Thursday, July 19, 2018

Imagination and Thoughts on Confession

What are the things we as Christians are to do with one another? Love one another, forgive one another come to mind. James says we are to confess our sins to each other. Unfortunately confession is often understood as one of the things we must do to appease an angry God. In reality it is part of prayer, which James describes as being good in all circumstances. It is also part of the interaction that is to take place in the body of Christ. It is intended to be a blessing.
We are priests to one another. We remember Peter’s words, “You also, like living stones, are being built into a spiritual house to be a holy priesthood, offering spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ.” (1 Peter 2:5) We are mediators to God for one another, and mediators to one another for God. We embrace confession because it removes the clutter of the past and lets us move forward as servants of Christ.
Walter Brueggemann, at the 1999 Ministers’ Convocation at the Claremont School of Theology, quoted Paul Ricoeur as saying that “changed obedience follows changed imagination.” People can’t change what they do (obedience) until they can see for themselves that there is some other possible way of acting. At that same lecture, Brueggemann described Sabbath rest as an opportunity to imagine one’s life differently.
Is confession connected to the sabbath? The sabbath is a day of rest in keeping with God’s commandment, remember the Sabbath and keep it holy, set apart, reserved space for God. Brueggemann’s point is we can’t take part in what he calls prophetic imagination about the future if our attention is cluttered with regrets and anxiety about the past. Or as the Apostle Paul puts it, Not that I have already obtained all this … but I press on to take hold of that for which Christ Jesus took hold of me. Brothers and sisters, I do not consider myself yet to have taken hold of it. But one thing I do: Forgetting what is behind and straining toward what is ahead, I press on toward the goal to win the prize for which God has called me heavenward Jesus.” (Philippians 3:12-14)
Imagining correctly involves walking with the Spirit of God. Luke says early in his ministry Jesus returned to Galilee in the power of the Spirit. Jesus embraced the imagination of God when he let the Spirit have free reign. 
“The Spirit of the Lord is on me,
because he has anointed me
to proclaim good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners
and recovery of sight for the blind,
to set the oppressed free,
to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.” (Luke 4:14-19)
Do you notice his imagination isn’t realistic? It doesn’t follow common sense. That’s what imagination does. It embraces a different reality. It’s fantasy. Fantasy to think the prisoners will be free, that the blind will recover sight, that the poor will receive good news. Fantasy to think death can be overcome.
What do I imagine for our congregation? I imagine us accepting fallibility, in ourselves and one another. I imagine us avoiding black and white thinking and quick fixes, because we know life is filled with gray areas, and any change that is worthwhile takes time.
I imagine us confessing our sins to each other even in general terms and praying for each other so we can be healed. I imagine us remaining open to the work of the Spirit changing us, because we can’t change ourselves or each other. 
Some of that has already come to the surface at church. A caring community. Welcoming. Diverse. Affirming. Open. So what is the next step? As Paul Ricoeur said, our actions can’t change until we’ve imagined something different.
So I imagine a group of people who can share freely with each other. Call it confession if you wish. I imagine us having the courage to speak out against racism and government hypocrisy. To reach out to the marginalized in our community. To grow into the faith that knows God to be present in us and among us.
Where does your imagination take you? What actions will change if you follow it? What behavior will shift as you begin to see yourself and those around you differently, imagining them in a holy light? My faith is that as we imagine rightly Jesus will say to us, well done, good and faithful and imaginative servants.Come and share in my master’s happiness.

Pastor Mike

Sunday, March 11, 2018

What Would Happen?

I was taught that it’s best to avoid talking or acting in a manner that 's bad, ugly, demeaning or accusatory. Those behaviors are the result of self-centered conduct. They also result in immorality. But what if the conversations were conducted differently?
What would happen, for example, if congressional and governmental representatives refused to be cowed by threats from military and armament marketers to cut financial campaign support if they don’t receive more funding? Perhaps we would have enough money to better care for the poor, the children, and the aged in our midst.
What would happen, for example, if the president appointed a cabinet whose members were composed of something besides old rich white men and women who insist on dismantling the very agencies they head? Perhaps we would have a viable State Department, or Department of Education, or Department of the Interior that would truly serve the citizenry.
What would happen, for example, if employees of ICE affirmed that breaking up the families of illegal immigrants is immoral, and refused to continue doing it? It would be impossible to fire all of them at once for disobedience, and some ethical and decent actions could be initiated. And perhaps those immigrants could become good citizens by attending English and Civics classes, and paying a minimal fine for crossing the border illegally.
What would happen, for example, if the White House staff stopped making excuses for chaotic presidential decisions and demeaning accusations? Perhaps they could arrive at a consensus that our elected officials are obliged to serve the entire population of the country, and not just the minority that put them in office.
What would happen, for example, if we could have some truly open discussions about the way our government has acted in the past at the expense of whole groups of people: Native Americans, African Americans, Vietnamese, Cubans … and consider what could have been done differently? Perhaps it would head off that kind of behavior in the future.
Conversations and actions can proceed in ways that foster what is good and desirable. Not just for a select few, but for the majority of our citizens, for the common good. The challenge is for us to put aside self-interest, show some courage, and speak and act responsibly.

