World Troubles with Democracy: Case in Point

Today’s Times piece on Myanmar is a great case in point for how democracy is more fragile than we sometimes expect.  People do not easily come to trust pluralism, but instead hanker for authority as available in strongmen (or women, in the case of Myanmar currently) and a religion conceived as anchoring and deifying a received tradition.  (Whereas true religion, as the 500th anniversary of the Reformation reminds us, can just as well question and critique received tradition.)

As I tried to say in the previous post, we can be the church without getting too embroiled in the difficult issues that democracy and its failings present today.  But let us celebrate the fact that we have open to us a way to be faithful to God that can uphold the values of pluralism and openness to others, rather than undermine these and the democratic structures that depend on them.


Are American attitudes becoming un-democratic?

This is not an essential question to the Church.  It is not our absolute duty to preserve democracy, I think.  But there is considerable alignment between the virtues necessary for rightly functioning democracy and Christian virtues, as suggested by some current research

Paul Howe shows that the international rise in populist leaders correlates with a gradual rise in anti-social attitudes.    

By this interpretation, growing disregard for democracy reflects the rise not of dogmatic authoritarianism, but of a broad and amorphous social malaise that blithely rejects a diverse array of social norms, including key tenets of democracy. The challenge, therefore, is not merely to bring people back into democratic politics, but to draw them again into the social contract—into a sense that they belong to a society where core principles essential to living together should rightly be respected and observed. This entails, among other things, countering excessive individualism, ensuring that all have some reasonable opportunity to succeed in life regardless of socioeconomic background, and providing robust civics education to help instill deeper understanding of core democratic principles among all citizens.

One could counter that he is exaggerating “soft” forces of social and cultural attitudes and downplaying “hard” forces of economic equality, although he does include these forces.

It is interesting to consider that “immorality” such as egotism and disregard of others is not a static problem, but varies through time according to historical, economic, and cultural developments.  The Church can only be a place where such attitudes are resisted and purified.  But the evidence is strong that the growth in anti-social attitudes is greatest among less-educated Americans.  That is also the segment of society that is becoming the least religious.  (Pew Survey).

If this were the Church’s problem and responsibility, I’d be inclined to say that the church needs to direct much energy into reaching out to less educated and disaffected white Americans to counter their (general) drift to anti-social attitudes and nihilism.  If such efforts were effective, it would certainly be good for our society.  But how is the Church to do this?  Howe’s study suggests that this population is generally resistant to joining social organization.  Do we try to convert one person at a time, hoping that the language of sin-and-repentance will appeal to them?  Meanwhile, these efforts could take the church away from moving forward with creating a deepened Christian counter-culture.  (If we spend all our effort trying to rein in the anti-social tendencies of a disintegrating uneducated class, do we take away from building a well-formed culture of Christians deeply steeped in an intellectually robust faith?  Is our goal to stem social disintegration or to construct an alternative way of being integrated into God?)

Perhaps the responsibility for this problem rests not on the church, so that the church needs to redirect herself toward solving it.  Instead, it lies on our society as a whole, which is probably in a better position to address the underlying economic, educational, and perhaps cultural bases for the problem.

These questions press on me in a place like Granby, which is considerably closer to the problems of lesser educated America than say, Amherst or Northampton.  One of Howe’s conclusions is very interesting: the individualism pervasive in American culture will bolster those who are safely on the road to increasing opportunity–those raised in an education-nurturing environment.  That same individualism will burden and dispirit those in education-averse environments, for they are left feeling there is no one else to blame for their failures.  Perhaps opiates are a natural, but deadly, outcome.

See also: Edsall’s column



Aug. 20: “Judaism and God’s Irrevocable Gift”

Isaiah 56:1-8 ; Romans 11:1-7, 11-32

I didn’t think it through really carefully, but I guess I’m spending this month drawing on the Old Testament, for a change, and leading our two congregations in reflections on what we can learn about the bigger situation and problems the church faces today, and proposing some positive directions forward. I’m really glad we can come together like this and get out of our particular congregational viewpoint and think bigger, for a month. Next week I want to look at the problem of anti-Judaism, which today is bound up with racism and white supremacy—our headlines remind us of this daily. But then it will be September, and we will each part again until next summer (or Ash Wednesday, when we worship together). And I’m excitedly planning for a September series on growing in our spiritual journey. So it’s going to be all about you, but I’m going to make you work, just so you know.

