The Refiner’s Fire

This morning I preached on Malachi 3:1-20, a passage made famous to moderns by the aria in Handel’s The Messiah:

For he is like a refiner’s fire and like fullers’ soap; he will sit as a refiner and purifier of silver, and he will purify the descendants of Levi and refine them like gold and silver, until they present offerings to the Lord in righteousness.

Listen to the aria:
This video is a recording of Mark Wesley Brax, 23, of Columbia, S.C. who died tragically in an auto accident in Ripley County, Indiana on April 14, 2012.  He was a student at the University of Cincinnati.

But as with a great many Old Testament prophecies, we are quick to ignore the call for justice that follows:

Then I will draw near to you for judgment; I will be swift to bear witness against the sorcerers, against the adulterers, against those who swear falsely, against those who oppress the hired workers in their wages, the widow and the orphan, against those who thrust aside the alien, and do not fear me, says the Lord of hosts. For I the Lord do not change; therefore you, O children of Jacob, have not perished.

If I were to ask the average man or woman on the street how this Old Testament judgment applies to our world today, most of the working people would be quick to draw a connection to the evisceration of the middle class by the super-wealthy.  This is a very real part of the “major fail” trajectory of our nation, hastened by the sad access the super-wealthy have to manipulate laws, regulation, and control the media.

Consider for a moment these graphs, which are based on easily verified data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics.  Over the last thirty years, the super-wealthy have found a variety of ways to use their connections, influence, and power to game the system, to create an environment where they can corner the market on money.

In the same year that corporations have announced record profits, they are still seeking to cut back on basic benefits and wages for the average worker, begging fictional poverty and inevitable market forces.  But these are not inevitable at all; they are artificially created by the very people whom they benefit.  The strategy of the last couple of decades has been to bear down on the average worker, to cut benefits, pensions, and wages so that enormous profits can be taken by vulture capitalists and market manipulators.  The amazing thing to me is that these folks, with their stranglehold on the media, have been able to convince so many “rank-and-file” of the fundamental lie that if the super-wealthy are not allowed to have everything they want, the jobs will go away.  They have perfected the art of the spin, of playing on fears, of distracting with Honey Boo-Boo.

This is fundamentally a structure imposed by the methodology of Wall Street, which demands artificial increases in share price from publicly traded companies in a manner which most economists will readily admit is unsustainable – and which is based on a completely amoral and short-sighted philosophy.  One CEO I used to work with had come to the conclusion over a decade ago that the only way to run an ethical company in the 21st century was to keep it private; publicly traded companies were automatically subject to a system that was fundamentally amoral and in its practical application became immoral.  When we play this game and participate in this system without challenging its “winner-take-all” crony capital rules, we continue to further a system that God has outlined for judgment.  Again from Malachi:

I will be swift to bear witness… against those who oppress the hired workers in their wages, the widow and the orphan, against those who thrust aside the alien, and do not fear me, says the Lord of hosts.

I do not believe in Adam Smith’s “invisible hand.”  But I do believe that God judges our nation, and in my read of the Scriptures I do not think God’s judgment is based (as some say) on a couple of isolated passages in Deuteronomy or on whether or not life begins at conception, an idea which the Bible does not actually support at all.  Instead, if we count the number of statements made by the prophets, we will be judged instead on our treatment of the poor, the downtrodden, the powerless, the widow, the orphan.

How that judgment will come I cannot say.  It may come through the natural process of labor rising in numbers against oppression, as happened a century ago at the end of the “Golden Age.”  It may come through the ultimate failure of an economy and political system that has long since lost touch with ethics and sustainability.  The collapse of the economy in 2008 may only be a warning shot; and the continuing inability of our politicians to behave like rational adults instead of posturing bullies does not bode well for our nation.

