Tuesday, August 28, 2007
Grace and Peace,
I've been reading Cornel West lately, and I have found a critique he wrote of American religion nearly twenty years ago to be even more relevant for today's religious landscape. In the preface to his 1988 book Prophetic Fragments he writes the following words:
To put it bluntly, American religious life is losing its prophetic fervor. There is an undeniable decline in the clarity of vision, complexity of understanding and quality of moral action among religious Americans.
West writes that this decline in prophetic fervor spans the gamut of religions "from Christianity to Buddhism, from reform Judaism to Islam." This trend results in the "widespread accommodation of American religion to the political and cultural status-quo."
"This accommodation is, at bottom, idolatrous--it worships the gods created by American society and kneels before the altars created by American culture."
He goes on to say, "American religious life--despite its weekly rituals and everyday practices--is shot through with existential emptiness. This emptiness--or lack of spiritual depth--results from the excessive preoccupation with isolated personal interests and atomistic individual concerns in American religious life. These interests and concerns unduly accommodate the status-quo by mirroring the privatism and careerism rampant in American society."
This accommodation "yields momentary stimulation rather than spiritual sustenance, sentimental self-flagellation rather than sacrificial denial." Therefore, "religion becomes but one more stimulant in a culture addicted to stimulation--a stimulation that fuels consumption and breeds existential emptiness."The result of this type of religion is "social amnesia" that fails to understand the broader cultural, economic and philosophical reasons for human suffering, because all sense of "collective struggle" has been lost. . Instead, "personalistic and individualistic explanations" are found for complex problems like poverty, hunger and social catastrophe.
In other words, the great problems of our culture are the result of the flawed decisions or morals of the individuals suffering from them. They failed to try hard enough or failed to remain moral enough to achieve the American Dream. Gone is any sense that our culture as a whole or even particular religious communities must unite together to change our culture for the better.
When I preached Sunday about why Jesus came to bring division rather than peace, I tried to explain that the status-quo must be overturned. A status-quo that is based upon the oppression of others is one that cannot stand before the coming of the Kingdom of God. Whenever the status-quo is overturned, conflict results. As Americans, our over-stimulated culture is a means of blocking out the cries of those who suffer around the world and even next door. To respond to those cries means giving up comfort and people--even faithful people--will fight to hold onto their own comfort, even if it means others must subsist on far less.
Raising a prophetic voice in a culture that does not wish to be bothered will by necessity bring conflict--disagreement, division and even at times violence (think of MLK). Yet, that should not surprise us given that we follow a savior who ended up dying on a cross.
Grace and peace,
Thursday, August 23, 2007
In other words, if a state wants to insure a chronically ill 2-year-old whose parents' employer has dropped his health coverage, it has to wait until he's a chronically ill 3-year-old.
If you make less than $50k a year and your employer doesn't provide health insurance, you had better hope your child doesn't get sick, because the federal government will not help you and has taken steps to make sure that state governments will not help you either.
Wednesday, August 22, 2007
On Sunday, I preached out of Luke 12: 49-56, where Jesus says that he did not come to bring peace but division, even division between family members. These are startling words from the Prince of Peace, and on the surface, they are frightening words, especially to those of us who work to strengthen families, including church families. I shared my belief that the context of these verses in Luke’s Gospel help to make these verses more understandable, if no less threatening. Luke tells us that Jesus may be the Prince of Peace, but he has come to upset the status quo. He came to lift up the lowly and oppressed and to humble the proud and powerful. He preached about hidden things being revealed, laying up treasure in heaven and the hypocrisy of doing the right thing religiously but the wrong thing morally. In short, the peace of Christ means anything but an affirmation of the status quo. (I’m pretty sure that my sermon on Sunday did not express this idea so clearly or succinctly.)
This is a difficult message to convey, because I long for unity and lack of conflict in every aspect of my life, including my vocational life. As a minister, I desire for people to get along and agree so that we can be a unified community of faith. Yet, I also know that almost always before true unity (peace) can be achieved the hard work of dealing with difficult issues and questions must be performed. That often involves conflict and change, because the status quo is most often the lowest common moral and spiritual denominator. If the hard work of conflict and change is not performed, a false unity is created that comes into existence because some people shouted the loudest and other people acquiesced and everyone chose the road of least conflict rather than the narrow way of faithfulness.
Jesus’ words in Luke 12 are also hard to talk about, because division is rampant in our society and our world, especially in regards to religion. Part of the reason I am a minister is because I feel called to help others experience the grace of God and to see Christianity and the church as healing forces in our world rather than divisive and judgmental institutions. Many ministers, churches and Christians seem to revel in dividing people from one another—sacred vs. secular, Republican vs. Democrat, conservative vs. liberal, etc. Demonizing others is an easy way to build support, because it involves no inspection of the self only criticism of the “other.” I believe the division Jesus says will happen because of him is not something we should treat with arrogant glee but humble grief. Conflict and change may be necessary, but they can also be painful. Furthermore, the self-sacrificial love of Christ is our example of how we are to care for people—even those we disagree with. This is especially true within a church.
