Sunday, August 27, 2017

The Focus is Evil

My family encouraged me to buy an expensive pair of binoculars before this summer vacation. The ones we kept in the car weren't reliable for the bird watching I do and, so, with recommendations from other birders I bought a Vortex HD

They arrived in the mail wrapped with impressive packaging and even more impressive instructions. These binocs aren't simply to be put up to the eye. No, there's a two-step focusing procedure to be done first - the center and the diopter must be properly focused. 

I wondered if all that prep was really necessary as I peered across our little inlet to watch the terns circle and dive. I didn't see much need for the hyper-focus; I had bought them because they looked cool and I wanted to take them on our holiday.

This past Friday and Saturday brought us--even while on vacation in a remote part of Maine--to social media outlets to get the latest news on the racist rally in Charlottesville, this, amidst the osprey and harbor seals in our little inlet. We were amazed and fearful watching a national gathering of alt-right, neo-Nazi and white supremacists parade with torches chanting, "You will not replace us!", and, "Jews will not replace us!" Some of the 500 marchers carried swastikas; others Trump paraphernalia. 

It got worse when James Fields intentionally drove his Dodge Challenger into a group of counter protesters killing Heather Heyer, and seriously wounding 19 others. Fields has been jailed on homicide charges. Heather was buried two days later and a memorial foundation begun.

This all happened on a Saturday and the bishop of the Diocese of Maryland immediately denounced what happened and challenged churches to respond with similar outcries. 

People of faith needed outlets or a way to understand, not be passive, or be afraid of this dark occurrence. 

So I went to the village church on that Sunday expecting and hoping for some statement. (The binoculars left behind in our cabin but issues of seeing clearly still very present.) 
Jesus waiting for you at the door.

Now this country church (I'd been there before) has a congregation comprised completely of senior citizens. I don't think there was anybody there under 70. The pastor is a genial man who has turned the musical program over to a younger whiz who flips switches with gospel recordings. It makes for an impromptu warmth and support for the members which is infectious, if occasionally odd. "Joys and Concerns", though, went as far as being happy about the turnout at the pancake breakfast and was there "enough rain for my tomatoes." 
Cushions awaiting older churchgoers.

I wondered about the personal judgment I'd walked in with and my focus for worship. There was no reason these innocent people should rally around my concern. No reaction to the Charlottesville tragedy to be found here, it seemed. Surely, though, we'd get to the Nazis in the sermon, I figured. 

The pastor's message was solid although in parts it sounded downloaded from canned resources - but you couldn't bridle his enthusiasm for wanting to deliver on the theme of "overcoming your fear." The gospel was about Jesus walking on water and from that he abstracted we fear walking on water too...and many other things. 

Certainly, a consoling message about fear of white supremacists or the consequences of standing up for justice was at hand. But no. And it occurred to me that this church was a lifeboat getting passengers to the far shore. They weren't much interested in immediate events other than the journey on this barque together.

As dear evidence of that, during announcements, one woman said she was returning to Texas. She apparently summered in Maine among this little community. "Well, we'll look forward to seeing you in the spring, huh?" said Pastor Charlie. "No", she said,  "this will be my last trip." There was a brief silence - hanging like a wreath in the air. Everyone knew what that meant. Eyes cast down, Pastor Charlie concluded and transitioned with, "Well, you will be in our prayers." Using this occasion as a lens and means of focus the entire service was intended to bind the sick and fortify the fainthearted.

I absently fumbled with my reading glasses going through the motions of arranging my binoculars aware that I was privileged to witness this sight. There was some clarity at least here, for sure. 

It was all good, I thought, as I left early intentionally and missing the ritual of "change Sunday" (don't ask). But as I walked, I wondered how this had become a reliable representation of "church"? Considering the age of parishioners actually in sanctuaries these days. A large number of them must have insisted on this "lifeboat" version. 

There can be exceptions. 

Presiding Bishop of the Episcopal Church, Michael Curry, the first African American to hold that office, encouraged parishioners with a Sunday morning pew handout explaining a vision of Christianity which he believed was a response to the travesty in Charlottesville.  As Bishop Curry wrote, "We who follow Jesus have made a choice to walk a different way: the way of disciplined, intentional, passionate, compassionate, mobilized, organized love intent on creating God’s Beloved Community on earth."

Who can argue with this statement? But then, why would you bother? 

The focus is all wrong and Bishop Curry presents - using a Martin Luther King 1967 speech as a text - the options of, "are we to choose 'Chaos or Community?' " 

The choice, right now, is between good and evil not between degrees of commotion.

