Sunday, October 29, 2017

Reformation Lamentation

I just finished reading A Column of Fire, the third of Ken Follett’s volumes of historical fiction set in the Middle Ages. This one portrays life in the 1500’s in the wake of Catholic Priest Father Martin Luther’s October 31, 1517, courageous attempt to inspire reform of his church.

Follett’s novel and all the current celebration of the 500th anniversary of Father Martin’s action inspired me to review the Reformation years as described in my Lutheran Seminary textbook, The Story of Christianity by Justo L. Gonzalez. Follett’s thousand or so pages are an elaboration of probably a dozen or so in the textbook, mostly focused on the people driving and caught up in the competition between Catholic “Bloody Mary” Tudor, Protestant Elizabeth I, and Catholic Mary “Queen of Scots” Stuart, potential successor put to death on orders of Elizabeth.

Elizabeth and Mary Tudor were half-sisters and Elizabeth and Mary Stuart were cousins so I suppose one could say it was just a murderous family squabble. A summary statement from Gonzalez: “The total number of those executed for religious reasons during Elizabeth’s reign was approximately the same as those who died under her half sister Mary Tudor though it should be remembered that Elizabeth’s reign was almost ten times as long as Mary’s.” The heroes of Follett’s story are those suffering the persecution and fighting for religious freedom.

The Gonzalez text relates the burning at the stake, in Calvin’s Geneva, with Calvin’s consent, of Michael Servetus, a Spanish physician condemned by both Protestants and Catholics for heresy. Servetus is credited with having argued “that the union of church and state after Constantine’s conversion was in truth a great apostasy.” I think Servetus was exactly right and that it was that union, entangling the Church, the Body of Christ, in political intrigue and granting it political and temporal power, even the power to identify, label, and condemn to death heretics, which nurtured corruption and finally triggered the destructive reformation of the sixteenth century. Well, at least Calvin is reported to have argued for beheading rather than burning Servetus because it involved less suffering.

So, I find little to celebrate about the Reformation but much to lament.

I lament that union of Church and State which actually was finalized under the Emperor Theodosius I who decreed that all citizens of the Roman Empire were to be Christian. That, of course, led to lots of mass baptisms without the benefit of catechesis, either before or after the event, never a good idea.

I lament the Church corruption that was nurtured and grew in that atmosphere of temporal power and motivated Martin Luther’s posting of a formal list of grievances. Lord Acton spoke the truth: “Power tends to corrupt and absolute power corrupts absolutely. Great men are almost always bad men…”

I lament Henry VIII’s “Dissolution of the Monasteries” of England, Wales, and Ireland. It was worse than it sounds.

I lament the torture and killing, by Protestants and Catholics, of thousands of Protestants and Catholics, for heresy. At least during the early years of persecution of the Church, Christians were being killed and burned by pagan rulers and not by "professing" Christians. 

I lament the killing of those poor folks who were not "Protestants" because they followed neither Luther, nor Calvin, nor Zwingli, nor Knox, but who decided that baptism was valid only if by total immersion of professing believers, received such a baptism, and then suffered death by "the third baptism," drowned at the hands of "Protestant Christians."

I lament the Thirty Years War, fought over enforced geographic religious divisions based only on political and personal considerations, “Christians” fighting “Christians,” which resulted in the death of approximately 20% of the population of Germany.

I lament that even a hundred years after the Thirty Years War, thousands of Protestants were expelled from Austria and became refugees, some settling in Georgia and South Carolina and founding a bank. Google it if you want the details.

But that is all ancient history. Most of all I lament the current fragmentation of The Church, The Body of Christ, that is the residue of that violent reformation. I lament the existence of hundreds, some say thousands of "denominations" differing and sometimes arguing, criticizing, or condemning each other over theological fine points.

I lament the consumer market that has developed for faith seekers. Now I can seek, or even organize, a church that suits me rather than seeking to be part of a global Body of Christ with a common universal statement of belief and common resources and worship practices. It becomes all about me when I do that.

I lament that even within "denominations," we are fragmented into thousands of little churches sprinkled around the country, sometimes within blocks of each other, many struggling to pay their bills and their pastors, if they have pastors, many with little Christian Education or outreach, sometimes clinging to the past and serving as hospices for their declining memberships.

