Saturday, August 30, 2014

Labor Day and the realities of Labor

It is Labor Day Weekend, a time to stop and remember the value of work and the often problematic aspects of labor.  Being a member of the white collar community, it is easy for me to forget what it means to truly labor, to submit one's body and mind to often dangerous and mind numbing work in factories and fields.  We live at a time when labor unions are in decline and the manufacturing sector is in decline as well in America.  We benefit (Americans that is) from cheap goods imported from other lands where labor practices are often unchecked, meaning that the practices mirror those in America in the 19th century and early 20th.

With this in mind, and as I was thinking about what to share on this Saturday of Labor Day, my mind went to the early Reinhold Niebuhr, who served as a pastor in Detroit during the early days of the Auto boom.  In a posting from 1925 in his book of reflections on his ministry in Detroit -- Leaves from the Notebook of a Tamed Cynic -- he writes of a visit of clergy to an auto factory:   
The foundry interested me particularly. The heat was terrific. The men seemed weary. Here manual labor is a drudgery and toil is slavery. The men cannot possibly find any satisfaction in their work. They simply work to make a living. Their sweat and their dull pain are part of the price paid for the fine cars we all run.
The workers in this factory worked to live -- they needed the wages, even if the work was unfufilling and even dangerous.  

He goes on to speak of our complicity in this reality -- a complicity we often put into the backs of our minds.  As we observe Labor Day, let us consider these words from one of America's most insightful theologians that emerged out of the context of ministry:

We are all responsible. We all want the things which the factory produces and none of us is sensitive enough to care how much in human values the efficiency of the modern factory costs. Beside the brutal facts of modern industrial life, how futile are all our homiletical spoutings! The church is undoubtedly cultivating graces and preserving spiritual amenities in the more protected areas of society. But it isn’t changing the essential facts of modern industrial civilization by a hair’s breadth. It isn’t even thinking about them. 
The morality of the church is anachronistic. Will it ever develop a moral insight and courage sufficient to cope with the real problems of modern society? If it does it will require generations of effort and not a few martyrdoms. We ministers maintain our pride and self-respect and our sense of importance only through a vast and inclusive ignorance. If we knew the world in which we live a little better we would perish in shame or be overcome by a sense of futility.   [Niebuhr,, Reinhold (2013-04-16). Leaves From The Note Book Of A Tamed Cynic (Kindle Locations 641-648). Read Books Ltd.. Kindle Edition.]

Thursday, August 28, 2014

Sex and Marriage Go Together -- Part 2

Continued from previous day's post.

Our focus here is on the role of sexuality within marriage, and while the Song of Songs (or Song of Solomon) can be interpreted allegorically for a spiritual purpose -- speaking of the love humans share with God -- that is not the original intent of these songs.  They celebrate human love that is expressed physically.
The woman speaks to her beloved:   “I am my beloved’s, and his desire is for me.”  She celebrates the mutual attraction that binds the couple together.  Seemingly out of step with the culture, the woman also takes the lead in the relationship.  She invites her beloved to walk through the fields and the gardens, where life is lush and fruitful, to a place where she says “There I will give you my love” (Song of Songs 7:10-12).  The sharing of love here is physical.  It is, to use a Greek term, eros.   She is going to show him a good time.  But this isn’t just a momentary fling.  It is much more than that. 

Wednesday, August 27, 2014

Sex and Marriage Go Together -- Part 1

In the first creation story, after God created humankind, both male and female, God told them to be “fruitful and multiply” (Genesis 1:28).   This command implies sex.  In the second creation story we are told that “a man leaves his father and his mother and clings to his wife, and they become one flesh.”  It is possible, though not necessary, that this statement implies a sexual relationship.  It could also suggest the merging of families. 

From a strictly biological perspective, sex is a normal part of human experience.  It is the means by which humans procreate.  But sex isn’t just about procreation.  Sex can also be about pleasure.  That too might have an evolutionary element to it.  If it were not a pleasurable experience, then it’s likely that humans would forgo it.  That would lead to the demise of the human race. 

From a strictly biological perspective, one needn’t be married to have sex or to procreate.  Many have sex outside of marriage, even if there are taboos against it.  It’s not just in recent years that people of engaged in sex outside marriage.  It’s only that some of the rules of loosened.  In many ways, the rules generally only applied to women.  Rarely will you see a man charged with adultery.  But as we’ve seen in the ancient world, women were seen as property.  A woman who had sex outside of a prescribed relationship was considered spoiled property.  We don’t think of women as property anymore – or at least I hope we don’t, despite quaint customs like a father giving away the bride to her new husband.   

Although we may have moved beyond the idea that women are property, there are valid reasons for setting certain boundaries for sexual behavior.  In the ancient world the relationship between husband and wife was generally unequal.  The same was true, ironically, in the way same-relationships were practiced in Greek and Roman culture. 

