This is my personal blog. The views expressed here do not necessarily represent those of the congregations I serve.

Thursday, December 25, 2014

The Grinch: The Next Year.


All the Whos down in Whoville loved Christmas a lot.
And the Grinch, who lived just north of Whoville was not
the least one of the lovers of Christmastime cheer.
Ever since his conversion, one notable year,
when he dressed up as Santa and stolen their toys,
slinking ‘round in the darkness and making no noise,
he had robbed them of presents and tinsel and bows,
he had taken their trees and their hung mistletoes,
and he carted it up to the top of Mt. Crumpit
intending for all of the world just to dump it….
But you know the story, its on every year,
between Frosty and Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer.

And so now the old Grinch was the toast of the season,
and none of the Whos had a doubt of the reason,
for when he returned from the hill with their treasures,
they gave him forgiveness in infinite measure!
“This I like,” thought the Grinch, letting happiness show,
as he basked in good cheer and the warm fam’ly glow.
“I must keep this thing going forever, but how?
Why with more of the same!  I’ll outdo myself now:
If they think they’ve seen presents before, well just wait:
That last Christmas was good, but the next will be great!
But how can I afford it?” the Grinch grimly thought,
for the things that he’s stolen last time must be bought.
and he couldn’t invade the small who houses twice;
yeah, it worked okay last time, but twice wasn’t nice.
So he bought and he borrowed with all of his might
so the Whos waking up from next Christmas Eve night
might rejoice in the presents that he would be bring-
ing and welcome and love him and greet him with sing-
ing!  They’d make him feel wanted, accepted, respect-
ed, delivering all of the gifts they expected.  And
earning their favor again he’d retire
to his cave to relax with his dog by the fire.

So he rose Christmas morn while the darkness was ending
to load up his sleigh with the fruit of his spending.
And dressing up Max like a reindeer for show,
they  made tracks on the snow-covered path down below.
And arriving with trumpets and fanfare and ringing,
they entered the circle of Who-people singing.
And joyfully grinning from that ear to this,
the old Grinch started doling out presents and gifts.
He expected their cheers and their great adulation,
their hugs and their gratitude and jubilation.
and eagerly looking ahead to the feast
when again they would ask him to carve the roast beast.

Yes, but wait.  They did not crowd around him so madly.
Instead they stood back and looked up at him sadly.
They smiled, but they clearly were sorry to see
that he thought he could purchase what they gave for free.
The great lengths he would go to inspire them to love
him as clearly a sign he thought they were above him.
Yet, strangely, they were.  Because he just must fail
to see love and affection that weren’t for sale.
“It’s not that we’re ungrateful,” one said without lying.
“It’s just that our Christmas is not about buying.
You don’t have to purchase our love with a toy,
but at Christmas it’s given to us in the Boy
born in Bethlehem, so long ago; and now here,
in our hearts, where God enters to banish our fear.”
But the Grunch was just crestfallen, cold in the snow.
So the Who Pastor took him aside so he’d know
that they’d love him the same if he hadn’t brought stuff,
and he told them their faith that God’s love was enough.
And it wasn’t the packages, bright lights and bows,
and it wasn’t the price-tags on gifts that he chose,
and it wasn’t the stuff he had bought from a store,
but Christmas to them was a little bit more.
“It was you, only you, that we wanted, you see?
Just the gift of yourself with us, smiling and free!
So you don’t have to work and you don’t have to save,
and you don’t have to worry ‘bout how to behave;
and you don’t have to buy things on credit or pay,
we prefer that you didn’t, or gave it away
to the ones who are needy and homeless and poor.
To the lonely, the sick, and the hopeless unsure.

And he told them the story of Mary and Joe
who had traveled to Bethlehem so long ago.
How they struggled to town as best as they were able
and had to give birth to their child in a stable.
How shepherds were notified deep in the night
by a legion of angels surrounded by light.
And astrologers journeyed from nations afar,
being guided by such a mysterious star,
to pay homage to Him who was laid in a manger
so no more would we have to act like we’re strangers.
That baby grew up in the Wisdom of love,
and he taught with authority from God above.
and he healed all the sick ones and strengthened the lame
who would jump and, rejoicing, his great Name proclaim.
In the end they arrested and brought him to die….
But he rose on the third day to rule from on high!

And now in a world that seems colder than space,
where injustice and sadness appear to replace
the good grace of creation’s sweet God-given blessing.
Instead of protecting, the strong are oppressing.
Greed, fear, and shame rule in our hearts, which is why
now our pipelines of poison are breaking the sky.
If your child can be shot in the street or in class
it’s no wonder we wonder how long this can last.

