Thursday, December 24, 2009

Christmas Ego

As my congregation lurched and fuddled it's way towards another Christmas Eve service, things felt...well...more complicated than usual. Since I've been at my tiny kirk, our services have been held jointly with the Korean congregation with which we share space. Many years, it's been a great sprawling buffet of a worship, crammed to bustin' with skits and songs and music, all cobbled together at what seems like the last minute. The message I'd deliver would be prepared and delivered jointly with my Korean counterpart, blended and woven together over several sessions of mutual study and preparation. It was a joyously sloppy whirlwind event, a hoaah Jackson Pollack celebration of the Christ child.

This year, though, things going in were messier, and not in a good way. The Korean congregation fell into conflict and imploded catastrophically, and is now in the churchy equivalent of receivership. The mostly Korean young adults who now make up the bulk my still-tiny congregation tended to side with the pastor who has now left, and have a tense relationship with those who remain.

And yet...and yet...we were still to have joint service together.

As I worked to prepare for the service with the retired Korean pastor who is now overseeing the remains of our sister congregation, it became evident that the buffet was going to be a bit leaner this year. No Korean choir. No guest musicians. Even the brilliant pianist who incongruously leads music for the remnant of their congregation required some gentle suasion to participate. From our side, no young adult choir. No bell-choir. No dancing Asian-Santa-girls. Just a small pageant skit. I was ready for this.

What I wasn't ready for was not delivering a Christmas message. While we met to plan, it became clear that for a variety of reasons, the retired Korean pastor expected to deliver the message this Christmas Eve. Not jointly. Not in dialogue. Just him.

I struggled mightily with this. This year has been a hugely hard one for the church. If things don't start trending differently, this could be my last Christmas in this ministry. It's also the service to which my extended family comes every year. And I'm not going to be able to take this opportunity to lead worship? My pride snarled and yanked at the chain.

But as my irritation increased, so too did my irritation with my irritation. It was Christmas Eve, dagnabbit. What possible right did I have to be proprietary or egocentric? It seemed...well...a bit self-absorbed. A bit stunted. A bit small.

I took a spiritual deep breath, and got myself over it.

The service itself was smaller, but both lovely and a bit chaotic, as always. The music was beautiful. The kids in the pageant were endearingly cute. And the message was low key, thoughtful, and on the good side of fine.

Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Warfare and Welfare

With America's right wing now finally deciding that the budget deficit is a problem, I think progressives and moderates need to take them up on their newfound concern.

In fact, that seems to be where things are headed from inside the Beltway, as a bipartisan commission seems to be firing up to make some of the painful cuts and tax increases that will be necessary to bring the United States back into a position of solvency.

They'll need to put everything on the table. That means addressing every major entitlement and welfare program. They'll need to deal with social security. They'll need to deal with Medicare and Medicaid. They'll need to make cuts across the board, including major cuts to one of our most significant welfare-state programs: The United States Military.

Yeah, I know. I support our troops. We All Support Our Troops. But the reality of our armed services is that they are also a significant government work program. They provide an immense amount of funding to American corporations, as our military-industrial complex is one of the few sectors of the American economy that hasn't been farmed out entirely to China by profit-maximizing execs. The armed services are also an employer of last resort for the able-bodied.

It is not a coincidence that we're meeting our military recruitment quotas easily in a time of significant unemployment, where even a few years ago we were struggling to meet those goals. Sure, many folks join the Army/Navy/Air Force/Marines for reasons of patriotism. But many more are driven to it not because they are warriors by vocation, but because they need a roof over their head and health care. Or because the recruitment incentives help pay off debts. Honestly, it's a combination of many of those factors. But I've known enough active military folks to know that it is a place you go when financial hardship hits. It's viewed as a stable paycheck, a place of financial refuge. Yeah, you might have to go to war, which is not much fun. But at least the medical care is paid for, and you've got a paycheck. Even a tiny paycheck is better than none at all.

But if we're going to get serious about belt-tightening, and we're willing to inflict painful cuts on America's schools and our crumbling infrastructure and our poor and our elderly and our children, there's not a single good reason that our armed forces should be exempt.

Tuesday, December 22, 2009

The Manhattan Declaration and Fundamental Principles

I don't generally read the Washington Times. There's something about the whole "Owned and Operated By Rev. Sun Myung Moon" aspect of it that makes it seem like rather less than a real media outlet. I'm always a bit afraid that if I read too much of it I might end up selling flowers in some airport or marrying a Ghanaian woman I've never met in some vast auditorium full of other glassy-eyed couples.

Earlier this week, though, my feed from the Pew Forum for Religion and Public Life served up a Times editorial from Jean Crouse, the Director of the Beverly LaHaye Institute at the Concerned Women of America. And yes, that's the institute named for "Left Behind" LaHaye's wife. Glad to know all the money from those theologically absurd books is helping employ a few ultraconservatives.

The editorial was entitled "A Christian Call to Arms," and was a song of praise for the recent Manhattan Declaration. That document, in the event you're not aware of it, is the latest in a series of conservative Christian declarations of principle that state, with bold and ferocious certainty, that the central and most important themes of Christianity are closing down abortion clinics and keepin' them gay folk from getting hitched. Ms. Crouse thinks this is the bees knees.

What particularly struck me about her editorial were three things:

First, the idea that what is being argued in the Manhattan Declaration represents the heart of "biblical Christianity." I've read the Declaration myself, and it's a pretty well constructed document. Where it struggles, though, is in that core assertion. Throughout the text, it declares that love and caring for all are the central purposes of Christian faith. And then...it repeatedly tries to make the leap to affirming the two great wedge issues of 20th century Christian fundamentalism. It does not succeed. Abortion is at best a tangential issue in the Bible, and while there are legitimate reasons to be troubled by it, it isn't front and center. Same sex marriage is certainly not approved by the literal text of scripture...but again, it's hardly a Red-Letters-Of-Jesus issue. Are these "biblical beliefs?" Sure. But they aren't the flesh, meat and bones of scripture. Arguing that either of these issues represent the essential core of a Christian worldview is a mighty sinew-popping stretch.

Second, I was struck by the idea that "honoring justice and the common good" means the same thing as "enforcing the values of 19th century fundamentalist Christianity." Well, no. In a pluralistic culture, one in which a range of different belief systems form the common good, and within which justice represents the equitable balance between those competing systems of belief, one system cannot take precedence over another. The norms and ethics of my community cannot define what others are permitted to do. The life, liberty, and pursuit of happiness that we are self-evidently endowed with cannot be constrained by the ethics of others. American conservatism...not in it's libertarian form, but in it's nativist form...has never quite grasped this. If Christianity had a legal structure for governing society like Islam, these are the folks who'd be calling for Jesus-sharia to be enforced. Fortunately, Jesus only left us with one law...one which may govern our hearts and minds, but was never intended to be the framework for directly governing the Worldly City.

Finally, I was struck by her assertion that we shouldn't be "rendering unto Caesar" those things that are God's. What we owed Caesar back in the Roman day was nothing more than taxes and obedience. Caesar as a metaphor for American democratic governance requires more. Not just rendering up taxes and accepting the role of government in public life...although Lord knows some folks complain endlessly about those...but a willingness to both engage with and show forbearance to others with whom one disagrees.

Monday, December 21, 2009

First Presbyterian Church of Nowhere

In a conversation with one of my church folk the other week, we were going over the list of primary assets of our earnest but struggling little community. For her, the A-Number-One asset was our building. It's a big and architecturally complicated modernist structure, a building most notable for not having a single right angle where the walls meet. It can be a bit disorienting for new folks. There's a sizable fellowship hall, a cavernous sanctuary, and the requisite slew of bathrooms and multipurpose midsize classrooms. If we we a community of 150-200, it might seem like an asset.

