Monday, February 25, 2013

21st Century Life is Challenging

“There is no security on this earth – only opportunity!” [General Douglas MacArthur]

“Today is life – the only life we’re sure of. Live it. Make the most of today.” [Character on CSI-New York]
“The journey of life is always forward. It’s OK to look back – but it is impossible to return to yesterday.”  [FSM]

Recently I have been in a Book Club discussing Michio Kaku’s Physics of the Future (Anchor Books 2011) – dealing with “how science will shape human destiny and our daily lives by the year 2100”.  Alternatively it is fascinating, irritating, frustrating and un-settling.  Without any doubt, advances in computers, artificial intelligence, nanotechnology, medicine, energy, space travel and wealth [subjects covered in his book] will be radically different.
At times it is tempting to “ease” my angst about life as Kaku predicts by simply taking comfort that at 82 years of age those challenges will not be mine.  More frequently, however, the angst drives me to wrestle with how one might discern ways to maintain the significant values of civilization while adapting to those challenges.  The changes he identifies will challenge human-kind in every sphere of living: How we value life. How we value work. How we value differences in human potential. How we posit truth and compassion and love as essential for the good life.

Simultaneously with reading Kaku’s book I’m reading The Eloquence of Grace – Joseph Sittler and the Preaching Life [Cascade Books] by James M. Childs Jr & Richard Lischer.  This is a collection of transcribed sermons and speeches from the life of Joseph A. Sittler [1904-87] – “one of the most influential theologians of the 20th century” as well as the professor under whom I was privileged to study while in seminary.  Sittler would have loved Kaku’s book!  He welcomed the challenges brought by advances in every sphere.  Welcomed them – and wrestled with them as he sought ways to involve them in the truths of faith.

In one of Sittler’s presentations on “Christology” – in 1954! – he talks of how quantum physics impacts our creeds.  1954!  The Quantum theories were still relatively new. Albert Einstein in 1921 and Werner Heisenberg in 1932 had been awarded the Nobel Prize in Physics for their work on quantum fields – but many were wrestling with how such discoveries would challenge even basic laws such as gravity!  Into that mix comes Sittler, wrestling with how one might ascertain what changes Quantum physics might require in the basic Creeds [Nicene, et al]. And this quote jumped out:
..when we in our day, inheritors not only of the theology of the Reformation but also continuing inheritors of critical biblical-historical studies, seek to administer the understanding of the Reformers, we are compelled to see the Nicene Christology in a way they did not and perhaps could not….Sixteenth-century veneration for Nicea has descended to us as a twentieth-century frustration; the fourth-century settlement of Christology so massively overlays the sixteenth as to make the sixteenth stutter as it addresses the twentieth. It is not too much to say that our theological tradition, whereby we gather up and contain in the theology of our day both the fourth and the sixteenth centuries, constitutes as invitation to theological hernia.[Underlining mine]

Confronted with/by these challenges, many succumb to the temptation of wanting to deny what is new. They would rather return to the “comfort” [false comfort to be sure] of yesterday.  Some will put forth “The Bible says . . .” as if it could “un-do” what is new.  As if one might still fancy a world that is flat with “heaven” up there and “hell” down there.  As if we didn’t know what we do about gravity; about molecules; about carbon emissions; about human psych-sexual development.
But - we do know!  And – we cannot go back!

God – as identified and preached and taught – by almost every religion is the Absolute, the Mighty One, the Supreme Being.  While the 21st century advances will challenge many of the human-made statements or positions about that God – they do not challenge God.
Scriptures – Holy Writings – of all religions have always been a living dynamic story rather than a dead static construct.  If that were not true there would not be so many factions within the religions of the world – factions which want to keep certain beliefs or standards or values which other factions believe have changed.

None of the challenges deny the value and importance of love in human relationships.  None of the challenges deny or dis-prove the value of honesty and trust as essentials for humans to live in community.  While some challenges do call into question some of the arguments that religious folks have used to “prove” God – none of those challenges prohibit anyone from still believing that her/his God is real!  That’s why it’s called faith.
I remember times in raising our children [and I had the privilege of 22 years of raising teen-agers!] when they would challenge certain rules.  The hardest rules of maintain were often the ones which came from my childhood experiences.  The temptation in the face of numerous “why’s” was to simply state – “because I said so”.  But as every parent knows, such a parental approach can only be sustained for a very limited time.  Harder – yet, subsequently more satisfying – was to engage the teen-ager in dialogue so as to mutually discern what was the value and which was the external that had borne the value.