There is power in unity and in numbers and in working together in ministry in highly visible churches sitting on high ground and attracting curious multitudes just as Jesus attracted the multitudes. The early Middle Ages "powers that were" had the right idea, huge cathedrals as the centerpieces of the towns, though Father Martin certainly had valid complaints about the fund raising methods used at the time to finance some of those cathedrals.

I do, however, celebrate the religious freedom that gradually evolved over the past five hundred years and that most of the world enjoys today. Now most Christians can just focus on Jesus and not worry about political power and persecution even as we lament that part of the world is still trapped in a Middle Ages mindset, willing to imprison and kill people over theological issues. Unfortunately, the world still needs heroes fighting for religious freedom. 

I just look forward to the day that freedom brings us together rather than further separating and dividing us.
Isaiah 2:2-4  In days to come, The mountain of the LORD'S house shall be established as the highest mountain and raised above the hills. All nations shall stream toward it; many peoples shall come and say: "Come, let us climb the LORD'S mountain, to the house of the God of Jacob, That he may instruct us in his ways, and we may walk in his paths." For from Zion shall go forth instruction, and the word of the LORD from Jerusalem. He shall judge between the nations, and impose terms on many peoples. They shall beat their swords into plowshares and their spears into pruning hooks; One nation shall not raise the sword against another, nor shall they train for war again.
John 17:20-23  "I pray not only for them, but also for those who will believe in me through their word, so that they may all be one, as you, Father, are in me and I in you, that they also may be in us, that the world may believe that you sent me. And I have given them the glory you gave me, so that they may be one, as we are one, I in them and you in me, that they may be brought to perfection as one, that the world may know that you sent me, and that you loved them even as you loved me. 
Ephesians 2:19-22  So then you are no longer strangers and sojourners, but you are fellow citizens with the holy ones and members of the household of God, built upon the foundation of the apostles and prophets, with Christ Jesus himself as the capstone. Through him the whole structure is held together and grows into a temple sacred in the Lord; in him you also are being built together into a dwelling place of God in the Spirit. 

Wednesday, September 27, 2017

Like Mother, Like Son: Growing Up and Growing Old Together

My Mother, Wilma Irene Shelley (Brownie) Williams was born January 9, 1921 and died September 20, 2017. This is a remembrance and tribute I read at her funeral.

When I think of growing up with my mother, both of us young but I younger, I am very thankful for the sometimes unjustified trust she placed in me, the somewhat dangerous freedom she allowed, and the self-confidence she always exhibited and encouraged. She was a strong, empowering mother, a woman who knew what she wanted. She couldn’t have paid a better compliment to my fiancĂ©, Karen, in the summer of 1964 when, after going through the planning and activities leading up to our September wedding, she said to me, “Karen is a young woman who knows what she wants.”

One thing I learned from Mother, and Daddy, in my childhood and adolescent years was that a life like theirs, centered on work and home and family and church, is a good life. Thanks to her and the example she and Daddy set, my goal, what I wanted, from adolescence, was to live such a life. I was blessed with the appearance of Karen, who seemed to have a similar goal, and we got an early start, getting our family well under way while Mother was still working on raising hers.

Through all the middle years Mother and I had a good but also somewhat distant relationship. I was always interested in what she and Daddy were up to, and they were always interested in what we were doing. I don’t recall getting any advice or guidance from her and Daddy in those years, nor do I recall feeling any need to offer them any. We didn’t phone or write often or spend a lot of time together, just visiting three or four times a year and always enjoying each other’s company, but not a lot of deep or serious discussion.

I’ve often wondered what life would have been like if I had spent it all in Maryville in pretty much constant contact with Mother and Daddy, maybe even running a little furniture business. I believe that, as independent as Mother and I both were, we were better off with some distance. I might have driven her into an early grave had we been closely monitoring and commenting on, and perhaps hearing gossip, or just opinions, about each other’s activities all those years.

Then, over the last ten or fifteen years, there was a change, both of us old, but she older. I am again very thankful for the trust she placed in me and freedom she gave me to take care of her financial and property and legal issues. I never was able to mow the lawn to her complete satisfaction, and she was a very tough sell on moving to an assisted living environment, but she always trusted me to handle the money and pay the bills and would sign whatever I put in front of her. That made my job easy, and I am thankful for that.

