Time for a Reset

Who’s right, who’s wrong, who hasn’t got a clue? Count me in that third category when it comes to the COVID-19 outbreak currently running its way through the population of most of the nations of the world. I have ideas, impressions, reactions, guesses, suspicions, and hopes; what I don’t have is solid answers. And I’m not alone, even among experts. Did I say experts? It’s a little difficult to cede that designation to anyone with great confidence, given the fact that even the most competent of researchers and physicians are still finding their way into the mysteries of this oddly behaving virus. Because of this, I have no interest in berating one side or the other regarding the best way to handle the political, medical, or economic challenges societies are facing. 

By the time much of the trauma, recession, and finger-pointing have subsided, however, I do sincerely hope that we will have used the enforced “time-out” to do something of a reset. Simply the manner in which people have responded to the crisis and to the opinions of other people toward the crisis should tell us that something is askew. And while I write as a Christian, I believe the issues to be addressed are those with which anyone should be concerned. Simply stated, we should be well underway in the process of questioning our guiding principles, especially those that have been operating without our conscious permission. The questions involved are many, but they include these, at least: what is important to me and why; is what I declare to be important expressed in my reactions to events and statements about them; have my actions given testimony to the kind of person I want to be and profess to be; have I treated others fairly according to who they are as bearers of the divine image; do I need to reconsider some of those guiding principles? 

The questions above are posed in the first person singular. While societies need to grapple with them on the larger scale, deferring personal responsibility for one’s own place in the world is not an option for successful living. That would leave us in the place the ancient Greek philosopher Socrates described as living the unexamined life–the one not worth living. The fact is that when most of the pandemic has subsided, one side or the other will have been proven to have had the best approach to handling the interactions among people. Maybe the tighter control will have been proven best; perhaps Sweden’s more subdued response will turn out better in the long run. Maybe it will happen that we could have done just as well with fewer restrictions. In any outcome, we will move forward. Will it be as better people, or will the toxic rhetoric simply continue with finger-pointing and shouting ruling the day? The former will only happen if we use the time in deliberate reflection, in the examination Socrates thought necessary for worthwhile living. For Christians, such reflection is an integral part of the renewing of the mind that transforms our lives.

Greek philosophy bequeathed to the west the categories of truth, goodness, and beauty. It was believed that by thinking upon these three that virtue would ensue and societies would prosper. The true, the good, and the beautiful, yielding the branches of philosophy we know as epistemology, ethics, aesthetics, would provide the grounding of our common life. Since the Enlightenment, however, confidence in the objectivity of these ideals has been slowly but surely eroding. First it was beauty that was questioned–it’s in the eye of the beholder, we have been told, not in any transcendent reality. Later, morality was subjected to the same fate; doesn’t everyone know that what’s good for you might not be good for me? More recently, truth itself has been called into question, such that everyone is said to be entitled their own “truth.” If these things be so, how can a society with various and mutually exclusive ideas of truth hope to succeed? What good will resets do if there is nowhere to land–other than in the story of those in power? So the warring parties contend for the right to dictate what will be regarded as true. 

I said earlier that I write as a Christian. In this context, wherein I am espousing a serious, deliberate reset of our minds and actions, that cannot mean that we are best serving God or our fellow man by raising the pitch and volume of our voices with our understanding of the truth, hoping somehow it will be installed as the reigning story of the day. We are to be guided by virtues that transcend philosophies, even while being aware of what those are. We are called to the virtues of faith, hope, and love, none of which can be uprooted by any given philosophy or politics of the day. Nor should we become so attached to any philosophy or political vision that its demise will imply the falsehood of our belief in the reconciliation of all things through Christ. Our reset, then, is to measure the degree to which we have truly fixed our faith in the promise of the kingdom of God, our hope in its power to transform both the present and the future, and our love (God’s own love expressed through us by the power of the Holy Spirit) to both friend and foe. Where we find ourselves lacking–and we will–we resolve to encourage one another to press on. If we come out of the pandemic unchanged, we will have missed a wonderful opportunity. May it not be so.

