Thursday, December 30, 2010

The Work of Christmas

When the angels had left them and gone into heaven, the shepherds said to one another, “Let us go now to Bethlehem and see this thing that has taken place, which the Lord has made known to us.” So they went with haste and found Mary and Joseph, and the child lying in the manger. When they saw this, they made known what had been told them about this child; and all who heard it were amazed at what the shepherds told them.
But Mary treasured all these words and pondered them in her heart. The shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all they had heard and seen, as it had been told them.
Luke 2:15-20

Like Mary, we should treasure the words of the story and ponder their meaning.

Unfortunately, if we do that, our peaceful holiday cheer will soon be displaced by a deep discomfort at the huge disconnect between the biblical message and our superficial adoption of it in our lives. Even before Jesus is born, in the messages brought by the angels to Zechariah and to Mary, Luke tells us that the baby will bring an unsettling message of social justice.

This year in America we will spend about $450 billion on Christmas presents. In round numbers, that comes to $1,500 for every man, woman and child. What amazes me is that after I do the math, I am actually surprised that it isn’t higher.

What does that say about us as Christians?

In the fourth verse of her Christmas Carol, “In the Bleak Midwinter,” Christina Rossetti writes,

What can I give him, poor as I am?
If I were a shepherd, I would bring a lamb;
if I were a wise man, I would do my part;
yet what can I give him; give my heart.

But the reality is that the vast majority of the people singing that carol are not poor. And we are capable of giving much more than a lamb. When we sing about giving him our hearts, it touches us deeply, but we are not really serious about it. If we were serious about it, then we would live differently.

We will never close the gap between our lives as they are, and our lives as we know they ought to be. And there will always be a disconnect between the message of Christmas and the way we live that out. But we can make a start.

Howard Thurman, who was Dean of the Chapel at Boston University for many years, wrote a wonderful poem about what it means to take the Christmas message seriously. It is titled, “The Work of Christmas.”

When the song of the angels is stilled,
When the star in the sky is gone,
When the kings and princes are home,
When the shepherds are back with their flock,
The work of Christmas begins:
To find the lost,
To heal the broken,
To feed the hungry
To release the prisoners,
To rebuild the nations,
To bring peace among people,
To make music in the heart.

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Social Security Is Not Broken . . . Yet

“Let them gather all the food of these good years that are coming, and lay up grain under the authority of Pharaoh for food in the cities, and let them keep it. That food shall be a reserve for the land against the seven years of famine that are to befall the land of Egypt, so that the land may not perish through the famine.”
Genesis 41:35-36

Joseph was one of the first advocates of delayed gratification. The economic plan he presented to Pharaoh called for increased taxes in prosperous years in order to prepare for the inevitable lean years that would follow.

Our national program for the lean years is called Social Security.

Although Social Security has been an enormous success by every measurement and has been the most effective anti-poverty program in American history, and has dramatically reduced poverty among our elderly, it seems to be constantly under attack.

And that worries me.

There is a widespread belief that Social Security is broken. In fact, some polls show that a majority of Americans believe that Social Security will not be able to pay them a benefit when they retire. And one poll shows that 51% of Americans believe that scientists will clone dinosaurs before Congress fixes Social Security.

But Social Security is not broken and it is not broke. If we do nothing about Social Security, the program will be able to pay all promised benefits for the next 27 years. If we do nothing between now and 2037, then at that point the program would have to reduce benefits by 25%. But even in that worst case scenario, the benefits paid in 2037 would still be higher than the benefits paid today after adjusting for inflation.

The old adage says, “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.” (Although sometimes it’s a good idea to fix something before it breaks. As for example, in the case of the timing belts on old Toyotas, which worked flawlessly right up until the moment when they failed catastrophically and destroyed the engine.)

In the case of Social Security the plan seems to be to break it first, and then fix it. Which reminds me of the recent incident in North Providence where some guys (not kids, older men) agreed to trash a woman’s house in order to help her collect insurance money. It did not go as well as they had hoped and they will all probably spend some time as guests of the state. But my guess is that the bipartisan group in Congress won’t go to jail for trashing Social Security.

The plan sounds benign. As part of the massive tax cut deal there will be a significant reduction in “payroll taxes,” which means Social Security. In other words, we will intentionally underfund it, at least for a year. The cuts will benefit all working Americans, from the wealthiest to the poorest, and that’s a good thing.

But it means more stress on the Social Security system. And that stress will further undermine public confidence. In a recent opinion piece in the Providence Journal, Mark Weisbrot wrote about what he sees well orchestrated campaign against Social Security and he argues that “if you are going to take something away from people, the first step is to convince them that it wasn’t really there in the first place.”

In order to fix Social Security, two basic solutions have been proposed. The National Commission on Fiscal Responsibility has suggested raising the retirement age by two years to adjust to our increased longevity. And some have argued for a “means” test, since there are many senior who don’t “need” Social Security. This line of argument is based on the idea that Social Security should be a safety net, rather than a retirement program.

Both ideas sound good at first. But both ideas worry me.

The problem with increasing the retirement age (see the November 26 blog on Social Security and the Fifth Commandment) is that it might work okay for those of us with desk jobs, but for those who do physical labor it is not realistic.

The argument in favor of a needs test typically ends with the rhetorical question, “Does Warren Buffet really need Social Security?” Of course not, goes the argument, so let’s direct those resources where they can do the most good.

My fear is that if we institute a means test we will change Social Security from a retirement plan into a welfare program. And if it is a welfare program, then those who do not benefit from it will soon resent paying for it. Part of what makes Social Security successful is that everyone pays into it and everyone gets something out of it. People don’t receive Social Security checks because they are poor; they receive those checks because they worked and contributed to the program. There is a dignity in that process which is important. And it should be protected, even if it makes life harder in the short term.

Friday, December 17, 2010

The War on Christmas

“Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only the one who does the will of my Father in heaven. On that day many will say to me, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name, and cast out demons in your name, and do many deeds of power in your name?’ Then I will declare to them, ‘I never knew you; go away from me, you evildoers.’”
Matthew 7:21-23

In other words, maybe saying “Merry Christmas” instead of “Happy Holidays” is not as important as living out the Gospel message.

The Puritans were first responders in the War on Christmas. And they were against it. Their influence was strong enough to minimize Christmas celebrations until well into the middle of the 19th century. Apart from their general (though overly stereotyped) opposition to anything that might seem like fun, they were against it because they believed it detracted from the real issues of the Gospel.

There is a Lexus ad which says, “No one ever wished for a smaller holiday gift.” Apparently, the best Christmas present anyone could ever have would be a Lexus. Can you hear Cotton Mather saying, “I told you so!”

But in today’s controversy, the pro-Christmas side would be happy with the Lexus ad if it said “Christmas,” instead of “Holiday.”

The best thing about the War on Christmas is that although many may claim psychic wounds and battle scars, at least so far there have been no reported deaths. The worst thing is . . . well, actually there are too many to name. But somewhere near the top of my list is that it is not the right argument. And somewhere else at the top of the list is that it does not bring out the best in Christians or in our interpretation of Christianity.

It reminds me of Gandhi’s famous quotation, “I like your Christ. I do not like your Christians.”

In New York City, the American Atheists paid $20,000 for a billboard showing a Nativity Scene and displaying the message, “You know it’s a myth. This Season, Celebrate Reason!” The Catholic League responded with a sign of their own at the other side of the Lincoln Tunnel that declares, “You Know It’s Real. This Season, Celebrate Jesus.”

Can I declare myself a conscientious objector?

Doesn’t God want us to celebrate reason? Isn’t it a gift? And isn’t that how we understand faith? (And science, and philosophy, and everything else?) Faith and reason are not natural enemies.

In Tulsa there is a parade sponsored by a downtown pub that includes all sorts of holiday decorations and (if stories are to be believed) many Santa Clauses. What is does not have, is “Christmas” in its name. And some folks have been appalled at this latest assault on our sacred Christmas traditions. They argue that if there is to be a parade it should be officially called a “Christmas Parade.”

Allow your mind to range for a moment over all of the problems confronting our world, especially those that relate directly to the Gospel messages about peace and justice.

Decades ago when the great Methodist preacher Henry Hitt Crane spoke on college campuses across the country he reminded his audiences of the danger of “majoring in the minors.” And this is what he was talking about.

As Christians, there are lots of things that ought to keep us up at night. And there are plenty of real wars in the world, but the so-called “War on Christmas” is not one of them.

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

God and Elizabeth Edwards

“For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life. “Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.”
John 3:16-17

Before she died, Elizabeth Edwards posted a final goodbye on Facebook. In the opening lines she wrote,

"You all know that I have been sustained throughout my life by three saving graces -- my family, my friends, and a faith in the power of resilience and hope."