Mother didn’t want to live this long. (Yes, I might have helped her die younger, as I mentioned, by staying in Maryville.) Her dream was to die peacefully in her sleep just before losing control and becoming dependent on others. When Daddy died in 2003, she told some of us that she would be following right behind him. When, ten years later, she moved to assisted living at Sterling House, I said something about the upcoming Christmas, and she informed me she wouldn’t be around at that time. I always told her I had her on a ten year plan and that she needed to find something to do.

I remember in her middle years one of Mother’s favorite things was to visit elderly folks and take them some beautiful item she had made at her speedy sewing machine or something delicious  grown in her very productive garden or made in her efficient kitchen from her extensive recipe collection. I think she must have decided during those years that she did not want to be one of those people, sitting or lying and waiting for visits and gifts. I believe that feeling was strongly reinforced when she saw Daddy move to a “memory care” facility and saw her younger sister die in nursing and hospice care. So, in her last years, Mother had to learn patience, a very tough lesson for an impatient woman.

If you didn’t know her, you might think Mother was lacking in faith and optimism, but that would be wrong. She was very optimistic about going to Heaven soon, and, note taker and list maker that she was, I suspect she had written and memorized a list of things to go over with Clyde Williams as soon as she got there and was looking forward to doing so.

Through all her declining years, my prayer for her was always for peace and comfort, if not joy, and hopefully a little joy mixed in along the way. I believe those prayers were answered partially as she lived and now they are answered in full.

Thanks be to God.

Her obituary can be found here.

Tuesday, June 20, 2017

Just a Mouthpiece

Hearing Sacred Scripture is a key element of Catholic worship. Usually, from the Old Testament, we hear a reading from the Law, Prophets, or Writings and sing a Psalm responsively. Then we hear a reading from one of the New Testament books other than the Gospels. Finally a selection from one of the Gospels is read by an ordained priest or deacon and heard with special reverence, followed by a homily. Often some important theme connecting the readings is reflected in the homily as well.

Though a lector at St. Peter’s Catholic Church for a few years now and, before that, at Ebenezer Lutheran Church, it was Dr. Monte Luker, professor of Hebrew and Old Testament at Lutheran Theological Southern Seminary, who first instructed me in lector best practices. I’m not going to try to blame any of my bad habits or errors on my friend and former teacher, but will try to explain what I took away from the directions he offered and why I read as I do.

The objective of a lector in worship is to draw the attention of the worshipers to the words without any injection of personality or slant or opinion and without calling any attention to himself or herself. This principle links back to the first sentence of the blog which states the importance of “hearing” over that of reading. I believe this is the reason that, at Ebenezer Lutheran, lectors wore simple robes at the ambo. Even clothing and style should not distract from the hearing of The Word.

My way of fulfilling that objective is to read with sincerity, reverence, and awe, slowly and carefully pronouncing and emphasizing each word, completely without drama, while avoiding a monotone. I admit that may be a fine line. But, if I am reading the words of St. Paul, I want the hearers to hear and consider all the words but not any interpretation I may have of them. I am not playing the role of St. Paul, trying to imagine how he might have spoken, but am simply conveying what he wrote, omitting or diminishing nothing. To quote my former Pastor Frank Honeycutt, “There are no throwaway words in the Bible.”

So, I keep my eyes on the written page and do not try to make eye contact with listeners. Intermittent eye contact seems to me would imply that the words being spoken at the time of eye contact are especially important and are from me to the hearer. Even if I were to memorize the scripture to be read, I would still consider it important to keep my eyes glued to the printed page to assure accuracy and to avoid the impression that it is I doing the speaking or that I am emphasizing one point more than another. As a lector, I am only a mouthpiece.

Let me hasten to say that these guidelines I try to follow do not apply in any way to the pastor or priest or teacher charged with exegetical responsibility. The best delivery for such persons is without script and with continuous eye contact and appropriate drama and emphasis to make the points deemed most important for the persons present, at the current time, after careful, prayerful, and inspired study of the written expression of the Word of God. That is a much heavier burden than just reading it.

And, I must confess that my practices are contrary to the instructions in the Workbook for Lectors, Gospel Readers, and Proclaimers of the Word, United States Edition, produced by Liturgy Training Publications. But, I do the best I can and am always willing to step aside for someone who wants to serve.

Yes, it is I at the ambo, reading, eyes down as promised. I do look up for the announcement, "A reading from the____ chapter of ______," and for the closing, "The Word of the Lord."