Pastor Mike

Learn to do right; seek justice. Defend the oppressed. Take up the cause of the fatherless; plead the case of the widow. - Isaiah 1:17

Friday, February 23, 2018

Why the Dreamers Must Go

The dreamers must go for the simple reason that they are dreamers. Over 800,000 of them have dreamed in concert since they broke the law as infants and children by entering this country illegally. Their parents aided and abetted their crime by holding their hands en route. Now they are threatened with exile because part of the vocal culture in this country can’t abide those who dream like they do, especially when almost a million of them do it together.

They dream of a different, more hopeful future than the one the government has planned for them. Those in power don’t prefer a different future, especially a cultural one, because it will be, well, different. And the promise of those in power is that things will not change, they will remain the same. As Walter Brueggemann puts it, “Moreover, for all the talk of ‘individual freedom,’ the force of homogeneity is immense – partly seductive, partly coercive, partly the irresistible effect of affluence, in any case not hospitable to ‘difference.’” [1]

What does the different dream look like? It isn’t a dream of being forced to return to a country they don’t remember, whose language they can’t speak, a country that persecuted them and perhaps threatened to kill them several years ago.

What does the dream look like? It is terribly sinister. For some it means remaining in this country to care for aging parents and to remain a family. It may mean continuing a career based on an education partly or already completed. Most nefariously it may mean wearing the clothing and celebrating the holidays and speaking the language and worshiping in the same manner of their previous culture, and remembering their sacred history. It is a dream of hope.

Dreams aren’t easily realized, nor do they come cheaply. We recall Martin Luther King Jr.’s words: “I still have a dream, a dream deeply rooted in the American dream – one day this nation will rise up and live up to its creed, “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal.” I have a dream.” But it isn’t yet a reality in many places.

Hope is made of dreams.
To us of this generation who have walked through the ruins of aborted dreams and desecrated ideals … the supreme question is: How does the road sign read: Abandon all hope, ye who enter here. Or: To despair is to betray; at the end His mercy will prevail.

The one road sign may be almost everywhere, the other road sign is revealed in the lives of those who would rather suffer than bear falsehood, who would rather be exposed to torture and living in jail than to remain silent in the face of lies, blasphemy, and injustice.[2]

So despite the promises of the legislators and all the president’s men, the Dreamers will in all likelihood be quietly and slowly sent away. The recent school shooting in Florida, with endless arguments about gun control, will serve as an adequate cover for the promises to be broken and the exile to begin. After all, who can possibly focus on two issues at once?

[1] Brueggemann, Walter. The prophetic imagination (xvii).
[2] Heschel, Abraham Joshua, “To Despair is to Betray”. Unpublished manuscript.

Monday, February 19, 2018

Good Grief

Supporters of some governments seek to suppress grief. Walter Brueggemann[1] points out that it’s an effort to silence passion.  Numbness comes when passion is eradicated, and numbness causes potential critics to sit down and be still.

Scripture gives a vivid example. After her rape by her brother Ammon, Tamar tears her clothing and begins weeping because she has been defiled and her reputation has been destroyed. But her brother Absolom, King David’s older son, minimizes her grief:

“Tamar put ashes on her head and tore the ornate robe she was wearing. She put her hands on her head and went away, weeping aloud as she went. Her brother Absalom said to her, “Has that Ammon, your brother, been with you? Be quiet for now, my sister; he is your brother. Don’t take this thing to heart.” And Tamar lived in her brother Absalom’s house, a desolate woman.” -2 Samuel 13:29-30 NIV

“Be quiet … don’t take this thing to heart.” The argument can be made that Absolom is dismissive in part because Tamar is a woman, but it is even more tempting for him to treat a woman who is grieving as an object. Absolom eventually puts Ammon to death. But that is an honor killing. Tamar is never restored, never vindicated, even by her father. She is regarded as chattel, used property.

The best of us have only moderate patience with the grief of others. When a loved one dies and friends get the news, sympathy can run its course after a week or so. For those who grieve it can feel quite incredible that they themselves can be in such pain while others go about their business.