The Grinch had it right, did he not?  Look around.
Don’t we act like the love that we need isn’t found
like the air that we breathe that God gives us for free,
but is some precious thing that we covet and we
need to hoard and protect and sell at a high cost,
or buy at a premium?  Fearing the loss,
we give in and we buy it.  Now see how he thought
he was justified feeling the Whos could be bought?

But they couldn’t, you see, and so neither can we.
For we’re already purchased, we already free
to give love to each other in infinite measure,
we, each of us, has in our heart a great treasure.
We just have to find it and open the door.
And this is the truth of what Christmas is for:
For the child who was born on that night long ago
is now born in our hearts by the Spirit, and so
we are full of rejoicing, thanksgiving, and love,
for the Presence of God has come down from above
to reveal to us hope, peace, joy, grace, and salvation,
and give us good news to proclaim to all nations.
For God has done for us more than we are able,
so let us adore him the Babe in the stable.
+++++++

Friday, December 19, 2014

A Church Dies. Alone.


            The church in which I was baptized recently closed.  Like so many churches, things must have got tougher and tougher, attendance lower and lower, the budget tighter and tighter.  Eventually they couldn’t afford a pastor.  Then they just stopped having worship.
            I imagine some elder was unable to find a supply preacher one Sunday, so they cancelled.  And then nobody cared enough, or had enough energy, even to gather anymore.  There must have been a certain sense of “what’s the point?”
            The church apparently hadn’t worshiped for months before the presbytery found out about it, sent in an Administrative Commission, and finally, formally pulled the plug.  We have a procedure. 
            I had a strange sense of horror, when I heard this story.  Like learning of a person who was left to die alone in a nursing home, while family and friends didn’t care enough to even say good-bye.  Or worse, this would be like your mother had a heart attack and you let her lay unconscious and unattended on the living room floor until someone happened to hear about it and call the coroner. 
            Maybe, like the prophet Ezekiel saw in Jerusalem, the Spirit packed her bags and just departed the place.  Maybe the people didn’t think there was any point to showing up after that. 
            It was the church of my grandparents.  My grandfather was an elder there. He taught the adult class.  My grandfather was a strong but gentle influence in our family.  It was because of him that my dad, his son-in-law, heard the call, first to real faith, and then to ministry.  That’s why I, the first-born grandchild, was baptized there, in Wood-Ridge, and not in my parents’ church, in Bloomfield.
            Wood-Ridge is in New Jersey.  It overlooks Teterboro Airport, and the skyscrapers of Manhattan stand clearly visible.  There are like 20-million people within a 50 mile radius.  How do you have the good news of salvation and healing from the Creator of the universe, and yet not manage to find among those 20 million people a dozen or so to gather on a Sunday morning?
            I spoke to one of the church’s last pastors.  He told me that the church was positively allergic to change.  Maybe they were saying the same prayers and singing the same hymns as they did in 1955, when I was baptized there.  Maybe.  But, hey, I know churches that are still saying the same prayers and singing the same hymns from the freaking 5th century, and they still manage to stay alive.  Thrive, even.
            It’s not about relevance or up-to-date-ness.  I know churches with praise teams and projectors and sermons about how to get along with your boss… that are failing.  It’s not about that.  It’s not about “getting with the times.”  It’s about getting with Jesus Christ.
            It’s about authenticity.  And for people imagining themselves to be followers of Jesus, authenticity is about community.  Because Jesus is about community.  And in a community you don’t die, or live, alone.
            That’s why the Trinity remains the core of Christian faith: God is a community.  Jesus comes into the world… and what he comes into are actual families and communities.  And his whole purpose is gathering together, like a mother hen, like a good shepherd, a new community.  This community is in itself active resistance to an imperial polity that actively divides people against each other.  The Christian message is, “We are not alone.”  God-is-with-us.  Emanu-el.  
            In Christ the whole creation is revealed to be one community, one interactive, interpenetrating, interconnected, organic whole, permeated and infused by One Spirit.  We take care of each other, cultivating and cherishing each other and every element within creation.  Encouraging and building up one another in God’s shalom.
            Maybe if churches did that sort of thing, we wouldn’t be closing them.  Maybe the Spirit would hang around for that.
            Now I hear that the church building was purchased by a vibrant, diverse Assembly of God congregation.  Once upon a time that would have disturbed me.  I had this misguided brand-loyalty about being Presbyterian.  My bad.  Hey, it looks like the Spirit came back to the church in which I was baptized.  Welcome home, is what I say. 
+++ 
           
           
             

Friday, December 12, 2014

Adaptive Change in the Church.


