Monday, September 20, 2010

We leave tomorrow morning, long before the sun rises, for a month long adventure of pleasure and pilgrimage.  At this point my cognitive abilities are near zero.  I stand and look at a pile of clothes and an empty suitcase and wonder how it will get packed.  Perhaps the packing elves will appear.  The dogs are moping about with one eye on us and one eye on the door.   They know.  My sermon yesterday was very well received and stimulated much discussion.  I was grateful that God had something to say, because I didn't.  Any hope of writing an intelligent post on theology, politics or economics is lost.  My senses may return once we are underway, so perhaps I'll post before the end of October.  We shall see. 

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

Welcome and Wanted to What?

Not too many years ago those who were opposed to the changes taking place in the Episcopal Church complained that now "anything goes."  They were wrong about that, but they also made a point.  Churches in which anything goes do not stand for anything.  At worst they are nothing more than places where the most assertive Tea Party style voices are able to drown out all others until the next chaotic rebellion takes place.
Being a people who honestly desire to welcome the other as the presence of Christ himself among us also means to be a people who know to what it is that we are welcoming the other.  It also means that the other has been given what he/she needs to know about what it is that she/he is being welcomed into.  I have never felt a more holy welcome in every way than at the Benedictine monastery of the Order of the Holy Cross in West Park, NY, but there was never any doubt that the place of welcome was a monastery and those who welcomed me were monks.  In fact, their humble self-confidence in their own identity as Benedictines made my entrance into a new and strange environment all the easier.
Some years ago I had a parishioner who, though an Episcopalian for many years, was fully immersed in the theology of Focus on the Family and the spiritual dimensions of Pentecostal worship.  As one of the leaders of the congregation, she tried very hard to remake it into her vision of church, but her vision was not consistent with what we believe, teach and practice as Episcopalians in the Anglican tradition of Christianity.  Eventually, and sadly, she left to attend a church in a denomination more to her liking.  Was our congregation open, welcoming and honestly wanting her to be a full and honored part of our community?  Yes, by all means.  But she was not open to being an Episcopalian, and that's OK.  It's just not OK to try to reorganize the congregation to become an ersatz Assembly of God church.  
I am grateful that we Episcopalians are able to encompass a very wide range of worship styles and ways of expressing the faith, but there are boundaries that identify who we are and who we are not.  That's important.  One of our local churches in another denomination is floundering on that very issue.  Once an influential and respected congregation, it has gone through a period in which leaders welcomed so many different beliefs (and non-belifs), and worship and meeting styles that they have become little more than a building in which various groups gather for their own purposes, and a few show up on Sundays for fellowship and a some words offered as if in prayer.  Now unable to pay full time clergy, they get by with a variety of worship leaders from different traditions who offer a hodgepodge of teaching from Unitarian to liberal Calvinism.  It's not all bad.  All the recovery groups meet there and a monthly worship service specifically advertised to the gay community takes place.  But it cannot be said what exactly it is or isn't as a community of worshiping Christians, or even if it is Christian in any serious sense of the word, and so, with no real identity, it is melting away (at least for now).

Jesus said to love one's neighbor as one's self.  One's self cannot be loved if it is not known.  Jesus may have been talking to individual persons, but the same goes for congregations even more so.  We cannot love our neighbors by way of holy welcome if we do not love ourselves as parishes, and we cannot love ourselves as parishes if we do not know who we are. 