And repressive governments and those who support them can be even more indifferent. So it wasn’t surprising when Fox News recently allowed Rush Limbaugh to denigrate students from a Florida high school. They supported a march in memory of their recently slain classmates.

“Minutes after interviewing a group of Parkland, Florida, students organizing marches in response to the mass shooting at their school, “Fox News Sunday” put conservative pundit Rush Limbaugh on the air to dismiss their plans and condemn them for trying to advance a ‘political agenda.’”[2]

For those in power, advancing a political agenda is the sole privilege of those in power.

Why should passion, especially grief, be suppressed? Because grief is connected to death, and repressive governments do not easily entertain the possibility of death. That is, they suppose that their power should be unending. Criticism is an affront to their authority, and loss of authority means loss of power and control. Thus critics are demonized. They become enemies of the state. Which I suppose is fine as long as the critics don’t become too numerous.

Scripture seldom tries to dampen grief. The Psalmist expresses it this way:
“By the rivers of Babylon we sat and wept when we remembered Zion.” ( Psalm 137:1) And Paul encourages the early followers of Christ “not to grieve as others do, who have no hope.” (1 Thessalonians 4:13) I think it would not occur to people of faith to disallow grief. Whether it would occur to unbelievers is a different matter.

[1] See Brueggemann, Walter. The Prophetic Imagination.
[2] O'Connor, Lydia.  “Immediately After Interviewing Parkland Students, Fox News Invites Criticism Of Them.” HuffPost•February 18, 2018.

Monday, September 25, 2017

Sign Me Up

A book that shaped my mistrust not only of the Vietnam War in particular but the United States government in general was Joseph Heller’s Catch 22, a novel about the Air Force during World War II. I’m sure it was no accident that the Vietnam conflict was getting into full swing when it was published in the 1960’s.  I’m constantly amazed how current events manage to awaken my memories of the book.

Now here comes a flurry of demands for athletes to stand during the National Anthem. To kneel, remain seated, or hide out in the locker room is labeled by many as un-American.

In Catch 22 Captain Black is passed over for promotion, and in retaliation plans the Glorious Loyalty Oath Campaign demanding that the men of the bomber squadron sign more and more loyalty oaths before they can do their work. And taking it up a notch he insists that they not only sign oaths, but recite the Pledge of Allegiance and sing the National Anthem before they can do anything, including eat their meals. The whole farce is finally concluded when Major ________ de Coverly returns from Rome, sees the long lines of singing and signing men in the mess hall, and demands, “Gimme eat!”

For me, this whole anthem business is misguided. Somehow it has been connected with respect for the flag, a symbol that has a multitude of meanings for those who do, or don’t, revere it. I am deeply appreciative of the sacrifices so many have made for freedom. I am also aware of the many who have sacrificed for more power, more money, or for nothing. The danger resides in having enthusiasm drift into flag (or national) idolatry.  Biblically that’s a risky road. There is a difference between having an appreciation for one’s freedom and granting Congress, the President, the military, or the police carte blanche when it comes to employing force. There is an even greater danger when one applauds everything the government has done in the past, regardless of how greedy or craven.

Jesus and the Prophets were closely attuned to caring for the poor, feeding the hungry, and protecting strangers in their midst.  My assumption is that this included immigrants. They were remarkably indifferent to or even critical of nationalism and, for that matter, capitalism. But if we are really fortunate maybe someone will come up with a rule about applauding profit motives – and we can sing songs about it.

Tuesday, August 29, 2017

Resistance and the Bandits

When I was recently asked, “How do you join the resistance?” I had to interpret the question. What I think was meant is, how do you join the resistance movement against the Trump administration?  While I have never been politically active, I can relate to many of the issues raised by those who are extremely uncomfortable with the actions of this president. His insistence on limiting government controls on business, along with abandoning the public school system, trashing the environment, cutting financial support for the poor, and pressing for a “whites only” society in America are appalling to me. Plus I think he’s a bully.

That being said, I am not a protest marcher. Nor am I a big fan of Hillary Clinton, who is just too glib for me.  And I‘m not convinced that large gatherings do anything more than reassure the people who gather that they aren’t alone. So from one perspective, I don’t really want join the political resistance movement. The need to join the broader resistance against greedy self-centeredness, however, seems pretty straightforward to me. I join the resistance by being committed to a set of values. As Timothy McCarthy put it,   “Values are essential, not only to resistance, but to social change. We need to be able to say what’s wrong and we also need to be able to say what we would want to be right and how we might get there.”