            There is no “balcony”.
            Ronald Heifetz, in his seminal books on adaptive leadership, makes a crucial mistake at the very center of his system.  He assumes there is a place he calls a “balcony” from which an entire system may be viewed objectively by the leader.
            There is no such thing as objectivity.  The leader will, simply by virtue of being a human, have an agenda, background, prejudices, desires, needs, history, and so forth.  Depending on the leader’s personality and level of health, he/she will be determined by these factors to some degree.  And the unfortunate employees will have to suffer the consequences of the leader’s blindness, compounded by the self-righteousness that comes from imagining he/she has that superior, unique, and objective view from the balcony. 
            No one exists outside of systems.  I once discussed this with a teacher of these matters, who said the leader’s objectivity could be gained by having a cadre of advisors from outside the system.  However, that just becomes a new system, embedded in or connected to the larger system.  It is impossible for any person to be outside of a system.  Even if I were airdropped into a tribe in central New Guinea, I could still not observe that tribe objectively or without my own biases.  Even if I were a rigorous scientist deftly applying all the tools of science – peer reviews, control groups, and so on – that would only be applying a different set of biases and prejudices.
            Heifetz’ system, while it may help corporations relate to changes in their environment within the overarching system of Capitalism, is not immediately transferrable to the church because the church does not exist under the overarching system of Capitalism, but lives within the Kingdom of God, a reality diametrically opposed to everything Capitalism is about.  While a corporation may have to adapt to a new economic environment, what the church adapts to is not this environment so much as the Kingdom of God.  What we have to adapt to are the teachings of Jesus as we receive and live them in a particular time and place.  We don’t adapt his teachings, mind you; we find ourselves being adapted to the new reality Christ embodies.
            This whole difference between a church and a corporation is exemplified by the lack in the church of any kind of Leader Principle.  Heifetz assumes this.  Leadership is exclusively from the top, down.  Corporations, like the military and for the same reason, depend on this concept of top-down, centralized, command-and-control “leadership.”  It depends on this structure because it is inherently coercive; it has to force humans to do inhuman things as a matter of its main mission.  Ultimately, this can only be done by violence.  But usually various systems of threats and rewards suffice.  Often these rewards and threats are delivered, fittingly enough, by the Leader barking down from the balcony.      
            The church, however, is different.  The one and only Head of the Church is Jesus Christ, not any earthly leader.  (The Book of Order sees leadership as exercised in councils, not individuals.  It doesn’t even list “leader” among the tasks of a pastor.  The idea of an executive as leader is utterly foreign to it.)  Any church leader that is not directing us to Jesus Christ is not a legitimate authority in the church.  I do not mean tacking a Scripture reading or a prayer on to what the leader’s agenda is.  I mean that leadership in the church is always and exclusively focused on the Word of God.
            Real adaptive change in the church therefore is not a matter of reacting to the changed economic environment.  It is the process of continual growth into the mind of Christ and the practices of discipleship of the Messiah Jesus.  It is not becoming something different to face the new time, it is discovering and morphing into what the church truly is. 
            The image of a caterpillar becoming a butterfly is instructive.  Inside the chrysalis (I am told) the caterpillar does not simply undertake the technical adjustments that would reshape it into a butterfly, like sprouting wings.  Neither does it embark upon the adaptive changes suited to life inside the new environment, which is a chrysalis.  No.  The animal “knows” in its own being that the cocoon is a transitional stage, and that it needs to “do” nothing but become what it is created to be.  Inside the chrysalis it will be thoroughly deconstructed and disintegrated until it is a dissociated mush, and then it will reorganize itself according to the new form.  It is led from within by the coding in its own DNA.
            Our DNA as the gathered people of God is the Word of God, Jesus Christ, and the tradition and Scriptures that bear the unique and authoritative witness to him.  That is our deepest identity that we have to get in touch with.  It is by continual reflection on this Word that the Spirit reshapes the church.  That is how the whole people of God gets on the “balcony”.  By looking at the world through the lens of the Word of God, through whom the world was created, we get to see things from the perspective of the ultimate “balcony”.  Because there is no “balcony” except the one within and among us (Luke 17:21).
            It is not a viewpoint reserved for just the privileged few, the executives, the bishops, the theologians, even the pastors.  It is a perspective to which all who trust in the Messiah Jesus have access.  In the gathered community of disciples leadership comes from Jesus Christ who emerges within and among the people by the power of the Holy Spirit. 
+++++++     

Monday, December 8, 2014

Against the 2015 Elizabeth Presbytery Proposed Budget.



            I intend to vote against the budget and Personnel Committee proposals coming to the Stated Meeting of Elizabeth Presbytery on December 9.  This budget goes against several basic principles of our faith and polity.  I hope that we turn from this approach and instead start asking ourselves deeper and more primary questions about the nature of discipleship, the mission of the church, and the role of a presbytery, and what our trust in the Lord Jesus leads us to do.   
            The proposed budget includes 4 major strategies for addressing a crisis framed purely in terms of money.  Each is breathtakingly short-sighted and guaranteed to make the situation worse.  With this budget we are continuing to careen from crisis to crisis with these thrown-together, ad hoc, last-minute, money-driven technical fixes.
            Here are the proposals for the 2015 presbytery budget and why I must oppose them, followed by some alternative proposals:      


1.  “We can save money by not paying our full per capita assessment to the synod and GA.”

