Monday, September 22, 2014

A Political Devotional

There are a number of things that I try to avoid with church work. On the top of my list are things like craft shows, ice cream socials, and politics. The first two are simply due to a strong and well-reasoned fear of glitter and an intolerance of lactose; I do not have any theological issues or ethical problems with craft shows or ice cream socials. The third, however, is because of the ethical and theological quandary that accompanies any conversation having to do with politics in the context of the church. As a culture we have tried to separate religion and politics. As a pastor I have tried to stay away from the merging and mixing of the two. 
Yet to claim to be devoid of politics in the religious sphere is disingenuous; religion is, by nature, political and speaks to the current political context in one way or another. At one level or another to read scripture, to pray, or to attend and participate in worship is a political act.

First, consider the notion that politics is about the ways in which one relates to people and is about the practice and theory of influencing people on a global, civic, and individual level (thank you Wikipedia). Because of our disestablishment heritage made concrete in the First Amendment, one aspect of the discourse of American politics has moved to a place where politics claims to be devoid of religion, and many wussy religious leaders (myself included) strive to claim that religion is devoid of politics. We claim that religion has no place in politics and politics has no place in religion. Yet religion is about influencing people on a global, civic, and individual level. When I preach I am trying to persuade people to aspire to a certain way of living and a certain way of being in relationships with other people. In Christianity we tend to embrace an ethic that calls us to treat people a certain way (mostly nicely) and to take care of people who are in need (mostly). Such an ethic speaks to an idea of how the world is supposed to be; a place where everyone is mostly nice to each other and were we mostly take care of people in need. It may be watered-down, but this is a political ethic. Perhaps one cannot so easily separate one from the other.

It is not difficult to push a little bit and see those moments when Christianity was overtly political. The roots of Christianity, the purity laws (as well as others) found in the Hebrew Scriptures (or the Old Testament for you close-minded folks) are political in the way they guide people’s lives. The vice and virtue lists in the letters of Paul and in the Pastoral Letters are intended to shape and mold the behaviors and relationships of a nascent community. Kinda political when you think about it. In the Medieval era the church and the state were closely inter-twined leading to the notion of divine mandate suggesting that kings were the spokespersons of God and of Cardinals and Popes wielding real political power. That didn’t go well when some kings believed that their divine mandate empowered them to go against the current teachings of the church and trying to do crazy things like divorce their wives (I’m looking at you, Henry). Others, like John Calvin, Ludwich Zwingli, and folks who came after them (I’m looking at you and your Puritan ilk, John Winthrop) believed that government needed to be led by religious people who were right with God in faith and action. We have a history of a close and at times messy relationship of religion and politics.

But we have tried to pull the two apart. Part of the radical nature of the great experiment of religious liberty (a nod to William Penn and Roger Williams) was to suggest that the government would not have a religious bias. Because of experiences in England and in Colonial America, people here in the United States thought it might be a good idea to try having a government that was guided by reason, rational, and human decency, but not by a specific branch of any faith tradition. Thank goodness for prevalent preaching of secular humanism and the optimistic hope in humanity to undergird such a notion (sarcasm?). People could be trusted to do the right thing because people are generally reasonable even if they are Quakers or Methodists, or dare I suggest, Baptists! In time the notion emerged and took hold that one’s faith need not be a dominant aspect of one’s political life and that it is best to keep God out of politics. An individual piety emerged and a social conscious diminished.

Note: I realize that I am glossing over large swaths of American religious and civic history. The abolitionist movement, the temperance movement, the civil rights movement, the Religious Right of the 1980s are all examples of Christian political action. The point is there has been a thread in our narrative that looks to keep religion and politics separate.

Yet I contend that religion is to a degree political and will continue to be political and there will continue to be a strain and tension between the relationship of religion and politics.