Well anti-Semitism is important, but today I am glad to talk about Judaism in a positive way that can inspire us and lead us to grow in our faith as Christians. I find Judaism inspiring, even though there are things about it I don’t understand or that puzzle me. I’ve been blessed with some very good friends who have shared their Jewish faith to me, including within my family. My sister Joanne was already interested in Judaism when she met my brother-in-law Marc, who is not only Jewish, but came very close to becoming a great Jewish scholar. I was in graduate school and signed up for a course on Jewish Theology—I took some pride being the only Christian guy in the class, the token goy—and we were reading an important book by the Talmudic scholar David Weiss Halivni. In the acknowledgements, Halivni thanked his graduate assistant, Marc Ashley. My brother in law! I mentioned it to Marc and he said, without any boasting, “Yeah, I pretty much wrote that book for him.”   But Marc gave it up to become a lawyer, go figure.

Christianity has a very fraught relationship with Judaism. There’s the hideous history of anti-Judaism and persecution, and the current complicated issue of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. But there’s another loss that is more subtle and tragic, resulting from that split that happened when the followers of Jesus parted ways from the people Israel.   From that moment, Jews saw themselves as the opposite of Christians, and Christians saw themselves as the opposite of Jews. That happens all the time when there is a messy divorce between whole peoples. Catholics see themselves as the opposite of Protestants, and Protestants, the opposite of Catholics. We mainline Protestants see ourselves as the opposite of evangelicals, and evangelicals, the opposite of us (or they just completely ignore our existence). There’s a tragic loss in all of this, a cutting off of ourselves from the best of what is found in those we have split away from. There is much we can learn from and embrace within evangelical Protestantism, and also within Catholicism. There is much we can learn from and embrace within Judaism. Or do you really think it is a Christian impulse to shun things because “we don’t want to be like those people.” Rather, that is the spirit of polarization that is ripping the fabric of our society today into shreds. This tragic ripping apart and alienation does not happen with compete strangers; it only happens with our close kin. The worst arguments happen within family, right?

Paul is feeling that in our reading today. His lament for his Jewish kin begins in chapter 9, which we heard read two weeks ago: “I am speaking the truth in Christ—I am not lying; my conscience confirms it by the Holy Spirit— I have great sorrow and unceasing anguish in my heart. For I could wish that I myself were accursed and cut off from Christ for the sake of my own people, my kindred according to the flesh. They are Israelites, and to them belong the adoption, the glory, the covenants, the giving of the law, the worship, and the promises; to them belong the patriarchs, and from them, according to the flesh, comes the Messiah, who is over all, God blessed for ever. Amen.”   Paul makes it clear that he is earnestly in anguish at the fact that the people Israel have not by and large accepted Jesus as the Messiah. Now, I think Paul is a little too worried about this one. I don’t think God has been ill-served by having a vibrant, new Christian covenant existing side-by-side with a Judaism that continues in its own way to reinterpret the Torah. I think it’s just easier for us modern people to accept that there is more than one way to worship and honor God. I wish Paul were able, with us, to affirm that there is a right and honorable distinctly Jewish way to be faithful to God, and even to ask, “What can we learn from that Jewish faithfulness?”

But let’s notice what Paul does not do. He does not say, because they rejected Jesus, Judaism is over. It is defunct. We Christians have replaced the Jews. That, sadly, became the dominant Christian view for 2000 years, and it is called Supercessionism. To the contrary, Paul says: To [the Jews] belong [not belonged] the adoption, the glory, the worship, the promises.”

Similarly, in our reading from chapter 11, Paul exclaims that God has not rejected God’s people Israel. Now, he has what sound to me like weird ideas about how God has fulfilled the promises to Israel. The strangest is this thing about the Gentiles making Israel jealous. Did you catch that? / I don’t know, Paul. Sounds like something from the annals of Junior High romance. “Did you hear? So Jesus asked Moses out but Moses totally said, No Way, eeww gross!; but when he saw Jesus with that new Greek girl, he got so jealous.”

I think Paul does better when he acknowledges that the whole thing is a “mystery.” Let’s not assume there is some great divine plan going on here that we can easily decipher. Paul notes that a “hardening has come upon part of Israel, until the full number of Gentiles has come in.” God is Lord of history, and perhaps there is some great plan in all of this. I don’t agree with Paul that the plan was for the Jews to become “enemies of the gospel” for the sake of us Gentiles; just because they don’t follow the gospel doesn’t mean they are enemies of it. But Paul is confident that whatever the plan, salvation is also for the Jews. “As regards election [the Jews] are beloved,…for the gifts and calling of God are irrevocable.” There is no room here for supercessionism, for God rejecting the Jews.

