Shuck and Jive

Monday, July 19, 2010

Vacation Time!

Off to Montana for a couple of weeks. My wife's li'l sis is gettin' hitched in Red Lodge. I am doing the hocus pocus for that.

Then I'll visit the family and watch the antelope play on the Montana plains...

Friday, July 16, 2010

Won't Somebody PLEASE Think of the Children? -- A Sermon

Won't Somebody PLEASE Think of the Children?!
John Shuck

First Presbyterian Church
Elizabethton, Tennessee

July 18, 2010

Mark 10:13-15
Matthew 19:13-14
Luke 18:15-17

And they would bring children to him so he could lay hands on them, but some followers scolded them. Then Jesus grew indignant when he saw this and said to them: “Let the children come up to me, don’t try to stop them. After all, God’s domain belongs to people like that. I swear to you, whoever doesn’t accept God’s imperial rule the way a child would, certainly won’t ever set foot in God’s domain!
Gospel of Jesus 2:6-8

In the television show the Simpsons, Helen Lovejoy is the wife of Rev. Lovejoy. She likes to gossip and moralize about the activities and the people of Springfield. Whenever the community gathers to face some issue no matter how big or how small, you can count on Mrs. Lovejoy to exclaim in a panic:

Won't Somebody PLEASE Think of the Children?!

"Thinking of the children" is on one hand a rhetorical device. It is an old ploy to appeal to emotion (usually fear). Some adults are opposed to some kind of reform and so they present children as a reason to be afraid this reform. As if just mentioning "the children" is an argument in itself.

Remember Anita Bryant--the beauty queen turned anti-gay activist? In 1977, Dade County Florida passed an ordinance to prohibit discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation. Anita Bryant led the opposition to the ordinance. Her homophobic enterprise was called "Save Our Children." The intent of her rhetoric was to stir up fear that somehow gay people would “recruit” the children.

Sarah Palin's internet advertisement for her new political action committee also appeals to the “children under attack” motif. Although the ad is vague on specifics, in fact non-existent regarding specifics, that she and her fan club are “mama grizzlies” is quite explicit. The message appears to be:
"Obama is in the White House. Won't somebody PLEASE think of the children?
Have no fear. Sarah "Mama Grizzly" Palin will think of the children.

When someone brings up an emotional and vague appeal to "the children" to make a point, it is wise to be skeptical. This appeal is likely a cipher for a number of irrational and ugly fears just under the surface of awareness. Throughout our history appeals to "the children" were covers for such fears such as homophobia, xenophobia, and racism to name a few.

We shouldn't use "the children" as a rhetorical device to score political points. As if I come to my views because I care about children whereas you do not.

Now all of that said, it is wise to think of the children. We should think about not just "our" children but all children. Not only present day children, but children yet to be born. According to the Great Binding Law, the Constitution of the Iroquois Nations, we find this ethic:
“In our every deliberation we must consider the impact of our decisions on the next seven generations.”
That is not easy. Nor does it seem to be done very often. Not to pick on politicians, but how many (rhetoric aside) actually think of the impact of their decisions beyond the next election? Not to pick on corporations, but how many (rhetoric aside) think of the impact of their decisions beyond the next quarterly statement?

It is a good question. How far ahead do we think?

The commitment to think of seven generations ahead is a reminder of the importance of sustainability. If we continue our way of living at the way we live today, will our descendants be able to sustain it? That is what is behind this seven generations thing. Is our way of life sustainable? Can we continue this indefinitely? What will be the results on our household if we continue the way we live into the future?

If the decisions we are making are not sustainable, then they are not good decisions. They are not decisions that think of "the children."

When we think of growth, such as growth in the economy, we are talking about using more and more energy. Not only do we consume more but we sink more in terms of waste on the other end. Energy and money are interconnected. There is no such thing as infinite growth in a finite system. Growth will stop. Growth is not sustainable. There is no such thing as sustainable growth.

This I learned from Albert Bartlett. Dr. Bartlett is a retired professor of physics. He taught at the University of Colorado. On Youtube you can watch an important lecture that he gave and continues to give. It is called, "Arithmetic, Population, and Energy."

Bartlett's famous quote is this:
"The greatest shortcoming of the human race is our inability to understand the exponential function."
Anyone whether she or he has a science background or not, will understand the exponential function and its importance after watching this lecture. The basic tenet of the exponential function is this:
Any steady rate of increase will over time eventually approach astronomical numbers.
A helpful formula to understand growth is to divide the % of growth over time into the number 70. That will give you its doubling time, the time in which an amount of a certain quantity doubles.

For example, let's say China's economy is growing at seven percent per year. That means it is increasing its energy consumption by seven percent per year. How big is that? If you take 7 into 70 you get a doubling time of ten years. At a seven percent growth rate per year, China's economy would double in ten years. If it continued that growth it would double again in another ten years.

Let's say China wanted to increase its oil consumption by 7% per year in order to grow its economy. If they use 8 million barrels per day, in ten years they will use 16 million per day. Ten years after that 32 million per day. Then by 2040, 64 million per day. That is not going to happen. There are all kinds of reasons to stop that growth from happening. The amount of oil available would be one reason.

Thinking seven generations ahead is actually something we can do mathematically. What will steady growth of a certain quantity look like seven generations from now? If we take an arbitrary number of 20 years as the length of a generation, we can think of seven generations as 140 years from now.

For instance, let's say the administration at ETSU wants to increase enrollment at the university by a rate of 3 and one-half percent per year. I am not saying they want to do that. But just for fun, let's say they did. 3 1/2 percent divided into 70 has a doubling time of 20. At a steady growth rate of what appears to be a small number, 3 1/2 percent, the amount of students at ETSU will double every 20 years.

What would the enrollment be in seven generations?

Let's think of the children.

