Tuesday, November 29, 2005

Request for Advent Verses

This is a day late (for which I apologize), but I now officially ask for submissions of favorite Advent verses or short texts. In the "Comments," please feel free to add something that guides you through the season.

A very blessed Advent to you.


Thursday, November 17, 2005

Preparation for Advent

We are on the cusp of Advent -- my favorite season of the Church's year. For my daily reflectioin, I will be dusting off my copy of Watch for the Light: Readings for Advent and Christmas compiled by the Bruderhof community and now published by Orbis (because the Bruderhof shut down their hard-print business -- something I lament). Amazon has it for under $11.

I'm opening up myself up here, I know, but I invite you to share with the Versus Populum community a favorite or challenging or touching Advent verse (or paragraph or two).

On the first Monday of Advent, I'll post a short message offering space for contributions. Feel free to add your favorite to the Comments space. (I don't encourage more than a couple of paragraphs -- unless it happens to be one of my favorite thinkers . Since the post will remain open, you need not post that day: I surely hope you will discover something amazing during the season. Feel free to add to the wealth throughout the season.

You have been notified, "noticed" (in legal jargon), and warned.

A Church-State Case Study

There is a cool controversy cooking over the boundaries of political action by pastors and congregations in their capacities as pastors and congregations.

Here's the story as reported by the LA Times last week. Apparently, just before the 2004 election (on Reformation Day, as it turned out -- though Episcopalian haven't received that feast into their calendars), a retired rector of All Saints Church in LA preached a sermon in which he imagined that Jesus debated with George Bush and John Kerry. The rector several times told the parishioners that he was not telling them how to vote, but he came down squarely against the Vietnam, Gulf I, and Gulf II wars. Following a complaint, the IRS has issued a warning that the tax exempt status of the parish is in danger because of its partisan activities.

Here's a blog post from Hugo (admittedly partisan in the last election) who actually heard the sermon. He follows up here. (Thanks to Camassia for bringing this to my attention through her own blog -- and for raising my hackles.)

The issue of church life and politics is at the heart of what I try to think about through this blog. I do not support pastors' preaching their partisan politics -- either from the pulpit or from their lapels. Even I, as difficult as this is to admit, must acknowledge that on most -- i.e., the vast majority -- of political issues, people of faith may disagree. (It's a sign, often, that the devil is alive and well that some of my friends don't agree with my clearly correct positions. But what can I say?) Endorsements of specific candidates or causes is not something the Church may do because it invariably means endorsing something that the Gospel stands against. That's because any candidate or cause has made compromises to get where he or she or it is. So while Al Franken might make a better senator than Norm Coleman, no church may say so because Al Franken also supports many things that faithful Christians ought to oppose (e.g., easy -- indeed, almost unthinking -- of abortion "rights").

The Gospel doesn't compromise: It is not Gospel to say "Let's compromise on the matter of sin. You're not so bad; you just need a little boost to be perfect and saved." Neither is it appropriate for the Body of Christ to encourage something less than faithfulness to the Will of God. Put another way, it is not the Church's business to adopt the agenda of anyone or anything other than God.

Of course, the Gospel compels the faithful into the streets and institutions of the world. We are called and commanded and empowered to feed the hungry and clothe the naked and visit the lonely and relief the oppressed and ... and ... and ... . Sometimes we may be called individually to give Gospel care to someone. With respect to the big issues of the day -- e.g., relieving the need for food or shelter or healthcare -- group (read: political) action is necessary. And that group action is not dictated (at least usually) from any passage of scripture. Prudential analysis takes into account other considerations than the Gospel mandate to do something: Economists, sociologists, nurses -- the disciplines may and should reasonably be employed to inform believers as they work our (i.e., live out) their salvation with fear and trembling.

The Church has no special expertise to set (or promote) the political agenda. But, of course, that does not mean that her voice should be denied access to the "public square." There is every reason for the Church -- by means of her members' acting individually and collectively and through missives from her bishops -- to petition the governmental structures for actions that will shape the society more along the lines that comport with the Will of God, who is, after Lord of all.