And then Paul’s last word comes out of the wisdom of grace. Whenever we Christians try to make sense of the fact that not all people accept Jesus; there are all these other faiths out there and they look pretty different; and then there are all these Christians with whom we don’t see eye to eye; and there are so many people who no longer have faith and have lost interest in God; and we get all anxious about all these people who aren’t Christians like us. / Relax, catch your breath, and take a cue from Paul. All these differences we worry about aren’t finally that important to God. In the end, we are all still one humanity, living before God by grace. “For God has imprisoned all in disobedience so that he may be merciful to all.” This is a kind of humanism in Paul, a universal embrace of all human beings. But it’s not based on the fact that deep down we all believe the same thing, or we all have good hearts, or we all meet some basic ethical standard, or we all have been endowed by our creator “with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.” All of that may be true. But for Paul we are all united in this: all of us fall short, all of us are flawed and imperfect; and yet God loves us even so. It is a refreshingly humble humanism. And it can help us let go of that anxiety, which is probably a little self-righteous, about all those people who aren’t good Christians like us.

But what if we could not only let go of the anxiety Paul harbors over his Jewish kin who have not accepted Jesus, but even see the side-by-side existence of a Jewish and a Christian way of being faithful to God as a blessing and good thing, and a chance for us to learn from one another so that we can really start to enact the coming together of peoples that Israel talks about in our reading today? What can we learn from Judaism?

First, we have to be honest and clear about the real difference between our two faiths. We are not the same. Judaism was and remains a people in covenant with God. By an act of pure grace, God took a human people, defined by language and ancestry, and made them God’s own special people, set apart and distinct. God has a blessing in store for all people through the Jews, but that only comes by the Jews being a distinct people among the many others. Everything about being a people gets sanctified by God’s election of Israel: their ancestry, family life and the quest for descendants, and the details about how they are organized as a society. That is what the Torah or Law is, and it is essential, because the Jews were to follow a shared way of being a people, a common way of life. You can imagine what it might look like if God took America or Latvia and said, you now shall be my nation, and everything about you shall be reshaped to reflect that.

Christianity is different. God did not adopt us as a whole people. According to the gospel, God elects all of humanity in one human being, Jesus the Christ. Through this one mediator, God adopts and unites with the whole human race, whether they know it or not. We Christians do not receive the divine blessing by being born into or joining the Jewish people, and fulfilling its commandments, beginning with circumcision. We receive God’s blessing by being united with Christ, starting with baptism, which as Paul puts it, is a dying to myself and a rising into Christ. Only by being individually united with Christ are we united with each other. But even as we are united with each other through Christ, we are at the same time united with all of humanity, for Christ is for all. For that reason, Christians will never be one, particular people in the ordinary human way. And we will always sit uncomfortably astride all the fences that cut across the human family: race, national identity, gender, languages, cultures. Across all of that we remain one human family in Christ, which we know and experience through our personal relationship to Christ in which I die to myself and Christ lives in me.

Judaism and Christianity are two legitimate and beautiful paths to uniting human beings with God. Each way has its temptations to go astray. I can’t take responsibility for Judaism. I suppose it would be easy for Jews to become fixed on the external elements of being a people. I suppose it is possible for Jews to lose the personal spiritual center, although this has not been my experience of the Jews I know who are observant, who take it seriously.

Anyway, we are only responsible for our own temptations. With our emphasis on a personal, interior union with Christ and God through faith, and not through works nor through being a people, especially we Protestant Christians can easily make our relationship with God into a purely personal, inward, and individualistic affair. And indeed, how often has a congregation, perhaps us, instead of being a genuine people through union with Christ, become merely a gathering of individuals, each with our own little private spiritual lives, our own quirky ideas about God and Jesus, none of us feeling the need to share our beliefs and our spiritual journey, nor to listen to those of others, so that we might grow into the unity that is ours in Christ by grace as Christ’s body and Christ’s bride. By the same token, we think the life of faith is just about what’s inside, our feelings and our personal relationship with Jesus. (Take a look at your favorite hymns.) What we do in our daily practices throughout the week, and what we do together working as one body in the world, all of that sometimes gets ignored or neglected. This is our Christian temptation, and it is made all the sharper because we live in an individualistic culture, one which assumes religion is a private affair and has nothing to do with being a people, with those things that are in the highest sense public.

We Christians need to hold on to that deeply personal, interior union with God in Christ that is our beautiful Christian witness, while not excluding everything beyond the personal. The mystery of God’s work in history created two distinct covenants stemming from Abraham’s seed, and the tragedy of human fallenness is that we have allowed these two paths to become mutually opposed and even enemies of one another. We need to be true to our Christian faith while also becoming more Jewish. We need to embrace, along with the internal life of faith, the external realities by which we walk in God’s ways, including the things we do with our bodies, our daily practices, our communal rituals. And we need to turn toward each other from the depths of our individual spiritual wisdom, and the wisdom of great Christian leaders, so that we can forge a common way of life, a Torah, a spiritual Law, something Paul himself talks about. We can become a true people, still honoring personal liberty, still open and turned outward and welcoming to all, but a genuine people of God, Christ’s living body. I’ve been longing for that my whole life. And I don’t think I’m the only one.


