29 April 2009

Cooler Out, Warmer In

The weather has veered back toward the cool, temps hovering slightly below 60 with Flemish painterly skies looming, pocked with blue lit patches. Very stirring.

My mood has warmed, not in the sentimental sense but in the moral sense. I am reading Gary Dorrien's enormous 3 volume history of Liberal Theology in America. Almost dead center, that is in the front half of the second volume I have re-encountered Walter Rauschenbusch. But it feels like the first time, as the extensive analysis by Dorrien and the new timeliness of his century old notions of the social gospel make him stand out as a powerful critic and prophet. They also make me think he may be the strongest voice for progressive religion in this era, better even than he was when he lived.

So I shall go in search of more. First to other historians and their sense of his ideas, and then to his works to read them directly. Would anyone like to join me?

(While pondering that, read Robert H. Frank's comment from the Sunday NYTimes. Tell me what you think about that, too.)

Now back to my book. Yes, I have resumed writing, but it is hard and my literary muscles are quite stiff.

27 April 2009

Another Salty Day

Remember the Morton reference? Good! No need to repeat myself.

Day full of stuff, including rain. Got well soaked on the way home as the wind inverted my umbrella four times.

There was a whole lotta weather these past few days. A week ago winter was still clinging with temps in the 40s and then, suddenly, it was in the 80s. Sure, I was in Ohio for a school sporting event, but I think going from ten degrees below normal to twenty above normal in 36 hours is uncalled for.

It was also windy Saturday. Really windy. And again yesterday. And again today. What is this, Oklahoma? When I lived in Texas abrupt changes in temps, winds, rains, and such were part of the mystique and sorta fit the rugged open countryside. But up here in the old Northwest and the hearty midwest, such stuff is just weird. My sister in law in Vermont wrote that it was 91 there too.

Weird. And Just plain wrong, too. My house went from heating to air conditioning in less than a week. Are the electric and gas companies conspiring to make me spend money? Couldn't I have a week or two with just an open window? It's been known to happen. I remember it. We called it spring.

If it helps, even humans are being weird as well. College application season refuses to be over. My son will not have a definitive answer from his first choice until the end of May. May! Don't even get me started on that one.

The recession hit my church in the form of staff reductions last week. Few conversations are more difficult than telling people who work hard and love their work that they can't do it any more.

Then this week I read how the big boy bankers are all upset about being told that rescue money makes them take lower pay and follow more rules. Unjust they say. Just ask my staff, and the workers of GM and a few others who now stand in line at the employment office what unjust really means.

But where is the outrage? We live in lotto land, the casino state, every one of us willing to risk real poverty for the tiny hope of vast wealth. All or nothing is what America is about. When did we stop thinking enough was enough, and too little really was too little, and too much really is too much? Everything today is weird.

One thing I thought about today, in this too hot too too windy world, was how Lenin once said capitalists will sell the rope that will hang them. Right now, in this weird place, that has an appealing ring.

As a boy scout I was very good at knots.

18 April 2009

Not Crazy, But Not Sane

My mood has been unaccoutably merry of late. The world is no better than before, arguably worse. Challenges at work are more not less. Scrupulous analysis leaves me no choice but to attribute it to sunshine and warm air.

After a very long, very cold and very snowy winter; during which I felt very cold and snowy inwardly as well; the presence of vitality in the land has seeped into me so much that even as I contemplate genuine struggles and problems my mood is still positive.

To say we are connected to the world is a truism amounting to a cliche. But to sense how pervasive this us, how much the climate is both subjective and objective, is quite startling. It is also prompts to look back on my youth and to my own mother who was more and more affected by the seasons as she aged.

Much as she loved her Vermont home and town where she and my father lived for almost half their their lives, I believe the intensity of the seasons there compared to the milder world where she grew up down south drew her into what I would call sub-clinical bipolarity. Her highs were a little higher than average, and her lows a little lower as well.

I say this because, as you can infer from the title and my first sentences, the same thing is happening to me.

We live in a world that wants a clear line between normal and abnormal, between crazy and insane, but there is no tidy little line. Yes, the extremes are evident, but the spot where one moves from emotional to moody, from moody to eccentric, from eccentric to strange, is not easy to find.

I must ponder this. You should too. But today is too sunny to spend much thought on that. Time to play!

16 April 2009

Would Someone Explain This?

The "tea parties." Those Tax Day protests yesterday. What precisely were they protesting? I did a little reading, and noticed that there were Libertarians who want to abolish the IRS (no surprise there), but what dog do anti-abortion activists have in this hunt? And the woman shouting 'no taxation with representation' for the TV coverage was especially puzzling. How does she figure that?

Near as I can make out the complaint is about taxes, nothing new there, but that somehow they are worse with a new administration and Congress. Show where they are worse? I can't find out. Yes, there is the proposal to allow tax rates to rise on those who make more than $250k a year. That's less than one household in a hundred, which makes the idea of populist outrage hard to believe.

