The Bent Lady; or Having a Really Bad Day

(A general summary of the sermon given August 22nd, 2010, Proper 16)

Sometimes we have really bad days.

Start off with a lack of sleep and nightmares about the apocalypse, being
naked in public, or realizing you never should have graduated high school.
Wake up.  There’s no hot water.  You cut yourself shaving.  Then there’s a
leak from the floor into the ceiling of your living room onto your cherry
table.

There’s no more juice or milk in the refrigerator.  Someone in the house
finished the eggs and the cereal.  You get dressed, but you’re in a rush so
you rip your pants.  You try on another suit, and you notice a little grease
stain.  The next suit is too tight.  You take everything off and weigh
yourself, and you’ve gained ten pounds.

You can’t find your keys.

After you find them twenty minutes later, you speedily back out of your
driveway, hitting a parked car that isn’t usually there.

You’re late for a meeting with your biggest client.

As you drive, you smell a horrible odor.   You wore this shirt dancing a
couple days ago and forgot to place it in the hamper.

When you stop at a red light, a car pulls up next to you and a five year old
gives you the finger.

At work you’re handed divorce papers.  After your secretary quits, your
daughter calls and tells you she’s marrying her one true love, a musician
who has a long criminal record, who you caught smoking pot in your back
yard.

He hadn’t even offered to share.

When you come home, you discover there isn’t a single glass of booze in the
house.  The dog opened the refrigerator door and ate the steak you
were marinating.   You smell a strange odor of burning wood coming from
somewhere in your house before the alarm goes off.  In the distance you see
a volcano erupt.

That’s a bad day.

Now imagine having a bad day for eighteen years.

Some take the optimistic view.   _There’s always someone with a worse day.
_ “I have cancer, but it could be stage four melanoma.  That would really
suck.”  Or “I have a terminal disease, but I’ve always wanted to die before
my husband and kids.”

Others become like zombies, their sensitivity to pain so reduced they can’t
feel anything.  Some of those are so calloused themselves, they can’t feel
the pain of others.  Some become bitter, outraged at the injustice around
them, the needless victimization, they shake their fists at the absurdity of
a God or a world that would make suffering so ubiquitous and ordinary.
They become pillars of resentment, with such a chip on their shoulder they
can’t make friends, alienate their family and routinely insult police
officers and babies.

In one parable, a woman who’d been sick for 18 years, bent with a serious
form of arthritis, asks Jesus for healing.   The scene has the indignant
priest, upset that Jesus is ignoring the holiest of God’s laws – don’t work
on the Sabbath.  He represents the enforcer against Jesus’ libertine
sensibilities.  But they are also indignant because they complain because
she’s a woman, an old woman, one who is not seen or allowed much power or
voice in a patriarchal society.

Jesus sees her; she stands.  He chastizes the rule-makers.  Even they would
free their animals on the Sabbath to get them a drink of water.   This
woman, isn’t she also a child of God?  Shouldn’t she also be liberated?

After 18 years, she could have been defined by her bad days.  This was the
sick woman; who others thought she may have deserved her plight; her identity was confined and bound by the fears around her.  Jesus sees her differently, instead as a child of Abraham, a person who could be free.

It wasn’t sympathy he offered; nor did he erase the past.  Rather, he saw her as a human being worthy of love, interrupting the cruelty of the habitual pieties that
rendered invisible the ones who always have a bad day.

On Beck

I’m not all that sure about what the kerfuffle is all about, but I’ve gained a few insights about the man.

Initially, I didn’t get indignant or outraged that Beck was having a revival on the same day as MLK’s historic I have a Dream speech.  Although a speech that is now iconic in American history, it has been played out to the point of parody (“I had a really weird dream last night“), and I don’t think it was even his best one.

The rally, however, did reveal some aspects of Beck’s personality.  I’ve always found him insufferably (deceitfully?) ingratiating, obsequious at times, and insulting on others.  His whingy sentimentality merely makes me even appreciate Bill O’Reilly’s strong arm.

