Thursday, September 23, 2010

What shall we tell the children? (Sunday Reflections for September 26, 2010)

When I was a child, I spoke like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child; when I became an adult, I put an end to childish ways. (1 Corinthians 13)

Once again I am about to begin a new year of teaching confirmation. I have been doing this for a long time—almost 30 years if you count my seminary internship. It’s a bit frightening to realize some of my first students could now have children of their own in confirmation class (if they’re still in the church).

For as long as I have been in the ministry, confirmation has been an unsolvable mystery. The attitude of most clergy I know was revealed in a candid moment at the time the new ELCA was electing its first synod bishops. Upon hearing of his election, one about-to-be bishop blurted out, “I don’t have to teach confirmation anymore!” I lost count long ago of how many confirmation programs Augsburg Fortress or its predecessors have offered. It seems there is a new one almost every year. Then there are those from independent publishers, plus the churches or pastors who make up their own (I’m now basically in this category).

I think what makes confirmation so problematic for pastors is that it forces us to confront the most difficult puzzles of the church and of Christianity, ones we would often rather avoid. If they are honest, I would guess every pastor would admit to thinking at least once, and possibly every year, “What the hell are we doing?” It’s not enough that we’re dealing with one of the most difficult times of life: junior high and early adolescence. We’re also trying to answer, for these theologically innocent young people, all the questions the church can no longer answer for itself.

Historically, the primary resource for Lutheran confirmation preparation has been Martin Luther’s Small Catechism (1529). Luther wrote it, he says in the book’s preface, in horrified reaction to the theological ignorance he found while visiting small town and rural parishes in Germany. Thus, it was intended for use by adults, as much as for older children.

The Small Catechism (and yes there is a Large Catechism, read mostly by theological over-achievers who usually are or become pastors) provides a simple explanation of the basic elements of Christianity: the Ten Commandments, Apostles’ Creed, Lord’s Prayer, and the sacraments of baptism and communion. It is a classic and, for Lutherans, the book has become an icon in itself.

In some ways this was the high watermark of traditional Christianity, for it essentially has been all downhill from there. It wasn’t long before all the things Luther sought to make clear with his little guidebook were being questioned for their meaning, accuracy or value. After nearly 500 years the contents of Luther’s Small Catechism and the confirmation preparation efforts it inspired are creaking and stumbling to near collapse. For that reason, publishers crank out one new program after another (“Now Online!”), trying to keep the old machine going just a little longer.

Like the Small Catechism, confirmation preparation has primarily been about conveying ideas and content—people, events, beliefs, rules, vocabulary, memorization, etc. In the past, the primary motivation for young people to cram this stuff into their little heads has been fear of the thundering wrath of a Herr Pastor and/or one’s own parents. The days of such motivation are, of course, long gone. As a result, the content of confirmation has changed to . . . what?

It seems to be all over the map. Learning this content isn’t as important anymore because . . . well, because the content isn’t as important anymore. The simple reality is that much of what Luther was so sure Christians needed to know we just aren’t sure about. Here we again face the yawning gap between our world and Luther’s and the Bible’s, between ancient times and modernity.

Consider this “simple” question: Where is God? Ancient people knew and Luther knew. God was in heaven and heaven was “up there.” There are even ancient and medieval maps that show where heaven is. Now: Your answer? Uh huh, that’s what I thought. Why do we have trouble believing in heaven? Because we have no place to put it. “Up there” has no objective meaning anymore. There is no up or down in the universe; there isn’t even a beginning or end. So today God is “in our hearts,” or “all around us,” or “everywhere,” or—fill in the blank.

Now I can work with all that, and some of those ideas are even in the Bible, but they’re not the mainstream. So we have to be honest and admit we’re not really talking about our ancestors’ Christianity anymore. We’re moving on, and that’s okay. We need to because the world certainly has moved on. In doing so, however, we’re leaving things behind, not unlike when we grow up and leave home. And as the saying says, once you’ve left you can never really go back.

Our world is in flux, and that includes Christianity and religion generally. We’re now in a mode of exploration and experimentation. To do that effectively, I think it’s important we know where we are coming from. For that reason, teaching the Christian tradition is important because it has profoundly shaped us and the world around us. In doing so, however, we have to be honest with ourselves and with our kids that this was the world of our ancestors but it isn’t ours anymore.

