The Very Rev. Ian Markham, Dean, Virginia Theological Seminary, spoke to the annual convention of the Episcopal Diocese of Delaware in 2013. He said that the myth of the decline of the Episcopal Church is at once inaccurate and mis-placed.
Part One of Two.
So, the first issues he cites is that up until 2002, the Episcopal Church and the ELCA (and it's predecessors) generally bucked the trend of decline in the Mainline Protestant Churches.
Second, he says that we have a very fluid notion of membership and that ASA does not capture the reality of people who attend regularly but who "take turns." (An issue those in my parish have heard me puzzle about for years, btw.)
Third, most Episcopal Churches automatically appeal to a variety of groups because most parishes have two services: one traditional and quiet, and one either more musical, more contemporary, or more family oriented.
Part two of two
He talks about the narrative of despair which is used by those who have a real problem with our tradition. In Part One, he cites a Conservative/Reasserter bishop and a Liberal/Progressive Bishop who both need the narrative to despair to reinforce their particular prescriptions for saving the Church.
Markham says we need to change how we think of things. For example, how we count. We don't count the 38,000 people who take part in Episcopal liturgies in our schools at every level from pre-school through college. We don't the ones who live in our 156+ retirement complexes and who take part in Episcopal liturgies every day if not every week, about 16,000 every week.
(We also don't count the people that we send people out and bring communion to via our lay Eucharistic visitors, deacons and priests. We send them out from our liturgy "to share with us in the communion of Christ's body and blood" as an extension of our common worship. In my parish, that's four to five people every week. How many is that across the whole church? We don't count them either.)
We need to tell the story that we are in fact a church that proclaims Jesus Christ, effectively disciples our members, and allows people to explore and live that faith in creative, meaningful ways that makes a difference in our world.
Video by Danny N. Schweers
Tuesday, April 23, 2013
The Very Rev. Ian Markham, Dean, Virginia Theological Seminary, spoke to the annual convention of the Episcopal Diocese of Delaware in 2013. He said that the myth of the decline of the Episcopal Church is at once inaccurate and mis-placed.
Wednesday, March 27, 2013
Judas poses a problem. How do you explain the fact that one of Jesus’ most trusted associates betrays him to his enemies? There are several theories.
There’s the Snidely Whiplash theory. John’s Gospel, which we hear today, tells us that he is a thief and an all around rotten guy.
Then there is what you might call the Anakin Skywalker theory of Judas. You know, he went over to the dark side. Today’s Gospel says that Judas let the devil into him or at least that the devil took over.
If you got your Christian formation from Jesus Christ Superstar, then you’ve heard the Cosmic Dupe theory: that Judas was cruelly used by a manipulative God and thrown aside for some larger purpose.
There was a snippet of Gnostic gospel that caused a stir a few years back that said Judas’ betrayal was all part of God’s Big Plan. Jesus spiritual self needed to break out of the flesh so he would be set free and this required death on a cross. Judas, in this scenario, did Jesus a favor.
Maybe Judas’ aims were political. Judas had to arrange for Jesus the Messiah had confront the Roman occupiers and their corrupt local toadies. Then the people would rise up in revolt or else God would be stirred to action and send angelic armies in some apocalyptic final clash. So Jesus was arrested to get the ball rolling.
Or maybe Jesus and Judas were really in cahoots and it backfired.
Isn't this fun? We love to psychologize Judas! Well, be careful. I suspect that your favorite theory of Judas might be one of those clues as to how you see God and a window into how your particular spiritual life works, but that’s for you to take up with your spiritual director.
You see my problem with Snidely Whiplash, Anikan Skywalker, and all those other theories is that it takes the heat off; which, frankly, is a relief. If Judas was merely a dupe, a thief or a conniver then I am free of responsibility and have nothing to learn. And we certainly don’t get close to the real tragedy that is Judas Iscariot, the trusted advisor who betrayed His Lord and Master.
Here’s my theory.
I think Judas betrayed Jesus because he was too religious: that Judas wanted Jesus to be the Messiah that Judas wanted more than he wanted to follow the Messiah that Jesus really was.
