Rankin File

Ruminations, fulminations, and cogitations on the spiritual life

And Now, for My Own Bigotry

“It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God,” Jesus told his disciples (Mt. 19:24).  This comment came on the heels of his conversation with the rich young man who turned away sorrowfully, deciding he could not follow Jesus on Jesus’ terms.

There is a lot more going on in this story than the usual morality tale we get about wealth and the Christian life.  First, the disciples were shocked, perhaps because they associated wealth with divine blessing (as some of the Proverbs suggest) and here Jesus is turning that belief on its head: wealth is a burden, a temptation, maybe a curse, not necessarily a sign of divine favor.

So, in a strange mental reversal, this saying of Jesus actually prompts me to recognize my bigotry about the wealthy.  As I mentioned in the previous post, I am worried about how we United Methodists  talk and think almost entirely in categories. Not just us United Methodists, of course, have this problem, but this is a family squabble I’m trying to have.  I complained that categories tell us not much about each other.  Now it’s time for me to admit my own use of categories.

As I mentioned, I grew up poor and, try as I might, I feel a little unsteady and self-conscious around wealthy people.  I feel that dirt under my fingernails feeling, like maybe one of “them” is looking at me as if I don’t belong, as if I’m not quite as good as…  If I don’t watch my soul, that feeling of unease can turn to resentment.  I’m ashamed of it.

Resentment is a feeling people seem to have in abundance these days.  Just think about how we talk about “the 1%.”  As if somehow they have money that really belongs to us; as if they have stolen it from us.

Therefore, to complicate things, let’s go for a little cyber ride.  A Wall Street Journal blog from June 2011 tells us that we have a record number of millionaires (based on net worth) in the USA (http://blogs.wsj.com/wealth/2011/06/22/u-s-has-record-number-of-millionaires).  Hah!  Just as we suspected.  More telling, in 2011, the number of billionaires was on the rise, as well.

But then, a year later we have this article from CNN, reporting that the net value of millionaires has been declining (http://money.cnn.com/2012/06/01/news/economy/american-millionaires/index.htm).  Likewise, this year (2012) the number of actual millionaires has declined in the USA (http://moneyland.time.com/2012/06/05/number-of-millionaires-in-u-s-decreases-but-spikes-worldwide).  Worldwide the rich are getting richer.  But not that many and even among the wealthy, some are losing.

For starters, then, I must keep in mind that not all that many people inhabit the category “wealthy.”  Closer to home, I have to admit that the comfortable household income my wife and I now enjoy – though numerically far distant from the millionaire category – puts me materially much closer to “wealthy” than I’d ever like to admit.  I therefore have absolutely no right somehow to make “the wealthy” culpable in a way that I am not.  How do you spell s-c-a-p-e-g-o-a-t?

Now, anyone with a net worth of million dollars or more obviously has many more options than most people, so we don’t have to worry too much about them.  Again, my point is not at all to justify getting rich.  I’m trying to think about how my lumping people into a category – “the rich” – does no one any good.  Hence, these articles loosen up my prejudice…a little.

Now, let’s move somewhat toward the other end of things.  Consider this article from Time, “Do We Need $75,000 to be Happy?”  (Meaning $75,00 for a yearly income.)  (http://www.time.com/time/magazine/article/0,9171,2019628,00.html).  According to this story, $75,000 buys a degree of well being that we associate with happiness.  Once a person gets to the $75,000 threshold, that feeling of financial stress dissipates and a sense of stability and well being ensues.  It does not mean that people falling below this amount are sad.  It just means that what we call “happiness” has a quantitative reference point.

That’s quite a gap – between a net worth of a million and making $75,000 a year.  It turns out, piling up mountains of money does not add to one’s happiness.

So, in a way that I think we do not often consider, Jesus tells us much more about being wealthy in this parable than typically we notice.  The non-wealthy should not resent the wealthy.  And the wealthy should pay attention to what wealth might do to them.

I’m as close to being a bigot when it comes to the way I think about the wealthy as when I think about anything.  And perhaps strangely, it is this very saying of Jesus that helps me to notice this my flaw.

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June 12, 2012 Posted by | General, Pop Culture, Religion | , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

General Conference (Slightly Proleptic) Postmortem

I’m not a fan of punditry, even of the ecclesial kind, but I guess I’ll set aside scruples and weigh in on the United Methodist General Conference as it presses toward the finish.  One question once again stands out: just how badly divided are we?  I think, pretty badly.