There was an immediate buzz. Not about what she had said, but about what she had not said. She had not said anything about God, or Jesus.

And in the criticism that followed, there was not much of what Elizabeth Edwards would have called “saving graces.” Nothing brings out the unchristian nature of Christians like their zeal in pointing out the unchristian beliefs of another Christian.

Her funeral was at the Edenton United Methodist Church on Saturday morning, and it was on C-Span Saturday night. In his sermon, the pastor went to great lengths to assure the congregation that Elizabeth had really been a confessing Christian with perfectly orthodox beliefs.

He said that when John Edwards had called him and told him that Elizabeth wanted him to preside at her funeral, he readily agreed. And he immediately arranged to visit with her at the Edwards home. First he visited with the family and then he spent time with Elizabeth alone. And when they were alone he asked her two questions. After reminding her of the faith she had professed when she joined the church, he asked, “Do you accept Jesus Christ as your Lord and Savior?” And she answered, “Yes sir, I do.” Then he asked, “Do you want to have forgiveness for your sins and be made right with God?” And he said that she answered, “even more strongly,” “Yes sir, I do.”

(Before I go any further, you can go back and read what I wrote about the zeal of Christians in pointing out the failings of other Christians. Guilty as charged. Luther said we should “love God and sin boldly.” I will sin boldly, and you can judge the rest.)

The pastor seemed to be a very caring and devout man. At the close of the service he implored the media people to give the family their privacy, and he spoke with concern for Elizabeth and John and their children. To his credit, he emphasized John 3:17 as much as the more famous verse it follows. “God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.”

But I was troubled that he would share what might reasonably be understood as a pastoral confidence. I would never ask those questions of a person who was dying, but I understand why he did. If you believe that the gates of heaven are open only to those who profess their faith in Christ as their Lord and Savior, then you cannot let someone die without asking that question.

For that pastor and for many other Christians, it all comes down to what you believe. In fact, it really comes down to what you say you believe.

And I confess that makes no sense to me.

Elizabeth Edwards’s Facebook affirmation is outside of the general understanding of Christian orthodoxy, but maybe there is a place for Christians to speak in more humanistic terms, and in any case, I am confident that God’s understanding is much broader than our orthodoxy. As the old hymn says,

For the love of God is broader than the measure of our mind;
and the heart of the Eternal is most wonderfully kind.

Thursday, December 9, 2010

Christmas Comes to the Red Sox

“For to all those who have,
more will be given,
and they will have an abundance;
but from those who have nothing,
even what they have
will be taken away.”
Matthew 25:29

Recently a friend posted on her Facebook page, “In honor of the holiday season, I have decided to be jolly. Will you be jolly with me?? :)”

I am not jolly. I am giddy.

The Red Sox (according to reliable sources) have signed Carl Crawford. First Adrian Gonzales and now Carl Crawford. Some might point out that neither one of them is a catcher. Is Jarrod Saltalamacchia the answer? And some (not me!) are skeptical about Jed Lowrie playing shortstop. But for now at least, I feel a sense of optimism.

In Red Sox Nation we have an abundance.

For weeks we wondered whether they would sign Gonzales or Crawford. The fear was that they would get neither. And the assumption was that they could not afford both. (Sort of like politics in Washington. One side says we cannot afford to extend unemployment and the other side says we cannot afford to give tax cuts on incomes above $250,000. And the compromise is that we will do both.)

Red Sox fans can no longer complain about the Yankees “buying championships.” There are whole teams (and probably a few small countries) whose entire payrolls will be less than the amount paid to Gonzales and Crawford.

The rich get richer.

Although it sounds like Jesus is reaffirming the economics of Major League Baseball, a closer reading shows that is not the case. In the verse from Matthew’s Gospel, Jesus was not talking about baseball, and he was not endorsing more tax cuts for the wealthy. The verse comes at the end of the Parable of the Talents. And (ominously) it comes just before the Parable of the Judgment of the Nations. In the Parable of the Talents, the issue is stewardship. We need to make wise use of what we have been given. And if we don’t, there are consequences. In the Parable of Judgment, we learn that in the end we are judged by what we have done “for the least of these” because when we care for the poor and dispossessed we are caring for Christ among us.

On a personal note, I was looking forward to seeing Ryan Kalish in left field. And even though (or maybe because) he did not do much after that first pitch grand slam, I would be happy rooting for Daniel Nava. And what about Josh Reddick? There is a part of me that misses the decades of Exile and the many near misses between 1918 and 2004. It was long before my time, but I can still give you the details of Dixie Walker’s hit scoring Enos Slaughter from first in the 1946 World Series. My identity was formed by the memories of Bucky Dent, Aaron Boone, and Bill Buckner. (Is there anything in baseball more tragically unfair than the way Buckner’s amazing career has been reduced to that one play?)

In the Parable of the Talents, one servant gets 5 talents, another gets 2, and the third servant gets just one. The one with the five makes five more. And the one with the two makes two more. But the servant with the one talent just buries it, afraid to risk losing it. In Major League Baseball today, the Yankees and the Red Sox each have ten talents (some will argue that the Yankees have twelve), a couple of other teams have five, and everyone else has just one talent.

The latest news is good for the Red Sox, but it is not good for baseball.

But not to worry. Has Cliff Lee signed with anyone yet?

Friday, December 3, 2010

Mary and the Tax Cuts

"His mercy is for those who worship him
from generation to generation.
He has shown strength with his arm;
he has scattered the proud
in the imaginations of their hearts.
He has brought down the powerful
from their thrones,
and lifted up the lowly;
he has filled the hungry with good things,
and sent the rich away empty.
He has helped his servant Israel,
in remembrance of his mercy,
according to the promise he made
to our ancestors,
to Abraham and to his descendants
Luke 1:50-55

In Luke’s narrative of the birth of the Messiah, he describes Mary’s encounter with an angel, a messenger of God, who tells her that she will bear a child. The angel also tells her that her kinswoman Elizabeth, who is much older than Mary and beyond the normal age for having children, will also give birth, “for nothing is too wonderful for our God.”

When Mary visits Aunt Elizabeth, they share together in the joy of their pregnancies. Mary’s song of praise, called The Magnificat (Luke 1:46-56), contains a vision for what Biblical Scholars call “the great reversal.” In that vision, which also serves as a foretaste of Jesus’ proclamation of the coming Kingdom of God, the mighty are cast down and the lowly are lifted up, the hungry are filled with good things and the rich are sent away empty.

But if the Senate has anything to say about it, the rich will not be sent away empty any time soon. Instead, the unemployed will be sent away empty and the rich will be filled with tax cuts, at least that seems to be the vision.

You may have read that Thursday the House of Representatives passed what some are calling “middle class” tax cuts. And you would also have seen that they did not vote to extend tax cuts for the “rich,” those with annual incomes above $250,000.

Actually, that’s not what they did.

The House voted to extend tax cuts for everyone.

Under their plan, everyone would receive a tax cut on income up to $250,000. Everyone, from Bill Gates to the laid off steel worker, would receive a tax cut on the first $250,000 that they earned. And everyone would pay a higher rate on income over that amount. Under that plan, the rich and the poor all get a tax cut. And no one gets a tax cut on amounts from $250,000 up to infinity.

But that is not enough for the Senate. Until the rich are completely filled with tax cuts, the unemployed will be sent away empty.

Their argument is that the tax cuts will stimulate the economy, while extending unemployment benefits will add to the deficit. And they are right on both counts. What they don’t say is that extending extra tax cuts on income above $250,000 will also add to the deficit, and extending unemployment benefits will also stimulate the economy. The independent Congressional Budget Office calculates that unemployment benefits are a more effective stimulus than tax cuts, and economists generally agree that upper income tax cuts provide less stimulus than middle class tax cuts.

For Christians, there are really two arguments here. One is about economic effectiveness and the other is about economic justice. Both are important and both deserve a lot more attention than they have received to date.

Monday, November 29, 2010

Dad Had It Right

But the free gift is not like the trespass. For if the many died through the one man’s trespass, much more surely have the grace of God and the free gift in the grace of the one man, Jesus Christ, abounded for the many. And the free gift is not like the effect of the one man’s sin. For the judgment following one trespass brought condemnation, but the free gift following many trespasses brings justification. If, because of the one man’s trespass, death exercised dominion through that one, much more surely will those who receive the abundance of grace and the free gift of righteousness exercise dominion in life through the one man, Jesus Christ. Therefore just as one man’s trespass led to condemnation for all, so one man’s act of righteousness leads to justification and life for all.
Romans 5:15-18

This fall before a graveside service for a distant member of the church, a woman came over and introduced herself. She told me that she belonged to a nearby Methodist church and that she was a Lay Speaker, and a leader in that church. “I remember your father,” she said. He was the pastor in Coventry when I was a teenager.”