What if Judas betrayed Jesus because he loved Jesus too much? Not the kind of the kind of love that allows us to be changed by Jesus, but the kind of love that wants to control the outcome. What if Judas betrayed Jesus—out of disappointment or a need to control, pick one—because he could not let go of his need to make God into our image?
This is a dangerous thought. I don’t know about you but this thought frightens me down to my socks. Because, if I am honest, I am always tempted to domesticate Jesus into blessing my own biases, prejudices and proclivities, but more than that firmly turning God Incarnate into a house idol that I control. Which in some ways is more comforting than following a Christ who not only dies to close the chasm of sin, but who, in meeting me at the point of my greatest need, confronts and challenges me to grow and change.
I think the scriptural evidence lines up on the side of Judas being too religious.
Both John’s Gospel and Luke’s agree that Judas was offended when a woman—Mary of Bethany and/or a woman off the street—washed Jesus’ feet either with perfume or tears in full view of a room full of men. He is portrayed as standing apart from the group sneering, but the real clue is his response to the crucifixion. However he died, either by hanging or throwing himself off a wall, his response was to choose suicide rather than accept forgiveness. In realizing and regretting his mistake, he went to his spiritual default zone—shame. And instead of turning that shame into reflection and repentance, he took that shame and made into regret and retribution—which, if the bad guy is you, means self-destruction.
Look, Peter also betrayed Jesus. Not for money but to save his own skin. He went away weeping and hid until it was all over. And yet, he was able to make some different choices with his shame and guilt—with his weakness and pride. He stayed in community…he hung out with the other followers while Judas went off on his own letting his money burn a hole in his heart. Peter was open to possibility, which is why he would later run to an empty tomb when Mary Magdelene appeared with her wild story of rolled away stones and Jesus-who-she-thought-was the gardener. And he was able to both embrace the risen Christ and later hear his forgiving words when Jesus gave him a second chance to confess his love.
Peter had, for all his foibles, reactivity, and his need to please, a fundamentally light hand on his spiritual tiller. Firm enough to stay focused on God, light enough to change when he needed to.
Both Peter and Judas had their OMG moment, when they said “Oh, my God, what have I done?” But it never occurred to Judas to seek forgiveness. And it apparently never dawned on him that repentance might involve something other than suicide. To do that would have required another kind of death: a death to the need to hang on the faux-Messiah that Judas made and turn to the real Christ who was there all along. Judas was so religious that he could not conceptualize resurrection and could not imagine what it was like to be forgiven.
This is yet another example of how being too religious can get in the way of faith.
And at the same time this is another example of how being too self-contained, too wrapped in our own stuff—be they grand ideas or emotional baggage-- can get in the way of allowing ourselves to grow and be changed by God who constantly engaging us right where we need God the most.
I have a hunch that even Judas’ religiosity to the point of death, the faith that blessed all his biases right up until the rope went twang, was not enough to overpower the cross. I have faith that the glorification that the cross became is bigger than even death. And certainly bigger than the rotten choices, stubborn opinions and everyday idolatry that you and I commit every single day.
If the empty tomb that we are journeying towards this week tells us anything it is that the Jesus who really died and really rose from death also really welcomes us home even after our stubborn refusal to listen to Jesus the first (or hundredth) time.
Why did Judas betray Jesus? In the end only God and Judas knows. Whatever the reason, it stirs up in us all the ways that we participate in betraying, denying Jesus and generally being mad at God for not living up to our expectations.
The good news is that none of our everyday betrayals, denials, disappointments, and machinations is bigger than the cross. And when we have our own OMG moment, we will find the Risen Christ right there, ready to forgive us, change us and lead us to be the people God made us to be.
Tuesday, March 12, 2013
Roman Catholics aren't the only ones looking for signs and signals that indicate where the church is going next. While we didn't look for white smoke, we Anglicans have just gone through our own somewhat arcane process of changing spiritual leaders. Looking at nothing more than what’s on the internet, here is what one American Episcopalian thinks of the new Archbishop of Canterbury and what might be ahead for the Church.