The rally made me consider that he truly does want to make a difference.  In itself that is admirable.  But it seems to me that he’s really got a secret Obama envy.

Instead of working to challenge the powers, to gather the people, the hard way, as Obama had done, Beck consistently takes the easy way out.   Obama’s mettle has been tested:  he worked hard to get through school, was disciplined in his personal life, and has sacrificed a potentially lucrative career of that of public service.  Instead, Beck has been rewarded for his immaturity, his identification with the resentful, anxious and fearful element of the American Public.   He seems to be one of those people who thinks that Obama has gotten more than he has deserved, and that he is not fit to run the country.

What outrages me is the audacity that Beck would hold a revival when the man has no flesh-and-blood congregation.  His interest in the lives of the public seems opportunistic at best, and non-existent at worst.   From where does was he given the authority?  At the very least, pastors are given the authority from congregations who’s everyday difficulties aren’t ideological, but concrete.  He pontificates and orders people about, without the real relationship building that most pastors consider part of their work.  How dare he preach to anyone about spiritual improvement from the vantage point of arrogance about his own supposed gifts?

Was it a success?  We’ll see.  Building a movement isn’t for the charismatic:  it is for the organized.    My suspicion: he is even a two-bit propagandist, a man who should be challenged as a fraud at every step.  He wants desperately to be taken seriously; but since he cannot, he offers his followers what they want.  The adult wing of corporate party has the responsibility to ask him directly:  does he really believe the things he says, and will he sacrifice his career on them?  Or will he be revealed to be an opportunist?

Until I see that time, I will continue to be baffled by why he has the attention he gets.  Although, like any bright child, it is exactly what he is good at.

Fighting the War in Afghanistan

After WWI, my grandfather was placed in an area of the British Empire called “The Northern Frontier.”  It’s on the border of what is now Pakistan and Afghanistan.  Then, as now, the empires – in this case Russia and England – were engaged in a rivalry known then as “The Great Game.”

The British had been suspicious that Russia would invade India through Afghanistan.  Russia wanted to dominate the continent the way Americans believed in “manifest destiny.” It resulted in a century long conflict between Russia and England that ended only during WWII.

My grandfather knew that the Tribal soldiers he encountered were some of the most fierce and courageous men he would ever fight.  He also knew of them as charitable hosts.

One evening he stumbled upon a camp.  There were several Afghan soldiers drinking tea around a fire; he was one.  They saw him and stood as he appeared out of thin air.  There was no question that if he pulled out his revolver, he would come out on the losing side.

Captain Ray (pronounced “Rai”) simply said, in Pashtun, “I’ve been hoping to find you.”  Best to treat the enemy as a friend.  Why don’t you sit down with us, they said.  Apparently, my grandfather apparently had a winning smile and a generous charism, so he spent the next couple days getting to know his enemies.

At the end, they led him safely back to his camp.  When the second world war ended, they would visit the house on Parliament Street with nuts and dates.  Apparently, they came by bicycle.  Enemies once, friends forever.

War offers a clarity that is exhilarating and profound – even sacred.  But it is the task of the gospel to shatter that clarity, to reveal the hidden interests, to expose war’s banality, to desacralize the chants and the cheers that send us into the battle.  The gospel reveals it all:  the marks of heroism, the reality of cowardice, the needless misery, the fruitlessness of honor and pride.  The gospel says, you’re really surprised that our friends are funding our enemies? You really think that the president will save us?  You really believe that this war will lead us mutual admiration and respectability?  Do you really think that the “best and the brightest” are made of a different character than the rest of us? You really think that if we leave we won’t still bear the consequences?  Really?  I’ve got news for you…

And this is the gospel truth:  as we demonize our enemies, we become more like them.  Yes – let us fight the glorious battle, but our armor of righteousness cannot be based on our moral superiority, but instead in our mutual humanity.

