Wednesday, August 29, 2012

Fading Morality

You need a little info about me to fully appreciate what I’m talking about in this post. I was a small boy during WWII. Both my brothers were in the Army and one of them saw extensive combat. My father had been in WWI and more than once, proudly showed me his uniform. He was also in combat. When I was a kid, war was glorified. We were told we were fighting for a holy cause: freedom from tyranny. And, of course, to protect the American Way of Life. 

The other boys in my neighborhood and I played with small plastic or metal soldiers. We had little trucks and tanks and plane--implements of war. We built model warplanes and ships. We each owned at least one cap pistol and a toy rifle and we played on the battlefields of the neighborhood. I even had a dummy hand grenade and bazooka shell. When I went to the local movie on Saturday, I saw war movies and westerns. Guns blazing away in both. Bad guys falling left and right and the homestead saved for the damsel; the Pacific island taken for our side.

When I started high school, ROTC was required. I would have taken it anyway. When it became optional in the third year, I enrolled as a cadet officer. I could field strip a M-1 rifle, not quite blindfolded, but pretty quickly. For two years I was on the rifle team, including the year we won the city championship. I was on the drill team and was the commander the year we won the state competition.

When college came, ROTC was still a requirement, but again, I would have taken it anyway. I wanted to be an officer and only a non-threatening health problem ended that dream. The first year I was on our rifle team and didn’t continue the second year only because I had to work to pay for school.
During Vietnam, I was in college and seminary, and because I had a history of kidney stones was classified 4-F: women and children, then me. War didn’t seem as glamorous when we were in Vietnam as it had in Europe, the Pacific and Korea. Campuses rioted, protests were everywhere, the age of the Peacenik had dawned with Aquarius. I had two boys by then. Some of my friends vowed not to buy their sons toy guns. I have photos of both my boys with cowboy outfits and toy pistols slung low on their hips.

My point so far is: I not an anti-gun guy. At the same time, I find the slogan, “Guns don’t kill; people do,” far to simplistic and naive. But, as much as I don’t like it, there is an important chunk of truth that is a matter for our consideration. First, there is of course some difference between killing in warfare and murder. [Perhaps a topic for another day. For now, just humor me.] For a long time in this country, guns have been used in robbery and mayhem of other kinds, and still are. A few very good people have been killed, murdered by guns: Lennon, King,  and Kennedy, to name three. We’ve had people who massacred many, a few in the news recently.

But, when I see on TV or read in the paper a story where a fired employee shoots his boss, I’m more deeply troubled than in the other cases. Or when I hear stories from our own community in which people are shot or killed over a parking place, a scratch on a car, or a dice game I have to ask a very fundamental question: where have we as a culture and we as a Church failed in our mission to teach morality to our children? How did we let them grow up believing that deadly force is the solution when they are angry with someone? I’ve owned guns. It has never occurred to me to settle a dispute with someone by loading up. With all the cultural indoctrination I’ve had about the place of armed violence in the world, it never included permitting deadly force because someone dissed me or did me some real or imagined harm. 

What was I taught that isn’t being effectively taught today? People with guns kill because their moral compass is not pointing toward a meaningful true north. Their morality is way out of whack, and somehow, we as a people, as a Church, have contributed to that. At the very least, we have done too little to provide a context in which they could learn the morality most of learned.

I don’t like it. I’m even a little frightened. And I’m a lot confused about the way forward.

Peace, Jerry

Tuesday, August 21, 2012

Biblical Ignorance

Each year, Beloit College in Beloit, Wisconsin, publishes a list that is amusing and wildly popular. This year’s describes the background in which those entering college as first year students this fall grew up with. You can read the entire list at

While I have a serious reason I’ll get to in a minute, here are a couple of items from the list that are just fun. 
No. 12  For most of their lives, maintaining relations between the U.S. and the rest of the world has been a woman’s job in the State Department.
No. 20  Exposed bra straps have always been a fashion statement, not a wardrobe malfunction to be corrected quietly by well-meaning friends.
No. 27  Outdated icons with images of floppy discs for “save,” a telephone for “phone,” and a snail mail envelope for “mail” have oddly decorated their tablets and smart phone screens.
No. 75  The Sistine Chapel ceiling has always been brighter and cleaner.

A sidebar in the Tuesday’s addition of the Commercial Appeal highlighted two I think are of particular importance for Christians. The first is a comment about Number 12 above. When they were born, Madeline Albright was the first female US Secretary of State. Women have held that position for most of the first year college students’ lives. That is contrasted with the long time Hollywood depiction of blondes as stupid, the Judy Holliday kind of character. That image, to some degree, has given way to men as the dumb ones. One of the exercises I give students when I teach a human sexuality class is to notice how many men in TV commercials are depicted as inept and less than the sharpest knife in the drawer. I get that “dumb and dumber” are meant to be funny, but what are we teaching the kids who watch these commercials about gender roles and adulthood? Hardly seems to be the message we as Christians would want to teach. 