In the last month or so, Archbishop Justin Welby has posted exactly two blog posts on his new blog and announced that many appointments to his staff so far. We have heard him give a few sermons and, I am sure that some people read over everything he ever wrote or preached as Bishop of Durham or before.
We know about his business background and his conversion to Christianity. We already know that he is familiar with both Central Africa and North America, in particular Nigeria and the United States. This familiarity will be very useful in dealing with Christians from these countries who have at times been both partners in ministry and opponents in conflict.
But there are some hints as to his style and his values that allow us to form some hunches about his leadership style.
1. He thinks about systems and is savvy about how they work.
Both his business background and his theological interests indicate that he understands the church as an organic system and that he appreciates both the gifts and the challenges that this brings.
2. He thinks about the relationships within the system and understands how relationships make organizational and informal systems work.
His first two appointments are very instructive. Choosing a Canon whose sole ministry will be reconciliation, and who has worked in Northern Ireland, a woman priest who has worked in America and knows well both Episcopalians and members of the breakaway Anglican-related churches, along with his own African experience, tells us that he is not only interested in the nuts-and-bolts of running an organization or in simply getting people to agree on ideas, he is interested in that relationships that make organization not just tick but have a soul.
3. As an evangelical, he is very interested in redemption and salvation but he casts through the lens of reconciliation--that the work of the Gospel is reconciling God to humanity and that shows up in reconciled relationships and systems that promote healing.
When Americans hear the word “evangelical” one picture pops into our heads. We should put that aside. Certainly Welby is interested in people coming to a personal, living relationship with Jesus Christ that is intentional and life-changing. He is interested in a lived faith grounded in scripture. He is also interested in vibrant communities that communicate the Gospel and invite people into faith in Jesus Christ. But what is interesting is his emphasis on reconciliation. An important role for the church is that we represent Christ and effect the reconciliation Christ brings in practical terms. If Christians live the reconciling love of Christ, then we will witness to the unity God brings to humanity through the cross and resurrections. Agreement, in this context, is much more than agreement to propositions, but the decision to live and pray with Christ as the center.
4. Because he values relationships and emphasizes reconciliation, Welby sees partnerships as the means to practically and effectively witness to the Gospel of Christ.
4. He is an establishment guy...either because it's the starting point we have or because he believes in the essential goodness of system, I don't know. My hunch it is the former, his tip of the hat to the integrity of people he disagrees with indicates that he sees that faithful people are doing the best they can with the tools, assumptions and experiences they have. But I am still waiting to learn more.
5. Because he is an establishment guy, he has not lost faith in the power of institutions, including the church, to do good. As an evangelical, he is aware of the power of personal faith, but like evangelicals of another era, he believes that society, not just persons, can be transformed and so institutions can and should seek to become agents of the Gospel, or put in other ways, God’s reconciliation.
I want to make some observations about implications for our common life arising of Archbishop Welby’s style and values by contrasting that a bit with what came before.
Williams is a deeply spiritual man but I think that he saw the Anglican Wars mainly as a contest of competing ideas. This is why he played into the hands of some conservatives because if only one idea can win, why would one compromise? So he understood that the church was to stand for The Central Idea around which all other ideas are measured and organized.
At the last Lambeth Conference, Williams broke with recent tradition by eschewing legislation and attempting to build community by way of the “Indaba” process of listening and reflection. At the end of the day, though, he gave in to the need to control the outcome by allowing a final report to be issued that reflected less than the relationships being built and more on the disciplinary lens through which he still viewed the situation. Ironic since the Bishops most interested in punishment stayed away and those most interested in dialogue were still frozen out of certain communion functions.
“Communion as a consequence of our choices” was at the heart of the Anglican Covenant project—something we have heard nothing about since Welby became Archbishop. That project failed not only because it could not garner the votes. The Anglican Covenant hasn't worked as a means of clarifying relationships. If anything it has muddied the waters because some members of the communion and their bishops are punished for acting according to their church’s conscience while others have moved into their own circle and refused to commune with anyone with whom they might differ. The present archbishop brings a different sensibility and understanding of communion to his office.