It's an art, more than science, to draw the line. I remember my amusement when Lutherans on a listserv of my acquaintance were excoriating +Mark Hanson for a letter to President Bush criticizing his proposed budget: "Where does Jesus show that he has an economics?" they asked. Well, I personally think that Jesus does indeed have an economics -- and it isn't capitalism. But their point was that Jesus was not speaking to governments, but to individuals. But I've suggested my take on that point above. But what is politicking and what is proclamation? Why does the IRS seem unconcerned about the -- shall we say -- right-leaning (if lying flat on the ground is leaning) congregations of certain note that notoriously promote right-leaning Republicans by name and party? And what about all those campaign appearances during worship services? Why has the IRS chosen this congregation for singular treatment?

I am convinced that the current US Administration has no shame and is not above using for purely partisan reasons the various agencies of government which have the authority to wreak havoc on people and institutions. (And, yes, that is a partisan opinion -- although I am not a member of the Democratic Party or even a hanger-thereon. But I think the evidence bears that out -- or will in a couple decades when the various public media get out from under the self-imposed censorship that gives the Administration a free or, at least, inexpensive ride. I think this is a purely partisan move against All Saints congregation, and I lament it.

But, by the same token, I see coming out of the situation the opportunity for renewed attention to the role of church in society. Is Church the guarantor of the society in which it dwells? (I think that theory is alive and well in many Anglican and Eastern branches.) Is the Church "a player" in the political drama? (That is certainly the Falwell-Robertson-Reed-et.al. understanding.) Ought it to be a "player" or a critic or above the fray? Ought Christians concern themselves only with individual action or perhaps even with withdrawal from the public "arena" all together?

Preachers, how do you proclaim the gospel in such a way as to unfold its political meaning (for to avoid that is to render the Gospel pretty much nugatory) without thereby falling into partisan traps? (It is certainly possible -- and I don't encourage any preacher deliberately to avoid any mention of partisan issues. That's a sort of gnostic impulse, in my opinion.)

Are there ways for congregations to teach their people "how" to vote without telling them "for whom" to vote? (I'd sign up for such an adult forum, for sure.)

You have a chance to join in support of All Saints by signing a statement that both raises concern about the IRS pressure on All Saints and rejects efforts to change the law of the land to allow express partisan activity by congregations and pastors. (There is apparently an effort afoot in Congress to allow political endorsements and activity by pastors and congregations. And the law would, so says the statement, allow parties to funnel money to congregations in exchange for political campaigning. (Can you imagine what that would do to the unity of the Body of Christ?) Check it out here. Perhaps needless to say, I signed. (It couldn't hurt, could it?)

Wednesday, November 09, 2005

Reading Lists

Clint, over at Lutheran Confessions, has been boasting about the high quality of his reading. I say "boasting" as a joke and "high quality" because he cites to a couple of my favorite authors: Wendell Berry is hard to beat and Louise Erdrich has been one of my "pet authors" for almost as long as she has been publishing. (She's originally from North Dakota, so I, as a former North Dakotan, began reading her out of a sense of chauvinistic duty. I stayed because she draws fascinating characters.)

I have followed up on Clint's lists of good authors by suggesting for his enjoyment Robertson Davies and Reynolds Price.

Now I invite you into the conversation. How about sharing the name of a splendid author on your shelves or one or two novels that you return to, or would return to, to read again.

To put myself on the line: Wendell Berry's Jayber Crow is one of the most touching novels I have read. (It is also one of the best meditations on the nature of fidelity that I can imagine.) (Nelle) Harper Lee's To Kill a Mockingbird has been on my re-read list since I was in 6th grade (which I think is about 12 years after it was written, and which caused my mother to question the propriety of the book for a sixth grader: Who knew Mother read high-class literature?) Incidentally, I hope the book gets a boost in sales as a result of its treatment in the movie Capote. Harper Lee, of course, accompanied her nearly life-long friend Truman Capote to Kansas to begin to gather material that became the book In Cold Blood. It was while doing that that Lippincott accepted the book for publication and that Paramount (I think) made the movie (one of the all-time greats, too). I also recommend Wallace Stegner's Crossing to Safety and almost anything by Robertson Davies.