But mostly, over the course of my six years in the ministry here, it's seemed like a) a constant distraction and/or b) a serious pain in the [tushie]. The old roof that leaked had to be replaced in the first three years I was there. The insanely expensive cedar ceilings that had been made to order for the pastor who built the church proved unusually tasty for termites, and many sections of the subroofing were structurally unsound. The AC system that failed every other week needed to be replaced. Energies that desperately needed to be put into the mission of the church were slurped up by the facilities. The endowment that stands as the only reason this ministry continues was tapped, again and again, to keep the building from falling in on itself. It's a common story in struggling institutional churches, but even knowing that doesn't allow you to escape a building's gravitational pull.

This last Wednesday, our cleaning person informed me that the sanctuary stank of sulphur, a sign that either a flatulent Lucifer was paying us a visit or we had a natural gas leak. I went down into the boiler room, where the stench was overpowering. The boiler itself was struggling to light with deep thrumming gasps, as flames belched out around the sides, flickered, died, and belched out again. Emergency calls were made. Emergency kill switches were thrown. Repairs were attempted late into the evening, and a patch put into place.

This last Friday, with a bonafide blizzard bearing down on the city, the temporary patch job on the boiler failed. Again, the stench of gas. Emergency kills switches were again thrown. But though repair efforts went into the early evening, the system couldn't be safely reactivated. So with a week of freezing temperatures ahead of us, the building was without heat. Every portable heater the church owned was given to the preschool/nursery that uses our space, so that the little ones wouldn't freeze before their parents arrived to pick them up.

As we roll into this important week in the life of the church, I find myself wondering about the necessity of buildings and edifices and facilities. Most of what is important about the faith..fellowship/worship/mission/study/service...could be accomplished without a big ol' honkin' building. A collective of little house ministries could manage to get that done, with resources being poured not into building, but into mission.

Sure, a physical church makes some things easier, like hosting events or opening up space for service to the community. Food pantries and clothing closets and mentoring/support ministries really do benefit from having a facility.

Still and all, on those days when the building seems like an all-consuming vortex, I feel a teeny yearning to be the organizing pastor of the First Presbyterian Church of Nowhere.

Sunday, December 20, 2009

The Shoveler

As the Washington Metro area recovers from what is the single biggest one-day dump of snowfall in quite a while, I find myself delighting in it. Not so much the sparkly winter wonderlandiness of it all, or even the opportunity for some toboggan launches off of our carport hill.

It is, instead, a great time to get to see neighbors as you heave snow around. For most of today, the snow has been too deep to drive a non-AWD/4WD vehicle through. That means people are walking, not hermetically sealed away in wheeled compartments.

As I shoveled out our drive, what passed by were not cars, but human beings. To each of them, the natural response was a shouted hallooo, followed by some moments of pleasant conversation. Suddenly, the neighborhood was full of people, people who've lived within 100 meters of us for years but with whom not a single word has been passed over all those years. For those moments, it felt less like a 'burb, and more like a community.

I learned two names while out heaving snow into big piles on the lawn. The pleasant older gentleman who lives cattycorner to us told me his name years ago...and it promptly slipped out of my sieve-like cortex. I now know it. The guy across the street who we've called "Chimpy" for years? His name actually sounds like "Chimpy."

But there was more shoveling goodness. Earlier today on Facebook, I said:

David Williams is reasonably sure that shoveling counts as a spiritual discipline. Like most forms of meditation, it involves prolonged and ritualistic repetition of one particular movement, coupled with repeated verbal invocations of the Maker.

Now, I'm sure it's a spiritual discipline. Not so much because of the silliness I suggested, but because after finishing up my walk this afternoon, I went over to the house of some unusually pleasant neighbors undergoing unusually hard times. Both are older, and he just finished a course of radiation treatment in preparation for cancer surgery. Though I'm hardly the king of cardio, the hour I spent clearing their driveway was more than worth the burn in my legs and arms and back. I talked with them. Shared time with them. And in a small way, made things better for them, I hope.

Deep snow and snowshovels are a marvelous opportunity for Jesus people.

Friday, December 18, 2009

Love, Love, Love

As I traipse through my blog feeds, I make sure a take a little time for the folks with whom I disagree. From secular neoconservatives to fundamentalists to atheists, it's important to stay in touch with perspectives that challenge your own...particularly if those perspectives come from folks who are literate, intelligent, and articulate.

One that I hit a couple of times a week is Hemant Mehta's blog, Friendly Atheist. Mr. Mehta is the atheist who "sold his soul on e-Bay" a couple of years back, promising to at least attend the worship services of the faith that put in the highest bid for him. He went for a little over $500, by the way. The blog alternates between "isn't religion doofy" snark and interesting reflections on non-theistic ethics. Hemant himself seems like he would be entertaining company.

In a recent post, he put up a list one of his Christian friends had written, in which he laid out the responsibilities Jesus people have towards everyone they encounter if they expect to establish a sense of unity and gracious presence. What interested me was the response of Mr. Mehta's mostly atheistic readers to the the last question on the list:
  • Do I love all beings, and if not, am I willing?
Of the three dozen commenters who responded, some noted that this ethic seemed to result in people whose lives were filled with a radiant amount of peacefulness. A larger number, particularly those who felt compelled to directly respond to the question, replied with: "No, and I'm not willing."

Recognizing that love for all beings is really, really hard for human beings, it is nonetheless the roots-rock central ethical core of Christian faith. It has it's ground in our understanding of both the nature of God and the essence of God's expectations for us. Absent that mystical ground, though, is there a basis for loving all beings...meaning one's enemy, too...in humanism? Not respecting their intellectual ability. Not tolerating their difference. But loving them, caring for them, and being disposed positively towards them even in the face of radical difference?

I think it's possible, but saw little evidence of it over at Friendly Atheist. What thinkest thou?

Thursday, December 17, 2009

Churches for Algernon

Back when I was a youngling, I devoured science fiction. Some of what I used to read, like the old classic Asimov stuff, just seems dated now. Punch card computers and 1950s gender dynamics come across as little more than quaint. Other classic sci-fi, like the lucid fever-dreams of early Bradbury and Huxley, is richer and more relevant. These aren't simply grand zappity zappity rockets and robots space operas. They used science fiction to go deep into social and existential issues. It was good stuff.

One of the sci-fi short stories I remember most vividly was the 1960 Nebula Prize winning "Flowers for Algernon." Spoilers will follow, so if you haven't read it...well...you should read it. The tale was told from the perspective of a diarist named Charlie, a mentally challenged young man who is subjected to an experimental procedure to increase his intelligence. It works. He goes from being a gentle, simple soul to being a soaring genius...and then the procedure fails, and he returns to his prior state of being. His struggles with his deepening awareness and his struggles as that awareness fades were intense, meaty stuff. As a bookish seventh grader, it rocked my world.

Yesterday, as I was perusing one of the blogs I feed, I read a pastor musing about whether there is any place for a professional clergy in the modern church. That got me off on a related tangent, not so much about professional clergy as the folks we pay, but about the place of folks who have decided to become "professional." Meaning, to totally focus their lives on the study of our faith. If what counts is emergent church relationality and emotional sharing, the deep knowledge of tradition and language that an educated and specialized clergy brings to the table means very little. Perhaps more significantly, if what matters is JesusMegaCenter skills as a motivational speaker and corporate executive, then you really don't need anything more than a couple of audited Bible College courses and an MBA.

That feels like a symptom of Christianity's decline. I wonder sometimes if the trajectory of the church is heading cognitively downwards, away from the intellectual apogee of folks like Tillich and Barth, of Christian existentialists like Kierkegaard, of well-read mystics like Merton. Maybe we've had our "peak" moment, as our heady exchange with the enlightenment fades. Perhaps we are now drifting downwards, back into a simplistic primitivism where the big and the shiny are the only things that hold our semi-literate twittention. In that church, you don't need someone who has studied deeply, or who spends much of their waking life mulling over the way Christ intersects with culture.

It feels like a loss worth mourning. To paraphrase Charlie's last line in the short story: "Please if you get a chance put some flowrs on Algernons grave in the chirch yard."