Canceling the Series on Faith and Politics, or, Watch Out What You Ask For

In First Samuel, the people pester God for a King so they can be like all the other nations.  God bitterly accedes to their request, warning them through Samuel that they will be sorry (1 Samuel 8).  I guess we’ve come a long way.  I offered to present a sermon series on faith and politics, and found it was roundly rejected….

What became clear to me is that. on the whole, we are not yet ready to hear anything regarding the meaning of faith for our political life.  The very conjunction of the words “faith” and “politics” acts as (to use a buzzword) a dog whistle, prompting a strong reaction before people can even hear what I’ve said.

I made the case in a June 16 post that my approach to faith and politics would be very different from how most preachers do this.  Most preachers try to sneak in political content and see how far they can get away with it.  I suspect many preachers want to feel like they are making what political difference they can, but as I suggested in that post, the result is often a self-righteous and theologically irresponsible statement on a big, “hot-button” national issue that will mean nothing anyway.  (Will you change the way one or two congregants vote in an election?  And so what?)  Others I think want to reorient the political values of the congregation on a larger and more meaningful scale, but this is done with manipulative rhetoric, typically forcing a political issue into the Bible or cherrypicking texts.  How is this loving and respecting your congregation?  Isn’t this just doing what our whole country is descending into: seeing each other as political obstacles to be manipulated by any means necessary?

Anyway, I already made the case that I will have no part in this kind of thing.  But I also argued that just politely avoiding all political content is no solution.  The Gospel is about a way of being a people, thus all that stuff about the “Kingdom of God.”   We’ve already gone way too far into making the gospel a purely private, personal matter–about how I find personal peace and forgiveness and perhaps life after death.  Jesus shows little interest in such a small scope of concern.

That aside, we have already been affected and changed by the growing polarization of our culture.  We are more and more dividing into two tribes, Red and Blue, and that division goes right through our denominations and our own congregation.  Must I say the obvious?  Trustees are Red.  Missions and CE are Blue.  (Obviously there are exceptions, but the tendency is striking.) We have self-segregated, like the whole country is self-segregating.  It would be naive to think that just staying the course is possible.  If we don’t address this openly and transparently, then Red and Blue will only more and more become our new Jew and Greek.

As I said, I discerned that we are not yet ready to address this matter transparently.  I received a kind note of concern to my previous post.  But I also received a very different note.  This one made its way to my inbox by accident.  It was from a congregant who was writing someone else that the pastor is going to preach on faith and politics, and complaining that “looks like we are not going to church in the fall.”  The message urged the friend to “READ his blog.”  There was also a disparaging comment about my pastoral care, which–though I’ve never been proud of how much pastoral care I provide with my 25 hours a week–was misinformed.

First of all, I write this blog as a way to explore ideas with my congregation, with the advantage that here it is easy to get feedback and continue conversation.  (I wish the “comment” feature was a little easier to use, but it is a free blog site.)  I expect more from the congregation to just scanning the blog to find something incriminating about me.  That’s how the Pharisees listened to Jesus (not to push the parallel too far).  Instead, I expect that you either won’t have time to read everything I say, and it’s not like it’s all drops of golden sunshine; or that you will read in good faith, thoughtfully considering what I say and telling me very directly when you read something that you find disagreeable.  You shouldn’t be trying to “catch” me.  That’s not what a community founded on love and mutual respect does.  I recognize the fact that pastoral authority can be frustratingly undemocratic; but you all have ways to express your disagreement directly and constructively, and many of you have seen how open and encouraging I am to this.

Second, the email I received exactly confirmed my point, that without addressing this issue head-on, we will simply continue to split more into Red and Blue.  The author was using (perceived) political issues to build a coalition along political lines against me.  But that’s exactly what I said was the problem that I was working on avoiding!  We should not be confiding with the people we already agree with politically about how those other people are so wrong and dangerous.  But that’s what was going on in that email, and I’ve heard people on the left in our congregation do the same thing.  We are already poisoned, all of us.

But whenever we continue in our very bad habit of talking about each other in the third person, creating coalitions against one another, I will counter the only way I know how: by being even more direct.  I went over to the household that produced that email; the author wasn’t in, but the spouse was, and I had a very good conversation–listening and talking–and explained how what I am trying to do is essential to what it means to be faithful to the Gospel, as well as to survive and thrive as a congregation.

I received no other strong reactions against my proposed sermon series.  But I still am postponing it.  (Note: not forever!)  I received from church leaders cautionary words, which is fine.  But no one said to me: “Yes, pastor, I hear what you are saying and see why this is so important.  We need this.”

