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Wednesday, April 25, 2018

Climate Change

    This article is not about climate change in the environment, though our long winter is just one more piece of evidence suggesting such change is upon us.  I don’t want to wade into the argument about whether humans are causing crazy weather.  The science is pretty clear: we humans are having some impact.  I wonder how much of the change might be attributed to other factors, but I’m a minister—not a scientist-- so I’m writing about changes in our social climate rather than our natural one.
       So I observe that behavior that shames and threatens is becoming more and more common the more secular we become.  This social climate change is destroying our collective capacity to adapt to any challenge.  Let me try to be delicate: as a preacher I think some of the well-meant concern for the environment comes off as a little too preachy. 
       Don’t get me wrong.  I’ve been interested in renewable energy my whole life. I want to see us plan communities where we are not so dependent on the automobile.  But I don’t want to hear that I’d better change my environmental footprint or be cast into a world-wide apocalyptic nightmare.   This may be true enough.  But this kind of fear isn’t the best motivator.  I can tell a person with COPD that he’s going to die if he doesn’t quit smoking to calm his nerves, but heaping death threats on him is not likely to calm him down.
        Some of this secular, “green” moralizing has all the subtlety of the road-side evangelism of my youth.  “Avoid hell.”  The signs said.  “Repent before it is too late.”  One time a youth pastor, a kind of self-appointed John the Baptist, started preaching to me and my 13 year old peers as if we were corrupt officials in Herod’s regime.  None of us were innocent, of course, but the dumb stuff we were doing was already caused by fear.   Heaping additional fears on us didn’t help.
      Only hope helps.  Paul tells us that virtues “rest on the hope of eternal life.”  People will naturally take care of what they think will always be theirs to enjoy.  Christians care for the world with the assurance that God will purge the world of all deathly elemental forces. (2 Peter 3:12) This hope is not extinguished by bad human behavior, for our hope is not rooted in science or human strategy, but in God.   It seems that once society is cut off from such joyous hope, we inevitably grow fond of pestering and fear-mongering.           

Wednesday, March 28, 2018

Mourning Chaos

      This week my town mourns a broken creation.  Our world is stalked by death.  Children shoot each other, bridges fall on people, and monstrous chaos incomprehensibly careens into some of our leading citizens' dreams. Easter means nothing unless we face this squarely. 
      Not long ago, a bereaved son, who had lost his mom to cancer, told me he did not want to hear anybody say, “God has a plan; God has a plan.” I don’t blame him.  If there is anything crueler than death, it’s telling the bereaved that God orchestrated their loved one’s murder in order to accomplish some inscrutable good.  That’s more insensitive than saying humans are nothing more than bio-chemicals; and, therefore, a mother’s death is nothing more than a change in chemical composition.  No, the grieving son’s instincts are right.  With the perfect mixture of rage and grief, he cried that his mother’s death “is just not fair.”   
      For many, unjust suffering seems to argue against faith in God.  One young man once pointed me to a video about some small creature who cruelly keeps its prey alive while it slowly sucks its life out.  “How,” this person asked, “could a loving God create a cruel world like that?”     
     “Because Jews and Christians believe that the process of creation is obstructed and unfinished,” I responded.
     He seemed unaware of this.  My questioner didn’t know that Christians believe alien forces of death have lodged themselves into an ongoing creative process and that it is a central tenet of Christian faith that God in Christ entered creation’s experience, suffering a most cruel and unfair death.  Nor had this man considered Jesus’ resurrection being a kind of renewed act of creation which shakes the unjust order to its foundation.  When God raised Jesus, this Jesus became the “first-fruits” of a “new creation” where Lion and lamb will one day lay down together.
     As the earth shook on Easter morning the angels announced the news to which church bells continue to give advanced notice: death and injustice will be damned.  While they are presently still with us, they will not have the last word.    

Monday, March 19, 2018

The Swerve

       In April 1973 my great grandmother, Monte Stanger, turned over in bed, speechless, reaching for her husband.  Grandpa Ira didn’t think anything of her embrace.  In the morning he got up to make coffee.  He returned to the bedroom, unable to awaken her.  The time for aiding her had passed away when she had vainly reached for him in the night.
       I was eight years old when I overheard this account of grandma’s stroke-- too young to have my psychological defenses against death dismantled.  Until then I’d pretended that death only came to other people’s families. Facing such forces of destruction so early led me to become a precocious little philosopher. 
      So, it was again at a much too tender age that I picked up Lucretius’ On the Nature of Things at Howard’s Bookstore in Bloomington.  There’s no shortage of things a young man can lay ahold of in Bloomington, including an ancient Epicurean philosopher who believed that we are nothing more than atomic particles in motion.  The late Stephen Hawking likened us to “chemical scum.” The rock group, Kansas, no less starkly said, “all we are is dust in the wind.”
      Recently, I re-read Lucretius, noticing a critical feature of his argument.  Lucretius hypothesized that atoms swerve to combine and make an increasingly complex world.  Lucretius never discusses where such an unaccountable swerve comes from. 
      Yet, it’s some swerve!   In order for the element Carbon, upon which all life is based, to have been formed in the slow-burning bellies of ancient stars, gravity and expansive force had to be minutely balanced. I’m told that the odds of this happening are like that of one person winning the lottery…numerous times… in a row.  I’m no mathematician, but when the same fellow keeps winning the lottery, my bet is the game is rigged. 
      Indeed, the world does seem rigged, swerving in favor of life against the odds.  So, you will perhaps forgive my Easter faith for believing that a Presence more loving than my sleeping grandfather one again swerved down to catch my grandmother as she reached out in the night.