When we fight these wars, the gospel reminds us that we battle as sinners in need of redemption, not as heroes desperate for vindication.

Cool Christianity?

A recent article in the WSJ by Brett McCraken has gotten a bit of play in the Christian blogosphere.   The general thesis:  young Christians don’t want “hip” Christianity – they want Jesus Christianity.   It’s a fine thesis.

So he has a list of complaints.

First:  pastors who refer to pop culture.   Granted, I’m equally confused by the passions of Lady Gaga, but I confess the occasional retelling of a Star Trek, X-Files, or Law and Order Episode.  I’ve quoted The Onion.     My youth group got my references to Friends, The Simpsons and Zombies and sometimes complained to me when I got stories wrong.

But isn’t referring to pop culture part of our work?  I don’t think it is much different retelling the insights of Malcom Gladwell or the poetry of Mary Oliver in a sermon.  People tend to have their eyes glaze over when I quote Calvin rather than Calvin and Hobbes, or offer extended quotations by the theologian Rene’ Girard.  My feeling:  it’s always justified for Christian pastors to talk about vampires, and better than referring to Hegel in German.

His other complaints: pastors in skinny Jeans (someday I’ll fit, really); showing ‘R’ rated movies; holding services in nightclubs.  But what seems inauthentic, fleeting and manipulative to him makes me wonder what are they teaching?  Instead of being horrified, I’m intrigued.

Being an Anglican, of course, I prefer the robes and holy ponchos, films with subtitles and attend nightclubs after mass.  But it seems to me that fussing over image is actually making image out to be more important than it actually is.

His complaint about churches being technologically adept, however, seems especially off the mark.  A pretty good indicator of a church interested in other people, for example, is a website that’s been updated within the last month.  Although tweeting during the service offends this Anglican, sharing religious references seems a justifiable part of my job.  We may not be able to create youtube videos on a weekly basis, but refusing to engage a visual culture seems irresponsible.

Mr. McCracken does seem to be a bit on the defensive about sex.  I admit, I will also be shunning sermons, podcasts, and twittering about the holiness of fellatio between married couples, it does seem to me that people are rightly curious about the Christian perspective, if there is one.

But I think, personally, that’s our own fault.  Our denominations have been dancing around trivial issues of sexuality while refusing to confront the very real challenges people face at all ages.   Personally, I admit, I think the gospel has very little to say about sex.  We might examine why it’s a subject about which most people are fascinated.

And although I’m completely in agreement that being shocking for its own sake seems opportunistic, self-serving and ill-considered,  I just can’t get very excited about it.  I’m bored by being shocked.   And what’s more shocking is that Christians are just now talking about subjects that have been played out in contemporary culture.  Are they really just NOW talking about these titillating practices?   It’s not the practices that are shocking, after all.  It’s that Christians are talking about them.

That said, the gospel is shocking.  Just in a completely different way.

He gets close.  He writes, “If we are interested in Christianity in any sort of serious way, it is not because it’s easy or trendy or popular. It’s because Jesus himself is appealing, and what he says rings true. It’s because the world we inhabit is utterly phony, ephemeral, narcissistic, image-obsessed and sex-drenched—and we want an alternative. It’s not because we want more of the same.”

I understand this.  But I admit I cringe a little at the hyperbole.  Is this world created by God “utterly” phony?  Is it completely ephemeral?  Or is he talking about how Christianity, like the “cool” has become just another spiritual product?  Because what is certainly true is that the commercial enterprise has infected every part of human engagement.  Interrogating that reality, holding the mirror of the gospel up against that, would require a more severe look at our current system of social and economic priorities.  Then we might end up examining the powers, and not merely some misguided attempts to be relevant.  Money, not sex, is closer to the gospel’s true concern, and its consequences are, perhaps, shocking.