However, the far more troublesome thing mentioned in the sidebar was a comment by one of the people who compiles the list. Tom McBride is an English professor at Beloit. He points out that incoming first year students are much less likely than in the past to identify with a specific religion. “When I teach Shakespeare or Milton there are a lot of Biblical allusions, and I have to explain them all.” Where has this generation gone? Not to “Sunday School.” 

According to the Barna Group, a group that studies religion in the US, the average number of adults in Protestant churches per Sunday is about 90. In the South, it’s closer to 100. With only about 20% of the US population in church each week, it’s easy to see why the level of Biblical knowledge is low. While good numbers are hard to come by, let’s be generous and say 20% of the people who attend church also attend Christian formation.  That means in an average southern church, 20 are present, while 80 are not. Theoretically, Christian formation is the best place to learn about the Bible, our Faith, and more. How likely is it for a child to attend if the parents don’t. Not very. Not much of surprise then, that incoming college students are biblically ignorant.

Me? I find all this worrisome.

Peace, Jerry

Wednesday, August 15, 2012

Did She or Didn't She?

Today is the  feast day of Jesus’ mother, Mary. From very early in the life of the Church, Mary has been called “virgin.” How that happened is a long story for another day. It includes reading history backwards, translations from one language to another, and more.

This day is celebrated in the Roman Catholic Church as the Feast of the Assumption, (which I’ll come back to) and in the Anglican Tradition, as simply the Feast Day of St. Mary the Virgin. Mary has at least six other feast days, not all of which are celebrated in Anglicanism. Here are the six principal ones:
The Purification of Mary (2/2), Annunciation (3/25), Visitation (5/31), Nativity of Mary (9/8), Immaculate Conception (12/8), and Our Lady of Guadalupe (12/12). But, the Feast of the Assumption is the principal day in the U.S. So, what does it celebrate?

The Assumption is a belief held by the Romans, Eastern Orthodox, Oriental Orthodox, and most Anglo-Catholics in Anglicanism that says at the end of her life, Mary was bodily taken directly to heaven. Catholics leave open whether or not she died before being taken; Eastern Orthodox teach she died first. 

The Roman Church teaches that there are certain dogmatic beliefs of the Church, i.e., things all must believe. All but one of these have been the result of actions of Church Councils. In 1870, the first Vatican Council declared the pope to be infallible when he teaches ex cathedra, literally from his chair or throne under special circumstances. Not every thing the pope says is infallible; only those teachings that he declares to be so. (Perhaps that’s another posting saved for another day.)  The first time, and so far, only time a pope has proclaimed an infallible teaching after this became a dogma was in 1950 when Pope Pius XII defined the Assumption of Mary as being an article of faith for Catholics. What does “article of faith” mean?

Here’s what Pius said: “Hence, if anyone, which God forbid, should dare willfully to deny or call into doubt that which We have defined, let him know that he has fallen away completely from the divine and Catholic Faith.”

In other words, there is no more room for debate, disagreement or dissention. The matter is closed, and if you don’t accept this teaching, you are not Catholic. That, of course, is an excommunicating act and, hence a damning act. His declaration of this dogma was not his invention. Many in the Church had long believed and taught that Mary had been assumed at the end of her life. Pius just formalized it.

So, what about you, must you hold this belief to be a good Anglican? In a word, no. You may believe it, that is, our faith and practice permits you to believe it, but does not compel you to believe it. Why then do we celebrate it as a feast day? Like many of our feast days, it’s a hold over from our pre-Reformation practices. However, note well, we don’t call it the Assumption. It just becomes another special day to honor Mary as Jesus’ mother. 

Peace,  Jerry

Wednesday, August 8, 2012

You Have To Be Taught

“When I was a child, I thought like a child,” wrote St. Paul. Me too. When I was a kid, my regular playmates were David and Johnny who lived next door. Their folks had a garage. Since they didn’t have a car, the gargage had junk stored in it, right on the dirt floor. Still, there was room for a “clubhouse.” Both David and Johnny were older by a year or two, so I was kind of automatically in what therapists call a “one-down position.” Sometimes when I would balk at something that wanted to do, since it was their clubhouse, they’d kick me out.

I well remember the humiliation of pushing aside the fairly useless wire fence that separated our yards and skulking into my back yard. My first stop was my mother whom I would tell about David and Johnny kicking me out and calling me names. She would tell me, “Sticks and stones may break your bones, but words will never hurt you.” She was wrong about other things too. The words did hurt. 

She would also tell me to go in the backyard and play and just ignore them. Take some of your toys out and play and have lots of fun, she’d insist. “You’ll see,” she would say, “They’ll be sorry they kicked you out.” Because my older brothers were no longer at home, I didn’t have to share toys with anyone and I took very good care of mine. Consequently, I had some pretty neat stuff for the 40s and a relative large number of toys. David and Johnny were two among kids at their how and toys of any kind or number were hard to come by.