Today 15,000 students
1--20 years from now (2030) -- 30,000
2--2050 --60,000
3--2070 --120,000
4--2090 --240,000
5--2110 -- 480,000
6--2130 -- 960,000
7--2150 --1,920,000 students at ETSU

Obviously, that isn't going to happen. The university would take over all of the Tri-Cities. In other words, a 3 1/2 percent growth rate is not sustainable. It isn't just that 3 1/2 is not sustainable, no steady rate of growth is sustainable. A smaller number simply means the doubling time is longer.

In a finite system, such as Earth, any steady rate of increase cannot sustain itself. This goes for population, energy consumption, the amount of fish in the sea, the amount of oil under the sea, the amount of coal in the mountains, fresh water, economic growth, everything.

Any time we see a percentage of growth in the news, divide that number into 70 and see what that doubling time will be. Then think of the children and think of what that quantity will be in seven generations.

Then ask, if it is not sustainable, is it just? If we can't keep it up for seven generations is it just to do it today? Who are we robbing in order to "grow?"

Amidst all the calls to grow and to stimulate the economy, we might step back and ask, "Is that the sustainable direction?" Is it perhaps our addiction to growth that is the problem? Some very wise people, such as Albert Bartlett, are saying not growth but a managed reduction is required. As we reach our limits, that should be more and more obvious.

I have to say, that is the first time that preaching on Jesus welcoming the children has led to a sermon on the exponential function.

I do think that in a certain way it fits. As the story goes, people were bringing children to Jesus and Jesus stopped what he was doing and he blessed them. His followers were perturbed. We can imagine them saying to one another, "We have got to move on. Jesus has important stuff to do. We have a movement to grow."

Jesus uses this event as a teaching moment. This is a teaching moment for the adults. He says, "Unless you become like children, you will not enter God’s domain."

What does it mean to become like a child? Maybe it has to do with recapturing a sense of wonder. Seeing things again for the first time. Trust, delight, living in the moment. Maybe Jesus was thinking of these or of other romanticized notions of childhood that we should emulate.

Or maybe Jesus was talking about the vulnerability of children and that children are dependent upon others for survival. Becoming like children means recognizing our dependence upon one another and upon Earth. Perhaps he was telling us that what we think of as unimportant is really most important.

Maybe the smallness of children is the lesson. Perhaps rather than becoming big and expansive, to participate in God’s domain of justice, peace, and sustainability, we need to become small, to allow space for others and for Earth’s creatures. The values of bigness and growth are reversed as we see the child.

Perhaps Jesus was reminding us to think of how our decisions impact the least of these, those who will pay the consequences for today’s actions.

In Douglas John Hall’s theology book, Thinking the Faith, he quotes from a novel, The Blue Mountains of China, by Rudy Weibe. It may give us insight to what Jesus was talking about:

Jesus says in his society there is a new way for [people] to live:
You show wisdom, by trusting people;
You handle leadership, by serving;
You handle offenders, by forgiving;
You handle money, by sharing;
You handle enemies, by loving;
And you handle violence, by suffering.
In fact you have a new attitude toward everything, toward everybody. Toward nature, toward the state in which you happen to live, toward women, toward slaves, toward all and every single thing. Because this is a Jesus society and you repent, not by feeling bad, but by thinking different.

I don't know what Jesus meant when he said we must become like a child. I don't know what he means by the phrase "God’s domain." I have guesses. But perhaps more important than my guesses is the invitation to think differently.

Jesus was inviting his audience, and as we enter the story, us, to think differently about what is valuable. He was inviting his audience to challenge conventional wisdom even when, perhaps especially when, this wisdom comes from powerful and influential people.

He was inviting us, each of us, to claim our role, to be informed and responsible about the decisions that are being made and to think differently.

At face value, perhaps we should take seriously what Helen Lovejoy of the Simpsons says:
Won’t Somebody PLEASE Think of the Children?!

The Cost of Discipleship

Here is a sad piece of news. Last Fall I posted on the marriage of PCUSA pastor Laurie McNeill to Lisa Gollihue. At the time the congregation seemed pretty cool with it. Now Rev. McNeill is out of work. The church said it was unrelated to her marriage. She thinks differently. Here is the story.

McNeill noted she was voted out after she announced her same-sex marriage.

"It was very painful," McNeill, 49, told The Times.

"I loved being a minister. It’s been an honor and a privilege. And I do feel called to be a pastor," noted McNeill. "And I knew that once I told, there was a possibility that my local congregation would ask me to leave."

Wednesday, July 14, 2010

Meaning of Life, Part 60

And so we find ourselves in the chapter of history I would entitle: Isolation and Efficiency, and How They Came Around to Bite Us in the Backside. Because it’s looking that way. We’re a world at war, ravaged by disagreements, a bizarrely globalized people in which the extravagant excesses of one culture wash up as famine or flood on the shores of another. Even the architecture of our planet is collapsing under the weight of our efficient productivity. Our climate, our oceans, migratory paths, things we believed were independent of human affairs. Twenty years ago, climate scientists first told Congress that unlimited carbon emissions were building toward a disastrous instability. Congress said, we need to think about that. About ten years later, nations of the world wrote the Kyoto Protocol, a set of legally binding controls on our carbon emissions. The US said, we still need to think about it. Now we can watch as glaciers disappear, the lights of biodiversity go out, the oceans reverse their ancient orders. A few degrees looked so small on the thermometer. We are so good at measuring things and declaring them under control. How could our weather turn murderous, pummel our coasts and push new diseases like denge fever onto our doorsteps? It’s an emergency on a scale we’ve never known. We’ve responded by following the rules we know: Efficiency, Isolation. We can’t slow down our productivity and consumption, that’s unthinkable. Can’t we just go home and put a really big lock on the door?

Not this time. Our paradigm has met its match. The world will save itself, don’t get me wrong. The term “fossil fuels” is not a metaphor or a simile. In the geological sense, it’s over. The internal combustion engine is so 20th Century. Now we can either shift away from a carbon-based economy, or find another place to live. Imagine it: we raised you on a lie. Everything you plug in, turn on or drive, the out-of-season foods you eat, the music in your ears. We gave you this world and promised you could keep it running on: a fossil substance. Dinosaur slime, and it’s running out. The geologists only disagree on how much is left, and the climate scientists are now saying they’re sorry but that’s not even the point. We won’t get time to use it all. To stabilize the floods and firestorms, we’ll have to reduce our carbon emissions by 80 percent, within a decade.