“He came to visit at our house one day and he was talking to my mother. And he told me that they were starting a youth group and he invited me to come. I told him that I didn’t really believe in Jesus, so I didn’t want to come to the youth group.

“My mother was so embarrassed. And she was so angry with me. But your father just smiled. ‘That’s okay,’ he said. ‘You think about it, and if you want to attend, we’d love to have you.’ He didn’t get upset. And he didn’t tell me I was wrong to think that way. I’ll always remember that.

“And then later I went to the youth group and it was great. But I’ll always remember the way he reacted.”

Dad died four years ago today. And the truth is that although I loved him dearly, and told him so, I did not adequately appreciate his gifts as a pastor.

When the great theologian Karl Barth was asked to sum up his many complex volumes of “Church Dogmatics,” he said,

Jesu liebt mich, ganz gewiss,
Denn die Bibel sagt mir dies

“Jesus loves me, this I know, for the Bible tells me so.”

That would also have summarized Dad’s theology, although it sounded much more profound coming from Barth. Dad was not a theologian, but he was a pastor, and he understood the practical application of the faith.

He was convinced that “God was in Christ, reconciling the world to himself.” And he was convinced that God’s grace, in Christ, extended to everyone, whether they believed it or not. Sadly, Dad’s intuitive response to a questioning teen made a lasting impression in part because it was not what she expected from those who call themselves Christians.

In Paul’s exposition of Christ as the New Adam, his basic assertion is that in Adam we have all sinned and in Christ we have all been justified (forgiven and made right with God).

For two thousand years, the majority interpretation of that passage has been that the first “all” refers to everyone (everyone has sinned) and the second “all” refers only to baptized Christian believers (all baptized believers have been justified).

Ironically, this notion that sin is unlimited while grace is restricted, is one more evidence of our tendency to “sin” in our biblical interpretation. So (ironically) it proves the first of Paul’s assertions. We are all self-centered and we want to believe that grace applices only to us and to the people who think like us. We believe in sin, but we have doubts about grace.

Why is that? In traditional language, it’s because we are “sinners.” Paul told the Romans that grace was greater than sin, but many Christians have trouble believing that. Our (sinful) tendency is to believe that sin is greater than grace.

But Dad had it right.

Friday, November 26, 2010

Social Security and the Fifth Commandment

Honor your father and your mother, so that your days may be long in the land that the Lord your God is giving you.
Exodus 20:12

In the Ten Commandments, the first duties of human beings are in relationship to God. Then, further commandments translate our faithfulness to God into human terms.

The biblical injunction to care for the elderly is the first commandment that deals with human relationships. It comes before the admonitions against murder, adultery, theft, bearing false witness, and covetousness. And among the commandments dealing with human relationships, it is the only one stated positively. It is not just that we should avoid harming the elderly, we should honor them.

For those of us in the United States of America, the most significant way that we honor and care for the elderly is through Social Security. It is more than a program or a system; it is a sacred covenant that binds us together. It is rooted in the Social Gospel and grew out of deep Judeo-Christian concerns. Before Social Security, most elderly people lived in poverty. Now they don’t.

Social Security is the most successful anti-poverty program in American history.

Unless you have been living in a cave somewhere for the past few decades, you know that Social Security is facing major long term problems. It is not, as some critics claim, “bankrupt,” but it will be if present trends continue. Revenues are not keeping up with expenses.

In the preliminary report of the National Commission on Fiscal Responsibility and Reform, Co-Chairpersons Alan Simpson and Erskine Bowles propose raising the Social Security retirement age by two years. The minimum age for reduced benefits would go up from 62 to 64, and the minimum age for full benefits would go from 67 to 69.

That sounds reasonable. And it is reasonable. For those of us with desk jobs. It’s not so reasonable for people who do physical labor. The average lifespan for American males has increased by five years for those in the upper income brackets, but only one year for those with lower incomes.

The Bowles-Simpson proposal is that laborers should work longer because executives live longer.

But there are alternatives.

In the summer of 2009, I wrote a blog about an article by Ellen Schultz in the Wall Street Journal. She pointed to a largely unnoticed result of the widening wealth gap in the United States. The fact that a lower total percentage of all wages are subject to Social Security taxes has reduced the amount in the fund.

In 2002 executive pay accounted for 28% of all wages. By 2007 that amount had risen to 33% of the total. This means that a lower percentage of total wages are subject to Social Security.

Simply put, the wealthiest people are not paying their fair share.

In 1982, 90% of all wages were subject to Social Security. That amount has now shrunk to 83%. This shift results in lost revenue of $115 billion per year. According to this article in The Wall Street Journal, if the Social Security maximum were adjusted to be comparable to 1982 levels, the fund would be solvent for the next 75 years.

Or we could just make the janitors work longer.

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

The Kingdom of God in America

"Politics are never ultimate, never absolute. We can and must fight the good fight for a better republic and a better world. But our hope does not depend on any political outcome. Our faith and our hope derive from Jesus Christ, who survives all nations and all politics."
Robert N. Bellah

I have a special fondness the notion of the Kingdom of God in America.

First, in a serious way, because it was (and is) the agenda of Jesus to build the Kingdom of God on earth, and since I am an American, my first responsibility is to build it here. But I also enjoy talking about the Kingdom of God because it makes everyone uncomfortable (including me). The secular left gets nervous about a theocracy and a religious vision, and the religious left is uncomfortable with the King imagery (I share the discomfort with “King” and I agree that in many ways it would be better to get the King imagery out of it and speak about the Reign of God, but I still think that falls short of the original.). The religious right wants religion to be personal rather than social, and they are nervous about the “politicization” of the Gospel, and the political right gets nervous about the Social Gospel and Social Justice.

That’s all good, because we are supposed to be uncomfortable with the Kingdom of God.

We should not look for ways to escape that discomfort. Jesus’ vision calls us into the future. We pray for the coming of the Kingdom of God on earth, and that must mean change. As soon as we are comfortable with the present, we remember again that we are called into the future. We are called to be a pilgrim people.

In a special way, Thanksgiving is central to understanding the Kingdom of God in America.

Robert Bellah was one of the greatest American Sociologists. He rose to national prominence when he wrote an essay on Civil Religion in America. He explained how Americans had developed a religious sensibility which was rooted in our Judeo-Christian heritage, but also uniquely American. We began with a covenant and a mission. Slavery was our original sin. Lincoln was our central prophet. And though we had a high view of our calling in the world, we were clear that America always stood under the judgment of God.

Thanksgiving is the most important holiday in our American Civil Religion. It was first instituted by Abraham Lincoln during the Civil War, as a time of national Repentance and Thanksgiving. A national day of repentance would be a tough sell in today’s political climate.

As Christians, how do we relate to the uncivil tone of our political debate today?

It is a difficult question and there are no easy answers. The Gospel is intensely political and we cannot read it with any measure of intellectual honestly and pretend otherwise. It is about proclaiming a vision of the Kingdom of God. It is about social and economic justice. But we must also remember, as Bellah points out, that the Kingdom of God can never be identified with any single political group or cause, or country. Instead, it is always the standard by which every political plan is judged.

As Bellah notes, “We can and must fight the good fight for a better republic and a better world.” But we need to be clear that there is a gap between our vision and God’s vision. This does not mean that one idea is as good as another, or that political issues do not matter. It does mean that we should approach political issues with Lincoln’s repentance and humility.

Friday, November 19, 2010

An Abomination in the Sight of God

Jesus said, “A servant cannot serve two masters; for a servant will either hate the one and love the other, or be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and wealth.” some of the religious leaders. Some of the religious leaders, who were lovers of money, heard all this, and they ridiculed him. So he said to them, “You are those who justify yourselves in the sight of others; but God knows your hearts; for what is prized by human beings is an abomination in the sight of God.” Luke 16:13-15

As far as I can determine, this is the one and only time that Jesus calls something “an abomination in the sight of God.” The wealth and the power that accompanies it, which are so prized by human beings, is an abomination to God.


The Bible is a difficult book.

In the Second Letter to Timothy, the Apostle says that “the love of money is the root of all kinds of evil” (II Timothy 6:10). The spiritual descendants of those who ridiculed Jesus in Luke’s story, are quick to point out that it is “the love of money,” rather than money itself, that leads to evil. But in his sermon on “The Danger of Riches,” John Wesley notes that if we have money, it is because we love it. Otherwise we would give it away. We may have less money than we want, but we never have more. If we have it, it is because we want to have it.

But money, as Wesley says in a sermon on “The Uses of Money,” “is an excellent gift of God.” Used rightly, it can be food for the hungry, drink for the thirsty, clothing for the naked, rest for the traveler, support for the widow and the orphan. It can bring health to those who are sick, “it may be as eyes to the blind, as feet to the lame; yea, a lifter up from the gates of death.”

