Thursday, February 05, 2009

Time to Roast Chicken Little-ism

Much needs to be done to right the US economy. Democrats and Republicans seem to agree on the need for stimulus, though not on the means for doing it. Unemployment is still too high. Solvent banks need to make loans. Corporate executives need to be reined in. Government money can't be doled out like penny candy. Unemployment insurance and Medicaid monies need to be available. That's all true.

But we also need to get over the panic that has afflicted the US economy and much of our political debate since last November 24, when I wrote here and here about the broader issues surrounding the Citigroup bailout. I stand by what I wrote then and offer it as my contribution to killing off Chicken Little-ism:

I have been chagrined by some of the psychology surrounding the current crisis, which has also seen the devaluation of stocks and mutual funds, on which many current and future retirees depend.

I have also been saddened to see more than 1.2-billion Americans lose their jobs.

Above all though, I think that this crisis presents the US economy with an enormous opportunity to retool itself, beginning with how we think about money, finances, and the economy. It has the potential of helping us to do so in ways that we might have found impossible to consider just last year. What chages are needed in our thinking?

First, we need to change our expectations about consumer spending. On the NBC Nightly Report with Lester Holt on Sunday, a reporter rattled off the percentage decreases of consumer spending on men’s and women’s clothing, major electronics items, and other merchandise. Over against spending in these categories during the first two weeks of November, 2007, spending went down about 20% for the same period this November. The information was given in foreboding tones.

But changes in consumer spending doesn’t seem horrible to me, even if we weren’t facing a recession. For decades now, economists have been warning Americans that Chinese and Japanese consumers are better at saving than we are. That has helped fuel China as a major insurer for US private and public spending, including US spending on the prosecution of the Iraq War. Over the long haul, national and economic security probably hinge on Americans exercising self-discipline over our spending and refusing to overuse credit. We already seem to be starting to exhibit these traits. If this recession gets us into the healthy habit of thriftiness, that would be a great thing for lots of reasons.

Second, we need to demonstrate less fear. In his 1933 Inaugural Address, new President Franklin Roosevelt noted that “the only thing we have to feat is fear itself.” The market is so dependent on emotion and for over a month now, the prevailing emotions have been those of fear and apprehension. In fact, I would say panic has prevailed.

But when I talk with bankers and businesspeople or when I go to the malls, the indications are that consumers are spending. They’re not doing so at the rate we would ordinarily expect and unemployment is, of course, unacceptably high. But we’re nowhere near Depression-era levels of 25% unemployment. Caution seems warranted under current circumstances. So does a willingness to let the incoming President and Congress experiment, employing a spaghetti method–tossing up all sorts of attempts to stimulate the economy, and seeing what sticks, not worrying about what doesn’t. And we need get over our fear.

In fact, the fears incited by our current economic failures should be seen as unique opportunities. In the history of the world, it’s those vanquished by economic or military experiences who bounce back stronger. Once failure has smacked us down, we’re open to finding new ways of doing things, no longer encumbered by a mindless faith in the old routines and orthodoxies.

The failures of Citigroup, other financial institutions, and other large corporations now mean that they know lots of things that don’t work. They’re free to innovate. The number one cause of failure, as these fat cow corporations have learned, is success. But the number one cause of success is failure and the mind-clearing openness to experimentation and risk that it fosters.

The Citigroup agreement appears to impose some rules on the bank, rules that would curb executive compensation and restructure the payback timetables for consumers currently in trouble with their Citigroup creditors.

That’s to the good, but I also harbor the hope that, as was true of my grandparents’ and parents’ generations in the face of the Great Depression, we will be chastened into exercising greater self-discipline.

But I also hope that the tide of new home construction, the building of behemoth structures erected in increasingly remote exurbs around our major cities, will come to an end in the United States.

I’d love to see the federal government impose outer circle boundaries around our major metropolitan areas. Within those circles, developers could put up new residential and commercial properties.