These are difficult concepts. I will continue to express my thoughts about how we can be a faithful community of faith even as we face the necessary conflict of growing and changing to meet the demands of our present and future. I hope you will do the same.
Grace and Peace,
Tuesday, August 21, 2007
Grace and Peace,
Monday, August 20, 2007
I heard a good example of this on NPR this weekend. Randy Cohen, the ethicist for the NY Times Magazine comes on from time to time to tackle thorny issues. This one was about whether it was ethical to drive a gas guzzler--for Coehn, the answer was simple: "NO." The more difficult answer to provide was what do you do with the gas guzzler? In this case it was a early 1970's muscle car. Sell it to somebody else and the pollution continues. Junk it and lose the money you've put into it. So what do you do? Listen and find out.
Closer to home, here in St. Joseph, it's worth asking how much inconvenience are we willing to under go in order to care for the environment? As people who care about the earth and the condition of it we leave for our children and grandchildren, just what would be willing to do to have a curbside recycling program? What would we do to discard toxic chemicals in a safe way? What about the manufacturing and farming businesses in our area that our economy depends upon? Just what kinds of standards are we willing to enforce and what happens if those standards impact the jobs of families who live in our neighborhoods? These are the difficult questions.
As I wrestle with these questions as a person of faith and a person who cares about the earth--two things that should go hand in hand but often don't--I was encouraged by Nicholas Kristof's column in the NY Times today. He writes about VP Cheney's comment several years ago that conservation worked as a personal virtue but not as an energy policy:
Mr. Cheney’s image seems to be of a dour stoic shivering in a cardigan in a frigid home, squinting under a dim light bulb, showering under a tiny trickle of (barely) solar-heated water, and then bicycling to work in the rain. If that’s the alternative, then many of us might be willing to see the oceans rise, whatever happens to Florida.
But new research has shown that improvements in energy efficiency often pay for themselves, actually leaving us better off.
“This is not a sacrifice deal,” Daniel Yergin, head of Cambridge Energy Research Associates, says of conservation. “This is a technology deal. After all, we’re twice as energy efficient now as we were in the 1970s, and at the same time our economy has more than doubled.”
Perhaps the advancement of technology will help our culture to make strides where personal conviction and religious belief and political courage continue to disappoint.
In regards to political leaders who continue to deny climate change is a real problem, Kristof concludes with this zinger:
Climate skeptics say that we don’t know how serious climate change will be, and they’re right. But isn’t it prudent to address threats even when we’re unsure of them? We don’t expect to be caught in a fire, but we still believe in fire escapes and fire departments.
Suppose we had political leaders who snorted that fires are nothing new, that the science of firefighting is unclear, and that we can’t impose a burden on business by establishing fire departments — while brightly adding that citizens can extinguish fires on their own out of “personal virtue.”
Why, we would think those leaders were nuts.
Grace and Peace,
Tuesday, August 14, 2007
Wednesday, August 8, 2007
As I stated on Sunday, one of my motives for speaking about the struggle of holding on to God during difficult times was to point out how failing to talk about struggle, doubt and questions can result in young people growing up and leaving the church. I often hear the stories of parents and grandparents about children who grow up, have a difficult experience and then turn away from the faith they were raised in. They do so, because their religious upbringing did not prepare them for facing the difficult times that naturally come in life. Since no one ever taught them or modeled for them that faith can be a struggle and that there is merit to hanging on to God in the midst of the worst times, their religion does not match their experience. When that dissonance occurs, faith is left by the wayside.
If we wish to pass on to current and future generations a faith that is vital and real, I believe that our church should consider living out the following principles:
1. Sometimes there are no easy answers. It is understandably mystifying to many reasonable people why some died on that bridge in Minneapolis last week and others did not. False platitudes like “It was God’s will.” or “God wanted to call home those people who died.” are hollow and insulting. It is better to share with a young person that you simply don’t know or to offer your best guess as just that, a guess, than to speak as if you truly understand the mysteries of providence.
2. Faith is a choice a person makes rather than a feeling of certitude. Some time in the past, a false bill of goods was sold that says a Christian should believe with 100% certainty. If you are unable to do so, then you have a problem. In contrast to this, honesty demands that we model for our young people that often we choose to believe in spite of our doubts and questions rather than because we are certain of anything.
3. A believer can change his or her mind. Out of our own insecurities and mistaken understandings, adults can model for young people the idea that just like high school or college, faith is something you achieve and then possess from then on. Seen in this way, a spiritual life is static and there is no room to adapt or adjust to new life experience. This road leads to dogmatism and even fundamentalism. We worship a God who is alive and kicking in our world, so there are always new ways for us to experience and understand God that challenge our assumptions and biases. We must be willing to change, to grow and to adapt. By demonstrating to young people that it is a good thing for faith to be dynamic and ever-changing, we free them from living with the suspicion that their faith is outdated or no longer relevant.
I want our children and youth to know—including my own two sons—that here at First Christian Church it is okay to ask questions, think deeply and to experience God in a manner that may be different than the way the person sitting next to them does. How about you?
Grace and Peace,