Heaven help us get our minds around that. We’re still stuck on a strategy of bait-and-switch: Okay, we’ll keep the cars but run them on ethanol made from corn! But… we use petroleum to grow the corn. Even if you like the idea of robbing the food bank to fill up the tank, there is a math problem: it takes nearly a gallon of fossil fuel to render an equivalent gallon of corn gas. By some accounts, it takes more....

....This could be your key to a new order: you don’t need so much stuff to fill your life, when you have people in it. You don’t need jet fuel to get food from a farmer’s market. You could invent a new kind of Success that includes children’s poetry, butterfly migrations, butterfly kisses, the Grand Canyon, eternity. If somebody says “Your money or your life,” you could say: Life. And mean it. You’ll see things collapse in your time, the big houses, the empires of glass. The new green things that sprout up through the wreck –- those will be yours.

--Barbara Kingsolver, 2008 Commencement Address at Duke University, photo by Annie Griffiths.

Tuesday, July 13, 2010

Karaoke Calvin

In our neighborhood? Join us for spaghetti and karaoke this Sunday!

My spawn is working for the Boone Watershed Partnership this summer and has organized a fundraiser for them. She thought Presbyterians doing karaoke was just a natural. Of course, you don't have to be Presbyterian, and you don't have to do karaoke, but you will have a great time and help Katy raise funds and awareness for the Boone Watershed Partnership.

Boone Watershed Partnership is doing good work keeping the streams clean in East Tennessee. RSVP if you like on the Facebook page. Here is the blurb:

Recent events in the Gulf of Mexico have showed us the impact that we have on our water. But, we can make a difference right now in our own community! Join us for good food and high quality entertainment! Admission is 5$ per person, 4$ per student, and 18$ per family.

Six p.m. Sunday July 18th at First Presbyterian Church, Elizabethton.

Featuring Tri-Cities DJ Michael Hawkins!

Open Letter to the 219th General Assembly

The General Assembly punted regarding marriage. That non-decision (which affirms the status quo) leaves the church and its clergy in a spot especially in those places where same-gender couples can get marriage licenses.

Presbyterian minister, Brian Merritt, who lives and works in D.C. where marriage is legal for same-gender couples eloquently addresses the issue with this open letter to the 219th General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church:

Dear Brothers and Sisters in Christ,

In the last year, the District of Columbia’s City Council and Congress approved same gender marriages as legal for the District. Many of us applauded the hard work of many who testified, agitated, and bent history’s arc toward justice. It was due to the strong work of the city council, human rights advocates, LGBTQ organizations, and a committed core of ministers called The D.C. Clergy United. I am deeply proud to have played a small part in the work to make a positive move in this essential civil rights issue of my generation.

When I found a haven within the Reformed family almost twenty years ago, it was as a battered ex-fundamentalist/evangelical who saw love and affirmation within its walls. Many of my gay and lesbian friends had already abandoned the church because it was a place where they felt excluded. Yet, I felt mentored in my beliefs and deeply supported by friends in the PC(USA). They helped restore me to a faith that had been so deeply damaged and broken by legalistic moralists. I grieve when I think of those church leaders who related that this was a denomination where my conscience could be free and that there was a place for me. I am glad that they have passed on and do not have to endure the pain that some of us face these days. Unfortunately, our pews and clergy have become more aged, so when we discuss the approval of same gender marriage in the Presbyterian Church (USA), our church has resorted to becoming that same legalistic church of old.

On the issue of same gender marriage, I stand with the teaching of Pauline Christology when he claims to the uncircumcised gentiles of Galatia and Rome “against such things there is no law.” I do not believe that our 219th General Assembly, or anyone for that matter, has the authority to bind the conscience on matters that the Spirit of God is directing portions of her church. I therefore cannot follow the definition of marriage set out by our current Book of Order. Through prayer, careful study of Scripture and discernment, I believe that this definition is unnecessarily restrictive to our members whom we claim have full membership rights within our churches.

I believe the inaction of the General Assembly, the abdication for fear of losing some of our most conservative elements, and the culture of disciplining only progressive ministers unfairly constitutes a betrayal of the “true liberty of conscience” spoken of in the Westminster Confession. The complicity of our governing bodies in unjust actions against progressive and liberal ministers who have scruples and endeavor to hold fast to their Presbyterian system is the true definition of injustice. All this while those who cry and wail “apostasy” at our church get what they want and stay uncomfortably as living schisms. Absolute and blind obedience to this type of governing is of destruction to some of our liberties in Christ. True love casts out fear, so let us not govern our church within it.

Since the General Assembly refuses to give any concrete guidance on issues of marriage equality, those of us who work in locations where it is legally permitted to marry those of the same gender are left in a quandary. The idea of claiming scruples set out by the Peace, Unity and Purity report has not stemmed Evangelicals’ desires to convict people of conscience in church court, and it appears that you have abdicated your responsibility as a governing body to give direction to church courts. Rather than allowing us to discuss specific proposals in the democratic forum of our presbyteries you have given us a much more amorphous two years of discussion, thought, and prayer, which is odious and stifling of the democratic principles our church was founded upon.

What you have left liberals and progressives is the terrible choice of lying or hiding their actions of conscience, binding their conscience and losing their liberty in Christ, or to face the emotionally, spiritually and psychologically draining possibility that evangelicals will use church courts to sell their ideology in the name of “purity.”

For too long my denomination has been more than willing to cede their view as “people of the middle way” to the threats of Biblical literalists. It has slowly eroded the character of what it means to be a historic Presbyterian in the United States and insults an expanding history of the Reformed tradition. Some of us refuse to agree out of scruples with something that binds our conscience against the things that the Spirit of God is calling us. It is time for us to be a “big tent” denomination in allowing all of our ministers to practice their full gifts, discernment and direction in which the Spirit is calling them, and not merely excluding a few so that the majority “may” feel comfortable.
Well said, well said. Thank you, Brian. I heartily concur, agree, and stand with you.