In biblical economics, the problem is the disparity between rich and poor, and the accumulation of wealth by the few at the expense of the many. In the passage which follows the one quoted above, Jesus tells the parable of the rich man and Lazarus, in which the rich man is cast out from the sight of God simply because he has not share with the poor man, Lazarus.

Earlier this month, Nicholas Kristof wrote a column in which he spoke of what he called “the rapacious income inequality” of the United States, and said that we were becoming a “Banana Republic.”

(If time travel were possible, I would like very much to be party to a conversation between Mr. Kristof and the late Mr. Wesley. The inevitable clashes between Kristof’s secular humanism and Wesley’s Christian piety would be punctuated by equally emphatic agreements on a host of social issues.)

In his latest column, Kristof apologizes for his banana republic comparison, which apparently offended many readers. It was unfair, he say, to the banana Republics.

He notes that in the 1940’s, more than 20% of all income went to the top 1%, and that approximately double the share of the wealthiest Americans. But we have now changed places. The top 1% in Argentina now has 15% of all income, while that same group in the United States now controls 24% of all income.

When we look at assets instead of income, the contrast between rich and poor is even greater. The richest 1% in the United States control 34% of all wealth. The bottom 90%, on the other hand, controls just 29%. Those are astonishing numbers. The top 1% has more wealth than the combined assets of the bottom 90%.

We have been redistributing income from the bottom (and the middle) to the top at an alarming rate. Some of this is due to global trends, but much of it (economists tell us) is due to policies and regulations that we have adopted. As the rich have gotten richer and the poor have gotten poorer, social mobility has diminished. Our society does not have as much upward mobility as it did in the middle of the last century.

I tend to look at this through a biblical lens. When we pray the Lord’s Prayer, we pray for the coming of God’s Kingdom. Biblically, this is not what the Kingdom of God is supposed to look like. There is a place, in biblical economics, for differences and disparities. Those who have more must take on more responsibility for the common good, but there is nothing intrinsically wrong with some having more than others. Hard work, wisdom and creativity should be rewarded. The Bible supports a rational system of economic rewards. What the prophets, the Gospels, and the early church all opposed were large disparities between the rich and the poor, and the tendency to favor the rich at the expense of the poor.

But beyond the issues of biblical justice, there are basic questions of our common life. As we consider the various debates on tax cuts and unemployment benefits, and the broader questions of economic policy, it is useful to ask ourselves, “What kind of a country do we want to be?”

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Wamba and Eternity

When I was a child, I spoke like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child; when I became an adult, I put an end to childish ways. For now we see in a mirror, dimly, but then we will see face to face. Now I know only in part; then I will know fully, even as I have been fully known. And now faith, hope, and love abide, these three; and the greatest of these is love.
I Corinthians 13:11-13

Last Friday we said goodbye to Wamba. He was, of a certainty, the best cat who ever lived. For the past 15 months he has been on chemotherapy (Yes, there is such a thing as chemotherapy for cats. And there are veterinary oncologists.). The tumors on his brain eventually grew beyond the capacity of the drugs to retrain them, and Wamba gradually developed neurological symptoms. His legs went out from under him. He could not turn around without falling.

But still, he greeted the veterinarian and the veterinary technician when they came to the door. He purred and we patted him. Then the sedative took over and he just lay quietly as the vet administered the final injection.

He was always “the up and down kitty,” following us every time we went up on down the stairs. As we started up the stairs, we would hear padded paws on the carpet, and then a whistling sound as his long fur rustled and he shot past us up the stairs. We called him “Wamba of the singing paws.” Toward the end, when he had trouble walking, he would still follow us, but instead of the singing paws, we would hear a thump as he dragged a reluctant rear leg behind him.

He was Carolyn’s cat for many years. When she left for college, he would patiently lead us into her room several times each day, and look up at us as if to ask how we had lost her. He did that every single day for more than 6 years. Wamba was like the shepherd in the parable of the lost sheep (Luke 15). Within our household, he was the shepherd, seeking each of us when he thought we were lost. He constantly watched over us.

It was good that he died after All Saints Sunday, rather than before. In the All Saints service we ring bells for those who have died during the past year, calling out the names as we ring. I don’t think I could have gotten through it without ringing a bell for Wamba.

In his retrospective review of “Context,” Martin Marty reprinted this quotation from Madeleine L’Engle, “I believe in the resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth as Jesus the Christ, and the resurrection of the body of all creatures great and small, not the literal resurrection of this tired body, this broken self, but the body as it was meant to be, the fragmented self made new; so that at the end of time all Creation will be One. Well: Maybe I don’t exactly believe it, but I know it, and knowing is what matters.”

I don’t know what that means, but I think I believe it, too.

When I was a child, I believed in a life after death, which was like this life, only better. In that new and heavenly life, Lou Gehrig was still hitting home runs (and Barry Bonds would have had NO chance of ever catching Babe Ruth, let alone Henry Aaron). And in my childhood image, Wamba would be sitting and purring in the sun. (This image would be somewhat complicated by the fact that if Wamba were truly himself in this new heavenly life, he would assume that he was in charge of everything there, just as he had been in charge here on earth . . .)

When I put away childish things, I gave up the images of childhood, and I realized as Paul did, that we “see in a mirror, dimly.” There is so much we cannot know. But Paul asserts that love is the force that holds us together. God’s love for us, and our love for God and for one another. And love is not lost. I think Madeleine L’Engle is right, “the fragmented self” will be “made new,” and in the end “all Creation will be One.” We come from God and we go to God.

And I believe that what is true for us is also true for the whole of creation. “All things bright and beautiful; all creatures great and small.” The One who holds the present also holds the future. Nothing is ever lost.

Thursday, November 11, 2010

Armistice Day and the Unknown Soldier

He shall judge between the nations, and shall arbitrate for many peoples; they shall beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruning hooks; nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war any more.
O house of Jacob, come, let us walk in the light of the Lord!
Isaiah 2:4-5

Originally today was known as Armistice Day, to celebrate the end of the "War to End All Wars," on the eleventh day of the eleventh month in 1918. Now we call it Veteran’s Day.

In 1933, Dr. Harry Emerson Fosdick preached an Armistice Day Sermon called, “The Unknown Soldier.” In that sermon he recounted his own encounter with the Unknown Soldier when he served as a chaplain during the First World War. And he declared his opposition to all wars. “We can have this monstrous thing or we can have Christ, but we cannot have both.”

At Union Seminary, not far from Riverside Church, Reinhold Niebuhr was reflecting on his own experience in the Great War, and came to a different conclusion. Niebuhr had come to the war as a pacifist, convinced that pacifism was the best expression of Christ’s teaching. Like Fosdick, Niebuhr reversed course, but in the opposite direction. Niebuhr developed a school of thought called “Christian Realism,” which fully agreed with Fosdick on the monstrous and unchristian horror of war, but nevertheless believed that tragically there were times when evil must be resisted by force, even at the terrible cost of war.

A shortened copy of Fosdick’s sermon is posted below. The full text is easily available on the internet.

As a pastor and a preacher, I am amazed by the courage it must have taken to preach that sermon just fifteen years after the end of the war. My own views are closer to Niebuhr than to Fosdick, but the sermon presents a moving and compelling vision of faithfulness to the Gospel and deep reverence for the sacrifices made.

The Unknown Soldier

Dr. Harry Emerson Fosdick

Preached at The Riverside Church, NYC
November 12, 1933

You may say that I, being a Christian minister, did not know him. I knew him well. From the north of Scotland, where they planted the sea with mines, to the trenches of France, I lived with him and his fellows—British, Australian, New Zealander, French, American. The places where he fought, from Ypres through the Somme battlefield to the southern trenches, I saw while he still was there. I lived with him in his dugouts in the trenches, and on destroyers searching for submarines off the shores of France. Short of actual battle, from training camp to hospital, from the fleet to no-man's-land, I, a Christian minister, saw the war. Moreover I, a Christian minister, participated in it. I, too, was persuaded that it was a war to end war. I, too, was a gullible fool and thought that modern war could somehow make the world safe for democracy. They sent men like me to explain to the army the high meanings of war and, by every argument we could command, to strengthen their morale. I wonder if I ever spoke to the Unknown Soldier.

One night, in a ruined barn behind the lines, I spoke at sunset to a company of hand-grenaders who were going out that night to raid the German trenches. They told me that on the average no more than half a company came back from such a raid, and I, a minister of Christ, tried to nerve them for their suicidal and murderous endeavor. I wonder if the Unknown Soldier was in that barn that night.

