Is busting loose real freedom?

Some late night thoughts after reading Mark 5:1-20 in the morning, and reflecting on my own persistent little rebellions against God.

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Narrative Happens

Lauck BookBook Review: From Warm Center to Ragged Edge: The Erosion of Midwestern Literary and Historical Regionalism, 1920-1965 by Jon Kevin Lauck.  University of Iowa Press, 2017.

As the American Civil War ended, what we now call the Midwest was an influential region for the reuniting nation.  Abraham Lincoln had celebrated the “great interior region” in his second address to Congress, calling it “the great body of the republic.”  After 1860, six of seven Presidential elections were won by candidates from Mississippi Valley states.

The religious, frugal, hardworking, family and community focused Midwestern culture was seen by some as the dynamic American future.

How did this vital heartland turn into maligned “fly over country” in popular stereotype?  Historian Jon Kevin Lauck sets out to explain this.

His book’s title is an inversion of Nick Carraway’s point of view in Minnesota native F. Scott Fitzgerald’s Great Gatsby.  Carraway, the character who narrates the story, initially rejects his own Midwest hometown as a “ragged edge” of emerging America and heads for the toney East, only to recoil from its destructive materialism and self-centered culture.  He comes to revalue his Midwestern heritage as a “warm center of the world.”

While Fitzgerald’s novel unfolded that way, Lauck points out, with copious attention to primary sources (he provides 135 pages of notes) that the American point of view went in the opposite direction, initially esteeming the Midwest as the warm center or even heartland of the nation but eventually sneering at it as ragged edge to be ignored.

Lauck lays out two major socio-historical trajectories.  The first can be summed up by a different (and radically silenced) regional voice that precedes the Euro-American farm village culture to which the book refers:

“There are no mistakes. Everything is equal on the journey, and what will happen in your path will happen.”  Floyd Looks for Buffalo Hand, Oglala Lakota

The discrete voice of Midwestern history and literature was in part muted by historical events that just happened how and when they did.  The Great Depression and World War Two elevated the national identity in suffering, sacrifice and ultimately global position at the expense of regional identities.  The ensuing Cold War and other aspects of globalization led to changes in academic work, necessarily lifting exploration of the forces moving nations and looking less at regional themes.

This is explored in the latter half of the book.  It’s less dramatic than what precedes it but is necessary to keep From Warm Center to Ragged Edge a work of honest history rather than a culture-war exercise in…

Narrative.  Geez, I’m coming to hate that word.  It’s just a genteel substitute for propaganda.  But what Lauck describes and, more critically, documents in the first part of this book is the creation of a damning narrative that silenced most Midwestern voices in favor of a few who were embraced by anti-regional elites.

Lauck lays out the Village Revolt narrative by which Eastern (primarily New York) publishers glommed onto a few good Midwestern writers and elevated their critiques of farm town life to label the whole region as, in one influential Eastern writer’s words, “a desert of human sand! – the barrenest spot in all Christendom, surely, for the seed of genius to fall in.”

While Lauck catalogs how the writers lumped together as the Village Revolt school did, in fact, overthrow sentimental stereotypes of Midwest life, he’s just as meticulous in showing how several of them rejected the revolt narrative.  Assumed rebel Sherwood Anderson was blunt, “There wasn’t anything to this revolting.”  Sinclair Lewis, whose Main Street was like a Bible for anti-Midwest narrative, was panned by the Eastern critics when in subsequent works he called his upbringing “a good time, a good place, and a good preparation for life” and called for better study and articulation of the region’s culture.

The hostility to all things Midwestern – including Christianity – drips from the quotes Lauck mines from newspapers, magazines, literary journals and all kinds of other primary sources.  It’s the kind of culture warrior language still with us today, belittling some voices while claiming to extol inclusion and tolerance for all.

(Boy, does that ring bells for me as a clergyman in a mainline denomination headquartered in the East.  But I digress).

With a constant supply of quotes from quality writers and thinkers, Lauck’s book has vigor and wit.  This history brings the past to life and engages the present.

There are questions I would raise, were I an annoying student at a Lauck lecture.  For example, does the initial success and continued cable presence of a show like Little House on the Prairie, from the writings of Midwesterner Laura Ingalls Wilder, reveal less popular penetration bythe Village Revolt narrative than his book allows?

Or how about the sentiment for small family farmers (in Iowa, no less!) expressed in 1984’s Country, for which Jessica Lange received Academy Award and Golden Globe nominations from the coastal elite crowd?