Sunday, July 11, 2010

Meaning of Life, Part 59

Divine am I inside and out,
and I make holy whatever I
touch or am touch’d from,
The scent of these arm-pits aroma finer than prayer,

This head more than churches, bibles, and all the creeds….

I think I could turn and live with the animals,
they are so
placid and self-contain’d,
I stand and look at them long and long.

They do not sweat and whine about their condition,

They do not lie awake in the dark and weep for their sins,

They do not make me sick discussing their duty to God,

Not one is dissatisfied, not one is demented
with the
mania of owning things,
Not one kneels to another,
not to his kind that lived
thousands of years ago,
Not one is respectable or unhappy over the whole earth….

One of that centripetal and centrifugal gang I turn and talk
like a man leaving charges before a journey.

Down-hearted doubters dull and excluded,

Frivolous, sullen, moping, angry, affected, dishearten’d, atheistical,

I know every one of you, I know the sea of torment,
doubt, despair and unbelief.
How the flukes splash!
How they contort rapid as lightning,
with spasms and
spouts of blood!
Be at peace bloody flukes of doubters and sullen mopers,

I take my place among you as much as among any,

The past is the push of you, me, all, precisely the same,

And what is yet untried and afterward is for you, me,
precisely the same.
I do not know what is untried and afterward,
But I know it will in its turn prove sufficient, and cannot

I have said that the soul is not more than the body,
And I have said that the body is not more than the soul,

And nothing, not God, is greater to one that one’s self is,

And whoever walks a furlong without sympathy walks
his own funeral drest in his shroud,
And I or you pocketless of a dime
may purchase the pick
of the earth,
And to glance with an eye or show a bean in its pod

confounds the learning of all times,

And there is no trade or employment but the young man

following it may become a hero,
And there is no object so soft but it
makes a hub for
wheel’d universe,
And I say to any man or woman,
Let your soul stand cool
and composed before a million universes….

Why should I wish to see God better than this day?

I see something of God each hour of the twenty-four,
each moment then, In the faces of men and women I see God,
and in my own
face in the glass,
I find letters from God dropt in the street,
and every one
is sign’d by God’s name,
And I leave them where they are,
for I know that wheresoe’er
I go,
Others will punctually come for ever and ever.

--Walt Whitman, "Song of Myself" in Leaves of Grass, (New York: Random House, 1993), pp. 66, 75,100-101, 110-111.

Citizens of the Kingdom--A Sermon

Citizens of the Kingdom
John Shuck

First Presbyterian Church
Elizabethton, Tennessee

Walt Whitman, Selections from "Song of Myself"
Luke 6:20-21
Matthew 5:3-4, 6
Thomas 54; 69:2

Congratulations, you poor!
God’s domain belongs to you.
Congratulations, you hungry!
You will have a feast.
Congratulations, you who weep now!
You will laugh.
--Scholars' Version

When the Jesus Seminar translated the gospels they used the word “congratulations” in place of the more traditional word, "blessed” when Jesus pronounced his so-called Beattitudes.

“Blessed” sounds churchy. Blessed is a nice word, though. I on occasion close a note with “Blessings” or “Blessed Be.” There is a bit of slight formality to it. We say a blessing for a wedding or for confirmation or at a dinner party. At the end of the worship service today, I will offer a benediction or a blessing. Something sacred is being conveyed.

Yet in this context, if we are not careful, “Blessed are you poor,” could offer a hint of pity to it, almost condescension. “Bless your heart.” The world sucks and you have a miserable life, but “bless you.”

The Good News translation uses the word “happy.” That sounds a little chatty. Happy are the poor. It is hard to say that the poor, hungry, and mourning are happy. Put on a happy face!

It is not easy to find the correct word because the word you use depends upon what you think the text means as a whole as well as the meanings of the original word in Greek and the connotations in modern English.

I don’t think “Congratulations!” does it either. It sounds a little too clever actually. It is as though scholars want to use this word to teach us something. That is, of course, the case. The Jesus Seminar wanted to convey the sense of surprise of favor on the unsuspecting.

The word in Greek is makarios and my Greek English lexicon defines it as “blessed, fortunate, happy.” It is used in the sense for a “privileged recipient of divine favor.”
A privileged recipient of divine favor.
That is what needs to be captured.
You, my friend: poor, hungry, in mourning, are a privileged recipient of divine favor. You are royalty. You are a rock star.
Or as Walt Whitman said,
“Divine I am inside and out!...

And I or you pocketless of a dime may purchase the pick
of the earth,”
You are divine inside and out.

The reason that is so scandalous and well, crazy, is that in the default world of the normality of civilization, poverty, hunger, and mourning are signs of failure not of divine blessing. When we read Deuteronomy through Kings, one of the main voices of the Hebrew scriptures, we find that wealth is a sign of God’s favor and blessing. Poverty, hunger, and suffering are signs of God’s neglect or punishment.

Those we consider fortunate are so because they have a fortune. Fortune personified as a deity has smiled upon them and given them great riches.

So when Jesus says, presumably to those around him that they are fortunate, favored of God, and blessed, it doesn’t make much sense in the default world. In the default world of the normalcy of civilization, those who have the stuff are considered favored by God. God bless America.

Those who don’t have the stuff are considered to be, well…probably sinners. They need to get right with God and then God will bless them. In the default world, if you are poor, hungry, and depressed, you probably deserve it.

And that is a great theology for those who have stuff. Civilization channels stuff from the many to the few. The king, considered God’s viceroy, gets the most stuff because God has blessed him. This is royal theology. In Jesus’ time this would have been the theology of Rome, Roman Imperial theology. It would have been the theology of David and Solomon in Old Testament times.
Every civilization has a theology or philosophy that justifies and rationalizes who gets the stuff.
God bless America. City on the hill. A Christian nation. A new Jerusalem. How do we justify consuming 20 million barrels of oil every day when we only produce 8 million barrels per day? We deserve it. We are blessed. We are entitled. We are accustomed.