Once in a dugout, which in other days had been a French wine cellar, I bade Godspeed at two in the morning to a detail of men going out on patrol in no-man's-land. They were a fine company of American boys fresh from home. I recall that, huddled in the dark, underground chamber, they sang:
Lead, kindly Light, amid th'encircling gloom,
Lead thou me on;
The night is dark, and I am far from home;
Lead thou me on.

Then, with my admonitions in their ears, they went down from the second- to the first-line trenches and so out to no-man's-land. I wonder if the Unknown Soldier was in that dugout.

You here this morning may listen to the rest of this sermon or not, as you please. It makes much less difference to me than usual what you do or think. I have an account to settle in this pulpit today between my soul and the Unknown Soldier.

He is not so utterly unknown as we sometimes think. Of one thing we can be certain: he was sound of mind and body. We made sure of that. All primitive gods who demanded bloody sacrifices on their altars insisted that the animals should be of the best, without mar or hurt. Turn to the Old Testament and you will find it written there: "Whether male or female, he shall offer it without blemish before the Lord." The god of war still maintains the old demand. These men to be sacrificed upon his altars were sound and strong. Once there might have been guessing about that. Not now. Now we have medical science, which tests the prospective soldier's body. Now we have psychiatry, which tests his mind. We used them both to make sure that these sacrifices for the god of war were without blemish. Of all insane and suicidal procedures, can you imagine anything madder than this, that all the nations should pick out their best, use their scientific skill to make certain that they are the best, and then in one mighty holocaust offer ten million of them on the battlefields of one war?

I have an account to settle between my soul and the Unknown Soldier. I deceived him. I deceived myself first, unwittingly, and then I deceived him, assuring him that good consequence could come out of that. As a matter of hardheaded, biological fact, what good can come out of that? Mad civilization, you cannot sacrifice on bloody altars the best of your breed and expect anything to compensate for the loss.

Of another thing we may be fairly sure concerning the Unknown Soldier—that he was a conscript. He may have been a volunteer but on actuarial average he probably was a conscript. The long arm of the nation reached into his home, touched him on the shoulder, saying, You must go to France and fight. If someone asks why in this "land of the free" conscription was used, the answer is, of course, that it was necessary if we were to win the war. Certainly it was. And that reveals something terrific about modern war. We cannot get soldiers—not enough of them, not the right kind of them—without forcing them. When a nation goes to war now, the entire nation must go. That means that the youth of the nation must be compelled, coerced, conscripted to fight.

When you stand before the tomb of the Unknown Soldier on some occasion, let us say when the panoply of military glory decks it with music and color, are you thrilled? I am not—not any more. I see there the memorial of one of the saddest things in American history, from the continued repetition of which may God deliver us—the conscripted boy!

He was a son, the hope of the family, and the nation coerced him. He was, perchance, a lover and the deepest emotion of his life was not desire for military glory or hatred of another country or any other idiotic thing like that, but love of a girl and hope of a home. He was, maybe, a husband and a father, and already, by that slow and beautiful gradation which all fathers know, he had felt the deep ambitions of his heart being transferred from himself to his children. And the nation coerced him. I am not blaming him; he was conscripted. I am not blaming the nation; it never could have won the war without conscription. I am simply saying that that is modern war, not by accident but by necessity, and with every repetition it will be more and more the attribute of war.

Last time they coerced our sons. Next time, of course, they will coerce our daughters, and in any future war they will absolutely conscript all property. Some old-fashioned Americans, born out of the long tradition of liberty, have trouble with these new coercions used as shortcuts to get things done, but nothing else compares with this inevitable, universal, national conscription in time of war. Repeated once or twice more, it will end everything in this nation that remotely approaches liberty.

If I blame anybody about this matter, it is men like myself who ought to have known better. We went out to the army and explained to these valiant men what a resplendent future they were preparing for their children by their heroic sacrifice. 0 Unknown Soldier, however can I make that right with you? For sometimes I think I hear you asking me about it:
Where is this great, new era that the war was to create? Where is it? They blew out my eyes in the Argonne. Is it because of that that now from Arlington I strain them vainly to see the great gains of the war? If I could see the prosperity, plenty, and peace of my children for which this mangled body was laid down!

My friends, sometimes I do not want to believe in immortality. Sometimes I hope that the Unknown Soldier will never know.

Indeed, you say, but how could martial music be so stirring and martial poetry so exultant if there were not at the heart of war a lyric glory? Even in the churches you sing,
Onward, Christian soldiers,
Marching as to war.
You, too, when you wish to express or arouse ardor and courage, use war's symbolism. The Unknown Soldier, sound in mind and body—yes! The Unknown Soldier a conscript—probably! But be fair and add that the Unknown Soldier had a thrilling time in France.

Do you think that the Unknown Soldier would really believe in the lyric glory of war? I dare you; go down to Arlington National Cemetery and tell him that now.

Nevertheless . . . we think of our Unknown Soldier as an idealist, rising up in answer to a human call and making the sacrifice of his life before leaving. His country seemed to him like Christ himself, saying, "If any man will come after me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross daily, and follow me." Far from appealing to his worst, the war brought out the best—his loyalty, his courage, his venturesomeness, his care for the downtrodden, his capacity for self-sacrifice. The noblest qualities of his young manhood were aroused. He went out to France a flaming patriot, and in secret quoted Rupert Brooke to his own soul:
If I should die, think only this of me:
That there's some corner of a foreign field
That is for ever England.
There, you say, is the Unknown Soldier.

Yes indeed, did you suppose I never had met him? I talked with him many a time. When the words that I would speak about war are a blistering fury on my lips and the encouragement I gave to war is a deep self-condemnation in my heart, it is of that I think. For I watched war lay its hands on these strongest, loveliest things in men and use the noblest attributes of the human spirit for what ungodly deeds! Is there anything more infernal than this, to take the best that is in man and use it to do what war does? This is the ultimate description of war—it is the prostitution of the noblest powers of the human soul to the most dastardly deeds, the most abysmal cruelties of which our human nature is capable. That is war.

Granted, then, that the Unknown Soldier should be to us a symbol of everything most idealistic in a valiant warrior, I beg of you, be realistic and follow through what war made the Unknown Soldier do with his idealism. Here is one eyewitness speaking:
Last night, at an officers' mess there was great laughter at the story of one of our men who had spent his last cartridge in defending an attack, "Hand me down your spade, Mike," he said; and as six Germans came one by one round the end of a traverse, he split each man's skull open with a deadly blow. The war made the Unknown Soldier do that with his idealism.

"I can remember," says one infantry officer, "a pair of hands (nationality unknown) which protruded from the soaked ashen soil like the roots of a tree turned upside down; one hand seemed to be pointing at the sky with an accusing gesture. . . . Floating on the surface of the flooded trench was the mask of a human face which had detached itself from the skull." War harnessed the idealism of the Unknown Soldier to that.

Do I not have an account to settle between my soul and him? They sent men like me into the camps to awaken his idealism, to touch those secret, holy springs within him so that with devotion, fidelity, loyalty, and self-sacrifice he might go out to war. 0 war, I hate you most of all for this, that you do lay your hands on the noblest elements in human character, with which we might make a heaven on earth, and you use them to make a hell on earth instead. You take even our science, the fruit of our dedicated intelligence, by means of which we might build here the City of God, and, using it, you fill the earth instead with new ways of slaughtering men. You take our loyalty, our unselfishness, with which we might make the earth beautiful, and, using these, our finest qualities, you make death fall from the sky and burst up from the sea and hurtle from unseen ambuscades sixty miles away; you blast fathers in the trenches with gas while you are starving their children at home by blockades; and you so bedevil the world that fifteen years after the Armistice we cannot be sure who won the war, so sunk in the same disaster are victors and vanquished alike. If war were fought simply with evil things, like hate, it would be bad enough, but when one sees the deeds of war done with the loveliest faculties of the human spirit, he looks into the very pit of hell.

Suppose one thing more—that the Unknown Soldier was a Christian. Maybe he was not, but suppose he was, a Christian like Sergeant York, who at the beginning intended to take Jesus so seriously as to refuse to fight but afterward, otherwise persuaded, made a real soldier. For these Christians do make soldiers. Religion is a force. When religious faith supports war, when, as in the Crusades, the priests of Christ cry, “Deus Vult”—God wills it—and, confirming ordinary motives, the dynamic of Christian devotion is added, then an incalculable resource of confidence and power is released. No wonder the war department wanted the churches behind them!

