A Desk

October 15, 2019

I inherited a very nice office when I accepted my current Call.  A large, dark wood desk with an accompanying side piece – I don’t even know what to call it – that has another large flat surface as well as cabinets above.  Both pieces have large, deep drawers with plenty of hanging file space.

It’s a beautiful desk – though I rarely see it because of my clutter.  I rally every so often to clear away the ministerial detritus which accumulates there naturally layer by layer.  There is a great – if fleeting – satisfaction to seeing the top of my desk.

But even as I admire it, I recognize it is not an ideal desk.  It is very much a desk of a different age, before the proliferation of devices and cables.  Phone and computer cords trail off of it in a rather unappealing fashion.  I could rearrange my office layout somewhat to compensate, but I don’t really care about it that much.  The multi-outlet surge protector lays on the floor beside it, also relatively unappealing aesthetically.

A desk for today would have options for cable management so they aren’t trailing across the top of it like anorexic octopuses.  It might even have a place for the surge protector to be mounted underneath, reducing cables across the floor.  And while large file drawers are still helpful, in this age of digital storage it seems somewhat superfluous.

It isn’t that the desk is bad.  It’s a good desk that accomplishes good things.  But it shows it’s age.  Not in terms of how it looks, but rather the functions it does and doesn’t incorporate.  The fact that wires and power outlets are more important these days than file folders doesn’t mean the desk was bad for its time, but rather a demonstration of how many things we take for granted also adapt in subtle or not so subtle ways to changing environments.

I was talking with a parishioner a few months ago who is trying to divest himself of his now-deceased mother’s furniture.  Lovely, sturdy, probably hand-made.  And yet despite being well-kept and lovely, he’s had almost zero interest in it.  Folks are more inclined to order something new and sleek off of Amazon, or take a trip to the nearest IKEA mega-store to pick up something full of contemporary functionality – even though it will never last as long as his mother’s furniture.  I love my desk, but the fact that I love it may not mean anyone else will.  They think of desks differently perhaps than I do.  We use the same word but have slightly different ideas in mind.

It isn’t that people are going to quit needing desks.  But they are going to look for different features in desks, and desks will increasingly adapt themselves to those needs and wants.  It shouldn’t compromise the core purpose and identity of a desk.  It isn’t as though desks will quit featuring flat tops to work on.  It wouldn’t be a desk any more!  But in other ways manufacturers will increasingly figure out and incorporate ancillary preferences and needs.  In the process, looks will change, although I have no doubt there is very fine, traditional-looking office furniture that provides for cable and power management and other modern niceties.

It’s probably time to clean my desk off again.  Time to admire the classic lines and finish.  I’m willing to deal with the minor inconveniences, but  I know others might not be.  I just have to keep that in mind, should I ever decide I want or need a new desk and want to sell this one.

Income Disparity!

October 14, 2019

When I was a kid, we couldn’t afford to purchase school lunches.  Every day I brought my lunch to school in a pretty cool lunch box.  My preferred sandwich was peanut butter and jelly.  I ate that pretty much every school day for lunch from as far back as I can remember to sometime probably in late high school when I started working and could afford to – from time to time – eat out.

I never really gave this much thought.  Some people could afford to buy school lunches, just like some people – once we hit junior high and high school age – could afford to buy shakes and french fries and other luxuries for lunch.  It was a reality of my life.  Yes, it meant I wasn’t part of the in crowd (although there were plenty of other, non-economic reasons why I would never be invited into that hallowed clique).  I learned to deal with that.  As generations of kids did before me and after me.

Yet politicians today are outraged that not everyone can afford to buy school lunches.  Or some people sign their kids up for them but then fall behind in their payments, racking up debts with the school.  This has apparently been handled up till now by those children getting a “cheaper, alternative” lunch.  And this stigmatizes them.  They stick out from their peers who can afford the pricier lunches, or can afford to have the luxury of choosing what they want to eat for lunch instead of just having something handed to them.

Note that everyone is getting a lunch.  But some get to choose what they have for lunch while others are denied a choice, or their choice is less desirable.