Some say it is important and appropriate for churches to be engaged and involved in political processes. There are times when injustice is so great that to stay silent is in itself a sin. While in a jail cell in Birmingham, Martin Luther King Jr., famously called out many white, Protestant pastors to join in the cause for civil rights, claiming that they could no longer wait in the arms of compliancy and live with fundamentally unjust laws. When H. Richard Niebuhr claimed that it would be wrong for churches to be involved with or advocate for any kind of military action in the 1940s his brother Reinhold responded that his brother was holding an “illusory hope” and to the impossible notion of a society of pure love. There was a need for the church to advocate for the United States to become involved at the global level even if it was an evil, it was a lesser evil compared with inactivity (he then proceeded to give his brother a noogie).

These are only recent examples of times when Christians were called to be directly involved in the political process of our nation. We hear again and again in the New Testament about the “Kingdom of God,” and are given a picture of a utopian society of equality, sharing, and grace. It is a very political idea and if we really believe it then perhaps we should be working to implement it. To be passive could be interpreted as not embracing such an integral part of the Gospel writings.

Yet on the other hand there is the reality of the diversity of moral convictions and faith traditions in our nation. Even within our Christian family there are many different understandings of what is important, of what needs to be a priority for the individual, and of what Christians should be advocating. Can you believe that some Christians actually disagree with others? Can you believe that some Christians may actually disagree with me? Some may say that the greatest problem that the government needs to face is hunger and poverty and others may say that it is actually abortion and what happens in someone’s bedroom (hopefully a lot of sleeping). Both are political claims, and while they are not mutually exclusive, there is a way in which addressing one may undermine the other. Perhaps it would be best if we just stayed out of politics over all and that way no one will ever get upset, just bored.

The reality is that the practice of religious freedom, while messy, has shown to be positive and productive in helping people thrive. Yet politics will necessarily call for a compromise on one level or another and faith is not about compromise. Hence, there is a mess in the mixing of religion and politics.

Thus, speaking about politics in a Christian context is difficult and messy. Yet it must be done. It must be done because:
  1.     It reflects the basic Christian notion that we are called to care about and for other people. As soon as we speak about anything political we are speaking about the lives of others and the ways in which they may or may not interact with our own live. If we recognize that people struggle and suffer and that we need to do something to help them, our next step will in one way or another be political. Even if it is handing out sandwiches it is a political act (albeit very safe and surface)– a redistribution of resources.
  2.   We are called to show compassion to people. Compassion is a resources in rare commodity in politics today. The current method of political discourse is with a great quantity of vitriol and acrimony and the common wisdom is that the louder you shout and the meaner you are the more persuasive your argument. Yet that is not part of the core teachings of Christ. Actually I believe that they are not part of any of the teachings of Christ. Instead, I believe we are to treat other people with charity, compassion, and grace no matter how much we disagree with their policies and beliefs. This is a way of evangelizing our faith through politics, by being radically nice to others even as we disagree with them. Sadly, today this is not an approach that is practiced by many Christians who are politically involved.
  3.   Power and principalities are real. There is power in the world, governments have power over people and often time enact policy that threaten and harm individuals. Institutions often are given power in one way or another and embrace actions that harm the least of society. Again, we are to try to take care of other people, and that means we work to make sure that wherever power is, it acts and moves for the benefit of the poor, orphans, widows, and the like. Kinda like the prophets, Christians can and should be an influencing presence with institutions and governments (powers and principalities).

So get involved, be political, get riled, but do so with a lot of compassion, with a lot of prayer, and with a lot of humility. Think about the least of our society, pray for guidance, hold your nose, and be political. Start with reading your Bible, which can be a very dangerous and political act, and then get your hands messy and pray for forgiveness because whenever we get involved in politics we will most likely need it.

Monday, September 08, 2014

The Pain of Growing Up

Growing old, growing up hurts; this is a reality of life.
 Growing up, maturing, going out into the adult world will hurt. 

