Wednesday, November 26, 2008

A false sense of abundance

If there is one thing we are good at here in the U.S. it is making ourselves feel like we have more than we really do. Some of it comes from a strong sense of national pride. This is the United States, since WW II we have been on top of the world, an economic powerhouse of growth and prosperity. Now we are possibly heading into a prolonged recession or a maybe a depression. Where we are in technical terms is less important than the mentality that is out there which is that this is the worst its been in 70 years. While on the one hand there is a lot of gloom in the economic forecast I struggle to feel that this can really be compared to 70 years ago. I was raised with stories from my grandparents about what it was like growing up around that time. The Great Depression created a perception of scarcity and conservation that we do not have today. As I was listening to MPR yesterday I heard someone commenting on one of the shows about the bailout package and how the government had given Citibank all this money and yet now they were dramatically raising their interest rates on credit cards. Their comment was that by raising the rates we were punishing the people who likely needed the money the most. Now I am opposed to predatory lending practices, in particular business that will do the loan until your next paycheck. I find their rates and practices to be exploitive. That being said I also think we need to find a way to make an adjustment here in the U.S. I think we make it too easy for people to simply accrue more debt. We as a culture do not think about what we can afford now, we think about what we can afford later. We also have a higher expectation of what we need to survive. Now, there are a number of people who are in very great need and I do not mean to lessen that. At the same time I see so many people with cell phones and other accessories that are struggling to stay ahead. We create this perception that we need all these things and in doing so only increase the amount we have to spend just to stay afloat. I like having a cell phone and as a pastor I could potentially argue I need it for my job, but I do not think I should hav a cell phone if I am struggling to pay the mortgage. A cell phone is not worth going into debt over, neither is my cable television, my high speed Internet, or many other luxuries I enjoy. This Thanksgiving I think we need to look at our abundance and be truly thankful for what we have but we also need to look at what we have an question whether we should really have it all. Is this perception of abundance worth the debt that we as a society are accruing to have it? I think if we stopped seeing credit cards as a solution we might have a better sense of our current abundance or lack thereof.

Monday, November 17, 2008

Straining the philosophical soup

So I just finish some musings for the Alternative Worship Experience service blog that I also work on. In it I try and examine, roughly the connections between our understandings of Light and Language, in particular as seen in Babel, John, and Pentecost, and the understandings of Light and Language as I remember them from Plato's analogy of the cave. I remember from the seminar I took on Plato in college that there was a school neo-Platonic thinkers that worked to try and integrate the ideas of Plato with Christian thought; building on the hintings of Plato that there was some greater force, some sense of some ultimate power or truth and attempting to connect Plato's sense of the ultimate to God. I also remember my professor at the time stating that he believed that this was not a correct interpretation of what Plato thought. I seem to recall agreeing with my professor at the time, that it was inappropriate to make Plato a monotheist based solely on his writings.

Now that being said, I attempted in my blog to strain the metaphor of Plato and to test it against the metaphor of the Word and the Light that John gives us. While clearly Plato was not a Christian I think a lot of his ideas have something to offer our Christian understanding of the world and even point at the possibility of similar truths. I guess the question I have is: can one take such philosophical writings out of context in such a way and use them to argue truths their original author would not have believed in? Or do we have an obligation as good scholars to only present them in their original context? If we never allow ourselves to stretch old ideas beyond their context how do we ever come up with new ideas and new understandings? And if we do allow such thoughts, what do we open the door up to? How does this effect our understanding of how we read Scripture? Can we stretch Scripture based on new understandings, or are we forced to try and take a strict interpretation that always seeks to root Scripture only in the intents of the original author and never to look at it afresh from our perspective. My fear in only allowing Scripture to say what the original author meant is that we limit Scriptures ability to speak powerfully and prophetically to our time and our place. However if we do allow Scripture to be stretched we open the door for intrepreations such as the one seen during the 1800's where the slavery enforced in Scripture was seen as analgous to the slavery of that time and place and so Scripture became a way of justifying on set of actions. There is an appreciable difference between straining the philosophical thoughts of Plato for whatever meaning we find in them today and straining Scripture looking for the same. No one really claims it is true because Plato said it was true. The truth of Plato comes in how much his ideas resonnate with our own understanding of the world. Scripture however we use to define the world and what is true. We place in it a reverance and value we do not usually subscribe to philsophers, even the really good ones. Scripute is meant to convict us and change us, even when we do not agree with it. Philosophers we do not agree with typically get discarded or at least resevered for intellectual debate, but they do not change the way we behave in the way we let Scripture change us. So there are differences, but still I come back to that question, how do we allow ourselves to re-read philosophers and incorporate their ideas with new ones and how do we allow ourselves to do the same thing with Scripture?