Suppose, then, that the Unknown Soldier was a Christian. I wonder what he thinks about war now. Practically all modern books about war emphasize the newness of it—new weapons, new horrors, new extensiveness. At times, however, it seems to me that still the worst things about war are the ancient elements. In the Bible we read terrible passages where the Hebrews thought they had a command from Jehovah to slaughter the Amalekites, "both man and woman, infant and suckling, ox and sheep, camel and ass." Dreadful, we say—an ancient and appalling idea! Ancient? Appalling? Upon the contrary, that is war, and always will be. A military order, issued in our generation by an American general in the Philippines and publicly acknowledged by his counsel afterwards in a military court, commanded his soldiers to burn and kill, to exterminate all capable of bearing arms, and to make the island of Samar a howling wilderness. Moreover, his counsel acknowledged that he had given instructions to kill everyone over the age of ten. Far from launching into a denunciation of that American general, I am much more tempted to state his case for him. Why not? Cannot boys and girls of eleven fire a gun? Why not kill everything over ten? That is war, past, present and future. All that our modern fashions have done is to make the necessity of slaughtering children not the comparatively simple and harmless matter of shooting some of them in Samar, one by one, but the wholesale destruction of children, starving them by millions, impoverishing them, spoiling the chances of unborn generations of them, as in the Great War.

My friends, I am not trying to make you sentimental about this. I want you to be hardhearted. We can have this monstrous thing or we can have Christ, but we cannot have both. 0 my country, stay out of war! Cooperate with the nations in every movement that has any hope for peace; enter the World Court, support the League of Nations, contend undiscourageably for disarmament, but set your face steadfastly and forever against being drawn into another war. 0 church of Christ, stay out of war! Withdraw from every alliance that maintains or encourages it. It was not a pacifist, it was Field-Marshal Earl Haig who said, "It is the business of the churches to make my business impossible." And 0 my soul, stay out of war!

At any rate, I will myself do the best I can to settle my account with the Unknown Soldier. I renounce war. I renounce war because of what it does to our own men. I have watched them come in gassed from the front-line trenches. I have seen the long, long hospital trains filled with their mutilated bodies. I have heard the cries of the crazed and the prayers of those who wanted to die and could not, and I remember the maimed and ruined men for whom the war is not yet over. I renounce war because of what it compels us to do to our enemies, bombing their mothers and villages, starving their children by blockades, laughing over our coffee cups about every damnable thing we have been able to do to them. I renounce war for its consequences, for the lies it lives on and propagates, for the undying hatreds it arouses, for the dictatorships it puts in the place of democracy, for the starvation that stalks after it. I renounce war and never again, directly or indirectly, will I sanction or support another! 0 Unknown Soldier, in penitent reparation I make you that pledge.

Tuesday, November 9, 2010

Women Bishops in the Church of England

He called the crowd with his disciples, and said to them, “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it. For what will it profit them to gain the whole world and forfeit their life? Indeed, what can they give in return for their life?”
Mark 8:34-37

This morning I read that several Bishops in the Church of England are leaving the Anglican Church and uniting with the Roman Catholic Church. They are doing this because the Anglicans have voted to allow women to become bishops. In their minds this decision is “incompatible” with “2,000 years of Christian teaching.”

By Christian teaching, of course, they mean the teaching of Rome.

In the Gospels, Jesus is very clear about this. He did not appoint women to be bishops. And he never implied that women ought to be bishops. Or priests. Or pastors. Actually, as far as we know, Jesus never said a word about bishops, priests or pastors, male or female.

One wonders how this could possibly be an issue for anyone. What would make someone believe that the witness for Christ would be compromised by having a woman bishop?

Jesus was focused on the Kingdom of God. That’s what we pray for, and that’s where we are called to live. He challenged us to live out God’s justice and righteousness on earth, to take up that cross and follow him; against the empire (even if it means death) and for the Kingdom of God.

And instead, a significant part of the church of Jesus Christ is arguing about whether women can be bishops. Do I see a world-wide LOL?

This morning as I enjoyed coffee and a bagel sitting by the fireplace at Panera, reading the New York Times on my Blackberry, I thought about the bishops and their hypocrisy. And I thought about the contrast between what they were doing and the teachings of Jesus.

And I made two mental notes:

1. Write blog about bishops and about Jesus’ challenge to “take up the cross and follow me.”
2. Go online and fill out my Panera card.

Really. I had those two thoughts in my head at the same time. And then it occurred to me to ask, “Who am I kidding?” I am no closer to the cross than the Anglican Bishops. Their hypocrisy does not make me faithful.

As you can see, that moment of introspection and confession did not deter me from writing the blog. And I can’t help taking comfort in the fact that I do not wear a pointy hat.

As Martin Luther said, "Love God, and sin boldly.

Friday, November 5, 2010

The Last Christian on Television

After Jesus died on the cross, Joseph of Arimathea, who was a disciple of Jesus, though a secret one because of his fear of the religious leaders, asked Pilate to let him take away the body of Jesus. Pilate gave him permission; so he came and removed his body. Nicodemus, who had at first come to Jesus in secret, also came, bringing a mixture of myrrh and aloes, weighing about a hundred pounds. They took the body of Jesus and wrapped it with the spices in linen cloths, according to the burial custom of the Jews. Now there was a garden in the place where he was crucified, and in the garden there was a new tomb in which no one had ever been laid. And so, because it was the Jewish day of Preparation, and the tomb was nearby, they laid Jesus there.
John 19:38-42

Is Jon Stewart secretly a follower of Jesus?

Stewart is Jewish by birth and by custom, though he sometimes seems to present himself as an agnostic. But there are times when I wonder if he might be the last real Christian on television.

He is intentionally irreverent, and yet I often think that Jesus would feel more at home with Jon Stewart than with any other television personality. Jesus was, after all, irreverent and countercultural and unpredictable, and apparently he was so much at home having a good time that some of the more serious religious folks thought that he had a demon.

It is hard to think of a commentator more committed to Jesus' agenda. Stewart pushes questions about issues of social justice more relentlessly than any other interviewer. He does not try to hide his own very comfortable place in the socio-economic order while continually asking how policies and programs affect “the least” among us. In the tradition of Jesus and the Hebrew prophets, he "speaks truth to power," and is an advocate for the poor and the powerless.

He is convinced of the value of truth and he pursues it with a passion. In the health care debate, he was the one who really took on the “death panel” fabrication and went over the relevant paragraphs in the legislation line by line with the woman who had initiated the charges. When others report rumors, he looks for the facts. At one point, in response to a commentator who seemed to deliberately mis-state an issue, Stewart said, "This isn't class warfare, it's a war on people who went to class."

The Rally to Restore Sanity (and/or Fear), which Stewart organized with Stephen Colbert drew huge crowds. The Washington D.C. Transit Authority registered a record ridership on that day, bolstering the claim of many observers that the Stewart Rally attracted more people than the Glenn Beck Rally held on August 28. The rally hit a nerve among many Americans who believe that we need more civility and compromise in our political life, and less shouting and demonizing. As Stewart said, “If everything is amplified, we hear nothing.”

He came close to telling us that we need to love one another. Yet in many ways the rally was disappointing. It did not have the satirical bite of Stewart’s Daily Show. He really followed his own advice to “take a deep breath, and take it down a notch.” He was scrupulously even-handed in his criticism of the left and the right, but he did not really offer an alternative vision.

Elie Wiesel, perhaps the most thoughtful philosopher of the Holocaust, has said that neutrality always favors the oppressor. Historically, serious Christians have often had a hard time articulating the difference between neutrality and an unwillingness “to return evil for evil.” Reinhold Niebuhr has argued that Christians have this problem internally, as well as in the perception of world around them. That seemed to be Stewart's problem on Saturday.

Thursday, November 4, 2010

Crossing the Bridge

For which of you, intending to build a tower, does not first sit down and estimate the cost, to see whether he has enough to complete it? Otherwise, when he has laid a foundation and is not able to finish, all who see it will begin to ridicule him, saying, ‘This fellow began to build and was not able to finish.’
Luke 14:28-30

This past June was the 75th anniversary of the Sagamore Bridge. As far as I know, the anniversary passed with little fanfare.

People speak of the Bourne and Sagamore Bridges as connecting Cape Cod with the mainland. As a native Cape Codder, I never heard that description until long after I moved away. Cape Cod is not an island, and the canal which was built in 1914 is not the boundary of the Cape. It divides the Cape Cod towns of Sandwich and Bourne. Just a sliver of Sandwich is north of the canal, but almost half of Bourne is cut off.

In Junior High and High School, I rode the school bus across the bridge twice a day. We did not think of ourselves as going to and from the Cape. We were just going back and forth within our town. I have walked or ridden a bicycle over the bridges dozens of times, including the times when the bridge was closed to traffic for repairs, and there were gaping holes just a few feet away.

Simply as a human achievement, the bridges are amazing. I used to wonder how anyone could have built those enormous concrete footings in the canal and laid that massive span 135 feet above high tide.