A Facebook friend posted the proposed Disciplinary amendment by Adam Hamilton and Michael Slaughter on our deep differences over homosexuality.  It was thoughtful, irenic, well-worded.  It holds to the church’s traditional stance on the matter.  I agree with its sentiment and I wish it had passed.

But I also read the reason for voting it down, that we don’t acknowledge our divisions on other issues, so we shouldn’t on this one.  That’s true.  We don’t.  But what if we did?  What would we actually have to face about our beloved denomination, if sprinkled all through our Book of Discipline we actually saw the numbers that represent our divided mind?

Let’s try a little thought experiment. What if every General Conference vote that changes the wording of the Book of Discipline also had to include (in the BofD) the split?  You know, 55% yea and 45% nay, etc.?  In other words, what if we actually had to see, in our Book of Discipline, how often and on which issues we get close to splitting 50-50?

What if we voted on doctrinal standards?  What if we went down each statement in the Articles of Religion and Confession of Faith and asked delegates to say “yea” or “nay?”  Now, before we get trapped in cautions about metaphorical readings, etc., let’s keep in mind that those doctrinal statements are meant to be taken as actual propositions.  (I know that we cannot dispense with metaphor, nor do I want to.  Let’s just try the thought experiment.)

How about Article 2, which reads in part, “Christ did truly rise again from the dead, and took again his body, with all things appertaining to the perfection of man’s [sic] nature…”  Yea?  Nay?

Some of us might want to update the language of this claim, but, again, let’s focus on the main question: do we believe in the bodily resurrection of Jesus?  What would a vote of General Conference delegates reveal?  And why does it matter?

My point here is not to go on a doctrinal witch hunt.  My point is to imagine just how divided we actually are.

Years ago – and I mean, like 20 – in the midst of the same controversy roiling us now, about ten of us UM clergy got together – all members of the same annual conference (remember the covenant?) to see if we could find any doctrinal statements that we could all agree on.  We intentionally made the group diverse.  After a couple of hours debate, we found near complete disagreement except on one slim point.  We could all say yes to the belief that something happened on the first Easter morning.  But we could not affirm as a group the proposition found in Article 2.  To be sure, some of us in the group did affirm it.  But some didn’t.  In other words, we were not “of the same mind.”

We could not find agreement on any other topic we discussed.

I believe this sort of disagreement has very practical implications.  Our theological convictions show us what we care about.  If we don’t care about at least some of the same things, we have no core, doctrinally or missionally, that holds us together.

I think this is what General Conference teaches us every four years.

May 4, 2012 Posted by | Ministry, Religion, The Church, United Methodism | , , , , , , , , | 4 Comments

Because We Ate Our Fill of the Loaves

Sometimes when I read (especially) the Gospel of John, I notice with discomfort that Jesus often does not answer the questions asked of him.  In John 6:26, he responds to the question, “Rabbi, when did you come here?” (to the other side of the Sea of Galilee) with the answer, “Very truly I tell you, you are looking for me not because you saw the signs, but because you ate your fill of the loaves.”  The answer that is no answer.  The answer that redirects.

At the beginning of John 6, Jesus feeds the 5,000.  His disciples then get in the boat for a night-time crossing of the sea, whereupon they see Jesus walking on the water.  Then we come to this interchange as people figure out that Jesus is gone and they want to find him.

So, why does Jesus bluntly redirect the questioners’ question?  One answer: they’re missing the point.  Feeding the 5,000 was a sign of God’s presence, not just a meal (John is a good one for talking about those signs).  The people seeking Jesus are latching on to him, evidently, because of the good stuff he did for them:  “Maybe he’s a prophet or something.  We’d better stick close to see what else he’ll do for us.”  It is a way of following Jesus, all right.

A case of mixed motives again?  These folks felt excited about Jesus.  That’s good.  But excited about what?  It’s not about the bread, but about the Bread of Heaven.

The tricky part about mixed motives: many of them – considered on their own – are quite legitimate.  But when laid next to the deeper realities to which Jesus points, they start to compete.  “You are looking for me not because of the signs…but because you ate your fill.”  Jesus, who knows all people’s hearts, discerns the mixed motives and points out the problem so that those who seek him can know their own hearts and make the appropriate response.

Why do I follow Jesus?  Is it because of the cool things he does for me, or I’ve seen him do for others?  Is it because I find my life seems to have more significance because of him?  “My day just seems to go better” when I spend time in prayer with him (“go better” according to what principles of judgment?)?”  Yes, yes and yes.  These things are all true.  But notice the focus: me.