Imagine . . . But Then Think

As a young man who had just escaped his teen years when John Lennon’s “Imagine” was released, I clearly remember being angered every time it was played. That was always the response, in spite of what I had to admit was a beautifully flowing, simple tune. You know what is was–the righteous indignation of a conservative Christian offended by the attack on most things sacred. How could I be asked to imagine–happily, no less–a world in which heaven and hell, national borders, and private property did not exist? (Please note: I am NOT happy about the hell part.) Then there was the ironic fact that this song espousing the elimination of private property was sung by a still young man who was enormously wealthy. The angry voice in my head would hear the line, “Imagine no possessions; I wonder if you can,” and shout back to no one, since the voice remained inside my head, “I wonder if YOU can, John!”

The song never really went away. Recently, it has resurfaced with greater frequency, including being featured in one of those amazingly clever digital sing-a-longs put together by NBC’s Today Show, in which various artists sing together in spite of being in different locations. I don’t think Lennon imagined that technological trick! As I listen to the song as a significantly older person I still have an overall negative reaction. But it is not one of anger as much as it is one of sadness. I think I know why,

I’ve come to realized that the utopian dreams of the human heart are born of an innate longing for the true destiny of human life–the Kingdom of God. That kingdom is not some shadowy, disembodied existence, but is truly a kingdom, a culture of interactions between and among embodied citizens. Living for today, living life in peace, the brotherhood of man–yes! I don’t think Lennon, or anyone else who has dared to imagine a better world than what is presently experienced is wrong. As a matter of fact, it should sadden the heart of every member of the race to see how far away we are from that brotherhood; we really should dream of it and work toward it. And we should work together against the things that impede, diminish, and devalue the lives of other people.

Aye, there’s the rub, the cause of my sadness when listening to the song. The simplistic, and simply wrong, identification of nation, religion, and just plain otherness as the causes of human suffering and oppression misses the mark, and misses it badly and dangerously. And as the song’s popularity continues to grow, so too does the misplaced anger thrown at the putative culprits. With 2021, the 50th anniversary of “Imagine(‘s)” release, on the near horizon, I believe we can expect to hear it even more. What will this generation hear when it is subjected to its strains? Not my generation, for whom the big, bad wolf was identified as the Vietnam war and the military-industrial complex that created and supported it; but this generation, to whom nation (especially its law enforcement arm) and religion, racism and sexism, and “the wealthy” are the blockades between the present and the fulfillment of human longings.

No one should minimize the problems that have been created by the misuse of religious authority, or of state power, and certainly not of the unbridled pursuit of wealth at the expense of another’s daily bread. The fact that these things occur is responsible for much of the appeal of the alternative of supposed equality through “democratic socialism” or its true name, communism. If the “successful” persons betray their trust in responsibility toward the rest of the people, from who their wealth ultimately derives, it is inevitable that revolt will occur at some point. If the guardians of God’s gospel of grace turn good news into a weapon of fear, they are deserving of both God’s wrath and ours. But imagining that a world in which there is no appeal to a power beyond this world will prove more oppressive than its advocates imagine. For it must put down any dissent, any free thought that contradicts the narrative of the state, especially if the “state” is a worldwide phenomenon. Those who are tempted to think otherwise have neither read the 20th century classics Brave New World, Animal Farm, or 1984. nor have they paid attention to 20th century history, spilling into the 21st century. It’s not just the fictitious worlds of Huxley and Orwell in which what seemed like freedom turned into nightmarish control; it’s the real world of eastern Europe and Central America. And that without exception–there isn’t a single instance in which what was advertised as democratic socialism remained truly democratic or produced a prosperous, classless society. And I’m sad to see so many rushing toward it nonetheless, singing Lennon as they go.

Yes, imagine we can do better. Become better stewards of grace, of wealth, of the sacred trust of governing others. And recognize that none of these entities have gone any farther astray than have the human hearts of those who constitute all nations. Our own hearts included.

The Return of the Prof

The Return of the Prof

 

Okay, so it’s not in the same category as The Return of the King, part of the epic Tolkien series brought back to prominence by Peter Jackson a few years ago. Thankfully, this return is also different in that it does not follow a protracted and extremely violent battle, claiming innumerable casualties in the process. Just a few demons of doubt, misgivings, fear, and critical retrospection to contend with since posting the last entry.