Saturday, May 27, 2017

The Church of My Youth: Six Points

I was thinking this morning about the church of my youth and the Southern Baptist Sunday School which was the center of it. There was the Six Point Record System, the extensive organization, class officers, weekly Teachers' Meetings, Assemblies, rigorous age grading, separation of men and women, Reports, the Sunday School Report at the following Church Service, etc. Fortunately all that is documented in an online full text of a 1936 book on thesubject. Anybody who grew up Southern Baptist in that era will enjoy looking through this. Or maybe nothing has changed!

And then there was BTU with its Eight Point Record System.

All good disciplinary training if perhaps a bit legalistic and short on spirituality and divine mystery.

Images below are screen shots from the book at the link above referring to the Six Point Record System.


Saturday, April 1, 2017

Christian Faith, A Three Legged Stool

A Peter Beinart article in the April 2017 issue of The Atlantic points out a correlation between the increasingly vicious and hateful political climate in the USA and decreasing participation in organized religion. The differences in positions between left and right have always been present, but we seem to be losing respect for each other and, in Beinart's words, "have come to define "us" and "them" in even more primal and irreconcilable ways."

Beinart provides statistics showing that the percentage of US citizens rejecting any religious affiliation increased almost 300% from 1992 to 2014. And even the "percentage of white Republicans with no religious affiliation has nearly tripled since 1990." Beinart quotes Geoffrey Layman of Notre Dame: "Trump does best among evangelicals with one key trait: They don't really go to church." And, Beinart states, "... liberal non-attenders fueled Bernie Sanders's insurgency against Hillary Clinton.

You can read the article to see why Mr. Beinart believes these religious and political trends are related, but I have a slightly different take on it. It seems to me that if we give up on the idea that we are all the result of the creative activity of a benevolent God who is "gracious, merciful, and abounding in steadfast love," we lose respect for each other and one of the most important bases of our civilization crumbles. And we fight.

What are we to do? Well, one possibility for Christians is to do a much better job of learning and teaching the essentials of the Christian faith. What a mish-mash of Christian theologies we have allowed to develop in the American culture of freedom!

Now, before launching into theological issues, let me make it clear that I am not ordained, am not a preacher, and am not speaking with any authority. What I am describing below is more personal testimony, a description of what I have come to believe, at this point, over a lifetime in Christian churches of various labels and a smattering of Lutheran seminary education about theology and Church history. So here goes:

It seems to me that the Christian faith stands on a three legged stool.
  • The first leg is Sacred Scripture, the written expression of "The Word," the Bible Jesus knew and read from and quoted and referred to and to which the writers of the New Testament referred, and the New Testament, written and assembled, by the Church, after, sometimes long after, the ministry of Jesus. The first complete listing of the NT Canon, after all, is from the fourth century AD.
  • The second leg is Jesus, The Christ, eternal Anointed One, God in flesh, Immanuel, who came and lived among us and showed us The Way and died, at our hands, for us. 
  • The third leg is The Church, The Body of Christ, established by Jesus, and led by the Holy Spirit, whom Jesus promised, to follow his example and to develop and teach the basic theologies of the faith, the Holy Trinity, and the divinity of Jesus.
The diagram below is an attempt to show how these three legs, Sacred Scripture, Jesus, and The Church, fit together and to present a pretty complete picture of the theology of Christian faith as I currently understand and experience it.

Don't like diagrams? I'l try to explain. I believe that Sacred Scripture is the story of our developing understanding of God, that Jesus was God in flesh, with us for a specific period of time, and that the Church is his legacy, his body, through which we jointly can be in union with The Triune God, and abide in Him. That is pretty much unbelievable, isn't it. It almost sounds ridiculous. Well, I just label it Divine Mystery, subject to our best efforts to explain the unexplainable.

Church is where Christians belong. Church is not a civic club, a social club, a networking organization, or a social service agency. Nor is it a hospice, just taking care of old folks as they die off. It is the Body of Christ, intended to go about doing good just as Jesus, the original Body of Christ did.

Just as Jesus and his followers took up space and attracted attention in the first century, the Church is supposed to take up space and attract attention in the world today. We are to be a community, salt and light and leaven, always going out from the church building and having a positive influence and inviting and drawing people in. That is not evident from what we see? Well, Jesus never promised that the Church would be perfect but only that the gates of Hell would not prevail against it.

