Sunday, August 28, 2011

Shepherd My People

Exodus 3:1-15
Matthew 16:21-28

"One aspect of the moral life is not concerned with man's relationship with his fellow beings but with his relationship with animals. Since even the Decalogue (the Ten Commandments) show consideration for dumb creatures and commands that they too should be allowed the Sabbath rest ... one expects to find the Talmud also teaching that lesson."

"Indeed the way a man treats animals is an index to his character. 'When Moses shepherded the flocks of Jethro, he kept the old sheep back because of the young ones and let these loose first to feed on the tender grass; then he let the others loose to feed on the grass of average quality; lastly he let the strong ones loose to feed on the tough grass. The Holy One, blessed be He, said, 'Let him who knows how to shepherd the flock, each according to its strength, come and lead My people.'" Everyman's Talmud, Abraham Cohen, pg 235

There is another story in the Talmud that speaks of Moses' heart as well. "A goat kid ran away and Moses pursued it until it came to a tree where there chanced to be a pool of water. The kid stood there to drink and when Moses overtook it he said, 'I did not know you ran away because you were thirsty. You must also be tired.' So he set the kid upon his shoulder and carried it back. The Holy One, blessed be He, said, 'Since you are merciful to the flock of a human being, you shall be the shepherd of My flock, Israel.'"

Is it only a legend that Moses was chosen to lead Israel because he was kind to animals? It could be, but it is more likely that the integrity of Moses' character and goodness of his heart were made manifest in how he treated animals. Such stories passed from generation to generation give life to legends, but it must also be remembered that the Jewish Talmud is much more than a "legal commentary" on Torah; it also contains the "oral traditions", stories that have been passed faithfully from generation to generation according to the mandates of Torah and Moses.

I do not pretend to be a scholar on Jewish literature or scripture and my assessment may be a little overly simplified, but these stories - and others like these - as to Moses' true character reveal much more than what we Christians may have previously known or even considered about Moses. More significantly, I don't think such stories make Moses himself any bigger than he really was because he was still, after all, just a man even if the parting of the Red Sea is probably what we remember first about Moses. Instead we are taught through such writings that there is much more to any one of us than what meets the eye. These stories and legends point to something much bigger than any individual person or humanity as a whole. We are offered a glimpse into the "divine design" that further proves the Lord's plan of deliverance.

As highly revered as Moses is, however, and regardless of whether he is worthy of such reverence is not - or should not - be the point of looking so closely into his life or his character. Clearly the Lord thought very highly of Moses as did Israel. What seems clearer still after such a consideration of stories like these is that even though we have all been endowed with spiritual gifts, we must also have the heart necessary to use these gifts appropriately. Maybe this is the lesson the rabbis sought to teach through these stories. It is not necessarily that Moses had a particular "gift" for shepherding but instead possessed the compassionate heart of a shepherd, one who is charged with the well-being of the flock over and above his own well-being. It may well be that Moses was chosen precisely for this reason even though he also clearly felt inadequate for the job.

So then I often wonder if the reason the Church seems to be faltering and more people are withdrawing from church life AND/OR the Church altogether is because too many of us feel inadequate for the daunting task of being the Church. St. Paul emphasizes spiritual gifts and we can reasonably see that these gifts differ from one person to the next, but the task of "making disciples of Christ for the transformation of the WORLD" is a little overwhelming. It's a big job because it is a big world! So just as Moses must have felt inadequate for what would surely be the biggest thing the world had seen up to that point, maybe it is we are not seriously considering how large a role the Lord would play in our task of "making disciples" - IF - we were to faithfully follow His lead rather than expect the Lord to follow our lead and support our choices.

Notice the exchange between Peter and Jesus (Matthew 16:21-28). Peter surely meant well in his insistence that Jesus must never surrender to those who were intent on destroying Him. Surely Peter believed Jesus could do much more good alive than dead. Surely Peter loved Jesus and only wanted to protect his beloved Friend. And though we might consider that Jesus was a little harsh with Peter - calling him "Satan"?? - Peter and the disciples needed to be reminded in very clear terms that there is ONE road to righteousness - and only one; not several - just One. And this road is much more demanding that simply professing a vague belief; it is the road marked by our willingness to take up our own "cross" - the "cross" that requires our very lives.

There are clearly other alternatives, other much safer and easier choices we can make, but Jesus draws a clear "line in the sand" as to what constitutes the righteous path, the one righteous choice we can make - and that is to follow Him in His life, in His teachings, and even in His death - that is, giving completely of self for the sake of something much greater. It is just as Jesus did at the Cross. He gave up His earthly life for something much greater even than Himself, but He gained Life by freely giving His own mortal life.

For us this is a hard thing to comprehend because we are taught early on - and the Church and our culture even solidify this - that we are to protect our lives at all cost. We don't freely walk into certain neighborhoods because of perceived danger even though we reasonably know there are other lives at stake, innocent victims - mostly young, impressionable children - of a culture that validates the worth of a human being only according to what can be taken from another. They have been culturally conditioned to believe that money is power, and power is what validates a life worth living. They have been convinced through the neglect of the Church that they can only depend on themselves - and that perhaps others must die so they may live.

