Saturday, June 20, 2015

Faith and Fear and Courage

My father Sam grew up in Gaffney, South Carolina, during the Great Depression. In those days, Gaffney’s economy centered around textile mills. The Owensbys worked in one of those mills and lived in one of the company-owned little houses in the mill village. 
Sam was the youngest of thirteen children. He was just fourteen on December 7, 1941, when Japan attacked Pearl Harbor and the United States entered the Second World War. The next month he turned fifteen, ran away from home, lied about his age, and joined the Navy. He served in the Pacific throughout the war on a variety of warships.

Mobile Cotton Mill Village

Storms were a fairly common experience, but my father remembered one in particular. Their ship had been tossed by massive waves and battered by gale-force winds for days. The kitchen couldn’t provide hot food. Drinking water was running desperately short. And the ship was steadily taking on water.
Finally, the captain came over the intercom. He told them that they had been a good crew. It had been an honor to serve with them. The ship was going down. May God have mercy on their souls.

Thursday, June 18, 2015

The Charleston Martyrs

Last night a gunman entered Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, South Carolina, and killed nine people. Authorities have since apprehended the assailant after an intensive 14-hour search. Photos on the killer’s Facebook page indicate that he espoused a white supremacist ideology.
Hatred and violence anywhere and at any time are repugnant. But the slaughter of faithful people gathered in their house of worship is especially shocking.
Please join me in praying for what some are now calling the Charleston martyrs. Pray that those who died may rest in peace and rise in glory. Pray that those left bereaved and in shock may know comfort and consolation. Pray for the city of Charleston.

Prayers for the victims come most naturally to us. And yet the Christ to whom these martyrs devoted themselves is the Prince of Peace. He calls us to do what does not come naturally. To pray for the perpetrator.
Pray that the shooter may know contrition and conversion of heart. Pray that his tortured soul may be restored and that he may be reconciled to those he chose to name his enemies and to the God whose love can redeem him.
Finally, let’s take a moment to reflect upon and to pray for our common life as Americans. Hate, contempt, and violence occur so frequently in our land that they threaten to deform our national soul.

While wrongdoers should be held accountable for their behavior, we can all take responsibility for the kind of society we create with our attitudes and our actions. Peace and justice will remain abstractions unless they arise from the daily efforts of each of us to uphold the dignity of every human being in even our most routine interactions. 
Many of my colleagues in the House of Bishop have written wise words on this sorrowful day. Here are some links:
Bishop Nick Knisely of Rhode Island: Let our response go beyond our expression of empathy and grief.   Let us recommit ourselves to the hard work of racial reconciliation and building communities of safety and love. 
Bishop Dan Edwards of NevadaNothing short of the gospel can speak for us to this tragedy, a gospel not just proclaimed but acted on to usher in the Kingdom.

Sunday, June 14, 2015

Power, Love, and Leadership

Josef Stalin led the former Soviet Union from the mid-1920’s through the early 1950’s. Within the first decade or so of his autocratic rule, Stalin transformed the Soviet economy from a premodern relic into a model of industrialization in the factory and on the farm alike.
With the world in the grips of the Great Depression, the Soviet economy grew. Soviet estimates placed growth at 13.9%. Western estimates range from 5.8% to 2.9%. 
Whatever the truth of the growth rates, it is clear that Stalin accomplished a remarkably rapid economic revolution by implementing successive Five Year Plans. Equally clear is the cost in human life and dignity. Stalin achieved industrialization by a process of purges, deportations, collectivization, imprisonments, forced labor, and executions.

David Kakabadze's "Industrial Landscape"

Official totals vary widely. Stalin’s regime is said to have put to death anywhere from 3 to 60 million people. Around 1.7 million met their death in Gulags. Another 390,000 died in forced resettlement.
A story goes around about how Stalin illustrated the principles of his leadership style. One version of that story goes like this.

Sunday, June 7, 2015

Getting Off The Crazy Bus

She pointed at me. Repeatedly rocked left and right with an imaginary steering wheel in outstretched hands. Pointed at herself. And concluded her brief pantomime by spinning her hand and extended index finger in circles around her temple.
“You drive me crazy,” was the message.
I didn’t need her to explain what she meant. We all understood without a word. On our elementary school playground and in our classrooms—when the teacher wasn’t looking—we had a small, makeshift sign-language vocabulary for our classmates.
Mostly it was girls who targeted boys with this particular sign for annoyance. Having raised two boys myself, I think I may understand why. And to be perfectly honest, I often wonder if my wife Joy and my daughter Meredith aren’t doing that same pantomime in their heads in response to me and my adult sons.
Frida Kahlo, "The Bus Stop"

Strictly speaking, family can drive you crazy. 
We share limited space and busy calendars and competing wants and clashing expectations. We talk too much, talk too little, leave our mess for others to clean up, and use up all the hot water in the morning.
This is all within the normal range of crazy-making. The minor leagues of family lunacy. 
Sadly, some of us hit the big leagues. Addiction, abuse, mental illness. One of us can start spiraling down the drain and, nine times out of ten, all the rest of us start swirling around with the stricken one. They don’t really drive us crazy. We hop on the crazy bus with them and start to call it normal. 

Sunday, May 31, 2015

Mystery and Belief

In early May the Pew Research Center published its latest report: “America’s Changing Religious Landscape.” Since then articles and comments have clogged the blogosphere and social media in response.
The study is long and detailed. But what seems to have gotten the most attention is one particular finding. From 2007 to 2014 the percentage of Americans self-identifying as Christian has declined from 78.4% to 70.6%.
Some have hit the panic button. “Christianity is dying!” they say. This is generally followed by finger pointing and claims that we haven’t been trying hard enough to convert people, haven’t been doctrinally clear enough, or haven’t been morally pure enough. Well, strictly speaking, we most frequently hear that “they” have not been Christian enough in these ways to grow the faith’s market share.
Vincent van Gogh's "The Starry Night" (1888)

I really don’t buy this.
My own sense is that God the Holy Spirit is radically reshaping his Church. Christianity is not dying at all. Some of its 20th century forms and practices have grown stale and have proven to be superficial. Notably, a substantial number of people are returning to ancient spiritual practices, and to sacramental worship in particular, and abandoning the seemingly endless and fruitless search for relevance and novelty.
Even though I am not hitting the panic button, I do think that our changing landscape presents us with pressing spiritual challenges. Chief among them is getting clarity about the nature of belief. Unlike some, I do not think that our challenge resides most fundamentally in clarifying what we believe. Instead, many of us misconstrue what it means to believe.
Of all the Sundays of the Church Year, there is no more appropriate day to reflect on Christian belief than Trinity Sunday. Along with the Incarnation, the Trinity is our central, non-negotiable belief. Now you might think that I’m about to explain the doctrine of the Trinity. And you would be mistaken.
Instead, I’m going to remind us that the Trinity and the Incarnation are Mysteries. We root our lives in and bank our lives on Mysteries. And yet some of us erroneously approach Christian belief as if it could conflict with natural science. We are mystery people, and yet some of us treat belief as if it were a kind of scientific knowing.