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Category Archives: Society

Reading James Through an American Lens

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A Reading of James 2: 14-17 with a 21st Century,

United States Gun Violence Hermeneutic:

What good is it, my brothers and sisters, if you say you have faith but don’t act on it? Can faith save you? If a brother or sister is a victim in a mass shooting, or has had a child shot to death at school, and one of you says to them, “Our thoughts and prayers are with you,” and you do nothing to oppose the senseless madness of such horrific violence, allowing more madmen to easily acquire weapons of mass destruction, what is the good of that? So faith by itself, if it doesn’t lead to action, is dead.

Post-Election Analysis: The Train Left Cleavertown Some Time Ago.

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Folks on Fox News were flabbergasted.  Karl Rove tenaciously held on to his view of reality.  Bill O’Reilly could only sputter something about the election meaning that America had changed and that most voters were evidently people who “want stuff.”

Bill O’Reilly admitted the country had changed, but really couldn’t understand how.

I admit that I was a bit surprised myself.  I figured they’d find a way to disenfranchise enough voters and rig enough precinct counts to make the final totals excruciatingly close.  Plus I didn’t think the Obama campaign could turn on the same enthusiastic energy as they did in 2008.

So how in the world did Barack Obama wind up scoring a bigger election victory margin than Nixon, Carter and G.W. Bush?

One telling answer comes wrapped in my memory of riding a Portland, Oregon commuter train sometime around the peak afternoon rush.   About two years ago, I was in Portland for a Campus Ministry regional gathering.  One afternoon was set aside for free time, so after lunch a few of us decided to take the train, which ran near our retreat center, to go explore downtown Portland.  The 30 minute ride from the suburbs to downtown was fairly uneventful and I had no problem finding a seat among two or three other folks in the train car .  The ride back was a different story.   It was about 4 o’clock and the streets were crowding with people and traffic.  I climbed aboard the train and immediately discovered it was standing room only.   The next several stops had people getting on and off in roughly equal numbers, so it took a while to find a seat.  The revelation in that ride was the in the ever- changing population of that rail-car shuttling these Portlanders from downtown to home or other places.   The first thing I noticed was that I remained one of the older people in that car. There were a couple of very elderly people who got on and off, but by and large it was a crowd of people that I’d guess was between 20-40.    It was an ethnically mixed crowd, with many people who were obviously ethnically mixed themselves.  Black, Asian, Hispanic, Native American, Pacific Islander, Caucasian–and most riders were a blended mix of at least two or three of these.

The prevailing American Anglo-Saxon worldview would tend to lump all these folks together in a group named “rabble.”  But that wasn’t the case at all.  I saw people who seemed to belong to diverse socio-economic groups, and together they created this exuberant kind of energy that rollicked and hummed along in that train car for the duration of my journey.   The best part of my experience was watching all these different people relate to one another as fellow people. Some were loud.  A couple were obnoxious.  But just about everyone treated everyone else with mutual respect.  My most memorable passenger was a dapper-looking black guy sitting atop his Rascal scooter in the middle of the car; obviously disabled, dressed sharply in a tailored business suit with matching fedora hat, a gleaming leather briefcase at his feet.  He was gloriously  lost in the music pouring through his headphones, yet he consciously kept a taut leash on the little spider monkey sitting in the basket of his scooter.  I hadn’t ever seen anything as jaw-droppingly unique as this guy and his monkey on their afternoon commute, and I doubt I’ll see such a thing again.   He was as archetypal a figure as you could ever find to show that the old rules and the old ways of seeing life in America no longer apply.

Hadn’t seen a commuter like this little guy before.

I got off the train with the awareness that I’d been in the company of all the different people who bring their energy and life into the day-to-day workings of this prominent American city.  And that is when it hit me.  The paradigm that says it’s a group of mostly well-to-do white men who have the de-facto power to run this country, whether it be in government or in business, that paradigm is nearing an end.  The paradigm that says presidential politics is played and won by well-to-do white guys from an established cadre of well-to-do white guys, that paradigm is on its last legs.

So I look back on the 2012 election through the prism of that train ride in Portland and I find myself wondering what was so surprising about that election after all.   Perhaps folks like Bill O’Reilly and Karl Rove might ride the subway once in a while.  It can do a fellow good.

Garden Salad w/Ranch, A Peach And A Banana

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The last meal of Karla Faye Tucker, executed by Texas on Feb. 3, 1998 at 6:45 p.m.

