Thursday, August 28, 2008

What Will People NOT Do for Power?

Day of the Crocodile
Vanity Fair
September 2008
by Peter Godwin

This guy is NOT messing around - I remember hearing about Robert Mugabe off and on for most of my life. He has been in power for 28 years, since the time when the white-ruled British colony of Rhodesia was liberated and became the nation that we now know as Zimbabwe. The congregation that I served as Associate Pastor from 1993-2002 sponsored a married couple who were missionaries in Zimbabwe, and they used to visit our congregation periodically to give reports of their work there. By their accounts, Zimbabwe is a beautiful place populated by loving, generous people. It is country rich in natural resources, but since oil is not a major export by Zimbabwe their situation does not attract the attention of the Western world.

In recent years, Zimbabwe seemed relatively stable compared to the chaos of some other African countries, but this past spring when her people tried to hold democratic elections, Zimbabwe erupted into violence. People who supported Mugabe's opponent (from the opposition party the Movement for Democratic Change) were threatened, abducted, tortured, and many were even killed. Thousands more had their homes burned and are now displaced persons. International journalists were banned from Zimbabwe during the election process - the only way Godwin got in is that he grew up in Zimbabwe and still has close ties to the country. He even found himself arrested at one point. Mugabe's campaign of terror to ensure his total control of the country was known simply as "The Fear." Needless to say, with the opposition party prevented from campaigning and those who supported them prevented from voting, Mugabe won the "election" handily.

Godwin's article gives a sad and scary account of the election time, and the unspeakable suffering he saw when he visited the torture victims in Zimbabwe hospitals. Many of the patients leave before they are medically ready, with wounds still suppurating, because they are afraid to stay in any one place for too long, as their attackers may find them and finish what they started. However, Godwin also includes a lot of helpful background information about Zimbabwe and Mugabe himself. He believes that the West has been delusional about Mugabe for a long time. Because Mugabe broke (then Rhodesia) away from British rule, and because he was a player in the ending of apartheid in neighboring South Africa, he was seen as a strong leader for many years. Moreover, he was an anti-communist, which translates to "he is a great friend of the West." The conventional wisdom about Mugabe is that he was a great guy for a long time and then "lost it" sometime in the 1990s after his first wife died.

As Godwin traces the various military campaigns that Mugabe has waged within Zimbabwe throughout his reign, though, we see that Mugabe has always held on to power by brute force. More recent campaigns include titles such as "Operation Clear Out the SH**" and "Operation Who Did You Vote For?" just to put the few people who were able to vote for the other guy on notice. Unbelievable.

Once again, I am saddened and puzzled by our own country's relationship with some of these dictators. On the one hand, we say we want to promote democracy across the globe, that it is the best game in town (which I believe it is). In reality, though, we have this history of supporting and even building up total scuzzballs as long as it is in our own economic interests. Someone can be an axe long as they are not a Communist. What gives?

And what is our moral responsibility to Zimbabwe now? I am not one for sending the military in to clean up other peoples' problems, but it seems the UN should step in and help them get a fair election process going. It seems equally clear that we need to be a lot more selective about who we choose for our allies. Being a friend to a country should mean holding their leaders accountable for their behavior, but clearly that is not always the case. Very sad.

Reverent Reader

Friday, August 22, 2008

Shifting to Stay in Balance

Transforming Congregational Culture
by Anthony B. Robinson

Our session is headed out for our annual retreat tomorrow morning, and I am excited about sharing some of the insights from this book with them. Seems like every time you turn around there is a new book out that promises some kind of fix for what ails the mainline church, what we can do to "save" ourselves. All the prescriptions make me weary. I want to be as faithful as possible to the task of pastoring an apologetically Christian congregation in the midst of the postmodern, post-Christian world that we live in, but sometimes feel that we are too stuck in the rut of our own rut, too preoccupied with what is not going right rather than confident that God is at work in the church, in spite of us. I want to be intentional and forward thinking without feeling all the time like we are in survival mode. I feel sure the church will survive - perhaps not in a form that is recognizable to what we have had for so long, but survive nonetheless. Our most colossal screw-ups cannot kill what belongs to God in the first place.

Robinson's observations feel different from much of the other "development" and "growth" literature that I have read (or picked up in bookstores and chosen NOT to read). Robinson is a pastor in Seattle, and has lived the dilemmas that so many of us cope with on a daily basis - the fact that we cannot assume anymore that everyone is "some kind of" Christian, the truth that people no longer feel obligated to attend church or participate in a faith community, the fact that people walk through the doors of our churches regularly who have no previous exposure to the faith, who do not even know the basics. Instead of the usual doom saying, though, Robinson sees this as a time of great hope and opportunity for the church. He believes that the people who do come to church now do so because they genuinely want to be there, they are seeking real change in their lives and want to have a spiritual life. In other words, there may be fewer bodies in the pews but those who are there are hungry for engagement, relationship, and a sense of meaning and purpose.