They lack a shepherd, a true shepherd with a compassionate heart who would disregard his own well-being first for their well-being. These victims know only the shepherd who herds by threats, intimidation, bribery, or the business end of a loaded weapon. These are the shepherds who lead and gather only according to what they can first glean for themselves, and these are the shepherds who will only allow certain "kinds" into their flocks. These shepherds will abandon a flock stranded in a pasture that is used up while they feed on the "good grass" first. And if you think I am speaking exclusively of poverty-stricken drug- or gang-infested neighborhoods, you would be mistaken.

There is not a soul in this town who does not "need" a compassionate, selfless shepherd even though they may not "want" one, but this is entirely beside the point Jesus is making. He is facing an entire world that does not seem to "want" a shepherd even though we reasonably know the "need" is as great now as it was then. This is the call and commission of the Church, the Body of Christ.

Disciples must possess the heart of a shepherd - this is "discipleship" - for the shepherd's heart is the compassionate and sacred heart of the Good Shepherd. It is not simply a choice we Americans get to make - it is the ONLY choice of the righteous ... in the Holy and Blessed name of the Righteous One. Amen.

Monday, August 22, 2011

Shovel-ready jobs: what do we really expect?

President Obama has promised a major "jobs" speech in September when he returns from vacation and Congress is back in session. In speculation as to what the president may propose, the term "shovel-ready" is floating around again as it was in President Obama's early days when federal stimulus was being proposed as a way to jump-start the economy even though stimulus under GWB clearly did not work. Somehow this president and his Democratic-majority Congress believed the previous stimuli were not sufficient, so they went bigger still. Their intentions were noble, of course (remember "too big to fail"?), but it has rarely been proved that doubling down on a bad bet (artificial manipulation = gov't intervention) is a good way to recover. Whether the stimulus worked or not, I suppose, is a matter of one's perspective and party affiliation though in real numbers, there are still millions of unemployed Americans who do not wish to be unemployed.

Having lost my own job in early 2008 when things began to unravel, the housing bubble was about to burst, and employers were running for cover; I can attest to the reality of how difficult it is to find work. It is more difficult still for those whose specialty may be industry- and/or task-specific and that industry is especially hard-hit. After a couple of months, however, when it became clear I would not find exactly what I was looking for, I began to look in other directions even while keeping an eye on the industry from which I was so unceremoniously dumped. What is worse and more humiliating that this, however, is what happens in the job search.

Another company had been talking to me about a position while I was still employed. Because I was pretty sure job losses were only a matter of time at my place of employment, I began putting out feelers and testing the waters. The position being discussed between me and this other company was a high level management position, and I was led to believe I was among the finalists for the position. At this point there was no offer or guarantee of employment, but we were still talking about the job and the future.

After it became known I was no longer employed, the high-level management position was no longer available nor was the corresponding salary range we had discussed. Suddenly the position and salary now on the table were not even close to what had once been discussed. And the hiring authority was quite blunt: "Your situation has changed. I no longer have to offer you a higher salary because I am not competing for you, but what I do offer you is higher than what you are current receiving."

Good point, of course, and he was perfectly within his right to do what he did, but it became clear that this person was little more than a predator that smells blood and senses weakness. He was ready to pounce and exploit the weakness (my need for a paycheck) to his own advantage. It became clear this person was not to be trusted. The lower level job and salary were offered, but I declined not only because of what this person had tried to do to me but also because I felt the position (and salary) were somehow beneath me. I was not yet that desperate. In the back of my mind, however, I really was that desperate, but I could not allow this man to see it. I was sure that sooner or later this man and his 'modus operandi' would come calling again as it suited him if I were to accept his offer of employment. Again, his perfect right to do so - and my right to stay as far away from him and others like him for as long as I can stand it.

The job search did not get much better. I came to discover that hiring managers - at least those I experienced on the search - are incredibly condescending and downright disrespectful. Some may well be that way because they are just jerks while others may simply lack the maturity necessary for that level of responsibility. Regardless, searching (if begging!) for a new job, trying to sound interested without sounding desperate is a tough act and difficult balance and is perhaps the most humiliating experience of my life. Had it always been this way? I had been with my previous employer 15 years. The few interviews I had with other employers during those 15 years were more like discussions among professionals - all while I was employed and not really looking. I was treated like a human being, an equal, a professional with something substantial to say.

Suddenly unemployed, I was no longer so sought after nor treated so well. During the few interviews for posted positions I did manage to land, I was treated like yesterday's trash rather than as tomorrow's potential. I felt I was treated like a bum who could not hold down a job. Companies decide to open a position and publicly advertise this position, and the HR person acts as though those who dared to apply had quite the nerve disturbing their normal routines, and I was made to feel every ounce of that disdain while trying to smile and remain positive - as all the "experts" suggest. It may well be that I walked out unemployed because I felt the "contest" and had decided I would demand - and accept no less than - fundamental respect. I refused to blink. Besides, if these people are indicative of the corporate culture and personality of that particular company, who would want to sign on for more of the same?