Welby also appears to be deeply spiritual man who is interested in building relationships. He assumes that the issue that counts for the church is faithfulness to Jesus Christ. I think that the folks at Truro, Fairfax, VA, who think that he is on “their side” because he speaks their language are mistaken, especially if they think that by waiting long enough that they will "win." My bet is that Justin will shock them by reminding them of what the apostle Paul had to say about staying in communion with people about whom you believe are just plain wrong.
Archbishop Justin, though, is more than a mere pragmatist. Both Williams and Welby share a vision of the church as a reconciling force in the world. Welby appears to bring to the task a different vision of the peace that happens when people who were once far away are brought near by the blood of Christ how that distance might be bridged.
Wednesday, February 13, 2013
What is it about Lent and me?
I just can’t give up.
When I give up coffee, I eat more chocolate.
When I give up fast food, I watch more TV.
When I put my loose change in the mite box,
I expect the box to be grateful.
Every Lent, I am an errant driver in a field
Striking the tree that I was determined to miss.
Forty days seem like forty years
When I know I will fail in forty seconds.
So this Lent, I am going to give up giving up.
Instead, I will assert my rights.
I will focus wholeheartedly on my rights.
I will hold closely to myself the things that I know are mine.
I will have a good time this Lent
because I will take on what I know to be true.
But, knowing my track-record in past Lents,
I will start with the right to keep my expectations low.
I will insist on the right to be wrong.
For forty days I think I can live with not always being so right.
I will assert my right to flawed.
Do you think for six weeks, I can be free of seeming so terrific?
I will ascent to my right to be uncertain
For a month, perhaps I will discover faith.
I will claim my right to be ignorant
After a season of knowing less, maybe I will know mystery.
I will act on my right to be weak
And, for a moment, I won’t pretend I own what strength I have.
I will revel in my right to be foolish
And catch a glimpse of how I am seen.
I will rest in my right to be a creature
And enjoy for a second my part in the creation.
I will exercise my right to surrender
and live, for now, in my right not to be God.
I wrote this in 2005. Someone in my parish asked for a copy. So I posted it again. -- atg+
Tuesday, December 25, 2012
Tuesday, December 18, 2012
Hmm. Kind of like life, huh? Funny thing, this God of ours; always full of surprises.
I’ve discovered that our God is one given to epiphanies. Epiphanies are moments when God is revealed. A memento sits on my bookshelf from one of my past churches. It is made of wood and is the word “AHA!”
That was someone reminding me that when God is revealed, the epiphany comes as an “Aha!”
Because God is given to epiphanies, if we want to be attentive to God we have to be ready for surprise. Now I am not a big fan of surprise parties and my kids make great sport out of the fact that I startle easily but dealing with the unexpected is part of life, and so is at the heart of the life of faith. If everything happened the way it was always supposed to with no variation, with no unexpected turns, then why bother having faith? A life with no surprise is not a life of faith, it’s a routine.
But God knows that life is in fact nothing if not growth and change. That is how we are made. We may cope with that by having our routine…which is why the church has a liturgical year, seasons, and traditions…but God uses even those to remind us that things move, change and renew.
Sometimes we don’t do change very well. I am a member of that rare species of priests who is also a “cradle Episcopalians” (with an excursis into the Jesus Movement of the 1970's) and in all that time I have watched first hand people walk out of church when something changed that they did not like. And I am not just talking about prayer books, hymnals, the King James Bible or altar placement. I have also seen people walk out of church when my home parish called its first African-American Rector. I have seen people refuse to come to church ever again after they found out that one of their priests was divorced. I have seen people scratch the hands of a woman priest delivering them communion and storm out of church. I have seen people leave because they found out their priest was gay and partnered. And the really painful part of it all was that none of these were necessarily bad people who did not want to follow Jesus faithfully. All of them knew they had the Bible on their side. It was just that something they had always counted on to remain fixed had changed and as the old ad said "they'd rather fight than switch.".
