Monday, December 29, 2014

It's a Triple Today

It’s an interesting day.  A few days ago we were knee deep in sentimental hope for a better future as we celebrated the wonder of baby Jesus, or perhaps the more common Hallmark Channel Christmas specials manufactured to say something magically wonderful about love conquering all.  Sometimes we combine the two with deft ease.  

In any case here we are today on December 29, the Feast of the Holy Innocents transferred from Sunday, the Feast of St. Thomas Becket displaced by the children of Bethlehem, and the memorial of the Massacre at Wounded Knee.

The Holy Innocents are the children of Bethlehem killed on orders from King Herod who was suspicious that among them was a new born king destined to destroy all that he had built up.  Considering the hundreds of others he had killed during his life, it was a small thing of no real consequence.  Just a cautionary measure in the name of national security.  Thomas Becket was the Archbishop of Canterbury who, on December 29, 1170, was assassinated at the presumed urging of King Henry II in the name of national security.  On December 29, 1890 at Wounded Knee in South Dakota, elements of the 7th Cavalry massacred 200 Lakota women, children, elders, and men.  Of course it was in the name of national security.  Twenty soldiers were awarded Medals of Honor for it.  


It’s a stark, humbling reminder that we are not so different from Herod.  Nevertheless, the light that was born in Bethlehem cannot be extinguished by the darkness of evil we so easily embrace in the name of selfish interests.  That light will triumph over all, and in it we are invited to live into a sure and certain hope that lasts for eternity, not for just an hour of television holiday reruns.

Saturday, December 27, 2014

Renewing The Church. Forget About It!

Here goes a very short article.  I'm speed reading yet another book about renewing the church by a respected author with his heart and pen in the right place.  It's all good advice, and very well intended.  If pastors and parish administrators paid any attention to it, they would probably reap the benefits, but, of course, they won't.

I think we ought to dump all of it, and just get on with the business of proclaiming the gospel day by day.  Everyone who enters the church door should be told about God in Christ Jesus as if they had never heard of him before.  Those who are new to their faith should be introduced to it in simple but not unsophisticated terms.  Those who are further along should find their education about Christianity, and their development as disciples, advanced step by step. That's it.  Amen!

Forget about most everything else.  Focus on that.  There is one caveat.  Be loyal to your tradition.  I am an Episcopalian, a little on the high church side.  It's important to me that I proclaim, without apology, the gospel within the context of our Anglican tradition.  

That can be a problem if people in the congregation don't know what the denomination stands for, and what it stands for counts.  It's important.  Some years ago we had a few active members in a congregation I served who were determined to make it into a conservative evangelical place.  Why?  I never knew, but it was wrong.  It's not that we have only one way of doing things.  Here and there we Episcopalians tolerate congregations that enjoy living in the make believe world of medieval Salisbury England, and that's OK as long as they keep it to themselves.  Others are so self righteously open minded that it's hard to know what their theology is, and that's OK too in its own place and time.  What keeps it together is the center that wobbles around Virginia Seminary Protestantism and General Seminary Catholicism, both firmly rooted in Anglican tradition.  

Having said that, the Episcopal Church's triennial convention, charged with maintaining the center while it evolves under the guidance of the Holy Spirit to speak to a changing world, vacuums up enormous amounts of energy and cash.  For the most part it's an exercise in futility enjoyed to the hilt by select minions who revel in bureaucratic, quasi legislative, minutiae that, in the Bard's words, amount to sound and fury signifying nothing.  Only infrequently does anything that happens there have an impact on what goes on in the daily life of an average congregation.  It's not that the institution is unimportant, it is very important.  We need it, and we need it to be as tidy and efficient as possible, doing what it can to provide a forum for theological conversation, and to create helpful resources for local use.  Sometimes it does that, but not often.  Mostly it's just in the way. 

So back to the book, and almost all other books like it.  It wants to speak to the whole church, but it speaks mostly to urban - suburban congregations, many with multiple staff.  That's nice, but most of our congregations have ASA of under fifty served by one clergy who may not be full time.  What help they need with institutional renewal can be provided best informally by qualified persons giving on site counsel.  Even more than that, they need a little guidance on ways to better proclaim the gospel, educate new and veteran believers, and stay out of trouble over the basics of church administration.  


Proclaim the gospel from within your tradition and don't worry so much about the rest of it. 