            If we do this we are adopting the policy of some sessions to pay to the presbytery only what church members happen to contribute earmarked for per capita, something we have consistently advised against.  It is not individuals but sessions that are asked to remit the per capita assessment to the presbytery.  It is not sessions but presbyteries that are asked to remit the assessment to the higher councils. 
            If we start paying only what sessions remit, we are giving sessions an incentive to take the same approach.  If more sessions follow the presbytery’s example, the impact on the ability of this presbytery to serve its constituent churches could be severe.  It will also mean that the projected per capita income for 2015 is probably too high. 
            This self-serving and short-sighted action would also severely damage our covenantal relationships with our sister and brother Presbyterians in the synod and nationally.
            And the declaration of “a state of financial crisis” seems a bit overstated for a presbytery that has several hundred thousand dollars in the bank and still has an executive costing 6 figures.  By this reasoning who isn’t in a state of financial crisis?
            This proposal undermines the integrity of the per capita system.  It incentivizes churches to only pay to the presbytery what individuals donate for that purpose.
 
Alternative Proposals:
a.               We continue to pay our share of the per capita assessment for 2015, as billed by the             synod and General Assembly.
b.              We appoint a team to develop a fair way of funding presbytery operations based             on the value churches understand themselves to receive from gathering together in             mutual support, oversight, and encouragement.
c.              We petition the General Assembly to convene a working group to develop an             alternative to the obsolete and unworkable per capita system as soon as possible.


2.  “We can save money by using money given for mission to pay staff expenses.”

            In recent budgets, we have restarted the practice of drawing from the mission side of the budget to pay for the administrative and operations expenses of the presbytery.  
            We went through several years of hard work to build trust with the churches of the presbytery by separating these two, including two very difficult and unforgettable increases in the per capita assessment.  This is because we realized that the previous long-standing practice of this presbytery to use mission money to support staff is inherently unfair. 
            First, it pays for services received by the whole presbytery with money collected from only those churches that contribute to undesignated General Mission. 
            Secondly, when sessions and individuals give to “mission,” many assume this means their money goes directly to various service and evangelism initiatives.  We experienced some outrage from churches when they realized that money given for “mission” was actually being used to pay for presbytery staff.  The counter-argument, that “the staff facilitates mission,” begs the question: “Then what is per capita for?”  
            We have been moving to a model in which the presbytery’s mission is to support, encourage, and oversee the mission of its constituent churches.  Everything the presbytery does should be an aspect of this mission.  This means that time spent by a staff member administering a grant to a church is qualitatively no different from the time a staff member spends on presbytery efforts to cultivate good relationships between churches and pastors, or overseeing the training of new pastors to serve in churches, or resolving conflicts in churches, or trying to make sure the presbytery works coherently in serving churches.
            So if we have one mission, we might still collect money in two ways if that is deemed the most effective way to fund the two different aspects of the presbytery’s mission.  One should support the operations and administration, and the other should be devoted to actual service and evangelism efforts on the part of the churches, mainly through grants. 
               This budget undermines the integrity of the General Mission system.  It incentivizes sessions to designate all mission giving to specific projects so that none of it may be diverted by the presbytery to make up for a shortfall in per capita. 

Alternative Proposals:
a.              We move towards funding presbytery operations, administration, and staff solely with what is received from sessions in the per capita assessment or some other plan.  As far as possible, we reduce costs to match the income.
b.              We undertake a serious self-study in which we articulate the mission to which we are called by Jesus Christ, and what the actual role and function of the presbytery is in relation to its constituent churches, and that we then develop a mission design including a staffing pattern.


3.  “We can save money by cutting staff.”

