24 July 2009

Going to Church

I tell my folks that you should not come to church to have a religious experience, but to learn how to have a religious experience. If you ask me (go ahead ask me) the contemporary mega church is a religious entertainment experience - prepared, polished, and indistinguishable ultimately from a television show. You may congratulate them on their business acumen, but I cannot help but ask - is that what Jesus would do? Entertain?

Ultimately, I am asking what church is for, and as my congregation (and those where I guest preach know too well) a church (a liberal one at least) should free the mind, grow the soul, and change the world. Maybe you can do that with glossy and glitzy programs on Sunday, but liberated minds and growing souls know that life itself is religious and that the other 167 hours of the week are as important as the one spent in church on Sunday.

That's why I think church should help us live the other hours as thoroughly as possible. Church should not be about church at all.

For example, this evening, I went out to pluck some weeds from the vegetable patch. This is my first such garden, and I am bad at it when it comes to maximizing the crop. But I am not in it for major supplies of tomatoes and beans and zuccini. This year I just want to see how it all happens. I want to learn.

And I am thrilled. People spend so much time asking for miracles that they miss the stunning act of little seeds becoming sprawling plants that climb and turn and turn wonderful colors and more. Nothing I ever do in church, nothing I ever see in church, equals a vegetable patch for inspiration and intrigue and plain old interest. Mind you, I am sure life is just chemistry with attitude, but what an attitude!

But that does not mean church is worthless any more than it is central. Had I not spent time exercising the mind, flexing the soul, doing the moral heavy lifting on Sundays I would likely not notice, ponder, and savor what my garden has to offer.

That's my lesson today, pilgrims, go to church the way you go to the gym. Work out, stretch, push a little harder, so that when you are out there in the world you can be a little freer, live a little fuller, and make a difference.

Sermon over. Feel free to hum a hymn as you click on to your next site...

21 July 2009

Meeting Cancelled

Most often, I consider a cancelled meeting evidence of divine grace. But today a meeting I really anticipated was cancelled, and because that is rare it prompts this post.

During my previous two pastorates there were vigorous interfaith social justice groups in which I took part. But in this town there are none, which does not mean we have no social issues worth working on. It means that our culture here is either suspicious of interfaith organizing for its political power or hostile to interfaith organizing on religious principles.

So I smiled a few weeks ago when I was invited to a meeting about Gamaliel, one of the major faith-based social justice systems in the country. Then this morning I found out the meeting was cancelled. The organizer wants to meet with me though. It turns out she is a student intern at the local Community College.

I know mighty oaks from little acorns grow, but around here we don’t even have acorns. I wish we did have ACORN, in fact. Having seen what can be done when I was in Brooklyn and Austin, I know this town needs this sort of voice. Not just to speak for the poor and the marginal but to create a common spirit that breaks down the established walls of sect and class and race.

(I just erased two fiery paragraphs because this is not the place to fulminate. Since my pews have grown tired of social critiques, I shall be silent for a while. My voice is apparently not the one that needs to be raised. But as even Simeon finally saw what was promised, there is still hope for me.)

16 July 2009

The Day Of Sighs

Now and then a day comes along just to remind you that life is not under your control.

After an unusually efficient workout, the setup as it were, I came home to finish working on a memorial service I am conducting tomorrow. My spouse, needing a grocery item or two, announced she was going to the store and so I was puzzled when my cell phone rang a few minutes later.

“I’ve been rear-ended,” she said, hastening to say she was fine but the car was strongly dented. I hastened off with camera and husbandly eye the short distance to where she and the young lip-pierced man who hit her were sharing information. A police officer came by and when we all left about 30 minutes later, he had issued the man a ticket and we went home to call insurance companies.

Of course, I set aside the Memorial to start the claims process, which took another hour so that it was nearly noon when I sat down to compose the memorial.

Another phone call, this from the office, telling me of a family in need of pastoral attention. A relative, not a member, was barely clinging to life after a terrible accident. Of course, I called them and they said please visit later that day, when they expected to pronounce him dead.

Into the shower now, and then while the spouse was having the car estimated, I made some progress on the eulogy and stuff. She came back telling me not only that it would be between $3-4,000, but that as it was an old car and we did not have collision insurance we would likely get only $500. Something was said about a mini tort, which sounds more like an appetizer than an insurance payment.

I am dumbstruck. Someone hits me and I have to pay $4000? Yes it is 18 years old, but it truly has less the 30,000 miles on it. It is in excellent condition and now I have to face paying gobs of money because someone else hit it.

Settling my ire, I went to the hospital, where stayed for most of two hours until the whole family arrived, one from out of state, and the doctor came in to make the formal decision that the man was dead. Lots of tears as he was in his 30s. A prayer that even I cannot finish without my voice cracking, and then back home. A eulogy awaits.

“By the way, honey,” my spouse says, “the body shop guy called back and said that because the car is so old it will probably cost more like $6000.


I was planning on a pilgrimage to Spain this fall, a little solitude among the Moorish walls of the Alhambra and visiting the cathedral of Toledo to hear Mozarabic chant. It’s been eight years since I was overseas and have missed it a lot. It seems I will probably miss it even longer now.