Richard Heinberg who writes a lot about issues of energy, population, and stuff said that anthropologists have identified 15,000 human cultures but only 25 civilizations. Civilizations are energy hoarders. To survive they must constantly grow and take from outside of themselves until they eventually implode.

When humans moved from hunter-gatherer to agriculture, civilization came into being. With the growing of crops comes surpluses and those who control them. You eventually have a wealthy elite controlling the many.

You need priests and bureaucrats and economists to justify that inequality as normal. The “invisible hand” (is that not a theological phrase?) of the economy will guide us we are told. In Imperial theology the wealthy are the blessed. The mythical vehicle for getting blessed is to “work hard” and get right with God. This means that those who are poor or hungry did not work hard enough or they are sinners.

When Jesus goes around pronouncing blessedness on the poor, the hungry, and the suffering, he is messing up the system. It is heresy. He is reversing imperial theology. He is putting on its head the way the world works.

The danger is that the poor, the hungry, and the suffering will believe him. If they do believe him, if they do realize that they are divine inside and out, that they are blessed of God, that there is nothing wrong with them, that in fact God is on their side, you got problems.

People begin to question the “normalcy of civilization.” People might actually organize. Then you have to make sure you have constructed enough crosses and publicly execute radicals like Jesus who spout heretical nonsense that God blesses the poor.

Then what you do is you don’t badmouth Jesus. Instead you turn him into a god. You take what he said and add a few prepositional phrases here and there. So instead of “Blessed are you poor,” Matthew has Jesus say, “Blessed are you poor in spirit.” And you can convince folks that Jesus did love the poor and promised them a spot in heaven especially if they are humble and don’t get above their raisin’.

Imperial theology and inequities of the normalcy of civilization go hand in hand and they still do today.

Every now and then, people do discover the radical Jesus who has been buried under centuries of dogma, superstition, and greed. Sometimes even the clergy get it.

Roman Catholic archbishop, Helder Camara of Brazil, understood the radical teachings of Jesus and he understood the power and dominance of imperial theology. This is his famous quote:
“"When I give food to the poor, they call me a saint. When I ask why the poor have no food, they call me a Communist."
When Jesus said:
Congratulations, you poor!
God’s domain belongs to you.
Congratulations, you hungry!
You will have a feast.
Congratulations, you who weep now!
You will laugh.
I have to think that he meant it. That he meant it literally. That he meant it in this world.

He was offering to those who often didn’t hear it because they didn’t think they deserved to hear it, that they are valued.

“Divine I am inside and out!” Shouts Walt Whitman.

Yes. It is the via positiva. It is the way of recognizing our own royalty. We are all kings and queens and not because of anything we have or don’t have, but because we are.

When for whatever reason, people are devalued and beaten down for so long, it takes an act of divinity to turn it around. That is what we need to be to one another. We need to be for one another that divine promise.

This goes for everyone caught in the web of inequality and consumerism.

When I was serving my first church in New York state I was asked to serve on the mental health board. I remember when they had changed the name of the people they were serving from clients to consumers. Rather than patient, or client, a consumer was more dignified, so went the rationale.

I thought it odd that the best term we could come up with to describe a human being's dignity was consumer. Consumers? Is that what we are? Is that who we are?

No, we are royalty, divine inside and out.

We need to pronounce to ourselves and to one another, the way of awe and wonder, beauty, and royalty. We need to be to and for one another and for all earthlings, divine messengers.

This is a poem from Mary Oliver that I think comments on these sayings of Jesus:


My work is loving the world.
Here the sunflowers, there the hummingbird —
equal seekers of sweetness.
Here the quickening yeast; there the blue plums.
Here the clam deep in the speckled sand.

Are my boots old? Is my coat torn?
Am I no longer young, and still not half-perfect? Let me
keep my mind on what matters,
which is my work,

which is mostly standing still and learning to be
The phoebe, the delphinium.
The sheep in the pasture, and the pasture.
Which is mostly rejoicing, since all ingredients are here,

which is gratitude, to be given a mind and a heart
and these body-clothes,
a mouth with which to give shouts of joy
to the moth and the wren, to the sleepy dug-up clam,
telling them all, over and over, how it is
that we live forever.

How important it is to know that we are royalty as we are. That we don’t have to fit into some prescribed stereotyped plastic mold. That we don’t have to wait to be congratulated until we achieve some goal that our society sets for us as normal.

Divine you are, inside and out.
You are beloved.
You are a blessing.

Saturday, July 10, 2010

Petroleum Man

A little over four years ago I watched the documentary film, End of Suburbia. Through it I learned about Peak Oil. I watched it several times including once with members of my congregation. I watched all the extra clips and interviews. One morning at about three I woke up sobbing. I had been hit with a sledge hammer of grief and fear. All of my foundations were shaken. My beliefs and dreams were pulled out from under me. I was in a deep funk of depression for months. I went to a counselor who helped me with some grief issues about changes in my personal life. He didn't appreciate my concern, though. I was grieving the collapse of civilization and he (like virtually every other person in America) was either unaware of that abyss or unwilling to look into it.
I started this blog to talk about it. I kept looking for a solution. I also wanted to find something within my religious tradition to speak to this. What does it mean to follow Christ into the abyss of collapse? That might be a Christian way of putting it. Even though I know that no one wants to hear it, and folks think I am little nuts (a jeremiad) for bringing it up, I now and again make posts about Peak Oil, global warming, the folly of growth, and the demise of Petroleum Man.

Petroleum Man
is a phrase I learned from Michael Ruppert. It refers to that period of human existence that began about 150 years ago and has reached its apex. Petroleum Man is fossil-fuel-powered humanity that allowed our population to increase from just over one billion to nearly seven billion. That energy source that has fueled Petroleum Man's dominance over Earth has peaked. We have begun to unravel. Petroleum Man has begun his descent.

It is scary shit.