Some regional writers are doing well expressing Midwest culture (and finding publishers), for example Kathleen Norris in Dakota: A Spiritual Geography and Dan O’Brien in Buffalo for the Broken Heart – which got the attention of Hollywood actors and activists.

Might it be that there’s a latent affection for the Midwestern values, even for sentimental presentations of them, especially in unsettled times?  As Don Henley sang in 1989,

Who knows how long this will last
Now we’ve come so far, so fast
But, somewhere back there in the dust
That same small town in each of us
I need to remember this
So baby give me just one kiss
And let me take a long last look
Before we say goodbye

I’m a transplant from the West Coast to the Midwest, and found my blood boiling from time to time as I read From Warm Center to Ragged Edge. I’m still a bit of a fish out of water here, but couldn’t help but resonate with Lauck’s documentation of a region and people – even if not my own – dissed by a concocted narrative.

We can learn much from Lauck’s history, but even more from his open eared, open minded and open hearted approach.

Guess Who’s Coming to Church

I’ll make a long story short by linking to my own care giving blog, where I describe how my son with autism accompanied me on a preaching road trip.

To make the drive more pleasant, I pulled out our collection of hits by 60s/70s Canadian rock band The Guess Who.

About 90 minutes into the drive, while I was absorbed in worries about how my son would do at a strange (that is, new to him, no value judgement on the very kind congregation) church, the song Hang On To Your Life played.  I’d forgotten that the album cut ended with singer Burton Cummings’ lugubrious offering of Psalm 22:13-15 (King James Version),

They gaped upon me with their mouths
As a ravening and a roaring lion
I am poured out like water
And all my bones are out of joint
My heart is like wax
It is melted in the midst of my bowels
My strength is dried up like a potsherd
And my tongue cleaveth to my jaws
And thou has brought me into the dust of death

According to some sources I’ve consulted (OK, Googled), Cummings was having fun with his agony from a bad case of sunburn.  Just the same, hearing it as a Christian, my mind turned away from my anxious thoughts and toward the cross of Christ, which this Psalm foretells and from which Jesus quoted the first verse, My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?

Such is God’s grace that playing The Guess Who as tranquilizing background music led to a behind-the-wheel contemplation of the cross of Christ, preparing me to preach him and to break the bread in proclamation of his death until he comes again.

Just for info’s sake, here’s a video of the song.  The Psalm is quoted at about 3:40.

There’s only two kinds of people…

How many jokes rely on the “two kinds of people” opening?

Our Gospel this Sunday isn’t funny, but Jesus presents a story in which humanity is divided into two kinds of people: children of the kingdom and children of the evil one.

In today’s Gospel story, Jesus represents the children of God’s kingdom as wheat and the children of the evil one (that is, the devil) as weeds. You can’t tell them apart much of the time. The wheat and the weeds of the time and place where Jesus first told this story look alike until the weeds bloom and can be identified as a toxic plant.

We are prone to shrug off some types of evil and say, “Hey, I’m (or he’s or she’s or they’re or we’re) only human.” The plants in the field in Jesus’ story are like that – they all look like wheat until a ripe moment in which the true nature of each plant is revealed.

Because of that, Jesus warns us against trying to rip out the weeds too soon. When the slaves (they represent the church, by the way) want to go pull the weeds, Jesus says, No; for in gathering the weeds you would uproot the wheat along with them. Let both of them grow together until the harvest; and at harvest time I will tell the reapers, Collect the weeds first and bind them in bundles to be burned, but gather the wheat into my barn.

Jesus promises a day when he will give the order to angels to separate the children of the evil one to go “home” to the fires of hell, and preserve the children of the kingdom in “God’s barn,” the peaceful and abundant heavens.

Meanwhile, we are to be patient and gentle in dealing with the human race, knowing that some sinners will turn out to be saints and some saints will turn out to be sinners beyond salvage.

While we wait for the great revealing, there are some qualities for which to watch in ourselves and others, indicators of those who are bearing the good fruit of the Spirit as children of the kingdom and those who are toxic with works of the world, the flesh and the devil.