We need to willingly engage in those dialogues.  At times it will be scary.  At times we will make mistakes.  At times we will need to move ahead on trust and faith in each other.  That’s what it means to be human.


Tuesday, February 19, 2013


I remember, as if it were only yesterday, a visit made to a Lutheran pastor’s home just outside of Red Oak, Iowa.  It was in the fall of 1957 and it was still in my first year as an ordained clergy.  His home and the parish were on several acres – sort of carved out of a large farm.  In addition to a garage [attached to make it easier in stormy winters], a good size garden and an enclosure so as to keep a hog, he had a good sized room in the house that he specifically called his study!
In 1957 many clergy had begun the process of re-locating the parsonage away from the parish buildings – and, a few, had even begun the process of buying a home on their own.  And, in 1957, at least among Lutheran clergy, the majority still called the place where they prepared sermons a study.

How different from today!  Now they are called “offices”!  My recollection is that the switch began in the 1960’s – at least in Lutheran circles.  Our leaders were called Presidents; mergers were being consummated; and the “program” church was gaining dominance.  Clergy salaries were beginning to rise towards levels more in line with “top management” – and an “office” appeared to offer more in return than a “study”.
That “appearance” may even be justified if we look at how those words are defined!  The Random House Dictionary [Unabridged Edition] offers this definition for study – a room, in a house or other building, set aside for private study, reading, writing or the like.  Office, on the other hand, is defined as – a room, set of rooms or building where the business of a commercial or industrial organization or of a professional person is transacted.  An Ecclesiastic Office is – the prescribed order or form for a service prescribed; the services so prescribed; the prayers, readings from scripture, and psalms that must be recited every day by all who are in major orders; a ceremony or rite for the dead!  None of these words are listed as synonyms for each other.

How might this switch have impacted the work/role of clergy?  A study published in the 1960’s [I believe it was in The Minister’s Own Mental Health by Wayne Oates] did some rankings vis a vis the “functions” of ministry.  These were identified as: Preacher, Pastor, Priest, Teacher and Administrator.  The roles were defined thus:
·         Preacher – the efforts directed towards the full proclamation of the Word, including the prophetic and evangelical.
·         Pastor – time spent visiting the sick and in pastoral counseling [both areas in the 1960s were gaining importance]
·         Priest – time spent leading the varied services [weekly worship, sacramental, funerals, weddings]
·         Teacher – time to prepare and lead opportunities for laity to grow in their understanding of how their beliefs related to and/or were impacted by modernity
·         Administrator – either the CEO or COO of a business increasingly needing to meet the same demands of any other small business

Clergy were asked to rank them by Importance and by Personal Preference.    Protestant clergy tended to rank the Importance and Personal Preference re: these functions as such: Preacher-Pastor-Teacher-Priest-Administrator.  Roman Catholic and other more sacramental clergy had this ranking: Priest-Pastor-Preacher-Teacher-Administrator.  They then participated in a time study in which all their activities were categorized into one of those functions!  In both groups the rankings were inverted to:  Administrator-Pastor-Priest-Preacher-Teacher.  Functions seen as less important and less enjoyable consumed most of their time!
At the very least this inversion placed/places significant stress/pressure upon clergy.  First, “administration” is probably the topic least discussed in theological education – a real handicap if the pastor is to be the CEO of a small to mid-size business!  Second, “administration” will usually be the arena in which most conflicts arise [many congregations have real administrators from the business world as members] – since the pastor knows this is where s/he is least prepared!  Third, “administration” usually gives her/him the least satisfaction because few went into ministry to be an administrator!