I use these short stories and personal experiences only to make this point (as well as maybe blow off a little pent-up steam??). "Shovel-ready" jobs are not going to be pretty. This country's infrastructure is old and well used. There is a lot of construction and repair work that will require a lot of "shovels". Will all those MBA's we keep hearing about who have been reduced to flipping burgers be "too good" or too qualified for such positions? Will these "shovel-ready" jobs be somehow "beneath" this nation's unemployed workforce when they will be forced to take jobs that may pay well enough but will not be quite what they had hoped or trained for? Indeed will those who receive public assistance be "forced" to take such jobs as they become available, or will they be given the opportunity to opt out?

There is more than meets the eye to such an anticipated "jobs" speech and if this president is going to move beyond the perception that he is no leader, he will have to bring the message home with substance and concrete proposals. No more platitudes. No more accusations against a willful Tea Party. Stand up and stand out, Mr. President. You have the mike.

Sunday, August 21, 2011

How Big is Great?

Exodus 2:1-10
Matthew 16:13-20

Since I was a child I had flights of fancy and fantasy that I was destined for something "great". Exactly what that "great" might be and how it would look was - and still is - a whole other matter, but to a child (at least to me), "great" was driving a big, ol' tractor in a bean field ... or riding around on a big, ol' fire truck ... or moving mountains with a bulldozer, or even driving a "big" truck. To a child, "great" means "big" not only because of sheer size but also because of the impact such things have. We notice "big" and even have to make room for "big", but we don't often realize "big" is not always "great" and "great" does not always have to be "big".

Last Sunday alone is a prime example. I shared a story about an elderly couple who lost everything - and I mean literally EVERYTHING - they owned, including their home, in a recent tornado. On the spur of the moment, a united congregation given an opportunity offered a "great" gift to these folks in predominantly small increments. Each of us as individuals may have wished we could do more as several of you expressed, but we often overlook what happens when we join together in a common purpose. Our gift - which combined made this effort alone "great" - was joined with gifts from other area United Methodist churches. The result? Columbia County United Methodist Christians made an unmistakably "great" impact on the life of a family that surely felt little more than despair only weeks before! Relatively speaking, the gift itself may not be considered so "big" in the grand scheme. The impact, however, will be "great" - especially in the name of our Lord!

It is hard to use Moses' life as an example of anything but "big" because of the great and wondrous things the Lord did through Moses. Moses is still very highly revered in Judaism because he was instrumental in delivering the Lord's Covenant to the Lord's people. Though it was the Lord who freed the people of Israel from bondage and slavery, it was Moses who led the way out. It was Moses who confronted Pharaoh and announced the plagues of judgment against Egypt. It was by Moses' hand that the Red Sea opened wide to allow the people of Israel to escape, and it was by Moses' hand that the sea swallowed up the pursuing Egyptian army. Moses did things "big", at least in the eyes of the people who witnessed these remarkable events. But it was Moses' FAITH through which the Lord acted!

There is no arguing that the Church universal does not enjoy the influence it once had on American society and does not make quite the impact it once made in people's lives. Loss of faith, loss of vision, loss of dedication, loss of humility, loss of integrity in trying to be everything to everyone all combine to make for an institution that has, quite significantly, been reduced to little more than a building on a corner to be open and used only on Sundays - and only for an hour. It is no small thing to consider that for 2000 years the Church has been preaching the Lord's Return and for 2000 years the faithful have watched and waited for such a "great" cataclysmic event, the likes of which can only be imagined by the incomprehensible imagery in The Revelation. And for 2000 years the faithful have watched as evil seems to flourish and continue to prosper in spite of the Bible's clear promise that evil will one day be judged for what it is.

Yet in spite of the losses which seem so "big" numerically, there are pockets of evidence that the Church is still very much the Body of Christ. There are those shining moments when a person finally "gets it" and presents himself or herself - and/or their children - for baptism into the Lord's Covenant and into the community of faith. There are those times when preachers can look out among the congregation and actually see a tiny glimmer of hope in the eyes of someone who has finally made a connection between the reality of the world which is and the future reality of the world that will be. It does not seem like much and it does not happen nearly often enough, but these blessings come in such small doses that should help us to remember that as "great" as our Lord is, He still spoke even to the prophet Elijah in a "still, small voice". It may not have seemed like much at the time, but it was enough for the time. It clearly was not "big" ... but it was "great".

It is always interesting to me that as "big" as Jesus really was through the miracles He performed and the healings by His hands, He intentionally suppressed "great". Peter finally seemed to "get it" when he confessed Jesus as "the Messiah, the Son of the living God", as it is written. According to Jesus, Peter was proclaiming not a human conclusion but a divine revelation; that is, a statement of pure faith in something revealed but not yet fully realized. It does not seem like much as written words on a page and perhaps seems even less when Peter later flees for his life, but the "great" is expressed in what the Lord will do with this proclamation of faith as the foundation upon which the Church, the Body of Christ, will be established not only to keep the "gates of Hades" at bay but to also teach the faith for generations to come; including today ... and beyond.

At any given moment the Church may not seem like much, but this is only because we rely primarily on what we can see with our eyes. We tend to look only at the surface for what is readily evident and fail look deeper at what is to come not according to what we can conceive with our minds but with what the Lord can do with and through our faith, the faith of the Holy Church. If we rely only on our physical senses to inform us and enlighten us, we can still do "big" things that will do some good, perhaps a lot of good.

