Saturday, November 14, 2009

Are We Worth It?

Last Wednesday, 11 November, I attended the local Veteran's Day celebration at the high school. It was stirring! The choirs from grade school to high school performed new melodic patriotic arrangements. There were youth doing a flag routine similar to flag wavers at half time of a football game. The high school band performed well. The colors were presented and retired in a precise manner. Veterans of each service branch were asked to stand and be recognized. The names of those who had died the past year were read aloud with a red rose placed on a chair draped in black in their honor. The local representatives for Boys and Girls State spoke of patriotism and government. The speaker was the local Presbyterian pastor who is married to a former Army Ranger. We wll sang the "Star Spangled Banner" and placed our hands over our hearts as we pledged allegiance to the flag. Yes, I actively participated. The event was timely, well done, and respectful of the occasion.

That afternoon I officiated at the funeral of a former US Army vet. At the gravesite the local American Legion Post gave the 24 gun salute with real M-1 Garrands, and taps were provided electronically by a wonderful commander who placed the trumpet to his lips and pressed a button which activated a mechanism the shape of a trumpet mute which sounded a perfect "Taps", all digitally pure. The commander then presented an American flag to the family "On behalf of the President of the United States and a grateful nation". The empty cartridges were given to a family member to be distributed amongst the family. All respectfully done, with a solemn dignity.

What struck me was the physical appearance of nearly all of the veterans. All were average looking guys, mostly overweight, most tired in appearance. No John Wayne types here. Yet, they were all appreciative of the honor of the day. There was a pride of service, and the community was glad to say "Thank you", which they have been doing for over 25 years.

My brother served in the USAF for 28 years, becoming a Lt. Colonel. My uncle served in the US Navy during WWII. My cousin was shot down by the Russians off the coast of Vladivostok in 1952 because the RB-50 he was a crew member on was supposedly violating Soviet air space. We never heard from him again although there were reports he was prisoner in a Soviet gulag for years following. He is remembered in an empty grave and a granite headstone.

I have no trouble saying war is counter to the will of God. Nor do I doubt that Jesus would be an active pacifist. I have said many times that we were not created to kill each other. I would say that Constantine was the worst thing that happened to the Christian church, although I have no doubt someone else would have come along (and they did) who would have twisted the cross of Jesus into a national cross of iron. I also believe that a Christian can serve in the military.

Likewise, I am well aware of the cost of service. I have heard too many stories to buy into the glories of war. Indeed, I am coming to believe that what is happening within our nation is the natural outcome of being obsessed with the curse of empire. Soldiers returning home with emotional, physical, and moral scars that have torn out a chunk of their humanity, leading many to live on the streets, abuse their family members, assault strangers, or put a gun to their heads and.... Meanwhile the private contractors get rich, the arms dealers make a profit, weapons makers hawk their tools of death to the highest bidder, we send soldiers off to foreign lands to die for oil and hunt for an elusive Osama, and to fight, be maimed, and die for a corrupt government. And meanwhile our nation is broke, health care for all is being scuttled by the for profit insurance oligarchy and pay-offs to our elected leaders, banks are not lending, Wall Street is living off tax payer dollars, unemployment is growing, Obama is trying, and Sarah Palin is laying the groundwork for running for president in 2012.

This scenario leads me to the following conclusions: 1) Thank God for Jesus! It is a comfort knowing that His grace does not depend upon us making the correct decisions or knowing how to live together peacefully; 2) Thank God for Jesus! His call to discipleship and witness through the Sermon on the Mount remind us of purposeful living and what we are created to be; 3) Thank God for Jesus! In Christ is Spirit, and the energetic freedom to transform the home, neighborhood, nation and world, not as we ought but as we are able; 4) Thank God for Jesus! It is Jesus who can remake broken lives, and release us from a past that shatters love; 5) Thank God for Jesus! Our actions will be judged daily and at the end of time. We will be held accountable for our refusal to reflect the Image of God. We will be asked why we neglected justice and bastardized peace in the name of greed and national pride.

I think of the veterans. Most would say they served to keep us free. I am grateful for their service and sacrifice. The question I have is: Are we worth it? Or, are they just paying the price for our national folly?


Sunday, November 1, 2009

Ratchetting Up!

I have recently begun serving as Lead Interim Minister at a large congregation in rural Minnesota. The people and leadership I have met are truly wonderful servants of Jesus. Their hearts are large with love, their concrete acts of compassion are numerous, and they are willing to do more. Furthermore, the organization, design, and care of the building are the best I have seen in a congregation. This is a testimony to the high level of responsibility within the people. A major fire over two years ago allowed them to rethink the building design and overall architectural configuration. The challenge before the congregation now is how to use this facility and considerable generosity to move ahead with new ideas for ministry/mission. The church is a blessing to this rural community and is loaded with professional and city leaders.

Does this sound familiar? How many of us belong to similar congregations, filled with good folks with a loving sense of Jesus and generous hearts, supporting compassion efforts? These actions need to be celebrated and encouraged. And built upon.

The building efforts seem to be in two directions: 1) Explore the community areas of need and design response strategies; 2) Begin teaching about the difference between charity and justice.

My efforts at addressing the above two points are beginning to focus on the following efforts:
1) Sponsoring open houses in the parsonage called "Firesides" (because there is a wonderful fireplace in the living room), to include singing, eating, drinking (coffee, no alcohol), prayer, a hang loose feeling, and a book study on Shane Claiborn's Irresistible Revolution. Great book! It is his story of his movement from the establishment church to his present vocation of being part of the "Simple Way" alternative church community. This turn away from the boredom of the institutional church to this alternative, counter-cultural expression is the story of his radicalism. He is not anti-institution, but more "let's do more"; 2) Work with the Church in Society Board to look beyond the walls of the congregation; 3) To invite community leaders to address the congregation about community realities. To me, the ultimate challenge is to encourage the mainline congregations to "do more" given the resources at their disposal. It seems to me that many congregations are not challenged enough to reach higher, to elevate their thinking and concretize more action. Indeed, it may well be that we "lefties" bail too soon on our established congregations, and not spend enough time nurturing the people to move beyond the status quo. Yes, there are risks, like being asked to leave, or just being politely "shunned". And there are limits to the rejection that each of us can endure. But I cannot help but feel it is worth a shot to try, and to keep on trying. And if we are beaten down, we have each other! And Jesus!

Although I have great criticism of the Far Right Christian "Crazies" and their congregations, I admire their passion for addressing life and political issues with an uncommon fervor, albeit narrow sighted and often prejudicial and bigoted. The challenge for us folks, and the reason for the Colorado Confession, was to challenge the mainline church to "ratchet up" its social justice and peace ministries, armed with a more thoughtful Biblical understanding and healthier personnas. I think our congregations are up to being challenged to a higher level of faithfulness. I read a comment by Cornell West: "We Christians have taken the blood of Jesus at the foot of the cross and changed it into kool aid". It is irresponsible to simply allow our congregations to retreat into courageless comfort. The People of God are worth our sacrifice to encourage greater encounter with justice and peace issues. We cannot bail. Our congregations need us.