 

That was five years ago. As with life in general, a lot has happened since then, both personally and, far more importantly, in our culture, nation, and world. On the first of those levels, I’ve had to make the very painful decision to leave a job I frequently described as the best I could have had. Seminary teaching was a challenge, a delight, an occasional frustration, a trust, a responsibility, a calling. Leaving was a loss of all of those things and m;ore, including a sense of place. Much as I’ve tried, transitioning to pastoral work only is only a partially completed journey. The decision had much to do with the cultural changes that have taken place, both within the Christian church and the culture at large. Theological education has lost its place in the minds and hearts of too much of the church, for reasons upon which many others have speculated and commented; I’ll not rehearse those ruminations here. Higher education in general now takes place on more computer screens and in fewer actual classrooms. “Virtual” is not an adjective I like to have attached to “classroom” in the training of pastors. Call me a dinosaur. I use the technologies, particularly for connecting with congregants during the present health crisis; they are useful, but not ideal.

 

Be that as it may, the return to Theostory is one I’ve contemplated for much of the five year hiatus. This seems to be the time to do so, and I’m hoping to engage some ideas and questions that matter. The individual topics might not matter in equal measure to everyone who reads and responds, of course. They will deal, in no particular order, with questions of faith, theology, culture, the nature and identity of the church, political issues, news events, and occasional personal ramblings such as are found in the previous paragraph. They’ll engage things I’ve been reading and hearing and thinking about, and I invite you to suggest similar items that are gnawing at you, motivating you, plaguing you, or bringing you joy. In that category of current reading, I’ve recently looked at Dana Loesch (there’s a non-controversial figure, right?) and her new book Grace Canceled; Terry Turchie and Donaugh Bracken’s In Their Own Words; and, to maintain a semblance of sanity, a reread of what I consider a very good introduction to theology, Beth Welker Jones’ Practicing Christian Theology. I’d ask for other suggestions, but my list is already so long that the Lord will have to grant me the grace of 50 more years to complete it. Having just recently turned 69, that request already seems sufficiently bold.

 

Assuming anyone out there is still interested in what I and fellow readers have to say, send back a brief comment that includes something you’d like to think about together. The exercise of thinking about things that matter from the perspective of the Christian narrative seems as needful now as ever. Let’s do it together.

 

A short postscript: Prayers will not be included on this site, as they were before I suspended my posts, but you can find them weekly at the website for the congregation I’m happy to serve: www.stpaulsrothsville.org

Prayer for the Week, Sept. 13

Eternal Father, Holy Lord, Abiding Spirit, we humbly, yet gratefully present ourselves before You this day. We come to be healed of our self-inflicted wounds of mind and spirit, to be reminded of our worth as Your children, and to repent of our foolishness. All of these things and more are at Your invitation. 

You, Our Father, have called us to do justice, to love mercy, and to walk humbly with our God. Then You demonstrated what these mean in the earthly life of Your Incarnate Son. He displayed before us, as recorded in the inspired Gospels, an unparalleled concern for justice, offering Himself for the sins of the world, removing the condemnation rightly falling upon us; he modeled mercy in reaching to the neglected, the wounded, the poor of spirit, the ones laid aside by illness of mind, body, and spirit; and humbled himself to walk among us, the ones who offended the truth.

We pray for his mind to dwell and work in our lives. We confess that we are yet at a distance from this mind, preferring our own ways and priorities. In very recent days, we have overlooked the right things to do; we have thought ourselves too busy to extend mercy to those right in front of us, sometimes thinking them unworthy of our time and resources; we have thought ourselves to be more important than others. Lord, have mercy upon us, and forgive our sin.

Refresh us yet again, we ask, by Your Holy Spirit, in ways that tell us the mind of our savior; implant his thoughts, his love in our inner being, even as we bring ourselves before Your Holy Word, there to be shown not only our failures, but our possibilities as we allow You to live in us and through us. Then will we more truly live as we pray, when we say,

Our Father, who art in heaven,

Hallowed be Thy name.

Thy kingdom come, Thy will be done in earth,

As it is in heaven.

Give us this day our daily bread,

And for give us our trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass against us.

And lead us, not into temptation,

But deliver us from evil;

For thine is the kingdom, and the power, and the glory forever.

Amen

Prayer for the Week, September 6

Our vision, our best thought; our wisdom and true Word. We bow before You, our Father, knowing that You are these things and eternally more. You have made us and known us, loved us and called us.

Our prayer this day is that we would be so captured by Your redemptive love that we would want in full what we want only in part. We confess that instead we want to see things for ourselves and order life according to our own vision; we want to be wise in our own eyes and in the eyes of our fellow man and woman; we struggle to find our worth in who we can make ourselves to be, and it is always inadequate. Have mercy on us, O Lord.