OK, there is the problem of paying for the stimulus stuff, and that IS a big deal. But what I read was not a demand to show how this will happen but accusations, name calling, demagoguery, calling the president a socialist and that we are all now "oppressed" by Washington, at least compared to, say, three months ago. Has so much changed that we have become a proto-communist state waiting for guidance from China and North Korea?

Or worse, Sweden!

Genuine popular unrest comes from the truly afflicted - the poor, the hungry, the 'huddled masses yearning to breathe free.' What I saw and read came from lots of conservatives who are, frankly, PO'd that they are not in charge any more. I giggle at the thought of all those marginalized and oppressed millionaires and billionaires who are at risk of being a less rich, whom I did not see in the streets. I understand they helped pay for the events though. I guess that makes those in the protests effectively 'servants' of the besieged wealthy. Too bad they were not actually paid, which would have made it a more honest economic transaction.

Sorry for the rant, but I just wrote some big checks to my national, state and city government yesterday while also taking a voluntary 5% reduction in pay for 2009 to help balance my church's books, and while yes, that costs me money, I have been profoundly blessed by this nation. Paying some of that forward, even though it means I will have a little less now, not only seems right it feels good too.

But hey, I am an oddball. I was never much of a tea drinker in the first place.

14 April 2009

Caesar’s Day

Well, here it is, Caesar’s annual ritual. Yes, I mean tax day, which is not tax paying day so much as tax reckoning day.

We all hate taxes of course. But we all love roads, schools, sewer lines, garbage collections, fire fighters and police. Cognitive dissonance is built into us, I suppose. We all want to be free of government intrusion and yet also want and safe and reliable society. Ideologues tell us it can be perfect, but as Immanuel Kant observed (and is now displayed on the NYC subways I read) “From crooked wood nothing straight can be made.”

Humans are imperfect creatures. News flash, right? But somehow we think we can overcome this fact just the way economists tell us we can violate the laws of entropy and thermodynamics.

Taxes are as inevitable as garbage and entropy, and as powerful. Just as we cannot make and consume without leaving something behind that is waste, so we cannot have a society that runs perpetually without some fuel. Good intentions are insufficient as long as human beings are involved.

Emerson said, “Everything God made has a crack in it.” Bill Graham said one thing I agree with on the same point. “If you ever find the perfect church, don’t join it because then it won’t be.”

So while I regret the writing of checks, and equally the elaborate process of determining exactly how much, I have no ground to complain. My lights work, my sewers run, the streets are safe, the things most people do not have at all I never even think about. Could it be better? Sure and we should strive for that, but will it ever be perfect?

If you think so, there’s a bridge in Brooklyn that I can sell you very cheap.

12 April 2009

Prepare Ye The Way

For some reason (OK it was Lent) I felt nostalgic recently for the 1970's show and movie called Godspell. Thanks to YouTube, I watched the entire movie on line, including a very young Victor Garber who went from being an Art Garfunkel iteration of Jesus to being Jennifer Garner’s dangerous dad in the series Alias. That’s versatility!

Anyway, I remember when it came out, and as a lifelong (actually four lives long) Unitarian I was intrigued and impressed as it presented a timely and appealing and dare I say ‘non theological’ version of Jesus of Nazareth. Parts of it are way dated and hokey, but that says more about the moment it was made. And yet there is still a sweetness in the idea that Jesus was a counter cultural character, and a poignance in the innocent confidence of that vision.

This morning, Easter morning, as I prepare myself for worship I am tugging to reclaim a bit of the naivete and confidence.

It helped to spend a few minutes watching Rick Warren and following that with “The Green Pastures.” Warren captures the current mainstream of evangelicalism. His genius is not the message but the package, for which I give him credit.

The Green Pastures is a 1936 film that blithely presents a racially stereotyped heaven down to an Uncle Remus assortment of characters including a “Lawd” and a heaven full of black angels who have heavenly fish fries and relish 10 cent cigars.

As outlandish as the movie is in its unthinking racism, I actually found that sense of God to be more appealing than the Rick Warren version (which is Robert Schuller’s and other mega-preachers).

I think it is the intimacy, the simplicity, the honesty that comes through. American megachurches are big, bright, spectacular, almost cinematic. Large halls, orchestras, big screens, fancy lighting, make God a celebrity. People want to be seen with this God like one craves to see a movie star or rock star.

The God of Green Pastures who walks about unrecognized in a slouch hat with a cane, or a Jesus with hokey suspenders and a huge 'Jewfro" who acts like second rate street mime, remind me of that song from a few years back “What if God was one of us?”

As I read the story of Jesus, that was precisely the point.

09 April 2009


Check out an opinion piece in today's NYTimes, also responding to the spasm of spree killings recently. The author is a Montana guy, by the way.