Monday, November 10, 2008

Musins on the Show Me State

One of the interesting events on the recent Presidential election is that for the first time in a while, if ever, Missouri has NOT voted for the winning candidate. As I was watching the returns last week and watching as the vote in Missouri got closer and closer, I wondered if they were once again going to pull it off and back the winner. I started to ponder whether it could be said that as Missouri goes, so goes the nation, or was it more that as the nation went, so went Missouri. Certainly, with almost every other state all ready called by the major networks, it seemed more like the second one, that Missouri was simply following the lead of the majority in moving towards Obama. While Missouri was given a lot of media and political attention in the weeks leading up to the election it was not seen to be as critical as Ohio, Florida, or Pennsylvania in determining the winner. Still Missouri has been a reliable bellwether for years of which way the winds were blowing, at least until now.

Thinking about Missouri and it status as either the leader or follower made me wonder where we in the church fall in all of this. While I don't think the church should try and determine the next president, I think maybe we should wonder whether we fall into the role of following culture or do we lead it. Do we in the church simply get caught holding our finger to the wind and trying to gauge where things are going, or do we use our potentially prophetic voice to call for change to lead people in a new direction.

There are times that we need to simply follow the flow of culture, because some of what the church has to do is be ready to provide support to our communities and to speak relevantly about things that matter to people in the community. At the same time I think there are times we need to also challenge the ways things are going, to challenge what is happening. I am reminded of the saying of Dom Helder Camara, "if I give food to the poor they call me a saint, if I ask why the poor have no food they call me a communist." I believe the church is called to be both saint and communist. We are called to simply the trends of culture and respond to the needs of people where they are at. We are also called to challenge the trends of the culture and look at how to change the direction society is going.

My final thought on all this is: if we really want to change society, we need to change ourselves. I think if we look at the financial crisis we are in it is easy to blame a society that supports greed and encourages personal gain at communial expense, but I think if we closer we will realize that many of the people who helped create the problem were Christians, and if we look at the church we will see the signs of greed and corruption internally as well. If we really want to change the world we need to change ourselves, then we can be a real leader, like the great state of Missouri once was, or maybe still is.

Monday, November 3, 2008

In conclusion, long terms for pastors are better for everyone.

The following is a classic example of why longer appointments for pastors are good for everyone.

I have had the benefit of fencing twice in the last two weeks. On the first occasion I was generally frustrated with how things were going. I was not hitting, I was not able execute the actions I wanted to in the way I expected to. It was not a very rewarding experience. The second time I was "on." I was scoring some very nice touches, I was generally in control of the bouts I fenced and left feeling very good about how everything went.

So what is the difference between these two different events. One argument could be that the failures and frustrations of the first session taught me enough and warmed me up enough to be successful in the second one. There is potentially some validity to this, but I think there is a better answer and I will explain.

On the second occasion I was using my "second string" epee, that is the epee I consider my primary backup. I was doing this because on the first occasion I broke my first choice for an epee. Now this epee has several things wrong with it. I do not like how the tang is bent, that is the way that the blade extends from the handle. A good bend for a tang is slightly to the left and slightly down if you are a right handed fencer. This helps the point angle slightly in on your opponents hand, something I appreciate with my fencing style. Secondly the blade is bent in a slight curve to the right, again away from the way I would like it to be pointing. Usually a blade is only bent down, following the natural flow of the metal. A bend to the side is a manufacturing defect and not easily correctable. Finally the blade is not very flexible, meaning that it does not lend it self to something called a flick shot, where a fencer causes the blade to bend slightly to arc over the guard of an opponents weapon to score a hit on their arm, or even better the top or outside of their hand. So to summarize all the technical details, the blade was far from ideal when it comes to my preferred style of fencing.

Despite all the defects I listed in this weapon, it is a great example of why longer appoints are so much better for pastors and churches. Here is why: while no Bishop would have naturally appointed this weapon to me, and myself, as the congregation would have been inclined to reject such an appointment were it made, it worked out really well for me because the blade did what it was designed to do and did it consistently, for the whole time I fenced with it. The first time I fenced I went through all three of my weapons. The first blade broke, my second blade, described above, lost it's tip, required for scoring, and needed to be fixed. This meant that over the course of five or six bouts I was probably fencing two bouts with each weapon. I was spending most of my time just figuring out what a weapon could do and before I knew it the bout was over. Just as I figured out the particulars of one weapon it would stop working or break and I would be on to the next one. What made me so successful on the second occasion was that while the blade did not lend itself to my primary fencing style, it was there, bout after bout and so I was able to learn what worked, and more importantly what did work as well for the weapon. Knowing what the blade could and could not do I was able to adjust what I did and together we found a style that worked for both of us, and success followed. In fact in the end I was even to coax a couple of touches out of the blade that I had not expected after my first bout.

So this is why we need longer terms for pastors ... because while initially somethings may not seem like a good match, time gives both sides a chance to adjust and that adjustment leads to success. All of this raises a really good question. How in the world does anyone understand anything without fencing analogies to explain things?