Thursday, July 02, 2020

The Collapse of Western Civilization Seems Closer....

Fourteen years go I wrote a post on my blog call Collapse of Western Civilization. It was built around this quote from Margaret Thatcher when she was Prime Minister of the UK:

"I think we've been through a period where too many people have been given to understand that if they have a problem, it's the government's job to cope with it. 'I have a problem, I'll get a grant.' 'I'm homeless, the government must house me.' They're casting their problem on society. And you know, there is no such thing as society. There are individual men and women, and there are families. And no government can do anything except through people, and people must look to themselves first. It's our duty to look after ourselves and then, also, to look after our neighbour." (From "Statecraft" by Margaret Thatcher. Although this quotation is from her book, I believe she also used it in public addresses.)

I've highlighted two of her comments. Hers is the attitude we've heard from conservative leadership (small "c," as it's not just her party in UK or the Republican party in the US) for a long time. It certainly wasn't new when I wrote about it then.

And now we're seeing the results in the midst of the pandemic. "Me and mine first; and no society to which to be responsible." She may have complained about some who wanted (and arguable needed) more support from government than she wanted government to give. However, there are times (and we are in such times now) when it simply can't be just about me and mine. My impact on my neighbor is so much less in my control than I think. My need can be so much greater than I can manage. It is these circumstances that show not only that society does exist, but that it must exist. To be civilized - to live in a civilization - establishes those responsibilities beyond me and mine. If we don't want to lose that, we have to challenge such an attitude as the late Lady Thatcher and her current adherents. For there is an alternative to civilization. As the philosopher Thomas Hobbes wrote, "No arts; no letters; no society; and which is worst of all, continual fear, and danger of violent death: and the life of man, solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short." (Leviathan, chapter 12)


Monday, April 27, 2020

Reflections for the Times 2

When I was a child in the Knoxville City Schools, I was required to read Christy by Catherine Marshall. While not the only reason it was required (I can only imagine that the explicit Christian context didn’t hurt), a central reason was that the book described Appalachian community life in the late 19th and early 20th Centuries. Catherine Marshall’s mother was a teacher in a small community in Virginia, and the town in the novel was based on a town in Tennessee, not far from where I grew up.

I will be honest that I don’t remember much about the book. However, one chapter has stayed with me over the years. One of the central characters is the preacher, David. Like Christy, David is an outsider in the community, but thoroughly committed to his people. In one chapter a member of the community needs to clear a field to be plowed. This becomes a work of the whole community. The men gather, and each takes a portion of the field to clear with scythes and axes. David steps up to do so, too. This comes as a surprise to the community. He’s not a farmer, used to the tools, or even to the hard physical work it entailed. And, then, too, he’s the preacher! He insists; and even though it takes him much longer to finish, he gets his part done.

What has long stayed with me about this is David’s determination to give of himself, at, really, great expense, for the good of one family, and to model serving the whole community. 

But, then, the whole chapter was an example of a community coming together to serve one another. Once upon a time, that was a common example of American values. Perhaps from recent movies we attribute it especially to Amish communities; but it was once a more general idea. One of the major scenes in the musical, Seven Brides for Seven Brothers, takes place at a barn raising. Communities gathered to help because there were things to accomplish that no one person could do. 

There is, in American public life, that countervailing theme of the individual - commonly called in arts and letters “the rugged individual.” It’s been pitched at us especially since the Reagan Administration as the model of American freedom. But, American freedom, and American history, has also involved individuals sharing common purpose, working as communities to accomplish things no individual alone could do - like building a barn; or flattening the Coronavirus curve.


Monday, April 20, 2020

Reflections for the Times 1

First published on Facebook.

I am a citizen of the United States. There are many folks these days that want to remind me that as a citizen I have rights, some guaranteed in the Constitution, some set by laws, and some determined by how various courts have defined those laws in light of the Constitution.

And, as a citizen of the United States, I also have responsibilities. For this point, I have responsibilities to my fellow citizens - to *all* my fellow citizens. That includes my neighbors here in rural Tennessee, and the neighbors of my children in California and the neighbors of my niece in New York (just to give as broad a range as possible).

I have a responsibility to consider the welfare of my fellow citizens - the ones who live with me in my retirement community and the ones I encounter in church and the ones I encounter at Walmart. I have a responsibility as a citizen (without even going to how I understand my responsibilities as a Christian) to consider the health of my fellow citizens.

So, I wear a mask when I go into town; I stay six feet from folks I encounter walking my neighborhood; and I stay home. I pay attention to medical information. I recognize that we’re far from knowing just how prevalent the current corona virus actually is in my own county, much less anywhere else. Sure, I haven’t had the identified symptoms; but “absence of evidence is not evidence of absence.” I may have a right to be out and about, but I have a responsibility to my fellow citizens to limit myself to protect the health of others, whether I know them or not.

