Primitive religion is not believed, it is danced!

Arthur Darby Nock

Earth's crammed with heaven,
And every common bush afire with God;
And only he who sees takes off his shoes;
The rest sit round it and pluck blackberries.

Elizabeth Browning

Sunday, February 27, 2011

What is missing in the current national dialog

I have been thinking a lot recently about the things going on our in our nation.  What is happening in Washington DC.  What is happening in Wisconsin.  What is happening in my own state (Oregon) and my own community.  I am in the middle of the debate in a real way, for as the director of a program that relies on federal and state funding my clinic is profoundly impacted by all the arguments over entitlements, budgets, and deficits.

I am also thinking a lot because of Shane Claiborne's book "Irresistible Revolution".  What has struck me profoundly is that something is missing in the dialog that is going on.  People!

The people are missing.  Mr. Walker talks about being "broke" and budgets, and power.  But I am not hearing him say anything about he people caught up in the mess that is going on, except to see people as enemies, and barriers to his getting his agenda met.  It would be easy to pick on Boehner, but I don't see any legislators (there are probably rare exceptions, but I guess they don't make the news), talking about the people as they talk about their agenda.

Yes, the people.  What about the children who are taught by the teachers.  What about the families of those workers who are already stretched to make ends meet, who will now find health insurance even harder to get?  What about those parents who fear that they will not be able to afford to get their children health care?  What about the person who is in danger of losing his or her house?  Or the young person who sees a further education becoming an impossibility?  What about the man who is hungry?  The woman who lives on top of a grate, seeking whatever heat she can find?  What about the person with mental illness who might lose the care he or she relies on to stay stable and living independently?  What about the person caught up in the illness of addiction?

We don't hear about them!  We hear about businesses.  We hear about budgets.  Bottom lines.  We hear about the need to stimulate the economy.  Who are we considering in all of this?  Corporations.  Businesses.  Political Parties.  

We aren't even really considering the ultra-wealthy, who, God knows, are often empty and can never find joy and satisfaction, no matter how much they accumulate.  The ultra-wealthy and wealthy who have lost a sense of community, and interdependence, who have lost the awareness of the joy of sharing and also lost in the dialog.

In Acts the early Christian community was described this way:  " All the believers were one in heart and mind. No one claimed that any of his possessions was his own, but they shared everything they had. With great power the apostles continued to testify to the resurrection of the Lord Jesus, and much grace was upon them all. There were no needy persons among them. For from time to time those who owned lands or houses sold them, brought the money from the sales and put it at the apostles' feet, and it was distributed to anyone as he had need.

That passage disturbs me.  It disturbs me because I don't live that way.  It disturbs me because my church, as wonderful as it is, doesn't really function that way.  And it disturbs me because this kind of thinking is no where to be found in the current dialog.  This is a model that says "people first".  It is all about the people, all people, all of whom are loved by God.  Any conversations we have should be about the people.

What is better for the people?  That a major corporation makes more of a profit than it already does?  That it keeps to keep more of its money than it already does?  Or is more important that people are fed?  Clothed?  Housed?  What is more important?  That our current health care structure, which costs too much and produces poor outcomes is protected, or that children get health care?

This is disturbing stuff to think about, but my guess is that the Jesus who gave us the beatitudes thinks that there is less moral imperative in a balanced budget, especially a balanced budget that allows the ultra-rich to stay ultra-rich at the expense of the poor, than in taking care of the the poor, the hungry, the sick.

Look at the beatitudes.  Our budgets should be all about the people we see there.  And that means my own personal budget, as well as the budget of my organization, my church, my state, and yes, my country.

Monday, February 21, 2011

Wisconsin and God's Economy

I have been following with interest, and yes, with sadness, the events unfolding in Wisconsin.  There is much about the struggle is painful, including the hypocrisy of a Governor who will give away tax breaks to the rich, and take benefits from teachers.  Yes, I know it is not that simple, but there seems to be a trend right now that makes we weep for America.  It is the use of power to protect and entitle those who have the most at the  expense of those who have the least.  We see it on Capital Hill in Washington, DC as well as in Madison, Wisconsin.

At the same time that all of this is going on, I have been reading the book "The Irresistible Revolution" by Shane Claiborne.  Shane is acutely aware of the disparities our current economic system have created, particularly the disparity between the rich and the poor.  He points out that according to a UN report 20% of the worlds population receives 83% of the world's income.  He also pointed out (yes the books is a bit older) that in 1965 the average CEO made 44 times as much as the average worker.  1998 the average CEO made 212 times as much as the average worker ($1,566.68 an hour).  And it is getting worse!

He notes that "people are poor not just because of their sins, they are poor because of OUR sins (and people are rich because of our sins).  We created poverty by our need to protect ourselves.  Our need to hug resources to ourselves.  And our inexorable emptiness that no amount of treasure can satisfy.  As Gandhi put it, "there is enough for everyone's need, but there is not enough for everyone's greed."