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Oral Roberts

The passing of Oral Roberts yesterday yielded some...complex...obituaries and remembrances. In all accounts I've read, he is remembered as a relentlessly positive man, the embodiment of the American can-do spirit. He thought big, dreamed big, and lived big. He kneeled in his big church as he prayed to his big God. He was not, generally speaking, someone that you'd encounter face to face and think: Dang, I hate that guy. He had charisma. He was entertaining.

Then again, he was also one of the most vigorous proponents of the Totally Misrepresents Jesus Prosperity Gospel. He and his family lived the life of the very, very wealthy, because that's what pastors do when they've convinced their flock that blessings will come to those who...um...give generously. He helped lay the foundation for Health and Wealth Tee Vee Jebus Worship.

And he was quite the character. His rather notorious fundraising stunts included declaring at one point that God had told him that unless people gave more to support his ministry, God was going to pop a cap into him. Metaphorically speaking, of course.

I was always a little disappointed that his "Pay up or the preacher man dies" thing worked. It would have been interesting to see what the Creator of the Universe had in store for
him. Would the Good Lord just have done the easy smiting him with lightning thing? Or maybe something more creative, like had him eaten alive by a ravenous mob of zombie chipmunks?

Perhaps the Lord would have just killed him really, really slowly, letting a Priest of Prospering watch his life and and family and ministry unravel as his relevance as a leader within the community of Jesus people withered to nothing.

Nah.

Whichever way, his legacy is...complicated. Requiem aeternam, Oral.

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Interfaith Roundup

Yesterday's conference of Clergy Beyond Borders made for an interesting day. It's always a bit difficult for me, as a near-pathological introvert, to assimilate myself into a gathering in which I know absolutely no-one. Yet conversation and relational connection was the point, so I leavened my desire to wander and contemplate and just plopped myself into things. And new experiences aplenty were there to be had.

It was a bit unusual, for example, to hear the director of an organization of Muslim women lawyers describing her love of Korean soap operas. The need for prolonged emo melodrama is one of those universal human desires, I suppose.

It was intriguing to talk with an evangelical and a Muslim who were both struggling with the challenge of making inroads in secular Europe. As much of Europe is hostile to Islam, and either indifferent to or hostile towards Christianity, faith communities really have a very difficult struggle there. I have a tendency to think the standard toolset of the American evangelical movement tends to be the wrong one. The reflexive resistance to the modern era and enlightenment principles that has come to define much of American Christianity fails miserably in Europe. The Prosperity Gospel also fails miserably, as preaching endlessly about Health-And-Wealth serves no purpose in cultures where they aren't required to fret so much about those things. Honestly, I think the only Christianity that has any hope of gaining a small foothold in Europe is the real thing. You know, focused on the core teachings of Jesus, and content with being a community of intimate faith and service that bears no resemblance to Christendom.

It was heartening to hear that the little cluster of rabbis who gathered in the early evening to light the Hannukah candles were joined by imams and pastors. Wish I'd been there and hadn't been out walking. That's two nights in a row I've missed the menorah. Fiddle. But I needed to move my legs and be out in creation for a bit. There's only so much sitting on my tushie I can take.

It was awkward sitting across from an Indian Muslim imam at lunch, endeavoring repeatedly to connect on a human level, but finding that he seemed to have no interest whatsoever in doing anything other than telling me his name and giving me his card. The card announced his leadership of HALF-A-MILLION-MUSLIM-IMAMS, a fact that he managed to slip in when we went around the room to share our names, and that appears in nearly every google return of his name. Eye contact? Pleasant sharing about family and background? Nothing. I seemed little more than an inconvenient inanimate object that impeded his view of the people he'd rather be talking with. Ah well. So it goes.

On the flip side, it was delightful seeing the light of warmth and friendship that shone between many of the participants, connections that existed before and were being renewed. It was a genuinely hopeful event, filled with grace and promise and mutual understanding. Seeing the rabbi and the imam who organized the event beaming as they described the deep warmth and connection that they and their families shared was an impressive and joyful thing. Another thousand such relationships would change the face of Israel and Palestine.

Also joyful, although not surprising, was the face presented by the Christian evangelicals who were attending the event. Unlike my oldline brethren, who often hem and haw and fret about the awkwardness of non-inclusive semiotics when in mixed company, these folks were unapologetically Christ-centered, each and every one of them. They were as Jesus-focused as the imams were Qu'ran focused, and the rabbis were Torah focused. What my brethren were not, however, was rigid, judgmental, and dogmatic. Instead, they were leading with grace, and following with grace. The Jesus they professed as Lord and Savior...and they did say that...was described in terms that were so suffused with love and kindness towards all that it was impossible to hear him described and not know you were hearing something fundamentally good. As one panelist talked about the heart of Christ's teachings about love for the other, both the rabbi and the imam next to him seemed genuinely impressed. It was a real and significant witness.

Friday, December 11, 2009

Atheist Theodicy is an Oxymoron

Whilst engaged in some highly entertaining back and forth about God and the nature of being yesterday, I found myself suddenly wondering about the place of theodicy in the arsenal of arguments used by atheists.

Theodicy, in the event you're unfamiliar with the term, is the indictment of the divine. Properly understood, it's a challenge issued to a god who is failing to uphold the terms of their relationship with a devotee.

Let's say you're a follower of Cthulhu. You've gotten your hands on the Necronomicon, not just any copy, but one signed at Barnes and Noble by the Mad Arab himself. After years of preparation at Miskatonic University, you've found your way to the submerged city of R'lyeh. You've waited several increasingly depraved lifetimes for the stars to align in the appropriately disturbing eldritch patterns. You utter the incantations through lips steeled with glazed madness, summoning the most vile of the Elder Gods into our plane of existence, where it can begin unleashing the waking nightmare that will consume all of being.

But when the Ancient One finally exudes through the rift, it arrives with a slightly warm sixer and asks you're up for an evening of Super Mario Party with all of the avatars of Yog Sothoth.

Of course you'd be disappointed. The terms of the agreement have been violated! Where's the madness? Where's the gibbering? Isn't there going to be any gibbering? The Ancient One hasn't held up it's end of the bargain! OOOOOH!

That is the essence of theodicy...well, if you're way too much into H.P. Lovecraft, anyway.

Atheistic theodicy generally takes the form of a riff on the problem of suffering. If God is beneficent, omnipotent, and omniscient, then, the argument goes, God is doing a crappy job. Human beings suffer. We are afflicted with wars and plagues and disasters and Glenn Beck. Why would a loving God subject us to Glenn Beck? If you expect clear and mechanistic interventions from the Creator, then you are inevitably going to be as disappointed as an evicted devotee of Creflo A. Dollar.

I understand why the problem of suffering shakes so many folks from faith. There are are range of answers to that given by the world's faiths, some of which are utterly inadequate. Blind obedience or declaring the self-evidently horrific to be somehow a manifestation of God's will are among the more feeble responses to mortal unpleasantness. The more conceptually robust answers revolve around divine inscrutability, a rejection of anthropocentrism, and the assertion of human agency in causing suffering. Both Buddhism and the sentient portions of Christianity handle the question of suffering differently, but in ways that have existential validity...if you're open-minded.

What I found myself wondering yesterday is this: is atheistic theodicy an oxymoron? Can it even exist? I find it akin to saying, "God does not exist, and He's a bastard, so you shouldn't believe in Him anyway." That isn't a coherent statement. You cannot sanely condemn a God that you don't believe exists.

To be fair, I think what atheists are doing when they surface suffering as a reason not to believe isn't theodicy at all. It's a related thing, but not really that gut-wrenching challenge born of existential anguish that comes from the heart of the suffering faithful. I've been there.

For the atheist, the problem of suffering or injustice is just a rhetorical tool, part of the explanation one gives for one's nonbelief and can present in an effort to persuade others of the validity of your position. It's a fair challenge, and one that requires an honest and respectful response, but it isn't theodicy.

It's a challenge to another's faith, not God. Creodicy, perhaps?