Confrontation or chaos in the streets a la 1967 isn't on a par with an Auschwitz looming over an uncertain future. It worries me that just like the lack of focus in that little church in Maine, fuzziness continues among church leaders who should know better.

Christians - everyone - are looking for  a statement with a little more heft.

Methodist Bishop Thomas J. Bickerton reminded churchgoers of their baptismal covenant interspersed with a returning lament of, "It just isn't right!"  Specifically the parts that say, "Do you renounce the spiritual forces of wickedness, reject the evil powers of this world, and repent of your sin?Do you accept the freedom and power God gives you to resist evil, injustice, and oppression in whatever forms they present themselves?"

Seeing Charlottesville clearly for what it was, and saying so, requires the ultimate focus of bold words and even bolder action.  +gep

Thursday, August 3, 2017

Jesus As Dangerous...Are We?

I had a flicker of identification with Jesus recently while appealing a Disorderly Conduct conviction. It came from the surprising source - one of my fellow litigants (we had been blocking the same sidewalk in a protest). All during that court appearance I wondered about the definition of "disorderly" and what was a reasonable objection. My friend pointed out the similarity of our situation to the biblical verse Mark 11:16.

Indeed, can a Christian be "disorderly"?
Can a Christian be "disorderly"?

This is a reference to when Jesus visited the temple before his crucifixion. The stop comes after his triumphal entry into Jerusalem where he begins a daily routine of teaching before heing arrested later in the week. 

This initial trip to the temple is known for his dramatic response to the commerce being carried on there. Because sacrifice was a necessary part of temple ritual and because visitors traveled with their own coinage it had to be "changed" to the standard of the temple (hence the reference to "tables of money changers" in the texts.) Many small businesses thrived in the courtyards adjacent to that holy place, and commerce found its own level of activity. 

Mind you, all this energy transpired in the "Court of the Gentiles" and not in the temple proper. 

Think of a walled in football field and at one end - about at the 15 yard line - there's another walled enclosure with the temple's "most holy place" where the Ark of the Covenant rests. The Ark contains the tablets Moses received at Sinai. So, Jesus and his commotion occurred in the wide open area (the remaining 85 yards) designated for gentiles. 

Jesus maintained that the entire area from Solomon's time was set aside for God. While the Pharisaical rules agreed with him, they were lax in enforcement. 

Now that we've set the scene, one can visualize Jesus arriving at the great expanse of a gentile courtyard with an expectation of prayer. Instead he is greeted with cheap chatter. It is noteworthy because all three synoptic versions record the surprising scene of Jesus getting violent. He overturns tables, seats and "drives" merchants from their places. 

There's a lot to think on here. First and foremost, that anger is an emotion that has a place in the Second Testament. Having Jesus float above human emotion isn't accurate or practical. Chances are if he got angry here, he got angry at other times. Sure, he was miffed when his mom goaded him into that Cana wine miracle, and you wouldn't want to be a fig tree anywhere near him. But Jesus wasn't throwing any furniture as he is doing in this reference.

On the Richter scale of being upset, his anger even incorporated violent acts. 

I hasten to add no one gets hurt. There is a line no one can cross with Jesus and profaning the holy is that line. 

The literal Marcan narrative  is very clear, "He overturned the tables of the money changers and the benches of those selling doves, and would not allow anyone to carry merchandise through the temple courts." (Mark 11:16)

In short: Mark describes Jesus as blocking traffic.

Not only can't you sell, interact or otherwise transact, you can't traverse (take a shortcut) through this temple area. At base, what's at stake here is taking God for granted, that, is the peril for humanity.

Given that, it becomes appropriate, more, a necessity for Jesus to get angry and throw things. This is not a tantrum but part of a series of images all week where Jesus enters the flow of historical events. He continues confrontational behavior - adding active debate with the Pharisees - before his arrest. 

Observing Jesus getting angry in the temple discloses the connection of passion-just action and steadfast loyalty which characterizes the essence of Christian witness.

In other words, it might seem inevitable that Jesus got angry and that he died on the cross but his choice was in each act. Which loops us back to what we choose to do in each moment of our lives. For example, when can a hostile act be confronted and how can it be drained of its power? Can a Christian really do something and be reliably Christian?

During this time of uncertainty in our country, Brook and I attended a Saturday training session provided by some local churches...Rivertowns Episcopal Action on Inclusion and Race (REPAIR) in the lower Hudson Valley.  The gathering was notable for a number of reasons but particularly that 65 people would gather on a stifling Saturday morning in summer to learn how to "disarm" a potentially violent situation. The training was provided by two instructors from the Center for Anti-Violence Education. 