The 21st century has brought with it many changes to the Church and her ministries.  Administratively we see declining membership and income.  Such have stark pressures on a program-church as well as maintenance of an aging physical plant.  The almost exponential advances in science/technology challenge many of the creedal statements that have been used for centuries in support of core beliefs.  Cultural changes challenge many of the major moral teachings developed over centuries. 
If we hope to address these changes then more time needs to be directed towards our roles as Preacher-Teacher-Priest leaving less time for Pastor-Administrator.

I believe it would be easier to make those directional changes if we renamed our “office” to be a “study”?
1.       We really could reduce the amount of time in our “Pastoral” role.  Visiting sick members in today’s hospitals can seldom be more than symbolic – and laity [such as Stephen ministers] are often able to do those visits as well.  Counseling has also become so much more complicated that clergy are best advised to identify counselors in their community to whom referrals can be made.  There are usually such resources available to serve all income levels.
2.       The “programs” of the parish need review!  How much time is directed towards “social” ministries such as food pantries or group meetings for this or that group struggling with this or that problem? How much time is given to “entertainment” ministries – trivia nites, date nites, youth activities?
3.       We need to assign at least 50% of our time weekly to study!  Time for reading. Time for contemplation. Time for serious writing.
4.       We need to be vocal in helping our denominations focus more on the deep theological issues of our age and less time on the pelvic issues?  Modern physics are challenging our world views as well as the way we live and relate daily to/with each other.  Perhaps denominations would spend more time at meetings on the those theological challenges.
5.       Much of the “Administrative” tasks can be referred to the talented laity.
6.       Perhaps we might re-claim our roles as the most theologically education persons in parish and Synods!  [Of course that would mean the 50% mentioned above in # 3 should be 60-75%].  What if we were seen as the Rebbe or Rabbi?

Welcome to my study – and I look forward to engaging you in yours!.

Friday, February 8, 2013

Good Intentions

Much of my early “moral” or “values” education came from my maternal Grandmother. One of those lessons was that the “road to hell was paved with good intentions”!  This was usually voiced when one [or more] of my behaviors had resulted poorly and, in order to re-gain solid footing I resorted to the “…but I meant well!”  That was when Grandmother would remind me about the ambivalence of ‘paving’ materials on the path to “goodness”.

A slightly different approach to this “value” or “moral” came my senior year in college.  A noted Lutheran scholar, Dr. George Forell, was lecturing in a class on History of Economics –and stated that there was no such thing as “pure altruism”.  Confident, as any 21 year old is, I challenged Dr. Forell – and his response was to give me enough time to hang myself!  Each person that I mentioned as being “purely altruistic” [i.e. Mother Teresa, Albert Schweitzer], he clearly pointed out the personal benefit each example gained. Dr. Forell did that without being judgmental of the person nor did he deny the good that each had achieved.  Rather, he simply taught me that my Grandmother was even more right than even she probably knew!

I would like to report that the lessons taught by Grandmother and Dr. Forell were successfully employed throughout my life – personally and professionally!  However, such a ‘report’ would be false!  The temptations to act or perform in certain situations are great – and, coupled with the ease by which one can identify the “good intention” or the “altruistic” result – well, too often my actions shared in “paving the way to hell”!  Oh, I never tried to solve any economic problems such as Hitler did with the “Jewish solution”.  Nor did I attempt to improve my financial circumstances through the development of Ponzi schemes and/or other gimmicks which could “look good” to the unsuspecting.

Many of the top stories of our time highlight the difficulty all of us face in the discernment of “good intentions” and “altruism.

·         Obtaining the oil reserves in the land of North Dakota has many “good intentions”: it can help us be less dependent on foreign oil reserves; it can bring needed employment to a state that has always struggled to offer sufficient opportunities to its youth.  However, as we are learning daily, the process employed in accessing these oil reserves – fracking – is having significant negative consequences: pollution of land and water already make some areas inhabitable; the constant movement of the oil by trucking contributes to air and space pollution; the number of employees brought in from other states is causing a burden in many communities; and, the major share of the “profits” are not going to the citizens of North Dakota – but to venture capitalists and hedge fund managers [most often residing on/near Wall Street].