Growing up on Cape Cod, the bridges were a daily reminder of the huge things undertaken during the great depression. The bridges were built by the Public Works Administration. Of course, people told me how difficult the depression was, but the bridges were a daily counterpoint. When people say that the government can’t do anything right, I think about those bridges and all the other bridges and roads built during the depression.

Economists tell us that without the stimulus of 2009 the economy would be much worse, and I don’t doubt it. My complaint with the stimulus is that it probably was not big enough and not enough of the money went toward infrastructure. Many states, like Rhode Island, simply used the money to balance their budgets, and that minimized the impact. Much of the stimulus went to tax cuts (which no one noticed), that stimulated the economy, but left no lasting achievements.

Bridges and highways, airports, and rail lines provide an economic stimulus in the immediate infusion of funds, but they also lay the groundwork for lasting growth. Our infrastructure is (and has been) crumbling. At some point the legacy of the last great depression will be gone. In order to build a future, we first need to build an infrastructure.

Thursday, October 28, 2010

Leaving a Real Tip

From now on, therefore, we regard no one from a human point of view; even though we once knew Christ from a human point of view, we know him no longer in that way. So if anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation: everything old has passed away; see, everything has become new! All this is from God, who reconciled us to himself through Christ, and has given us the ministry of reconciliation; that is, in Christ God was reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them, and entrusting the message of reconciliation to us. So we are ambassadors for Christ, since God is making his appeal through us; we entreat you on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God.
II Corinthians 5:16-20

A friend who works in restaurant gave me a small pamphlet found when the table was cleared after some customers had finished their lunches. There are flowers on the cover and the message, “Take a Tip . . .” Inside it says,

“Let me give you a real tip! I’ve found something that money can’t buy and I want to share it with you.”

Then it goes on to say, “I’ve usually been content with my life. But one day I was brought face-to-face with a serious matter. It was a simple statement from the Bible: ‘He that believeth on the Son hath everlasting life; and he that believeth not the Son shall not see life, but the wrath of God abideth on him.’” (John 3:36, King James Version)

And it explains the basic choice. You can receive Christ and eternal life, or you can go to hell. The clear implication is that Buddhists, Hindus, Jews, Muslims, Unitarians, Agnostics, Atheists, and (one assumes) more than a few nominal “Christians,” are all going to hell. Then the pamphlet invites you to read the Gospel of John and attend their church.

One hardly knows where to begin!

But I’ll start with a footnote. Biblically speaking, heaven and hell are not literal “places;” they are a way to speak about our closeness or distance from God and from God’s intention for us and for humanity. So in my mind, at least, the whole premise of the message is flawed. As the New Interpreter's Study Bible explains, "Eternal life" is not about a future life in heaven; it is a metaphor for living now in the unending presence of God. In Jesus, we are invited to accept this gift of Eternal Life now and forever.

And if I believed literally in hell and the devil, then I would believe that these people who left the "tip" were working for Satan, maybe even paid by Satan, to undermine the basic Gospel message of God’s love and grace. There are more than a few problematic verses in the Bible, and it is Satan’s task to keep us focused on judgment, rather than grace. Why not focus instead on John 3:17, “God did not send his Son to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.” Or, “God was in Christ, reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them, and entrusting the message of reconciliation to us.” Why is it so easy for some people to believe that judgment trumps grace?

If we go to the text, we find at least two interesting points. First, this is one of the places where the King James Version gives us a faulty translation. In the more accurate New Revised Standard Version, John 3:36 reads, “Whoever believes in the Son has eternal life; whoever disobeys the Son will not see life, but must endure God’s wrath.” Believing leads to life, but it is disobedience, not a lack of belief, that leads to wrath. When we disobey, we distance ourselves, and the "Life" is not in us.

Second, the words in verse thirty-six are not from Jesus, they are from John the Baptist. This is John’s final witness to the authority of Jesus. John and Jesus share a message about the Kingdom of God, and the disobedience to which John refers is the denial of that Kingdom. The issue is not personal faith, but public actions. The “Take a Tip” interpretation is all about individual belief, but the Kingdom of God is about social justice.

And this makes sense in terms of the biblical understanding of “belief.” We think of believing as giving intellectual assent. As such, it is divorced from what we do. But the biblical meaning of belief is really, to give one’s heart. To say, “I believe in Jesus,” means, “I give my heart to Jesus.” We cannot give our hearts without also giving over our behavior.

Thursday, October 21, 2010

June Cleaver and Home Economics

My brothers and sisters, do you with your acts of favoritism really believe in our glorious Lord Jesus Christ? For if a person with gold rings and in fine clothes comes into your assembly, and if a poor person in dirty clothes also comes in, and if you take notice of the one wearing the fine clothes and say, “Have a seat here, please,” while to the one who is poor you say, “Stand there,” or, “Sit at my feet,” have you not made distinctions among yourselves, and become judges with evil thoughts? Listen, my beloved brothers and sisters. Has not God chosen the poor in the world to be rich in faith and to be heirs of the kingdom that he has promised to those who love him? But you have dishonored the poor. Is it not the rich who oppress you? Is it not they who drag you into court? Is it not they who blaspheme the excellent name that was invoked over you?
James 2:1-7

June Cleaver died last week. Barbara Billingsley, the actress who played June Cleaver in “Leave It to Beaver,” passed away at the age of 94.

The Cleavers were the traditional American family in a time of peace (if we ignore the cold war and various minor insurrections) and prosperity. In our memories we are tempted to think of that time as more settled, peaceful and wholesome than in actually was. It was still a time of segregation in American society (by law in the South, and by socio-economic factors in much of the North). It was far from perfect.

But it was a time of rapid, and relatively equal economic growth. The middle class was healthy and growing. Bridges and roads were well maintained, and the interstate highway system was under construction. And relative to today, the gap between rich and poor was much narrower.

Today those in the top 20% of annual income, those with incomes over $100,000, receive just slightly less than half of all income. And the bottom 20% receives just 3% of the total. The top 20% receives 14.5 times as much as the bottom 20%. Forty years ago, the gap between the top and the bottom was just about half that amount. Over the past several decades almost all of the gains in real income have gone to the richest Americans. Middle class incomes, adjusted for inflation, have not gained.

Robert H. Frank, professor of economics at Cornell University, observes, “The share of total income going to the top 1 percent of earners, which stood at 8.9 percent in 1976, rose to 23.5 percent by 2007, but during the same period, the average inflation-adjusted hourly wage declined by more than 7 percent.” Frank’s argument is that this gap has become too big to ignore.

There are many reasons for this income redistribution from the bottom to the top. Some, like globalization and automation, are (probably) beyond our control. But during the post war economic expansion, tax policy was designed to ratchet down the inequality of incomes by more progressively sharing the costs of schools, roads, and our common life together. In those years, the marginal tax rate (the rate charged on the next dollar earned by those in the highest income levels) was never below 70%. Today, by contrast, the highest marginal tax rate is just 35%. And during those years, wages were taxed at a lower rate than investment income. Now that is reversed and investment income is taxed at a lower rate than wages.

In biblical economics, income equality is wrong because it goes against God’s justice. But there are also practical problems. Professor Frank reports that higher divorce rates and greater social stress correlate to areas of greater income inequality. And there is a tearing of the social fabric. Because the middle class is squeezed, voters are less willing to support public services. He writes, “Rich and poor alike endure crumbling roads, weak bridges, an unreliable rail system, and cargo containers that enter our ports without scrutiny. And many Americans live in the shadow of poorly maintained dams that could collapse at any moment.”

The argument in favor of income inequality is that it rewards hard work and promotes economic growth, but Frank argues that this is simply not so:

There is no persuasive evidence that greater inequality bolsters economic growth or enhances anyone’s well-being. Yes, the rich can now buy bigger mansions and host more expensive parties. But this appears to have made them no happier. And in our winner-take-all economy, one effect of the growing inequality has been to lure our most talented graduates to the largely unproductive chase for financial bonanzas on Wall Street.

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

D.H. Lawrence and the Church

For everything there is a season, and a time for every matter under heaven:
a time to be born, and a time to die;
a time to plant,
and a time to pluck up what is planted;
a time to kill, and a time to heal;
a time to break down,
and a time to build up;
a time to weep, and a time to laugh;
a time to mourn, and a time to dance;
a time to throw away stones,
and a time to gather stones together;
a time to embrace,
and a time to refrain from embracing;
a time to seek, and a time to lose;
a time to keep, and a time to throw away;
a time to tear, and a time to sew;
a time to keep silence, and a time to speak;
a time to love, and a time to hate;
a time for war, and a time for peace.
Ecclesiates 3:1-8

CONTEXT, a commentary on religion and culture, will soon cease publication. The journal has been written by Martin Marty for many years, and more recently edited with help from his son, Micah. Like so many other journals and periodicals, they have been overwhelmed by rising costs and shrinking readership as more and more of us get our information from the internet. And, yes, it IS ironic that I am writing about this in a blog.