Claiborne points out that from the earliest times on there has been a theology of redistribution.  In the Old Testament there was the year of Jubilee, where the people of Israel were asked, in an ongoing way to spread the wealth, and periodically, to totally level the playing field by redistributing the wealth among all the people.

John the Baptist preached repentance, and combined that with an imperative to give away one's extra shirt.  Jesus?  Over and over again (See Mark 10) Jesus suggested an economy of grace, and Paul too envisioned another economy, where all shared with one another and met one another's needs.  It is clear from a plethora of teachings that rebirth, restoration, and redistribution are connected.

Now we have a political party, perhaps two, that are railing against entitlement.  Who are legislating against redistribution.  They are seeking to keep the wealth in the hands of the wealthy, who are none to eager to let go of any of it.  Not in the form of charity, or new jobs and business development (No, trickle down does not work.  Never will).

The early Christians said that if a child starves while a Christian has extra food than the Christian is guilty of murder.  Basil the Great, writing in the fourth century wrote, "When someone strips a man of his clothes we call him a thief.  And one who might clothe the naked and does not, should not he be given the same name?"

If, as we see in the scriptures, rebirth and redistribution are bound up in one another, we cannot say we love God and pass by the person in need, the vulnerable one.  If that is true, then how do we view legislation that gives to the rich, and cuts programs for the poor?  How do we view a leader who gives breaks to those who are well off, so they can be more well off, and cuts benefits to people who have less?

It is certainly something to think about.

Friday, February 11, 2011

The First Thing

In Chapter One of Romans Paul makes it abundantly clear that God loves us and uses his power in our lives, not to destroy, but to love, and reclaim and rescue.  “I am not ashamed of the gospel, because it is the power of God for the salvation of everyone who believes: first for the Jew, then for the Gentile.

There is the good news!  But then Paul continues and in the paragraphs that follow outlines in horrific detail, the failings of humanity.  Its pretty ugly!  Those paragraphs (1:18-32) are for mature audiences only.  There is no mistaking his basic message.  We all mess up…. Really mess up.  Let’s listen to Paul’s words again. 

“Furthermore, since we do not think it worthwhile to retain the knowledge of God, he gave us over to a depraved mind, to do what ought not to be done. We have become filled with every kind of wickedness, evil, greed and depravity. We are full of envy, murder, strife, deceit and malice. WE are gossips, slanderers, God-haters, insolent, arrogant and boastful; We invent ways of doing evil!  We disobey our parents; We are senseless, faithless, heartless, ruthless.”

OK, most of us aren’t that bad.  But still, we have our issues.  What is the problem?  Paul framed the issues this way.  “For although they knew God, they neither glorified him as God nor gave thanks to him, but their thinking became futile and their foolish hearts were darkened.  Although they claimed to be wise, they became fools and exchanged the glory of the immortal God for……”

Now let stop there for a second.  We don’t normally get into what we usually think of as idols…. Little statues of animals, or mythic God’s or things like that…But we do exchange the glory of God for other things.  In psychology we talk about internal and external solutions.  Internal solutions are “what’s in here”  Internal solutions involve going inward, and finding the what you need to be in balance, at peace, to be a person of love and joy. 

This is so much where Paul was at.  Paul wrote 13 letters.  In those letters he uses the expressions “in Christ,” “in the Lord,” and “in him” 164 times.  This concept is indispensable to an understanding of the Gospel.  To be “in Christ” does not mean to be inside Christ, as tools are in a box or our clothes in a closet, but to be organically united to Christ, as a limb is to the body or a branch is in the tree. It is this personal relationship with Christ that is the distinctive mark of his people.  Or to put it another way, Christ is “in us”.  He is in us as part of us.  And if we turn inside, we find Christ, and all his power and love and resources there.

But if we don’t, if we go the other direction.  If we go outside and see solutions outside ourselves, then we have created the glory of the immortal God for what is not God… what we might call idols.  What are the idols?  Anything that has power over us.  More, anything that we give power over us.  Anything we think will bring us peace, hope, love, security, joy.  Anything we rely on for the things that only God can truly give.

These powers can be a lot of things.  People.  Those we know.  Those whose words we read.  Those who pontificate from the screen of our TV’s.  Those we want to please.  Those we fear.  Who are the people in your life who have too much power?  Who in your life has the kind of influence only God should have.  Then there are “things” – mostly things we desire.  Money, popularity, personal appearance, a BMW, our job.  What things demand our attention, our allegiance?  Where is our attention, our time focused? 

What do we rely on?  What do we focus on?  Where do we put out time energy and focus, thinking that the object of our affection (so to speak) will give us what we need?  That is our idol.