It is no use arguing with me about it. I am just a country preacher. If you are ready to face it, here are some sites. Argue with them. Here is a nice definition of Peak Oil by Colin Campbell.

Only now, four years later, am I finally coming to a sense of purpose about this. I am not going to get a shotgun and some seeds and move to the Bob Marshall Wilderness in Montana. I have no idea or advice to give regarding how to grow your own beets or how to live "off the grid." However, I hope those who do know those things will see their role as our teachers.

I don't put any faith or hope in any elected official or political party or in "progressive" or "green" politics. Those are illusions caused by denial. We cannot nor should not keep an unsustainable economic system going whether "green" or not. That said, I love my progressive and green friends!

I have no idea how this collapse will unfold or what life will be like on the other side. I am a country parson. That is what I do. That is what I will be. As such my role as Carolyn Baker writes is to be present in this collapse. This is time for us to participate in discovering our meaning. Like Jeremiah who in the throes of his nation's collapse in 590 BCE "buys a field" in the hope of a new life long after his personal demise, we must live with a vision for an Earth community that few if any alive today will witness.
I am grateful to have found Carolyn Baker's book, Sacred Demise: Walking the Spiritual Path of Industrial Civilization's Collapse. She pulls no punches. She invites us to experience fully the via negativa, the way of letting go and being present with loss. She writes:
When we allow ourselves to grieve the innumerable losses which civilization has wrought, our bodies and psyches are freed to move through the grief to a place of acceptance and re-investment....We accept that there are no guarantees, and as with any terminal illness, we have the opportunity to look fully into the face of our own mortality and beyond. Only then can we wisely re-invest in living our lives, regardless of outcome, which profoundly facilitates responding to collapse with grounded, prudent preparation. pp. 34-5
People may wonder, if civilization is collapsing, why I care if the Presbyterian Church passes a new G-6.0106b?! That is part of my own personal purpose. We are still living on this side of the transition even as we are aware of it, and however hesitatingly, preparing for it. My vision of an Earth community will be one in which all are equal. Maybe it is superstition on my part, but I think that any work for equality and dignity is never ultimately lost. I think of it as one seed that may take root on the other side.

I find myself also appreciating the
via positiva. How amazing it is that I am conscious at this point in history. What an incredible time to be alive! 13.7 billion years of cosmic history has led to this point right now. I am, through no will of my own, "graced" to be here. Who can know what serendipitous emergence may happen now.

This past week I witnessed my denomination's general assembly. With the magic of Petroleum Man's technology, I conversed with people across the country instantaneously. I found myself alternately amused, exasperated, and connected with this quirky group that includes quirky people like me.
I have to say, on one hand, faced with the scope of the collapse of global industrialized civilization, the PCUSA didn't have much to offer.

However, on another hand, it did and it will. Whatever emerges as we are present with collapse will be shaped by our shared story and our values. Kindness, compassion, our mythos of death and resurrection, sacrifice, courage, shared tears, passion for justice, dignity, truth, and joy will be summoned as they are needed. We will have a role and a purpose to play. I believe we are being shaped now for this role.

Carolyn Baker reminds us that the only way to stay engaged and to be present to life and to one another is to find a purpose. She writes

collapse is the next step in our evolution, transitioning us to the fullness of our humanity. p. 6.

Wow. And...

Unless one comprehends the intention of initiation, it can only feel like torture, injustice, scarcity, terror, and loss, and therefore, the natural tendency in such circumstances is to blame and lash out against one's persecutors. On the other hand, to hold a perspective of collapse as a spiritual initiation does not necessarily alleviate suffering, but it does temper the severity of it with a sense of meaning and purpose. p. 26
We are being "initiated" into a new humanity. Here is an interview with her about her book. I recommend it and her book for help in exploring the spirituality of collapse.

Two for Three Ain't Bad But Still Oppressive

There was a bit of excitement at the Presbyterian General Assembly yesterday. Members of Soulforce participated in a demonstration during the proceedings. They held signs and sang a few tunes and were arrested for trespassing.

(Soulforce demonstration at GA. Photo by Erin Dunigan. See more photos here.)

I wish I had been there. I have been watching the proceedings on livestream and tweeting along with other members of the Peanut Gallery Advisory Delegation (those twittering with the #ga219 hashtag). But it is hard to get a feel for the mood when you are not physically present.

Last night, there was twitter talk about this demonstration and I picked up on some energy of LGBT activists who
didn't appreciate the action by Soulforce. I felt a little funny about it myself. I used the analogy of an uninvited neighbor interfering and taking sides in a family spat.

There was some question whether or not Soulforce and the other advocacy groups who are within the church (TAMFS, More Light Presbyterians, Covenant Network) were on the same page. Yet I was challenged by others who thought Soulforce did a good thing. After a night's sleep and more reflection, I now have more appreciation for the demonstration.

If the PCUSA is a "family" we are an abusive, dysfunctional one. This family has treated its own LGBT family members like crap for a long, long time. Maybe it has been going on so long that it takes intervention from someone outside the family for us to realize how we are perceived from the outside.

Of course, the PCUSA is not a family. It is a religious corporation. It is an institution. It is an oppressive institution. The PCUSA participates in and contributes to spiritual violence against LGBT people through our policies and our inaction. Obviously, there are many who have been devoted for decades to justice and equality. I mean no slight whatsoever on individuals and groups who have been working and sacrificing for equality within the church and doing so from their own particular stance of conscience and strategy.

Nevertheless, as a whole, the PCUSA is oppressive. The effects of this oppression, this spiritual violence, go beyond our denomination. The General Assembly silenced Committee twelve and did not even hear the recommendations regarding marriage equality. We can talk about that in terms of Presbyterian family dynamics, procedures, and whatever. Fine. But Soulforce reminded us that this silencing shows our true colors as a denomination. We need to be reminded of that. Sometimes it does take a group from the outside, like Soulforce, to show us and to shame us.