Never mind that the clergy they were walking away from were faithful Christians, gentle pastors, strong leaders, even courageous people. Never mind that people had lived among blacks, women, and gays for years “just not as ministers” when in fact, in baptism, we are all ministers. It was the change. This was for them not a pleasant epiphany. These were“a-ha” that they wished we could send back. Instead, God puts us in community and invites to work out God’s epiphany in Jesus Christ together and this is not always easy. It can be costly but epiphanies are like that, too.
I think about the Dr. Seuss book “Oh, The Places You’ll Go!” There is a theme in the places where I’ve been. Growing up in a mainly African-American church as a suburban white kid, being newly married and experiencing the early days of the AIDS epidemic, being a person who hates surprise serving as an emergency room chaplain. It's not that God is a practical joker, but rather that God, the God of epiphanies, always wants us to go deeper. God is always calling to the place that challenges us the most. If we choose to go there, we find that God is always with us.
God wants us to be holy. Holy does not mean static (although sometimes that means still…!), it means set apart. To be truly set apart, God wants us to love better, think more, and enjoy life. Holiness means being at once silent when we need to be, creative when we can be, and compassionate to those we meet. Faithfulness is being attentive to what is around us and being ready to change when we need to. That means being faithful is always a choice.
Some say that God, at best, must be far away and never gets involved in the creation God set in motion. I don’t believe that. Creation tells us that God is involved. The incarnation, life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ and the gift of the Holy Spirit shows us that God is not stuck “out there” but is “with us.” Often in surprising, even startling, ways.
We can choose to live our Christian life in a bubble—a kind of spiritual geodesic dome where we can control our whole environment from the inside and keep a world we are scared of outside—or we can live and breathe in God’s world as God made it with all its wonder, beauty, and—yes—even the pain and uncertainty. Faith is not faith if it is lived in isolation. If we are only faithful when things are the way we expect, if our faith only holds us up when things are going our way, then what kind of faith is that?
I think God loves it when we “get it.” When we discover something new about ourselves, God and creation, I believe that God cheers. I believe God smiles when we have an “a-ha!”
God knows that not every epiphany is pleasant or happy. God loves us through the process when the epiphany is in fact a conversion, which can be painful. God is patient with us when we resist the epiphany right in front of us. That’s why grace is amazing.
My hope for the next thirty years of ministry is this: that in the company of brave, faithful and creative Christians we will step out of our bubbles and greet with joy our Epiphany God.
Thank you all for everything you have taught me about living faithfully and joyfully as an epiphany people of God!
(I wrote this on the day of my 30th anniversary of my ordination to the priesthood for publication in the January newsletter of Trinity, Easton, "Glad Tidings." This is why I am talking about Epiphany while we are still in Advent. )
Join in the celebration! Please give a chair and a desk to our adopted school, Trinity New Hope Primary School in Sodogo, Kajo-Keji, South Sudan. Find out more here.
Sunday, December 16, 2012
Stir up your power, O Lord, and with great might come among us; and, because we are sorely hindered by our sins, let your bountiful grace and mercy speedily help and deliver us; through Jesus Christ our Lord, to whom, with you and the Holy Spirit, be honor and glory, now and for ever. Amen.
A little over eleven years ago, a little boy was watching the television and the only thing on was the blanket coverage of the 9/11 attacks. Over and over again he saw the image of those towers collapsing. Finally, his mother turned off the tv and tried to redirect him. But the enormity had set it and he was trying to find the words. As he was drawing a picture he finally asked “Mom, where was Superman?”
I remembered this story as I watched the news unfold on Friday of the mass murder of twenty first graders, their teachers as well as the mother of the shooter and the shooter himself. This is not supposed to happen. Schools are not places where violence is supposed to happen. Classrooms should never be places where children die. Teaching is a profession one gives one life to but it is not meant to be a job where one risks giving her life.
We have seen evil come to life. I want God’s power to be stirred up and to make this all better. Already there are people crying out for more laws and others saying things like we should routinely arm teachers. Both reactions get people riled up but they deflect us from what is really important. If the severity of trauma can be measured by the immediacy of the threat, the vulnerability of the victims and the degree of helplessness we feel then we are all at least a little traumatized even though we are far away from the epicenter—that is, if we have any heart at all. And so it is natural to ask “then what can we do?”
