Saturday, September 24, 2016

The Sneaky Steward

Last Sunday's lectionary gave us the parable of the "dishonest manager" in Luke 16:1-13  It's a notoriously confusing passage to interpret - is Jesus really recommending dishonesty? what kind of financial arrangements are going on here? - but it should also come home with some force to believers who, like me, think of the language of "stewardship" as appropriate for delegated, human authority over the earth's resources - "What is this that I hear? You have been squandering my possessions! Turn in the account of your stewardship, for you can be steward no longer!"

John de Graaf and David Batker wrote a book called What is the Economy For, Anyway?  The idea of the title is, of course, that if  you think the answer is obvious, you might just need to stop and think!  In the same way, Jesus' steward has his attention called to the question "what is wealth for"?  The resources he has been entrusted with will not be his for long; will it be possible for him, while the opportunity lasts, to negotiate an exchange for something of more enduring value - in fact, for some relationships that will support him even when this former wealth has faded to ashes.  The steward is shrewd because he appreciates the fading nature of wealth and acts promptly to secure something of more lasting value.  Just as de Graff and Batker advise that "it's time to stop chasing growth and start pursuing happiness" - or as any number of articles these days will tell you, buy experiences not things - the experiences will last longer.

But Jesus will have his disciples take this a step further.  What are the most lasting things they can "buy" with their wealth?  According to the parable, there are experiences, friendships, connections that can be secured which lead to being welcomed into "eternal dwellings" (aoinios - that is, dwellings that belong to the Age to Come, to the kingdom).  Who are the proprietors of these residences, which if the smart steward had only been a little smarter he would have recognized to be the most desirable of all?  We have to look elsewhere in Jesus' teaching for the answer.  In verses 19-31 of the current chapter, as well as in chapter 12  (especially verse 33), we see that building connection with the poor, the needy, is the way to provide yourself with "moneybags that don't waer out, and treasure that does not fail."   In the end, "where your treasure is, there your heart will be also".

In my understanding, then, the "dishonest manager" is commended for his smarts in getting out of the financial "sinking ship" and investing in relationships instead - but the "children of light" should be smarter than he because they should recognize the unlikely kind of relationships that are really worth investing in; the ones where there is in fact no "earthly" prospect of return.  How does this circle back to the environmental stewardship question?  By asking me once again whether my concern for stewardship is truly a concern for the flourishing of creation - especially, for the flourishing of future generations who "desire to be fed" (verse 21).  Am I just offering leftovers?

Saturday, September 17, 2016

A Few Devotional Apps

My (non-electronic) prayer book, with dedication from my Uncle Wyatt
I first got a tablet device (iPad) in the winter of 2014, just after my then-startling cancer diagnosis.  I felt - correctly as it turned out - that I might be doing a lot of traveling time and hospital time and that the iPad would provide a good way to read books and keep up with the news.  (Playing games - beyond Words with Friends - was not, and mostly still is not, on my horizon.)

Of course, one soon discovers unexpected applications.  Liane and I found that time spent in the waiting room (and we were in waiting rooms every weekday for six weeks that summer) presented an ideal opportunity to do the New York Times crossword (there's an app for that!).  Two years later, the crossword is a much-anticipated pleasure every day. (Except for last Thursday's...that is another story!)

Another surprise to me though was how the iPad helped with my devotional life.  I'm a teenage convert, which means that I have been praying and reading Scripture for more than forty years - daily when I have had the time and energy.  I've used many different "patterns" over the years, including books like the Anglican Book of Common Prayer, daily notes like those from Scripture Union, and study guides like Alan Stibbs' Search the Scriptures.  Change is good; this is not something that you "get right" once and for all, because you and your relationships are changing.  When I got the iPad, I found there were many prayer, meditation and Bible study apps available.  Some were terrible, but some have - for now - become a regular part of my life.   Here are a few that I use, with brief reviews.

  • iPray BCP - This gives the text of the 1662 Book of Common Prayer with a calendar that (in theory) gives you the correct collect (special prayer) for each day - it seems to get a bit confused sometimes, especially towards the end of the church year,  but it is mostly accurate, and there are some collects (like that for the 6th Sunday after Trinity) which I love so much, I look forward to them for weeks! 
  • YouVersion - This is the best Bible text application, in my opinion, with many translations in different languages available, as well as the original Greek and Hebrew for those who want to wrestle with them. Also has many Bible reading plans available if you want them - too many "Christian Celebrity X Reading Plan" for my taste, but I go regularly round and round the one-psalm-a-day plan, and the app gently nags me if I miss one.
  • WordLive - This is Scripture Union's reading plan in app form (you can also obtain it as a podcast).  Each day there is a passage of Scripture to read, notes and relections on the text, and suggestions for prayer arising out of it.
  • PrayerMate - Keeping a prayer list is not an easy thing - I cannot say enough good things bout this app which helps me list topics, organizations and people for whom I want to pray; suggests a selection of topics each day; offers scope to make notes or send encouraging messages if you want to; and can be linked to the RSS feed (from a church say) if you want prayer news that automatically updates.  To me, really helpful (YMMV of course).
  • -This is a web site (though they have just come up with an app as well) based on A Liturgy for Ordinary Radicals by Shane Claiborne, Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove and Enuma Okoro.  The daily prayers connect me with many saints from across space and time who I would otherwise never have heard of.  Challenging and beautiful.
  • Presence  - Multimedia app weaving together music, film, poetry and photography to deepen people's connection to God.