Monday, September 13, 2010

Welcome but not Wanted

Some congregations have begun to open their services with an extra prayer of welcome for all who are present and a commitment to open doors for all who desire to enter.  I like it.  It’s a nice gesture, but I wonder if that’s all it is.  What I mean is that it’s an easy thing to voice words of welcome for those who are not really wanted.  
The idea of welcoming the other is one thing.  Actually wanting to discover the neighbor in those who are not like us is another altogether.  At bottom, it is mostly a matter of race, ethnicity, language, economic and social class, and customs.  We are more comfortable welcoming others who look like us, speak like us, have similar life styles to ours, and who are familiar with our ways of worship.  Other than that we are very open minded and certainly not prejudiced.
Yet there is something even more subtle at work, and I have no doubt that you have experienced it.  I know I have.  Consider a time you were invited but not wanted.  It might have been to a party.  Maybe a meal.  Possibly to be on a pickup team.  I know you remember the peculiar feeling of recognizing that the invitation was authentic, but your presence was not really wanted.  The invitation to you was an obligation that had to be honored.  There was no real warmth to it.  
We do that in our congregations all the time, and it goes beyond the self proclaimed ownership of certain pews.  Not too many years ago, many of our parishes made efforts to welcome the rapidly growing Hispanic population into our services and worship.  The occasional prayer was offered in Spanish.  Sometimes the gospel lesson would be read in both English and Spanish.  Spanish language prayer books were piled on a table in the back near the ushers.  They certainly were not distributed in the pew racks.  The signal was clear.  You are welcome but not wanted.  It works both ways.  My wife, who speaks Spanish, attended the Spanish language mass at the local R.C church one Sunday.  It was a very uncomfortable experience for her.  She was obviously welcomed, but not wanted.  
How different the Christ whom we follow.  The gospel record is clear.  Jesus welcomed and wanted the full, authentic friendship of all who came to him.  Even when he was invited, but probably not wanted, to dinners with Pharisees and others, he seemed to turn the tables to become the host rather than the guest.  How do we move more in that direction?  I don’t think it’s easy.  In our own minds, welcoming the other tends to be framed as the superior welcoming the inferior, and that does not work.  In our own minds, being the other is to feel our place as the inferior receiving the charitable but obligated largess of the superior.  That does not work either.
We say that the way around this is to seek and serve Christ in the other and to be the Christ for the other.  Easy to say.  Hard to do.  Perhaps you have some helpful ideas.  I’d love to hear them.

Sunday, September 12, 2010

Letters to Prison

Not much has been posted here for a few days.  I’ve been absorbed in writing to my nephew serving a four year prison term.  We talked very little during his childhood and early adulthood.  He lived hundreds of miles away on the other side of the  mountains, and when we did visit he was often gone.  What conversations we had tended toward the usual teenage two and three word answers to an uncle asking inane questions such as “how are things going?”, complicated by the many events in his life on the wrong side of the law in the company of his preferred friends who lived there. 
Now he’s in prison and we frequently correspond the old fashioned way, by letter sent through the postal service.  In the closed environment of his cell, the entire world of literature, history, philosophy, theology and politics has become open for exploration.  Odd, isn’t it?  And that’s what our conversations are about.  His five page letters full of questions and observations from the books he is now reading are answered by my five page letters providing some answers, asking more questions, trying to remember the books that were read so many years ago, and suggesting ways of learning the art of critical thinking. 
I posted one yesterday.  In it I responded to the issues he raised in his last letter and covered: reasons for a college education; reasons for skills training; the art of reading newspapers; reflecting on foundational assumptions about beliefs and basic standards of verification; why Anglicans are not much interested in the so called prophecies of the Philadelphia Church of God; the importance of the prophets in orthodox Christian thinking; what we mean by incarnational ministry; reflections on admirable political figures in American history; the seductive power of Washington; why it is important to study history in general and American history in particular; a brief touch on the Articles of Confederation,  Federalist papers and the Constitution to be followed up on later; and finally a brief review of the history of Islam, the crusades, growth of the Ottoman Empire, WWI and its aftermath, and why the Taliban don’t really care about any of that.
Covering all of that in five or six pages is a bit sketchy to say the least, but it’s part of an ongoing conversation, and it doesn’t seem appropriate to dive too deep with a young man just beginning to learn how to learn.  We’ve got time.  Four years to be precise.  In the meantime, I may try to write one or two other posts before taking a month long sabbatical.  