Check out The Last Meals Project, where executed prisoners are paired with their last meals.

Traditional Club Memberships in Steady Decline–Including the Club Called Church

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This is one of the big-ticket issues in The Way Things Are Becoming, or The Great Emergence, to use Phyllis Tickle’s language.

The social clubs established in the late 19th through mid-20th centuries are now showing steady and apparently irreversible decline in membership.

Consider the hallowed Scouting movement brought to the U.S. by W.D. Boyce in 1910.  Its numbers have steadily dropped as reflected by this chart found at Scouting for All:

Back in 2009 The Janesville Gazette reported that the Wisconsin Jaycees dissolved their Janesville, WI  charter because they no longer had enough members.  This same article described similar fates unfolding amongst the Optimists, the Lions, the Kiwanis and the Rotarians.

“Years ago, when you were in a certain business, you almost had to belong to a service club, but it’s not that way anymore,’’ said Cindy Miser, then the Janesville Optimist Club Treasurer/Secretary.

That statement takes me back to another statement made out on the Great Plains a few years ago, one spoken by a retired, long-time pastor of a flagship church located in the heart of a small city.  “When I first became pastor,” he said, “the advice I got from my senior pastor was that I had to join a service club.  I looked around and found that the Rotary Club had most of the folks who were on city council, the school principal–folks like that.  So I joined the Rotary Club.”

It probably seemed like good wisdom back then to do exactly that.  It was a time when joining a club was the thing to do, a time when people found a larger sense of meaning and purpose in their club memberships.  And since clergy were considered part of the upwardly mobile professional class (definitely white collar!), the Rotary Club would have been a good fit.

But Ms. Miser’s statement also takes me back to the childhood experience of  church at a booming congregation in a conservative branch of U.S. Lutheranism during the late 1960’s.  A lot of up-and-coming professionals gravitated toward this expression of church and brought along their wives and families.  Granted, it was more likely that the wives “carried the male” back in that day as much as they appear to do today.  But in that church, well, women had their place–St. Paul said so, after all.   The men were active and involved, as I remember.  But I also remember that this church seemed like a place where the up-and-comers climbing the rungs of the white middle class all hung out.  As I remember it, this all-white, mostly affluent congregation aspired to a sort of greatness that could best be summed up in this dream picture:

Here’s the problem:  Ward, June, Wally and the Beav all went to church on Sunday.  Then Monday, June popped over to the Garden Club meeting once the boys were off to school.  Tuesday, Ward had his Rotary Club luncheon, where the Mayor got to make his pitch for community service projects the Rotarians could take on and deliver.  Wednesday, Beaver had Cub Scouts and Wally had Boy Scouts.  June, of course, was Den Mother, while Ward was Scoutmaster.  Then, back to church on Sunday, where June taught Sunday School, and Ward served as Elder.  Wally was trying to sort out his feelings for the attractive young girl in his Teens class, while the Beav was learning about the men in the fiery furnace from a teacher with a flannel board.  Meanwhile, the lines blurred between their Sunday church activities and their involvement in the weekday clubs.   All of them seemed necessary for the production of good, solid citizens; all of them offered beneficial social connections and friendships; and all of them seemed to be essential pillars for a healthy national society.

So what happened?  First, there was this little issue most of us have come to know as The Civil Rights Movement.  Right behind that issue came another little issue, The Vietnam War.  Then, some social reject worthy of scorn from all “decent” people everywhere, a fellow by the name of Daniel Ellsberg, released The Pentagon Papers.  Why, those classified documents had no business being published in a newspaper–never mind that they revealed a government that was lying to its citizenry about the direction of the war.

Social institutions responded to these perceived threats to Good and Decent (and white) America.  The Silent Majority elected Richard Nixon–twice.   Mainstream clergy often prayed for the success of the American mission in Vietnam, ignoring the great ironic truth exposed by Mark Twain’s “War Prayer,” written nearly six decades before, back when the U.S. was waging war in the Philippines.

Meanwhile, in my local, booming, conservative Lutheran Church, my pastor took a hard stand against rabble-rousers and “Jesus Christ Superstar.” He preached in a fiery sort of way, and his message probably got rehashed at Rotary and Lion’s Club meetings the following week.