These have all been helpful to me in different ways.  Perhaps one or more of them may be a blessing to you also!

Monday, September 5, 2016

Some Reflections on Bicalutamide

I returned from an unexpected inpatient stay in hospital the other day (see my CaringBridge blog more more about this) with a prescription for a new chemotherapy regimen that includes a daily pill of bicalutamide, a drug that is usually given to combat prostate cancer but that genetic profiling suggests may be effective against my head and neck cancer also.

Saturday, September 3, 2016

The "Unsustainable" Church of Acts 4?

St Barnabas, who "laid money at the apostles' feet"
At the end of the fourth chapter of the book of Acts, after Peter and John have made their first defense before the Sanhedrin (and probably anticipated that that same fate will befall them that overtook their master) comes a famous description of the living arrangements of the early church.

Now the full number of those who believed were of one heart and soul, and no-one said that any of the things that belonged to him was his own, but they had everything in common.
Socialism! Or, at least, a lot of ink has been spilt trying to prove that it wasn't.  Perhaps this was only a temporary arrangement, while the church was getting itself started, some sort of sign; or (for some writers) perhaps it was actually a sign of financial irresponsibility, a prematurely realized eschatology which ultimately led to the need for St Paul to organize the "collection for the saints at Jerusalem" which so preoccupies him in the later part of Acts and several of his letters (e.g. 2 Corinthians).  But this kind of critique has to be read back into the text; there is nothing in Acts 4 (or in the subsequent story of Ananias and Sapphira in Acts 5) that suggests that Luke is taking some kind of critical distance from the behavior he describes.  This is just the way it was, he seems to say, and maybe the way the true church should be.

Friday, August 19, 2016

Are You Working Hard Enough To Maintain Your Elite Status?

That was the subject line of an email that I received as we were returning from the hospital the other day.  Background: The sender was the frequent-flyer miles program of the airline that I usually fly with.  Last year, which included a wonderful vacation in New Zealand with Liane as well as other personal and business trips, had promoted me to the lowest named tier ("silver") of their frequent-flyer program. This year, with all kinds of travel curtailed by loss and cancer, somehow it looked like I wouldn't make the grade.  What a failure! Shouldn't I be getting out there and flying more?  Look, here are some special offers!

It's a basic assumption of this kind of advertising that, if you slice your customer base into various levels ("silver", "gold", "platinum" and the rest), then people will grasp for the higher status levels - however meaningless they may acknowledge that the whole exercise is.  Something about the idea that "I am inside the elite group and you are outside" feels tremendously appealing.  Let's take a moment to acknowledge that it is also completely un-Christian.  As Paul writes,
Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, by taking the form of a servant, being born in human likeness.  And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross. (Philippians 2:5-8)
We are called to imitate Jesus in repudiating the whole grasping business.  We could ask one another how well we are doing at getting rid of our elite status so as to serve others more effectively.  One hopeful example seems to be the author J.K. Rowling

This news is a few years old (see here) but I only came across it today and found it an encouraging antidote to "Airline X"'s trying to convince me to worry about my "status" in their dumb frequent-flyer program. 

Monday, July 18, 2016

Mike Pence and Causality

Governor Mike Pence of Indiana has been in the news since his selection as Donald Trump's vice-presidential nominee.  Of course, this means that some of his more surprising statements over the years have suddenly found themselves highlighted.  For instance, "Despite the hysteria from the political class and the media, smoking doesn't kill."

Wednesday, July 6, 2016

Memories IX: A Step over the Void

Skyline Traverse is a Seneca Rocks classic, described in the old guidebook as "one of the finest routes of its grade".  The author then continues, however, "The start of the second pitch has filled the hearts of many beginning climbers with fear".  When you arrive there, it is not hard to see why, especially if (as the "beginning climber") you are the second person on the rope.

You climb most of the first pitch on big holds which deposit you on a wide horn of rock forming a comfortable ledge.  A nice place to belay from but where does the route go now?  Your leader slots in a piece of gear - probably a #1 Camalot - behind a convenient horn high up to your left, and then proceeds to traverse delicately leftwards about six feet.  From there, he gets established in a typical Seneca corner system and moves up quickly until he is out of sight.  You are left alone on the ledge, waiting for the "On belay" call, and knowing that when it comes the first thing you will have to do is to remove that reassuring Camalot and make the leftwards traverse for yourself - trusting that the rope above you, running to your leader out of sight at the top of pitch 2, will protect you if you slip.

Because the step off the belay is a deliberate choice to put yourself in a place that feels really dangerous. Make that step and there are 120 feet of air below the heels of your climbing shoes, an eye-popping level of exposure for a novice climber to accept all in one gulp. You might hesitate for a while; you might ask yourself if your leader really can be trusted to protect you; you might even need a little encouragement from the next party behind.  But eventually, like Miriam when I first took her up this way, you will make the move, find the secure stance, and whoop for joy.

It can take everything a young climber has, to make that step of trust.  Just as it can take everything a young person has, to say to their parents "Mom, I'm gay"; "Dad, I'm transgender". What a void of potentially deadly misunderstanding they must bravely step out over!  And, parents, in this picture I see us as the ones holding the rope - communication is difficult but we are still responsible for our loved one's safety.  Love, the first commandment, is the belay skill we need here; the skill to hold our loved ones close and keep them safe.  But courage is their contribution; to follow the way marked out for them can feel like taking a step over the void.

Image from Pixabay.  Public Domain.