In a recent Washington Post editorial, Ruth Marcus reminded us that the originally temporary tax cuts currently being argued over were created prior to 9/11 because there was a projected budget surplus!  Now that we are dealing with massive deficits, that fact has been conveniently forgotten and we are so in love with low taxes that we will invent new and spurious reasons why the temporary measure must stay in place long after it was intended to expire, and even longer after it had outlived its original intent.  When 9/11 happened and the nation decided (whether rightly or wrongly) to go to war, I was asking then, “Where is the war tax?”  How were we going to pay for the massively expensive war?  More tax cuts and more plastic at the mall?  I ask those who were alive in World War II to tell their children stories about War Bonds, to explain rationing, to remind us how the war against fascism was paid for sixty years ago – by pulling together, by sacrifice, by hard work.  Anyone today own any war bonds?  Nope, I didn’t think so!  Whether you were in favor of the longest duration war America has ever fought or against it, one thing is sure: it was really expensive and we passed the cost off to our children rather than shouldering the burden ourselves.

Another lesson from history: capitalists today would do well to read up on the period from 1895 to 1930, for they will catch a prediction of what will happen if the poor and the middle class are squeezed harder while the überclass continues to revel publicly in more than Oriental splendor.  People have forgotten that there were bombings, riots, blood spilled.  There is only so much that the common worker in a supposedly democratic society will put up with before rebelling.  We are not far away from repeats of incidents like the bombing of the LA Times in 1910.  As a Moravian pacifist, I always oppose such violence, but I recognize that when people are pushed too far, violence will happen.  I‘d love to see it not happen!

The Conservatives are right: the deficit is a looming monster which will destroy us.  But their willingness to fall on their swords in defense of continued tax cuts for the wealthiest betrays that they aren’t really that concerned about the deficit, only about “keeping theirs.”  The Liberals are right: we can’t let the economy be balanced on the backs of the poorest while the rich jet off to check on their bank balances in the Cayman Islands.  But their unwillingness to confront the deficit and reveals a lack of understanding that the current system of entitlements is unsustainable.

Most Americans recognize that the truth is somewhere in the middle.  A society that continues to live on borrowed time, money, and environmental damage is not a Biblical society at all.  The nasty fundamentalist Christian “hot-button” issues of the last thirty years ignore the genuine, clear clarion call of the Bible to sustainable, responsible life that does not leave our children and grandchildren with a ruined planet and financial burdens of unpaid debt.



Not So Elementary, CBS

First, a confession: I am a Holmes fundamentalist. I’ve been a rabid fan of Arthur Conan Doyle’s fictional detective for most of my life, and I don’t think the quirky consulting detective needs to be improved. After all, there is a reason why fascination with this character has continued over a century after his creation, and the chances that hacks in Hollywood will do better than ACD did are pretty slim. (By the way, I don’t think Doctor Seuss or Winnie the Pooh need improving, either!)

But the rule in American movies and television today is imitation, and it was inevitable that Steven Moffat’s amazingly creative Sherlock should be cloned by American TV, and stateside executives would feel compelled to put their thumbprint on the piece, no matter that they were putting smudges on a masterpiece and decreasing its value in the process. As in most cases, mostly what they do is either dumb down the concept, simply misunderstand it, or add an extra coat of mediocrity. This is the process that gave us Robert Downey Jr’s Sherlock Holmes (Warner Bros, 2009) a formulaic costume action movie that bears almost no resemblance to Doyle’s character, and which I could only watch through the subterfuge of pretending that it wasn’t even supposed to be Sherlock Holmes.

So here is CBS’ Elementary, with the engaging Lucy Liu as “Dr. Joan Watson” and Jonny Lee Miller as semi-recovering addict Sherlock Holmes. The show is actually better than I expected, but that’s just because I expected so little. The trades view it as “a stylish, if kind of boring, procedural.” And that’s spot on. The mysteries themselves are about as good as a decent Columbo, but with the high-concept exaggerated persona of Holmes and Watson sometime aiding, sometimes getting in the way of the story.

Elementary casts Holmes as a semi-recovering addict whose father has hired Watson (a failed and self-tortured surgeon) as a 24/7 live-in recovery minder. The A.A. meetings that Watson forces Holmes to attend are hackneyed caricatures of the real thing. Holmes is slightly more than two-dimensional, but not much. Where Moffat (who clearly “gets” Holmes) uses the classic Holmesian details with new twists in the 21st century, Robert Doherty tosses in the violin, the addiction, and other touches in with a bit of a heavy-handed thud.

Rarely, there is someone who not only “gets” Holmes but writes with great creativity.  Steven Moffat is in that small league.