What I want to be right is my posture toward others – being unwilling to do things at their expense in order to have an advantage over them for myself. Nor do I want to participate in or applaud the actions of those who take that course. As to how we might get there, it has to do with an awareness of one’s values and actions. And it would be easy to get caught up in unimportant particulars. As Carlo Capolla wrote, “From action or inaction each one of us derives a gain or a loss and at the same time one causes a gain to someone else.” It’s impossible to keep an accounting of everything we do and say. We probably get to social change by focusing on the major things, not the insignificant ones. Capolla also wrote that “always and inevitably everyone underestimates the number of stupid individuals in circulation.” [1]  Which is pretty much beside the point.

More to the point is that when one person takes an action by which he makes a gain causing another person a loss, he has acted as a bandit. The perfect bandit is one who robs you without causing you any extra loss or harm. He steals $50 and you lose $50.  But there are few perfect bandits. Imperfect bandits are those whose gains result in fewer or more losses to others. A leader who deports 100 innocent people so he can gain the power to deport another hundred people, or so he or she can feel important,  is an imperfect bandit. And then there are the stupid people who insist on causing harm to other people without deriving any gain. Drunk drivers who kill others are at the top of the list. I haven’t decided whether many of our political leaders are bandits or just stupid, but I don’t want to end up in either camp.


  1. Cipolla, Anthony, The Basic Laws of Human Stupidity. See .


Wednesday, December 7, 2016

Breitbart Values and Mine

Just when I had repented, on hands and knees, for wasting hours listening to political ads, speeches, and talk show wisdom, and promised God I’d follow only holiday sales commercials in the weeks to come, I got sucked in again. I was victimized by the editor of Breitbart, the “news” outlet of Donald Trump’s office gopher, Steve Bannon.

It was really a harmless article in response to Kellogg’s boycott of Breitbart. "Kellogg's decision to blacklist one of the largest conservative media outlets in America is economic censorship of mainstream conservative political discourse. That is as un-American as it gets.” The site said it has a community of 45 million loyal readers “who are also a powerful consumer group that reflects the values of mainstreet (sic) America.” (David Ng, L A Times)

I’ve recently struggled to define my own values. Now I see the suggestion that American values can be reflected by a media outlet. So I wondered what those values were, and whether I embraced them.

Hunter Lewis suggests that value systems are often based on emotion. “In particular, they all share three features, corresponding to three basic emotional needs. First, they all focus on a particular group of people, a “chosen” people to use the biblical metaphor. Membership in this group automatically provides emotional security. Second, they all propound a particular way of life or a particular way of organizing society, belief in which provides an emotional identity. For example most of us identify ourselves not just as Americans (members of a group) but also as defenders of an American “way” of democracy and free enterprise. Third, they all require an emotional stimulus, usually expressed as an enemy, a devil, … often another group of people.” (Lewis, H. A Question of Values, p. 87)

To say than one consumer group shares the same emotional values, let alone reflects those of main street America, is a stretch. It is more likely that the person or organization propounding the values is the one being defined. As Bertrand Russell pointed out, a proposal of values is the art of telling others what they have to do to get along with us.

So what values do the folks at Breitbart embrace? Social Darwinism comes closest: the religion of selfishness, winning, and power. “Life is about survival; survival is accomplished through power and dominance; the purpose of life is therefore to gain control of others through whatever means are available, however brutal or coercive, because might is always right” (Lewis, H. p. 208). Or as Ng noted on a visit to Breitbart headquarters, “The door to the main conference room is emblazoned with the hashtag #War — a mantra Breitbart instilled in his team.”

My values are different. George Nye, a colleague and mentor, probably expressed them best in a recent Facebook post:

“While reflecting on how to hold a steady course & make my way thru a "brave new world" of fake news, hatred, violence & betrayal, a reminder came to me: To know what is right is important; but to have the interior power to do what is right is even more important. That power comes from my acceptance of the truth that the 1st Commandment really is 1st. That command is my ultimate authority; all others are lesser authorities which must fall in line under that one. Then, come what consequences may come from my current surroundings, I shall do that which is loving, honest, just & compassionate to the best of my ability, regardless of what others choose to do, in order that I may stay the safe course thru the dark waters. For you & I are citizens who, for good or ill, help shape who we will be as a community, as a people, as a nation.“ (George Nye, Facebook 12/04/16)

I deeply suspect that Breitbart values differ from American values. I’m certain Christian values differ from main street America’s ethics as well. We’ve walked into the prophecy of Jefferson Airplane:

When logic and proportion have fallen sloppy dead
And the white knight is talking backwards
And the red queen's off with her head (Jefferson Airplane, “White Rabbit”)

No war for me, thanks. I’ll stick with George.