Monday, March 12, 2018

The Day Voltaire Died

     On the third floor of Ballantine Hall, at Indiana University there was a study room.  At 11:00 AM I plopped my book-bag down near an open window.  It was seasonably warm and uncommonly still for early Spring in Bloomington.
       I began reading about the Enlightenment (that intellectual movement in the 1700’s that denied the miraculous) when the tree outside the window unaccountably twisted. Its branches violently shook in a sudden burst of near gale-force wind.  I would have ignored this except that along with the burst I felt a simultaneous shock and heaviness.  My heart rate accelerated and the back of my neck burned.  I got up to “walk it off” as if I’d had the wind knocked out of me.
     The experience seemed unaccountable.  It was probably five minutes before my heart-rate returned to something closer to normal, and I was able to plunge back into my study of that sharp-tongued advocate of Enlightenment--Voltaire.
     A voluminous writer, a champion of human rights and toleration, Voltaire was also a bitterly sarcastic philanderer and critic of Christianity.  He died May 30, 1778 angrily dismissing the Catholic priests who tried to minister to him.
      That evening, as I was returning home from class, I noticed dozens of cars in my grandparents’ yard.  I stopped, and my Father, teary-eyed, walked toward me with the news:      
    “We lost Papaw this morning.” 
      It had happened at 11:00 AM.
      March 24, 1987 was not just the day my grandfather died.  It marked the death of the Enlightenment’s influence on me.  However I might have construed my 11:00 AM experience that day, its exact synchronicity with papaw’s heart attack was too much to ignore. Voltaire simply couldn’t account for it.  I concluded that mysterious powers were at work in the world, and they were not merely indifferent to my grief.
      People wonder how someone with an appreciation for hard science can believe that Christ’s body rose from the dead. One kind of answer is that I know that I’m not imagining things.  My experience was real.  Voltaire was wrong. That tree moved.  

Friday, March 9, 2018

My Psalm 147

We shall overcome,
rebuild Jerusalem
with a song:

a Chinese baby
leans forward on a mother’s lap
a gathered exile
bouncing to the beat--

An stately Black woman
rises, right arm raised to the sky
“yes, yes, yes!”
Wounds bound.

Professional eyes,
bloodshot, now weighty with scorn
widen with strength to be quiet
as he stands for the chorus.

Young ideas
startled into a blank stare--
an impulse checked--
love restored. 

Sing with thanksgiving;
strum away a sprinters confidence,
replacing it with hopeful rest
in all excelling love Divine.

Extol the Lord, Oh Jerusalem!
Strengthen the bars of our gates.
Re-water the world from on high--
remake everything with his

primordial, last words.

We shall overcome,
rebuild Jerusalem
with a song.

Friday, March 2, 2018

My Psalm 148

Let them praises give Jehovah!

And can it be
that I am able to speak into
heavenly heights I can only imagine?
Since when can I speak to the moon and stars,

the chaos of the deep and the waters above the firmament?

How do I
exhort the temple mount
with all it’s fruit trees and evergreens?
I’ve known people who are convinced they can talk to their birds.
But I’ve seldom talked to trees.  I’ve rarely attempted to commune with crickets. 

I’m not sure this
White House listens to anybody.
The races won’t listen to each other let alone me.
Men and women are so seldom on the same wavelength.
I’m pretty sure young people don’t always want to hear from old farts.


Let them praises give Jehovah!
For his name alone makes cohorts fall down
His glory is above everything—it connects with everything.
It will not be ignored.  He has raised his people with this horn of authority:
All creation will join together in the praise of his holy ones, even the children of Israel.

convening power 
this song of delight sung by all of God’s singers!
Everything—everyone, now, in the tightest of tight harmony!
For his name alone pitches the heights and the deep so that every deaf thing hears.

Let them praises give Jehovah!

My Psalm 149

Ps 149:5-6
 Let the faithful shout in glory while on their private couch
May the praise of God be in their mouths as a double-edged sword in their hands

I heard in heaven a new song,
and not the modern kind of new.
It wasn’t a bigger, better, and a patented original.
It was a melody intensely familiar--
evoking the scent of Easter in my childhood--
before religion was deafened
by sophisticated disappointments.
And the unfamiliar, distinct measures
re-energized my old age.

May the whole gathered church
vibrate the world to its core
with ever-new waves of heaven--
Sanctuary sounds emanating from on high
through every private prayer-room--
when we shout and sing.

There’s no more powerful weapon.
The song is a double edged sword--
The one that comes from Jesus’ mouth into ours.
Our song is the instrument he uses
to shackle the thugs of all nations
and to advance justice.

Never underestimate the social power
Of a new song from the Source.
For it is written:
Such redemptive singing is our great honor.