            The Personnel recommendations included in this budget pretend to cut down on the presbytery’s unnecessary “regulatory” and “administrative” functions.  Since the essence of this plan is to fire one Administrative Assistant, and dump her full-time position into a new Stated Clerk position, boiling down 59 hours a week into 30, and change the other Administrative Assistant position to a half-time Communications Coordinator, the question has to be raised about exactly what will not get done.  (Based on history, it is safe to assume that almost everything these two people are doing will still be expected to be accomplished, only in less time and for less money.)
            The main motivation for the plan is financial.  In its implementation, this becomes a justice issue.  For none of the “savings” happen to come from the largest-by-far piece of the Personnel budget, the cost of having an executive, which is over $100,000.  In taking this approach, are we not echoing the attitude of a corporation that in a crisis manages to downsize its workers, while its executives remain untouched?
            But what is at least as disturbing here is the process.  This plan was sprung on the Cabinet with no notice.  It’s the biggest change in presbytery staffing in a decade.  Why did the Cabinet not have the material several days prior to the meeting?  Why was the staff never informed, let alone consulted, about the details of the plan?
            The staff kept the presbytery functioning during some very difficult years.  They and others did the work of an executive when it was required.  They put in long and sometimes unusual hours, and they often perform far beyond the limitations of their job descriptions. In the past, they have functioned under sometimes unhelpful leadership and little oversight.  They have had aspects of their compensation cut.  They have demonstrated strong and sacrificial commitment to the churches of the presbytery.  Did they not earn a place at the table where future staffing would be discussed? 
            The staff is not ignorant of the financial situation.  No one is making demands.  Indeed, the staff has been willing to share in whatever sacrifices may be necessary to sustain the presbytery’s mission.  Had they been invited to participate in its development as respected partners, this plan would be lot more fair, efficient, workable, and thrifty.  It would have generated far less anger and pain.  Instead, the Personnel Committee chose an adversarial approach, treating the staff, not as colleagues in ministry, but as expendable employees.

Alternative Proposals.
a.               We assign to a committee the responsibility to develop a provisional staffing plan for 2015, including the current members of the staff and the Stated Clerk in their deliberations, and following the principles that 1) we stay within the projected income from per capita as far as possible, and take the remainder from presbytery reserves, 2) any deficit be lower than $50,000, 3) we ask all staff members to sacrifice in some proportion to their current levels of compensation, 4) we begin now to develop a plan for 2016, when we expect per capita receipts to be significantly lower.
b.               We keep the nomination of a Stated Clerk with the Nominating Committee unless                                  that committee asks for that nomination to be done by another entity.  


4.  “We can save money by cutting mission grants.”

            So, the proposed plan is that, in addition to reneging on our per capita commitments, looting money from mission, slashing staff, and continuing to pay an executive six-figures, we’re also going to be cutting mission grants.  At this point we are attacking part of the whole reason a presbytery exists, which is to support the mission of its churches.  We’ve already shifted money from mission to staff; now we are cutting mission itself.   This is unwise.

Alternative Proposal:
We allocate all money received by the presbytery under General Mission in grants to churches.


Conclusion.

            I believe we should explore the possibility and plausibility of budget plans that adhere to the following principles:

1.              We pay our per capita in full to synod and General Assembly, encouraging sessions                     to do the same for the presbytery.
2.              We take no money from mission giving to fund operations.
3.              Reductions are borne by all staff members (except contractors).

            A cursory and “ballpark” scan of the numbers reveals that the presbytery could keep to these principles and produce a deficit in the Personnel budget of considerably less than that generated by the Trustee budget, if these principles were applied to it.  If we worked with the whole staff and the Stated Clerk, limiting some staff hours, and reducing compensation levels to the presbytery mandated or recommended minima, it may be possible to have no deficit at all.  This, of course, would be in no way “punitive” or a result of poor performance; far from it.  It would put the presbytery in solidarity with its constituent churches, many of which are facing similar dilemmas.
            If we can at least begin to keep to these principles, we may be able to rebuild the trust and integrity necessary to move forward together as a presbytery.
+++++++

Monday, December 1, 2014

Advent 2014: Receptivity.