Tuesday, December 23, 2014

Pleasure Island, Fantasy Island, and Giant Cruise Ships

Carnival just offered me a look at thirty photos of their largest cruise ship ever, so I looked.  In a few words, they were horrifyingly unappealing.  The thought of spending a week with six thousand others in a floating hotel complete with an oversized McDonald’s play land is frightening.  I don’t think that’s going to bother them.  I’m not in their target market anyway.  

It does bring up some interesting questions about what these ships are all about.  I think it has to do with creating a temporary make believe community intended to fulfill fantasies about what fun, friendship, and community are supposed to be?  Remember the television show Fantasy Island?  These are fantasy islands that float and move, except with Carnival you can’t be sure about the moving part.  

There is a moderately serious side to this.  I wrote an article a few months ago about functional and dysfunctional families, and regular readers, both of them, may recall that the most common complaint I heard during pastoral counseling sessions was how dysfunctional one’s family was.  It made me wonder what a functional family might be, and whether anyone actually lived in one.  Too often, I suggested, we have been misled by popular shows of decades past to believe that others live in perfectly functioning families such as the Cleavers and Cunninghams while our families are complicated messes, and, therefore, we have been shortchanged.

We have these myths about the perfect lives that others, but not us, enjoy.  Giant cruise ships promise seven days of fantasy fulfillment.  Friendship, community, romance, it can all be yours, and, as a bonus, you get to eat and drink whatever you want, all you want, anytime you want.  Who could ask for more than that?  If it doesn’t remind you of Pinocchio’s Pleasure Island, it should because we are encouraged to leave our pesky Jiminy Cricket consciences at home.  It can, I suppose, provide a few moments of believing, and maybe that’s not bad.  These giant ships have an advantage over land based resorts that try to do the same thing.  They encapsulate their customers in giant ocean going containers from which there is no means of escape until home port is reached again.  Escape might not be the right word, but you are there for the duration just the same.  That has its advantages.  For seven days you can escape from emails, phone calls, meetings, relatives, traffic jams, and unpleasant world news.  What’s more, it’s a marketing dream come true.  Who could ask for anything better than six thousand customers captured for seven days of nonstop selling, especially if so much of it appears to be free.  The customers love it.  The marketers love it.  Wow!

The ‘they’ behind these ships know very well that the illusion they have created on board and in their advertising entices the delusion that one’s hopeful expectations about a seven day adventure at sea will actually turn out as advertised.  I doubt that it ever does, but it won’t be for lack of marketing prestidigitation to make it appear that it could and it has.


Having said all that, we have enjoyed more than a few cruises ourselves, but on smaller ships catering to a somewhat older crowd with fantasies of being wealthy, elegant and sophisticated, perhaps a little like Cary Grant and Deborah Kerr.

Monday, December 8, 2014

Reflections on an Odd Relationship

I’m an old Episcopal priest steeped in Anglican tradition.  My friend is a young minister who describes himself as a pentecostal, charismatic, evangelical.  We might seem an odd couple, but we get together regularly to talk about various aspects of what ministry means. He’s the youth pastor at a local non-denominational church, and he’s got a large, growing, enthusiastic youth program that should be the envy of every other youth pastor in town.  So far, so good.

The thing is, he was ordained in the Church of Somebodyorother after a couple of years in a fundamentalist bible college, the only college education he’s had.  A lot of what we talk about has to do with the basics of Christian history and theology that he’s never heard before.  He’s not going to become an Episcopalian, but it’s great fun to explore with him some of the basics that many of us take for granted.  

The other day he wondered about the problems that pop up when Christian youth are submerged in forceful lessons about their sinfulness, the dangers of backsliding, and the wrath of God that could lead to eternal hell.  At what point does a message like that push them out of the church instead of guiding them toward a more mature faith?  How might they be more inspired by God’s reconciling love?  Somehow that led to hymns, and I brought up an old gospel favorite, “Just as I am without one plea,” that could offer the answer he was seeking.  He’d never hear of it.  No idea at all. 

It seems that his church relies on a rock band and contemporary praise music, which, I might add, is not as bad as the praise music of the previous few decades, but I still can’t stand it.  That’s not the point.  He’s the main light and sound board guy for the show, running something out of a little booth that looks like a professional studio setup.  That’s not the point either.  It’s what he knows about church liturgy and music: sound boards and rock.  That’s the point, or at least one of them.  