Julie Hwang, Instructor
The curriculum travels under the novel label of "upstander" which is a play on words with the word "bystander." Early in the session one understands the difference between the two--and the point of why everyone would bother to spend 2 hours learning this concept. 

The Center for Anti-Violence maintains--with nodding heads of agreement around the room--that in these fractious days people feel tense and never know when and where a surprise confrontation might occur between fellow citizens. As Trainer Tish Tabb said, "You feel upended and vulnerable...and don't know what to do." 
Tish Tabb, "Upstander" trainer

More heads nodded agreement. Which introduces an alternative to simply being a bystander to an aggressive and/or abusive act, and, instead, becoming an active witness, an upstander. To be clear this behavior doesn't advocate violence or confrontation of any kind. Rather, it is a series of techniques designed to distract the aggressor from the targeted person. It is meant to benignly empower the embattled person. 

I asked what happens after the companion upstander effectively distracts the bully and the targeted person is safe. I was surprised and pleased to hear the instructor's response, "Why, you exit the scene quickly." Who wouldn't like that end to a confrontation!

Jesus commitment is evidenced in the text and he declared a boundary. That's the model. Likewise--through even our more modest life events--we must enter this culture, stand up for civility and serve justice. Those occasions are at hand. 

There's nothing complicated about this call or the course local churches should take. To do anything less loses the vision of Christ, his dangerous memory, and our inheritance.+gep 

Wednesday, June 28, 2017

War With Russia

Two things happened today which might not rise to notice. The first might of our nuclear facilities was breached by a hacker. Not much real commotion since it was the administrative office adjacent to the reactor. Still, it's unnerving.

The second should be more consequential but probably won't be. 

Today, the "United Nations Conference to Negotiate a Legally Binding Instrument to Prohibit Nuclear Weapons, Leading Towards Their Total Elimination" met--as it has all week--in their second round of discussions. More specifically, the conversation addressed General Assembly resolution 71/258 of 23 December 2016. The United States was not there, but then neither were the other 8 countries which have nuclear arsenals.

The fact is that 120 countries did attend these symposiums and that matters morally. As the New York Times reported there is an outright intention to shame non-participants and it should give us assurance that world opinion is not complacent when super powers toy with whether to re-strengthen and re-deploy nuclear capabilities. Donald Trump has an avowed policy to insure that the U.S. is "at the top of the pack", and, further, he sees no reason to monitor poliferation; more countries should have such capability, he thinks.

That's the baseline of loose talk on this subject which is giving veteran diplomats heartburn and speaking directly to the question of war with Russia, Iran, or any other nation state with a nuclear arsenal. It presents an unthinkable outcome. The recent heightened tension between North Korea and the United States presents an intellectual test-case for what the tragic aftermath of a "regional nuclear war" might look like. Beyond decimating the northwest Pacific (and making it uninhabitable for part of a century) the refugee crisis would be on a scale we have never seen. The economic consequences would tilt the remainder of the world into a depression. This is clearly unknown territory. 

It's not a place we ever want to go or be part of creating.

So where does that leave us on war with Russia? Because an escalation of hostilities is a possibility in any of the flash points of Syria, the Ukraine, and even fly-overs in the Baltic Sea there must be a means to match those occasions with mechanisms to stand down any confrontation. Without such aids it is easy to slip into a spiral of hostility. A recent hotline used to avoid such confrontations in airspace over Syria has been voided by the Russians after the U.S. downed a Syrian jet. The Russians have further declared any aircraft west of the Euphrates River now to be an open target. To paraphrase Second Timothy, chapter three, we are living in perilous times. 

But we are not helpless. Indeed, it requires us to live with sharpened acuity and a higher sensitivity to belligerent talk...because we know where it can lead. In the realm of diplomacy between nations where the currency of raw power is often used with impunity this might seem naive. But it is the specter of nuclear weapons that requires that we attend to this level, modest as it might seem. Indeed, the bomb has the chastening power, like death, on one's life. When one understands what death is, it defines and enlarges the days you live. Oddly, nuclear weapons and its horrendous consequences, re-directs us to honor the discourse and words we use with each other. 

There's a postscript here. Currently both Houses of Congress are investigating Russian sponsored hacking and disruption of the 2016 presidential election. If it is confirmed that this did take place (and it seems so) what are we to do? Despite the above advisory about an embargo on belligerent conversation we are not sentenced to a benign response. Curiously, Augustine's advice on "Just War" can be informative but with limitations. 

(Earlier in this blog I defended "Just War" as a matter of principle, but no more. The lethal battle areas today make collateral casualties so inevitable as to eclipse the luxury of using this description. In short, no war is a "just war.")