Down South, the respectable clergy from respectable houses of worship were compelled to publicly admonish the organizers and demonstrators of the 1963 Birmingham Protest, especially that outside agitator, Martin Luther King, Jr.   King responded with his “Letter From A Birmingham Jail,” a shout-out for compassion and action rooted in solid biblical scholarship.  King’s letter essentially stripped the red-white-and-blue veneer off the nature and purpose of the church in ways that were difficult to avoid.  But people did just that.  The system was humming along just fine, thank you; if only the uppity blacks and longhairs and feminists would just fall back into line.  Meanwhile, there were those social clubs to attend; pour enough energy into their service projects and it just might stem the tide.

Yet, the bottle had been opened and the genie was gone, if he ever was really there in the first place.  Perhaps people were just starting to awaken from a genie-induced hallucination.  Whatever the case, the trend for decline, the massive turning away from traditional, institutional organizations, had been given a starting place.  Traditional social and service clubs had begun the decades-long process of being pink-slipped by the children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren of Wally and the Beav, who just didn’t see the value in them anymore.

The church, to the degree it has aligned itself with the principles and values of social service clubs, continues to suffer the effects of this unstinting, pink-slipping.  The effects have spilled over to practically every expression of church, whether or not that expression has bought in to the club mentality.  While it’s a tough thing to swallow for many in the church, the decline of a club called church is likely a good and necessary thing as we enter a period of history in which the stakes seem perilously high.  The “My Country- Right or Wrong ” club church that meets primarily to see one another– and to maintain the idealized remembrance of a status quo– just isn’t equipped to offer much more than palliative care for its declining membership.

Next up:  Expressions of Church that might leave good marks on the 21st century.

Hangin’ At the Portland Airport, Thinkin’ About the Lutheran Church-ELCA

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Gustav’s Pub & Grill, Portland Airport, Portland, OR– This morning wrapped up a regional campus ministry conference with colleagues–temporary though they be–serving as campus ministry pastors throughout the West and Northwest.  We heard from the national campus ministry coordinator, who flew in from Chicago to bring us a comforting word that the church still lives, despite “restructuring.”  Actually, the “restructuring” term is mine, and it’s a polite way to describe what recently happened to the ELCA church-wide organizational structure.  Here’s a cinematic moment that pretty well captures this “restructuring,” in the way the black knight was “restructured” :

OK, I’m kidding.  Sort of.

The ELCA has gone through a bit of down-sizing, which is in many ways congruent with the downsizing of its congregations (since I’m a card-carrying ELCA pastor, I should probably use the first person plural possessive pronoun, “ours.” So I will.)

I was somewhat surprised at the number of conference attendees who felt they were standing on ground shaky enough to consider pushing the “eject” button.

The experience also made me aware of my own shaky ground; especially considering the likelihood that several people in the gathering will likely interview for the position I’m currently serving as an interim pastor.   As I think on my own place and position, and how there is likely to be a sort of feeding frenzy when the position is posted on the ELCA website, I’m reminded of an experience I had trout fishing many years ago in New Mexico.

Early one crisp Fall morning, I found myself casting a line into Monastery Lake, a popular fishing hole about 45 minutes north of Santa Fe.   I’d heard the fishing there was outstanding, and so I joined about a dozen hearty souls who braved the chilly wind with hope of landing a few beauties from this lake adjacent to a Benedictine monastery.  I was still rubbing the sleep from my eyes as I found my place on the bank of this small lake in the Northern New Mexico mountains.  Then I cast my line into the cool, still water, plopping my white and red floater about ten yards from shore and settled in to see if I might land the Mighty Moby Trout.  Amazingly, it didn’t take long for my floater to dip underwater, then dip again, as the tugs on my line told me I’d gotten my first hungry customer to take the salmon egg I’d used to disguise my hook.  I reeled in a stubborn little trout.   The tyke was maybe half a pound, at most.  I looked at the little fella, as he looked at me with those wide little trout eyes, then I unhooked him and tossed him back into the lake.  Shoot, I’d caught and released perch bigger than this down in Texas when I was knee-high to a grasshopper.  I put another red egg on the hook and cast it back out into the water.  Moby Trout was bound to be out there.  Soon I got another bite, then hooked what turned out to be the little trout’s smaller brother.  Again, I removed the hook and tossed him back.  I’d just cast my newly-baited hook into the water again when a nearby fisherman walked over to me.  “Hey, man,” he said, “if you don’t like to eat trout, the next time you catch one, just give him to me, OK?”

“Ummm, OK.”  I looked at the guy and at the frayed and worn flannel coat he wore, and then it hit me.  These little fellas were prime catch in these parts.  I was in a beautiful location, by golly, but it was a hardscrabble location as well.  And there were hardscrabble folks just chomping at the bit to catch a mess of these little trout to bring home to their families.