·         The employment of drones to do certain dangerous tasks allows us greater protection of our men and women in the military – while presenting us challenges to some of our basic values!  War always involves a degree of evil – even the so-called “justified” wars.  Yet, over centuries the conduct of wars developed a significant code for the conduct of those wars.  Enemy combatants still maintained certain “rights” – and violations of those rights brought consequences to those who violated them.  Our “War of Terror” however has operated – and continues to operate – in murky gray areas vis a vis those rights.

·         The issue of providing adequate treatment for our brothers and sisters with a mental illness has also been made more difficult with our “good intentions” and “altruisms”. Aware of the terrible situation in many 1950s psychiatric hospitals and aware that new medications were rapidly being developed to offer greater hope to the mentally ill our nation passed the Comprehensive Community Mental Health Act of 1960.  The intention? – allow the mentally ill to be discharged from the ‘snake pits’ and to seek living possibilities closer to their families in our communities!  But too often the focus shifted to the $$$ saved by closing the hospitals and failing to develop treatment resources in those communities.  This resulted in many patients being “dumped” from bad situation to worse.

·         And probably no issue has been more taxed with the struggles on “good intentions” than that of “rights”!  Few could/would argue with many of the benefits inherent in the Civil Rights movement, Feminine Rights, Rights for our LGTB brothers and sisters, Rights of the 2nd Amendment vis a vis owning weapons, Rights of Labor, Rights of Capitalism, etc.  Entire blogs could be written about the “goods” achieved and associated with each of those struggles.  Similarly, entire blogs could be written about the negative consequences that have also resulted in/from those struggles.

So, what ought we do?  Individually and collectively we are obligated to try to make the world better; to do our best for family and friends; to develop proper laws and seek to obey them.  Here are a few steps or lessons I believe might be helpful.

1.       Recognize that even my best intention will have negative consequences!  I didn’t like admitting that when I was young – and still don’t enjoy it.  I would rather see my actions as “more” good than “any” bad.  But such honest admission is vital to living in relationships with spouse, children, co-workers, community, state, nation and world.  I’m not saying one has to go to the other extreme [we are by nature sinful] but to honestly recognize that more of behavior is “gray” rather than “black or white”.

2.       Engage the ‘other’ in open dialogue whenever you act “to help” the ‘other’.  I recall a cartoon showing a Boy Scout helping an older person across the street – and the older person beating on the Scout because she hadn’t wanted to cross the street!  I recall a time when my father bought my mother a mangle iron to help her with the ironing even tho she had made it clear she didn’t want one – and never even took the ribbon off it for almost 10 years!  That dialogue with the other has to identify whose needs are being served?  What might be the negative consequences?  And, are there other ways to achieve the end?

3.       Spend honest time/effort in exploring the negative consequences [which will always be present] so as to develop plans for minimizing/alleviating those consequences.  It’s “good” to lessen our dependence on foreign oil and “fracking” has terrible consequences – surely a people who could send humans to the moon could develop ways of mitigating those negatives.  It’s good to enable more citizens to live outside psychiatric facilities but not without available/affordable services of assistance!  It’s good to provide assistance to the poor, the hungry, the homeless, the ill – but not by over-looking the values of self-reliance!  We can both give a person a fish AND teach that person how to fish.  We can give unemployment relief AND provide education/training for a job.  It’s good that more and more of the dangerous jobs in our society can be done with robots – and it is evil if we do so without discerning ways to develop new jobs for those replaced!

4.       Discern the spiritual factors involved in all of our actions and seek meaningful ways to discuss and ‘treat’ those.  Each week we are confronted with news re: the terrible consequences that our “wars” are having on the men and women involved.  Most of us know that PTSD stands for even though we might not understand it.  As we strive to improve the psychological services to help our troops, let’s not forget the spiritual components!  Our men and women go to combat with the values we have taught them from birth: life is sacred, killing is wrong, do not falsely accuse, everyone should have her/his day in court, etc.  And then, in this “War on Terror” we turn their ‘values” upside down!  Why wouldn’t that be traumatic?  And, why do we think it only impinges on the men and women in the Armed Services?  They went on our behalf.  How do we, too, seek assistance for our spiritual darkness?

Just some thoughts – and “thanks” to Grandma and Dr. Forell!