$1000 is a lot of money that can go a long way and, like a basket with a few loaves of bread and some fish, will be a blessing to someone who has nothing. Each would be "big" within a particular context, but each would also play out very quickly because of their inherent, physical limitations. $1000 is only $1000 and five loaves of bread is only five loaves; once they're gone, they're gone. However, if these things are channeled through and offered to the Lord in faith, the "great" impact each will have will be in accordance not with our human sense of compassion but in accordance with the trust we place first in the Lord and HIS compassion! In other words, we offer "big" as a community of people, but offered through a community of faith it is the Lord's Mighty Hand that makes it "great".

This is the foundational faith divinely imparted to Peter. He did not draw this conclusion based only on what he had already seen with his own eyes or experienced by his own hands. It is rather the faith he has experienced much more profoundly; it is the faith that goes far beyond Peter's own proclamation. It is the faith that transcends "personal salvation" that, according to Jesus' own words, will build AND sustain His Body the Church long after He is gone. It is the declaration of establishment not of an "institution" but of a "movement" that will endure through the ages. It is the faith that will call many who experience it forward - AND - will drive many away who refuse to look deeper.

The Church is no doubt strengthened by the active participation of people - and - the Church's impact is diminished when people fall away. There is indeed strength in numbers. It must be noted AND embraced, however, that the Church as the Body of Christ is perfected only in faith. For it is in faith, big or small, that the Church is made "great".

In the name of the Father, the Son, the Holy Spirit. Amen.

Monday, August 15, 2011

The Enduring Remnant

Romans 11:1-12
Matthew 15:21-28

"Separation of Church and State" has become something of a battle cry for non-Christians and even some Christian groups. The phrase itself is not found in the US Constitution but is actually Thomas Jefferson's expression of how the establishment clause of the 1st amendment "builds a wall of separation between Church and state", as he wrote in a letter to a CT Baptist association, because the Constitution prohibits the federal government from promoting or prohibiting religion. In other words, the Church will rise or fall on her own merits and not by any exercise of or by the US Congress. Mr. Jefferson was telling the CT Baptist association he would not intervene nor ask the Congress to intervene in whatever issues they were having with their own state legislature. And judging by the content of the Baptist association letter to Jefferson, it appears they were demanding civil "laws to govern the Kingdom of Christ." The letter itself, however, does not specify exactly what they were seeking.

We can interpret Jefferson's words any number of ways, but the general understanding has usually been that there is no "official" American church or religion. It has historically been taken for granted that Christianity is, at the very least, the "dominant" religion of the United States because the majority of Americans were - and are - Christians, but we are Christians not because the Constitution or the Congress says we can be. We are Christians because our Holy God and Father "so loved the world that He gave His only Son". We are Christians because we believe this Eternal Truth and have chosen to respond in a positive way. We are Christians because we believe this Gospel is for ALL of humanity. I hope.

Recently the governor of Texas participated in a revival called "The Response". He not only helped to plan the event, he was arguably the star attraction though there were others. The whole point of the revival was to awaken our nation to the reality that we may be under judgment because of what we are surrounded by: wars, famine, poverty, injustice, unconscionable debt, fear, and uncertainty to name only some. For his part Gov. Perry read Scripture, shared a few words, and then led the gathering in prayer which included a prayer for the president. The event called the faithful to intense prayer and fasting, those means of grace so embraced by Methodism as necessary to a more intimate relationship with the Lord to discern His will. And people protested the gathering outside the stadium where this prayer service was being held.

The protests centered on the fact that a public official - Gov. Perry - had actively promoted the event. It is said the governor used the letterhead of his office to encourage the people of Texas to attend. Because the gathering was uniquely Christian, the protesters insisted a specific religion was being promoted by "the state" to the exclusion of non-Christians even though "all" were invited to attend. Additionally, the motive of the governor has been called into question because he was widely believed to be a potential presidential candidate who was only using this event as a springboard to his possible candidacy in an effort to appeal to a particular voting demographic.

That non-Christians protested the event is not surprising. It is rather the extraordinary number of Christians who chose to protest the event outside the arena rather than go inside and participate in the prayers. That a state official participated is not the problem because even state officials enjoy the same rights to (or from) religion as the rest of us - as afforded our president who sponsored and participated in the Islamic Iftar at the White House, the dinner celebrated to break the fast of Ramadan (been done since the days of President Clinton). Rather the problem is that a substantial number of Christians were near enough to participate with fellow Christians in prayer but chose to protest instead.

Are we so far gone as a secular society that we would disallow a state official from active participation in a public worship venue? Have we become so cynical that we would question the motives of any Christian who happens to hold public office and chooses to gather in a public place to worship - AND - actively participate? Are we so judgmental as to suggest that any public official who attends anything other than the "respectable" hour of Sunday worship to be suspect?

The answer to all the above is a resounding "yes". We are that "far gone", we are that "cynical", and we are that "judgmental" because we have become entirely too wrapped up in the affairs of "state" nearly to the exclusion of "church". The "state", you see, is where our "real life" is. The "state" takes money from our wages without our consent, the "state" tells us where we can or cannot go and how fast or slow we must go, the "state" issues us a license to participate in the holy sacrament (or ordinance) of matrimony (effectively giving us 'permission' to be wed), and the "state" is coming dangerously close to usurping parental authority as to what our children can or must do.