So here's a list to which you should add some:

Wendell Berry, Jayber Crow
Robertson Davies, Rebel Angels
Harper Lee, To Kill a Mockingbird
Louise Erdrich, The Last Report on the Miracles at Little No Horse
Wallace Stegner, Crossing to Safety
Reynolds Price, A Promise of Rest
Gail Godwin, Father Melancholy's Daughter (for the liturgically inspired: read the sequel, Evensong, though it's not as good)

Now, friends, it's your turn. Share some ideas. I don't care if you prefer "the Classics" (you'll notice a conspicuous absence of such from my list -- although certainly Mockingbird might arguably be included -- even though I am a subscriber to the Library of America and have a roomful of the slipcased, acid-free papered, fabric-bookmarked volumes) or "cyberpunk" (a passion, apparently, of Clint's) or romance or science fiction (does anyone want to comment on The Sparrow and Children of God?). Share the wisdom.

Because Advent is not so far away, do you have any suggestions for a good read during Advent?

Sorry to steal your idea, Clint, but thanks for the idea.


Tuesday, November 08, 2005

A Word from Sojourners

I try to limit "partisan" political discussion on this blog. Yesterday, I dumped about 4 pages on the subject of this post. But this call to action from Jim Wallis of the Sojourners Fellowship is good, accurate, and faithful. And so, even though I'm sure it will be perceived as partisan by those who don't read this blog, I offer it here:

The death of compassionate conservatism
by Jim Wallis

Last week, I spoke with other religious leaders at a press conference in the U.S. Capitol, urging the House of Representatives to oppose cuts in social services in their budget bill. When it was over, we walked to the rotunda to offer a prayer for our nation and its leaders, that they would do the right thing for people in poverty. Suddenly, we were face to face with Speaker Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.) and took the opportunity to deliver our message directly to him. He listened politely, but offered little response.

The House is scheduled to begin debate tomorrow on its budget bill, which includes $54 billion in cuts. On the table are cuts of $9.5 billion in Medicaid - by requiring co-pays for pregnant women and children for the first time; $8 billion in foster care, child support enforcement, and aid to the disabled; and $844 million in the Food Stamps Program, which would prevent 300,000 people from receiving food stamps. Forty thousand children would be cut from reduced-price school lunches. Lawmakers intend to follow these with a further cut of $70 billion in taxes that will primarily benefit the top 3% of taxpayers. The message from Congress is that in
response to Hurricane Katrina, we're going to cut services for the poor, cut taxes for the rich, and increase deficits for our children and grandchildren. These plans for deep cuts to social supports, paid for by tax cuts for the wealthiest, are contrary to the national priorities we need to protect our most vulnerable citizens. We need strong moral leadership in Congress, especially during this time of war, record deficits, rising poverty and hunger, and natural disasters. Cutting food stamps and health care that meet the basic needs of poor families is an outrage. Cutting social services to pay for further tax cuts for the rich is a moral travesty that violates biblical priorities. The House leadership seems to be saying they literally want to take food from the mouths of children to make rich people richer. If this ideology and politics of rich over poor prevails and our leaders fail to govern from a set of moral values, then the religious community must conclude that compassionate conservatism is dead.

As this battle for the budget unfolds, I am calling on members of Congress, some of whom make much out of their faith, to start Bible studies before they cast votes to cut services that will further harm the weakest in our nation. They should focus on the gospel imperative - what Jesus tells us about our obligations to the "least of these." Some of them have heard the slogan "What would Jesus do?" Now they should ask, "What would Jesus cut?" Budgets are moral documents, and they reflect our national priorities and values. In the name of social conscience, fiscal esponsibility, equal opportunity, protecting our communities, and the very idea of a common good, the upcoming budget votes will be closely watched by people of faith. Call your member of Congress. Tell him or her to show political will in standing up for the least of these, as Jesus reminds us.