Thursday, December 10, 2009

Theoretical Cosmology Ain't Got Nuthin' on Faith

As part of my ongoing meme about the multiverse, morality, and faith, here's a little snippet from a prominent theoretical physicist on TEDblog:




What's interesting is that Deutch's esoteric musings about how multiverse cosmology resolves issues of freewill and determinism exactly mirror my own mystically gleaned musings from earlier this year.

Funny how faith always gets there first.

Wednesday, December 9, 2009

Freedom to Associate and Pluralism

The latest salvo in the endless saga of church/state relations here in the You Ess of Ay will be coming before the Supreme Court in the nearish future. The court case is Christian Legal Society v. Martinez, and revolves around the refusal of the Hastings College of Law to officially recognize a conservative Christian legal association.

It's a fuddler of a case. The college is a public institution in California, and specifically refuses to provide support for groups that discriminate on the basis of religious belief, sexual orientation, race, or disability. The Christian Legal Society clearly runs afoul of that standard.

It isn't generically Christian, meaning, it's not open to all Jesus people. Their expectation of their membership is that of any fundamentalist Christian parachurch organization. On their national website, they clearly indicate that they will accept as members only a particular sort of Christian. Profession of faith in Jesus Christ as one's Lord and Savior just doesn't cut it. Meaning, I wouldn't be welcome. And it's not just my openness to gays and lesbians, or my understanding of the authentic Christian approach to heterosexual behavior. My interpretation of the Christian walk would directly threaten their worldview.

But while I personally find the CLS a wee bit on the Pharisaic side, I can't quite see why they should be refused status based on the exclusivity of their membership expectation. Groups are often defined by a particular governing ethic, and that ethic may come into conflict with the ethics of other groups. Let's look at other groups at Hastings College of Law.

What of the Clara Foltz Feminist Association? They exist to give a forum to individuals with a feminist worldview, and to encourage the spread of that worldview at Hastings. Would a conservative Muslim woman be admitted into membership? And even if they were, would they experience discrimination within the group?

What if a group of Jews for Jesus decided they'd been called by God to reach out to the Hastings Jewish Law Students Association? What if they showed up, day after day, using the meetings to prosthelytize? Could the Jewish Law Students deny membership to the Jews for Jesus? They'd be justified in trying.

Or what if a group of lawyers promoting "gay conversion" decided to take over the membership of Hastings OUTLAW, standing on their religious beliefs and declaring that removing them would constitute a violation of the school's anti-discrimination policies? How would the LGBTQ community at Hastings respond? Would they be entitled to defend the integrity of their organization?

Groups that are organized around a particular set of beliefs...not just faith, but beliefs generally...inherently discriminate. That's the nature of interest-based association. In a pluralistic setting, that will mean that groups may have sets of values that are in competition with one another.

So...what are the bounds of pluralism here?

Tuesday, December 8, 2009

Racial-Ethnic and the "Other"

A recent Thanksgiving gathering of old friends at my homestead stirred some interesting conversation around demography and race. This is unsurprising, given that our little fellowship included two professors of sociology and the director of research for a decent-sized corporation. In particular, there was talk about how meaningless it is to project the growth of particular racial categories in the United States. Racial categories can change, because in a pluralistic culture, race is not a static thing. We're a mongrel nation, and expecting racial division to remain long term ain't realistic.

Ultimately, the box we're all going to check when the census man asks about our race is "Other." Either that or "Mutt."

One of the things that cheeses me off most consistently about my essentially well-meaning denomination is our obsession over demographics. Being decent and orderly and all, we like to keep track of and monitor and fret over all manner of data. And because we're sorta kinda progressive, we tend to fret most intensely over whether or not we're diverse.

We're not, of course. We are, as a denomination, mostly Anglo and aging. Realizing that monocultures are vulnerable both biologically and organizationally, we talk endlessly about the need to be inclusive of our racial-ethnic brothers and sisters. Do we have enough racial-ethnic participation on our committees? Are we training enough racial-ethnic pastors? Do we have enough racial-ethnic congregants?

To which I find myself thinking: "racial-ethnic?" Why does that category exist at all? It is, for the PC(USA), a catch-all category that means "y'all-ain't-white-folk." And though we're trying to be meticulously fair, slapping a big NON-HONKEY label on people seems mostly just to make people aware that they are not "us." It's a recipe for failure.

Some will argue that we need to be intentional about things, that we need to keep track and keep ourselves accountable. I think there's truth in that. But more important than our intellectual intentionality is it's fusion with a culture of intentional boundary shattering in our congregations. To do this right, we've got to couple our intellectual intentionality with a change in the cultural expectations of our congregations. Meaning we're as heart-intentional about it as we are mind-intentional.

What we need, as Bulworth* might put it, is a voluntary, free-spirited, open-ended program of ecclesiastical racial deconstruction.

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*Off-site links may not hew to the Beloved Spear no-profanity policy...so don't say I didn't warn ya.

Monday, December 7, 2009

Principles of War

I have this odd aversion to pastorly books. Pastorly books are that particular sub-genre of religious publishing that are intended to give "best practices" to today's pastors. It's a nice little cottage industry, and I know there's some good wisdom in there. I read a whole bunch of them there books in seminary, and got a great deal out of it.

But for some reason, I like to branch out a bit. Take my own congregation, for example. We're in a life or death battle to revitalize and renew ourselves. It's a struggle, a conflict against organizational demise and the tensions inherent in making the seismic changes that we need to make to survice. Most times, it feels like a battle, a whirling, savage martial conflict against the forces of apathy, fear, mistrust and brokenness that rule over the human soul.

There's a ton of stuff out there on congregational revitalization and new church development. There are how-to books by pastors who have done this before, who have taken little churches and turned them around. There are New Church Development conferences and Small Church Revitalization seminars.

They're all quite useful.

Yet in the context of the struggle, I've been finding inspiration elsewhere. Like this last weekend, when I spent some time studying some of the writings of 19th century Prussian military theorist Carl von Clausewitz. Heck, if it feels like a war against the forces of brokenness, then dagflabbit, maybe I should know more about military strategy.

While his discussion of the disposition of infantry and cavalry aren't really apropos, some of the bon mots from Carl seem to resonate with the battle I'm in. Like, for instance, this little section from his essay "Principles of War:"
Let me sum up once more the last two principles. Their combination gives us a maxim which should take first place among all causes of victory in the modern art of war: 'Pursue one great decisive aim with force and determination.'

If we follow this and fail, the danger will be even greater, it is true. But to increase caution at the expense of the final goal is no military art. It is the wrong kind of caution, which, as I have said already in my "General Principles," is contrary to the nature of war. For great aims we must dare great things. When we are engaged in a daring enterprise, the right caution consists in not neglecting out of laziness, indolence, or carelessness those measures which help us to gain our aim.

There's something about that sense of mortal urgency and intensity that resonates with the needs of a renewing church. There's a tendency for communities that are attempting to reverse decline to be complacent, or to get sidetracked, or to become overwhelmed with the impossibility of it all. "Let's just do what we've always done." "Let's argue about the carpet or the music or anything that helps us not grapple with the problem at hand!" "We're tiny! We can't possibly do this!"

But the ferocious and relentless pursuit of a vision doesn't permit any of that [poopy]. If we see ourselves radically and personally committed to bringing about joyous change, then you put your whole self in. It's a mortal conflict. It's war.

Yeah, I know, we Jesus people are peaceable folk. Our weapons are not the weapons of the enemy. Not at all. But that doesn't mean we're not fighting.

Saturday, December 5, 2009

Once Again, I'm Reminded What A Flake I Am

There's a nice little article on the impact of recent astronomy on cosmology in the WaPo Mag this weekend by Joel Achenbach, with many pretty Hubble pictures of starfields and nebulae and galaxies and the like.

It also wanders into some semi-deep musings about the nature of being and the universe, particularly around the question of the foundation of all existence. In discussing the marvelously intricate physics that makes the interwoven structures of our spacetime possible, Achenbach notes that this marvelous mathematical/chaotic mix seems to give cause to folks who believe in intelligent design. As it does for me.