Some of us have been at this for a while and so we tend to know all the players and the arguments and the strategy and we tend to think along those lines. We don't want to anger the opposition unduly. They are after all, family. We are happy when we get small victories. We need to celebrate them, claim them, and work from them. We should never forget, however, that these victories also remind us of what we do not have. There is no reason, none, that we shouldn't as a denomination embrace full equality now.

In today's Johnson City Press, an Associated Press report reads,

Delegates to the Presbyterian church’s convention in Minneapolis voted Thursday for a more liberal policy on gay clergy but decided not to redefine marriage in their church constitution to include same-sex couples. Approval of both measures could have made the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) one of the most gay-friendly major Christian churches in the U.S.
"Could have" means "didn't."

As Soulforce reminds us, "Justice delayed is justice denied." More Light Presbyterians reported on the demonstration and arrest. Other news reports are here and video here. Also a report from Presbyterian Outlook, and GLAAD.

In terms of what happened at GA:
  1. The GA passed a revised G-6.0106b that will now go to the presbyteries. Get your game on!
  2. The GA approved directing the Board of Pensions to Same-Gender spouses and Domestic Partners. No ratification is needed by the presbyteries.
  3. The GA did not approve any changes to the definition of marriage or make any statement regarding clergy who officiate at weddings in states where same-gender marriage is legal.
Two for three.

Friday, July 09, 2010

Meaning of Life, Part 58

As I pondered "meaning" not only as synonymous with "outcome" but as more intimately connected with that dimension of life which I choose to call the sacred, I was taken on yet another journey. This would not be primarily a journey of analyzing the extent of polar ice cap melting, how much oil or water are left on the planet, how weather is affected by global warming, or how quickly I can move off the power grid and become totally self-sufficient. Instead, I would be grappling day to day, in fact, moment to moment, with the pivotal question...which is, "Who do I want to be in the face of collapse?" As a result, this book is not written as a manual of "how to survive collapse" or "how to prevent collapse" but rather, how to be present with collapse--how to perceive it as a phenomenon in which I am being both required and invited to participate for a specific purpose, or perhaps many specific purposes.

Collapse is not an event for which we are headed in some near or distant future. It has already begun, and we are well into it. As I state repeatedly in this book, I do not know how collapse will continue to play out, nor do I know its final consequences for life on earth or for the planet itself. What I am certain of, however, is that it will entail more loss than anyone reading these words--or the person writing them,can begin to imagine. This unfathomable loss will manifest a the loss of life, livelihoods, health, homes, marriages, families, food, clothing, shelter, towns, neighborhoods, communities, transportation, mobility, infrastructure, sanity, loved ones, possessions, and our very identities as the human beings we now are. It is likely to be the most devastating holocaust in recorded history, and it will be the end of the world as any of us has known it. But for me, that is not the end of the story; this book is an attempt to suggest what is beyond collapse and what every person reading it may wish to consider being and doing, as collapse unfolds, in order to plant and nurture the seeds of a new paradigm for the earth community. pp. xxiii-xxiv

--Carolyn Baker, Sacred Demise: Walking The Spiritual Path of Industrial Civilization's Collapse

IPMN Responds to Assembly's Approval of Middle East Study Committee Report

The Middle East Peace Report was setting up to be one of the most bitterly divided issues at General Assembly. As it turned out, there was much conversation and compromise and a reworked report was approved unanimously by the committee and approved by 82% of the commissioners.

Here is a press release from the Israel/Palestine Mission Network:

Unprecedented Agreement at 219th GA from Previously Divided Voices

A week ago, it looked as if the Presbyterian Church (USA) was going to enact a version of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict within its own body, so divided were we on all sides. For some of us, the Middle East Study Committee’s report was a long-awaited recognition of the suffering of the Palestinian people, particularly our Christian brothers and sisters, and a stirring call to action and solidarity. For others of us, the report seemed indifferent to Israeli concerns for a secure homeland and the Church’s ongoing relationship with the Jewish community. Coming into the Assembly, some of us were lined up to push the report through; others of us were determined to defeat it.

Today, we still have disagreements on items in the report, on methods we should pursue, on arguments we should make. But today, by God’s grace, we have discovered that together, we may actually be more faithful and effective in seeking peace with justice for both Palestinians and Israelis than separately. To that end, we stand together in support of the report as amended by the Middle East Issues Committee as witness to a new way of approaching this intractable problem and, indeed, a new way of being the Church.

We have learned that we do not have to choose between our commitments. We have learned that we can risk trusting people with whom we were afraid to engage. We have learned that addressing the conflict in the Middle East cannot be a question of winners and losers. We must model how the conflict itself will be resolved: if someone loses, everyone loses. Beyond any expectation, we find ourselves discovering a new model of ministry together, a model committed to seeking, hearing, and responding to the fullness of narratives and commitments with the Palestinian and Israeli peoples, Jews, Christians and Muslims.

Through Isaiah, God says, “See, I am doing a new thing! Now it springs forth; do you not perceive it? I am making a way in the desert and rivers in the wilderness.” Let us all give thanks for this new thing that God is doing and commit ourselves anew to work together for peace with justice.

Carol Hylkema, Moderator, Israel/Palestine Mission Network
Ron Shive, Chair, Middle East Study Committee
Bill Harter, Co-Convener, Presbyterians for Middle East Peace
Katharine Henderson, President, Auburn Theological Seminary
Read John Harris' comments on the work of this committee here and here.

Meaning of Life, Part 57

Wherever the lies about gay and lesbian people come from, those lies are accepted almost universally these days by clergy and laity alike. From their pulpits and lecterns, through their radio and television programs, their books, magazines, and tracts and their avalanche of direct mail, the hateful rhetoric trickles down into local homes and churches with devastating results.

Misunderstood, rejected, beaten, and even discarded, gay children commit suicide or end up as runaways on the mean streets of our cities. Unless they stay safely in the closet, gay and lesbian adults risk losing their jobs, their apartments, their families, and their children. Now, thanks to precinct-by-precinct, antigay hate campaigns by the religious right, in the cities, counties, and states of this nation, legislation is in place or pending to take away even our most basic civil and human rights. Only the courts, God bless them, are keeping hatred at bay. But on a typical day, gays and lesbians who dare to speak the name are harassed and hunted at home, at work, at school, at play, and in the military. Hate crimes against us are increasing at a frightening rate. We can’t even find sanctuary in our churches….