Robinson makes a great case for a congregation being the place where people develop a sense of identity as God's children and Christ's disciples, rather than the church as a whole taking on the roles of ethical police and dispensers of charity for society. It's not that Robinson thinks the church should not be helping people construct a moral life, just that that formation must be rooted in a sense of who we are and who we belong to. Likewise, he would not say that we should not be caring for those in need in the community. But rather than the church people ("us") helping those poor souls who do not have it all together ("them"), we need to recognize that we are all fallen and broken people in need of grace and redemption. When we grasp this truth we are then equipped to reach out to others and advocate for a just world as "receivers who give" rather than just "givers." This is one of my favorite of the "shifts" that Robinson encourages congregations to move toward.

There are a number of these shifts that Robinson sees as necessary, and in my opinion they make a lot of sense. One of the strengths of his analysis is that he does not spend a whole lot of time talking about specific programs that may or may not be relevant to the life of a particular congregation. I can't stand it when people talk about a program - any program - like it is some kind of magic bullet. His transformations are primarily about how we think, how we understand our identity, and how we relate to one another and the wider world. Once we make these spiritual and cultural shifts, he believes we will have the tools to discern what God is asking from us in terms of programs, community involvement, and social witness. Once we know how to "be" who we are, he seems to be saying, it will be much easier to know what we should "do."

Lots of food for thought. Definitely worth reading.

Reverent Reader

Tuesday, August 19, 2008

Signs of Suspicion

The Story of Edgar Sawtelle
by David Wroblewski

After finishing this engrossing story, I am really conflicted. I've been looking forward to reading this ever since the Washington Post Book World called it the "must read of the summer" several issues back. Every review I have read of it has been overwhelmingly positive, and I was eager to get into it - you know how it is when a book is so good you are just lost in it for a few days? That's how I thought this would be.

There is no question the story is beautifully written. I read Wroblewski's sentences with a mixture of awe and envy. However, it seemed like it took the narrative a long time to get rolling. Wroblewski does a masterful job of building the suspense. This sinister character, Claude, is just kind of slithering around and you know something is off with him, but just can't quite tell what. Edgar's muteness is an interesting device - there is a sense of detachment about him as a character, which I think would be pretty authentic for a person who could not converse in the way that most of us can. Wroblewski's depiction of Edgar's relationship with his dogs is wonderful - the reader really has a sense of his connection with them and the way that he communicates with them much more naturally than he does with humans.

The story really picks up steam, though, after Edgar and Claude have their first major confrontation and Edgar leaves home. I loved reading about how Edgar and his three four-legged companions survived on their own. The relationship that develops between Edgar and Henry (not to mention Henry and the dogs) was a turning point - it seems that Edgar finally realizes that as much as he loves the dogs he cannot last long without human contact and interaction.

It was in this second half of the book that I got really into it and began to understand what all the hype for this book was about. I have to confess, though, that the ending devastated me. I absolutely did not see that complete, tragic destruction coming. I did not necessarily think it was going to be a "happily ever after" ending, but I expected some sort of redemption for all Edgar has been through, some sort of vindication to emerge as it became clear just how big a scumbag Claude was. To have years of the Sawtelle's work go up in smoke in spite of Edgar's courage and dedication was so disappointing.

I guess that's the deal, though. Sometimes, things work out as they should or as we would want them to. Sometimes, they do not happen as we would choose, but we can discern some underlying value or justice in the way things unfold. Other times, we are left desolate with no sense of wholeness or reconciliation. I think of the words of one of my colleagues when my friend KB died. She said "The mystery of this is almost too much to bear." I guess sometimes we do have to just live into the mystery of things and trust that redemption occurs in God's time, even when we do not perceive it.

Reverent Reader

Friday, August 15, 2008

Taking Reading to New Heights

The Wild Trees: A Story of Passion and Daring
by Richard Preston

I've always been drawn to nonfiction books that let us take a peek into some little known sub-culture of our society. Two of my favorites of this type of book are The Orchid Thief (about people who raise and collect different specimens of orchids) and Rammer Jammer Yellow Hammer (about people who are obsessed with the Crimson Tide football team of the University of Alabama). It is fascinating to read about people who can get so focused on any one thing. I mean, I have hobbies, but really some people are intriguingly extreme.

The Wild Trees is this type of book - it is about people who are drawn to climbing and studying the tallest species of trees - mostly the redwoods in northern California and southern Oregon. In this case, the trees are not a hobby. They are vocation, passion, life itself for the people who become involved in studying them. I cannot even begin to wrap my mind around the height of these trees - the tallest are in the range of 37 and 38 stories tall. Some of them do not even have branch to grab onto until 150 or so feet in the air. There is lots of interesting science in the book - the "canopy" that the trees form hundreds of feet up that is home to innumerable other plants, lichen, and animals. Most of this canopy has never been seen before and is untouched by humans. But there are a few really focused botanists that risk their lives to strap on harnesses and use ropes to climb these trees. It is incredible.

The trees themselves are compelling enough, but it is the people who are driven to climb them who make this book such a page-turner. They are eccentric, to say the least, but very committed to learning as much as they can about these amazing species while still protecting the health of the trees and the other creatures who dwell in them. If you like this type of book, this is one that really should not be missed.