But I think we do.  I can’t force it on you; that would be counterproductive and an abuse of authority.  So I am going to push us onward in another way.  Instead of the proposed series on faith and politics, this fall I’ll have a series on spiritual growth.  I’m creating a spiritual self-evaluation that will call on each one of us to discern where we have yet to grow in our faithfulness to God and to each other as a church.  I think we need to remember and put into practice the fact that our life in God is an endless path of growth and sanctification, even though we are already reconciled and united with God in Christ.  But the ramifications of that necessarily take up a whole lifetime.

So we are not by any means off the hook, only all the more on it, and I’m going to start reeling you upward.  Because we will not get anywhere in our need to become a people committed to a shared way of life before God, just by listening to what I have to say.  Our only way forward is to rise up together toward Christ.  Our whole life needs to be one of repenting and being converted by discerning Christ in each other.  The goal will be something higher than any of us possess right now, but we can only get there with and through each other.

And the authority my words carry is nothing I own.  It is never about just listening to my say-so.  Even so, my life is a constant testing of myself before God, and constant striving with God for the blessing of truth, and I constantly come out limping.  Even when I seem to have won a blessing, I am never sure whether God didn’t just pretend to let me win this one.  (See my sermon on Jacob.)  You also must wrestle with what I say, and put yourself to the test before God.  And finally our strivings must not be done alone, but together.  We are Congregational, which means no one else is going to help us figure out the truth of God.  It’s all up to us.  We should be terrified at this.  But one thing is clear in the Bible: Where the terror is, there also is the glory of God.



Aug. 6: “…Yet My Life is Preserved”

The sermon enjoyed a better reception than I expected.  Could it be I kept it to 12 minutes?  

Romans 9:1-5 ; Genesis 32:22-32

We began by recognizing and respecting our bodies as a blessing and an integral gift to seeking God. And then we recognized our individual self, our personal concerns, and set them before God in prayer. This is right and good. God warmly cares about each one of us, wishing that each of us thrive and enjoy our created life.

I wouldn’t want to stop there, however. We’re not really God’s church and kingdom if we don’t go beyond our personal concerns. I was reminded of this by a former student of mine who, I was delighted to learn, is now going on to pastoral ministry. And it is always humbling to learn something from a former student. In a seminary article she made this observation about churches like ours, that are mostly white and middle-class: “[These churches] that I have encountered view the role of the pastor to be one of comfort and taking care of members. With this view of the pastoral role, faith becomes a mostly personal endeavor and a personal affair. Not only is the prophetic voice lost, but the pastor’s individual voice can also be lost.” Amen, Judith. She wants our churches to go beyond personal faith concerns to address the issues that shape our common world, especially racism. I humbly agree with my former student. I do hope that she will discover pastoral care to be a beautiful part of ministry, one that ultimately deals with the same humanity as does the church’s witness on social issues. About the latter I have more to say, but I am saving that for my blog.

But according to our bulletin (which is a sneaky way of saying “according to me,” because I pretty much wrote the bulletin), we have moved on from the Self segment and are now in the Spirit segment of our service. In this segment we rise above our personal concerns and, primarily through the mysterious reality we call God’s Word and reflection on it, we seek to attain a unity of mind. Paul tells the Corinthians, “You should be united in the same mind and the same purpose.” And later he adds, “We have the mind of Christ.” If we can have a unity of mind and purpose based on a transcendent union with Christ, then when we actually enact being a community, being God’s people and kingdom, which is what we do in the last segment of worship, our work together will be vitalizing, conflict-free, and really potent.

Now unity of mind doesn’t mean we have to agree on everything or think perfectly alike. Being the Body of Christ means learning to love and honor our natural diversity. I certainly don’t mean we all should think like ME. I get really tired of my own mind. But part of our life together involves striving to be mindful together about following God in our world today. It’s typically my job to lead this, but we can’t really attain Spirit, unity of mind, unless you keep me true, like my former student Judith just kept me true. So starting today, I’m going to try to not run all over the place during fellowship hour, but plant myself at one table to listen to any thoughts you have on the sermon or service, including this kooky experiment in four-parts. Come sit down with me and share freely. My list of virtues is short, but I do take criticism very well.

Also this August, I want to focus on Old Testament texts. I’ll say more on that as the month goes, and more on Paul’s continuing attempt in Romans to come to terms with the Judaism he was raised on. I know we all love to read the New Testament. It’s an excellent witness to our faith when it was fresh and young and vital. But guess what: it isn’t that anymore. We are much more like the ancient Israelites of the second temple period, or maybe even those living in exile and captivity, than like the early Christians of Acts or Paul’s churches. Like the writers and compilers of the Old Testament, we live our faith in the wake of a long and tired struggle with corruption and flagging energy, and we often have a hard time understanding who God is in the midst of all this. While usually the New Testament speaks as if everything has been made so clear and final through the light of Christ’s resurrection and the gift of the Holy Spirit, the Old Testament often compels us to be honest about our own questions and puzzlement about God.