            In the season of Advent, we are waiting for God to come into the world in Jesus Christ.  Of course, we are not pretending that God isn’t already here.  There is a strong sense of remembering in this activity of waiting.  We are at the same time remembering one amazing, miraculous, past event, and anticipating an event that is always to come.  God’s Presence in Jesus is always already here, and always coming.  Advent is when we spiritually focus on our experience of God as coming into our world.
            This is not a nonsensical contradiction.  It is not totally outside of our experience for something to be here and not yet here at the same time.  It is not a matter of God being more or less present; it is about our consciousness and receptivity.  Some things are here, but because we are not conscious of them, they are not here “to us.”  When they do appear to us we use the language of coming as if they were absent.  But it was really we who were the absent ones.
            Here’s an example: Invisible forms of light, like radio waves, have always been present in the earth’s atmosphere.  But humans have only been conscious of them for about 120 years.  It might be said that that is when radio waves "came" into our experience.  Or: when we wrack our brains to remember a name or a fact, we might say, “It’s coming, I almost have it!”  But in reality it is already there, somewhere filed in our synapses, waiting for us to connect to it and bring it into consciousness.
            There is a sense in which God’s Presence in Jesus Christ did not technically come into the world from somewhere else; maybe it is something revealed and disclosed by God, something we discovered, which had been there all along.  What Jesus came into was our consciousness, our experience, and our history.  What was required for this to happen was our achieving a level of receptivity.
            How much of the spiritual life is about receptivity?  God does not often hit us over the head from out of the blue with something we were utterly unprepared for.  That does happen, of course.  But it is not God’s primary MO.  Most spiritual practices are intended to enhance and hone our receptivity.  Spirituality is a matter of become awake to the truth, aware of reality, and conscious of God’s Presence.
            That’s why the season of Advent lifts up and moves between two characters.  First we have John the Baptizer.  He represents the whole trajectory and continuity of God’s activity with humanity through the Israelite/Jewish people.  His whole attitude hearkens back to Elijah and Moses, who met God in the wilderness and brought God’s liberation to the people.  He represents all the prophets who encountered God and delivered God’s Word.  They prepared the people and kneaded them into a form in which they could receive something they were largely unaware of.
            The second Advent character is Mary.  She exemplifies this receptivity, and becomes the focus of it.  The whole Jewish tradition is concentrated in her, a teenaged girl who says “Yes!” to God even at great personal risk.  She is a model of the underclass status of Israel from the beginning as nomads, then as escaped slaves, and then as repeatedly conquered nation.  And it is her magnificent hymn in Luke 1 that proclaims what God is doing in the world, and what God is about to reveal to the world in and through her. 
            In these two characters we find that the necessary receptivity involves both a remembering and a welcoming.  We remember the words of the prophets and the story of Israel.  Their history is about God preparing them to be the medium of this final revelation: Emmanuel, “God-is-with-us”.  And when those words become activated in the visitation of the angel Gabriel to Mary, and the Word actually becomes flesh, we have to welcome him with her words of trust in God: “Let it be with me just as you have said.”
            This is the most dangerous news imaginable to a world dominated by ego-centric self-serving human principalities and powers.  I think this is why our season of Advent has been so thoroughly corrupted and drowned out by the hysterical blaring of exactly the opposite message.  For the full-court press to buy things we get in December has nothing in common with the spiritual practices of remembering and welcoming God.  What have Black Friday and Cyber Monday to do with Bethlehem?  Nada.  Zip.  Squat.
            The real “war on Christmas” is the onslaught of commercial consumerism, the blizzard of tempting, shiny objects that suck up our time and energy, distracting us from the truth we are called upon to remember and welcome in this season.
            That truth is that God is always here in the very heartbeat and breath of creation itself.  God’s love is the stuff of which the whole universe is made.  And God is always calling us back to lives reflecting and expressing the justice, peace, love, joy, hope, and wholeness we see revealed in Jesus Christ.  This season, let’s invest our time and energy practices of receptivity, as we seek to be more open to God’s Presence, that God may come into our lives more fully. 
            On the one hand, we remember with John the truth of God’s love for the world, disclosed in God’s mighty acts of liberation and healing.  And on the other hand we welcome with Mary God’s love into the world in Jesus Christ.  For in him God’s very life is poured out for the life of the whole world, and by his Spirit we live now as witnesses to the truth, which is the infinite love, compassion, mercy, and goodness of the living God.
+++++++

Tuesday, November 25, 2014

Global Warming.