But he also talks a wee bit about the possibility of multiple universes, a staple of modern speculative cosmology. He writes:
We've wandered deep into the territory of faith. For many religious people, the idea of multiple universes, with only some of them giving rise to life, is never going to be as satisfactory as the idea of a universe governed by an all-powerful and loving creator.
Why can't one believe in a Creator whose Creation extends beyond the bounds of our spacetime to the infinite panoply of all possible being? Am I the only person who feels this? It does seem so.

Ah well.

I guess I'm not "many religious people."

Wednesday, December 2, 2009

iPhone Scripture

In the midst of the whirling chaos of cascading failures that was our worship this last Sunday, I found meself with a conundrum.

As the anthem faded and our Youth/Lay Pastor came up to read the first scripture, I was scrambling to get my MacBook to communicate correctly with the little Dell projector that had been brought in to replace the failed Sony projector. A few tweaks and twiddles were all that needed to happen, and when it was done, things were more or less copacetic, even if the images weren't quite working well. The Keynote was good to go.

With the first reading almost under way, I looked to my right for my old worn well-loved study Bible. It was at that point that I realized that my old worn well-loved study Bible had not accompanied me into the sanctuary. It had remained on my desk in my office as I spent the morning frantically trying to figure out why the church didn't have any heat.

Erk.

Not having memorized the passage for the day, I had...well...forty seconds to find a Bible. I looked around for another Bible, but the extra I'd left behind the lectern for emergencies had somehow wandered off. The bible to my left was in Korean. No dice there.

I now had thirty seven seconds. Do I make a dash for my office? No. Fleeing the sanctuary right before the sermon generally doesn't look..pastoral. Do I wander out into the pews in search of one of the pew bibles? Seemed too random, and most of the bibles were in folk's hands. Do I run over to one of the worshippers, wordlessly snatch their Bible, and scamper back to the lectern, cackling mischievously? Entertaining, but possibly counterproductive.

I fumbled in my pocket for my iPhone, popped it out, and hit Safari. Twenty seven seconds. I called up the bookmarked website of my church. Twenty two seconds. I tapped "Scriptures of the Week." I tapped the link to this week's readings. Fifteen seconds. As the microscopic text appeared on my touchscreen, I touchscrolled down, then did that little unpinchy thing to make the passage legible. All was copacetic, with seven seconds left to spare.

And thus I became one of those hipster pastors who read their Bible verses from an iPhone during worship.

Tuesday, December 1, 2009

Innocent Chaos

It was, by all accounts, a mess of a Sunday.

I arrived an hour and a half before worship, and as I was doing my morning rounds to unlock doors and turn things on, I found the church utterly without heat. It was going to get pleasant later in the day, but the morning was cold, and so was the church. A quick trip to the boiler room and some futile twiddling of emergency override knobs yielded nothing. I put in an emergency call to our HVAC company...but there was no way they could get there before the service. Fiddle.

Right before the service began, our projector punked out. Which means no lyrics to praise songs, and no way to project the Keynote presentation that framed my message. Gah.

A small backup Dell portable projector was secured, but it didn't work quite as well. Nor did it want to be friendly to my MacBook Pro when I hooked it up. There's nothing like knowing you've got two minutes to resolve a hardware issue to focus the mind.

After worship, I encountered a member of my church and a member of our struggling Korean sister church talking in animated Korean over by our abandonware organ. Apparently, someone had hung a large painting from our unused high pulpit. No-one knew who was responsible for it. It was a bright melange of swirling simple shapes and colors on a decent sized canvas. I thought it was rather pleasant. The church folks seemed perturbed by it. Perhaps, one of them suggested, it might be...demonic. Sigh.

As the day wore down, and I prepared to run this month's food collection by the local food pantry, I encountered a young man wandering the church. When I asked him if I could help him, he said he'd like to "meet the owner." I told him I was the pastor, and we began to talk. He was a bit disheveled, but bright-eyed and smart as a tack. He was also clearly schizophrenic. I'm cool with that, as ministry with folks whose minds are wired waaay differently from the norm has been a major part of my life.

As I shared a little fellowship with C, he shared that the painting was his, and that Jehovah had told him to donate it to the church. Well, it wasn't a painting, said he. It was a spell. He had named the spell Innocent Chaos, and it represented the way in which everything is simultaneously distinct and yet interwoven and interconnected. "Things don't know they're working together, but they are," said C. He offered to help me carry our food donation to my car, and on the way we talked about art. He told me he thought all art requires us to make a leap of imagination, to open ourselves to seeing multiple meanings and other perspectives beyond our own preconceptions.

I told him that wasn't just an issue for appreciating art. It's the great problem most human beings have, our inability to see past ourselves and being able to view the world with another's eyes. "Yeah," said C. "Jehovah tells me that's the demon you're fighting with."

Not quite the way I'd have put it, but not really wrong, either.

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Unemployment, Young Folks, and the Church

As we trundle complacently towards the pending econopocalypse, some of the initial damage seems to be most strongly felt by the young. It ain't only swine flu that hits younglings hardest. It's unemployment.

Among the general population, joblessness is at 10.2% and rising. Unemployment rates among older teens and young adults are roughly 90% higher, at 19.1% and rising.

That means that among folks in that age group, we're not just in a harsh recession. We're in a depression. At the height of the Great Depression, unemployment was at 23%...which isn't far from the experience of our newly minted grownups. For college grads and folks looking for work right out of high school, things are financially fugly. And I know from personal experience just how soul-crushing that can be.

I ran smack into a recession in my first year out of U.Va., and it made for a dismal time. My folks had presented me with a chunk of change as a graduation present...but instead of paying for graduate ed school, it ended up feeding me and clothing me as I desperately searched for work.

Here I had a solid work history and a college degree from a reputable university, and I just couldn't get hired. I weren't slackin', neither. I looked for work every day for seven months. It was almost amusing how many jobs I didn't get. I didn't get the retail jobs and office jobs, sure. But I also couldn't get a call back for the night clerk job at a 7-11. Three different gas stations never responded to my application. I couldn't get jobs in the dishrooms of restaurants. My failure to get employment reached it's epic peak when I didn't get called back for a job shoveling coal into the furnace of a state-run mental institution.

Finally, I found work with the Salvation Army, driving vans full of bell ringers and running errands for minimum wage. Yeah, it wasn't much. Less than five bucks an hour, and no benefits. But it payed my share of the rent and fed me. I was truly, truly grateful for that job. It felt so good to work again, to not feel utterly useless.

This week, as I was poring over James 2, I found myself reflecting back on my experience, and wondering what congregations can do to help. So many churches lament about how it's so hard to engage "the young people," while so many of "the young people" are struggling through a difficult financial, emotional, and spiritual time.

Maybe we should think about ways we can be of service instead. Anyone doing anything interesting out there?

Monday, November 23, 2009

Econopocolypse

I am naturally a pessimist. Always have been. When I was a kid, my mom's nickname for me was Puddleglum, after the relentlessly dour but redoubtable Marshwiggle from The Silver Chair. As I saw it then, being a pessimist had no down side. If things went badly, well, you right. If things went well, then things were cool and it didn't matter.

Problem is, that doesn't reflect our agency in a situation. Being convinced that things will go badly tends to demotivate most human beings. Focusing relentlessly on the negative has this unfortunate tendency to produce negative results. Yes, we're just "being honest." We're "telling it like it is." But we're also helping to define the direction in which actions will be taken. If all is inevitably despair and woe, then we may as well just sit around muttering moodily to ourselves and chainsmoking unfiltered Camels until the poo hits the fan.

It's true in church, where obsessing over the insurmountability of an issue can paralyze a community. You gotta have hope, seeing the best case scenario towards which we can direct ourselves as a reality that exists fully as a potential future. As my own wee kirk earnestly works to survive, I've starting fighting more against my innate grimness. I will be positive. We do have hope. Because we do. Because I do. Period.