08 April 2009

duck and cover

was what we all learned to do as kids in school, as part of our drill against nuclear attack. at the risk of being too vulgar for a clergyman in public, when we turned teenagers we defined it as bending over and kissing our ass goodbye because that was how effective we all esteemed the practice to be.

a colleague has a blog in which there has been a conversation about guns, and whether in the light of several killing sprees they ought better to be managed. i am noting this because this issue never fails to arouse intense feelings. having once lived in the rootin' tootin' republic o' Texas i well remember the zeal folks can have about this.

but it became infinitely tragic this past week when a fellow in Pittsburgh, convinced by an assortment of Internet rumors that the new administration was secretly planning to confiscate private fire arms or something close to that, decided to take his own life and that of several police officers in response.

now, i admit and affirm that trying to control violence by banning guns is as useless as 'duck and cover.' but that does not mean nothing can be done at all. if air raid drills cannot save us, treaties and other things have nuclear war far less likely.

like the struggle over abortion, we risk falling into a black/white, yes,/no, right/wrong mind set about guns. nothing in human nature can be reduced to this simplistic level of choice. and that's exactly the problem. there are no easy, simple answers to issues like abortion, gun control, obscenity, and more. but passionate feelings drive people to extreme positions they then must defend, creating these perversely stark options, neither of which are workable.

i have no answers here, but i do have questions. one would be asking how firearms can best serve as a good form of defense against violence? sporting use of guns i do not question, and no one of intelligence would either. all the worry attaches to the idea that a firearm can protect us when someone is a danger to us.

but we need to ask what it would take for ordinary people, you and me, to do that. merely owning a gun does not protect us. to assume we all know how to use a gun well, facing danger we did not see coming, and use it effectively, may be more wishful thinking than good judgment.

let's have some thoughtful conversations about the 'civic' role of firearms as a tool for citizens to defend themselves. let's ask what purpose they serve and then how best to preserve that role and how best to prevent misuse. let's have that conversation for a change.

a guy can dream, can't he?

04 April 2009

A sunny cold day here in the land of the Great Lakes.

I am embarking on the single most dangerous change in my habits since smoking cigarettes in the 1970s. Instead of writing out my sermons I am using scant notes. For the last few weeks I have done this more and more, and last week in particular I was reduced to the fewest by a crowded week that left me mere hours on Saturday.

I am doing this because it seems to force me to preach in a more immediate way. No one has ever accused me of being dull or cold in the pulpit, by the way. But when I told my folks that I have a ‘pentecostal’ streak I knew that meant I would have to let it show. So I am.

And is it scary. My tradition, my training, my values, all esteem the literary sermon – that carefully thought and linguistically taut oeuvre which not only preaches to those physically before you but to posterity. I admire those find essays, crave to create them, and yet also know they are are not what I am destined to do best.

The arrogance of the liberal preacher is to believe he or she creates the sermon. We may write it down, revise it, print it, but the sermon exists only at the moment it is spoken and heard. The sermon exists in the air, as it were, in the space between preacher and congregation. That’s why I so appreciate the tradition of speaking back to the preacher in some traditions, reminding them both that it is a spiritual dialogue not a soliloquy.

More easily said than done, especially in the dignified realms I have inhabited all my professional life. And yet, I am convinced pentecostally open worship is essential to liberating the liberal church. Not to become like others who do it, but to become what it must become if it is to live out its mission.

Oops, now I am preaching tomorrow’s message. I had better stop now and get back to the scary work of preparing my soul more than my text. And yes, that means you have to be there to find out what I am going to say. Heck even I won’t know for sure until then.

Sort of a Forrest Gump theory of worship isn’t it – you never know what you’re gonna get.

01 April 2009


Insight struck moments ago, when I realized something. Only Fools learn!

As I thought about April Fools Day, its origin in mocking those who were still celebrating the new year at the end of March when it had been moved to January, I thought back to times when I felt foolish.

You know the feeling, right? Quite suddenly you realize something you thought was true is not. Often it is when someone deliberately tricks you, which is always cruel if not always mean. I mean, the intent to make someone feel foolish has at its heart the intent to make someone feel bad. Even the gentlest deception parlays this cruelty at some level.

Leaving deliberate perpetrators aside now, there are moments when we realize some notion we have held for a long time isn't true. For a while we might be ashamed for being so 'foolish' but ultimately we are glad to know better.

Real learning, as I told my congregation Sunday, is always humbling, causing us to question and even discard things we held to be true. Feeling foolish and stupid are sure signs you are learning something because, as Epictetus observed long ago, "It is impossible to teach a man something he already knows."

So all hail April Fool's Day, and St. Paul, who is its patron saint. He was willing to be the fool for God, and whether you agree with him or not, look what that fool was able to do compared to the high and mighty who seem to know everything about the world - like bankers.