So our state has decided to eliminate the stigma for these children by assuring that all kids – whether their parents can afford to pay their lunch debts off or not – get the same lunch.  No mention is made in the article about how this decision will be paid for.  I presume it will be paid for with yet another sob-story appeal to the voters about how the school systems can’t make ends meet and need more money in taxes and bonds to ensure all children receive a quality education.

Seems as though education is in order, indeed.

Starting with the hard, cold reality – both present and historical – that some people make more than others.  Some people have more than others.  In my studies of history, this has always been the case.  Even including efforts at socialism and communism in the 20th century, a basic fact of life is that some people are always going to be a little better off than others.  Or a lot.  Whether they’re supposed to be or not.  That’s the way life works.

Yet news stories today present this as though it’s some sort of newly discovered corruption in our society.  Did you know that some people can afford to buy portable generators when faced with possible power outages?  Did you know this is evidence of income disparity?!  Wait – you mean some people live paycheck to paycheck?  How is it that reporters and politicians are so surprised by this?  For pretty much all of my life, myself and the vast majority of people I’ve known live more or less paycheck to paycheck.  We don’t have vast sums of money in the bank.  Sometimes we have a little more.  Sometimes a little less.

But we live in a country founded on the principle that if you worked hard, you could improve your situation.  You might start out with not much, but you could try to do better.  It wasn’t handed to you.  It wasn’t paid for by other people.  But you had the chance to try and improve your lot in life.  Generations of people have done just that.  Millions of people from around the world have undertaken great risk and expense to come to our country because of that principle.  And many, many, many of them have found that principle isn’t just a nice marketing gimmick.  It’s true.  They’re witnesses to it, and that reality is what continues to fuel the desire to come to our country.

That’s not good enough for our politicians, apparently.

Maybe more of them needed to bring their lunches to school.  Maybe more of them needed to deal with the fact that some people don’t eat fancy lunches every day at school.  Some people don’t wear the latest designer fashions to school every day.  Some people aren’t invited to the cool parties and hang out with the popular kids every day.  That income disparity is just one of the pervasive realities of life, and despite good (or bad) intentions to the contrary, is amazingly difficult (or impossible) to eliminate.

Now that lunches are free, I guess we can move on to mandating a fashion fund so kids with parents who can’t afford to shop at all the cool stores aren’t stigmatized by having to wear off-brand clothing.  Maybe another fund to help poor families buy nicer cars so they don’t stand out when they’re dropping off and picking up junior from school.  The list could go on and on.

Life is not fair.  Not in income and not in a stunning variety of other ways.  Kids can be very cruel, it’s true.  And if it isn’t school lunches, it will be something else where they demonstrate this truth generation after generation.

Because the real issue isn’t school lunches or portable generators or even income disparity as a whole.  The real problem, the real root of cruelty and social and economic stratification is sin.  Brokenness that can’t be legislated away.  Sin that can’t be taxed out of existence.  We have to be saved from it, but the government isn’t up to that task.  Never has been.  Isn’t now.  Never will be.  We can seek to make improvements, to be sure.  And I know that good intentions are at the basis of writing about income disparity and trying to give free lunches to everyone.  But what we really need is a God willing to enter into our world to save us from the sin we can’t always see and sometimes don’t want to get rid of, as well as the sin we’d be happy to do without.  Jesus has done this.  My state – or Federal – government can’t.  They can’t fix the level of brokenness that leads to hurt feelings and social stigmatization.  At best, they can try to give away more free lunches.

But that’s something I learned in school as well, along with the fact that some people have more money than others.  There’s no such thing as a free lunch in this world.  Somebody, somewhere, always pays.

Reading Rambling – October 20, 2019

October 13, 2019

Reading Ramblings

Date: Nineteenth Sunday after Pentecost – October 20, 2019

Texts: Genesis 32:22-30; Psalm 121; 2 Timothy 3:14-4:5; Luke 18:1-8

Context: The readings today are readings of exhortation and encouragement to persist and persevere in faith with God. This, of course, presumes a God who not only can be persisted with but actually desires this and responds to such efforts. Such a God invites us into relationship, invites us to not give up on him, knowing that He never gives up on us.