Where I have more trouble is looking at the trajectory of our nation and seeing anything positive. As we fritter away the days, nothing...nothing...is happening to convince me that the United States will be a healthy, vibrant nation in the moderate-term future. We the people are divided and distracted, and that's a problem, because we the people are headed towards bankruptcy. America will default on it's debt, absent some sort of divine intervention. For all of the jabbering on the right about government being the problem, and how we'd be better off without it, the economic impacts of that on all of us will be catastrophic.

None of our leaders are willing to stand up and tell us the economic truth, not one. That truth is a pretty basic one: if you want something, you have to pay for it. But that's not really their fault. It's ours. We don't want to hear it. Politicians can't make the draconian cuts and tax increases that are needed. If they do, or even hint that they might, we run 'em out on a rail. It's the challenge of a representative democracy. This pattern has sustained for decades, and is without precedent in U.S. history. It spells trouble.

I was playing around this morning with a Budget Challenge game over at the website of the Concord Coalition. The Concord Coalition is a group with whom I feel considerable sympathy. They're fiscal conservatives who've been futilely ringing alarm bells about the debt for years. They crafted this little sim to educate folks about the difficulty of reducing the debt. It's no Modern Warfare 2, I'll admit. But it's still important. It's a little budget creation simulation that allows you to measure the impact of every major budget proposal on the debt, and to create your own budget.

Here's the rub. Play the game. If you reject every major budget proposal that increases the debt, and accept every viable option (my Canadian Army option is understandably not included) that reduces the debt, the debt still increases.

There is no escape. You can't win. The simulation is an economic Kobayashi Maru.

I do not find this reassuring. But perhaps I'm being too Puddleglummy. Tell me how you think our nation will get itself out of this mess. Show me the hope.

Friday, November 20, 2009

The News Within the News

Newspapers are a dying thing. It's a source of sadness for me, because my morning paper is a deeply ingrained ritual, one I've sorta passed on to my kids.

It began for me when I was a youngling, and would eagerly anticipate the comics page each day. As a tweener living in London, I started actually reading the news. It'd be the Guardian in the morning, and the International Herald Tribune in the evening. The Tribune had the comics, eh? I've always subscribed. Always.

Now, things look grim. DC still has a few papers, but they're all on life support. The venerable Post which graces my breakfast table each morning survives because of it's profitable Kaplan educational subsidiary. The others are dependent on the patronage of folks who want a particular spin on the news. The Washington Times only cranks out it's right wing froth because of the generous and ongoing support of it's owner, the Rev. Sun Myung Moon. The Examiner is similarly bankrolled by a wealthy ultraconservative.

Though I think my WaPo will be around in some form for a while, I'd miss it if it were gone. There are elements of print media...like the ability to see more broadly and encounter things that don't reflect your particular interests...that seem necessary for liberalism in the classical sense to exist. It opens our eyes in ways that online media simply doesn't.

Today, as I was reading the recently redesigned Post over my morning coffee, the news that most struck me wasn't the news that was in the national/world/business section, or the news that was in the metro section. It weren't the Sports Page, neither.

It was the classified section. Classified ads have faded with the advent of online sales, but I've been watching with interest over the last couple of months as my struggling paper has seen a massive increase in one area of advertising. That area is the legally required publication of trustee sales and notices of foreclosure. It's been growing and growing, slowly but surely, over the last few months.

Today, it was the single largest section of the Washington Post. 28 large pages of tiny fine legal print dryly detailing the financial collapse of hundreds of lives in the Washington area. It felt like a particularly ill omen, a dying media published on dead wood chronicling the demise of the ill founded hopes of so many families.


Thursday, November 19, 2009

Vampire Fascination

I am always thankful for my children, but I'm particularly thankful in this moment in history that I've got boys.

Having boys means that my household is sealed away from the Twilight phenomenon, that squealy tweeny undead juggernaut. In a store the other day with my tweener son, we marveled at a cornucopia of dreamy Edward posters and smoldering Edward throwpillows and yearning Edward blankets and pasty-yet-appealing Edward snuggies. The art-style was one part young black velvet vampire Elvis and three parts Velveeta, and the big guy could do nothing but roll his eyes. "Girls," he muttered.

This isn't really a new thing, not at all. I can recall watching The Lost Boys as a young teen, and the Hunger as an older teen. I still want to see Let the Right One In. I even read one of Ann Rice's books once. You know, when she was writing about vampires, rather than penning soft-core porn novels or strange books about Jesus. I remember feeling that "oh gosh wouldn't it be nifty to be immortal" feeling. Of course, you always wanted to be the "good vampire," the one who only dines on lower forms of life like woodland creatures and talk radio personalities.

But the fascination is there for most of us, with blood and life and death and eternity. Those stories play off against some deep and ancient memes in the human story. Blood and life are woven up together strongly in the Judeo-Christian tradition. In Torah, blood...menstrual blood...both gives life and is to be feared. It had power.

Among Jesus people, there's a reason the pagan Romans used to whisper about our strange vampiric feasts. "They gather in secret to drink the blood of their god," they'd say. Frankly, whenever I hear my church praise team singing "Nothing but the bluuuud of Jeeeee-zzuss," I start wondering a bit myself.

I know, of course, that blood is just plasma and corpuscles. We want it to be magic, to contain a secret that could somehow give endless existence, but it does not. It does have the power to give life, but that's only because the iron in our hemoglobin carries the oxygen to fuel the processes of our mammalian metabolism.

Eternal life...immortality...requires a little bit more than that.

Monday, November 16, 2009

Confirmation and Membership

One of the great laments I hear from my fellow Presbyterians is our seeming inability to get young folks to hang around. We baptize 'em, raise 'em, confirm 'em, and once we send 'em off to college, we never see them again. Well, maybe on Easter and Christmas, when they show up with their folks with a slightly awkward look on their faces. They do that until they can move out and/or find a job which allows them to pay off the $75,000 in debt they racked up getting their bachelors degree in Postmodern Semiotics from a prominent private liberal arts college.

I hear Target might be hiring. Man, it's tough to be young these days.

Part of bleeding out, I think, comes from the whole approach we take to the "confirmation process." In it, we bundle a group of teens together. Up until this point, they've been a little sub-group of the church, carefully segregated from the adults. They're kids, after all. They do kid stuff, crafts and CE and lock-ins and little mission projects. They hang out with other kids, under the charge of someone who focuses on kids.

We make them take a class on the essentials of Christian faith. We declare proudly that they are affirming their commitment to become a full member of the church. They stand before the whole congregation and affirm their baptism, confirming to one and all that they are, finally, a fully fledged member of the church that has been their home all their lives. There is much celebration, and possibly a bowl of tasty punch.

Then...they go right back to being treated like kids again. It's right back to the same old thing you were doing before. It is empty ritual. There is no meaningful life transition after confirmation. Nothing changes in the way you are expected to live within the church, in a way that totally [poops] all over the purpose and point of confirmation. It's like having to show up to do senior year again after graduating from high school. It's like sleeping alone again on the night after your wedding.

The whole thing is a sham.

I'm trying to shift that a little at my church. The first step is not teaching a confirmation class.

We have a new members class. Period. If you're a teen who's ready to become a member, then you get to have the same experience as older folks who are also joining the church. You get to hear about the faith journeys of your elders. You get to ask your own questions, to surface the struggles you have. You get to be treated as if you are a young person making an important transition into an adult faith. You get to be taken seriously.

That seems important, somehow.

Friday, November 13, 2009

Islam: The Enemy Within?

The tragic Fort Hood shootings has generated some interesting recent correspondence. Being a pastor and all, I've somehow gotten onto the email lists of a series of organizations that assume I think the same way they do.

The most recent message was from a place proclaming itself the Freedom Center, which appears to be mostly a guy by the name of David Horowitz. He informs me that "radical Muslims have infiltrated America's Military." He likes to use boldface when something is really important. I suspect he uses the same approach while talking. There is , according to Horowitz, a "vast internal threat in this country, and we need to fight it."