And we seem to be ok with all this. Oh, we let slip the occasional moan and groan about our tax liability or some other social issue as it particularly offends us personally, but we make deliberate choices each and every day to pay homage to the "state" while the "church" gets whatever is left over, including our time. We have learned, ironically through the "respectable" church", to give heed to our "real" master (the "state") who governs our daily living by its own rules and regulations. By the time we give this master our time and attention and money, we are just too spent to offer much else - especially when we are not "forced" to. After all, we believe ourselves to be "free".

Do you ever notice that the life of the typical Christian does not come close to the hunger and devotion and tenacity of the Canaanite woman of Matthew (15:21-28)? Even by Jesus' own words, He came "only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel", the chosen. By Jesus' own words, there is an implied sense of "entitlement" that is reserved exclusively for the chosen of the Lord even though the Gospel accounts make it very clear that the faithful see Jesus as, at the very least, a point of curiosity; at most, highly suspect. Very few pursue Jesus so relentlessly as the Canaanite woman or the lepers or others who found themselves with a particular need at a particular time. Indeed the Canaanite woman is concerned primarily with her demon-possessed daughter.

Would she have come to Jesus otherwise? It is impossible to say except by what is implied. She was a Canaanite, possibly a pagan who worshipped many gods - that is, if she worshipped at all. It is reasonable to believe she would not have bothered with Jesus at all except that she had probably heard rumors about this "Messiah" who was miraculously healing people. So to get something only for herself and/or those whom she loved, she was willing to pursue this "Son of David", the lineage of which had once conquered that land and united the Kingdom. It was worth a shot anyway. For the sake of her beloved daughter, there was no price too high - even personal pride and humility in her expressed willingness to be content with divine "scraps" from the Table of Righteousness. She knew she was not among the "chosen", but she was nevertheless hoping for a little compassion and mercy.

Where is the "church" in all this? How does the "church" respond? By word of the disciples, devoted followers of Jesus who went to the Lord not on the needy woman's behalf but on their own behalf: 'Send her away, for she keeps shouting after us'. She is annoying us, she is bothering us, she is making us very uncomfortable ... she is putting at risk what is rightfully reserved for us. Reckon?

Here's the thing, though. The Canaanite woman IS the "enduring remnant". No, she is likely not a Jew and she is certainly not a Christian, but she is the epitome of what the Lord desires! She hungrily, relentlessly, tenaciously, and yet humbly, pursues the Lord. She does not "demand" nor expect a place at the Table; she will settle for the table scraps, blessings sufficient for the day. And it must not go without notice that the "church" (the disciples) found her at the very least annoying, and perhaps at most a potential threat to what they believed was theirs.

The faith and hunger of the Canaanite woman is the faith to which the Church is called. This is the confessing faith of St. Peter, the very foundation of the Holy Church. This is the "remnant" that will remain, the ones devoted to the Lord, the ones hungry for the Lord, the ones who relentlessly pursue the Lord AT ALL COST! This is the faith that will hope and settle for the table scraps but will be offered so much more on that glorious Day of the Lord when He returns for His faithful, the remnant that endured to the end. For you see, the Covenant of the Lord through Christ is that of faith, not of lineage, and certainly not of empty religious practices. It is one of tenacious endurance and not of denomination.

Let us be found worthy. Let us be found enduring. Let us be found wanting. And let us be found by Him ... waiting and watching. Amen.

Tuesday, August 09, 2011

Where We Go from Here

One of the most profoundly insightful statements made during the 2008 Republican presidential primary debates was, in my humble opinion, made by former Arkansas governor Mike Huckabee. One of the questions posed of the Republican candidates centered on the war front in Iraq and whether the US should ever have become involved, and the usual "blame game" and "finger-pointing" soon took over the discussion. When it came to be Mr. Huckabee's turn to speak, he said there was no point in going backward to determine who erred and what mistakes were made. The whole point, he said, is that "this is where we are" and this is the reality we must deal with. Mr. Huckabee essentially said it is up to genuine leaders to determine where we go from that point, for the solutions are not behind us; they are ahead of us and must come from within the present reality.

Though I cannot say I was too high on Mr. Huckabee at the time, it occurs to me during this current wrangling about the S&P credit rating downgrade that this is the wisdom, insight, and sense of leadership sorely lacking in Washington right now - actually across the country, judging by the feedback from some of the many news articles in which Democrats are blaming the Tea Party for the whole mess, Republicans are blaming the Democrats ... and NO ONE is stepping up to the plate, including our president. Everyone is reflecting on what has happened, and very few are thinking about what must happen from this point.

Common wisdom insists we cannot afford to be ignorant of history lest we are "doomed to repeat it", yet we must also recognize that the only way we can change the present reality is by the forward steps we take from within that reality. We must be mindful of the missteps made that got us where we are and learn from the many mistakes that helped to bring us to this point, of course, but it is futile to "blame" any one person or political party. The reality is: here we are; and the question is: where do we go from here? Backward into a fruitless past? Forward into a future with a common plan? Or hopelessly stuck in the present, spinning our wheels, refusing to take responsibility, and failing to realize EVERYONE from top to bottom has had a hand in the current reality. In some form or fashion every American adult can - and must - claim ownership of where we are. Only then can we take concrete steps into the future.