When I was a boy, I was taught, “My rights end at your nose.” These days there seem to be a lot of folks asserting “*Your* rights end at *my* nose.” This is a difference that makes a difference.

Tuesday, January 07, 2020

Power to Become Children of God: Sermon for 1st Christmas, 12.29.19

As a few of you know, I've been back in Cumberland County about a year. My wife has been here a little over a year. We brought her down and moved her in. I went back to Kansas City and worked for another six weeks and then came back in February. But while we were down in that first week, we got invited to - well it was billed as an open house in a neighbor's home, but it was really about “show off Marshall and Karen.” Uplands Village is that kind of place. We're very sociable and we all want to meet each other.

So, we are in this big circle, and everybody says a little something about themselves and what their association is with Uplands; and then they come to us and they want more. They want the full story. And I got started telling some of my history and in the middle of that, three more people arrived.  We got them in and we got them settled and we sort of heard their names and somebody said, “Okay, Marshall, start again.” And I said, “Where would you like me to start?” And they said, “Well, start at the beginning.” And I said, “Ah!  At the beginning of God's creation of the heavens and the earth, the earth was formless and void and darkness was upon the face of the deep;” to which somebody said, “No, no, no, Don’t go that far back.”

Now, that's a bit of clergy humor but, as some of you will know, there are a lot of retired clergy in Uplands Village. And so it, the joke worked. What struck me about that story this morning, though, is that that's exactly what John does. We have, as we've heard many times, four gospels with two nativity stories that we weave together for our holiday celebrations. Nothing in Mark: Mark is laser focused on the ministry of the adult Jesus. 

And then there's John, who is so sufficiently convinced that you already know Jesus was born, that he's not telling a story. We have no reason not to think he knew Luke or that he knew Matthew, that is, their written texts; but he's really more interested in what this is all about. And to place this in context, as far as John is concerned, you have to go back to the beginning -  the very beginning. In the beginning was the Word. In the beginning, God said something. Now that's right out of Genesis, right? God speaks and that's how things happen. God said, “Let there be light.” And, light. So, John goes back to God speaking the Word. But John also points out that there's no separating God's expression from God. The Word was with God. The Word was God. And without God's Word, there's nothing. God speaks six times as it were – there seem to be a whole lot more sentences than that, if you go back and read all of Genesis, but there are six days in which God speaks and things are done. 

This is to put this whole Incarnation thing in, not our historical context, which is what Luke is about; or if you want to our imperial, our administrative, our social construct, which is what Matthew is about; but into God's context. In the beginning was the Word and the Word became flesh and dwelt or lived or - and yes, you've all heard this before, but the Greek says pitched a tent among our tents. 

We really enjoy the stories. Granted, some of the more contemporary expansions on the stories get annoying or tiresome. I heard on the radio a couple of weeks ago about a group of people whose real goal is to get through the entire advent and Christmas season without once hearing “The Little Drummer Boy.”I started to wonder how you did that. In fact, because of the Pandora stream for music that we chose for Christmas, I've almost done it myself,.

But John is really not looking at the stories we love so much, but at the big picture; and the whole big picture for John is in these 18 verses. Pay attention to that. The whole big picture for John is in these 18 verses. Scholars will say that this is John's Prologue, but what does a prologue do? A prologue sets up the rest of everything that gets written in the document. It's the framework, the boundaries. And everything that John is going to try to say through the rest of the Gospel is highlighting themes that come up in these first 18 verses; and especially, “And the Word became flesh and lived with us.” 

There's something particularly Anglican in that focus. I am not the first person to have said it. In fact, it's attributed to the Orthodox theologian Alexander Schmemann. He said something like, “If you want to think of how important the Eucharist of the Resurrection is among the Orthodox, think how important Christmas is among Anglicans.” This idea that the Word becomes flesh is something that we particularly highlight. In fact, the English-speaking world spends a whole lot more time on December 25th, than the whole rest of the world combined. Most of the rest of the world, certainly the Orthodox East, but also many non-English speaking countries, are really much more focused on the Epiphany, on the arrival of the Kings, or Tres Reyes. In other parts of the world that’s when the gifts come.