Monday, September 6, 2010

Busted Buildings

I had a long conversation with my friend Dave, who serves with me as a director of our diocesan corporation, the legal entity that is the keeper of our diocesan building fund.  He pointed out that, over the last few years, there have been an increasing number of pleas for help from congregations with desperate and immediate building problems beyond their ability to fix without our financial help.  As is true throughout the nation and in every denomination, many of our congregations are in old buildings where deferred maintenance has become a way of life.  Deferred maintenance is nothing but big trouble just waiting to happen.  It is not one of those problems that will go away if ignored long enough. 
Why is it a surprise when old furnaces give up their last BTU in January, that the long forgotten water heater suddenly floods everything in a burst of pique, that the thirtieth year of a low-bid twenty year roof leaks like a sieve, or that wiring installed in the 1920s begins to snap, crackle and pop?  Our diocesan building fund, intended to help plant new churches and expand ministry opportunities for established congregations, has become the first and last resort for parishes up against emergencies that need attention NOW!  We do the best we can, but there has to be a better way.  Care of property and plant is as much a part of godly stewardship as is anything else.  Waiting until the disaster hits is not a good idea, but it is the common practice in too many congregations, especially those hard hit by other financial burdens and declining membership.  It puts them in the position of always fixing something broken to keep the life of a congregation from deteriorating even more, rather than investing in projects to improve and expand areas of ministry.
Dave reminded me of a program in the Diocese of New Westminster (Vancouver, BC) that encourages parishes to undergo regular building inspections and analyses of building adequacy for ministry as essential parts of stewardship.  Could we do that too -  without making rectors and vestries moan about one more piece of paperwork jammed down their throats by the diocese?  I doubt it.  It will work only when clergy and parish leaders fully comprehend that godly stewardship includes respect and care for the property and buildings in which the church gathers and the community is served
I wonder how to do that?

Friday, September 3, 2010

Hate a Baby for Christ Sunday

It’s the year of Luke, and those of us who use the lectionary have a dandy coming up.
Matthew’s Jesus says that whoever loves father, mother, son or daughter more than him is not worth of him.  That’s pretty tough, but Luke’s Jesus takes it a step farther by demanding that those closest to us be hated.  John’s Jesus goes in another direction requiring us to hate our own lives.  I have no idea what Jesus may have said in Aramaic, but in Greek there is no way around it.  The word means hate, as in despise.
This is off the chart even for hyperbole used to make a point.  How does it relate to loving neighbor, self and enemies?  Where is the kingdom of God that heals and reconciles?  It conjures up images of self flagellating monks, or dour Puritans who have drained every ounce of joy out of life as they putter along, “sinners in the hand of an angry God.” 
Maybe you have a better way, and I’d like to hear it, but as for me, I need to weigh this out in the context of the whole of Luke.  It seems to me that Luke’s Jesus is intent on turning every ordinary human way of doing things upside down and inside out.  In the process he wipes out every rule of relationships based on exchange, except for one, and that is one’s relationship with God in Christ. 
I imagine that the question he would ask is; Do you trust me with everything holding nothing back?  It’s easy enough to give me yourself, will you give me everything else?  Your baby daughter, infant grandson, dearest parent, beloved partner - given without reservation, not one string of attachment left?  Is he kidding?  No!
That’s a hard one.  It’s a form of sacrifice to the nth degree.  We have to have faith that what will happen is what always happens with Jesus, he returns our loved ones and our own lives as holy blessings.  That’s a little hard to swallow isn’t it?  It’s one thing to read about it in a bible story; it’s another thing altogether when it’s a reality in our own lives.  That’s the problem with Jesus in Luke; he always wants to do it God’s way, never our way.  Someone needs to explain to him how things work around here. 