They don’t tell you this at graduation, the commencement speaker does not add such a statement to the litany of positive affirmations that are so bland and surface that they really mean nothing. Yet I would argue that it is a truth with which we all grapple. Growing old is difficult.  Part of the tragedy of such a reality is that we cannot avoid it; we are all getting older and are growing up in our own ways and there really is not anything we can do to avoid it (except die, which I am not at all advocating!). There are a number of mediums (movies, art forms, books, songs, etc.) that wrestle with this truth of existence. Some deal with this reality with a Pollyannaish kind of optimism telling the audience that it is all going to be ok and there are plenty of rainbows and unicorns to be found in adulthood if you just look hard enough. Life is a giant PEZ dispenser popping out sweet pill goodness. Some people actually believe this crap.  Some tell you that you only have to hold onto your youthful idealism and then you will never have to face the cold, harsh reality of life in its fullest. Keep wearing the hip-hugging jeans, the t-shirts with Hasbro toys on the front, and the ironic 1970s movie references because then you are still holding onto your youth (or at least a very sad dream and illusion). Then there are those works that looks the specter of aging and maturing in the face with all the good and horror that it has to offer and say, “bring it on.” These are people who embrace the truth that growing old is painful and do not run away. I feel that Karen Russell’s book Swamplandia! offers this realistic, macabre look at the travails of becoming an adult and does not run from the reality of the pain of maturing.

Warning, spoilers abound!

What I found great about Russell’s book is that it offers a realistic view of life through very metaphorical, fantastical, and mystical themes. In Swamplandia! we meet a family of alligator wrestlers running a perverse kind of theme park in the Florida Everglades, living a dream and a lie in its greatest fashion complete with security blankets of multiple kinds. It is after the mother of this family dies that the rest have to grow up and start to encounter the pain as well as the wonder of life. One by one each character in Russell’s book has to search, take chances, and try to find their own way in this new, uncharted life. Each one suffers, each one loses something, and each one grows. The brother endures insult and injury working at a rival park experiencing the “real world” like a bucket of ice water poured on top of his head (and he wasn’t even challenged to do so). The older daughter tries to escape to a forgotten time with a ghost who promises love forever only to be left at the altar. The youngest daughter, searching for her sister, joins with a magical “birdman” in an almost Homeric Odyssey until she realizes that her traveling companion is nothing more than a perverted, lost, old man. Each travel, each struggle, and each suffer as they leave the theme park of their youth and enter into the real world.

And there is no happy ending.

This is where I find Russell’s book refreshing and difficult. There isn’t a sad, tragic ending, but things are not brought to a satisfying conclusion. With my first read I found myself looking for the happy conclusion where everyone was able to return to their home, to their comforts, and to their illusions that they once knew. I yearned for a happy ending and was found wanting. It is not a tragic ending. It is not an ending with a body count rivaling many movies today, but it was not a happy, return to glory ending. So I had to sit with the uncomfortable place where Russell leaves the reader.

It is a real ending. It is an ending that fits life. We work, we struggle, we do well, or we fail and then we continue. This is life as the great existentialists, Camus or Sartre, would describe it (without the French accent, beret, and cigarette). Perhaps they would applaud such a realistic work even as it drips with metaphor and symbolism. It is a book that speaks to the difficulty of growing up in a realistic way, and after pondering, musing, and reflecting, I have found the ending refreshing and perhaps instructive.

With each character they had to endure their own journey in their own way. Yet to a degree they held to their roots, to who they were. One saves a girl from drowning due in part, to his training wrestling alligators. Another survives in the Everglade wilderness because of her knowledge in the land, and another escapes danger through an alligator pit because of her training and upbringing. We move on, but we do not leave our childhood. They are our roots. They are in large part who we are for better or worse. Trying to leave is painful and important, yet what we learn, who we are can help us survive the journey and the next stage of life and we never fully leave who we are.

