Monday, March 31, 2008


Small rural cities exhibit a form of nativism that is easier to encounter than it is in larger urban centers, though it is certainly there also.  The kind of nativism I mean is the sort where a self-described native expresses surprise that you would want to continue living in their town after your assignment is completed because, “...after all, you are not a native.  Remind me of where you came from.  Why wouldn’t you want to go back home?”

I don’t think there is anything particularly mean-spirited about that, but it’s always made me curious.  Is it a turf thing?  This is my turf.  You can sojourn with me for a season, but then you have to go.  Is it a social status thing?  Because I am a native I have certain rights and privileges that you cannot have.  Sometimes it seems like simple wonder.  I’m here because I don’t know where else to go, but you’ve chosen this place and I don’t get it. I’ve wondered about their parents, grandparents, or, in the case of some Eastern cities, their 17th and 18th century ancestors.  They came as strangers to a strange land.  Some combination of adventuresome spirit, need and courage either drove or seduced them into the unknown (in some cases it was the law chasing them).  Does that spirit and courage die out after a generation or two?  

Perhaps we are more a people of the land than we realize, and that deep roots are more than metaphors.  Perhaps there is something within us that needs to be deeply rooted in some particular soil.  Maybe that’s why so many rootless Americans are seeking out a real or imaginary ethnic heritage they can call their own, or trace back generations of ancestors until simple geometric progression has them related to a person of note they can now claim as theirs alone.  Most of my ancestors, so I”m told, were Puritans, and I have no desire to adopt that ethnicity.  If I had a choice, I’d just as soon discover Abraham, that old wandering Aramean, to be the ancestor I could claim.  He seemed to know that any place where he was in companionship with God gave him all the roots he needed, and he was able to live comfortably among a wide variety of native peoples.

Maybe a future topic will have to be the sort of nativism that has serious political consequences.  I’m talking about the semi-hysterical fear of large groups of new immigrants, whether legal or illegal.  It might be interesting to make some guesses about what drives that hysteria.

In the meantime, let’s get back to celebrating the Resurrection of that guy from Nazareth (can anything good come from there?) to whom the authorities said, “We don’t know where you came from or who your father is, but why don’t you go back there and leave us alone,” shortly before they hung him. 

Sunday, March 30, 2008

Retirement Reflections on Easter 2

Easter 2, the Sunday after Easter, is often called “Low Sunday.”  I’ve never known why.  One source says it is to contrast the rather ordinary celebration of this Sunday to the ‘high’ celebration of Easter Sunday.  Popular wisdom says that its because the congregation sinks back to normal size after all the Easter only gang have reverted to their usual Sunday routine.  My practice has been to continue the ‘high’ celebration of Easter, and my experience is that the church is normally more full than usual for several weeks after Easter.  Easter 2 is often the one Sunday on which someone new to Christianity will make the tentative decision to give it a try for a while.  

At least for the time being I’m serving at Grace Church only twice a month, which is giving us a chance to see what goes on elsewhere in town.  This morning we went to Assumption Roman Catholic and sat behind good friends and former parishioners who went back to their RC roots hoping to get away from gay bishops.  Boy are they in for a surprise.   But I digress.  The church was full, and the celebration festive in that unique contemporary RC style that tries, with very limited success, to marry the traditional form of the Eucharist with contemporary eighth grade English.  For some reason it reminds me of an auditory version of early  ‘70s architecture.  Fr. Luke’s sermon took on good old doubting Thomas with a refreshing twist in which Thomas’ pragmatic demands were honored by Jesus’ appearance and invitation to see, hear and touch.  It was worthy of some serious reflection.

Which reminds me, why have we suddenly decided that the possessive of names like Jesus and Thomas has got to be Jesus’s or Thomas’s?  I mean it comes out as Jesus-zuz.  Same thing with the new plural for diocese.  It comes out as diocese-zuz.  Just sounds tacky, and besides you can easily lose track of how many ‘zuz’ to put on at the end.  But again I digress.

It did sadden me not to take Communion.  If I had been a little more anonymous I would have, but as it is I’m fairly well known around here as an Episcopal priest, and I would not want to embarrass or offend so many of my friends and neighbors who are present in that congregation.  Nor would I want to get any of their clergy, whom I count as good friends, in trouble with their more conservative bishop.  But it does seem a tragedy that Christians, especially those who already agree on the meaning of the Eucharist, cannot share it together.  I’m reminded of a well known Catholic writer who offered a workshop at my seminary.  He had been specifically instructed by his superiors to stop his practice of giving and receiving Holy Communion to and from non-Catholics.  He offered his apologies and then invited all to join him in his quarters for a little wine and bread.