To say we are all "in this together" seems hopelessly cheesy and not conducive to forward thinking but before we can speak of "shared sacrifice", we must first share responsibility. Only then can we move forward. Only then will we be able to call upon all American citizens to put their best foot forward, recognize we are not "led by" but "represented in" Washington by fellow citizens whom we chose for ourselves, and offer through our representatives what we are willing to do based not on what mistakes were made in the past by the "other" guy or "other" party but based entirely on what we are willing to endure moving forward. S&P's total analysis of our credit downgrade (and possible further downgrade in the near future) considered, in part, our lack of willingness to work together cooperatively. Sadly, however, S&P can clearly see that the mood of the nation even now is not so willing to cooperate or endure any sacrifice.

We want what we want, we want what we believe we have a "right" to, and we want what the law says we are "entitled" to. That the government had to borrow $1.3 trillion to finance nearly a third of the total federal budget is, in the minds of many, "not my problem. I was promised ____, and I will settle for no less than _____." There is no sympathy among the American populace that the US government, which is "us", with a total cumulative debt in excess of $14 trillion simply cannot deliver on promises made in the past. "It is the Congress' fault, so it is the Congress' problem", we say. So S&P and other credit agencies can clearly see that the people of the United States are a poor credit risk. How's that for reality?

Like the family budget that is getting squeezed in today's economy, the US government (that is, "we the people") must first realize that unlimited borrowing or doubling down (spending even more) is not sustainable action. Priorities will have to be determined according to need and necessity, not entitlement. Every American citizen will have to realize we are owed nothing from the federal government outside of what is clearly spelled out in the US Constitution. Those who can do without must be prepared to do so while those who are disabled or otherwise cannot do for themselves must not live in fear of falling through the cracks.

With the election season coming up, voters must be very careful to wade through the mindless platitudes, empty rhetoric, and pointless finger-pointing that have been the mark of American electoral politics, and demand of all political candidates a clear vision of the future with concrete steps into that vision. We do not need to be told what has already happened because we have already endured the past, and we do not need to be told what candidates will "undo" or "not do". If these candidates want to be leaders and want to be entrusted with a position of leadership, they must be required to act like leaders and not followers of any partisan mob.

Above all else, voters must come to realize we are not electing a "messiah". No single candidate will have all the answers, but what can be clear to us is that if a candidate spends most or all of his or her time campaigning on the faults of other candidates or officeholders, it is probably a sure bet that candidate has no vision of the future but would actually fit right in to the status quo. Clearly, this is not what the future requires because "status quo" has no future. We must listen carefully to what will be put forth in the coming months with the sure and certain knowledge that a simple stroke of a pen or a silver bullet or a magic pill will not solve our problems. Our course of action must be led by wisdom, earnest reflection, and faith in something great than ourselves.

If your candidate of choice can be defined by a cheesy bumper-sticker slogan (such as "change you can believe in" or "cut, cap, and balance"), it is probably a sure bet your candidate does not have much more to say than that. The proof is in the past.

Sunday, August 07, 2011

Resentment: the evil root

Genesis 37:1-4, 12-28
Matthew 20:1-16, 20-22a

In the continuing saga that is the American government there is one dominant, recurring theme that seems to be the stumbling block of responsible government: entitlement. And I would suggest few know what it really means to be "entitled" by the text book definition which is: if the Congress creates criterion and one fits that criteria, one is by law "entitled". We often forget, however, it is entitlement "bestowed"; which is to say we are not born into a state of federal entitlement.

To be entitled to something does not necessarily mean the "something" inherently belongs to us as a "right" we are born with. Webster's defines "entitle" as "to furnish with proper grounds for seeking or claiming something". A thesaurus search will turn up words like, "authorize", "allow", and "qualify", to name only a few. In other words, there must be an authorizing entity that determines whether or not we are "entitled" to anything. Even the US Declaration of Independence appropriately recognizes the appointive authority of the "Creator" for humanity's entitlement to "unalienable rights"; rights "bestowed" by divine authority.

None of this is to suggest anyone is or is not "entitled" to anything from the state, and I certainly do not intend to get bogged down by mindless politics or even a civil discussion of public policy, frankly because I don't think civility in politics is possible any longer. It only occurs to me that in watching the news these past few weeks and reading opinion columnists, "experts" of every stripe, civilian "bloggers", and the like, there is a heavy cloud of "resentment" on all levels of our alleged "civilized" society. We generally agree the system is out of control and we're ok with "spending cuts" in order to make government more efficient, but we are NOT ok with any spending cuts that might involve that to which we are "entitled"; that is, cut the "other guy" who is somehow - at least in our minds - less worthy of equal consideration.

In spite of how vested we may be in the federal system as Americans, we must remember we are, first and foremost, citizens of the Kingdom of Heaven. Our Promise is yet to be. In spiritual terms we are only "residents" of the United States because although we are subject to the man-made "law of the land" which can be changed, we are also subject to the Divine Law that comes directly from the mouth of the Living God and cannot be changed. The Lord alone established a standard of conduct, behavior, and faith that separates His faithful from everyone else - we as His people are "set apart" as it is written, not to be "like everyone else" - and that standard has remained unchanged for thousands of years and is not subject to human scrutiny. Reflection, yes; but not to be challenged because of the Divine Authority from which it comes.