I need constantly to check my motives, not in order to be picky and self-critical, not to deny legitimate desires, but to check to see if my heart aligns with The One.  Not just the bread, but the signs.

July 30, 2010 Posted by | Bible, Christian Spirituality, Religion, The Church | , , , , , , | 2 Comments

If Only We Recognized the Prince of Peace

I’ve heard the story.  I’ve read the story.  And I just watched the story on the History Channel while I was mortifying my flesh on the treadmill.  The Christmas Truce of 1914 is truly a historical wonder, but not for conventional interpretation.

For context, a quick re-telling: On the Western Front, five months into World War I, British and German soldiers made enemies through no act of their own, found themselves staring across No Man’s Land at each other on Christmas Eve.  Across that void, the British heard Germans singing, “Stille nacht, heilige nacht…” and some of them began to sing back, “Silent night, holy night…”

Peace broke out.  Enemies met in that space between the trenches and exchanged food, chocolate, trinkets, buttons and other bits of memoriabilia.  There was a small Christmas tree.  They even had a soccer match.  It must have been an absolutely miraculous moment.

The Christmas Truce so took hold that the British officers actually had a pretty hard time getting their troops back into a more bellicose posture.  According to the History Channel telling, it took a British officer essentially murdering a defenseless German soldier to jump-start the war.  Four long years of horrific bloodshed ensued.

Historians on the program opined that the “reason” such a moment could take place was because the combatants could – in the Christmas moment – recognize their common “humanity.”  The narrator even used the word “fellowship” in describing how quickly and well these men bonded with each other.

Completely lacking was the historians’ recognition of the common faith of the British and German soldiers.  What an astonishing blind spot!  Recognizing the “humanity” in someone else does nothing to explain this moment and, worse, it positively ignores the obvious.  These British and German combatants, in hearing the songs of Christmas, recognized their common Lord.  Something bigger than France, Britain or Germany was revealed, if only for a moment – the governance of the Prince of Peace.

Now let’s play the historian’s game and think about counterfactuals – the “what might have happened” had event B taken place rather than event A.  So, in my little scenario, let’s say that the troops – recognizing the implication of Christians killing other Christians – on both sides had refused to carry on with the war.  What if they had realized that both  British and German followers of Jesus had something in common that transcends national status?  What if the moment had been permitted to develop (the History Channel program played out just this possibility that perhaps the war might have been permitted to stop right then), which might have dramatically foreshortened what became a long and bloody war?

A Christmas Truce of 1914 that led to peace would have prevented the humiliation of Germany in the Treaty of Versailles…and Hitler would not have happened.  There would not have been the smoldering resentment in Germany that fed his demonic vision.  The German economy would not have been shattered.  The political situation would have been different.  No Hitler, no World War II.  Imagine a history without either World War I or II.

The Christmas Truce of 1914 is a historical marvel.  We ought to scour history for other such moments.  They show us the Prince of Peace ruling.  If only we recognized him. Come, Lord Jesus.

December 23, 2009 Posted by | Christian Spirituality, General, Religion | , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

New Job, New Challenges

Among the requisite qualities for my new job as SMU Chaplain, I find these three: (1) passionate commitment to Christ, (2) strong United Methodist identity and (3) openness to people of other faiths.  The third point is particularly important because of the number of Jewish, Muslim, Hindu and other students.  I am eagerly looking forward to getting acquainted with them, but I am also aware of the tension in the aforementioned job requirements.

One might reasonably ask, “How can you be passionately committed to Christ and be open to other faith expressions?”  Part of the way one would answer that question depends on how one defines “open.”

Some religious beliefs have universal implications, meaning that if I believe ‘A,’ then by believing ‘A’ I cannot coherently believe ‘B.’  I think the belief in God as Trinity and the Incarnation of the Word of God in Jesus of Nazareth fit this logic, which prevents me from believing certain other beliefs about God and Jesus.

Drawing these conclusions, how, then, do I “be open” to other faith expressions?  When we lived in the Chicago area during graduate school days, our next door neighbors to one side were Chinese Buddhists and our neighbors on the other were Jewish.  They were our friends.  Period.  Did we talk about Jesus?  Yes.  Did we manipulate conversations and twist and turn them in order to “witness”  about Jesus?  Absolutely not.  You don’t treat friends that way.

Part of faithful Christian witness is the appropriate use of power inherent in relationshps.  We are both powerful and vulnerable in real relationshps.  We can uplift or harm others and they can do the same.  In addition to my beliefs about Jesus, I have other beliefs (that come from Jesus), about how to treat people.