"Just War" could at least be informative when gauging what is an affront and to measure and match a response. Please note that the use of force is off the table but if the United States can verify that its essence--the very electoral process it uses to renew itself--has been compromised then an appropriate assertive response might be justified. This brings us into the murky water of what that response might be. Just because a retaliatory cyber-attack is shrouded in the ether, is it not aggressive, destructive, and hurtful if, say, a power grid is compromised and hospitals lose power? 

Above, I said that "Just War" principles were "informative" but beyond being a grid for measure we must be exceptionally careful when employing those principles as permission to employ force. Thankfully our founders have concocted a warren of checks, balances and extended conversation intended to coax better responses. Most times that has been reliable and this Republic's salvation. But not always. 

At the end of the day--as Thomas Jefferson often said--it is the people who convene in civilization and it is by their standard that a government rises or falls. In the final analysis it is the people who require an elevated tone in their government and sanity among nations. +gep

Sunday, June 25, 2017

After the Violence Usually the Debris, But Not Always

A re-portrayal of Seneca Falls meeting.
During a trip to upstate New York, Brook and I stopped off to visit the Women's Rights National Historical Park in Seneca Falls. It's where Elizabeth Cady Stanton and others had formative, first meetings in 1848. It would be 72 years before that translated into rights for women as voting citizens. 

The gestation of this movement is fascinating. It began, in part, when women abolitionists were rebuffed from having a say at the world's first anti-slavery convention in London. Women had the same fever over the sin of slavery but had to sit silently in the gallery during debate. On the return voyage from England, Lucretia Coffin Mott and Elizabeth Cady Stanton used this indignity as energy for organizing.

The energy of the Women's Suffrage Movement, the rallies, the marches, the advocacy and the arrests were born of the violence perpetrated on them. 

That word, "violence", normally infers a physical injury, but violence--according to Webster--can have subtler forms as, "injury by distortion or infringement." Someone can grab your arm...or your rights; it still comes down to the same thing. 

(At this writing the Senate is contemplating removing millions of Americans from the Medicaid rolls under the Affordable Care Act in the name of prudent fiscal policy. Their reason coincides with the conservative view of restricting how government interacts and provides social service. That might be academically reasonable--after all, if your rich enough life is about choices--but in reality millions of lower income Americans already have such social support. The "grab" or take-back of Medicaid allotments from millions of Americans will not pretty. Indeed, on a day-to-day level we will witness a certain violence to lives and health.)

As I addressed in titling this piece, violence can leave behind human debris. In other entries of this blog I've recorded visits to recuperative military hospitals in Germany and Walter Reed where brave women and men struggled to reclaim lives after an improvised explosive device (IED) injured a limb or brain. U.S. intervention in a foreign war has a new context after visiting these brave veterans. This could be that awful debris of unfulfilled lives.

But it's in those hospital rooms and adjacent hallways where the newly wounded military women and men practice their first moments of adjustment and living again. Those times are not that different from Elizabeth Cady Stanton's intention after being silenced and sent to that London gallery when important talk continued on in spite of them. Circumstances could have sidelined them. You're a wounded vet, so normal living isn't possible. You're a woman, so political action and full citizenship isn't possible. 

But this is the mystery of what violence brings because that dark force eventually runs out of energy. (Brook just reminded me of nature's rhythm that observes such energy coming and going like a wave, and, with that, follows an inevitable recoil.) In western terms, a space occurs in which we can realize what violence has done. Recognition of this takes some intention because we might witness a whole renewal of the violent cycle again. (Post traumatic stress can have a secondary bewilderment as we wait on the arrival of this insight.)

Or, we can live violence as small talk.
Am. Legion crowd after new officer induction.

Just today I met Eddie in front of the local American Legion Hall. A very nice guy, he and I, gray haired, settled into our war stories about Vietnam. It was OK but sentimentalizing about war and heroism becomes almost folk art by which we lull ourselves, trading camaraderie and comfort for facing the ugly truth of what we did. Such violent experiences should move us to something else beyond a mimic of trading ball scores. 

Too often the Church is like that for our culture. We'll talk about the awfulness of violence, almost like we're visiting the zoo. The terrible creatures of deadly force are "over there." 

As Rev. William J. Barber II sums it up for today's church, "do a little prayer, do a little worship, and do a little charity. That's pale Christianity." 

Rev. Barber's diagnosis? He recommends that the Church be the "moral defibrillator" for the culture. 

I would add, those paddles need to used on the Institution first. 