More importantly, the developers could also redevelop usable housing stock in our core city center areas and their first and second-ring suburban communities. Cheap credit has for a decade-and-a-half now, allowed people to buy McMansions in new suburbs where once there was arable farmland and thriving small communities. Even in a Third Wave world, no country would want to forgo also possessing robust, affordable, good-paying First and Second Wave economies.*

The added benefit of placing geographic restrictions on exurban sprawl is that it will help us to address our energy crisis, acting as a catalyst for what I would call the immediately needed “bridge technology” of cars and trucks that can take us shorter distances, while we await vehicles that will go farther and faster between cities.

Back in the 1970s, under Republican governor Tom McCall, Oregon imposed such a limit growth on Portland. There have been employment, environmental, and property value gains from this approach.

For the short-term, people a lot smarter than me believe in my grandfather’s maxim: Some large businesses may simply be too large for the federal government to allow them to fail.

But if we don’t use this crisis to change the way we spend, save, fuel our cars, and enhance the quality and diversities of our cities, we will have missed a great opportunity.

Wednesday, February 04, 2009

A Look at This Coming Sunday's Bible Lessons (February 8, 2009)

[Most weeks, I share a little background on the Bible lessons around which worship will be built the following Sunday at Saint Matthew Lutheran Church in Logan, Ohio, where I'm the pastor. Because we use the lessons appointed by the Revised Common Lectionary, I hope that more than just Saint Matthew folks will find the background helpful in getting ready for worship.]

Fifth Sunday after Epiphany
The Bible Lessons:
Isaiah 40:21-31
Psalm 147:1-11, 20c
1 Corinthians 9:16-23
Mark 1:29-39

Comments
Isaiah 40:21-31: Most contemporary scholars believe that Isaiah was written by one, two, or three different prophets, each at different points in ancient Israel's history. Chapter 40 comes at the end of the first chapter in the section associated with Deutero Isaiah or Second Isaiah.

It was written after Israel returned from exile, during the period chronicled in Ezra and Nehemiah, when the confidence of the people was faltering, along with their commitment to rebuilding Jerusalem or the temple.

Isaiah 40:1-11 recounted "the glorious procession back to Jerusalem." But, as we've been reminded in just the past few weeks, wonderful Inaugurations are followed by hard, sometimes daunting, work. In the face of adversity and even taunting opposition, the returned Judean exiles needed to be reminded that their God wasn't some puny regional deity. Yahweh (I AM) was the God of all creation Who, for His own mysterious purposes, chose Israel to be a light to the nations and, as it would develop, the national family from which the Savior of the world would come.

God's people were allowing themselves to panic and be intimidated by powerful people "Scarcely...planted, scarcely sown, scarcely [rooted]..." who must, by necessity, bend to the power and the will of God. This was the God Who had allowed His people to be exiled, Who sustained them while they were exiled, and Who brought them back. That God would help them now.

"Have you not known? Have you not heard? The Lord is the everlasting God, the Creator of the ends of the earth...He gives power to the faint, and strengthens the powerless..."

It's a good word for us today.

Psalm 147:1-11, 20c: This too, was obviously composed in the period of rebuilding Jerusalem and the temple. It too exhorts believers to claim their confidence in God and points to God's power and wisdom.

Of particular interest to me is v.10. "God is not impressed by the might of a horse, and has no pleasure in the speed of a runner."

In the ancient world, horses provided the greatest advantage to armies at war. Horses transported cavalries, facilitated the movement of supplies and messages, and provided needed muscle. Horses then, were symbols of military power, like ICBMs, tanks, or massive transport planes are today.

As symbols of military might, God's people also saw horses as symbols of their own enslavement. The Egyptians, after allowing Moses and the Hebrews to leave slavery in their land, chased after them with their cavalry. The Hebrews celebrated when, after parting and re-closing the opening in the Red Sea, Pharaoh's armies were destroyed: horses, riders, and chariots swallowed by the water. Later, marauding, horse-borne armies would conquer their land.

Horses were also a symbol of wealth and decadence: King Solomon, who had been blessed by God with wisdom, power, and wealth, owned many racehorses while he countenanced the splintering of Israel's loyalty to God through the worship of many deities.

