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

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?

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.  

Friday, November 7, 2014

No Mercenaries in the Church.

Money does not attract quality leadership;
it attracts leaders who are attracted by money.

            Here is another godless and stupid thing that bleeds over into the church from a greed-based economy.  The standard view is that to get the best talent you have to pay the most money.  There exists some equation in which quality and money are correlated: when one goes up or down so dies the other.  Therefore, the feeling is that if you want to attract the most effective pastor or presbytery executive you have to offer the most money.  This leads to the reverse inference that the highest paid must by definition be the best. 
            While this market-based approach may work in the secular economy where the idol or ultimate concern is money (but I seriously doubt it), the idea that it should be extended into the church of Jesus Christ is pernicious and wrong.  It is a view based not on the Scriptures but on a particular economic ideology based on a particular, faulty understanding of human nature.
            Jesus himself was famously poor, owning practically nothing, and surviving, as far as we can tell, on donations from a few well-off supporters, mainly women.  We are supposed to be his followers, and if that means anything it means living after his example.  This is the guy who says we cannot serve both God and money, that they are mutually exclusive.  This is the guy who had no place to lay his head.  This is the One we are following.  Hello?    
            Everyone knows very high quality ecclesiastical leaders who are not compensated very well at all.  Some of the most faithful and effective pastors are called to small churches that can’t pay much if anything over a presbytery’s minimum salary.  Some part-time pastors are astonishingly good at what they do.  And everyone also has stories about very highly paid pastors and executives, who performed miserably as leaders, leaving a trail of dismembered and dismantled churches and presbyteries.
            The fact is that paying more does not guarantee or even make more likely a high quality ministry.  What it does usually guarantee is a “professional” with a mercenary mentality.  We do get what we pay for in this sense.  Not that money attracts quality, but that money attracts people attracted by money.  Offering a large salary will not necessarily attract those whom God is calling to particular work.  But it is guaranteed to attract people motivated by greed, ambition, and narcissism.  
            The great ballplayer, Joe Jackson, once said “I would have played for food money; I would have played for free!”  In this he epitomizes what it means to have a calling.  It is the way many pastors feel.  It is because so many pastors act this way that the church had to institute protections to ensure that pastors were paid a living wage.  Too many congregations were content to pay the pastor as little as possible, which, when the pastor has Joe Jackson’s attitude, is quite a little indeed.
            My point is that the most effective and faithful pastor or ecclesiastical leader is going to be in it for the love of serving Jesus Christ and his people.  That has been the case with all good leaders in the church since the beginning.  Not one single saint of the church gave a rat’s ass for how much money they were making.  Such a consideration would have disqualified them from discipleship, let alone leadership. 
            Leaders should be compensated fairly for the work they do.  But the idea that a good leader in the gathering of Jesus followers is attracted by money is, well, impossible.


Tuesday, November 4, 2014

Witness to the Resurrection.

He not busy being born is busy dying.
--- Bob Dylan

            I am sitting in a conference room in the Brown Hotel in Louisville, Kentucky.  It’s the annual Fall Polity Conference put on by the Office of the General Assembly, of the Presbyterian Church (USA).  The room is SRO with profoundly concerned presbytery Stated Clerks and Executives sitting around a rectangle of tables. 
            I am listening to a presentation concerning the current mass exodus of conservative congregations from the denomination.  First, we go around the room and one by one each participant briefly tells their story of churches departing from their regional presbytery, adding the occasional significant detail, like the current state of litigation. 
            The mood is somber, resigned, angry, sad, frustrated, and tired.  I learn that some presbyteries are losing a third or more of their congregations.  There are people around the table whose jobs are on the line, as these departing congregations were helping to pay their salaries.  It feels like a kind of deathwatch; like the respirator has been turned off, and the gathered family awaits the inevitable. 
            In the middle of this I start wondering what would be a better metaphor for what I am observing.  The breaking off of a new moon from a larger planet?  Cell division?  Giving birth?  Rats abandoning a sinking ship?  A chick emerging from a shell?  Lifeboats drawing away from the severed pieces of a sinking Titanic?  That toothy monster exploding out of the gut of the dead astronaut in Alien?
            None of these quite work for me.  Do we have to assume a new thing being born and the old thing, from which it is breaking away, dying?  That doesn’t feel right.  Amid the panic and depression which is palpable in some corners of the room, I am also feeling a certain refreshing loss of weight, like a hot air balloon dropping bags of sand and buoying upward in a new freedom of lightness.  An ability to breathe.  Energy.
            We are not just seeing the spawning of new conservative denominations with exciting (if on many levels misleading) new names like “Eco.”  At the same time we are witnessing the emergence of a new more focused and intentional gathering of Progressive Christians.   Maybe the churches breaking off are not the only ones feeling the energy of newness and life.  Maybe there is also new life arising among us!
            Here’s a better image: A body excreting wads of cancer cells after courses of chemotherapy and radiation, and emerging into new health, strength, and vigor.  Yeah, the body is thinner and somewhat exhausted, pale and damp with sweat, and drawing in deep and long breaths of good air.  The healing process was painful and debilitating, and very scary.  But, this body is alive!
            By the time we get to the closing worship service of this conference, that’s the feeling I would have.  We are alive!  I look around at all these disciples standing and singing a full-throated rendition of “It is Well With My Soul.”  You’re damn right it is well with our souls.
            The author of that hymn tragically lost his family in a shipwreck.  What are we losing?  Decades of internecine guerrilla warfare that had dragged down and held back our mission?  Incessant petulant sniping about the erosion of the theology, morality, and political sensibilities of bygone days?  Hand-wringing over membership loss and who is to blame?  Bigotry wrapped in a veneer of self-righteous Biblicism?  A tradition of cheerleading for a racist, capitalist, militarist, nationalist, sexist, and oppressive globalized empire?
            What if we re-imagined these “losses” as the shedding, not, of course, of people and congregations, but of unnecessary layers and masses of paralyzing, crippling habits, conflicts, and corrupt ways of thinking?  Maybe what we are really jettisoning are the fear, anger, and shame that had nailed this family of Christians to obsolete models and structures, timid, worn-out, and hyper-circumspect theologies, and fruitless compromises, holed-up within impregnable stone fortresses on urban street corners while the world blew by.  Maybe the Holy Spirit, as a sheer act of grace we do not deserve, is blessing us with the opportunity of the century, if not the millennium!
            We’re better off without them.  We’ve never been in a better position to move forward in God’s mission than we are right now.  And with each departure our position improves.
            Since the early 1970’s, the funeral liturgies in Presbyterian worship resources have been called, “Witness to the Resurrection.”  That’s really what we may be seeing now:  The death by dismemberment, leading to the shocking, surprising, amazing resurrection of Christ’s body, in this church.
            (Or.  On the other hand.  We can continue to busy ourselves with dying.  We can fight over money and property, pay lawyers, and do everything we can to appease and feed malignancies that hate and suck the life out of us.  We can try yet again to infuse energy into organs long dried up and dead, clutching our decrepit buildings and our obsolete ecclesiologies.  Like that’ll work.  We can clutch on to current models of success, sustainability, structure, and theology until we whimper into oblivion, deservedly forgotten by all but a few future historians.)   
            We may now choose life!  We can imagine together the new constellations and networks of discipleship and community to which the Holy Spirit is calling us, and get busy being born.  Remember that resurrection is not resuscitation.  The new communion being born will not look like the denomination now passing away.  It may not even be a “denomination.”   Our task now is to flow with what the Spirit is causing to emerge among and within us.