Holmes pastiches have been around for most of the last century, and mostly they fall into two categories: either pretty good or embarrassingly bad. The writer who “gets” Holmes and can write in character may do a workmanlike job of spinning another Holmes tale for the genre. Once in a while, rarely, there is someone who not only “gets” Holmes but writes with great creativity, and creates a new niche of Holmesiana. Carole Nelson Douglas did this with the Irene Adler novels, and the amazing Laurie King has done this stupendously well with the wonderful Mary Russell novels. Steven Moffat is clearly in this small league of extraordinary writers.  But a great many pastiches are simply flops. Anne Perry, a marvelous writer, penned a perfectly awful Holmes short story that I could just barely finish. I love her William Monk and Thomas Pitt novels, both set in the same period of Victorian England, but she missed the mark utterly when trying to write Holmes. Perhaps that reveals how hard it is to do this!

By the way, the quintessential portrayal of the classic Holmes on television has to be the incomparable Jeremy Brett (The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes, 1984-1994 Granada Television series), whose abrupt, quirky characterization accurately captured the tension and complexity of the Holmes of the classic stories in a way few others have done. This is an area of huge competition, since the cast of other actors who have had a stab at Holmes is amazing, ranging from John Barrymore and Peter Cushing to Christopher Lee and Peter O’Toole. Read the LIST OF ACTORS WHO HAVE PORTRAYED SHERLOCK HOLMES.

If you’re a die-hard Holmes lover like me, then Steven Moffat’s Sherlock , with Holmes portrayed by actor Benedict Cummerbatch, is required viewing. Moffat is probably the most creative writer in television today, a man who has actually come up with some truly new and never-before-thought-of twists in a genre mostly filled with hackneyed imitation. He grasps the essential core of the characters of Holmes and Watson, takes those fully and completely and aggressively into the year 2012, and goes to town. Elementary, on the other hand, is a fairly ordinary police procedural dressed up in Holmes clothing, something I will watch if I have nothing more urgent to do, but it is clearly not “destination television.”


Season 3 of BBC Sherlock, starring Benedict Cummerbatch,
will air on Masterpiece Theatre sometime in 2013.

Book Review: “Crazy For God:”

Crazy for God: How I Grew Up as One of the Elect, Helped Found the Religious Right, and Lived to Take All (or Almost All) of It Back

by Frank Schaeffer

Paperback: 448 pages
Publisher: Da Capo Press; 1st Da Capo Press Pbk. Ed edition (September 30, 2008)
Language: English
ISBN-10: 0306817500ISBN-13: 978-0306817502

Frank Schaeffer is the son of conservative theologian Francis Schaeffer (How Shall We Then Live?, The God Who Is There) regarded by many as the intellectual defender of fundamentalism in the 70’s and 80’s.  Francis Schaeffer’s ideas, combined with the films of his son Frank, helped spark the rise of the Christian Right in the United States and were strongly influenced by him. Among them are Operation Rescue founder Randall Terry, Focus on the Family’s James Dobson, the 700 Club’s Pat Robertson, Prison Fellowship’s Charles Colson, columnist Cal Thomas, preacher and author Tim LaHaye, and Liberty University and Moral Majority founder Jerry Falwell .

Frank, almost by accident, stumbled into the world of Christian filmmaking, producing the film series How Should We Then Live? The Rise and Decline of Western Thought and Culture (1976) with his father and Whatever Happened to the Human Race? (1979).  Father and son became obsessed with the anti-abortion movement, and Frank in particular was sucked into the big-money world of Christian broadcasting and worked hard to create the hyper-politicized Christian Right.

But Schaeffer ended up in a genuine moral and spiritual crisis in the mid-eighties when he realized that the money-driven right wing machine he had been a part of forming was out of control and had little to do with true spiritual life.  He left the movement and had to rebuild his life from scratch.  In 1990 he joined the Greek Orthodox Church, and  today “embraces paradox and mystery.”

The book is part autobiography, part tribute to his parents, and part a political commentary on the movement he abandoned.  He is uncommonly blunt in his behind-the-scenes storytelling about Dobson, Falwell, and Robertson.  Many conservative Christians will find this book to be either very disturbing or a betrayal; more moderate Christians will learn more about how the Religious Right came to be the pervasive and disturbing political influence that it is today.  Having had some contact with this world over the years, I have little doubt that Schaeffer’s most cynical and negative stories are quite close to reality.