Well, wouldn’t you know? That very question appears in today’s Gospel. John the Baptist is going around Galilee preaching Good News. But it doesn’t sound very good. He is saying that God’s judgment is at hand. He chides the religious leaders for their complacency and tells people they need to get ready for the coming of the Messiah. He says our history and heritage will not help us escape what is coming.
This has everyone shaken right down to their socks. “What should we do?” the people ask. I mean, if John the Baptist is right, if the most religious and righteous people in town can’t pass muster when the Messiah comes then who will?
If you think about it, this question is not so far from our lips either. If a rural-suburban town of middle-class folks far away from the traditional epicenters of crime and violence cannot escape evil incarnate then what can we do?
St. John Baptist’s advice is surprisingly practical. He tells everyone to bear fruit worthy of repentance. He tells the religious leaders to be faithful and don’t count on their status. He tells workers like tax collectors and soldiers to take only what they are owed—in a day long before unions and civil service. He tells people to be honest, to be good, and to care for one another.
But if getting ready for the Messiah is the picture of practicality, that doesn’t make it simple. If our faith is going to make a practical difference then we must choose to be intentional about our faith. Being faithful means being attentive to what is going on around us. Being attentive means being smart about our choices of not only what we do bur our choices in who we are. This kind of faithful living means being reasonable in our expectations of others and ourselves—cutting each other some slack. John taught that faithful living means taking responsibility for how we live out our faith and that kind of deliberate faithfulness grows out living as if we are in love with the life that God has given us and in love with the God who gives us life.
That’s the thing about the sacramental life. It is God at work in us alone and in community. God takes everyday things like water, bread, wine, and even olive oil and they become signs that God is at work in every part of our living. In our faith communities, God places us in the midst of imperfect people and changes us together.
As we try to make useful meaning out of random violence, we can learn from John the Baptist who prepares us for the redemption to come. If we dare to look through the lens of this tragedy, we too can find Good News, we will find the ground work of God’s grace and we will know what to do.
The first thing we can learn is that while this is a national tragedy with national implications, it is also local. Our pain is our pain. It is nothing like the pain that the people of Newtown are right now experiencing and not even close to the pain of the parents whose child was murdered or of the families whose parent or spouse or adult child was killed. Some of you may have some kind of personal connection to the event or else this tragedy may call up for you memories of your own losses. The feelings that go with that are natural and normal. At the same time, let what is yours be yours and what is theirs be theirs. Our pain and sadness allows us to build empathetic and caring bridges of support and that is very important—essential in fact. But on Monday, we will go back to work. They will have to re-knit lives torn open.
Because what’s theirs is theirs and what’s ours is ours, we have different work to do. For one thing, we can ask questions and frame meaning in a way that the people close to the crisis will not be able to do for maybe a long, long time.
This is where the issue of judgment comes in. But not in the way you think. We often think of judgment as something God does to a people for wrongs they have done. But we must be very clear here. God did not do this. Beware of platitudes and junk theology. God did not need these children more than their parents. While we believe that God is caring for the dead and that in Christ they are held in God’s loving embrace, this is not how God recruits angels. God does not use the murder of children as an object lesson in obedience. God did not send a man into a school with a gun as an act of divine retribution. Please do not teach people to hate God for what God does not do.
No. We are looking at the fruits of the kind of world we have made and we are staring into the heart of human sin. We are being forced to look at the consequences of creating (but not talking about) a culture that enshrines violence and makes it easier to buy a gun than to rent an apartment. What happened Friday exposes the consequences of our choice as a people to make the right to bear arms at least as important as the right to health and education. This tragedy lays an axe to the tree of our assumptions that easy answers couched in simplistic media-ready ideologies will do a better job of solving our problems than the hard work of living in community.
But if the consequences of our choices convict us, signs of redemption are also near. If you look closely, God started signaling the solution even before we comprehended the horror of what was going on.
One man chose to do evil. That much is clear. But notice that when the chips were down hundreds of people chose to do the good. One man did unimaginable evil. Many others performed compassionate acts of humanity—even bravery—beyond our imagining.