Drawing from our lesson from Romans and the Gospel, here are some of those qualities:

  • Children of the kingdom are led by the Spirit of God; Children of the evil one live according to the flesh.  The Apostle Paul explains this in detail in Chapter 5 of his Letter to the Galatians,
    • Now the works of the flesh are obvious: fornication, impurity, licentiousness, idolatry, sorcery, enmities, strife, jealousy, anger, quarrels, dissensions, factions, envy, drunkenness, carousing, and things like these. I am warning you, as I warned you before: those who do such things will not inherit the kingdom of God.  By contrast, the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. There is no law against such things. And those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires. If we live by the Spirit, let us also be guided by the Spirit.
  • Children of the kingdom often suffer while doing right – Paul says we share Christ’s sufferings; children of the evil one seem to get away with murder.
    • They have no struggles; their bodies are healthy and strong. They are free from common human burdens; they are not plagued by human ills.  Therefore pride is their necklace; they clothe themselves with violence. (Psalm 73:4-6)
  • Children of the kingdom long and hope for the kingdom, in fact, we pray thy kingdom come every time we offer the Lord’s Prayer to our Father in heaven;  children of the evil one care only for their current gratification, as the struggling and misguided priest in the British series Grantchester preached in a disastrous sermon, This is the life we are here for, we owe it to ourselves to live it.
  • Children of the kingdom practice patience, going gently in the world as we wait for Jesus to return and render the justice that he alone is fit to dispense; children of the evil one inflict all kinds of harm on the world, often while claiming to do good, even justifying their actions as “the will of God.”

That’s stuff we can see in the here and now.  We won’t see the final verdict until Our Lord returns.  At that time,

  • The children of the kingdom will shine like the sun in the kingdom of their Father; the children of the evil one will burn in the furnace of fire, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.

I had a visit from a long time friend last week.  He shared about his experience in a church that appeared to be full of children of the kingdom – and, in fact, probably is – but which also practiced the rash judgment against which Jesus warns.  It was one of the Protestant churches that is harshly anti-Catholic.  My friend had a Catholic grandmother who, by his new church’s statements, was an idol worshiping child of the evil one.

His objection, although not in these exact words, pointed out how his grandmother showed all the signs of a child of the kingdom:

  • She was led by the Spirit, starting every day early with prayer, especially prayer for other people.  Yes, she prayed using Rosary beads.  But her daily routine and attitude were clearly fruit of the Spirit.
  • She suffered while doing right.  Illness and age took a toll on her, but her focus remained on the well being of others.
  • She longed and hoped for the kingdom, praying daily for it’s arrival and inviting others into the Christian life as she understood it through the Roman Catholic Church.
  • She was patient and gentle in a world of family squabbles, harsh judgments and her own pain.

My friend and brother in Christ understood intuitively (or, more accurately, in the Spirit) that his grandmother was one who would shine like the sun in the kingdom of the Father – in fact, that light was shining from her mortal life as well.

May we be guided by the Spirit to hear Jesus’ story and Paul’s teaching and live our lives in the Gospel’s truth, with acceptance of our share of suffering, even when it seems unfair, with hope for the kingdom to come and with patient gentleness toward others, praying for them to shine like the sun in the perfect kingdom without end.

In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.  Amen.

On the other hand, there’s Clint’s advice,

Meanwhile, over in Grantchester…

OK, OK, as an Anglican Cleric I confess that I watch Grantchester, that intoxicating mashup of crime mystery, bromance, soap opera and a dash of increasingly potent theology thrown in.

The third season sports an agonizing slow motion collision as emerging liberal Christianity accelerates and traditional faith and morals gets in the way.

The theological issues all locate around (tell me you didn’t guess) S_X. People want to “love” who they want, marital status, gender, age or social status be, well, darned!

It’s presented with some welcome complexity. In episode 3, the Vicar of Grantchester preaches an ueber liberal homily about being ourselves and grabbing onto this life rather than heavenly hopes. I can’t find a video clip but a UK source quotes a line,

“This is the life we are here for, we owe it to ourselves to live it.”

Seriously, that’s the triumphant theology that claimed my denomination and several others over the decades and you can become a priest or pastor by memorizing and spouting fortune cookie stuff like that. I’m guessing that many of you reading this will wonder why I seem to question it at all.

But the show doesn’t shy away from the reality that what follows the sermon, as key characters act on it, is folly and disaster. Families are threatened (the writers go so far as to show a little girl’s mounting trauma as divorce stalks her parents), a spot of December-May adultery gets obsessive, lies abound and along comes all the real stuff that happens when we poo poo the Gospel and take “what we owe to ourselves.”

But the liberal critique of “conservative” hypocrisy is not ignored. The Vicar tries to change course in episode 4, preaching a moralistic harangue about how giving in to temptation leads to suffering, then going off to his lover for more, well, must-be-love.

There is a closeted gay cleric in the series, and we watch in agony as he tries to “be good” on the church’s terms and proposes to a vulnerable woman, only to break her heart.