Next week is another ‘free’ Sunday so I think we might take in a Lutheran or Methodist church.  I’m not quite ready for the Abundant Life Pentecostal Tabernacle.  It could be more than my heart could take.

Thursday, March 27, 2008

Learning About Religion

American Religion is complicated because, like religion in any nation, it is so tied up in with everything else that goes into the making of  a people.  Historical events, developments in science, philosophy and theology, the ebb and flow of populations, developments in popular culture and a lot more than that all have their say in how we define religion and our own ways of expressing it.  

The students in the class I’m auditing are among the brightest in the land.  Graduate school is all but guaranteed to those who graduate from Whitman.  What they are learning about American Religion from the Civil War to the Present is amazing.  But I realize, as I sit in on their small group discussions, that brand new never encountered before information has to have some kind of context in which to settle or it makes no sense at all.  In their cases, and in spite of their intellectual acumen, their context for understanding American religion tends to be whatever they were taught

 by parents, Sunday school teachers or heard on the playground.  You know what that means; their small group discussions of celebrated theologians and religious historians are understood dimly and in the context of simple, often terribly misinformed and sometimes bigoted learning of their childhoods.  

I doubt that many of them will ever have another course in religion for the rest of their lives.  But they are smart and inquisitive.  They listen to each other and begin to test, question and challenge each other to reach beyond the ground from which they came to something deeper, more profound and maybe that’s enough to open a door to a vigorous faith journey in their adult years.  It’s a start.  Where do they go next? How will they find that place?  What will attract them in?  What will they learn there?  Will that bring them into a closer relationship with God?  With God in Christ Jesus?  What role, what responsibility, lies with the clergy for all of that?  

Lucy says that my posts are too much like lectures and it’s hard to know how to enter into the conversation with me.  I guess that’s true.  Maybe that’s just the way with old teachers.  So what: wade in anyway.

Tuesday, March 25, 2008

Going back to College

Even though the semester is half over, I have been invited to sit in on a class at a local college: Religion in America from the Civil War to the Present.  I’ve been to two so far and am having a great time.  Who were the Know-Nothings and how did they relate to nativism, the rise of the Republican Party and opposition to Catholicism in the mid 19th century?  How did religion affect the way immigrant groups entered into American culture?  What forces drove the Second Great Awakening and the rise of Fundamentalism?  If the twenty or so students in this class are representative of our future, then we are in good hands.  They are bright, inquisitive, eager to look into questions like these and willing to reflect on how their own upbringing has influenced what they think.    

Monday, March 24, 2008

Just A Few Questions

If you wanted to learn how to play soccer, how would  you go about it?   If soccer became your passion, how would you go about engaging in it?  How might that same question apply to any other activity, sport or discipline?  There  are, of course, many stories about self-taught persons (Abe Lincolns galore), but were not most of them drawn by their self-education into the company of other educated persons in order to hone their skills?  When I was a young teenager my friend Jim and I tried to teach ourselves Judo and Karate out of a book as we practiced on each other in his yard.  Only our gross incompetence and dumb luck prevented us from doing some serious harm to each other..  So how is it that we can feel so comfortable with the idea that living into a relationship with God requires only a willing mind, a heart that asserts its own brand of spirituality, an affirmation of belief in the higher power of one’s own choosing, and possibly the reading of a book or two?  We Episcopalians tend to come down on the universalist side of the salvation argument, so can we say, with a straight face, that a faith built on that sort of foundation is enough?  Enough for what?  If it is enough, is there any value in looking into the two thousand year old argument over salvation and learning anything from those who have had their say?  If ours is a faith built on Scripture, Tradition and Reason, should we in any way assert the need and value of disciplined formation in knowing what Scripture says, being guided but not governed  by Tradition in our understanding of it, and developing our abilities to Reason it all out?  Scripture seems to suggest that there is something important about coming together to discuss these things with one another, and, through prayer, with God.  Scripture also suggests that there is something essential about developing our relationships with God and one another through some rather mysterious gifts given to us in the sacraments.  Is that still true?  Now here is a really tough question?  Does God care, and if God does care, is there any evidence that the touted power and presence of the Holy Spirit to do great things beyond our understanding  has been doing anything but resting these one hundred years or so? 