John the Baptist was getting people ready for Jesus by telling them to repent…that we can choose. We can intentionally make room for God and that will change us and it will change the world for good.
Tuesday, July 24, 2012
good example of bad religion that it is deserves critique, especially since they brought it up.
This tract, found on a site called "The Oatmeal," is attractive, funny, edgy, in many way true and does exactly what it says it hates.
I get what the authors are saying, bad religion sucks. It is destructive and abusive.
But on the whole this strikes me at the atheist-existentialist version of a Chick Tract. It is attractive, amusing, and hard to put down. They are both theological and philosophical car-wrecks...you ought not to watch but you can't help it. The Oatmeal piece puts down all religion by taking a few truths about how religion is abused, draws broad generalized conclusions about all religion based on the obvious bad examples, and then tells the reader that they are a supremely unreasonable idiot if they continue to follow any religious or spiritual path.
All in all, this thing does for atheism exactly what they say is bad about religion. But instead of yelling for not following a crappy mis-interpretation of holy writ, it yells at you and calls you a jerk for actually believing something other than, well, nothing. And if you must believe in nothing, believe it with all your heart, without question and be disdainful of those who don't believe as you do.
In other words, this is the same sucky, dumbass evangelism that is mainly about making the believer feel good in the guise of wanting to "save" them (in this case, the author wants to "save" me from sucky religion...which apparently is any religion especially if it looks the least bit traditional).
Like many atheists (and religionists for that matter) they confuse the content of religion with the process of faith.
And the authors can pretend that the religion they present has no content, but it does. He or she is very clear in his/her belief that the only true faith is that all people are dying meat-sacks in a cosmic sh*t-hole." This is what we call a creed. In my mind this is not a very inviting one, but, it is a statement of faith as much as any. It is a faith that is packaged, sold and marketed (dare I say "evangelized" or "prosyltized" as any in any church).
We may have gothic buidlings and the Bible, yesterdays technology, but y'all use the technology at your disposal for the exact same purpose. Admit it: you want to save me from the sin of my faithfulness.
The author(s?) and I can agree one thing. Whatever you believe should make you and the world you live in better, not worse. If you don't want to suck at your religion (even if your religion is no-religion) it needs to be intentional, provide a healthy balance of inner and outer focus. It needs to help you transcend not reinforce your prejudices.
Healthy faith--whatever the content--is a process and requires both nurturing. It requires a balance of solitude and community.
Healthy faith challenges you to go deeper, expand--not contract--your world. Faith that is healthy gives a sense of meaning and purpose while also motivating you to leave the world a better place than how you found it. Healthy faith causes you to take responsibility for yourself and your world.
A healthy faith is dynamic and leans, by it's very nature, towards truth-telling. It will discomfort the comfortabable and reach out to the oppressed.
Also, good religion--even if your religion is atheism--should cause to one respect people who differ from us without calling them names or belittling either their journey and their choices. This clever tract succeeds by doing the very thing it decries but very attractively.
Saturday, July 14, 2012
I guess that's to be expected since we've just finished a General Convention, and while every report I've read and heard tells me that this was one of the most forward looking and hopeful conventions in recent memory, some have taken this as an opportunity to take pot shots at the Episcopal Church.
Most of these attacks are ad-homenum, based on old canards, myths, false assumptions and in some cases inaccuracies and--dare I say it--outright, ahem, lies. All of these are designed to stir up feelings disguised as throughful critique.
Two articles appeared, one in BeliefNet and a similar op-ed in the Wall Street Journal (Friday, July 13, 2012). I wrote about the WSJ op-ed on the Episcopal Cafe today. What is said about the WSJ piece, which has been roundly refuted by a wide spectrum of Anglican writers, equally applies to the BeliefNet piece.
Another op-ed was written by NY Times op-ed columnist Russel Douthat (Sunday, July 15, 2012). A thoughtful writer with a conservative, center-right, bend, Douthat this time resorts to generalizations and falsehood. Maybe he has never really read theology nor studied American church history? I don't know. He romanticizes the current Roman Catholic Church while ignoring huge--obvious--trends in the American religious scene and then blames all the problems on "liberal religion", the Episcopal Church being the case in point.