Genesis 3:22-30 – Jacob is en route to reunite with his brother Esau. The two parted on less than friendly terms, and in the intervening 14 years, Jacob has good reason to wonder what sort of welcome he will receive from the elder brother he outsmarted many years ago with the help of his mother. Jacob has further received word that Esau approaches with a large war party of 400 men. What are his intentions? Jacob does not believe he can meet his brother with force. He prays to God to preserve his life, but will God do so? Alone in his worry and fear, he wrestles with God himself (the pre-incarnate Son of God, Jesus). In physical combat, a test of strength and will, Jacob perseveres until daybreak, never relenting, even when he is defeated. It is God’s good pleasure to allow Jacob to persevere that He might bless him for being willing to so persist. After such an encounter, should Jacob fear Esau any longer, or anyone for that matter? He is a changed man. Changed not only in his limp, but in his wonder and amazement at being invited to grapple with God himself.

Psalm 121 – A song of trust and confidence in God. Who created us? Who holds our lives in his hand? What is there to fear when we trust in God as the sole determiner of our lives? Regardless of our situation or how dire circumstances, we know that God alone determines the outcome. If He desires to save you, who can prevail against you?

2 Timothy 3:14-4:5 – Having reminded Timothy of how bad things have yet to get, Paul once again exhorts his protege to faithfulness. The depravity of humanity, both currently and in the future, is no reason for Timothy to lose faith. Paul has suffered greatly and repeatedly for proclaiming the Gospel – but God has preserved him from all the efforts to silence him. Likewise Timothy should not be fearful of whatever persecution he might have to face. His faith should be grounded in the Word of God, the truth of God as revealed in sacred Scripture (which at this point was the Old Testament primarily). Timothy is not simply to read the Word for personal edification but to preach it. Boldly. Persistently. Not angrily but in love, not hurriedly but patiently and carefully. He will find eventually that people don’t want to hear the Word of God because they prefer their own ideas about things, but that is not to deter him from his task of preaching the Word. He is to persevere because this is his task, his calling from God, and he must remain faithful to it and not conclude his worth or value in terms of how many people are listening to it.

Luke 18:1-8 – This parable is at first glance difficult to make sense of. How is Jesus comparing God the Father with an unrighteous judge? It seems to make no sense! This parable follows Jesus’ teaching about the coming kingdom of God. Here as in other places, Jesus makes it clear that there will be a delay between his current, incarnate work and the final judgment and revelation of the kingdom of God in fullness. Delays are difficult things, though! We are by nature impatient, and how are we to spend our time in the meantime? How do we negotiate the difficulties of life until our Lord returns? Luke gives us the key to this in his introduction, as though he knows it’s a perplexing parable and doesn’t want us to be unduly put off by it. The important thing is that we pray. The exhortation to always pray does not non-stop prayer, but rather repeated, consistent, persistent prayer. We are to be persistent in prayer as Jacob was persistent in clinging to Jesus, or as Timothy is to be persistent in proclaiming the Word regardless of whether anyone seems to be listening or not. We are to pray persistently that Thy kingdom come, as the Lord’s prayer puts it.

To drive this point home, Jesus sets up an unlikely confrontation. The judge has all the power in this situation, culturally. Moreover, he is an unjust judge, and fears neither the wrath of God or the opinions of man. What can a lowly widow do against such a man? If he will not give her justice out of obedience to God, and if he won’t give her justice in order to preserve his reputation with his neighbors, how can she expect to ever prevail? Yet she does not give up. She is persistent! And in the end, it turns out the judge does care somewhat about what others think – he grants the widow’s plea so that she does not give him a black eye, does not make him look bad. If he actually does care about what others think of him, is there a chance he might actually fear God as well?

The comparison between God the Father and the judge is not in terms of unjustness. If an unscrupulous judge is capable of granting justice to a persistent widow, how much more will a gracious, merciful and loving God hear the prayers of his persistent faithful? How much more certain is it that He will indeed respond, will indeed fulfill his promise, will indeed bring his kingdom in power and glory?