As immense as the redwoods are, regrettably about 80% of them are gone now because of unregulated logging in the 20th century. It takes about 1,000 years for a redwood to reach its full height, so it is not as if we can just replant them and enjoy them again in a decade or so. I want to go see the ones that are left sometime. My bet is that anyone who reads The Wild Trees will feel renewed in their commitment to care for our earth and treat it respectfully, so that we might preserve all her majesty and grandeur.

I was interested to read that two botanists who study redwoods fell in love and decided to get married in the top of one of their favorite trees. They had trouble finding a pastor who was willing to climb that high with them, but eventually succeeded. I would love to see the redwoods, but as for climbing them, no thanks!

Reverent Reader

Wednesday, August 13, 2008

Surprises Everywhere

Handling Sin
by Michael Malone

I can't help but wonder why this book is not more well-known. I had never even heard of it until my sister E. said it is one of her all time favorites. Once I heard that, I was curious and had to read it. She is right - this book is a gem. Unfortunately, I was reading it when we got the sudden, shocking call about KB's death. It was about a week before I could pick it up again, and I am afraid I will always associate this book with that sad and awful time. That's not fair to the book, which is one of the best novels I have encountered in a long while. So, here's my attempt to get the word out that this one is worth your time.

Handling Sin has theological themes all over the place - redemption, reconciliation, surprise, unexpected blessing, unconditional love. It's a wonderful story. At first glance you could read it and think it is just a comedic romp. The book is certainly funny, but it's much more than that. The gospel reversal is everywhere - the character who initially seems like a fool is the wise one who ends up with the solutions to the most bizarre problems. The ne'er do well brother has the tenderest heart. The buttoned-up Protestant who thinks he knows the prescription by which we are to live life turns out to be the most clueless (although he opens himself to change in beautiful ways as the story unfolds). The retired Episcopalian priest/jazz musician is highly flawed but is also the one who makes the most sincere effort to make amends to the people he has hurt.

Trite as it may sound, this book will make you laugh out loud, but also will make you cry. It does what fiction should do - helps us see ourselves not just as we are, but how we might be. Handling Sin is a story that shows the sin that permeates all of us but also the gift of redemption that becomes ours when we surrender ourselves to God's agenda rather than our own.

Reverent Reader

Saturday, August 2, 2008

Let the Revolution Begin!

The Irresistible Revolution: Living as an Ordinary Radical
by Shane Claiborne

There are lots of books out there right now about what faith means to people who have no use for church or any other organized religion, how to make faith a meaningful part of life, and how to engage people at a deeper spiritual level. I've read a lot of them, some of them are pretty good. Some of them are hokey and contrived. This is one of the better ones that I have read in a long time. Shane Claiborne is a truly interesting person who, in my opinion, has a prophetic ministry all his own. He does not so much say we have to be like him to be faithful as much as make us WANT to find the meaning and engagement and relationships that have proven to be so life-giving for him. More importantly, it is not really about him, although he readily shares his own experiences. The overall story is more about who we could be as the people of God if we only integrated our faith with the most mundane parts of daily life.

What I like about Claiborne is that he takes a serious look at the church and all our problems, failings, and issues, but he does not make the church into the enemy. He spares no group his critique, least of all those of which he is a part. He recognizes that what are commonly called "mainline Protestant" congregations and denominations are experiencing membership decline and in many cases a spiritual aridity that leaves faith at best irrelevant to life and at worst damaging of it. Lots of the issues (changes in the culture, failure of Christians to become involved in justice, and the pitfalls of civic religion, just to name a few) that Claiborne points out are not new news to any of us who have been paying attention, but he he articulates them clearly, with warmth and humor and hope.

Claiborne is not stuck on figuring out what the mainline churches should do to "save" themselves. He is not particularly invested in denominations or organizations. Instead, he loves Christ with all that he has and is determined to make that love permeate every part of his life. Claiborne and a small number of other people have founded a community called "The Simple Way" in inner-city Philadelphia. These people seek to live together in community and live their faith by loving their neighbors around them. This includes shooting baskets with kids in the neighborhood who are home alone after school, helping them with their homework, and occasionally taking in the homeless or neglected. They also become involved in social issues that affect the people with whom they live.

I have to admit that living on a long-term basis with a group of people outside my immediate family has little appeal for me. But I am intrigued by The Simple Way and am considering spending some continuing ed time there in the future. I think the way of living that they have adopted could make life more meaningful and faith more real wherever we may happen to live. I like Claiborne's model of building the realm of God here on earth - he speaks of "getting smaller and smaller until we take over the world." In other words, do what you can to proclaim, embody and live the reign of God and see what God can do through us. It is a hopeful and inspiring way to consider faith, and a refreshing change from the doctrinal nitpicking and the endless fighting over ordination standards that suck so much energy from the PCUSA.

I also recently picked up Claiborne's latest book Jesus for President and am greatly looking forward to reading it. Anyone else out there read Claiborne? Or heard him on his latest speaking tour? I'd be eager to hear what you think.

Reverent Reader