(I'm fully confident Christ's Body is healthy and beating somewhere.) +gep

Sunday, June 11, 2017

I'm Back, this time with new-old friends

Sorry for the absence. I've been living in a faraway land thinking only of my garden and a growing list of doctors' appointments.

However, while at the consecration of new bishop Carl Wright at the National Cathedral in February I was approached by Executive  Director Rev. Alison Liles and Administrator Ms. Shannon Berndt to return to the Episcopal Peace Fellowship. (I had served as their chaplain for two years awhile ago.) "No", they urged, "this time we'd like you to serve as the vice chair."

I needed to mull that one over, some. It meant working for real and not from the safe, spiritual sidelines and  commitment had a sting these days. Read on.

It was a simple mulling, really. I'm not sure the institutional church matters much anymore. The stock answer is that the Body of Christ continues through history as an on-going presence and legacy of Jesus Christ. It takes a better mind than mine to validate all that but my experience with the Occupy movement convinced me that organized religion in America did not significantly contribute to the moral reflection a civilized culture needed. Mostly, it meanders using its own continuing existence as a point of reference. In nearly every occasion the expressed need in the world might be addressed but invariably attention would circle back to what the church was, had done, and would do (if the next fund raising was ever completed.)

I accept the generalities in the preceding paragraph and giving sad evidence of these facts will only be mentioned as an afterthought in this blog as I try to find and share the vestiges of a remaining relevant church. There is evidence of such a "church" but now it travels under different presentations and names...and at 73 I didn't think I'd be listing them. The easier ones to see are groups like The Episcopal Peace Fellowship (hereon, "EPF"). There are many reasons I say this. Primarily, for now, EPF is not "church" as we have known it but a factor in its journey of discovery. EPF has a history of cheering from the sidelines as it has--hat in hand--lobbied church conventions to emphasize significant stands. Its agenda has been advocacy and more advocacy.

So that's your new definition of "church"? It's a start, because the leftover institutional church has ignored or minimized the importance of witness. To be fair, old church has been urged into other domains such as coziness and member support. There is ample evidence of the present alienating, competitive environment we live in now so religious institutions have offered the kind of succor congregants need. Church leaders emphasize the security of liturgy, fellowship and study, That last item might lead to activism but the subject matter is self referential; highlights will always be prayer, solving modest personal social challenges and, of course, that old standby, "how to grow the church."

Let me give you an example of the quick-to-the-point energy of EPF. On the very afternoon of my acceptance of the vice chair position I joined a conference call on gun violence. During the call I met Bob Lotz, who after discussing some standard worries on the subject, added that there was even greater worry in his town of Lansing, MI about an anti-Muslim hate group, "Act for America" and their intended "March Against Sharia Law." None of us on the call felt that we had strayed from the subject of gun violence and later I wondered why that was so.

It used to be that old church conversation incorporated any social justice topic but now that continues through pan-need fund drives which in effect say, "relax, we'll scoop up all the requests for need and deposit them in a fund drive or a committee for you." In most churches the general population is spared social justice conversation; one can feel the shift of energy when those challenges are brought's not pleasant.

I believe if you are in tune with the deeper needs of the world you want to talk about these things and feel your life has been cheaply modified if you don't give some life time to the discomfort of it. There's an itch you haven't scratched. In old church meetings one can feel the dis-ease when the subject of commitment and action must be addressed. It's a visceral reaction, a serious development, and another subject for discussion here.

But back to Bob Lotz and that Muslim hate march. I think we talked about other things besides gun violence because we could...and we sorta knew no one else in the old church was going to. If EPF does that alone the search for vestiges for relevant church is vindicated. +gep

Tuesday, October 28, 2014

Polite Justice is No Justice At All

The church may be grounded in hope – when it isn’t actively enabling oppression – but if I was a Palestinian reading this letter, I wouldn’t invest my future in Lutheran hope. In fact, I would admonish Bishop Eaton and the Lutherans for wanting the respectable ear of the President more than embracing the active reckoning needed as Palestinian hope for a real state and real freedom continues to recede. - See more at:

Thursday, October 23, 2014

General Seminary's Vanishing Safe Space

In case you didn’t know, The Episcopal Church has a seminary in New York City. Given the strains of organized religion these days, it has gone through challenges ranging from threats of insolvency to student attrition. Through it all “General” (General Theological Seminary) has honorably muddled through. You might imagine the seminary’s corporate management has wrung its hands over recent years through such fits and starts. 

Indeed, the Board of Trustees has resolved to keep the place on track. So far this a simple story but what happened next reveals a more unsettling narrative about why Americans are suspicious of institutions to include institutional religion. When it comes to things that matter you know where their hearts are and they ain’t with you.