Then I wrote this. I’ll finish the eulogy next. Then to bed, the gym, to the radio station and back to church.

13 July 2009

After You My Dear Alphonse

Sometimes the pros really earn their keep. In yesterday's NYTimes, I found two excellent opinion pieces that you should read.

One is by Barbara Ehrenreich, a fine writer and scholar. Her musings on poverty in these recessionary times reminded me of how little I know about it and how in America poverty is treated like a crime. The piece is called "A Homespun Safety Net."

The other, on the same page, is by Nicholas Kristof. He tells me how simple a meaningful can be found when you can let go of what you think it's about. The piece is titled "Clean, Sexy Water."

Go, read. Then talk to me and each other. I think there is a connection. I even think I have an idea.

08 July 2009

Amidst the Loveliness

We have a week of amazing weather – sunny, dry, warm but not hot, clear air and fresh breezes. This is what West Michiganders endure abundant winters and relentless gray skies to get and we have it. Amen.

But the rest of life continues, including the death of Robert McNamara for whom there will be no memorial spectacle or ‘continuing coverage,’ although it is likely he had more impact on our lives than the ‘gloved one’ ever had or will.

I mention him because the obituary I read had a telling comment in it,

“What makes it immoral if you lose and not immoral if you win?” he asked. The times writer adds, "He found the question impossible to answer.”

Because war is never moral.

I am not a pacifist, but I do believe war can never be called good. It may be inevitable, even necessary but never good. Every war, even those that meet the criteria of ‘just’ does violence to people and society and that violence can never be called good.

What we need is a doctrine of political atonement, one that requires those who engage us in war to make some ritual recognition of their sin of violence, even if it was absolutely unavoidable.

During the Pesach seder, celebrants ritually pour out ten drops of wine for each of the plagues on Egypt, consciously sacrificing some of their joy for the suffering endured by their oppressors. We need something like this a ritual required of those who led us into war, politicians I am thinking, who should be required to make ritual atonement to those who suffered, at home or abroad.

And the nation should atone even for its victory by doing some tikkun olam, repair of the world we damaged. Part of our price as a nation must be to restore something of what we did to those we harmed, even our enemies.

Maybe if we did that, if our leaders knew that they would have to atone even for the victories, and we would have to repair the damage we do, we and they would be more reluctant to wage wars in the first place.

05 July 2009

The Pen Is Mightier

Set off some sparklers last night, not even a dozen. That was the extent of my patriotic display. That and observing the local recreation of the War of Independence when two "teams" faced 9off in a water balloon fight downtown. “Oh, the humanity.”

Somehow the grand displays of patriotism do not feed me. I thought it was cynicism until just before bed I realized I show my patriotic commitment four times a year – January 15, Apil 15, June 15 and September 15. Those are the quarterly estimated tax days, when self employed folks send in their money.

It occurred to me last night that many people cheering fireworks from coast to coast and feeling their breasts swell with pride when hearing songs like “I’m Proud to Be An American,” or “God Bless America” are the first ones to complain when it comes to paying taxes. We rightfully revere those who serve in harm’s way, but are not taxes a sacrifice as well? How come it is OK to die for one’s country but not pay for one’s country?

04 July 2009

Ready, Aim, Think

I have a few minutes on this July 4th. Being the Sabbath I will likely attend services, which is a good foil to the near religious fervor patriotic days can inspire. Like those Hebrew National commercials from a few years ago, it is good to remember we all answer to “a higher authority” than the state.

What I noticed this morning, having indulged a twenty some year old movie about Lyndon Johnson (who served longer than Kennedy and less criminally than Nixon and yet has received far less media attention than either) was a connection I never saw before.

In the movie, Lyndon goes out deer hunting with a reluctant Bobby Kennedy. I instantly thought of how many politicians make a point of hunting. Even the late Texas governor Ann Richards pointed out her dove hunting history, meaning even women politicians are constrained to show their ‘manliness.’

What occurred to me was that hunting serves many symbolic purposes, well beyond manliness and deflecting the gun lobby. As I watched the characters take aim at a deer I suddenly realized that the willingness to kill is important. At some elemental level we know our leaders have to be able to make life and death decisions, and I do mean both life and death.

Someone who hunts demonstrates the capacity to make such decisions. Unless our leaders can make the hardest choices they are not leaders, and hunting symbolizes that choice. Anyone unable to face that choice, make that choice, will lack some essential thing we need in a leader.

I find this sobering, sad, and compelling. We still live in a world where people will have to face death in order to protect others. That means we need people who know this and can shoulder this responsibility well. I do not think hunting is the only or even best measure of such resolve, but I do know that people want to be sure their leaders have it.

01 July 2009

About Time?

Yep. And only for a moment. I got back from Utah not even 24 hours ago, and am still at work unpacking, catching up, adjusting to slight jet lag and otherwise settling in.

While I have abundant thoughts and wonderings to consider, some of which might result in postings to this blog, you will just have to wait a while. Maybe when I have downloaded some pictures from my iphone I'll share one or two.

But suffice it to say that way too much happened while I was gone, newswise. Might there be a connection?