31 July 2008

lowering the bar?

One of the lesser-noted results of the multiple, and seemingly endless, wars the Bush administration has embarked upon is lowered standards in the military. That applies not only to recruits, but more seriously, to noncommissioned officers (NCOs). The haste with which those with E-4 rank have been promoted to E-5 (sergeant) has been documented. The results are what one might expect.

There are a number of reasons for lowering the bar. As the Salon article states, “After years of war, many of the Army’s most experienced sergeants have retired, left the service, transferred to noncombat posts, or are recovering from battlefield injuries.”

As I was thinking about the lowered standards among those who are literally fighting, killing, and dying, it occurred to me that there is (perhaps) a parallel effect at work in attitudes toward the church and the ordained ministry.

I can appreciate much of the anticlericalism in our country today. Those in the church and among the clergy with a spirit of entitlement could benefit from being brought down a peg or two. I also realize that there’s more than just some necessary corrective at work. There are shifting paradigms in the way we view reality.

A concern I have is that, in a society deeply ignorant of the Bible and church history, a lowering of the standards for clergy won’t help matters. Perhaps it’s inevitable; I hope not. I won’t delude myself into thinking that my grasp of the faith rivals that of my Presbyterian (and other) ancestors.

Perhaps we are in a time of relative “quiet” regarding the power of the church. Perhaps what we need—and I what believe is indeed building—is a democratization of the Spirit that will make all of our talk of standards and bar-setting look like empty prattle.

29 July 2008

social (cause) network

If you're on Facebook, and you encounter a group called "Facebook Youth," that admittedly might be too generic a name to get your attention. It sounds like something a sociologist would use as a label for those currently in their teens and twenties. But if you had to picture it, you might come up with any of the thousands of inane gatherings that compose our vast digital wasteland. Certainly, it wouldn't be anything to inspire fear in government officials.

Unless you live in Egypt. The government there has arrested members of the so-called Facebook Youth for helping to publicize a general strike, something the government didn't like. Hosni Mubarak, a US ally, has been president of Egypt since 1981, right after Anwar Sadat was assassinated. He has been in power, and delaying democracy, for 27 years. I don't care who you are, that's way too long for anyone! (By the way, Robert Mugabe of Zimbabwe came to power in 1980.)

18 July 2008

no longer a puppy, dr. sheltie

Today, Dr. Sheltie is one year old. This blog is no longer a puppy. To commemorate the occasion, Kaleb is busy at work in the kitchen, whipping up a nice recipe. It's nice to know that someone is taking the time to prepare something tasty!

Can we give Kaleb a hand?

17 July 2008

picture of a visit

To the left is pictured my wife Banu, our dog Duncan, and my sister's younger son, Kaleb. Yesterday, we drove down to Pittsburgh to pick him up at the airport. He'll be with us for two weeks. Among the things he loves that Banu is already on record about are cooking and swimming. Something he loves that I am now on record about is watching those crazy street dance movies.

The key word in that last sentence is "watching."

14 July 2008

why I am a Presbyterian

I became a Presbyterian on 10 December 1991. This was during my first semester at an American Baptist seminary, and after having been in the Assemblies of God for the previous five years. (A side note about that date: I didn’t think of it at the time, but that date is when International Human Rights Day is annually observed. Having been a member of Amnesty International for several years before that, I could appreciate it.)

I traveled from just north of Nashville up to Eastern Baptist Seminary (now Palmer Seminary) in Philly. I made the trip by plane; the decision to leave my car behind was deliberate. I didn’t want to have to fool with it. I knew I was going to a place with sufficient mass transportation. So I started attending the church across the street from school, which just happened to be a Presbyterian church—I joined it in December. I say “just happened”; I’ve also said that I was predestined to become a Presbyterian!

Of course, it was more than just happenstance. Besides the worship and the theology of that congregation (Overbrook Presbyterian), I also came to value the constitution of the Presbyterian Church (USA). That’s composed of the Book of Confessions and the Book of Order. I was interested in both of them, but it was the Book of Order that especially intrigued me. It seemed to me that having a Book of Order is a good way to keep everyone on the same page, so to speak! My previous experience of church was Pentecostal, and the Pentecostals I knew would have asked, “Where is the Holy Spirit in all of this?”

But I’m convinced that following the Book of Order in an open, loving way is an excellent way to remain in tune with the Spirit. It can easily be reduced to some slavish, legalistic mode of operation—I’m not talking about that. What the Book of Order can provide us, at its best, is a hedge against excess and abuse of many kinds.

There’s also a certain accountability that it provides. This runs contrary to the rebellious spirit that resides somewhere in all of us. (It definitely is in me!) This is an accountability that is especially emphasized in the questions during ordination and installation, be it of ministers of Word and Sacrament, elders, or deacons. It is put to the congregation, as well. For me, the key word in those questions is “faithful.” We are called to be faithful. We’re not called to be either tyrants or cowards.

That’s a little bit of why I am a Presbyterian!

11 July 2008

a benedictine feast

Today, the 11th of July, is the feast of St. Benedict. After becoming a Benedictine oblate a few years ago, this is a day that has increasingly come to my attention. Looking at today’s reading in the Rule of Benedict has provided me with something that has increasingly become a challenge. In chapter 33, he refers to private ownership as an “evil practice.” He includes this quote: "All things should be the common possession of all, as it is written, so that no one presumes ownership of anything (Acts 4:32)."