But as I think about this it occurs to me that it is not so much a matter of making the wrong choices, as it is about not making the key choice.  The problem is not that we make the choices we make about the things around us, as it is that we haven’t made the choice, FIRST, to turn inside and become connected to the sacred, the power of God, the Christ in us.

Those things we connect to out there?  They aren’t all that dangerous.  In some cases not all that bad, IF, and this is a big IF… IF we FIRST have turned inside and connected with the Christ in us… or to say it the other way, if we are “in Christ”.  When we aren’t connected?  We are vulnerable. Why are we vulnerable?  Because we haven’t allowed the Christ in us to live and breathe.  We haven’t given God room to move and work.  And thus we are essentially empty, and dissatisfied – at least spiritually.

Wayne Muller, in his book Sabbath suggests that the strategies of the advertising agencies expose our emptiness in a powerful way.  In one of the chapters he starts by describing a scene presented in an ad.  In the scene we find a group of young sophisticated women and men lounging about in natural cotton clothing, loose and soft on their sculpted bodies. It seems to be late afternoon and they are gathered in this incredible patio area, in the shadow of a wonderful Victorian House.  Over in one corner a golden retriever sleeps.  It is a picture of perfect happiness.  You can taste the drink in their hand, smell the flowers on the breeze.  The job is miles away, they seem to be inviting us to join them, to become a part of their lives.  They seem to say – This is how you were meant to be…

What they offer is the happiness of being young, rich, at ease, perfect.  Order this blouse, this cologne, this table setting, this coffee maker and YOU will enter this picture.  Troubles will dissolve, and life will be sweet.  In the end they are saying this and always this:  Buy what we have and you will be happy.  But beneath that text is the real message.  Until and unless you buy what we are selling, you will never be happy.  “See these people?  We know you are not that happy!”  A thousand times a time the ads send this message to us.  You are not enough.  You do not have enough.  You are not happy.  You need more, you need to do more, you need to be more….”

But when we do that…. When we fail to turn to Christ first…. well then everything falls apart….These external things don’t really work.  We can buy them and enjoy them all we want, and it doesn’t work. The descriptions of Paul are pretty graphic.  But we don’t need the descriptions of Paul to understand the emptiness, the twisted nature of such solutions.  We know about this, we feel this!

Paul is clearly trying to establish the basic reason for the crisis that we as humanity are facing.
The reason for polarized politics.  For people with guns walking up to others and shooting them (did you notice there were at least two multiple victim shootings last Sunday afternoon –indeed all week we have had shooting after shooting).  Paul is trying to establish the basic reason for fear, hatred, for greed.. for all the wounds, all the hurts of humankind….The reason that all our primary relationships are fractured. .

Paul essentially talks about three fractured relationships in this chapter.  There is our fractured relationship with God, when we choose “no God’s” or aikons, or idols.  There is our fractured relationship with our self.  When we do not turn to God we lose our sense of who we really are.  And there are our fractured relationships with others.  As we treat them and interact with them in ways that are not healthy or good, and allow them to treat us in ways that are not healthy and good.  In short, we use them, and they use us!

But Paul does not point this out to drive us down.  He point this out to point us to the answer.  To help us understand, unmistakably, that when we have the sacred at the center…. It is so different.  That when we turn to God first, we are not empty, and this we are not functioning from need but from fullness…And therefore we have a unique capacity to deal with what life sends us
Without having to rush to external solutions. . . 

When we are full of Christ it changes our relationship with our possessions, our relationship with other people, our relationship to those powerful and weird “life commandments” that run our lives.  So if we start with Christ, if we take the journey inward first, and ground ourselves in “the center”.  Then we can move back out  --  Into our world,  into our jobs, Into our relationships in a new, transformed way…a way that does not involve us being enslave, given over, to thoughts, desire, priorities, behaviors, that destroy.

Lets look at that list Paul gives us of what happens when we fail to be connect and commit to the Christ in us… in short fail to accept God’s acceptance. Fail to accept what we already have  --  “They have become filled with every kind of wickedness, evil, greed and depravity. They are full of envy, murder, strife, deceit and malice. They are gossips, slanderers, God-haters, insolent, arrogant and boastful; they invent ways of doing evil; they disobey their parents;  they are senseless, faithless, heartless, ruthless”

Compare that description with the description he offers in Galatians 5 of people who are “in Christ” and have let the Spirit, the power of God, loose.  “But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control. Against such things there is no law. Those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the sinful nature with its passions and desires. Since we live by the Spirit, let us keep in step with the Spirit.”

Wow! What a difference!  When we turn first to the Center, everything is changed.  I like the words of Camus who once said…”The only way to deal with an unfree world is to become so absolutely free that your very act of existence becomes an act of rebellion.”

Our lives can be, if God is at the Center, an act of rebellion against of world of hate, and fear, and polarization.  We can be people who experience true life, and more share true life, with a hurting world.  God, help us put you, at the Center of our lives….