            Most of the rationale for action to reduce greenhouse gases in response to Global Warming is based on the now incontrovertible science of it.  In the estimation of over 95% of climate scientists, warming is now happening and is anthropogenic, that is, caused by humans.  On this point all serious debate is over.
            But even without this evidence and massive scientific consensus, as a follower of Jesus who is informed by Scripture, I come to the same conclusions.  For in Scripture we find a particular pattern repeated so often that it could be called a basic divine law of creation and human life.  This is the way a society declines from (1) idolatry, to (2) injustice, to (3) catastrophe.
            Idolatry (1) begins in the worship or privileging of some created thing or person above all others, effectively putting it in the place of God.  It is manifested in political/economic phenomena like inequality, hierarchy, division, class and caste, and monarchy.  When people do not see themselves as equals before God, but rather decide that some are, in Orwell’s famous phrase, “more equal than others”, they begin to spawn injustice (2).  The people with the power – the owners and masters – abuse, exploit, and degrade the people who have little or no power.  Such an imbalance in human society inevitably throws whole political/natural economies/ecosystems out of balance, necessitating a correction that has disastrous consequences (3).  
            We see this in Scripture beginning at least with Pharaoh, whose idolatrous system generated the massive injustice of Israelite slavery, which culminated in the ten mostly ecological disasters crippling the economy and freeing the Israelites.  It is repeated with Ahab’s idolatry and injustice drawing down a terrible drought, and with Joel’s observation of how idolatry and injustice attract a devouring horde of locusts.  And it is all over prophets like Jeremiah and Isaiah who predict the idolatry and injustice of the nation will attract brutal conquerors and send the people into exile.  The book of Revelation, as the culmination of both the Scriptures and the tradition of Jewish apocalyptic mysticism, shows us in great and gory detail the unfolding of such corrections, made inevitable by idolatry and injustice in human society, in this case the scourge of imperialism.
            So it is not necessary for us to have all the scientific evidence and measurements, data and hypotheses, to predict that a catastrophe will happen if people, especially leaders, do not change their ways.  All we need to do is identify the decay into idolatry, and its consequent festering into injustice, for us to realize that the imbalance thereby manufactured will result in some kind of corrective disaster.
            The system under which we now live surpasses all others in terms of idolatry and injustice.  Therefore it is likely to spark a corrective disaster of unprecedented proportions. 
            (1)  In terms of idolatry, this system worships money and wealth, featuring associated fetishes of economic growth, “free” trade, and slavish trust in markets.  In addition, it consciously and intentionally proclaims that all the behaviors that spiritual leaders of almost all traditions have historically and consistently labeled as deadly sins, are really virtues that people should be commended and rewarded for doing.  The mythology of this system says that if people deliberately act badly, with ignorance and violence rooted in radical selfishness, good will miraculously result.  Human sins will cancel each other out, and the magical “invisible hand” of the market will transform evil into good.  In other words, the myth is that a society thrives and grows if people’s actions are motivated by greed, gluttony, lust, sloth, anger, pride, envy, etc.  When these sins are organized through The Market, what results is good for everyone.  Or so they say.
            A more idolatrous economic/political system is hard to imagine.  Instead of presenting an actual idol of cast metal, this ideology makes an idol out of the individual human ego, and in effect declares sins to be sacraments.
            It should surprise us not at all that this strategy doesn’t work.  It’s a lie, like all idolatries.  The Market does not in real life control or mitigate all these negative impulses, it predictably focuses and amplifies them to wreak maximum damage on the earth and people.  It results in increasing the wealth and power of the wealthy and powerful.  It rewards ruthless selfishness, and bloats the gap between rich and poor.  It encourages the rape of nature, the abuse of workers, the poisoning of consumers, and the strangling of the soul.
            (2)  Its proponents claim that the great benefit of this system is that it creates wealth.  But it only “works” when its inherent violence and inequalities spawn cheap labor and resources... and even then it only benefits a small class of people at the top.  That this regime arose coincidentally with colonialism and slavery is not an accident.  (Adam Smith could not have written his book were it not the case that Britain was benefiting from the massive theft of labor and resources from its colonies.)  It is easy to “create wealth” when you do not pay fairly (if at all) for the labor or resources you are extracting from conquered lands.  It’s called stealing, although that doesn’t even begin to describe the magnitude of the suffering and violence involved.
            (3)  The system is masterful at delaying, regulating, and displacing the inevitable consequences.  Indeed, it has figured out how to thrive and make the rich richer through disaster, thus compounding and deepening the injustice.  It has resulted in countless wars, genocides, and economic depressions, and now ravages bodies, souls, and communities with epidemics of cancer, depression, asthma, autism, gun violence, and so forth.  And now we are swirling down into an ecological catastrophe that is forever changing the planet and its ability to sustain life as we knew it.  And that will be only the beginning if the consequent social chaos results in the deployment of biological and/or nuclear weapons.          
            Is the catastrophe avoidable?  Biblically speaking, the antidote is repentance.  Repentance, to conflate the Hebrew and the Greek meanings of the term, has to do with changing our ways of thinking and consequently the direction of our lives.  Is that going to happen in time to avert the comprehensive correction?
            Maybe.  But where would we start?  How about with following Jesus?  How about with ministering to the needy victims of the system’s ghastly and constant violence and injustice (2)?  How about with turning to God alone and adopting disciplines of humility, self-knowledge, self-criticism, and honesty, in which we actually reject ego-centric sinfulness and see things from a higher and broader perspective (1)?  How about with learning together how to live in the gentleness, courage, truth, healing, non-violence, shalom, and love of the Lord Jesus?
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Thursday, November 20, 2014

Spiral Dynamic in the PCUSA.