Schaeffer’s narrative is brutally honest about his own weaknesses, his father’s struggle with bipolar illness, and the hypocrisy of the Christian broadcasting market where too much money and warped celebrity worship create a world disconnected from most people’s experience and reality.

On a personal level, I connected deeply to Schaeffer’s description of dealing with the mood swings of his father and their impact on the family (my father was bipolar) and also to the strange world of religious celebrity. Crazy for God is an unflinchingly honest, if imperfect, book.  Schaeffer himself would not say that he is an objective witness in any way; but his story is worth reading and worth understanding as we wrestle with the damage the movement he left has done to our society and to the Church of Christ itself.

Unintended Consequences

Grouchy Curmudgeon

Anyone who has served on a committee with me or been at a Moravian Church synod with me knows that I am a grouchy curmudgeon about unintended consequences of bad legislation.  That’s because I’ve lived long enough to have to deal with the effluvium of poorly thought out and poorly worded proposals which didn’t end up doing what was intended and had far-reaching and unplanned effects.
North Carolina’s Amendment One is right smack in that zone.  Intended to prevent the state from ever allowing gay marriages (something that is already illegal in NC) the act overreaches fantastically beyond the announced scope.
If approved, the proposed measure would amend Article 14 of the North Carolina Constitution by adding a new section:
Sec. 6. Marriage.
Marriage between one man and one woman is the only domestic legal union that shall be valid or recognized in this State. This section does not prohibit a private party from entering into contracts with another private party; nor does this section prohibit courts from adjudicating the rights of private parties pursuant to such contracts.
Despite huffy assurances from proponents that the amendment will only affect the intended target (gay marriage), the legal sources I have checked into unanimously say that there will be far-reaching implications for the many unmarried heterosexual families in the state.  There will also be significant consequences for elderly unmarried couples, who are in many cases living as a couple but without getting married to avoid the unintended consequences of some other poorly thought out laws that cut their already meager income if they are legally married. One thing that opponents have claimed that is probably not true is that the amendment will impact protection orders.  But other concerns seem to be well-founded.
Don’t get me wrong, I’m a big proponent of marriage when it’s done well!  After all, I’m the guy in the robes who does the ceremony and pronounces the couple man and wife.  I am deeply saddened every time I hear of a widow and widower who fall in love but can’t take that legal step of getting married because of the impact it would have on their health care or income.  I’m horrified when I run into a case (one just recently) where an elderly couple with limited income gets divorced in order for one to qualify for needed long-term care — bet you didn’t know that was going on!

County-by-County Consequences

Unfortunately, the blunderbuss wording of this amendment will indeed affect children of unmarried parents, elderly in certain financial straits, and in fact many other situations beyond the intended scope.  The exact extent may not be known for years, since some of the consequences will only appear as specific circumstances are reviewed by courts. But worse than that, the consequences will play out on a county by county basis, entirely dependent on the whims of county judges! Bad, bad move and sloppy policy.
No matter what one thinks of gay marriage, this poorly written amendment is a foolish idea either way.  It will have unintended consequences for many existing heterosexual couples in the state, thousands of children who have nothing to say about their situation, and it won’t make any positive difference that I can see.
My libertarian friends point out that constitutional amendments should protect the rights of the individual rather than expanding the role of government, and most of them will be voting against this amendment for that reason.
I’ve really annoyed some of my best friends and colleagues by railing against poorly written legislation at church Synods.  But the fact of the matter is that badly worded, ill-considered legislation can have damaging impact for years to come, damages that are easy to inflict and hard to undo.  When serious concerns exist about the impact of such legislation, I go back to the oath that doctors must take:

First, do no harm.

Even if you are ambivalent about the amendment, I think you should get out and vote against it so that we don’t all have to deal with undoing the damage the amendament will cause.  Just my opinion. Thanks for listening.


Well, as those concerned already know, Amendment One passed.  Only time will tell whether my concerns about the unintended consequences was correct; but it is certain that the amendment will now cost the State millions in lawsuits that are already underway.