Is this our faith, though? Or have we given up and lost interest, presuming God’s timing remains indefinitely off in the future, another thousand years or more? The final question drives home the importance of persistence. We don’t quit praying for our Lord’s return because we don’t quit hoping for it and looking for it. We don’t allow it to be a back-burner sort of reality for us, but rather a real and present reality for us every day, a reality that drives how we conduct ourselves in loving God and loving our neighbor. In this reality, we pray and wait and are faithful for our Lord’s arrival, in his good and perfect timing.

Palimpsests

October 10, 2019

In the generally cool category, this article describes the discovery of some surprising things written on parchments, then erased so something else could be written on them instead.  And, we also get a new vocabulary word to describe these parchments – palimpsests!

The idea is that an isolated monastery in Egypt at one point was not able to easily procure fresh parchment, and turned to erasing some existing manuscripts to provide parchment for new copying.  A variety of previous texts have been discovered through the use of specialized cameras and lighting, and some of those texts were previously unknown or written in languages we have few extant examples of.

What a cool use of technology, proving that while we in the digital, Internet age know that nothing really disappears online, it might be true to a certain degree for people 1400 years ago as well.  Fortunately, it appears to all be textual and no compromising, hand-drawn selfies of monks.

Whew.

The article also provides a link to a site where photographs of the overlaid texts can be viewed, which is also very cool.  If my Greek was better, it might be tempting to try some translations of my own, but I’ll leave that to more competent folks!

Final Words

October 9, 2019

I found this a fascinating article made perhaps more interesting being published close to the start of a new year, a time many people probably don’t associate with death but rather ideas about the future.  It’s a fascinating topic to me – what people say when close to death.  Although I’m frequently around people close to death, I don’t spend the long periods of time at their bedside necessary in order to garner a feel for the things they tend to say.

I was surprised that the reference to the only real extant study of what people say before death is available to read free online, and it’s very short – not a book but a rather short article published in 1921 in the American Journal of Psychology.  One of the interesting observations (assertions?) in this article is that The general consensus of opinion based upon the experience of all ages is that the dreadfulness of death and its physical pain are for the most part in the imagination (p.553).  In other words, dying is easier than we think it is.  And also this quote – In a way, the conduct and last words of those facing death are a mental and moral test of their real character (p.553). The data this article is built around is somewhat more perfunctory and less descriptive than I would have liked, but to each his own!

The Atlantic author enjoys the book he’s reviewing, but his bias shows through, whether it’s his ready attribution of the author’s father’s comments about angels and other unseen personas as hallucination (although to be fair, this might be how the author herself describes it), as well as a slight disdain that the author is interested in the afterlife.  Regardless, based on this review I hope to read Lisa Smartt’s book as well, though it may be a while before I can get to it and review it firsthand!

 

ANF – Second Apology of Justin

October 9, 2019

This is another of Justin’s defense of Christians facing persecutions including torture and death at the hands of Roman authorities.  It is much shorter and far less complete than his better known (and longer) First Apology.  Here, as there, he points out the ideological inconsistencies with persecuting and prosecuting Christians as somehow degenerate when they live lives far more upright and moral than many of the philosophers and orators in Greek and Roman history who are admired and even fostered followings still extant in Justin’s time.  One of the common accusations levied against Christians is that they practiced cannibalism, through a misunderstanding/misinterpretation of the Eucharist/Holy Communion, wherein the bread and wine are also the body and blood of Christ himself.  Justin mocks such ridiculous assertions, indicating that anybody who so enjoyed any sort of sensuality or intemperateness would be quick to save their life so they could continue enjoying it, rather than welcoming martyrdom as so many Christians had and were doing.

Another benefit of reading the Ante-Nicene Fathers is to remember the context in which they lived and wrote – a culture that was polytheistic to some degree, and so I am constantly being presented with both philosophical figures as well as mythological references that I’ve either forgotten or never run across before.  In this case, the fact that Greek mythology has a flood narrative as well.  Deucalion, the son of Prometheus, as well as his wife survived a flood caused by an angry Zeus by building a floating chest.  I don’t remember reading this particular story when I was into Greek mythology as a teen-ager.  Never too late to learn something more, is it?