Sunday, March 23, 2008

Easter at Grace

There were 23 people at Grace Church this morning.  That's a huge turnout.  Arrangements for music had apparently fallen through, so we picked two familiar Easter hymns, and with the help of some one-finger playing,  launched into enthusiastic 23 part "harmony."  One family had baked a huge loaf of bread for Communion.  The whole thing was consecrated but only a fraction consumed, so two of the ranch families are taking the rest home for their animals.   It was a wonderful Easter Sunday celebration, and as I sat there with my plate of after service eggs, bacon and fruit I thought about how most clergy start their careers in little places like this and hope to work their way up.  I started in a huge Manhattan parish and have been working my way down, and I would not trade it for anything. 

PS  The Peeps were a big hit

Saturday, March 22, 2008


Maybe this is not a suitable thought for Holy Saturday, but I am  among those who believe that Peeps, those wonderfully slightly stale sugar coated marshmallow chicks, are more essential to the secular celebration of Easter than eggs in baskets.  The problem is that, according to the resident health and nutrition police, they’re not allowed in our house.  With grandchildren too far away to corrupt under the noses of their parents what am I to do?  Maybe I’ll take some to Grace on Sunday morning and see if there are any other aficionados there.  In any case I’ll have to think of some errand that has to be done in order to sneak off to K-Mart to buy a package and then hide it in the back seat.  The resident health and nutrition police has discovered most of my hiding places in the house. 

Friday, March 21, 2008

Things I learn at Grace

Grace Episcopal is a tiny church in a town of less than 3,000. Average Sunday attendance waffles between 10 and 15. Along with several other priests, I’ve been serving there once a month or so for the last eight years, but now, in my brand new retirement, I’m there on a pretty regular basis. Here are some things I’m learning:
  • Liturgy does not always have to be planned more than a day ahead (but it helps)
  • Each has a gift to contribute that together make up a full ministry for all to each
  • You don’t have to like everyone today in order to love everyone today
  • There are no secrets and not much privacy
  • Sermons are OK but conversation is better
More on what I learn at Grace as time goes by.

Maundy Thursday, Good Friday, Racism and Tibet

I’ve often wondered at how lightly we take Christ’s new commandment ‘to love one another as I have loved you.’ I doubt that one Christian in ten has the slightest idea what the Maundy in Maundy Thursday refers to, can recite the new commandment, or would take it very seriously if they did know it. And yet, this is the very heart of what it means to be a follower of Jesus. On Good Friday that new commandment is given dramatic emphasis in our remembrance of the tremendous depth to which God was, and is, willing to go to engage with humanity for the salvation of humanity, even if humanity doesn’t give a damn.

Which brings me to the explosion of the inherent racism that seems to be embedded in the human psyche. After a rather gentle sneaking up on the subject over the course of this presidential campaign, we’ve been treated to night-after-night of reruns of the Rev. Wright's worst rants, and the pundits shameless exploitation of them from every conceivable angle, all in the name of reporting of course. In local conversation there seems to be little remembrance of the ethnic viciousness over the last eight years from Falwell, Robertson, Dobson & Co., but boy do they want to talk about Wright. “Love one another as I have loved you.”

Which brings me to Tibet. China has a long history of deceiving itself about its own history, and I imagine that most Chinese will tell you that Tibet has always been a part of China in one way or another. That, of course, is quite unlike the honesty of American history, which remembers very well how the Cavalry rampaged over the American west rooting out indigenous resistance, and how the government made and then ignored dozens of so called treaties with them. Manifest Destiny was, I believe, what we called it then. Then there was the war with Mexico that managed to liberate California from corrupt Mexican rule and the likelihood that, on its own, it could have become an independent nation, or worse, a territory of some European power. Whew! And who knew there was gold in them thar hills? None of that justifies China’s Tibet policy, but it should do something to affect our response to it. I wonder how nations would relate to one another if they loved one another as Christ loved us? Do you remember the old Kingston Trio song from the 1950’s?

(Sheldon Harnick)

They're rioting in Africa
They're starving in Spain
There's hurricanes in Florida
And Texas needs rain.

The whole world is festering
With unhappy souls
The French hate the Germans,
The Germans hate the Poles

Italians hate Yugoslavs
South Africans hate the Dutch
And I don't like anybody very much

But we can be grateful
And thankful and proud
That man's been endowed
With a mushroom shaped cloud

And we know for certain
That some happy day
Someone will set the spark off
And we will all be blown away

They're rioting in Africa
There's strife in Iran
What nature doesn't do to us
Will be done by our fellow man.

Sunday, March 16, 2008

Doing Church

Recently released Pew and Barna survey reports on the changing face of American Christianity proclaim that Americans seeking a religious experience are willing to try about anything, don't care too much about denomination, and don’t have a very good understanding of Christianity anyway. So what are we supposed to do about that, and how should it affect they way we do “church?”