The last Constitutional amendment that was passed in this state was in 1875, the anti-mescegenation amendment which declared that “all marriages between a white person and a Negro or between a white person and a person of Negro descent to the third generation inclusive are, hereby, forever prohibited.”  This unenlightened law was overturned by the US Supreme Court in 1967, but remained part of our state charter until a new constitution was adopted in 1971.

I will be very surprised if Amendment One is not repealed within a decade.

The Parable of the Magnificent Church

Salem UCC Bell Tower

Once upon a time, in the city of Allentown, PA, a huge and magnificent church was dedicated in 1876. Salem Reformed Church was built on the highest point in the city, on Chew Street between 6th and 7th Streets. The cathedral-like church towered over the surrounding buildings and was visible for miles around to all who approached the city. A great bell was cast to hang in its bell tower, calling all around to worship. The sanctuary seated over 700 and the Sunday School auditorium, the largest in the city and indeed in any nearby city, seated 1800.

A huge pipe organ, built by C. F. Durner of Quakertown was installed in 1885. It was powered by a “Little Giant” water motor. The oak pews were sumptuously padded, unusual in the 19th century. The magnificent stained glass windows, including a spectacular rose window, were made by Thomas Aiken & Co. of Philadelphia.

The altar of Salem UCC

The altar of Salem UCC

After the installation of the organ, the windows, and the bell, a rededication of the building was held in 1885. The Allentown Daily City Item covered the event, reporting every detail of the ceremony of rededication. One paragraph in particular from the article is notable in this area of the country where the German language was still predominant:

From its organization, about ten years ago, Salem Reformed has been a phenomenally successful congregation. While older German congregations of this city have been compelled to introduce English services in order to retain the young people, Salem’s services have always been held in the German language, and the majority of the members are comparatively young people.

However, the pastor, the Rev. Dr. A. J. G. Dubbs, was paying attention to the changes going on around the magnificent building and began introducing English into the services despite opposition from some of the church members. At first, he began conducting the evening services in English, and then gradually over the next ten years nearly all the services were conducted in English.

Fast forward 100 years to the 1970s, and of course there was a magnificent observance of the congregation’s centennial year. Now known as Salem United Church of Christ, the congregation still ministered to some folks in the 7th & Chew area but largely had become what Lyle Schaller called an “Ex-Neighborhood Church.” Downtown Allentown had changed. Many of the factories that had fueled former prosperity had closed, and the social conditions that would be woven into Billy Joel’s famous 1982 song were inexorably under way:

Well we’re living here in Allentown
And they’re closing all the factories down
Out in Bethlehem they’re killing time
Filling out forms, standing in line.

Iglesia de JesuCristo Pentecostes

Iglesia de JesuCristo Pentecostes

Folks drove in from the suburbs to worship on Sunday morning, less and less connected to the area around the beautiful cathedral-like church. A huge organ endowment had been built over the years, so that each year the organ could be improved – but no such endowment existed for the deteriorating hulk of a boiler that heated the complex and ageing building. The cost of replacing the boiler was substantial enough that consistory members joked bitterly that if the boiler went, they’d have to close the church. By 1980, only a few years after the centennial, attendance had dropped to well under 200, sparse in that vast sanctuary, and most of the building was unused.

The surrounding area became largely Latino over the next decades, and Salem UCC became an English-speaking island in a sea of Spanish. The congregation closed with a final service on Easter, 2007, 131 years after the construction of the building. That magnificent building still stands, its great bell still in the tower; but today a Spanish-speaking Pentecostal congregation worships inside on Sundays.

Let those who have ears to hear, hear.


John Jackman on the steps of the former Salem UCC

John Jackman on the steps of the former Salem UCC

I served as Youth Pastor at Salem UCC from 1979-1981 while studying at Moravian Theological Seminary. I loved the magnificent building, the gothic sanctuary, and I enjoyed working with the young folks that were associated with the congregation. I left to work as student pastor at East Hills Moravian Church during my last year of seminary.

I lost touch over the years with the folks at Salem, but was not surprised to find that it had closed. The writing was on the wall when I was there. In many ways, Salem UCC is a parable for me, a parable that many traditional churches needed to hear – though I suspect that already for many of them, it is already too late.