In education today, teaching content isn’t nearly as important as it once was. We have more content at our fingertips than we know what to do with. Answers to more questions than we can even imagine are seconds away via Google and Wikipedia. No, the challenge is learning what to do with all that information: how to find it, sort it, evaluate it, judge it, and synthesize it.

I think something like that is what we should be doing with our kids in the church. The goal is no longer to teach them “The Truth.” First, we’re not sure what that is or means. Second, even if we had it, it’s not what they need. Why not? Because truth is not something handed to us on a silver platter. It doesn’t arrive in a box labeled, “Contents: The Truth.” In fact, when something does show up like that, alarm bells should go off because it almost certainly is a fraud.

In the past, young people were taught lots of practical survival skills: how to hunt, fish, plant, cook, sew, build, and so on. Religion, however, was pretty much handed to them ready-made. Today I think the reverse is true. Most of the “stuff” we need to live is made for us, but our religious beliefs and practices are what we need to learn how to develop and construct. Some techniques are better than others and some materials are better than others. There are good sources for these things and there are hucksters peddling crap and we need to learn how to distinguish between them.

If we can convey to our young people the basics of the Christian tradition, something about the world’s other historic religious traditions, an understanding and appreciation of the great questions of life, an ability to sort through and judge possible answers to those questions, and—most importantly—an appreciation of what a gift life is and what a joy and responsibility it is to be a part of that life—If we can provide them some basic tools to start down that path, then I think we will have done them a great service. We will have helped them become truly good persons—and that’s what it’s about, isn’t it?

Now, how am I actually going to do that starting next Sunday? Well, that’s another question.

Friday, September 17, 2010

The rich you will always have with you (Sunday Reflections for September 19, 2010)

Hear this, you that trample on the needy, and bring to ruin the poor of the land…. The LORD has sworn by the pride of Jacob: Surely I will never forget any of their deeds. (Amos 8)

In last week’s Reflections column I wrote: "Too easily we are drawn to an irrational problem with a simplistic solution, rather than confront the real problem whose solution may be protracted and complicated." I don’t think there is any doubt that solving the problems our country faces today will be “protracted and complicated,” but that isn’t something any of us want to hear.

Suppose you have a newly diagnosed health problem. Your doctor says you need to exercise, and change your diet, and stop bad habits, and puts you on daily medication—for the rest of your life. Faced with such a challenge, you inevitably ask, “Doc, isn’t there any other way?” already knowing the answer.

But imagine if she said, “Why, yes there is! Here, take this pill once a month and you’ll be fine. It’s something I just invented in my laboratory. I know it will work. And you won’t have to change your lifestyle at all.” Hopefully you would have the sense to leave quickly and find a new doctor.

When our life is on the line, we tend to be pretty sober in our thinking. When it comes to almost anything else, however, we can surprise ourselves how easily we fall for the magic pill or snake oil sales pitch. All that tells us, though, is how badly we want such solutions to work—not that they will.

This week politicians and the media were all a twitter about the supposed Tea Party primary victories. On Election Day, I heard an interview with a self-identified Tea Partier. “We want to return our country to what it used to be,” is how he explained his politics. And I thought, “Where’s the magic pill salesman? We have a customer.”

Mr Peabody and Sherman
This person did not explain what point in the past he wished to return to, or whether he had found Mr Peabody’s WABAK machine (i.e. “way back” for those not conversant with Rocky and Bullwinkle) to accomplish this feat. In any case, over the years the promise of returning to some mythical past is one of the most popular political smokescreens. It kept the Confederacy alive in people’s fantasies for decades after Appomattox (some would say it’s still alive) and Hitler road its magic carpet to electoral victory (though it had much less value on the battlefield).

But the past is past. There’s no going back; we can only go forward (regardless of what theoretical physics might say). The question is whether we want to have a say in our destination, and how we get there, or whether we just want to go along for the ride.

In the nearly five centuries of the modern world, the direction of history has been for increasing numbers of people to have growing amounts of freedom and responsibility for determining their own destinies. This is what the Reformation, Renaissance and Enlightenment were all about, as well as every political revolution since.