Yet because of how heavily vested we are in the federal system, especially those who have earned or paid their way into that system, any talk about "sharing", "redistributing", "reforming", or, worse, "cutting" any of these programs we are by law "entitled" to causes all kinds of problems, all of which can be traced back to the most base of human emotions, the root from which the fruits of greed, anger, and hatred spring forth: resentment. Suddenly it is not about what we may or may not be entitled to or what has been promised to us; it becomes more about those who are overtaxing that same "entitlement" that might somehow threaten what we believe we have been "guaranteed". And we resent the notion of "shared sacrifice" in a $3.5 trillion federal budget for which $1.3 trillion had to be borrowed because 60% of that total budget insists we are "entitled", from top to bottom, in some form or fashion.

The parallel I am trying to draw between the vineyard workers (Mt 20:1-16) and those of us today living on a "promise" from Uncle Sam is admittedly not entirely fair because the "landowner" in the parable is not a government official and the vineyard does not represent any government. The workers are receiving wages based on the landowner's willingness - and ability - to pay. The "landowner" is the Lord, and the "vineyard" is the Kingdom. Each of the workers is invited into the "vineyard" not according to what is "owed" them but rather according to what one is "entitled" to; and each is "entitled" only by virtue and authority of the "landowner" ... and no other.

We must not overlook the fact that the "landowner", in today's terms and culture, would probably stand to be sued by that first group of workers who had been invited in according to mutual terms agreed upon. The workers were completely at the mercy of the landowner and his word that each would receive a denarius upon completion of the work. In today's terms those workers coming in later should have - and would have - received less because they did not put in the hours, but the deal for them was the same as for the early workers; not an hourly wage but a set reward, a specific PROMISE for giving the "landowner" what he asked - according to His terms and not ours. It is not about the landowner - our Lord - being unfair in any sense. Jesus is reminding us of how generous our Holy Father truly is.

So the parable is not about fair wages or human labor standards. It is about the Kingdom of Heaven, the Master whose invitation is the ONLY way in, and the gratitude of those who are invited in not according to individual demands of what is owed but according to the generosity and benevolence of the One who invites us in - by "furnishing us with proper grounds" - that is, His Love and His Righteousness - for "seeking or claiming" not what we are "owed" but what we are offered. We must also take note of the "judgment", the indictment against those early workers who, though promised a specific rate of pay and getting exactly what they had been promised, grumbled because they were minding someone else's business instead of their own; questioning the Master's judgment, "judging" the worthiness of the "johnnys-come-lately" who were - at least in their eyes - not as worthy ... forgetting it was the Master's RIGHT to offer whatsoever He would choose to offer; irrespective of our perceived "right" to receive.

When we come to believe we are "owed" something - anything, regardless of circumstances - we lose an important part of what it means to be a disciple of Christ. There must not be a day to pass in which we are not consciously aware of what it took to free us - and it is our spiritual obligation to remain in a constant state of gratitude - mindful that there is only one Promise that will endure beyond the grave, mindful that a grateful heart takes each day, each moment, even each dollar as a gift to be enjoyed and shared. A heart filled with resentment is a heart filled nearly to overflowing with anger, with jealousy, with greed, with spite; misplaced entitlement. A resentful heart believes it is "owed" something and forgets that humanity's word - in general terms - CANNOT LAST.

In order for the Church to survive these uncertain times, times in which many are very afraid and perhaps have every right to be afraid, the Church must stand up not as a collection of Americans fighting for government entitlements - essentially leading the fearful to Uncle Sam for relief instead of to the Lord for Life - but the Church must stand for the Lord, for the Gospel, for the invitation humanity receives not by what we have done but by what HE has done. Not by what we are "owed" but by what the Lord has chosen to offer.

But if we are going to spend our time deciding who gets what and fighting and clawing our way to the front of the line so that we will "get ours" first, we will - according to Jesus - turn to find Him choosing from the end of the line, taking for Himself "the last", choosing perhaps to leave those at the front according to what they desired more. "For the last will be first and the first last because many are called but few are chosen."

Thursday, August 04, 2011

Cynically Idealistic

Acts 2:38-47
Matthew 14:13-21

Our esteemed Congress is still playing fiscal "chicken" not only with the White House but also with one another. They claim it's all about leadership and taking responsibility for doing the "right" thing, but the truth is it is about who will blink first. Each side is blaming the other for the mess we're in, and each side is accusing the other of "trying to destroy the country". To them it is not about who is responsible; it is entirely about who is to blame and how to make us afraid of the future if the "other side" has its own way. This is the ONLY way you and I even factor into this debacle. It is little wonder that for years and to this day, public approval of the Congress is running at less than 20% polled. This means 80% of the voting public has little or no confidence in the Congress as a whole.