He’s right about some things.   From my vantage point, I doubt the institution will be cured by any quick fix.   But what is certainly true is that mainline churches don’t have any fixes.  They’re not even on life support.   Young people aren’t flocking to your local 930am Sunday Morning service with genial overweight pastor with a nice smile who loves everybody and quotes Auden and Kierkegaard.    Twitter and Good Sex might not save the church or compel the curious, but what mainline churches have been doing for the last 30 years isn’t working either.

It’s the work of pastors to engage people, churched and unchurched, where they are, communicating with the technologies that people have access to.  It does make our job more difficult.  We have to know a little of everything.  But it also focuses the work.  We are, fundamentally, communicators of the gospel.  We’re not building managers or administrators; we’re not therapists or nurses.  Technology is one of our tools.  Perhaps technology, itself, is the message, but that is for another post.

And since God is at work in the culture, we will necessarily be referring to His presence there.  He was not confined within the church; nor does he only speak in the alphabet of the creeds.  Sometimes to help a young woman understand the cross, a reference to Mean Girls will have to do.

Two Beers and Terra Firma

Thomas Frank, in my view the smartest cultural commentator with a regular column, leaves the WSJ.  He founded the Baffler, a cutting edge leftie magazine, but with great writing.

As the right howled “socialism,” President Obama took pains to demonstrate his loyalty to the exhausted free-market faith. On trade issues and matters of economic staffing, he loudly signalled continuity with the discredited past. On the all-important issue of regulatory misbehavior—a natural for good-government types—he has done virtually nothing.

The real audacity has all been on the other side. Many Republicans chose to respond to the crisis not by renouncing the consensus faith of the last 30 years but by doubling down on it, calling for more deregulation, more war on government.

That they have partially succeeded with such a strategy in these years of financial crisis, mine disasters, and oil spills is testimony to their political brilliance—and to Democratic dysfunction. As is the burgeoning populist movement that now stands beside the GOP, transforming anger over unemployment into anger over the auto bailout and the good pensions enjoyed by public workers.

He’s moving to Harper’s.  Of course, he was one of the few columnists who drove conservatives absolutely livid with rage.

Notes on the Cultural Center

Over the last few months the construction of a cultural center has taken a lot of press time.  Abdul Rauf is going to found Cordoba house.  Abdul Rauf has served the US under the Bush Administration by going throughout the world telling how Muslims enjoy rights in this country.   Cordoba refers to a time in the Muslim world of great intellectual ferment, of an empire where religious differences were treated with some tolerance.

Trinity Church has, rightly, expressed support for the cultural center; Mayor Bloomberg gave an impassioned and brilliant speech expressing the importance of religious liberty.

Obama, Bloomberg and Nadler acknowledge that this is also an issue of property rights, that government officials should not use a heavy hand to cloak any sort of bigotry.

Of course, there is some bleating about and sensitivity and wisdom, but Krugman demonstrates the problem with that argument.

Second, the opposition seems to imply that Islam is a crucial aspect of terror and violence.  This is a complicated assertion.  Muslims, empirically speaking, have never had a monopoly on violence.   Both Muslims and Christians an ambivalence toward weakness.   A more precise question is:  what will this community center teach?

It’s useful to affirm that for some, the cultural center provides a lot of political fodder.  Those who oppose it benefit from stirring up passions and fears.  They strengthen their sway and authority by bravely protesting inconsequential projects, puffing themselves up as saviors and defenders of piety.

And I doubt that this is really about proximity to the World Trade Center.  All over the country people are opposing the construction of Mosques.  It’s fear, plain and simple.

Bashraat Peer wrote an article that describes, in detail, persons in the narrative.   Michael Kinsley writesIs there any reason to oppose the mosque that isn’t bigoted, or demagogic, or unconstitutional? None that I’ve heard or read.”

What is not understood is that by enabling tolerance, we represent a way of living together that is still new to some Muslim countries.   By seeking understanding, perhaps others will also seek to understand.