Take today’s reading about Jacob’s all-night struggle with whoever that was. Having heard it, even though it may be a familiar story, are any of you left with the illusion that the meaning and moral of this story is simple and clear? That’s what a lot of people would like to expect from the Bible, and from the preacher: a simple, clear message to help us keep on keepin’ on. The only clear message I imagine any of us got so far is, “Don’t eat that thigh muscle that is on top of the hip socket.” If you are satisfied with that carving tip, you may stop listening to the rest of the sermon.

The story is utterly perplexing to us, especially in English and with no context. I could unleash a mountain of scholarship on you and explain the three or more puns involved in the story. If you love puns, then Genesis is your book. This story alone draws on a pun between Jabbok and the word “to wrestle” and well as “Jacob;” a second pun between the name “Israel,” introduced here, and the word from “striving;” and a third pun between Peniel (or was it Penuel?) and the phrase, “face of God.” Of course, those puns only work in Hebrew, and they just aren’t as fun when you translate them.

There’s also so much to be said about the context and setting of this story. Jacob is re-entering the land promised him by God. On the way out to start his family, he had his famous dream vision of the ladder to God (nicely alluded to in our Anthem). On the way back, he is under a dire threat that everything he has gained—his wives and children, his wealth and flocks, his father’s blessing which he stole from his brother (and who knew such a thing could be stolen?)—all this and his very life might perish at the hands of his angry, red and furry brother Esau (who in this story symbolizes the nation Esau or Edom, Israel’s neighbors who are kin but often hostile.) This story brings us to another dramatic climax in the Genesis story, like the one I left off with in June, when God calls Abraham to sacrifice Isaac. As in that story, today it looks again like the whole promise and plan of God might not come to pass. The promise of prosperity and descendants, given originally to Abraham but also as a promise to “all the nations,” including us, looks like it might go belly up after all, for Jacob and everything he has might be destroyed. This time the culprit will not be a God who bafflingly decides that all of the sudden he wants a sacrifice, but Jacob’s own trickery coming back to haunt him. Esau is understandably furious.

I think there’s a profound point standing behind this sibling rivalry. Israel as a nation, though chosen by God and charged to be holy and unique, was in many ways just another nation, living by all the tricks and machinations that nations use to get one up on their neighbors. Each of our churches is also, in many respects, just another human organization, seeking to compete for attention and resources, like any organization. Why do we, in our lowly, ordinary humanity, deserve to think of ourselves as chosen and blessed by God, as an incarnation of God’s very kingdom? I think Jacob is wondering, as we might also wonder, why he deserves to inherit such a blessing—why not Esau, or anyone else. And we are close to Jacob’s plight in another way, for we also are well aware, now more than ever, that our two churches might not live forever. Will the inheritance be passed on?

Like Abraham in his trial when called to sacrifice Isaac, Jacob shows that he is willing to put everything on the line for God. He has already sent a big portion of his flocks and wealth ahead as a gift to Esau, hoping it will appease him. Then in our passage he sends his wives and his children across the Jabbok river. He is left alone. Alone the uncertainty of his life’s outcome. With no family to distract him or to help him pretend there is no crisis.   Alone in not knowing what God has in store for him.

Then the story gets really weird, but as weird as it gets, amid all those puns that don’t work for us, the amazing thing is that we still feel like we are at the brink of a great and compelling mystery. A man appears and wrestles with Jacob. Or was it a man? It also seems to have been an angel of God—or was it God in person, this stranger who refused to give his name? Stranger still, Jacob seems to get the better of the man / God, who, like a vampire, seems to be desperate to leave before sunrise, and begs Jacob to let him go. Jacob doesn’t let the man / God go until he blessed him, making Jacob a serial blessings-stealer. Then the man/ God renames him, saying “You shall be called Israel, for you have striven with God and with humans, and have prevailed.” Jacob himself gets in the last pun, this time on the name Peniel, which he riffs on by saying, “I have seen God face to face, and yet my life is preserved.” He says this because it was thought that God was so holy, and so incomprehensibly beyond us mere mortals, that were we to see God directly, face to face, God would blow our minds.

It’s all very strange. But maybe that’s just what we need a little dose of. We get in the habit of trying to make church very normal. And so we emphasize the normal good things that we do as a church: some will say we encourage fellowship and instill good values, others will say we serve those in need and those who are neglected and rejected. All of this is good. Who would object to any of that? But perhaps we’ve made ourselves so normal, so commonsensical, that neither we nor anyone outside can remember a compelling reason to come to church and attend to the “Spirit” section of worship, especially when folks can find fellowship, values, and social justice outside of the church if they want to.