Delacroix "Liberty Leading the People" 1830
That freedom, however, was not something just laying around waiting to be picked up. Freedom always needs to be won, taken, carved out, secured, guaranteed in laws and regulations. The reason is that throughout history, minorities always accumulate power which allows them to use and abuse the majority. These oppressive groups have included royalty, nobility, religious priesthoods, landed gentry, and ethnic minorities.

In more recent years, the most powerful minority in most developed countries have been capitalists: the small minority of the population that owns or controls most of the land, businesses, and money. The notion of getting rid of this group has largely been abandoned. Some say full economic equality could never be achieved (see George Orwell’s Animal Farm, where all are equal but some—inevitably—are more equal than others) and others say it wouldn’t be a good idea in any case. As a recent book concludes, the rich are necessary.

Inevitable or necessary, however, doesn’t mean always good or honorable. We must remember the lessons learned by our ancestors in the struggle for freedom: the powerful, whoever they are, always want to become more powerful. The expansion and preservation of freedom has always meant legislated restraints on society’s empowered minorities.

The past thirty years has seen a steady increase in the proportion of wealth and income controlled by the richest Americans. Numerically this imbalance in the control of society’s wealth is the highest it has been since 1928. This week it was announced that the portion of the population living below the poverty line is the highest in 15 years (and many economists believe if the number was calculated more accurately it would be even greater).

Banksters testify before Congress
 In the past, the poor and weak knew full well who was taking advantage of them. They worked for them, or paid taxes to them, or literally saw them steal what was theirs. The complexity of the modern economy makes this much more difficult, even if it allows for tremendous economic growth. That complexity can be used to benefit those most involved with it and give them an unfair advantage. As a result, one of the primary functions of democratic government has become the creation and enforcement of financial regulation and setting broad economic policy.

In recent years this government role has come under attack and been legislatively curtailed. Now it’s true, of course, that government functions can always be improved and need to be changed as society changes. Yet it is simply a fact that the steady reduction of government regulation of the economy in the past thirty years has been paralleled by the steady growth of social economic imbalance. Bluntly, the rich have been getting richer and the poor—as well as nearly everyone else—have been getting poorer.

The consequences of this are far reaching and potentially disastrous. As I said, economic inequality can’t be eliminated but in a democracy it does need to be held within certain bounds. If allowed to grow too large, people lose a sense ownership or value in society. Cooperation and commitment to common goals wane. Social bonds begin to fray. People lose hope because they are not being adequately compensated for their labor. The system seems unfair. The cards are stacked against them.

Bangkok shopping mall
Complicating this even more is the fact that we are now part of a global economy. Indeed, the rise in economic inequality probably was spurred by the economically powerful trying to protect themselves from the consequences of this change. America’s overwhelming economic predominance after World War II was an anomaly and couldn’t last forever. China, India and countless other nations wouldn’t remain poverty stricken indefinitely. The planet simply cannot sustain everyone living the way we have grown accustomed to the past fifty years.

Adjusting to this new world is something everyone must share in, however. The response of the rich—nearly in a panic—to grab all they can while they can is immoral, unnecessary, and could well end up destroying what they are trying to preserve. We must all rediscover the stake we have in the “common-wealth.” It’s time for our democracy to re-assert its most basic function: to restrain the powerful few from taking advantage of the weak and powerless. While our economics have become more complicated, such basic biblical ethics have not.

Friday, September 10, 2010

Have no fear (Sunday Reflections for September 12, 2010)

There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear. (1 John 4)

Certainly one of the most famous lines from a presidential inaugural address is from FDR’s first in 1933: “The only thing we have to fear is fear itself.” If it is an overstatement, it isn’t one by very much. As one scans history or the events of our own lives, fear appears again and again as the culprit in many of our worst judgments and disastrously impulsive acts.

In recent years, science has been making us aware that many of our primitive instincts are ill-suited to modern life. Reactive behaviors which saved our pre-historic ancestors’ lives, and were programmed into our DNA, now can work against us. Often they short-circuit our ability to pause and reflect on events or environments that seem to threaten us. In the wild there was often no time to think, as seconds could be the difference between a narrow escape or ending up as some other creature’s lunch. Fear saved us, triggering a rush of adrenaline to power our heart and legs as we literally ran for our lives.