Now for the theological bit: think about conversion. When we hear the word, “conversion” we often think that it is referring to a complete change of the person/thing in question. One converts from one position to another. We would not usually think about conversion in the sense of growing up, yet perhaps we should. I am not suggesting that religious conversion necessarily speaks to a move from adolescence (unbelieving) to adulthood (believing). I have had too many interactions with winey, annoying, immature Christians to make such a statement. What I am suggesting that even though there a change does occur through conversion (religious or otherwise), there is always that aspect of the individual that stays the same. That person still has the memories, the experiences, the values and ideals that influenced the conversion in the first place. Yes, the person has changed, but there still is the sameness that continues in the converted. The characters in Swamplandia! were changed through their experience, but continued to carry and stay connected with their identity as it was shaped in the swamps and with the alligators.

In addition to this, conversion is not easy. Part of the work of conversion is trying to navigate one’s life with a new identity. Now that you believe “x” how will you spend your evenings, your weekends, and eat your pig? Post-conversion, one needs to navigate one’s life in new and different ways. This is not easy but is a reality of moving from one place to another. In evangelical circles conversion is painted as a moment where one experiences a profound experience, has a lightning flash, mountaintop moment, and is a new and changed person. While this experience may happen, it is only a part of one’s conversion. Work is needed to get to that moment and work is needed after that moment. Things will be lost just as they are gained; this is a reality of conversion.

So from a theological perspective we can see how Russell’s book may speak to the experience of conversion. Not the powerful, wonderful, flash-in-a-moment conversion where one minute you are a regular person and the next you are a bundle of nutrients for an alligator, but the slow, deliberate process of moving from one place of belief to another and all of the pain and beauty that such a process takes.

So I encourage all neophyte believers of whatever doctrine, belief, or faith tradition to read Swamplandia! and ask yourself what it is that you are going to have to let go of, what is it that you are going to have to do differently, and where is it going to hurt the most in order to stay true to your newly found convictions of faith.

Monday, June 30, 2014

Honest Storytelling... But Not Too Honest

Just telling the facts, just giving the minimum details to an event does not always make for a good story. Actually is seldom makes for a good story. Case in point, Hester Rumberg’s non-fiction work, Ten Degrees of Reckoning: A True Story of Survival. In this work Rumberg retells the harrowing events of the Sleavin family, the tragedy that befell them while they were at sea, and the mother’s (Judith Sleavin) struggle to survive and reclaim a sense of life. It is a powerful and gripping story that begs to be told for many reasons. It tells of gross corporate negligence, of the frustration of the court system on the national and international level, of one woman’s strength and hope, and of the beauty that can be found in a family. There are many reasons to tell this story and many ways that it can be told. In each and every way the truth, the facts, the basics of the story can be maintained while holding up a nuance of the narrative. Sadly, I do not feel that Hester Rumberg does the story justice.

Rumberg, a physician by training and a sailor by hobby and passion does a good job gathering the details, learning as much as she can, sharing as much of the details and the back story as she can and does a fine job in this pursuit. Yet in spinning the web, in telling the story, Rumberg falls short. All the details are there, the facts are present, but the narrative core is missing making this a mediocre work.

It should be said that Rumberg is a friend of Judith Sleavin, and someone that Sleavin trusts to tell the story. Rumberg should be applauded for shouldering the mantel of telling her friend’s tragic story. This is not an easy task. Yet something is missing.

Rumberg is not a writer. She is not a journalist. She is not someone who has practiced the art of writing, of telling a tale, of finding and fleshing out the story. True to her training as a radiologist, she looks at the story and tells what happened, but that does not pull out the story.

One story has many facets. Think of the four different stories of Jesus (Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John. They are in the later part of the Bible in case you weren’t sure). These are all working with many of the same facts, many of the same bits of information and yet all offer slightly different pictures of Jesus. One goes into great effort to connect the teachings of Jesus with the teachings of Moses and the Prophets. Another shows how the person and ministry of Jesus is one that goes beyond the rules and expectations of Judaism to include outsiders. Another offers a more “spiritual/mystical” view of Jesus’ teachings and ideas but one that does not diminish Jesus’ humanity. In the Bible we have four stories of the same person. Overlapping facts. Overlapping details, yet each one offers a different nuance in the narrative.