Weekly Devotion – October 7, 2019

October 9, 2019

Ruth 1:1-19a

It’s easy to romanticize the Biblical stories and characters, to take them out of our world, our history, our humanity and place them in a stylized display case. Polished. Perfect. Their lessons of faithfulness in God completely cut off from how we deal with things in our lives.

There’s very little romantic in Ruth’s story but a great deal tragic. She loses her father-in-law, husband, and brother-in-law. She has no idea what her life might hold, but she has no reason to presume it’s going to be blessed or beautiful in any substantive way. She clings to Naomi, but without any assurance this might turn out to be a wonderful and amazing gift from God. God was faithful to Ruth and chose to work through her in a very special way which Ruth was not privy to in advance. Ruth had to trust God would be with her as she finished the slow trek to a foreign country and culture with her mother-in-law, but had no idea what that would substantively look like.

As we go through difficult times in our lives it’s easy to assume God must show us the solution, give us a sneak preview of how it’s all going to turn out, and that it’s unreasonable to continue operating in ‘blind’ faith when all worldly hope seems gone. I’ve worked with more than a few Christians who question or turn on God when things in their lives don’t turn out exactly the way they want. But this hurts! But this isn’t fun! But this is hard! Sometimes this is true. Much like it was for Ruth.

Yet the essence of faith is a trust in God beyond the moment to what lies ahead. Whether this means a new hope in this life or eternal life is up to God, not us. Yet we can know God is faithful, and has secured our lives in him eternally through faith in the death and resurrection of the Son of God on our behalf. If Ruth had turned back home, she would never have found the grace of God at work in her life in the same enduring way. Yet by persevering in her faith despite the uncertainties of what lay ahead, we are reading about her today, nearly 3500 years later! We are encouraged by her example of what faith looks like – pressing on with God rather than turning away when things get difficult, expecting we will see his faithfulness played out in ways we could never have predicted or imagined.

The Skeletons of Faith

October 8, 2019

When people no longer see worship as a vital aspect of their life of faith, particularly the Christian faith, what do you do with the bones of previous generations who did see worship as integral, and invested their time and money in an infrastructure to  support it?  What do you do with the skeletons of faith, the church buildings no longer needed, wanted, or able to be supported?

It’s a serious question, one that is growing in relevance in America as it reaches epic proportions in Europe, where the skeletons have historic value and interest even if  their use to support the Christian faith has expired.

When congregations can’t keep their property any more, what becomes of it?  Some of the ideas are rather imaginative, as this collection of photos demonstrates.  Amazing that 9-10 of the places mentioned here – nearly a third of the places featured – are former churches.  Other ideas are less imaginative, as selling property to developers is often an attractive option to a congregation in order to provide legacy funding to a spin-off ministry or other related organizations in the area.  Cities are recognizing this as a potential challenge when real estate zoned for churches is no longer needed for churches.

Ironic that people who don’t care about churches or congregations do care when it comes to real estate.  And also interesting people presume congregations selling off their property have some sort of moral obligation to the community to repurpose their property as low-income housing.  The very title of the article is fascinating, implying that churches are somehow sinning by selling off their property.

Ironic, in light of our Lord, who said Foxes have holes and birds of the air have nests, but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head. (Matthew 8:20)

On the flip side, the attractiveness of partnering with a developer to provide a much-needed cash infusion to sustain a dying congregation can indeed be a dangerous path.  The article quotes a development company president as saying “There are so many churches that say they have 500 people but only 35 show up on Sunday.  We can put them in a position where they can flourish for years to come.”  I suppose if you define flourish as you can stay in your building with declining membership for years to come, this is true.  Money is not the solution to the problem many congregations face.  Creativity is.  Unless a congregation is willing to dedicate the money it receives from redevelopment into new ministries, they’re only going to be successful in staying comfortable, not flourishing.  And the scary reality is, even if they’re willing to be creative, there’s no guarantee they’ll become the next big mega-church.  Statistically speaking, the odds are very much against them.

Another interesting note in the article quoted above is the statistic of more churches being founded in New York City.  How many of those can sustain a piece of property is a more specific and applicable question, and how does this increase fit in with what seems to me to be a surge in non-profit formations?  In other words, there can be more churches and fewer people.  I’m sure it’s not difficult to declare yourself a church, but is this equivalent to obtaining legal recognition of this via 501c3 status, for example?  The article seems to point towards this reality, noting that many of  the new congregations are store-front startups and small mosques.

