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.

Wednesday, October 6, 2010

For as Long as You Keep in Shape

Then in the house the disciples asked him again about this matter. He said to them, “Whoever divorces his wife and marries another commits adultery against her; and if she divorces her husband and marries another, she commits adultery.”
Mark 10:10-12

When I read the morning paper, I almost always read the advice columns. My interest is a variatioin on Mr. Bennet’s pronouncement in “Pride and Prejudice” that the purpose of neighbors is to provide us with entertainment by their foibles, and our purpose is to provide entertainment for them in return.

Few things are more amusing than the folly of others.

Not long ago, a young woman wrote to Carolyn Hax.

Dear Carolyn:
My father dumped my mother after 24 years of marriage because she let herself go. I saw the entire thing as it happened: She tried to lose weight but gained it instead, she never worked again after losing the job she loved, and spent way too much time watching TV instead. They tried therapy but my dad had already checked out.
Now that I'm in a serious relationship, I keep thinking of these things and how they all happened despite my mom's every effort to prevent them. I'm in shape and employed now, but I'm terrified that someday I might wind up overweight and idle and become a different person from the one I am today, whose boyfriend loves her. I believe these anxieties are causing me to stall on the progression of the relationship. Please help!

Two things struck me.

First, all of the blame is assigned to the mother, who “let herself go.”

As a society we have an oddly split personality and lifestyle. Obesity is an epidemic, yet we are obsessed with thin. Depression is commonplace, yet we continue to believe that if everyone would just pull themselves together, it would all be okay. By this logic, it is her own fault that she gained weight and could not recover emotionally from “losing the job she loved.” And the husband is given a free pass.

Twenty-four years ago he married a young, thin, energetic woman. If she can’t continue to be that person, then he is free to go. He was willing to “have and to hold” as long as there was health and not sickness. What sort of person thinks that way?

Second, the young woman says that she is “terrified that some day I might wind up overweight and idle” and unloved. What a sad commentary. She believes (maybe correctly?) that she is loved because she is in shape and employed.

In her response, Carolyn Hax focused on the mom’s choices, not about gaining weight, but about not getting herself screened for depression and not getting counseling until it was too late. Loved ones, she said, can only do so much. “At some point the victim has to save himself/herself.”

If you’re depressed, and feel unloved (because you actually ARE unloved) that thought is probably not going to get you up off the couch.

Friday, October 1, 2010

The Homosexual Agenda

Then the devil took him to Jerusalem, and placed him on the pinnacle of the temple, saying to him, “If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down from here, for it is written, ‘He will command his angels concerning you, to protect you,’ and ‘On their hands they will bear you up, so that you will not dash your foot against a stone.’” Jesus answered him, “It is said, ‘Do not put the Lord your God to the test.’” When the devil had finished every test, he departed from him until an opportune time.
Luke 4:9-13

When Tyler Clementi jumped from the George Washington Bridge there were no angels to bear him up.

Tyler was described as a shy young man, a good student and a gifted violinist. He committed suicide after his roommate and another student posted video online of Tyler with another young man in their dorm room.

For years, those who oppose equal rights for gays and lesbians have said that they have nothing against the Tyler Clementi's of the world, what they are against is “The Homosexual Agenda.” This tragic event brings that debate into sharp relief.

The “Homosexual Agenda” is precisely this: to create a society in which young men and women do not jump off of bridges in a desperate attempt to escape who they are, because society has told them in a thousand different ways that who they are is not acceptable.

We who are Christians must bear a special responsibility in this effort.

The temptation story is the source of Shakespeare’s famous observation that “Even the devil can cite scripture for his own purpose.” Sadly, too many of us have been Satan’s enablers with our selective quoting of scripture.

There are six passages in the Bible that are often understood to condemn homosexuality. The way that some people refer to them, you would think that there were six hundred. By contrast, there are thousands of passages about how we should treat those who are oppressed, downtrodden, outcast, or otherwise despised. When Jesus calls something an abomination, he is talking about the worship of wealth, not about sexuality.

Those who oppose equal rights for gays and lesbians are often sincere. They are often good people in so many ways. Most of them genuinely do not wish that any harm should come to gay and lesbian (and bisexual and transgender) people. They would never harm anyone. But they are enabling the bullying and the harassing. They are contributing to a climate in which such behavior is acceptable.

Fifty years ago, when the country was debating Civil Rights for African Americans, opponents told us first that they had no ill feelings toward individual Blacks (“some of my best friends . . .”), and second that we can’t legislate love or acceptance. They were wrong. The legislation changed our behavior, and our changed behavior eventually changed our hearts. Laws don’t just change what people can and cannot do, they change how we think and feel. What once seemed strange becomes normal.

Christians need to be God’s angels.

We cannot fly in between the bridge and the water. But we can be the angels who intervene along the way by working for a society in which everyone belongs.