Two kingdom theology (a popular Lutheran theme) or not, this is a serious -- and sad -- time for Christian USAmericans. Trying to pay for (at least) two wars plus humanitarian relief for victims in this country (and in some cases that relief goes for beachhomes for very rich people, let's not forget) and in other lands plus significant tax cuts for the very few very rich people in this country -- regardless of the rightness or wrongheadedness of those programs -- ought not to be done at the expense of those members of our society most in need of support and services and least able to secure them. One can hear Amos, Hosea, Isaiah, Jeremiah, and other prophets -- not to mention Our Lord Himself -- virtually bleating their dismay and condemnation on a society that "sell[s] the rightous for silver, and the needy for a pair of [Guccie] sandals -- [that] trample[s] the head of the poor into the dust of the earth, and push[es] the afflicted out of the way." (Amos 2:6f.)

I have been rebuked in the past for suggesting that the prophets' calling on the nation to reform can be translated to calls for our nation to reform. (We are not, after, the "chosen nation" -- regardless of our claims to the contrary.) And I have been told that Jesus' call to care for those in need is a call to individual charity, not government programs.

I consider such notions hooey: Christians are called, as a facet of our discipleship, to work for the reform of government programs along the lines of the eschaton. It is precisely greed, dishonesty, trickery, and all the other political virtues that are called vices by Our Lord. And unless we are part of the process of correcting them, then we share the blame and threat for supporting them. (I always enjoyed the line of -- was it Huey Newton? -- "If you ain't part of the solution, you're part of the problem." I think there is some Christian truth there.)

In any event, I hope you will give Jim Wallis' letter some thought and be moved to contact your US Congress person and US Senator.

And while you're at it, check out this (rather bland) letter from the ELCA bishops (all of them) here.

Thursday, November 03, 2005

Language-Police Complaint 1

I don't claim to be the world's expert on grammar, but I take it very seriously -- and one of my great delights is to discover some particularly well-phrased idea. On the other hand, I am a critical sort (a great surprise to my friends, no doubt). So given the state of language in the good old USA, I am often fuming, out-loud correcting usage by newscasters, or simply rolling my eyes at some inanity.

Now come Border's and Barnes & Noble, the book companies, which invite me to "pre-order" some books and CDs that will be released over the next few weeks. And I ask you: What on earth is a pre-order? If I enter the required data and click on "send", have I not placed an order -- not a pre-order? Is not "pre-ordering" the stuff I do before I order -- e.g., opening the e-mail announcement, musing on whether I can live without the newest teenybopper CD, checking bank balances, and the like?

Let me display my true old-curmudgeonly side: Are we doomed to the complete breakdown of language, all under the specious rationale that "if you know what I mean, it doesn't matter how I say or spell it"? My stars and garters! Language is the measure of a culture. (Rome began to crumble when it forgot Greek.)

As Christians, we have a special stake in this issue: We are, after all, people of the Word -- the word spoken, the word made visible in sacraments, and the Word made flesh. It is incumbent on us to care for language with the same zeal some of us display toward the "environment" (another loosey-goosey term) or "poverty" or abortion issues.

And we Lutherans (others may look at this without guilt) should be especially mindful of how we use language. We are the tradition that, for better or worse, has built a theological edifice on the "proper distinction between law and gospel." "Law" and "Gospel" are ways of talking (and enacting words -- and precision in grammar is key.

Fn: Ranting on this topic seemed a better idea than commenting on the general quality of driving in Minnesota (which is of very real concern this morning!).

Wednesday, November 02, 2005

"Acts" in the Liturgical "Play"

Since I discovered "liturgy" at Gettysburg Sem (thanks in major part to my late mentor, Leigh Jordahl, of blessed memory), I have been bemused by the efforts to define the liturgical action -- by which I mean the full eucharistic liturgy, or "mass" -- around a certain number of "actions." There seems to be a real need to "organize" what happens in the liturgy into (perhaps interrelated, but) separate scenes or acts: Perhaps hope springs eternal that we can interpose intermissions into the mass, I don't know.