Horses--and all that they symbolized--were undeniably powerful, the psalmist was saying. But they were no match for the power of the God Who long ago promised, "I am the Lord, your God."

"the runner": The foot race is probably the oldest of all sports. Fast runners--right up to Santonio Holmes--have always been honored. Runners symbolize human beings at the height of their power and health. But God isn't impressed by them.

God finds pleasure, instead, "in those who fear the Lord, in those who await God's steadfast love."

About both Isaiah 40:21-31 and Psalm 147:1-11, 20c: N.T. Wright points out the "exile and homecoming" are the great themes of the Old Testament. For their sin, Adam and Eve were exiled from Eden. This was to avoid their eating from the fruit of the tree of life which would, tragically, have allowed them to live in eternal separation from God and others. It would have meant eternal suffering. Through exile, God prepared them--and us--for restoration and return to God's kingdom.

The theme played out repeatedly in Israel's history. In the New Testament, First Peter asserts that this pattern continues. We are, Peter says, exiles and strangers living in a fallen world filled with haunting hints of the life we are meant to live, life with God. Jesus Christ makes it possible for us to experience homecoming with God.

1 Corinthians 9:16-23: In last week's lesson from 1 Corinthians, Paul talked about not using our Christian freedom as license and thereby weakening the faith of newer believers in Christ. Paul expands on that theme here, really.

Earlier, he underscored his authority as an apostle and preacher because he had encountered the risen Jesus. He claimed that he was fully entitled to financial support from the churches for his work. But Paul makes clear here that he has no intention of pushing for his rights. He will voluntarily cede his rights in order to remove any impediments to his ministry of proclaiming the gospel--the good news--of new life for all who follow Jesus Christ.

This seems like a good place to say a word about clergy compensation. I have never thought of the salary, benefits, and housing allowance package that I receive as a pastor as something that I earn. I've always seen them as an allowance. God has gifted me to be a pastor and the Church has called me to do it on a full-time basis. I didn't come from a wealthy background, so I couldn't afford to pastor full time without an allowance. That's what the Church provides for me.

This is also why I tell people not to give me any money for weddings or funerals. These are pastoral acts. I'm already receiving my allowance, I explain. (Of course, many people have ignored me over the years and given me an honorarium they're determined to give anyway. To people who insist on an honorarium, I will suggest that they give something to the church or a local charity.) Like Paul, I don't want money to get in between my relationship with people to whom and with whom I've been called to do ministry.

Paul says that he will become all things to all people in order to win some to Christ. In other words, he closely identifies with the people with whom he shares Christ. This doesn't mean that they adopted various communities' favorite sins. It means that he shared in their weaknesses, challenges, joys, and excitement in order to win the privilege of sharing Christ with them.

This is something we need to learn to do as Christians who interact each day with people who need Christ.

Mark 1:29-39: This passage really is a continuation of the narrative of last Sunday's Gospel lesson. It picks up where that passage left off: the Sabbath day in Capernaum at the beginning of Jesus' ministry.

vv.30-31: As the eldest woman in the house, Simon Peter's mother-in-law, enjoyed a status of preeminence. Her illness prevented her from performing the esteemed duties of matron of the house, including serving important visitors. As New Testament scholar and feminist Pheme Perkins points out, in restoring the woman's health, Jesus wasn't only making her physically well, he was also restoring her status of importance in the household. Perkins (cited here) writes:
Many women today react negatively to the picture of a woman getting up after a severe illness to serve male guests. That sentiment hardly seems appropriate to the complex gender and social roles involved in the household. Certainly, Peter's wife or a female servant may have prepared food. The privilege of showing hospitality to important guests falls to Peter's mother-in-law as a matter of honor, not servitude. We even exhibit similar behavior. When special guests are expected for dinner, no one gets near the kitchen without clearance form the person who has the privilege of preparing the food.
One other thing. In saying that the fever left her, Mark uses the verb apheken, a form of the verb aphiemi. It can be literally translated as release and in the New Testament is most commonly translated as forgive: In forgiveness, the forgiven is released from all debts to the one wronged. (The forgiver is also released from all biterness against the wrongdoer.) When we accept God's forgiveness, we're released from our bondage to sin and to death.