But where else can you strive with God, and overcome God? What a bafflingly fresh way to think about what we do here. We usually talk about how God has blessed us and given us so much, and didn’t even hold back God’s own son, but gave him up for our sakes. God just gives and gives, and we respond with thanks. But I think this weird Jacob story is showing us the underbelly of our religion. We take from God. We appropriate God as our own. We do claim God is present with us, do we not? Implying that God is more present here than elsewhere? And that we are particularly blessed? and we exert ourselves, not without some wounds, in our struggle to overcome God and claim this blessing. Who is more guilty of this, more like Jacob, more perilously near to being a blessing-stealer, than I? Don’t I pretend to have God in my clutches, to have overcome the mysterious and unknowable one, when I supposedly tell you what God wants you to do? This also is faith; not just a grateful, obedient receiving from God that we know from Abraham, but a terrifying and audacious grappling with God.

And God lets this be done by Jacob. God lets us us get away with claiming his name and authority, and forcing a blessing from it. God even lets humanity wrestle him to the cross. Maybe if we let the Jacob story shock us into seeing what we are doing here in a new light, we will take church less for granted. We too will, like Jacob, be amazed that we have come this close, as close as sharing a meal, to the God whom man cannot see face to face, and yet our lives have been preserved.



Fever, Sin, and the Doctor’s Office

Perhaps you share my cursed flaw.  You think that you are a reasonably intelligent person and should be at least listened to by a doctor when it comes to your own opinions about what ails you.

Thus it was that I found myself in the doctor’s office today.  I’ve had cold symptoms for two and a half weeks, particularly a persistent cough.  Silas had the cold first, briefly; Jessica got it the same time but was mostly over it after a week.  Five days ago, if not earlier, I discovered on my first day back from the beach that I had a fever:  a respectable 101.3.  By nightfall it had subsided, but it returned again in the late morning or around noon.  The next day I went to see a doctor.  He was incredibly casual, listening to my chest two quick times through my shirt.  I don’t believe he checked my glands or throat.  He told me I have a URI (upper respiratory infection) that was stubborn and causing the fever.  He decreed it was not bacterial (his notes said that he “educated patient that the fever was viral, not bacterial).  Perhaps he feels constantly put upon to prescribe antibiotics, which, true enough, should not be over-prescribed.  My chest is clear, he concluded (if quickly), so it must be viral.  Besides, as he said in his notes, studies show that antibiotics administered after the normal 7-10 days of a cold typically do not help.  Why attend to the particular of a case when you have statistics?  I should add that he was friendly, rather funny, and maddeningly breezy about the whole thing.  I had never had a cold or flu like this, that suddenly turns into a fever after two weeks.

Meanwhile, I friend mentioned something he had seen about a new tick born illness.  I found the article on anaplasmosis.  Apparently it attacks white blood cells.  Interesting match of symptoms.  Fever.  I had experienced a loss of appetite most of last week, long before I detected a fever–and that wouldn’t go along with a cold (unless it was a flu I had).  Tiredness, which only lately had become a problem.  No rash, unlike Lyme disease.   There were other symptoms that didn’t match, but the disease manifests itself variously.

I was by no means convinced by one article that I must have this disease.  I know that we non-physicians have our hypochondriacal tendencies.  And I hadn’t discovered a tick bite for a few months.  I found engorged ticks on me in April and in May, but I never had a rash.

But I was enjoying the puzzle of it all.  Why this fever, so far into a cold?  And why was I not getting better?  Then I a fun hypothesis came to me.  What if I contracted anaplasmosis back in May, even, but it didn’t manifest itself?  It often only shows up in people with compromised immune systems, esp. the elderly.  What if I was keeping it in check with my immune system until I caught a cold in late July, and then with the added stress on my immune system, the anaplasmosis bacteria got the upper hand?  Could it then start to manifest the symptoms of fever and fatigue, while also impairing my white blood cells from getting rid of this cold.  And why can’t I beat this cold, anyway, if my lungs are clear and I have no sinus infection?

I enjoyed my hypothesis and respected it as such–a long-shot blind guess badly in need of expert testing.  But worthy of a Doc Martin episode!  I looked forward to going back to the doctor.  Since three more days had passed, and my fever had persisted (lessened but not nullified by taking acetaminophen), it was time.

Of course I was going to be crushed and disrespected.  What, should I dare to consider myself a partner in my own diagnosis?  Who do I think I am?  The doctor–a different one–was pleasant.  And he did a better job.  He checked me out more thoroughly, and discovered a whistle going on when I breathe.  (He even let me hear it, which was fun.)  I made the mistake of mentioning early on that I had read about anaplasmosis.  I think he was alerted that he has a patient who has read something and has convinced himself that he has it.  I am sure this happens frequently.

