the Bible. Paul uses it the most. He made the word important for Christians. It was a common word in his culture without anything like the meaning Paul endowed it with. By grace, you have been saved. Paul wrote that and pinned his theology of salvation on that one word. Christians have used it ever since. Some great theologians like Augustine, Luther, Calvin and Barth studied Paul's use of grace and put it right at the heart of their theology. It was not as simple as it sounds. There were great controversies in the Church over grace. Edward Oakes writes about some of them in his book, A Theology of Grace in Six Controversies. It's an interesting book but some of the debating about how grace works with our own nature, i.e., are we wired with a need to seek grace or does that make it less gracious if we are, etc, may be important but I'll let others puzzle it out. I know grace when I see it. I know grace when I don't see it and it bothers me that I don't see enough of it these days. But, if I look closely, pay attention, I can almost always find grace every day. I need to keep track and make notes of grace.

The other day at church I heard about a person who formed a committee in her neighborhood to raise enough money to send a student to one of finer private schools in our city. I saw a table full of school supplies that people bought and carried in for a school in our community. I took part in a discussion of racial inequality and how our church can be more proactive in areas of social injustice. I made notes of grace.

There are lots of examples of ungrace in our world today and in our churches, too. We don't have to look to hard for those, unfortunately. Some of our earliest theologians said love is the essence of grace. I believe that. Jesus told us love is the one distinguishing mark of his followers. Paul, echoed that, writing that without love - nothing we do matters.

All is grace

A homeless man hangs out at a Starbucks in the city. Asleep on a bench in layers of clothing seemingly oblivious to the August heat. He sits up. People are around him sipping coffee, using the free WiFi, reading a book before a class at school. He surveys the area, invisible. Middle aged with a full beard he has not showered in a while. He is almost six feet tall and weighs close to 180 although he looks more stout because of the thick clothes he wears. Standing up he puts his hand in his pocket counting his coins. Still short of change enough to get a cup of coffee. He loves coffee but there won't be any today unless he is lucky. A man walks by heading into the coffee shop. Dressed in shorts, t-shirt and a baseball cap he looks like a lot of people the homeless guy sees in a day. Looking up, he mumbles, can you help me, you know a few pennies so I can get a cup of coffee. Surprisingly, the man hears and turns, smiles and says, I sure can. Come on, I will buy you a coffee and something to eat. What do you want, he asks the homeless man as they enter Starbucks. Amid interested glances from those seated inside they join the morning line up. I'll have that he says pointing to a sausage, egg and cheddar muffin sandwich. What will you have the barista asks the man in shorts and t-shirt? Just a coffee. And, what about him? Ask him, he knows. That sandwich he says pointing and coffee, black. What size? The question stumps him. Just like mine, the man in shorts says. He stands there waiting. It'll be down at the end of the counter the barista says, in a minute. The two men wait together. They take their drinks and food outside and sit on the bench talking for a few minutes. Then the man in shorts says good bye and walks off feeling like he has been in church.