The church he serves is growing, one of the few in town than is.  It is spreading wide and fast, but not deep.  It proclaims the message of Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior, and opens the bible to many who have never before heard the Word.  It does it with an enormous display of energy in a weekly stage show featuring rock music, a short speech about Jesus, and a few prayers.  But it does so without any connection to or awareness of two thousand years of Christian practice prefaced by more millennia of Hebrew heritage.

It brings to mind what it might have been like for Paul to set up new churches in places such as Corinth and Thessalonica, but I digress.  

He loves what he’s doing but wants more.  As a young, mostly uneducated minister, he may be unaware that the questions he raises have been asked before, but I’m delighted that he wants to learn.  For the time being, that means coffee with an old Episcopal priest.  It’s  not enough, but it’s something.  We make an odd couple.


By the way, he is coordinating a youth gathering to be held late in January.  It will attract around 400 kids, plus chaperons, from a half dozen other churches similar to his.  We stodgy old Episcopalians might want to pay attention.

Monday, December 1, 2014

Incidents and their Context

One of my young conservative friends copied a post onto Facebook wondering where the outrage was when a black cop shot a white teen in Mobile, Alabama.  You may have seen something of the same circulating on the Internet from conservative sources complaining that liberal and/or mainstream media ignored the Alabama incident, thus exposing their reverse bigotry.

It’s not a bad question once you ignore the propaganda style hyperbole.  I’m not interested in media baiting, but I am interested in what differences there might be that are worthy of examination, and I think there are differences.  There is a difference between an incident that may involve a serious injustice and a climate of systemic injustice in which an incident occurs that may not have involved an injustice.

In a case where an incident involving police results in an injustice that is not otherwise associated with a climate of systemic injustice, the likelihood is that the matter will be resolved locally, attracting little wide spread media attention.  Such incidents are not uncommon.  Each of our communities has them, and for the most part we see no reason why someone hundreds of miles away would or should be interested.  In the Mobile case we have to admit that black cops are not normally seen as agents of systemic oppression against white teens, and so the incident can be resolved within the context of local protocols.

The Ferguson case occurred within the context of a pattern of systemic injustices in which an incident involved a white cop, widely understood by the black community to be an agent of those in power, fatally shot an unarmed young black man.  It turned out that the black teen who was killed was not an innocent young man, unarmed though he was, and that his death was probably the predictable, if tragic, result of his own behavior.  That doesn’t matter  because his death was seen by many as symbolic of a culture and wide spread pattern of injustices in which blacks have been systematically treated in a hostile, oppressive way by the police and others in power.  The right incident at the right time ignited nation wide interest.

Maybe nation wide interest would have been enough, but I believe that the nonstop media frenzy, especially from cable news networks, added the necessary heat and fuel for a few sparks to ignite violent protests.  More on that  in a minute.  

In the meantime, my young conservative friend wanted a definitive answer.  Who was right?  Who was wrong?  Put the blame where it belongs and walk away.  It isn’t that simple.  One must examine the context within which any incident of injustice may, or may not, have occurred.  The problem is that it requires slowing down, not leaping to conclusions, and being willing to address issues on several different levels at the same time.  Moreover, the examination will probably show the messiness of more than a few individual decisions that helped or hindered.  Not many people on either side are willing to do that.  They’d rather operate by the good old American dictum: Ready, Fire, Aim, and they are more than wiling to leave off the aim part unless it favors their political prejudices.  Let me put it this way.  This isn’t a football game.  You don’t get to throw the flag, review the call up in the booth, show the whole thing in slow motion on the Jumbotron, and play the down over.


Now then, back to the violent protests, as opposed to the many others that were not violent.  I’ll offer three thoughts.  First, some of the instigators were ideologically driven persons who believe that violence in protest is the preferred way to bring down the oppressors.  Oddly enough, those on the far left and those on the far right are in agreement on this.  Second, some of the instigators enjoy the violence, especially for the opportunities it offers to act out their anger, take revenge, and loot for their own personal gain.  They turn up whenever violence is an option.  Third, the cable news networks thrive on the mayhem, doing what they can to inflame and sensationalize it, pandering to the lowest common denominator of their viewers.  I find each of them repulsive, and am not interested in what they have to say in their own defense because I believe it to be hypocritically self serving.  Other than that, I have no strong opinions on the matter one way or the other.  Well, I do have a few thoughts about a couple of newspaper columnists, but that can be for another time.