In consideration of the many places at which aphiemi is used in the New Testament, Brian Stoffregen writes this amazing paragraph:
The word seems to denote a drastic change from what was before to the present. It is a "letting go" of something in order to move on -- whether that is a person leaving or letting go of family or jobs; or sicknesses and sins leaving a person. It would seem that neither family, job, sickness, nor sins, are to control one's present life. They have been "left behind." I have begun to define "forgiveness," as "Not letting what happened in the past control my life in the present." It is leaving the past behind. It is letting go of past events, relationships, actions, etc., so that they no longer control life now. It is starting today fresh and new.
Jesus' healing of Simon's mother-in-law points to Jesus as the giver of fresh, new starts. When we seek forgiveness in Jesus' Name, we can be confident that we are forgiven. We need to learn from our sins, but in Christ, in the words of that old Billy Joel song, "all your past sins are since passed."

vv.32-33: In the preceding verses, Jesus had cast out demons and healed the sick. Now crowds similarly afflicted come to Him.

v.34: Why didn't Jesus allow the demons to speak? They would have, as the demon in last week's lesson did, proclaimed Jesus as the Messiah. By this early point in Mark's narrative, people were already in danger of following Jesus not because His miraculous signs pointed to Him as the Savior but simply for the signs themselves. Jesus didn't come to be a good luck charm. His miracles were meant to point to His identity and to underscore His authority to call people to repent and to believe in the good news.

Proclaiming this good--and eternity-changing--news was always more important to Jesus than taking away a physical or emotional ailment that would, at most, only last through this lifetime.

In Mark 2, Jesus will return to Capernaum, which seems to have been His launching point for a time. There, a group of men will lower a paralytic man down through the roof of Simon Peter's house in order to be healed by Jesus. But the first thing that Jesus says to the man isn't, "Be healed." Instead, Jesus forgives the man's sins. When this meets with a horrified response from the religious legalists, Jesus asks which they think is harder: to tell someone they're healed or to forgive sins? While that question is sinking in, Jesus says that in order to demonstrate that He has the authority to forgive sin, He will heal the man.

As much as we want all people to be healed, not all people will experience healing. In fact, as Pastor Mark Dahle points out in his interesting book on the subject of healing, everyone for whom we seek healing from God will eventually die. But Jesus' healing--and I know of many instances of healing that can only be explained by answer to prayers offered in Jesus' Name--is a sign of His power over life and death...and His power to give life to all who repent and believe in the good news.

Jesus' shutting up the demons, these fallen angels, from testifying about who He was--the Messiah, the Son of God--may not make sense to us. But as Hugh Anderson says:
His...way is inherently ambiguous. It does not compel everyone's recognition and assent, for the presence of God is hidden in it. It therefore always requires faith to be at risk and discipleship to be a costly venture.
v.35: Of course, the great take-away from this passage is that if Jesus, God in the flesh, needed to be in constant contact with God the Father in order to live each day, how much more do we need to be in touch with God?

vv.36-37: Hugh Anderson writes:
Since the Greek word for followed [katedioxen] here usually has the sense of 'pursuing in hostile fashion,' and that for searching [zetousin] occurs nine times in Mark in the sense of 'seeking someone out for wrong motives,' we have the first suggestion in [the Gospel of] Mark of the blindness of the disciples.
Just like the crowds, the disciples want Jesus to do party tricks, too. They have no sense that Jesus has come to deal with deeper issues than whether they're physically healthy, politically free, or economically advantaged. Jesus has come to deal with the sin in all of us that prevents us from enjoying pure, healthy, joyous relationships with God, with others, and with ourselves. For that kind of healing to come to us, we must acknowledge our sinfulness, our sins, and our need of Christ.

v.38: Jesus refuses to be held captive to the expectations of the crowd. He came to proclaim God's liberation from sin and death for all people. So, as good as it must have felt to be so wanted, Jesus told the disciples that they neede to hit the road, at least for a time.

v.39: In spite of the temptation in the accolades for His miracles, Jesus continues to do what He was called to do. He knows that the greatest cause of failure is success.