Thursday, September 2, 2010

TP Qeustions

Our local paper carried a letter from a Tea Party leader who posed a series of rhetorical questions that would lead others toward Tea Party support.  He asked whether his readers wanted:
  • More government intrusion into their personal lives.
  • Tax increases to make life easier for people who lead unproductive lives.
  • Less public employment and more private employment.
  • A return to the kind of American government envisioned by our Founding Fathers.
  • Domination of public policy by ACORN, the ACLU, the Service Employees International Union, unelected federal czars, etc.
  • A return to the American way of life.
I wrote back that his letter was very helpful since I have often been confused about what is on their agenda.  I suggested that it would be even more helpful if he would write another in a bit more detail.
  • What particular governmental intrusions into personal lives are troubling? 
  • Are there particular tax increases on the horizon that the Tea Party opposes?
  • Who are the persons who lead unproductive lives, and are those lives worthy of any dignity?
  • If I want to see less public employment and more private employment, what particular moves would make that happen?
  • How important today is what someone believes the Founding Fathers might have thought over two hundred years ago about politics and politicians?
  • ACORN is out of business, but what particular threats do the ACLU, the Service Employees International Union, and federal officials with the nickname czar present to the nation?
  • What is the American way of life?
Here on this blog I want to go into more detail myself.  For instance, from governors of certain states to local TP types everywhere, there is an outcry against governmental intrusion in to personal lives.  I wonder if that outcry includes suspension of habeas corpus, warrantless searches, detention without charge and presidential signing statements that divert and void laws according to executive whim?  Would restriction of governmental intrusion permit the greater flow of unsafe food, drugs and water?  What role would public safety and welfare have in their society and under their government?
The TPs I know see a tax increase around every corner.  They are easily egged on by those who want to keep the Bush cuts for the very wealthy and never seem to connect the dots between those cuts, increased deficits and lack of “trickle down” benefit to the rest of society.  The tube is filled right now with an ad that easily appeals to an unreflective audience.  It complains about “tax increases” on energy companies that, if their special exemptions are reigned in, would probably stop the flow of oil and spell the end of the industry. 
At least locally there is a perception that the poor, the oppressed, the afflicted are the victims of their own poor choices, lousy work ethic and lack of self discipline.  These are the people who lead unproductive lives, and the government should get out of the business of helping them.  Moreover, we would all be better off with Social Security as something like privately invested individual annuity accounts, Medicare run exclusively through private insurance companies, and no, or very little, regulation of the medical-insurance industrial complex.  I wonder if they have thought that through?
I’m struck by the constant appeal to the thinking of the Founding Fathers and wonder if any local TP leaders have ever read the Federalist papers.  Hamilton, in particular, argued for a strong federal government, and anticipated opposition that he described in terms that are dead on for the current TP movement.  No TP friend he.  
I cannot, for the life of me, figure out why the Service Employees International Union has been singled out as a fearsome enemy.  Maybe someone at a TP convention got short-sheeted?  Who knows?  And I love the irony of hating the ACLU, the one organization in America willing to take on the government over inappropriate intrusion into personal lives.  
There is one point of agreement that I share with the TP, and that’s on the inexcusable level of national debt.  Seems to me it’s been driven up by unfunded wars, and the legislative failure to finance Social Security and Medicare by removing the tax caps.
In the end, I recognize that our local TP folks are both frightened and anxious, but that does not seem to be leading them in any useful direction.  Still, frightening anxiety sells easily and well, and can be effectively manipulated by others to acquire power and impose will.  We shall see if it works.  I hope not.

Wednesday, September 1, 2010

Out of Darkness

It took thirty years, but I finally got around to reading William Manchester’s Out of Darkness.  It’s his personal story of fighting in the South Pacific told from the memories of a 56 year old man returning to the scenes of battle to exorcise the nightmares that have haunted him all this time.  If you love war stories chock-a-block with action, bravery, heroism and patriotism, this is not the book for you. If historical insights into the broad sweep of strategies and tactics are the thing for you, this is not your book either.  If you are a nut like me who is fascinated with most anything in Oceania, it might be a book for you.
Manchester’s memories, and the memories of others that he wove into the telling, are those of individual men, boys really, having little knowledge of where they were and what was going on beyond their own range of vision that was often limited by fear, darkness, mud and confusion.  Abundant bravery had little place for patriotic heroism.  Too much was taken up with staying alive, if possible. 
More to the point for people who spend some part of their time counseling those who have suffered from deep psychological trauma, he illuminates the haunting terror of memories that live in the body of a healthy, mature, successful, happily married person esteemed by the public as a rock solid sort of guy.   Toward the end, his ghost (the reluctant young sergeant he had been) banished, there had to come the final reconciliation of what he had done, felt and believed with his deeply professed Christian faith.  I would like to have known more about that because it was clear that the healing to wholeness could not happen without it.  Maybe that was more than he was ready or able to divulge.  
In any case, if counseling in any form is a part of your ministry, get a copy and read it.