What mother was teaching me was a kind of revenge. Treat them with disdain and they’ll suffer was the particular kind. Make them envious of your toys and your fun, was the plan. They’ll be reminded of how little they have and will feel bad. Not that she ever actually said those things, but the message was there all the same. Teaching revenge is something we seem to do a lot of in our world. Can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard, “Revenge is a dish best served cold.” Or, “Living well--that’s the best revenge.” Or, “You march right back out there and hit him back; you can’t let him get away with stuff like that.” I may have said some of these things myself.

What made me think about this was the recent shootings at the Sikh Temple in Wisconsin. The news tells me the shooter, Wade Michael Page, was a white supremacist who may have been “less than honorably discharged” from the Army after being demoted.  He was a member of several hate groups and had a band that played hate-filled songs. His body was tatooed with symbols of “white pride.” He may even have been providing funding for some domestic terrorist groups.

Clearly, Page felt as if the Sikhs weren’t fit to be in his club. 
Clearly, Page had been taught that he needed to take revenge on “those kind of people” who dared to not be white, not be Christian, and had the nerve to live in his community.  Remember the song from South Pacific, “You’ve Got To Be Carefully Taught”?

You've got to be taught
To hate and fear,
You've got to be taught
From year to year,
It's got to be drummed
In your dear little ear
You've got to be carefully taught.

You've got to be taught to be afraid
Of people whose eyes are oddly made,
And people whose skin is a diff'rent shade,
You've got to be carefully taught.

You've got to be taught before it's too late,
Before you are six or seven or eight,
To hate all the people your relatives hate,
You've got to be carefully taught!

Evidently he’d been carefully taught, and he took his revenge too.

What about the Sikhs? What are they taught? They are taught to believe in one God, pursue salvation, to engage in social reform through the pursuit of social justice for all human beings, and to reject discrimination based on caste, creed and gender. One of the Sikh leaders said, “It broke my heart that this thing happened, especially just a few weeks after this Aurora thing. It just breaks my heart.” Another said, “We’d like to view this tragedy as an opportunity to tell the world what Sikhs are. Sikhs believe in peace and harmony.” It just breaks his heart, he said.

Apparently, they never learned about taking revenge.

Peace,  Jerry

Wednesday, August 1, 2012

Somebody's Daughter

On Monday, WMC-TV reported a story about a woman and a church. The woman was homeless, an A & D abuser, and a prostitute with a record of 100 arrests. For ten years, her “business address” was Winchester and Riverdale. Nearby was a church, the New Life Holiness Church of God in Christ.
She felt drawn the the church, but didn’t exactly “fit in.” She was sometimes disruptive. On a few occasions, she verbally and even physically assaulted members. But the “Get It Girl,” aka Jacqueline Phillips was never turned away. The pastor, the Rev. Frederick Smith, said of her, “All I knew is I saw somebody that possibly was a mother, that possibly was a siser and a daughter.”
Phillips said she was often tired for walking day and night with no destination, often was in tears from fatigue, and perhaps, though she didn’t say it, despondence and hopelessness. The church, she said, “allowed me to sleep there.” But she did more than sleep. She listened too and found what she heard was powerful, so powerful, she wanted to make it her own.
The church prayed for her and she prayed for herself. “I asked Him to help me because I can’t do it. I can’t do it. I know I can’t do it.”
Jacqueline began to share about herself. She had a son in college. She had gone to school for dance. She had a mother in North Carolina. She was a “real” person, not just a nut job, lost on the street. And now, the church had reached out to her and she changed. “What brought her out was love,” is what the Rev. Smith believes. What does she say? “I’m not used to embracing love. When you’ve been out their so long, you’re not used to seeing love.”
The news story had before and after pictures of her. She was physically a very changed woman. But the greatest change was clearly spiritual. The help from the church included helping her get a driver’s license and developing a support system in North Carolina so when she goes to live with her mother, love of many kinds will be waiting for her.
In a way, it’s sad that this story is newsworthy. I’m guessing the station saw it as remarkable, and certainly it is. Yet, this church and its pastor just did what every church and every pastor and, indeed, every Christian is to do--routinely. I know there are many apparently miracleous stories of change that never make the media, including some from our ministries at St. Mary’s. I also know that many congregations of every stripe thoughout our city and beyond would have turned Jacqueline away. It’s not tidy to have disruptions while you’re worshipping and who wants a prostitute around?
Pastor Smith didn’t see a prostitute, a homeless drunk littering his neighborhood to be run off to quiet the disruptions. Remember how he said, “...I saw somebody that possibly was a mother, that possibly was a siser and a daughter.” Perhaps he even saw Jesus, “...for when you have done this for the least of these, you have done it to me.”
Peace, Jerry