In the sermon, “On Living Without God,” Mr. Wesley has the following to say (Warning: it’s a long quote in 18th century idiom):  “Let it now be observed that I…have no authority from the word of God ‘to judge those that are without [i.e. outside Christianity];’ nor do I conceive that any man living has a right to sentence all the heathen and Mahometan world to damnation.  It is far better to leave them to Him that made them, and who is ‘the Father of the spirits of all flesh;’ who is the God of the Heathens as well as the Christians, and who hateth nothing that He hath made.”

My translation: It’s God’s job to judge, not mine (thank God!).  God made all people, so we can leave the sorting out of people’s eternal destinies to God.  Since God made all people, God loves all people. Furthermore, Jesus commands us to love our neighbors.  Hopefullly, I embody the love of Jesus for all to see.  When I am given the opportunity to talk about my faith in Christ, I will do so with clarity, passion and gentleness.

In other words, I am not a pluralist.  I’m not interested in “blending” or matching doctrines from diverse religions for the sake of peace.  This approach demeans the integrity of all religions.  As a passionately committed believer in the Triune God, then, I am eager to undertake my responsibility to welcome people of other faiths, to make sure they have all appropriate means to exercise that faith as they see fit and to learn from them as God continues to work, however mysteriously,  in us all.

There is much more to say on this matter, I know.  I’ll keep thinking about how I should say it.

June 12, 2009 Posted by | Doctrine/Theology, General, Ministry, Religion, The Church, United Methodism | , , , , , , , , | 6 Comments

Living the New Creation Reality

The Thursday before Easter I presided at a funeral of a man I did not really know.  I had presided over his grandson’s funeral several years ago.  I then had his daughter’s funeral (the mother of the boy who had died).  Three years ago, he put me down as the pastor to do his funeral.

At the graveside, among the scripture readings that I used, I read these words from 1 Corinthians: “So it is with the resurrection of the dead.  What is sown is perishable, what is raised is imperishable…Just as we have borne the image of the man of dust [Adam] so we will also bear the image of the man of heaven.”

Christians believe a really weird claim.  Not only did Jesus rise from the dead to live in a completely new order, a new creation, but so will his followers.  “Listen, I will tell you a mystery!  We will not all die, but we will all be changed, in a moment, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trumpet.  For the trumpet will sound…and we will be changed.”  

In John 20:19ff., the text says that the disciples were gathered together in the room and the door was locked for fear of what the religious authorities might do to them and (poof?) Jesus appears among them and says “Peace be with you.”  How did Jesus get in if the door was locked?  He just appeared.  

But not as a ghost or something; not a mere apparition.  The text then says that he showed them his hands and side, as if to say, “Yep, it’s really me.”  

Christians believe some weird stuff and the resurrection is probably the weirdest.  Maybe this is why, after we have had our nice little Easter celebrations, we go back to living and acting like nothing is different.  

I do it.  I sometimes refer to myself, somewhat disparagingly, as a “professional  Christian.”  In other words, it’s my job to pray (especially publicly at ceremonial gatherings) and to help lead a religious community in various ways.  It’s my job to have some kind of answer when spiritual or religious questions arise.  It’s my job to oversee certain ceremonies at certain times in people’s lives and deaths.  And I get paid to do these things.  I’m a professional Christian.  It’s easy, after Easter, to settle back into “normal.”  

But if am I a true believer, I can’t settle back into “normal.”  Am I a true believer?  When I say those words over the grave, words about rersurrection to new life, do I believe them?  

I do.  Still, sometimes I wonder, because belief in the resurrection is weird.  Sometimes I ask myself, “Do I really believe it?”  I do.  And I know that it’s weird.  

Therefore, I (we) do not have the luxury to live as if there is no new creation.  If I (we) believe in the resurrection of Jesus and that his resurrection is the first fruits of the New Creation, then today, tomorrow, and every day – then right now – we live in the New Creation.

As my Dad used to say, “I don’t understand all I know about this matter.”  The resurrection hope is just weird.  But I believe it.  And I want to see it and live it, daily.  

May Paul’s words set the course for us: “Therefore, my beloved, be steadfast, immovable, always excelling in the work of the Lord, because you know that in the Lord [in the New Creation reality] your labor is not in vain.”  May we followers of Jesus demonstrate by our lives the New Creation reality.

April 17, 2009 Posted by | Bible, Christian Spirituality, Pop Culture, Religion, The Church | , , , , , | 2 Comments