These are hardscrabble times for pastors and staff in the ELCA.  Some will likely chafe at such language.  But the truth of the matter is, the ELCA has been rocked by the same seismic tremors that have shaken up the rest of our culture, and the quaking is not over by a long shot.

I’ve been keeping my powder dry, as it were, while pondering my own circumstances and options.  But now, sitting here in an airport eatery in Portland, influenced and inspired by the good group of very good campus pastors who are struggling to come to terms with the Way Things Are Becoming, and having that experience connecting with my own struggle, I’m feeling that it’s about time to add my two cents to the cacophony of those who are trying to make sense of what is happening and why.  I’ve been doing this sort of thing for a while now, but maybe it’s time to really hone in on those factors, circumstances and trends that seem to be the greatest effects upon the church I continue to love, the ELCA.     It ain’t gonna be pretty, and I’m guessing that my passion might occasionally dominate my objectivity.  But these are passionate times.  Just look at Glenn Beck….or the tear-stained face of John Boehner.    OK, maybe not the best standards of comparison, but sitting here, somewhat discombobulated in an airport in foggy Portland, and with a boarding call near at hand, it’s the best I can do.  More to come, stay tuned……

Happy St. Bridget’s Day

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St. Bridget (or Brigid) of Kildare is one of many saints this Protestant boy didn’t know about when growing up; Lutheran parochial schools aren’t really known for their instruction in hagiography, except for Martin Luther.
Bridget’s life and legend is evidently making a bit of a comeback, since even folks like me are becoming aware of her. One of Bridget’s more endearing qualities is her appreciation of the life-giving nature of beer.
Legend has it that Bridget once served a leper colony that had no beer. The lepers begged her to resolve the situation, so she turned their bathwater into beer. While it’s been handed down as legend, I believe there is some truth to the story, since I’ve encountered a few beers that might well have been made from lepers’ bath water.
She also is said to have supplied 18 churches with beer from a single barrel, and that the beer lasted from Maundy Thursday to Ascension Day.

Here’s a poem attributed to St. Bridget (h/t Diana Butler Bass via Beliefnet):

I should like a great lake of beer for the King of Kings.
I should like the angels of Heaven to be drinking it through time eternal.
I should like the men of Heaven at my house.
I should like barrels of peace at their disposal.
I should like for them cellars of mercy.
I should like cheerfulness to be their drinking.
I should like Jesus to be there among them.

Mary Condren, writing in the Irish, says that Bridget’s particular abilities in negotiating, peacemaking and community organizing make her a relevant symbol for our time.

Speaking of symbols…….

Bridget’s unique cross is a symbol of of all these traits woven together, Condren says.
In addition to being patron saint of brewers, weavers and blacksmiths, Bridget could also be the patron of soldiers who become conscientious objectors. One legend holds that Bridget and her nuns would accompany such ancient warriors to the battlefield, where she would create strong mists that blinded opposing sides and put a halt to warfare.

Given the eyesight at work today, sight that allows modern warriors to sit at a console and guide robotic death-dealing planes on the other side of the world, a bit of Bridget’s blinding mist would be most welcome.

Undocumented Immigrants Actually Pay Taxes

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Image: Jared Rodriguez / t r u t h o u t; Adapted: Matt Cohen Photo / 1115, hasby

We’ve heard this a few times out here in the Rockies, where Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Services has done a decent job of getting this info out to our ELCA congregational leaders.

Now comes a 3-part, Truthout investigative series on immigration that details the same reality: that undocumented immigrants pay a wide variety of taxes, including Social Security and Medicare taxes, without ever likely receiving the benefits of that taxation.

A key section from the first Truthout article:

A poll conducted in 2006 by ABC News and The Washington Post found that a third of all Americans said their biggest objection to undocumented immigrants is their use of “more public services than they pay for in taxes.” Many of these same people oppose comprehensive immigration reform for this reason, and among conservative pundits such as Bill O’Reilly the notion that undocumented immigrants pay tax at all has been derided as “crap.”

But reports by the Congressional Budget Office and the Social Security Administration confirm that undocumented immigrants in fact pay many different types of taxes, including sales tax, property tax, Social Security tax and income tax.

Francine Lipman, a professor of tax law at Chapman University, says the disinformation about the tax contributions of undocumented immigrants can be attributed to both “confusion about the system generally and . . . that we have a history of scapegoating people when times are tough, and maybe also when times are good.”