            Some of you may have heard of Spiral Dynamics.  It is a remarkable system of identifying developmental stages in the human psyche and in history.  Without going into great detail, I want to talk about the stages that are impacting our life today.  (The colors are assigned arbitrarily to aid conversation.)  If you haven’t heard of this system there are good, brief descriptions that can be unearthed by a search engine.
            Each stage develops to solve the problems of the previous one.  There are two early stages relating mainly to primitive humanity.  Then Red is the stage of warlords and retributive, tribal violence.  It is balanced by the next stage, which is Blue, about order and conformity.  Which in turn moves into Orange, having to do with freedom, entrepreneurialism, and exchange.  Orange is balanced by the more communal and socially responsible Green.  These stages constitute tier one.  Tier two begins with Yellow.  Yellow is the first one that looks at the whole spiral, all the colors and how they relate.  Yellow is about competency and accomplishment.
            That is a ridiculously inadequate summary of a small part of the system.  But my point is that different people are at different stages of development, and addressing them in that context helps.           
            At this point, I think we have to say that no value judgment is implied by the idea of stages.  It is not hierarchical in terms of power or goodness.  People at Green are not “better” or even really “more advanced” than people at Red.  They are simply at different places dealing with different issues in ways that work for them at that time.  Yes, as people at a given stage run up against the weaknesses inherent in that stage, they begin to move into the next stage.  But anyone who thinks being at a “higher” stage makes them more entitled to wield power over others has missed the point, and probably for that reason isn’t really as “evolved” as they think they are.  This is especially true in the second tier of Yellow and then Turquoise, which are characterized by increasing humility, selflessness, and sharing.
            In any case, I am using the system to analyze the current disintegration of the PCUSA.  What is happening is that churches that relate best to Blue and Orange are finding it uncomfortable in a denomination that is relating increasingly to Green, and now to Yellow.  This was made really clear when I was part of a delegation meeting with the session of a church seeking to leave the denomination.  We went around the room and the elders spoke of their feelings, motivation, and the timing of this decision.  And to a person what we heard were the values of Blue: conformity, order, a clear understanding of right-and-wrong, biblical authority, wanting definite answers, and absolute standards.  The things they were complaining about in the PCUSA were the values of Green: openness, questioning authority, inclusion of other voices and opinions, the “big tent” approach, laxity in doctrine, and weak discipline.  But they, being at Blue, did not even begin to comprehend Green at all; what they see in the denomination is weakness, disorder, relativism, and a regression to a kind of paganism.  They see a regression back to Purple and Red.  These Blue Christians do comprehend Orange because America, especially economically, is an Orange country.  (Protestantism is pretty Orange as well.)  So their world is the Blue discipline of traditional Christian morality moderating the potential excesses of Orange commercial capitalism.  That is the world to them, and for them, it works very well.  The idea of a communal, inclusive, justice-oriented Green mode as a positive balancing of the depredations of a restrictive Blue and an out-of-control Orange, is incomprehensible to them.
            Until recently, as the gap was opening and widening between the Green majority and the Blue/Orange minority, there was almost unmitigated and increasing hostility.  There is a self-righteousness to Green that, like the other preceding stages, consciously sees itself as better and more highly evolved.  This comes across as superior and judgmental towards Blue/Orange.  We don’t need to imagine how this goes over with them.  The one thing that conservatives seem most bitter about is this nasty sneering at them because of their “bigotry” and “backwardness.”  They see themselves upholding order, responsibility, civilization, and prosperity.
            On top of all this, we have a polity that is rooted in the 16th century and is very Blue/Orange: it creates order by making winners and losers, it gives power to some over others, it demands conformity and compliance, and it values decision-making.  So we have Green people managing a Blue/Orange system, and using it to further an agenda that inherently undermines the system itself.  (Witness, in the battle over Gay inclusion, the Green flouting of the rules, culminating in the 2014 Authoritative Interpretation that basically decides that the words of the Book of Order mean the opposite of what they say.  This drives Blue people nuts because even when they dutifully play by the rules and win, they still lose.  But for Greens, “justice” can’t be deterred by some stupid rules.)
            Lately, however, some elements of the denomination are experiencing Yellow.  Yellow recognizes the weaknesses of Green as wooly-headed, romantic, sentimental, na├»ve, unrealistic, hypocritical, sanctimonious, and cruel.  Green also makes cynical alliances with Red against Blue and Orange, meaning that they can excuse and rationalize manifestations of tribal violence in the name of respect for different cultures.  (And nothing scares Blue and Orange than the disorder and chaos of a Red system that Blue grew out of… centuries ago.)  Yellow looks at the whole spiral, and realizes that Blue and Orange have value, as well as Green, and we should build on the positive in each stage.  Yellow does not reject the prior stages, but includes them and moves beyond them with their good energies.
            So the Yellow-influenced approach in the church listens carefully to the concerns of Blue/Orange Presbyterians, and is willing to give them the room to work at that stage.  Some people are at that stage and need it.  Like all the stages, Blue and Orange need to work well for people, even as some come against the limitations and drawbacks, and emerge into Green themselves.  Yellow recognizes that declaring a Blue/Orange vs. Green war over property in local presbyteries is counter-productive, debilitating, pointless, and incredibly and tragically short-sighted.
            But, even though the denomination is Green moving into Yellow, its structure remains deep Blue and Orange.  There is the hierarchical order of representative government, overlaid with the vestiges of the corporate model that dominated in the 1950’s.  Which means that, even as the Blue people are departing, we still have structures and system that do not match the mostly Green values of the people, let alone reflect the emerging values of Yellow. 
            The new Form of Government is a start.  But there are still orthodoxies in our polity that can be dispensed with, making the church more effective and authentic in its mission.  
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