Some say we need more government control as a means of protecting the lower caste from the upper crust. I agree because it is easy to see commercial preference not for the "right" thing but rather the "profitable" thing regardless of who gets hurt. Others insist the government has too big a piece of American life as it is and is only sustaining generations of "need" and "dependence". I agree. But for all that any government CAN do, there is still only so much any human institution can do. We would all do well to embrace that reality; however big or small a government is, human government IS NOT the answer to the human dilemma.

In the miracle of the loaves and the fishes (Matthew 14:13-21) and in the idealistic community of faith as portrayed in Acts 2:38-47, the government has no role. People who were not getting enough of their "daily bread" were able to go to "the church" (the body of believers, not the lifeless institution) where they found grateful hearts not only willing to share however much or little they had - but eager to share all they had. It was not about "taking" from the rich and giving to the poor. My guess is those who chose to share what they had were probably not among the "upper" levels of society. Yet there seemed to be plenty because grateful hearts were gladdened by far more than an extra loaf of bread - because much more than mere hunger was at stake. Still is.

To gain a better understanding of the miracle of the loaves and the fishes and how it may speak to us today, it is important to be aware of events leading into the story. Herodias had demanded from Herod the head of John the Baptist "on a platter" (Mt 14:8). Because Herod had sworn an oath to give Herodias whatever she might ask because her dancing had so pleased him, he was honor-bound to oblige her demand not simply because he had said it but because he was heard by others who had gathered to celebrate his birthday.

Herod had painted himself into a corner. Worse that the potential outcome for executing an innocent man, however, Herod was more concerned with how he would be immediately perceived by the others; weak, not good for his word, not "in charge", and thus "vulnerable". It was not a matter of what was right; it was a matter of what was expeditious and what might make him look good. In other words, Herod - even at the expense of John's life - refused to "blink".

So when word reached Jesus about what had happened to John, He "withdrew" in a boat to be alone. By how the account is written in Matthew the crowd had also heard about "it" (assuming "it" was Herod's execution of John the Baptist), so they followed Jesus. It is very likely John the Baptist had a lot of followers among this crowd, many of whom had reason to believe they were next, so they also had every reason to flee. If Herod could do what he did to John the Baptist, popular as John likely was, then Herod could do it to anyone he chose when the mood struck him. And if history is any indication, Herod did exactly that.

We could imagine the uncertainty and anguish this mass of people must have been feeling; unsure about tomorrow, uncertain about what "the state" may choose to do next, and they feeling substantially powerless to do anything about it. If there was ever a moment when salvation would mean the most, it was then - and perhaps even now. There is no greater "shackle" than to live in fear and uncertainty. There is no greater sense of bondage than when one would realize that one's life is in the hands of another, particularly one to whom human lives are little more than pawns to be played for political purposes; to appear "strong" in the face of potential adversaries.

So because these people are fleeing and perhaps afraid, standing on the shore and feeling substantially "pinned" with nowhere to go and with no comfort to be found and not knowing which way to turn, Jesus returned to the shore. Having "compassion" as only Jesus can, He came ashore and healed the sick among them. It is fair to say they probably had nowhere else to go. Though they may not have been literally homeless, they surely felt substantially helpless. Hopeless. Trapped. Sick with worry about their future, perhaps, and getting hungry besides. And perhaps as well - fearful of going home under the political circumstances.

So we start with five loaves of bread and two fish. In John's account (6:1-14) there was a boy nearby who had the loaves and the fish, but Matthew does not offer this detail. Whether or not there was specifically a boy with this bread and fish, however, is not nearly as important as realizing someone had the bread and fish. Matthew insinuates this bread and fish were among the disciples themselves when they said "we only have ...", but even this is not as important as acknowledging our starting point: five loaves of bread and two fish. So we can easily imagine the disciples' response when Jesus instructed them to feed the masses rather than send them away! It is likely the same response you or I would each give under similar circumstances.

There are a couple of ways we can navigate this story. One, we can attribute to Jesus' divine power making the bread and fish multiply sufficiently so that there is enough for over 5000 hungry people, each "individual" taking his or her fill with no regard for the person sitting next to them. And as they take one, two "magically" reappear. OR we can look upon a community that has formed out of necessity and a shared sense of commonality. I choose the latter because I think there is a colossal miracle, given my level of practical cynicism, in each person taking only enough to get by and not choosing to gorge themselves instead. After all, it is very hard to tell when and where the next meal will come from. It would be a miracle if no one "horded" for themselves for fear of tomorrow.

In practical terms, then, because "someone" had 5 loaves of bread and two fish it is not unreasonable to assume there must have been others who also had some bread and some fish. It is not unreasonable to believe that from what each had, they took only what they needed and then perhaps shared what they had with the "common pot" so there would be enough for everyone, as in Acts. A community, specifically a community of faith, was being formed with the Son of God as the nucleus; and each man, woman, and child had something in common. The "state" was making them afraid and giving them no reason to hope or to trust, and the Lord was proving to them there was nothing to be afraid of ... and every reason to have hope!

In that moment of community, salvation was as abundant as the bread and the fish as evidenced by the remarkable collection of leftovers. Even if only for a moment, each man, woman, and child was released from the incredible bondage that had only moments before completely engulfed, enslaved, and perhaps incapacitated them. They were free, and they were filled. Within the community of faith and by the mighty hand and heart of the Lord our God ... and no other.