So he reached the conclusion–not, oddly, seeking any additional tests–that I have something in the vicinity of bronchitis and perhaps a touch of pneumonia. (Not exactly precise.)  The first doctor had perhaps missed it.  But he would give me antibiotics.

I was expected to simply receive this and be grateful–which to some extent I was.  But I asked: “Could it be anaplasmosis?  I’ve had tick bites.”  Everything about his body posture was dismissive.  He didn’t look up.  “No,” he replied.  Perhaps I had the temerity to ask why not, or maybe he just added: “Tick-born illnesses are never URIs.”

Well, no shit, I wanted to say.  I already said I got the cold from my son.  He didn’t understand my argument at all, but he made it clear that he had no interest in my ideas.  Imagine, for instance, if he looked up and said, “Why do you think so?”  And then I made my case, which would include loss of appetite and the fact that the fever seemed to precede an evident infection in my lungs.  Then he could say: “Ah, that’s interesting.”  (This, after all, is how I used to respond to my students when they brought up ideas that I knew, from training in my expertise that far outstrips what this doctor has in his.)  Then he could review why my symptoms do and do not match that of anaplasmosis.  I would then feel like I had been listened to, even if his diagnosis stood.  As it is now, I can’t even tell if he gave the idea any serious attention.  I’m not even sure he knows much about anaplasmosis–a few years ago there was once case diagnosed in Hamden County.  But that’s why you have conversations, so that you both have an understanding.  Instead, I leave feeling disrespected and not listened to.

Imagine if I acted like that with my congregants?  If every time someone shared something that occurred to him when reading the Bible, I made it clear that his opinion is irrelevant, because I am a professional and he is not?  Pastors and professors can’t get away with such arrogance.  Why can doctors, when the issue is not the Bible or an Ibsen play but my own damn body?

I hope he is right.  But, while I’m no expert, I also know something about the philosophy of science.  I would not be surprised if this doctor never read Feyerabend, or Kuhn, or Foucault.  But he showed the classic symptoms: disregard what doesn’t fit into your current paradigm; police the borders of your professional identity.  It’s amazing how good scientists can be at shutting down the pursuit of truth.  This is one of those ironic guises of sin, when human beings, because of many factors but certainly pride among them, do the very thing they want not to do (Rom. 7).

And–not to get too puffed up with my own pride here–but what if my hypothesis were correct?  What if lots of people could carry a low-grade infection of anaplasmosis that doesn’t manifest itself until you contract something else, and then it contributes to that infection being much more stubborn.  These describes what many people have told me in the past year.

Now, look what I have done.  I have opened the internet door–and fortunately I have very few readers–to a mass panic and ‘alt-science’ movement, perhaps akin to the destructive theories about the dangers of child immunization.  Now everyone will be paranoid that we all have anaplasmosis!  I loathe such pseudoscience.  But now I understand a little better what feeds it: the unscientific arrogance of some professional physicians.

“Moana” and the Gospel

As I near the end of my vacation, my thoughts are beginning to turn again to the church in the world.  Today we took an indoor break at the Cape with Jessica’s family to watch a movie for the kids: the 2016 Disney movie Moana.  Silas had watched it on the plane sitting next to me several weeks ago and enjoyed it.

It is a very fine movie; all of us agreed, children and adults.  I am about as suspicious of Disney as anyone, but I am powerless to resist a moving and inspiring story decked out with catchy music and stunning animation.  There are also many important accomplishments in the movie I could dwell on: a strong female lead, a sympathetic portrayal of an often neglected culture, a plot that undercuts the appearance of an evil villain.

A worry crept in as I was swept along, nearly to the point of tears in some scenes.  How can the church compete–if that is the word–against a production so slick, so ideologically admirable and non-threatening, and a message so uplifting?  (But what was ‘the message?’  “Be true to yourself and your vocation?”  There was a strong theme of self-determination there, but set within an admirable communitarian ethic: Moana is supported and respected by her people and motivated by wanting to help them.  Ecology certainly factored in–relevant at a time when people in the region are facing severe consequences of climate change.  The mythology and theology of the movie were a bit of a jumble.   The origin of all the evil seemed to lie in a likely culprit: Maui was not loved as a child.  But the flaws here were inoffensive and did not get in the way.

I believe the Church cannot allow its particular story to be bowled over by the impressive feats of popular culture, even when done right.  Let’s not be churlish and resentful–we can admire where appropriate.  But the story of Jesus Christ and our union with him is not lacking at all by comparison with what is on offer in the theaters.  And the inspiring uplift that films provide is no substitute for lifelong practices within community that ought to be what we find at church.  So long as what we commit ourselves to is finally an alternative to the world of “products,” we will never have to worry about “competing.”  And I for one do not want to go up against the juggernaut that is Disney.