As a parting gift to readers, the Martys are publishing excerpts from the past forty years. On March 15, 1981, they included an extended quotation from D.H. Lawrence, about the church, excerpted from “Lady Chatterley’s Lover.”

So, with thanks to Martin Marty, today’s blog is written by D.H. Lawrence. And in deference to Marty’s manner of presentation, it is offered without comment:

The old Church knew that life is here our portion, to be lived, to be lived in fulfillment. . . The rhythm of life itself was preserved by the Church, hour by hour, day by day, season by season, year by bear, epoch by epoch, down among the people, and the wild coruscations were accommodated to this permanent rhythm.

This is the wheeling of the year, the movement of the sun, through solstice and equinox, the coming of the seasons, the going of the seasons. And it is the inward rhythm of man and women, too, the sadness of Lent, the delight of Easter, the wonder of Pentecost, the fires of St. John, the candles on the graves of All Souls', the lit-up tree of Christmas, all representing kindled rhythmic emotions in the souls of men and women...

Oh, what a catastrophe for man when he cut himself off from the rhythm of the year, from his union with the sun and the earth. Oh, what a catastrophe, what a maiming of love when it was a personal, merely personal feeling, taken away from the rising and setting of the sun, and cut off from the magic connection of the solstice and the equinox!

This is what is the matter with us. We are bleeding at the roots, because we are cut off from the earth and sun and stars, and love is a grinning mockery, because, poor blossom, we plucked it from its stem on the tree of life, and expected it to keep on blooming in our civilized vase on the table...

For centuries the mass of people lived in this rhythm under the church.... Now you have a poor, blind, disconnected people with nothing but politics and bank holidays to satisfy the eternal human need of living in ritual adjustment to the cosmos...

Man has little needs and deeper needs. We have fallen into the mistake of living from our little needs till we have almost lost our deeper needs in a sort of madness.

Monday, October 11, 2010

Sunday Morning

I was glad when they said to me,
Let us go to the house of the LORD
Psalm 122:1

They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers. Everyone was amazed at the signs and wonders they saw all around them.
Acts 2:42-43

On Saturday Elaine and I drove down Route 209 through Phippsburg and then took Parker Head Road to Fort Popham. From the Fort we looked back across the Kennebec River to Bay Point and Georgetown. It was cool and clear and beautiful.

On the way back we stopped at the Phippsburg Congregational Church, which keeps vigil on the eastern edge of the village, on the bank of the Kennebec. It is a beautiful little chapel, with a traditional high spire that ships once used for navigation. When we pulled up in front of the church we were greeted by an elderly gentleman who offered us a tour and told us the history of the church. We also met the pastor, a very friendly and earnest young man with long dark hair that almost touched his shoulders, a full beard and black horn rim glasses. He invited us to come back for worship on Sunday. And so we did.

The service was, in many ways, unremarkable. Yet it was also wonderful.

The pastor began by announcing that “this morning you have found yourself in a congregation of the United Church of Christ, and that means that wherever you are on your spiritual journey, you are welcome here.”

After the announcements and before the prelude they had a “Mission Moment.” A young woman invited people to consider joining her on a mission trip to the Philippines. She described the overwhelming poverty of the villages where they served. She told of giving a toothbrush to a child and finding out that one toothbrush would be shared by the whole family. Her job on the trip was to provide child care while parents or siblings were being helped by the physicians and dentists. “They don’t really need a tax lawyer,” she said, by way of explaining that she had no professional skills to share.

At the prayer time the pastor explained that prayer concerns could be shared in writing on special notebooks, or spoken out loud, or just prayed silently. Then he said he had sad news to share. Everyone looked up. He hesitated. Then he paused and composed himself. It was as if the congregation stopped breathing. He choked out the name. The oldest child of . . . and again he hesitated before saying the names of the parents. The child, he said, had died in his sleep. There were sniffles. People reached for tissues. They hunched together.

I do not know the story. I only know that it was great grief and they were deeply touched. And in their grief they were bound together.

After the earthquake in Haiti, when Haitians gathered for worship in what was left of their churches, I remember reading several articles about their faith. A number of the writers wrote condescendingly of their superstitions and how odd and ignorant it was that they continued to worship a “god” who could not save them. I wondered what those same writers would think of the grieving people gathered for worship in Phippsburg, or most any other church.

It is hard to explain faith to secular people. They are thinking cause and effect and we are contemplating mystery. They wonder what we get out of it and we cannot understand how they get along without it.

The title of the sermon was “The Pacific Ocean Has No Memory.” He said that was a Mexican saying. We are trapped by the memories of failings and shortcomings and past hurts, but in God all things are made new.

He told three stories. One was about fishermen off the New Jersey coast, who brought up canisters from the bottom of the ocean. When one of the canisters spilled open the fishermen experienced shortness of breath and skin irritations. Scientists later determined that the canisters contained mustard gas from World War I.

In a second story, he told of the recent discovery of more mass graves from the ethnic cleansing in Bosnia fifteen years ago. Muslim men, women and children were massacred by so called “Christians” over grievances that went back several centuries.

The third story was both local and global at the same time. Last week someone mailed a package in Belfast, Maine, addressed to the Japanese consulate in Boston. The package contained the bones of a Japanese soldier killed in World War II and an anonymous note saying that the soldier deserved a proper burial.

Three stories of war and the memories of war. The First World War ended nearly a century ago, and yet it is still with us. The atrocities committed by Christians against Muslims are a jarring counter to the popular narrative that “they” are out to get “us.” Who are they and who are we? And the stolen remains of the Japanese soldier. On a small scale it was a war crime. And it was committed by a neighbor.

We can be held captive by the past, he said, but God is always doing a new thing

We sat attentively. About fifty of us. In tasteful tweeds and cottons. Cardigans and plaid flannel. Contemplating the mystery of life and resting in the grace of God. In the early church they called these things signs and wonders.

Thursday, October 7, 2010

God's Colony in Man's World

All of these died in faith without having received the promises, but from a distance they saw and greeted them. They confessed that they were strangers and foreigners on the earth, for people who speak in this way make it clear that they are seeking a homeland. If they had been thinking of the land that they had left behind, they would have had opportunity to return. But as it is, they desire a better country, that is, a heavenly one. Therefore God is not ashamed to be called their God; indeed, he has prepared a city for them.
Hebrews 11:13-16

Bill Webber died this summer at age 90. He is survived by his wife of 67 years, the former Helen Barton, as wells as by two daughters and three sons, eleven grandchildren, and three great-great grandchildren.

He was one of the greatest of the “greatest generation.”

He went to Harvard on a basketball scholarship. He graduated Magna Cum Laude and planned to go to law school, but World War II intervened and he enlisted in the Navy instead. It was during the lonely night watches as a gunnery officer that he decided to become a minister. After the war he went seminary and then earned a Ph.D. from Columbia.

His wife told the New York Times that he had not been a pious person before he decided to enter the ministry. I don’t think he ever was a pious person, certainly not in any conventional sense. As she told the Times, he went into the ministry to make things better in the world.

He was one of the founders of the East Harlem Protestant Parish in 1948. The church was an ecumenical venture of the Congregational, Methodist, Presbyterian, Baptist, and other Protestant denominations and undertook a ministry with the people of East Harlem.

His experience in East Harlem led to several books, the most famous of them being, “God’s Colony in Man’s World.” It was a classic (maybe the classic) text on what it means to be the church in a secular world. He went on to become President of Union Seminary for many years and continued an activist ministry. His work in Social Justice led Yale to present him with an honorary doctorate in 1981, citing him as “a prophet for the cause of justice.”

I only met Bill Webber once. One summer Sunday, maybe thirty years ago, he was preaching at the Craigville Retreat Center on Cape Cod. His granddaughter, he said, had challenged him about the title of his famous book. “Did you really write a book called ‘God’s Colony in Man’s World’?” she had asked with all the righteous indignation of an eight year old feminist. He confessed that he should have had a more inclusive title.

When I read of his death, I found myself reflecting on his book.

Now perhaps more than ever, Christians are called to be “resident aliens,” as the book of Hebrews describes us. If we are faithful, our values and ideals will often be at odds with the world. We are called to be outposts of the Kingdom of God. Like our ancestors in the faith, we are called to be independent of party labels, ideology, and even the nation. We are called to be, in Paul’s words, “in the world but not of the world.” We are God’s colony.

In this age of political polarization, when so much of the debate is toxic and the purpose and ministry of the church are so easily misunderstood, we need to remember who we are and whose we are.