That threat is Islam. Well, he calls it "radical Islam," but given that objective research shows that American Muslims are moderate and well-adapted to our pluralist society, I think he's casting his net a little more broadly. In fact, once you read his website, it's clear: all Islam is the threat. It is, for Horowitz, an inherently bad religion. Every Muslim is a potential threat. Having attempted to ratchet up my panic level, Horowitz then hits me up for money to support his organization, which is, as he describes it, a voice in the wilderness that needs my $25. Or perhaps that's a voice in the wilderness. Lord help us if he ever discovers the caps lock key.

Were it just him shouting, I might not worry. But all of the American Right is beginning to take up that hue and cry. Krauthammer was on about it yesterday in the Post...the idea that namby pamby liberals aren't aware of the terrible threat posed by Islamic jihad. About how the Fort Hood shootings were enabled by the politically correct folks who just lack the testicular fortitude to come right out and say that the problem is Islam. Not in Afghanistan. Right here.

Unlike many of my liberal brethren, I struggle occasionally with Islam. Not with Muslims. Not with what most Muslims are today, living lives of charity, humility, and submission to God. I also don't let the fanatics define Islam for me. Every faith has it's nutjob fringe, and the ignorant hatred of the mullah-fired mobs who protest and stomp around has more to do with political oppression and poverty. My greatest struggle has been with the Qu'ran itself, which I have pored through intentionally seeking commonality with the ethical heart of the Christian faith, and have been disappointed. But that's another post for another time.

What I see happening on the American Right now is a hunger for an enemy. Major Hasan was not a fifth columnist. He was a nutjob who glommed on a hateful ideology that has no real purchase in this nation. He's not part of a "vast internal threat," any more than the Holocaust Museum shooter was representative of a significant neo-Nazi resurgence in America. As Americans continue to struggle economically, and paranoiac populism takes hold in the core of one of our two political parties, there's real danger that neo-cons and political infotainers will seize on the fears of many.

If America's economy starts to badly tank, and we start looking for scapegoats, that poison will spread. It already seems familiar, cut from the same cloth as another American movement that bellowed and fretted over an unseen enemy within. Lord help us if it takes hold.

Thursday, November 12, 2009

Yet Another Reason for Us To Hate Canada

The American far right just hates Canada.

Canada is, if current rhetoric on the right here is to be believed, as much a threat to freedom as Nazis or Maoists or the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics. We know this because their nationalized health care system...or anything like it...is a sure sign of a nation that has utterly given up all personal liberties. You can see it in their relative lack of stress, and their easier pace of life, and the slow thoughtfulness of their media. It's an alien world.

I hear some of them may even speak French.

While Canada trundles along genially, we are, as a nation, headed for insolvency. Neither of the American political parties are willing to take anything other than the most feeble ritual pats at our endlessly growing national debt. At some point, our vast credit as a nation will run out. It may not happen soon, but it will happen, as surely as a month-long drunken bender eventually ends with you waking up in a pool of unidentifiable fluid next to a snoring Samoan woman in a New Orleans flophouse. Not that I'm speaking from personal experience. No sir.

No country has ever done what we're doing, spending vastly more than we commit to the national treasury for decades, and not suffered catastrophic economic collapse. Not once in the history of humankind.

It's going to be bad.

Yet on Veteran's Day, as I was contemplating America's coming financial apocalypse, I realized there's another reason for the American Right to fear Canadian influence. What would happen to America financially, wondered I, if we didn't just think about having a similar health care system?

What if the military of the United States of America was the same size as the Canadian military?

We share similar land masses. Neither nation has hostile neighbors. Though we fret endlessly about energy security, our Canadian brethren don't seem to have any trouble gassing up their Ford F-150s. They innovate. They have a solid business community. They brew good beer. They seem to be doing fine.

We'd still have a decent little army, one more than capable of defending the homeland. To that small professional army, we'd add in the 80,000,000 American gun owners. You NRA members would be willing to use your guns to defend American soil against tyranny, right? That's what you keep telling us the Second Amendment is for, after all. You keep waving Old Glory around and telling us that gun ownership is a sign of your patriotism. It's why you have the Director's Cut of Red Dawn in your media cabinet. So...I'm calling you on it. You are now eight thousand divisions of Light Infantry Reserves. Hoooah! Wooolver-EEEEns!

We're also a democracy, the beacon of freedom and tolerance in the world. If that's true, we should have friends. Allies. Don't we? Those folks North of the border would help us out if things got rough. As would the Brits.

And if that wasn't enough and things got real ugly, we've got enough leftover Cold War ICBMs to slag pretty much anybody. Ain't nobody gonna mess with us. So...why not? Let's downsize.

What would the effect of a Canada-sized military be on our national treasury? The net effect of that decision would be to save the United States taxpayer over $550,000,000,000 a year.

That's a chunk of change, almost real money, but it's only a small downpayment on the debt, which stands at $11,000,000,000,000 and rising. We'd have to make it a pretty much permanent change to have any effect. But if we did, in my lifetime, we'd be back in the black.

It'd work. And the world would be no more dangerous. America would be equally safe. I mean, why not?

It's not like America is addicted to that military deficit spending, eh?

Pesky, pesky Canadians!

Priorities

About five years ago, the group of ultraconservatives who've committed themselves to torment and disrupt my denomination took it on themselves to help destroy a long standing partnership between my Presbytery and Presbyterians in East Africa. For the better part of a decade, we'd partnered to help build clinics and hospitals and safe-houses for young Christian working women. My own congregation was only part of the partnership for two years, but in that time we put a roof on one new church, dug a well for a clinic, and laid the foundation for another church.

But my Presbytery includes progressives, meaning, there are folks here open to gays and lesbians. So our ultraconservatives sought out the then-moderator of the PCEA, a witch-hunting, demon-seeing, self-aggrandizing Big Man of the most pernicious kind. Their priorities were the same. First and foremost: No Gays. Those hospitals were being built with gay-friendly money! That new tin roof is clearly a bit swishy! Don't drink the water from that new well...it's homosexual water! I had one tiny sip the other day, and I'm already worrying more about whether these pants really match my shirt!

And so the partnership was declared a "partnership with evil." Further interactions were forbidden...and that meant clinics had less medicine for the sick, there was less clean water for the thirsty, and fewer churches were being built for the faithful. At the time, the ultraconservatives in the US declared they would fill the gap. But they didn't. They have their priorities, and having done the damage, they wandered off to find more things to break.

Today, we hear that the Catholic Church is threatening to pull Catholic Charities out of DC, eliminating services for adoptees, the poor, and the homeless. Why? Because of a new law permitting same-sex marriage in DC.

The church has asserted that it's freedom of religious expression would be impinged by this law. If it views gay and lesbian relationships as sinful, it should be under no obligation to provide benefits to same sex couples, or to be open to adoptions by same-sex couples. While I disagree with their perspective, I also think that churches and religious nonprofits should never, ever, be forced to adhere to particular ethical standards in our society...unless they are causing actual harm in a community. So the church does have a point. No church should ever be forced to marry or solemnify the relationships of individuals who do not meet the standards of their particular fellowship. That's what Unitarians are for.

But if you actually bother reading the legislation, that's not what it does. Want to do that? Follow this link, and enter "B18-482." Read it for yourself. If you look through the law, it bends over backwards to explicitly and repeatedly state that religious entities that oppose same sex marriage on the grounds of their faith are under no compunction to have anything to do with them. In fact, the text of the bill spends a great deal of time affirming the First Amendment rights of those who disagree.

What is at play here, when you dig down into the actuality of what is proposed, would impinge not a whit on the religious practices of any community. It seems a bit of a stretch to assert that those rights are being infringed. It's a greater spiritual stretch to refuse to provide charitable care for a community...even a community you view as sinful...because it fails to meet a particular expectation of your faith. That, for all the protestations otherwise, seems to be the threat that's being leveled here.

The measure of Christian faith is not how well we care for our "own." It's how well we care for others, particularly in times of disagreement. Denying charity to those in need for the sake of theological purity seems...well...to indicate a prioritization that just doesn't mesh with our central values. Heck, it doesn't mesh with the values held by most Catholics. Or, for that matter, with the values held by the folks I've known who worked for Catholic Charities.