If we did a better job with Christian education, maybe we could reduce the mish-mash and focus on these essentials and maybe the Body of Christ would grow and some of the viciousness and hate would moderate.

If these ideas seem strange, Google "church as the body of Christ scripture" for more food for thought. And read John 6 closely for a better understanding of worship, Holy Communion, and unity with Christ. These are not easy or simplistic teachings as evidenced by the response to talk of flesh and blood by some disciples as described in these verses from John 6: 
After this many of his disciples turned back and no longer walked with him. So Jesus said to the twelve, "Do you want to go away as well?" Simon Peter answered him, "Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life, and we have believed, and have come to know, that you are the Holy One of God."

Tuesday, February 21, 2017

Last Two Dollars

I was having trouble understanding the man, but I believe his last words as the police walked up were, “I’m down to my last two dollars.”

One of my favorite workouts is a five mile or so walk in the City of Columbia at a 17 minute per mile pace. It is a good time for thinking as well as exercising. I do it once a week or so, and yesterday was the day. On such a journey, one sees and experiences the city much differently than driving.

I do not stick to busy and crowded Main and Gervais but take the side streets through neighborhoods and by smaller businesses. Lots of lawyer offices, medical offices, non-profits, historical homes, etc. Today I walked south on Pickens, crossed Taylor, and saw something unusual at the bus stop on the southwest corner.

There were two men there, a forty something Black man sitting on the bench, and an elderly Black man, legless, lying flat on the concrete sidewalk on his back beside a wheelchair. I wasn’t easily distracted from my walking and whatever was going through my mind at the time so I just kept moving on.

I assumed the two were together, the younger looking after the older, but I wondered if I should have said something or perhaps asked if he needed help getting the man back in his wheelchair. I thought of the Good Samaritan and began to feel a little guilty for just passing on by. So, a hundred yards or so further along, I stopped and turned to look just as the younger man got up and walked off. Maybe he was going to call for help.

So, at that point, I had to walk back and do a little investigating. I asked the man if he was taking a nap. He said he was trying to. I asked if he was OK. He said yes. I asked if he needed help getting in his chair. He said no. So, I left again. But I still felt there was unfinished business so I went around the block and passed the man again.

On this third pass, I bent down and tried to talk to him, though he was difficult to understand. I asked if he needed me to call an ambulance. He said no, that he was OK. I asked where he lives, expecting that perhaps he is a resident of the Marion St. Tower, nearby home to many poor and disabled. He said, “Right here.”

Then a police car with two officers pulled up. Just as the man mentioned the “two dollars,” one of the officers asked the man if he was OK. He said he was. Then an ambulance arrived. The officer thanked me and said, “We’ve got it.” I felt dismissed. Maybe the officer was thinking I had called in the situation. It looked like the ambulance drivers were about to get a stretcher out, but I didn’t stick around to see what happened. 

So, what is wrong with that situation. It’s not lack of “health care” since the man is obviously on Medicare, probably because of age and certainly because of disability. There is a good chance he suffers from some mental illness because almost certainly he has had opportunities through the SC Department of Social Services for some housing and has rejected those opportunities. Surely he has!

I hope the ambulance drivers took the man to the closest emergency room and that the police called the Department of Social Services to send someone to meet him there and arrange appropriate nursing care and housing for him. If the man insists on being on the street during the day to panhandle and enjoy some social interaction and independence, let him do so. But the City of Columbia should not allow him to spend helpless nights on the street. It is dangerous, unhealthy, unsafe, and unacceptable.

Mental health reforms, apparently inspired by One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, might have had some good results but also had a lot of unintended and unfortunate consequences. I frankly don’t have any sympathy for people wanting the government to provide their flu shots and birth control pills and pay for their annual physicals, but our system for caring for the helpless needs a lot of improvement. That is a priority.

I’ll be keeping my eyes open for the man. He won’t be difficult to spot. Next time I see him, hopefully in his chair, I will find out his name, how old he is, how he lost his legs, how much income he has, and the name of his social worker. I’ll give him a few dollars. Then I will call that social worker who will tell me that she can’t discuss the case because of privacy concerns. Then I’ll find Mr. ______ and give him a few more dollars and tell him that he must give his social worker permission to talk to me if he wants any more help from me.

And maybe once he has a safe place to sleep and bathe and get clean clothes and eat three meals a day, his SSI or SS income will be enough that he won’t always be down to his last two dollars.