When we become enamored of the adulation of the crowd, we're at risk of moving in the wrong direction. Jesus' faithfulness will eventually earn Him a cross. The bitterly disappointed crowds will, in a short while, cry for His blood and the cowardly religious and secular authorities will gladly comply with their desire to kill the Messiah they find so threatening. In playing to the crowds, they unwittingly acquiesced in helping Jesus fulfill His mission of dying and rising to bring good news to a world in need of being made new.

Sunday, February 01, 2009

Bless This Mess

[This message was shared during worship with the people of Saint Matthew Lutheran Church in Logan, Ohio, this morning.]

Mark 1:21-28
There are three main things to which I think today’s Gospel lesson point us.

The first is the power of Jesus’ teaching. The telephone call came, as happens so often in crisis situations, in the middle of the night. This was in my first parish. “Pastor,” the person on the other end of the line said, “We had to bring Mike to the hospital. Could you come up?”

I wasn’t surprised. Mike’s life was a mess. Apparently, all of his issues--emotional, psychological, spiritual, and medical--had come to a crisis. When Mike revealed during his intake interview at the hospital that he’d recently had thoughts of suicide, state law mandated that he remain hospitalized, even against his will.

I was there when the doctor revealed this to Mike. Folks, if I live to be a hundred-and-twenty, I will never forget the venom that spewed from Mike’s mouth at that. He acted like a cornered animal. It wasn’t just what he said, it was how he said it. There was menace in his posture, as though at any moment, he might pounce on any one of us.

Mike was admitted to the hospital for treatment and I know that all the counseling that he received in subsequent weeks helped him. But what helped most was a little devotional booklet that a friend gave to him. Every day, Mike read the booklet and the Biblical passage on which it was based. The book became dog-eared and worn during his weeks in the hospital. I remember during many a visit glancing over at him and seeing him gently move his finder over the binding of the book, so important had its contents become to him. Like many people through the centuries, Mike had moved to a place of sufficient desperation to actually pay attention to God’s Word.

This relates to our Gospel lesson: The people in the synagogue in Capernaum, where Jesus was visiting and may have even lived for a time, were “astounded" by Jesus. The original New Testament Greek says literally that they “were blown out of their minds.” The reason for their reaction, our lesson says, is that Jesus taught with “authority.” That word in Greek is exousia, which can also be translated as power. There was power and authority in Jesus’ teaching.

New Testament scholars believe that the teaching that the synagogue crowd heard from Jesus was the same teaching Jesus shared with people at the very beginning of His ministry, teaching that was summarized in words appearing in last week’s Gospel lesson: “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news.”

That’s so simple. Where’s the Wow factor? What would cause the crowd to be “blown out of their minds”?

You know the answer. As we said last week, Jesus’ Word--the Word of God--has power. When Mike heard that Word and read it and thought about it, a transformation began to happen in his life. And I believe that every time that you and I encounter God’s Word--when we truly allow ourselves to pay attention to that Word--transformations can happen.

This brings up the second thing that I want to mention regarding today’s Gospel lesson: Jesus’ teaching can call out of our lives whatever prevents us from experiencing God’s wholeness, whatever keeps us from living life with God.

That’s what happened in the synagogue in Capernaum. In the middle of Jesus’ teaching there, a man filled with a demon, a spiritual agent of the devil, showed up, disrupting everything. Apparently referring to his demon buddies, the demon, speaking through the man he possessed, asked Jesus if He had come to get all of them. “I know who you, Jesus: the Holy One of God.”

Jesus was not about to let a demon teach people at worship in a synagogue about His identity as God in the flesh. That’s something all of us must come to by faith in the crucified and risen Jesus.