The bottom line is that when it comes to S_X (why is that the only aspect of life we debate theologically?), we can’t “live the life we owe to ourselves.”

Grantchester illustrates all too well what liberal Christianity does to people – not just the participants in the act but a whole lot of others who become collateral damage.

It also shows how traditional Christians who try to “have it both ways,” preaching Biblical morality while living carnally, generate the same result, harming themselves and all kinds of innocent bystanders in the process.

I’m old fashioned in the sense that I believe we should preach what the Scriptures say, try to live by them and deal with failures as failures, but with gentleness intended to restore the fallen (which includes each and every one of us, all the time),

Dear brothers and sisters, if another believer is overcome by some sin, you who are godly should gently and humbly help that person back onto the right path. And be careful not to fall into the same temptation yourself. (Galatians 6:1 NLT)

And I believe that people are free to reject Christianity and go do something else – the dice are ours to roll, to be flip about it. If a person thinks the Bible’s plain teaching is nonsense, then don’t claim to live by and represent it. The Vicar of Grantchester seems to have learned that much from the mayhem, taking off his clergy collar and walking away from the church, at least temporarily.

Dirty Memories

My readings this morning described the important power of memory for our faith.

For example, Psalm 77 starts in despair,

Will the Lord cast me off for ever? will he no more show his favor? Has his loving-kindness come to an end for ever? has his promise failed for evermore?  Has God forgotten to be gracious? has he, in his anger, withheld his compassion? And I said, “My grief is this: the right hand of the Most High has lost its power,”

but memory comes to the rescue,

I will remember the works of the LORD, and call to mind your wonders of old time. I will meditate on all your acts and ponder your mighty deeds.

In The Acts of the Apostles, Chapter 11, Peter reports on how an unexpected invitation to preach to an “unclean” Roman officer and his household was confusing and frightening, until memory transformed it for the spread of the Gospel,

As I began to speak, the Holy Spirit fell on them just as on us at the beginning. And I remembered the word of the Lord, how he said, “John baptized with water, but you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit.” (11:15-16 ESV)

These insights into the Scripture got me thinking about this Sunday’s Gospel, in which Jesus uses a story about throwing around seeds to illustrate what it will be like to preach, teach and share the Good News in his name,

Listen! A sower went out to sow. And as he sowed, some seeds fell on the path, and the birds came and ate them up. Other seeds fell on rocky ground, where they did not have much soil, and they sprang up quickly, since they had no depth of soil. But when the sun rose, they were scorched; and since they had no root, they withered away. Other seeds fell among thorns, and the thorns grew up and choked them. Other seeds fell on good soil and brought forth grain, some a hundredfold, some sixty, some thirty. Let anyone with ears listen!  (Jesus, recorded in Matthew 13, this Sunday’s Gospel in the Revised Common Lectionary)

The “dirt” on which the word lands represents, in part, the capacity of a person to remember what is heard or read. Hearing or reading Scripture “plants” it in the believer’s mind, so that the Holy Spirit can bring it to remembrance at the right times, like seasons of despair as in Psalm 77, or in the face of a confusing choice like Peter’s in Acts 11.

And planting is an important image, because the word needs time to crowd out old weedy thoughts and emotions that clog our lives. Memory is not just storage, but fertile soil in which the word grows. The Letter of James puts it well,

So get rid of all the filth and evil in your lives, and humbly accept the word God has planted in your hearts, for it has the power to save your souls. (1:21 NLT)

IMG_20170713_145244_906Our son with autism planted carrot seeds in a plastic cup at his day program. They came home with him, with green tops sprouting and needing more room to grow. So I got a proper flower pot and some good garden soil.

That good dirt is like a spiritually receptive memory.

If I toss the little root ball of carrots on the sidewalk, they will be scarfed up by our local bunnies and birds just as a the devil snatches the word of the Lord from a hard headed person whose memory is paved over with no entryway for new life.

If I leave the young carrots in the plastic cup, there’s not enough soil for them to grow, just like the word planted in a shallow memory will not take root and will wither in the face of life’s challenges.

If I transplant the carrots to a poorly kept patch in my yard, they’ll be choked by the weeds just as the word will be choked out of a memory clogged with worldly concerns like grudges and fantasies.

But I transplanted the carrots into good and abundant soil, so they can grow.  Jesus is telling us that those who receive, hold and let his words take root have “dirty memories” – not “filthy” but abundant, healthy space for his word to grow – and will experience spiritual growth and good works in his name.