Some years ago I developed an outline of how people enter and then grow into their church experience. It was a little like a Maslow hierarchy. At the bottom, a person comes into a church, attracted by who knows what, but driven by some personal need, perhaps even a need to which words cannot be given. Personal tragedies, desires for self identity or worth, guilt, a sense of obligation to do something truly useful in life, even the desire to find something worthwhile in life can all be elements of these personal needs. Whatever they are, they are intensely personal.

A person will stay in a congregation if they discover that it is a safe place, a place of welcome and a place where their personal needs begin to be nourished in some way. In their own time they will recognize that the congregation is not a collection of individuals each individually being fed. Rather, it is a gathering of persons in communion with God and each other who find joy and mutual support in that communion, and the new “member” will find his or her own place in that communion. Some of them will also recognize that the church exists to seek and serve Christ in those outside the congregation, and will move into roles that contribute to that work. And some will be drawn to the hard work of seeing that the congregation itself is cared for through responsible stewardship of its resources.

Personal needs; welcome and safety; communion with one another; reaching out; and looking after the welfare of the congregation itself are stages that proceed sequentially, but one never leaves a stage behind, nor is one required to move from one stage to another. However, when one does move, each preceding stage becomes an integral part of the whole congregational experience, and normal life changes can bring one or another of them to the forefront at any time.

There is nothing fancy or new about any of that. It’s old stuff, and in one way or another it applies to most any organization. Two things make a Christian congregation different than any other organization. One is the central focus on God in Christ through whom the tremendous power of the Holy Spirit can breathe new and abundant life into the gathering we call a congregation. In that power it becomes a place of miracles frequently expected and frequently experienced in hundreds of mostly small and hardly noticeable ways. The second is clergy leadership that understands each of these stages is only a manifestation of a far more central question: What gives life, my life, real and lasting meaning and how can my years on this earth make a constructive difference in the lives of others? In other words, church is the place where the intimate, naked, deep heart of the soul can be fully exposed to the full light of God’s presence. That makes church a place full of people at all levels of intense vulnerability who are trying very hard not to let anyone else know that.

So what’s the point? I think there may be three of them:
• Healthy congregations pay attention to these things.
• Unhealthy congregations have often drifted far from them.
• Congregational growth depends on them.

Let the Conversation Begin

I know there are a number of regular readers out there because you send me e-mails from time-to-time, or talk with me about the subject of one post or another when we see each other. But part of the joy of blogging is to generate conversation in which we can all share through the comments function. I hope you will consider doing that, and if some reasonably incompetent advice on how to do that would help, just drop me a line.

Wednesday, March 12, 2008

Fighting the Right Battles

I’ve written on this before, but articles, posts and bits of news keep bringing me back to it. It’s been said that generals and admirals are always prepared to fight the last war, and while I think that is very unfair to generals and admirals, I do think it is true about a great many of those who feel passionately about some particular cause or overly confident in some particular success. It seems that, as we age, we are often too comfortable in continuing the passionate fight of our youth in spite of the fact that conditions, events and issues in conflict have changed, sometimes radically.

One colleague is as deeply passionate about the fight to ordain women and give them equal treatment with men as she was thirty years ago. By that I mean that she is still fighting that battle as if the same terms and conditions applied today as they did then. She seems unaware of the magnitude of change that has occurred over the last thirty years. Many acquaintances, more male than female, but including both, are still deep in the controversies surrounding the Vietnam War, and treat every political event as a continuation of that struggle. Democrats continue trying to resurrect Kennedy, while Republicans are afraid to move away from Reagan. Some of those I counsel reveal that they are still preparing to refight the battle they had in high school or college, and are certain that every perceived threat of conflict is an echo of that very moment.

The downfall of many rising stars in corporate management and ordained ministry is that they were once creative and had tremendous early success in meeting new challenges, but they have continued to use the same tools and strategies that worked so well then even though the playing field has changed and a new game is under way. We used to joke about executives and pastors who had only two or three years of experience, but they had it ten times over.

As the old saying goes, you cannot drive a car by looking only in the rearview mirror. The disciplines needed to look ahead and anticipate what might be coming are not complicated or hard to teach, but I confess that in all my years of teaching, very few ever paid much serious attention to learning them. It does require a good study of history to discover not only what happened but why and how, and from the view of the losers as well as the winners. We need to be in conversation with the voices of the past, but it also requires intentional scanning of the horizon to see what is happening out there that is different. It requires an examination of those differences to see what, why and how they are different. And it requires some reasonably clear sense of how all of that will affect us, our organizations, and the goals we have been trying to reach. I do not think that the skills and energy needed to do that reside only in the chain of next generations. I do think that we have a tendency to get lazy and complacent, and that is our key problem. Lent is a good time to think about that.