We work for things that do not last, instead of fixing our eyes on our inheritance in Christ, in whom are all the true riches the world will ever know. Come, and lift us from our impoverished lives.

With You as our vision, and Your passion becoming our own, let us see what You see when You look at the world. For those who are fallen under the weight of addictions, let us see souls precious to You, capable of being what they cannot imagine for themselves. For those whose joy has been robbed by despair, let us see them as ready to laugh and sing once more, needing only Your touch. For those imprisoned in faraway places for their faithfulness, let us see brothers and sisters for whom we tirelessly pray. For those lost in the pursuit of self, let us see people in need of a Savior.

We pray for Your wisdom in the midst of political unrest; for Your confidence in the midst of growing financial uncertainty; for Your presence in what seems an increasingly empty world, devoid of value. We pray for Your guidance of a generation that is living in the hopelessness of life without boundaries; all of which causes us to pray as Jesus still teaches us by saying . . .

 Our Father, who art in heaven,

 Hallowed be Thy name.

 Thy kingdom come, Thy will be done on earth,

 As it is in heaven.

 Give us this day our daily bread,

 And forgive us our debts,

 As we forgive our debtors.

 And lead us,

 Not into temptation,

 But deliver us from evil,

 For thine is the kingdom, and the power, and the glory, Forever.

 Amen.

Prayer for the Week, August 23

To You, Our Father, through the work of Your Son, Jesus the Christ, and by the strength and encouragement of Your Holy Spirit, we come to pray.

We pray because we lack wisdom for the decisions we make; we pray because we lack strength to live according to what wisdom we gain; we pray because we lack power to remove the obstacles in our path. We pray because we lack authority to forgive sins and thus find new life. Most of all we pray because You have invited us to come, to taste and see that You are good. 

We pray because we live in a darkened world. Even on a bright and beautiful Sunday morning of Your making, darkness infringes upon us. It keeps many, many people from presenting themselves before You in worship and thanksgiving for all the gifts this world has to offer. Shine, Lord Jesus, into such darkness.

In the darkness, wrong seems right and right seems wrong. Shine the light of true wisdom upon our pathways. In the darkness, we struggle with relationships, so easily broken, so inadequately mended. Shine You light of forgiving wholeness. In the darkness, the enemy comes in to kill and destroy, fostering hatred, envy, greed, despair, revenge, and terror. Shine, Lord Jesus, with Your powerful, redemptive love. 

Your light will shine to the measure that we allow it to shine through us. Forgive us, we pray, for keeping the light You have placed within us under all manner of shade. We do what we should not, and dampen the light; we fail to do what we should, and the light does not shine. Have mercy upon us; Lord have mercy. We have not offered the cup of cold water, the healing words, the extended hand of forgiveness. We have not sought first the kingdom of God, the rule of the Son, or the strength of the Spirit. So once again, we pray with Your fallen yet chosen and redeemed people of all times, Our Father . . . 

Prayer for the Week, August 16

Heavenly Father, the One who knows us and loves us, we bow our heads before You this day. We consider so little the wisdom that resides in You and You alone. The majestic creation, so intricately designed and fit together in ways the best of our efforts can only begin to understand, speaks of wisdom beyond comprehension. The complexities of human hearts, minds, and wills are all known to You as well; we cannot begin to truly assess ourselves and know even as we are known. Yet You do know us—and love us still. May our praise therefore arise daily.

Joy and sorrow, pain and pleasure, insight and confusion are our constant companions in this world, combining in ways that move us and shape us. We know not what to ask or imagine; we struggle to know where to focus our energy, our time, our concerns. Make us wise, we pray.

We confess this day that we have worked hard for the wrong things, the unimportant things; we have given time to fruitless pursuits, to idle hours; we have stressed over insignificant things, over uncontrollable events. Forgive us, we pray; Lord have mercy.

Draw our minds to Your words, we ask this day. In Your written Word are all the instruction that we need in the way of wisdom; in Your living Word, even Your Son, our Savior and Lord, are all we can ever know about who You are, what You desire, and how to truly prosper in this world. Forgive us for looking elsewhere, we pray; Lord have mercy.

Even as Your own heart weeps for the poor, the needy, the despairing, the sick and infirm, soften our hearts, open our hands, increase our compassion for them all, so that we may be prepared to act in Your place when they come across our path. Then shall we become wise and truly live, even as we pray,

 Our Father . . .