The end of the article highlights a congregation that decided to allow redevelopment on their campus to provide affordable housing to their neighborhood, as a means of serving their neighborhood.  I question this approach, personally, while acknowledging it may make sense with the proper planning and precautions in place.  The Church is not a real-estate investment organization, nor is it a housing organization.  The Church is the Body of Christ, and needs to maintain this identity and function first and foremost.  People are always willing to take a good deal on rent or food or whatever else they want or need, but this is not the same thing as the Gospel.  There are a host of non-profits and city organizations and departments to help people with their human needs.  And while the Church can provide valuable ministry in this way also, it should never be separated from the Gospel.  If you provide a stranger with an inexpensive apartment but never build a relationship with that person where the Gospel can be shared, ultimately you have failed in your calling as the Church.  You have done what other groups and organizations might have been able to do, and failed to do what only the Church does.

The shake-out of declining worship attendance in our country is far from over.  And while many congregants lament it and look back fondly on prior decades where congregations were thriving, this alone isn’t going to change the cultural  relationship with congregations.  I pray there will be a return of the pendulum to a time of better faithfulness -and understanding – of Christian faith and practice in our larger culture, but it’s going to be a long time in coming.  In the meantime, it would behoove congregations to be as wise as serpents and innocent as doves.

Book Review, Sort Of

October 7, 2019

The next of my gleanings from a pile of Roman Catholic texts is a typical college reader-style text, a collection of translated primary source materials.  The book is called A Scholastic Miscellany: Anselm to Ockham and is part of a larger series from the late 60’s to early 70’s.  It purports to be a good introduction to the scholastic theologians of the Middle Ages (1100-1400), with the exception of Thomas Aquinas who gets his own volume.

I just finished reading Saint Anselm of Canterbury’s most famous work, Proslogion.  A passable translation can be read for free here.  It is here Anselm formulates his proof for the existence of God as a being than which no greater can be conceived.  This is also referred to as the ontological proof for the existence of God, and it arose out of Anselm’s desire for a single, simple proof of God’s existence that was not in itself reliant on any other argument.  It’s been some years since I read Proslogion, and the simplicity of the argument is sometimes seen as a reason to dismiss it.  While Anselm offers his definition in chapter 2 of this work, he goes on for another score or so of chapters, applying this definition to other aspects of the nature of God and to resolve apparent contradictions in the nature of God (mercy & justice, for example).

Of course Anselm’s argument has been controversial from the beginning, eliciting contention even from his contemporaries, notably Gaunilo of Marmoutiers, but continuing throughout Western philosophical history.  Anselm refutes Gaunilo’s criticism (the next selection in this book), but others have felt it necessary to address Anselm’s basic premise.

Good, short, but very thought provoking!

Worship Works

October 6, 2019

I presume I’m  not alone as a pastor in being human as well.  Particularly, that I’m prone to emotions, moods, and other issues that everyone else deals with.  The collar doesn’t remove me from this reality, and that reality is not limited to the six days and 22.5 hours every week I’m not leading worship.

This morning was a hard morning.  The emotions were stirring strongly, and they weren’t positive ones.  Frustration and anger – I couldn’t shake them.  Accompanying feelings of rejection and injury nipped at their heals.  I could work at keeping them at bay intellectually.  I could exercise self-control in ensuring they didn’t surface too visibly.  But they were there.  All morning as I made final worship preparations and then as worship began.  It’s a horrible feeling to lead worship when your heart isn’t in it.

But worship works.  It really does.  The historic liturgy of the Western Church – it’s easily dismissed by some as out of date but there’s a great deal of wisdom in what it  does and how it does it.  Reading, chanting, singing the Word of God together, and receiving his gifts in Word and Sacrament are healing.  Really, truly healing.  And by the end of the service, I was healed.  Not that those emotions won’t resurface.  I’m not any less human because of worship.

But perhaps, for a few moments during and after, I am a little more  fully human than my sinful emotions would have me believe.