Saturday, March 8, 2008

Understanding Each Other

The leader of the separatist movement to begin a new denomination apart from the Anglican Communion is a fellow named Akinola, the current archbishop of Nigeria. From my point of view he is an out of control, power hungry, greedy, megalomaniac in whom Christ is completely hidden if not absent altogether. But in a conversation on another website (In a Godward Direction) I said that he is, after all, Nigerian not American, and we cannot understand him until we can put ourselves into the soul of a Nigerian, and, more particularly, into the soul of his own tribe. What followed were several responses claiming that, as (Anglican) Christians, we all share one faith in God through Christ that gives us a common language and way of understanding each other. On that basis we are free to judge him in the name of Christ, and our judgment is one that all right thinking Christians will agree with thanks to our common Christian language. I find that incredibly na├»ve, and am astonished that otherwise intelligent, well educated people fail to see that our idea of what it is to be a Christian is so interwoven with who we are as Americans, with our foundational myths and legends, with whatever ethnic heritage we claim, with our history, with all of that and more, that the language of Christ we claim to be common is common only to us, and we even disagree with each other about that. I find it exceedingly curious that these commentators, most of whom would self declare as politically liberal, are in lockstep agreement with George Bush that our way of seeing the world must be the way all right thinking people see the world, or at least they should, and perhaps if we explain it better in slow, loud English, they will. I doubt that we are alone in that self-deception. I imagine that all peoples everywhere suffer likewise. But because of America’s power position the world today, it is we Americans who come off as the arrogant ones of enormous hubris who desire to impose our ways on others. That means that American religious leaders cannot separate themselves from the tangled web of American foreign policy, and the image of American life and values broadcast to the world through television and movies. Only through some effort to understand all of that will it be possible for true conversation between the peoples of Christian faith to take place, even within the Anglican Communion.

Thursday, March 6, 2008

Thoughts on Retirement

These early weeks of retirement are weeks of learning. I gather that most retirees move elsewhere and so make the separation a clear-cut one, but we are home and home is where we will stay. In a small rural city with only one Episcopal Church that means I’ll see my former parishioners all the time, socially mix with some of them, and, for some of them, as any friend would, be a part of their lives in their time of need as they no doubt will be in my time of need. It doesn’t bother me any, but my assistant, now interim, is worried that there are too many who won’t let go of me as rector. Since I’m not the rector, don’t worship at the church, and am not engaged in parish activities, I don’t think that a small handful of persons with separation anxiety is something to worry about. But who knows, she may have a point. And there is another thing. I call it failure in the face of success. My time in the parish was a wonderful one for me. It is a strong congregation full of confidence. Now and then I come across an article in some religious publication touting a parish success with a new form of ministry and I think, ‘Yeah, that works, we’ve been doing it for years’. But then another article comes along about another congregation and I think of all the things I could have done better, or even tried at all, and all they things I held onto that could have been given up. I think of the parishioners whose great gifts of ministry I never acknowledged or helped along, and I recall the dysfunctional behaviors of some that I tolerated, skirted around or shielded from others, which will no doubt come out of hiding to trouble the new rector. One of the great blessings of ordained ministry is that, lying just ahead, there is always something new and different to experience, and one of the great curses is that the job is never done, and there is no way to leave without leaving at least a small mess behind that someone else will have to clean up.

Saturday, March 1, 2008

March - The Teenager of Months

March is a ridiculous month. I can’t imagine why it was invented or what demented mind came up with the idea. Some say it comes in like a lion and goes out like a lamb, or is it the other way round? In either case it implies a certain intentionality that I believe does not exist. March is the very icon of chaos. It has absolutely no idea where it is going because it doesn’t know where it came from or where it is. March is freedom without purpose and only in the most absent-minded way manages to drunkenly stumble out of winter toward spring without the least intent of doing so. Nevertheless, the bulbs in our garden are starting to send up shoots. Willow trees along the creek are beginning to turn a pale sort of green. Birds no longer flock to our feeder fighting for position in the same aggressive numbers. The day dawns earlier and slides more gently into night at a more reasonable hour. March is the hormonally driven teenager of months and must be endured until it mutates into a saner April. I wonder if October behaves the same way in the southern hemisphere? What does any of this have to do with theology? Could it be that March is also the icon of the spiritual journey most of us are on?