This doesn’t mean you have to sit and memorize every last word of the Bible to follow Jesus.  He says that each believer’s  “crops” will come in different abundance, “some a hundredfold, some sixty, some thirty.”  He can work with different capacities and chooses all sorts of people – some who can remember every detail of childhood, others who can’t remember what they had for lunch.

Some of us will memorize large swaths of Scripture, others will catch onto a verse here and there.  In either case, the Holy Spirit will bring the right words to remembrance at the right time.

The important thing is that we let the word be planted by whatever means God uses – hearing it read and preached in church, reading it ourselves or listening to podcasts, having a friend share it with us over coffee – so that it gets into the dirt of our memories, be they great big fields or fancy little pots.  It is God who brings forth an amazing crop through those who make a little room for the seed to grow.

Setting our minds on the Spirit

To set the mind on the flesh is death, but to set the mind on the Spirit is life and peace.  (From Sunday’s Revised Common Lectionary Epistle, Romans 8:1-11 NRSV)

So the wrong way to preach this is as a moral exhortation:  All of you, right now, get your minds off the flesh and back onto the Spirit!  That message actually surrenders the mind to the flesh.

WHAT?!?!?!?!?

Well, let’s start with the fact that we are all familiar with the New Testament idea of flesh as our self-centered, aggressive and pleasure seeking animal nature.  Paul captures this in a number of important verses, such as

Now the works of the flesh are evident: sexual immorality, impurity, sensuality, idolatry, sorcery, enmity, strife, jealousy, fits of anger, rivalries, dissensions, divisions, envy, drunkenness, orgies, and things like these. I warn you, as I warned you before, that those who do such things will not inherit the kingdom of God.  (Galatians 5:19-21 ESV)

But in Romans, I think he’s warning us about a religious exercise of the flesh.

For God has done what the law, weakened by the flesh, could not do: by sending his own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh, and to deal with sin, he condemned sin in the flesh, so that the just requirement of the law might be fulfilled in us, who walk not according to the flesh but according to the Spirit.

When a sermon or other teaching shouts at us to STOP WALKING IN THE FLESH we instinctively (carnally) respond by trying harder to be good.  We try to do lots of pious stuff like going to all of the church programs we can and saying darn instead of, you know, d@#n, and switching from the metal station to the Christian station on the car radio, at least when the kids are with us.

That is, we try to save ourselves by keeping all the rules.

Which, the lesson from Romans warns us, is hopeless because keeping the law is a strategy under the weakening influence of the flesh.

The antidote is setting our mind on the Spirit, which first and foremost means to receive the Spirit’s perpetual witness: Jesus himself condemned sin in the flesh AND fulfilled the just requirement of the law by suffering death on the cross.

This is not to say that putting our mind on the Spirit is to reject the law and practice a touchy-feely Christian form of amorality.  Having our minds on the Spirit generates two primary actions for our practice of discipleship,

First, we are to affirm with the Spirit that Jesus Christ alone is our righteousness.  As Jesus taught of the Spirit’s work,

And when he (the Holy Spirit) comes, he will convict the world of its sin, and of God’s righteousness, and of the coming judgment. The world’s sin is that it refuses to believe in me. Righteousness is available because I go to the Father, and you will see me no more. Judgment will come because the ruler of this world has already been judged.  (John 16:8-11 NLT)

The second action is to read and/or hear Holy Scripture, which gives us the language by which the Spirit can guide us.  If we spend our day memorizing the Bible as a list of laws to be carried out, we inevitably walk according to the flesh, even if we dress the flesh up in religious ceremonies, jargon and habits.  Instead, our knowledge of the Bible allows the Spirit to teach and guide us in accord with God’s priorities and timing,

These things I have spoken to you while I am still with you. But the Helper, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, he will teach you all things and bring to your remembrance all that I have said to you. (John 14:25-26, ESV)

The Holy Spirit is not a mere feeling (thus Paul tells us to set our minds on the Spirit), but God present within us to help us understand the Scripture He’s breathed, all of which bears witness to His righteousness fulfilled for us in Jesus and now being completed in us as we are transformed by the renewing of our minds.

Understanding that the work of God, the Father, Son and Holy Spirit, is primary and that our piety and power to do good are outward signs of God’s continued and continuous inner work in our lives is what allows us to enjoy the radical truth that launches the lesson from Romans,

There is no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus.

In the flesh we are our own false gods and justly condemned; in the Spirit we share the life of Christ who is the righteous one, the beloved at the Father’s right hand.