Most people would immediately reject his idea as something to be followed only in a monastery. Others, of a more political mindset, would see this as the basis of the failed philosophy of communism. (A philosophy, I should add, which when implemented, never had love as its basis.)

In her commentary on Benedict, Joan Chittister says, “We take things and hoard things and give things to control our little worlds and the things wind up controlling us. They clutter our space; they crimp our hearts; they sour our souls. Benedict says that the answer is that we not allow ourselves to have anything beyond life’s simple staples in the first place and that we not use things—not even the simplest things—to restrict the life of another by giving gifts that tie another person down. Benedictine simplicity, then, is not a deprivation. It frees us for all of life’s surprises.”

In a world awash in consumerism, life’s surprises come with a price tag. And how often do we give gifts that really do “tie another person down”? I’m not to the point where I’m ready to abandon private ownership. But I also know that I can lose everything in an instant—whether by fire or storm or theft or whatever.

So I’ll celebrate the feast of St. Benedict, and I’ll try not to enslave others or myself with things.

09 July 2008

is "betrayal" too strong a word?

Today, the Democratic-led Senate voted to update FISA (Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act). They granted retroactive immunity to telecommunications companies who broke the law by illegally assisting the Bush White House in spying on Americans. The image is of an ad that appeared in today's Washington Post.

I don't want to sound like the shrill ideologues (be they on the left or the right), so that's why I ask the question: is "betrayal" too strong a word? This isn't about posturing; it's about the rule of law. I don't expect the TV networks to give this the coverage it deserves. (They haven't so far.) We'll continue to hear about the increasing price of gasoline.

I'm not under any illusions that Barack Obama is a political messiah. I'm just disappointed that he sided with the Republicans and a handful of Democrats in passing this shameful legislation.

05 July 2008

shamelessly at home

Years ago, I read Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s Letters and Papers from Prison. Two or three years ago, I got the “Greatly Enlarged Edition” of the work, edited by his close friend, Eberhard Bethge. Recently, I picked it off my shelf, where it had been crying to me, “Are you ever going to finish reading me?”

In a letter dated 1 February 1944, Bonhoeffer writes to his friend about a loss of “moral memory.” Saying that its loss is “responsible for the ruin of all obligations, of love, marriage, friendship, and loyalty,” he adds, “Nothing sticks fast, nothing holds firm.” He wonders how Germany could have declined so far, so quickly, politically and ethically. Dietrich writes to his friend Eberhard, “The [one] who feels neither responsibility towards the past nor desire to shape the future is one who ‘forgets,’ and I don’t know how one can really get at such a person and bring him to his senses…You put it very well recently when you said that people feel so quickly and so ‘shamelessly at home.’”

I ask myself: how would I have behaved as a German citizen in the 1930s and early 40s? Would I have voiced my opposition to what was going on? Would I have held my tongue, kept my head down, and joined the many who felt “so quickly and so ‘shamelessly at home?’”

Obviously, our nation has not declined politically and ethically anywhere to the extent that Germany did under National Socialist rule. Those who equate Bush with Hitler only display a lack of clear thinking (and an alarming ignorance of history). However, we’ve no doubt taken a big step backward in many areas—not least of all in protection of human rights and observance of the rule of law.

But I must confess to a certain resignation at times, a feeling that we’ll just have to “wait this one out.” Still, there’s a real danger to becoming so “shamelessly at home.” As Bonhoeffer puts it in the prologue, “Mere waiting and looking on is not Christian behavior.”

02 July 2008

in the dark silence

A few days ago, I commented on Barbara Brown Taylor’s When God is Silent. My focus was on how our noisy words hinder our prayer. She addresses not being able to hear God’s voice. She presumes that when we can’t hear that voice, it means we aren’t listening. However, she says:

“But even if that is true most of the time, it is not true all of the time. The death of Jesus taught us that. From the moment he came down from the mount of the Transfiguration, the memory of God’s voice was all he had left. He prayed to hear it again in the garden of Gethsemane, but the only voice he heard there was his own. He was arrested, tried, and convicted without so much as a sigh from heaven. From the cross, he pleaded for a word, any word, from the God he could no longer hear. He asked for bread and got a stone. Finally, in the most profound silence of his life, he died, believing himself forsaken by God.”

Maybe she’s exaggerating the point, but if so, it’s not by very much. Do we really believe that Jesus lived a human life? Do we really believe, as the creeds say, that he was truly human? How could he have not experienced the feeling of desolation, of forlornness, that sometimes plagues his brothers and sisters? She continues:

“Will anyone suggest that he simply was not listening? I do not think so. In the silence surrounding his death, Jesus became the best possible companion for those whose prayers are not answered, who would give anything just to hear God call them by name. Him too. He wanted that too, and he did not get it. What he got, instead, was a fathomless silence in which to cry out. Forever after, everyone who has heard him bellow into it has had to wonder: Is that the voice of God?”

Unless Jesus has experienced the deepest depths of despair—unless he’s plummeted to the bottom of the bottomless pit—how could he understand the tears of the tormented? Fortunately for me, this is a theoretical question. I haven’t yet been down that road of shadows. But it’s good to know that someone has preceded me into any dark, forbidding silence that may lurk on the path of life. And it’s not simply a case of being there; it’s a case of showing the way—of lighting the lamp.