This does not make one “true” and another “false,” but is honest and true to the subjectivity that is going to be present whenever one begins to tell a story. Even if the story is autobiographical, it will still have nuance and bias. This is a reality to journalism, to storytelling, and is important to realize and embrace. The trick, so often, is to decide what your "bias" is going to be, what the angle of the story will be, and then to fully embrace it. That is good storytelling and as long as one holds to the facts it is also "truth-telling."

There is a story to tell in this book, and it is a good and powerful story. Scratch that. There are many stories to tell, and they can be good and powerful. What one needs to do is to take a chance, embrace a story, and then, without apology, tell it.

Thursday, June 12, 2014

Listen, Read, Play

In a recent episode of my podcast I am joined with the Rev. Tom Wiles to discuss using Jazz in reading and interpreting scripture. You can listen via this link or subscribe to the podcast on iTunes under "twelve enough"

Monday, June 02, 2014

Down With Original Sin!

I recently found an article on the Associated Baptist Press pointing to Albert Mohler’s use of Original Sin as an explanation for toddlers’ bad behavior. Mohler was responding to a Wall Street Journal article that discussed aggressive behavior in 2-3 year old boys and girls. Mohler’s response: it is the fault of original sin.


Very helpful.

That must be why many Southern Baptist are baptizing their children before the age of 5. The kids are brats, they are brats because of original sin, therefore if you “wash them of their sins” via baptism they will no longer be brats. But that doesn’t seem to work. Instead what you end up with is a 3-year-old who is now selfish and angry and wet and not fully understanding why they were forced underwater. That will make for great therapy sessions in the future (and when is that no different from infant baptism?).

What does it help to tell people that their kids are acting out because of original sin? Instead of helping it seems to take away any hope for the parents to teach their child the behaviors of sharing, empathy, fairness, etc. It is saying that no matter how much you try your child will always act out because they are born rotten. Unless, of course, you hit your child because “spare the rod” and all that crap, and a good beating will set the child straight. Mohler is quick to tell us that “time-outs” wont work but says spanking is. Based on what theology? This is an arcane kind of logic that leads to more therapy.

Let it be said, there is never a good reason to hurt, hit, beat, or use any kind of capital punishment on a child. It does not help or beat the sin out of them in any way at all. That is just stupid. Spanking is stupid (are you angry at me yet?).

What kind of message are we sending when we tell people that they are born bad, rotten, evil, broken people. Yes, we are all born with tendencies to be selfish, hurtful, prideful, envious, mean, and cruel. We are also born with tendencies to be gentle, compassionate, loving, merciful, and in general good. Often time children are a mixture of all of these things in a single moment. That is what makes them so much fun.

What kind of message are we sending that says we believe in a God who holds us responsible for someone’s misguided decisions based on the hissing of a serpent thousands of years ago (i.e. the Adam and Garden of Eden story)? This is a God who just cannot let it go. What does it further say that the only way this God will stop blaming us for what someone did thousands of years ago is to demand a human sacrifice, and that the sacrifice be his own son (who is also him, but not so much because atonement theory favors Jesus more as the son then as God incarnate… do I smell a heresy?).

Can we please move beyond the idea of original sin? Can we please excise it from our lexicon of Christian theology, tear it out of our Sunday School books, stop teaching it, pushing it, and basing our faith and commitment to Christ on it? Let the cruel, inhumane doctrine of original sin fester in the heap of theological ideas whose times have come to pass with: biblical literacy, patriarchy, the notion of the elect, damnation, and hell (and I am sure that there are others… are you angry at me yet?).

We are born searching, yearning, and desiring relationships. We are born with an original need to be in communion with others and with the divine. Part of being human is learning how to be in a relationship that gives and takes and grows together. Sometimes toddlers are just cranky, or mean, and are still learning how to be a good person. Sometimes grown people are still learning that as well. Maybe some day I’ll learn how to like and respect Mohler’s writings; while he keeps pushing his outdated, and dangerous and bad theology, respecting and liking Mohler will be difficult to achieve.