Some things are clearly and self evidently more important to the faith than others. I think that's being lost here.

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

The Grey Ghetto

I spent some more time today visiting with an older member of our church who's living by himself at a nearby assisted living facility. Dick has no family and can't hear, and doesn't wear hearing aids, so you've got to write things out to communicate with him. It was lower tech this time, as I had the foresight to step away from using my iPhone and just dragged along a legal pad and a big ol' Sharpie. Yeah, I was kickin' it old school, but what matters to me is what works.

When I got there, he was out of his room, so I searched around the facility and finally met up with him eating lunch. He was at a table with four other folks, but they were all...well...lost in their own worlds. They were silent, folded in on themselves.

Dick didn't even look up at first when I tapped him on the shoulder and sat down next to him. He gradually brightened as I wrote him note after note in big bold letters, writing him questions and responding to his statements. But it took a little while. He's just so used to being alone and unable to communicate that it takes a few moments for his mind to warm up to the presence of another.

It was good to fellowship with him, and I'm committed to spending more time with him in the coming months. The visit resonated interestingly off of a blog post I read yesterday about intergenerational congregations. Too many of our churches are either young or old. We've got the hipstermergents and the old grey mainliners neatly separated into different congregations. Even in the heady corporate world of the JesusMegaCenters, their immense flocks are carefully divvied up into target marketing demographics. Kids with kids. Teens with teens. Young Adults with Young Adults. The church is a very neatly and intentionally divided house.

What that means is that the church is mirroring our culture. The boundary-shattering presence of the Holy Spirit is ignored. We fail to be the place for the young to learn just how poorly our culture treats it's eldest. Our old old are warehoused, conveniently sealed away from a society that is obsessed with youth and the young. When I go by to visit, I almost never see anyone younger than me there. And I ain't young.

This is a failure on two fronts. It's the loss of the young that they haven't been taught to see value in aging, in a life fully lived and in some of the deep wisdom that that creates. We obsess over ourselves and our own lives, and in doing so, we miss out on a significant opportunity for personal growth. A society that discourages mingling of the generations is a society that condemns itself to making the same mistakes over and over again.

More significantly, the ghetto walls around the old hide away something that we all need to see. We need to see how the elderly are treated. We need to see the impacts of isolation from the broader society, and the impacts of predatory profiteering on a population that can't often assess the quality of the care they receive.

The young need to see it, because unless things change, that life we so carefully avoid because it bores us/freaks us out will be our life one day. Is this how we want to live? Is this how we treat people who we care about? If our relationships with our elders were stronger, we'd feel this. If our commitments to our elders...be they family or friends...were stronger, we'd look at how our culture treats the aging with mortal horror.

It makes both Soylent Green and Logan's Run look almost utopian.

Monday, November 9, 2009

A Pointless Death

It seems...well...a very long time ago. It was the end of 2001, and the denizens of Metro DC were having the worst season I can ever remember. The 9/11 attack on the Pentagon began it. It was followed by the anthrax attacks and the ensuing paranoia. And then, for what seemed like forever, there was one killing a day, every day, as the Washington area snipers carried out their brutal efforts at extortion.

I remember the fear, that tension that shimmered in the air, as hundreds of thousands of people looked over their shoulders into the darkness, or moved swiftly to their cars. It was a gnawing anxiety that none of us could shake. Our blinds stayed closed. My wife anguished when I'd go out at night for medicine for our kids. I remember the sorrow, as families mourned those murdered. And I remember the relief and exultation, finally, as John Allen Muhammad and Lee Malvo were finally captured through the valiant efforts of law enforcement.

Tomorrow, nearly ten years later and barring the unforeseen, John Muhammad will die. For all of the anguish he caused, and for each of the lives he ended, his life will be ended by my home state of Virginia. He will feel fear, and the sting of a needle, then nothing, then...

His death will serve no purpose.

For the city he terrorized, he is no longer a threat. The fear is gone. For the families who lost loved ones, the pain of their loss will not be diminished. And justice? Justice will not be served. He has only one life. How can his one death somehow balance out the lost promise of so many lives, and the anguish of all of those who mourned and wept? It can't. Will his death sentence dissuade others set on murder and mayhem? If we limit ourselves to Virginians, it doesn't appear to have had any effect at all at Virginia Tech. Or at Fort Hood.

It isn't that I don't believe that justice will be served for John Allen Muhammad. True justice awaits him tomorrow evening. But the actions of the Commonwealth of Virginia tomorrow are not what will bring that about.

If we were a truly Christian nation, we would understand that.

Sunday, November 8, 2009

The Ultimatum

Yesterday was a pretty solid Sunday. Worship was solid. There were more little squeakers in the nursery than I've seen in years. Our praise team did a solid job. After worship, we had a decent new members class. None of them fell asleep, at least, not for more than a few moments, and they were all trying really hard to stay focused. That was followed by a good, productive, and long session meeting.

And during worship, I told Trinity Presbyterian Church of Bethesda that I will resign in a year unless things improve.

It was a conditional resignation, of course. I really like my congregation. They're good folks, and there's a lot of promise and possibility for our future. Things there are totally, utterly different than when I began six years ago. The congregation has twice as many members. It has more than doubled the attendance in worship. Annual giving has tripled. It is now majority young adult, and this year, it's leadership is on track become majority young adult.

But for the last three years, things have stagnated. Stalled out. Gone nowhere. Our membership numbers are the same. Our worship attendance? Slightly down. Our giving? Also slightly down. If we were a strapping healthy congregation, that could be chalked up to randomness. It could be weathered. But we're not. Not yet. We're a redeveloping church that needs to revitalize if it is to survive. And if we're not growing towards a hopeful future, we will not survive.

And instead of focusing on what matters, we've been putzing around or wallowing in negativity. There's been plenty of 한국드라마, and very little telling the old old story. I could complain about how it's this person's fault or that person's fault. I could claim that the malaise is due to the brutal church fight that just blew a gaping hole in the Korean church that we've been partnering with. Or mutter about endowments and their tendency to instill complacence.

But these are excuses. They mean nothing. Ultimately, the responsibility for failure...and for a church, stagnation is failure...lies with me. It's the pesky thing about being in leadership. If this church isn't growing, the responsibility lies with me.

So the first butt that needs to be kicked into gear is my own. Setting a hard and fast deadline for my own ministry is necessary, because without the realization that the shizzle is on the line, it'd be too easy for me to let things stand.

Of course, it's always been on the line. We're accountable for every last moment of our lives. Sometimes, though, we need a bit of reminding.

Friday, November 6, 2009

Healing Ministry

Earlier this week, the Los Angeles Times flagged an interesting little provision in the Health Care reform bill that is currently trucking it's way through the meatgrinder of American politics. The bipartisan provision, which was inserted into the bill by Senator Orrin Hatch of Utah and Senator John Kerry, would prohibit insurers from discriminating against "religious or spiritual health care."

It's intended as a sop to the Church of Christ-Scientist, whose providers bill customers...er...the faithful...for healing prayer. But the bill is written in more general terms, and that means only one thing for my fellow pastors:

Mo money mo money mo money! If insurers are federally required to pay spiritual leaders for healing prayers and services, then there's nothing in the world to stop me...or any other pastor...from declaring that we have a reimburseable healing ministry.

Pastor needs a brand new Lexus! Or a Buick. The new Lacrosse CXS is really a rather lovely vehicle. It's got the blingtastic wheels and the warm buttery interior that every pastor needs to stay centered and shiny. Yeah, it's cache isn't quite there in the North America market, but we gotta start thinking about impressing the Chinese, for whom Buick is the bee's knees.

I'm wondering, though, what the appropriate insurance billing codes are. If you come by my office for a general prayer for health, I'm thinking Annual Checkup. That's gotta be, what, $125? Then there's managing the co-pay, which is kinda a pain in the butt. I'll need to get one of those card swipe thingummies and some new small business management software for my office computer.

Sigh. I really hope no-one tells Creflo A. Dollar about this one.

It's yet another one of those times when I almost wish government was run by VALIS.