In my training, Dom Gregory Dix, the great British monk who wrote The Shape of the Liturgy (which at least used to be the single-source reference that all people serious about liturgy had read and stored on their shelves -- even seminarians like me, who had to shell out it seemed like a thousand dollars to get a new copy of the British-published book) set the stage (to continue the metaphor): He defined the liturgical action around the institution narrative of the eucharist -- viz., Our Lord took (bread/wine), gave thanks/blessed (it), broke it, and gave it to his disciples.

More recently, we have sought to structure the liturgy around another great four -- gathering, listening (to God's Word), communing, and leaving (for service to the world). I think that this arrangement rather trivializes the matter by being so painfully obvious. Of course, we must gather -- and I grant that such is a liturgical action. (My liturgical guru, Fr. Alexander Schmemann, of most revered memory, convinced me that the first act of worship on Sunday is getting out of bed as preparation for going to mass.) But gathering is a rather pedestrian phenomenon when set side-by-side with communing, isn't it? And hearing God's word and communing are not actually separate experiences -- no matter how much Lutheran congregations think they can do one (especially the "Liturgy of the Word") without the other (the so-called "Liturgy of the Meal").

Now comes to my attention this meditation on the mass by a pious Roman Catholic woman in Milwaukee (a beloved town in my life): I don't know why exactly, but I'm quite taken with it. And I think it would be a helpful model by which congregations could develop a resource for inquirers, catechumens, and others who wonder what we're doing when we "worship."

The author identifies six stages -- or movements -- to the mass, which I think is a more reasonable number, though I wonder if we can't somehow get seven or eight to make it more biblical. And she is rather heavy on the priest/bishop language -- which will not be all that familiar to protestants. And I can hear Lutherans screaming protest about all the attention to the offering/collection. (The ur-Lutheran Oliver Olson, with whom I have discussed liturgy to the satisfaction of neither of us, will have a stroke over this.) But I think such complaint betrays a lack of perspective on history and liturgy -- or an oversensitivity to Lutheran formulae. And I'm not sure about distinguishing praying the Great Thanksgiving from the communion is right: I'd prefer attention to the intercessions (which get short -- virtually no -- schrift here). (Of course, while the Roman tradition does have a separate section of the mass for intercessions -- prayers of the people -- it also includes them in the Great Thanksgiving. So maybe that's the issue for the author.) But I did call this a model, not a reprint, eh?

The "shape" of the liturgy is important, but for me the greater issue is the integrity of the mass: It's one action, with many parts -- sort of like Shakespeare's "seven ages of man" which highlight the developmental stages of human growth, but place them in the context of the integrity of the one person's life.

I think this meditation helps balance things nicely. When I retire, maybe I'll try to write my own.

Tuesday, November 01, 2005

Consumerism conference

Thank you to Brother Rob for drawing my attention to this: There is a conference, scheduled for April of next year, that will deal with a Christian understanding of and response to consumerism. Check out the website: http://www.consumer-culture.org/. The conference will be in Minneapolis, so it's another golden opportunity for those of us who occasionally exchange insights to meet face-to-face and trade wisdom over cups of Starbucks or glasses of Summit (a local brewer of some note).

I know the work of Rodney Clapp and Ron Sider, who are two of the main presenters. They are terrific writers (I can't speak for their speaking), and they'll present interesting stuff, I bet.

I've already put it on my calendar (at $85, I'm registering early), even though it comes but a month before the annual conference of the Center for Catholic and Evangelical Theology (about which you may expect to hear/see more when the brochure is finalized).

I hope this excerpt from the abstract of the conference sparks your interest:

Consumerism is the driving force in our society—a spirit of our age. It is
enmeshed within the fabric of our society. There are many critics to
consumerism—those who are rightly concerned about the destructiveness of
consumerism when it comes to economic justice or environmental issues. However,
consumerism also reaches deep into the heart of American spirituality.
Consumerism shapes the way we relate to each other, to our society, and to our
God. Christians need to intentionally and carefully navigate our consumer
culture, responding to its dangerous complexities with a deepening awareness of
its promises and perils. The Conference on Christianity and the Consumer Culture
will be both informative, fostering a deeper understanding of consumerism and
its role within our society, as well as formative, providing strategies for
faithful living in light of the promises and perils inherent to our consumer