Such a response can still be appropriate—and life saving—but now in the modern world threats are often more subtle and the best response to them less obvious. Nonetheless, the old fight-or-flight mechanisms still function. We still get that adrenaline rush and can barely resist the urge to do something, whether it makes sense or not, whether it might not, in fact, make the situation worse rather than better.

Roosevelt’s inauguration occurred 3-1/2 years after the infamous October 1929 stock market crash. After an initial skid, the economy had seemed to be recovering. Then in 1932 the bottom dropped out: economic activity slumped, unemployment soared, banks failed, savings disappeared. During this time there were many voices seeking to exploit people’s fears. There’s a reason that economic crises have often been called “panics.” These voices called for drastic action, saying that the existing order had failed and something completely new had to be tried.

In many places around the world, such voices were heeded. In Italy and Germany, fascist parties muscled aside fledgling democracies and indeed soon had industry producing and people working again. The Soviet Union seemed to have escaped the global downturn altogether. Years later, these achievements were shown to have been unsustainable (in the case of fascism) or illusory (in the case of Stalinism) but at the time they were alluring alternatives.

It’s understandable then that much of Roosevelt’s speech in that early spring of 1933 sought to rebuild confidence in America’s democratic institutions. He needed to, for many saw them as hopelessly broken and beyond repair. People were afraid and demanded action. What FDR needed to prove was that the existing system could rise to the occasion and right the badly listing ship of state.

One of the primary tactics of the voices of fear has been to find someone to simplistically blame for the nation’s troubles. From the Bible, such people have come to be called “scapegoats”—one hapless victim made to take responsibility for the community’s ills. If only we get rid of “them,” then our problems will be solved.

Here, too, science has been helping us understand this behavior and it’s really just another aspect of our innate fear response. Again, our primitive ancestors’ survival required that they be able to quickly identify exterior threats. It also seems that survival chances were improved for those who could quickly unite to fight a perceived common enemy. Thus today the most divided communities can still be brought together to fight an external threat, even if it had been impossible to come together for any other purpose.

Fear and anxiety never go completely away. Typically, however, they are kept in check by the general sense of security provided by society’s political, economic and cultural structures. Today that sense of security has weakened and the voices of fear have become more numerous.

This weekend it is nine years since the attacks of 9/11; long enough that it is now only a blurry memory for adolescents. For most adults, however, the images are still vivid and the anxiety it induced is only just below the surface. As a result, those memories can still be exploited by demagogues and hysterics, such as the Quran-burning pastor from Florida. He and his tiny church are, of course, virtual non-entities. What is so interesting is how easily he has gotten the attention of global media and political leaders. (There has also been a paranoiac reaction from church leaders rushing to say “He’s not one of us!” But that’s another story.)

There is no question our country faces serious problems but possible attacks from Muslim extremists is probably not actually very high on the list. One of the reasons Roosevelt saw fear as an obstacle was its potential to distract attention from the real problems needing to be solved. Too easily we are drawn to an irrational problem with a simplistic solution, rather than confront the real problem whose solution may be protracted and complicated. Again, we have to fight our own instincts to DO SOMETHING NOW in order to pause, think, plan, and then get down to work.

Every religious tradition recognizes the close connection between fear and hatred. In that sense, the 1 John verse quoted above is not remarkable. Its insight, however, is that we will not conquer our fears (and the hatred that accompanies them) by removing all their causes. There will always be sources of danger in our lives.

Rather, we conquer the power fear has over us by love. By loving family, friends and neighbors we, first of all, pull our attention off of ourselves and our problems and onto others. It strengthens our ties with other people and makes the whole world seem less threatening. Love also rebalances our lives and readjusts our priorities and sense of what is genuinely important. We cling less; and open up, let go, and reach out more.

The political and economic problems we face today are serious but they also are complicated and a long time in the making. There will be no quick fix, no enemy to be disposed of, and no man or woman on a white horse who will ride to our rescue. Indeed, our attempts to pursue any of those things will only make our situation worse.

We will need calm spirits and clear thinking to accurately perceive both the problems and their solutions. Fear is the biggest obstacle to all those things. Rediscovering who and what we love is the surest way to short-circuit the power of fear and those who seek to exploit it.