….To Jerry Falwell, Pat Robertson, and my other old clients on the religious right whose antigay rhetoric is killing us, and to Billy Graham and my other old friends whose silence helps but not all that much, I say this. I will not hate you, for Jesus said, “Love your enemies.’ I will not plot revenge against you, for Jesus said, ‘Do good to those who despitefully use you and persecute you for my name’s sake.’ And I will not stoop to using your techniques: half-truths, hyperbole, and lies, for Jesus said, ‘The truth will set you free.’

But this, too, I promise. I will not remain silent any longer. The religious right is wrong: wrong about the Bible, wrong about Jesus, wrong about God, wrong about the church, wrong about the family, and seriously wrong about gay and lesbian people. On this Lesbian/Gay Pride Sunday, I pledge myself to do my best to prove you wrong with all the courage, wisdom, and love I can muster….

….When we act in faith, there is enough light in this world to conquer the darkness. As we journey together, let that light so shine in us that the darkness will be driven away and this long, dark night will end forever.

--Mel White, Stranger At The Gate, pp. 254-5, 268-9, 287

Thursday, July 08, 2010

Good News and Bad News

Good News: The General Assembly approved sending a revision of G-6.0106b to the presbyteries. 53% to 46%.

Bad News: The General Assembly punted on addressing the issue of marriage or of clergy being allowed to perform at same-gender weddings in states where same-gender marriages are legal. 51% to 49%.

I grudgingly have to credit a parliamentary move by the opposition to catch the tired commissioners off guard. After the assembly approved both the majority and minority reports of the marriage committee, a commissioner moved that the rest of the reports of the committee be answered simply by accepting the report of the marriage committee. The YAADs weren't tired. They voted no on that nonsense 70-30, but it was past bedtime for the rest of our graying church. They voted to tuck it in early and fight it out again in two years.

In other words, the assembly did not even hear the other actions of the committee. Crazy stuff.

It will be interesting to see what happens tomorrow and if the recommendations from the committee to the assembly can be revisited.

Presbyterians and Peak Oil

The General Assembly will debate on the floor of plenary ordination standards and marriage today. Ordination at two p.m. (3 pm Eastern) and marriage at 7:30 (8:30 Eastern). You can watch the action on the GA webpage and join the Peanut Gallery Advisory Delegates on Twitter (#ga219).

I hope that this General Assembly will say yes to ending discrimination against gay and lesbian people and yes to approving marriage for gay and lesbian people. It is way past time.

Maybe then we can deal with other important issues such as the collapse of global civilization.
This afternoon and evening the assembly will act on reports from the two committees dealing with issues of social justice and ecological justice. That is a start.

I am going to post more on this but I am seriously wondering if we will have even have a General Assembly in two years.

My Thursday group just watched an interview with
Richard Heinberg, senior fellow of the Post Carbon Institute and author of
The Party's Over, Peak Everything, Powerdown, and Blackout.

He is one of the foremost educators regarding Peak Oil.
Are enough Americans facing reality?

Here is an excellent lecture by Richard Heinberg on Peak Oil. A good investment of an hour of your time:

Part 1
Part 2
Part 3
Part 4
Part 5
Part 6

I have to say, it is discouraging that the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) does not address Peak Oil. If they have and I missed it, please let me know.

There are bright lights, however. Former moderator, Rick Ufford-Chase, gets the importance of
waking up:

Elder Rick Ufford-Chase, Moderator of the 214th General Assembly (2004), said care for the earth is no longer an issue on the fringe, but is now “legitimately the beginning of a movement.”

The signs are that the fringe “has moved to the center,” he said. “God’s spirit is at work and the wave is beginning to crest....”

....He said 20 years from now, the concerns of Presbyterians for Earth Care and other like groups will prove to be the most critical issues of the church.
These issues are most critical now whether we realize it or not.

Wednesday, July 07, 2010

The Big Show Starts Today

The plenary session begins today for the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.)

It has been quite an assembly so far. The commissioners as a whole will act on the recommendations of the committees and you can watch the action live (like C-Span) on the
GA webpage.

It is actually rather addictive. What is especially fun is following Twitter (and adding your own tweets). You feel like you are a part of history. Use the hashtag

Speaking of history, in terms of equality, this General Assembly has stepped up on behalf of equality for LGBT people.

The entire GA has to approve the committee's actions, and then, of course, a majority of the presbyteries will need to approve. First hurdles first.

Committee 12 approved resolutions changing the definition of marriage from a
man and a woman to two people in all relevant documents and approved permission for clergy to conduct religious ceremonies for same-gender couples who can get a civil marriage license.

Committee 6 approved a rewrite of G-6.0106b removing the discriminatory language.

Other issues:

Committee 11

Committee 13:
Committee 14:
  • "Renew the call of previous General Assemblies to all corporations doing business in the region to confine their business activity solely to peaceful pursuits, and refrain from allowing their products or services to support or facilitate violent acts by Israelis or Palestinians against innocent civilians, construction and maintenance of settlements or Israeli-only roads in East Jerusalem and the West Bank, the Israeli military occupation of Palestinian territory, and construction of the Separation Barrier as it extends beyond the 1967 “Green Line” into Palestinian territories."
  • Approved report from Middle East Study Committee, "Breaking Down the Walls" with amendments. John Harris reported on this committee and offered a hopeful statement: "When the committee acted unanimously I found myself thinking that if this committee, which seemed so divided and contentious Sunday and early Monday could reach a unanimous decision, perhaps there is hope the Israelis and Palestinians can someday do the same."
Committee 16:
  • Approved adding Belhar Confession to our Book of Confessions. This is a confession of the church in South Africa as it resisted Apartheid.
Committee 18:
Enjoy the show!