The question of sexuality and spirituality has long been a matter of debate.  There have been in some religions fertility cults, in which sex was used as a talisman to encourage the gods to bless the land with fertility – not just children, but the flocks and the crops as well.  Many of the prohibitions in the Hebrew Bible, which were later brought into the New Testament, are responses to these fertility cults.  At the same time, there have been faith groups that have believed that sexuality and spirituality were incompatible.  Sex was considered too carnal and earthy.  Therefore a spiritual person would want to avoid such corruption.  Such views, often Gnostic in their roots, have led to the development of monastic celibacy.  It appears that such a view had permeated a rather conflicted Corinthian Church.  Certain members of the community had gotten it in their head that true spirituality required sexual abstinence (1Corinthians 7:5).  This was true, they believed, whether one was married or not.  However, some of the members had begun to act unbecomingly –   had problems with sex.  Some of the church members were acting in ways that were unbecoming to the community, by seeking sexual satisfaction outside of the marriage relationship (perhaps by visiting local prostitutes).    

Our understandings of sexuality, even if we embrace sex as part of marriage, have often been colored by this view of sex as being carnal (and even dirty).  Men are supposed to like it, women don’t.  A vision of sexuality that has influenced many though the years is exemplified in a prayer of St. Augustine. 

Truly it is by continence that we are made as one and regain that unity of self which we lost by falling apart in the search for a variety of pleasures.  For a man loves you so much the less if, besides you, he also loves something else which he does not love for your sake.  O Love ever burning, never quenched!  O Charity, my God, set me on fire with your love!  You command me to be continent.  Give me the grace to do as you command, and command me to do what you will![1]   

It is, therefore, not surprising that a portion of scripture that celebrates sexuality, like Song of Songs, is read allegorically so that Christians might experience its spiritual message and not be brought down to the carnal level.

                It has normally been assumed that marriage involves a sexual relationship.  We talk about a marriage being consummated.  In some traditions an unconsummated marriage can be annulled – that is, according to this understanding, the marriage never occurred.  It’s not the wedding ceremony or the license; it’s the sexual relationship that defines marriage.  Remember the story of Jacob and Leah.  He might protest that the woman he slept with was not the woman he intended to marry (Rachel), but since he slept with Leah, she was his wife (Genesis 29).  One of the reasons for this is that a woman considered property, and if she had slept with a man, not her husband, or was rejected by a prospective husband, then she would be spoiled or damaged goods.   A man could sow his seeds with relative impunity, but once a woman had been with a man she essentially belonged to him.  We no longer, at least in western culture view women in the same way (it is hoped).  Though there are still elements of this understanding present in subtle forms.  Men are still freer to be sexually active outside marriage than are women. 

[1] Augustine, Confessions (Penguin Classics), R.S. Pine-Coffin, trans., (New York:  Penguin Books, 1961), p. 233.    

Tuesday, August 26, 2014

Time to be Arrested? -- Lectionary Reflection for Pentecost 13A

Matthew16:21-28-- New Revised Standard Version (NRSV)

21 From that time on, Jesus began to show his disciples that he must go to Jerusalem and undergo great suffering at the hands of the elders and chief priests and scribes, and be killed, and on the third day be raised. 22 And Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him, saying, “God forbid it, Lord! This must never happen to you.” 23 But he turned and said to Peter, “Get behind me, Satan! You are a stumbling block to me; for you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things.” 

24 Then Jesus told his disciples, “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.25 For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it. 26 For what will it profit them if they gain the whole world but forfeit their life? Or what will they give in return for their life? 

27 “For the Son of Man is to come with his angels in the glory of his Father, and then he will repay everyone for what has been done.28 Truly I tell you, there are some standing here who will not taste death before they see the Son of Man coming in his kingdom.”


            Peter had just made the Good Confession.  He had declared Jesus to be the Messiah and the Son of the Living God.  In essence he was saying:  “You’re the one we’ve been waiting for.”  You’re it; you’re our last hope.  I’ve heard something like that before.  I had just been called to serve as the pastor of a small, struggling congregation (not the one I currently serve).  I was told by one of the members– you’re our last hope.  I should have seen it coming – five years later we were still struggling (though we had as much money in the bank, if not more, than when I arrived) and a group in the church decided it was time to change pastors.  Since we were essentially in the same place as we were when I started there, perhaps there was still time to find another savior for the church.  Alas, that congregation is much smaller today than when I left, but it’s still alive.  Congregations are like that – they can hang on for years, clinging to life, while pastors come and go. As for Jesus’ contemporaries, they too had seen plenty of messiahs come and go.  These figures made promises, gathered followers, and subsequently ended up dead or dispersed, while their vision of hope perished with them. 

Monday, August 25, 2014


THE MAINLINER'S SURVIVAL GUIDE TO THE POST-DENOMINATIONAL WORLD.  By Derek Penwell.  St. Louis, MO:  Chalice Press, 2014.  188 pages.

The Mainline Protestant Church has been in decline for much of my life. The churches that make up the Mainline reached their height of influence and numbers within a few years of my birth at the end of the 1950s. Once full churches are either closing or surviving with a scattering of aging members who can remember better days.  Yes, there are a few congregations bucking the trend, but overall, the Mainline has moved to the sidelines.  At least that’s the interpretation of many observers.   Going back a generation we were told that the reason why these churches were struggling was their liberal views – politically and theologically.  Ironically, today demographers are discovering that younger adults are ignoring the church because of its perceived conservatism. That could bode well for Mainliners, except that there’s little social pressure to encourage those who are disinclined to embrace conservative churches to embrace old line Protestant churches that have a more open theology and social views.  Those of us still in the church might want to throw up our hands and walk away, but at least some of us believe that we have a message that can be a blessing to the world, we just have to figure out how to get the attention of an often distracted audience.