We are focused on December 25th and I think the reason for that is because, at least in my opinion, that's the hardest thing God did. I mean God being human, dying sort of comes with it. God being God, being raised makes sense. But God choosing not to be God: that, that seems to be hard; and we focus on that. You know, we want to use the word condescension, which we usually think of as a bad thing, but in this case a very good thing. God descends with us. God condescends to be not only with us, but to be us. And as John will point out, again, staying in these first 18 verses, that's not just God taking a little break from heaven. That's not just God wanting to see what's going on. The Word became flesh and dwelt among us, even among us who are his own and didn't recognize it, who didn't even see the light in the darkness, that the darkness could not comprehend, that the darkness could not overcome. No, this is part of a big plan. And it is in that big plan that, to those who see, to those who are God’s, comes the power to become children of God: children not by biological birth, children not by some other process. If you want to, although the word doesn't exactly apply to God, organically, fundamentally children of God. 

Now Paul likes that. That's what's going on in this passage of Galatians. It's emphasizing this whole “children of God” thing. But Paul being Paul, he has to try to figure out a way to describe that that is going to kind of make sense. John is wonderfully big on mystery; and unfortunately we, we Western Christians, shaped by Greek physics and metaphysics and Latin law, kind of often want to understand what the process is. That gets us into trouble. But Paul is trying to do that here when he says that we are adopted, and being adopted, we are fellow heirs. Adopted is not a second-class “child-ship,” if you will. It is not somehow less. There is something in what it is that Jesus is the Son, something unique. But it is not something that somehow excludes or diminishes God's relationship with us. 

John says to those who receive, there is the power to become the children of God and I thought that's an interesting word. One of the commentaries I was listening to said that's an interesting word. It’s been many years since I was really flexible with this, but I can go back in my book and I can look at the Greek; and lo and behold that word we translate power is not like electrical power. It's like it's like legal authority. It's like having a right. Indeed in some contexts it is explicitly having a right. By virtue of the Light having come into the world, by virtue of the Word made flesh, we flesh have rights to be children of God. And Paul just tries to put that in a Roman legal context, saying that we are not any longer slaves or servants or clients or some other attached-but-not-family-member of the household; but we are children, we are heirs. We share in the kingdom in Christ. I know you've heard much of this before, but it certainly bears repeating. 

Now, I want to get back to that concept of Logos because we get a little weird at our household. I have a seminary degree and my wife's first degree was in philosophy and in ethics; and so it doesn't shock her when I come out and say, “I often think that the right term for God is not that God is, but that God does.” That's what we know of God. I mean, the God-ness of God - there's formal language for it_ but the God-ness of God is basically beyond our comprehension. The God-ness of God is something that we can't grasp with the minds we have. 

But the actions of God we have, and we talk about them all the time. We talk about the mighty acts of God. We tell the stories. Isaiah, and this is from late in Isaiah, is talking about God doing something in bringing Israel back to Jerusalem. The psalm today talks about God doing something in God, turning the world over so that the weak become strong and the hungry are fed. And the Word becoming flesh is a part of God doing something, and us becoming children and heirs is a part of God doing something. If you're not sure about that, go back and read the Baptismal rite, and remember what was said over you, or what you said as an adult., when you were baptized. The Word becomes flesh and we flesh become children and this is a part of God doing something. This is the continuing presence of the Logos in the world, of God saying something in the world. And we as children have the opportunity to be part of God's saying something in the world. 

I don't know about you, but in the context I grew up in in Knoxville, in the family I grew up in, there were certain things it meant to be a Scott. There were some family traditions and some family themes. There were certain things it meant to be a Newport, which was my mother's family - other family traditions. There are certain things it means to be God's children and thus heirs in Christ. And if those things mean anything, they mean something about us continuing to be a part of God's expression in the world, which then makes Christmas last an awful long time. Another sappy song that happily I haven't heard this year is, “Why can't every day be like Christmas?” Well, the answer we have from John, the answer we have from Paul, the answer we have from God, is that, as expressions of God's Incarnation in the world, if we're doing that right, maybe it can.

Wednesday, December 04, 2019

Striking a Balance

I was struck last week when I had these two articles on the Washington Post on the same day. The first, by physician James Hudson: “Our dangerous fear of pain”; and the second, by Amber Petrovish: “Some of us actually need painkillers. Can doctors ease up on us?”. As chaplain-types, we are, I think, aware (or we certainly should be) of the difficult balance. Our physician colleagues are caught between anxiety about over- or inappropriately prescribing and anxiety about leaving patients suffering. 

With that in mind, I would remind folks about General Convention resolution 2018-C037 “Call to Respond to Opioid Epidemic.”  The resolution explicitly speaks both to opioid addiction and to the need to adequately address real and chronic pain. It does spend more text on addressing addiction, but it is balanced in its intent.

It’s worth some time to read both opinion pieces, and then to review the Convention’s response. We need to be aware of the difficulty, and to be aware that the Church has spoken to it.