Besides, whenever the devil, the sin in the world, or our sinful selves talk about Jesus, the talk always has a spin designed to undermine our faith.

That’s why Jesus called out to the demon: “Be silent! Come out of him!” Jesus called the thing that was enslaving that man out, so that the man could be free.

And whatever it is that’s enslaving you—it may be a seemingly minor thing like a habit that prevents you from being the person God made you to be, Christ can do the same thing for you.

Young people, the Savior Who went to a cross and rose from the dead for you can give you a healthy self-esteem.

Middle age folks, caught in a rut, He can help you live with contentment and joy.

Older folks, dogged by a sense of your limitations, He can overcome your self-doubts and help you use your wisdom and experience for good.

Jesus and His Word have authority. Jesus and His Word can call the worst from out of us and set us free to be with Him now and forever. Here’s the third thing I want to point out from our Gospel lesson and it may be the most important thing: When Jesus works in our lives, our lives won’t always be easy. Martin Luther said that the believer in Jesus Christ is the Holy Spirit's workshop.

No matter how neat the carpenter, I’ve never seen a woodworking shop that didn’t get messy while the carpenter was making something. Wood shavings from the lathe and dust from the table saw are on the floor. As Jesus works on us, removing what separates us from God's goodness and forging and shaping our characters, things will get messy.

There are times when we don’t understand what God is doing in our lives. We resist and our faith falters.

There are moments when it’s easier to adopt the world’s ways, rather than God’s ways. We cave into selfishness.

When the chaos and confusion of our imperfect lives are submitted to the perfect love and order of Jesus Christ, the encounter can be messy. When Jesus called the demon out of the man at the Capernaum synagogue, it convulsed and cried and yelped. The evil in that man wouldn't give up without a fight!

Sinful habits and compulsions, just like all habits and compulsions, are hard to break. That’s because, as somebody has said, we form our habits and after a while, our habits form us. They get a grip on us. They wear ruts in our brains and lives.

The confrontation between Jesus’ word, which brings new life and freedom from old ways, and our sinful habits is not just explosive, but thoroughly, disturbingly unsettling and messy.

A man came to see me once. “I’m stealing from my company,” he told me, “and I know it’s wrong. But I can’t stop.” So far as I know, he never did stop. He had heard Jesus call out the evil into which he’d sunk, but he was unwilling to let it go. It would have been too messy to try.

A church member was visibly upset after worship one Sunday in my former parish. I thought that some tragedy had come his way. We went to a room where we could talk. “What’s wrong?” I asked. “I’m so angry with myself,” he explained. “God is so good to me. And yet I keep sinning.” He went on to explain that every week he hoped and prayed that when it came time for Confession and Absolution in the worship service, he wouldn’t be able to think of any ways in which he’d failed to love God and failed to love his neighbor as he loved himself. “I no more than receive forgiveness from one sin and seem to have it licked than I see the power of another one over me,” he said. I smiled and put my hand on this man’s shoulder. “In this life, the only time you’ll stop feeling the need to confess sin is when you’ve grown so far from God that you sin without regret. May you never get to that point!”

I was really expressing the hope that that man’s life would remain messy from God working in his life.

Pastor Rodney Stark tells a true story from his ministry: She had drifted along spiritually for a while, but came to a point where she felt a need for God. She began to attend church, not getting much out of it at first, when one Sunday, the pastor showed how Jesus and His Word could impact her life. It was as though he was speaking directly to her. Jesus always speaks to us through His Word, if we give Him the chance to do so.

Jesus' Word has authority. Jesus’ Word can call out of us everything that isn’t from God. And when we let it, Jesus’ Word can bring the messiness of positive change to our lives.

There is a disturbing untidiness that comes to our lives when Jesus confronts all that would otherwise separate us from God. May that messiness be a central element of your life every single day!

[The three take-away ideas for this text from Mark's Gospel, which dovetail with my own thinking, were identified in a wonderful sermon by Pastor Rodney Stark which I first read several years ago.]