And, in what must be a violation of a sub-set of Godwin's Law, he trots out Bishop Jack Spong in the opening paragraph.
Here is what I submitted to the comments under the column tonight:
Mr. Douthat uses the Episcopal Church as an example of the dangers of liberalism to Christianity. Too bad that the Episcopal Church he describes is largely mythical as is the kind of church he longs for.
Ironically, Bishop Spong's theological roots are found in the very 19th Century Social Gospel that Douthat commends.
Here is the fact that Douthat avoids: Every American denomination, liberal and conservative, evangelical, mainline, Catholic and Protestant is declining. Here is another truth, "correct" doctrine won't by itself return us to a glorious past.
Our culture has changed, including our relationship to religion.
We live in a free market of ideas. Personal spirituality is more central than corporate religion. Society no longer calls on churches to mediate our values. Less than 18% of American adults attend church, synagogue or mosque. Is it any wonder that the institutional forms of religion have to change?
The Roman Catholic Church has chosen to shut out modernism and suppress dissent.
Evangelicalism covets the mantel formerly held by mainline Protestantism as arbiter of American values and chaplain to the powerful.
As for the Episcopal Church, we seek to follow Jesus Christ by living the Gospel with an attitude of respect, humility and openness.
I invite Mr. Douthat to spend time with us and watch the variety of ministry and the vitality of our communities instead of resorting to assumptions and stale characterizations about the state of American religion.
Here is another rebuttal to Douthat's column.
Tuesday, April 24, 2012
made a movie remaking The Three Stooges for our generation. Depending on your point of view, this is either the end or the highpoint of Western civilization. Now I haven’t seen it, but from what I have heard, the directors wanted to reproduce the exact feel of the 1930’s vintage shorts than became a staple of Saturday morning television for boys of a certain age like me. The film also provides a back story about how three bumbling knuckleheads came to be so bumbling.
In a weird way, the advent of this film reminds of one of my own Easter stories.
Once upon a time, when I was a brand-new transitional deacon, I was assigned to a parish in the middle of a small city not unlike Trinity, Easton.
St. Paul's in Willimantic, Connecticut had a soup kitchen, too, only theirs met six days a week. I lived a few blocks away and would walk to church. On Sunday mornings, I liked to go early and putter around in silence making things ready for worship. There was a wrinkle in my plan, though, and his name was Billy.
Billy was a man in his late 40’s, who spent most of his life in an institution run by the state for the mentally handicapped. The state was gradually moving these folks into the community. Highly capable folks from the Training School, were moved into apartments. Those in need of more supervision went into group homes. Billy was one of the ones moved into an apartment near the church. Billy loved church. He also loved to talk…which he did at 100 mph in a rather high pitched voice. I tried to teach him things: like how to help set up the church, how to light the candles without setting him or the church on fire; how to set out the bulletins.
Nothing worked. Billy followed me around talking incessantly. He broke things. He spilled and dropped things. He interrupted and startled people. He also scared people who did not know what to make of him. And the truth is Billy really got on my nerves.
My romantic image of a time of contemplative silence went out the window when I came down the street and saw him there at the door, waiting. So not only was I annoyed and impatient, I was angry. And I am sure it showed, so I was embarrassed, too.
My supervising priest at that time was the most saintly man I ever knew. His name was Canon Francis Belden. Or, as Billy called him, “Kenny.”
Canon Belden would always treat Billy with great patience and never seemed to get upset by his antics.
One day, after a particularly exasperating encounter, I came to supervision feeling at a complete loss. I had run out of tricks, distractions and gimmicks to deal with Billy. Tired, confused, and—as I said—embarrassed, I asked Canon Belden how he did it. How was he able to stay so even-keeled with Billy even after Billy has crashed into him or dropped something or interrupted a conversation.
"Well," ‘Kenny’ said, "he’s Jesus."
Before I could fall into a deep hole of guilt and pointless shame, Belden added this truth that I have never forgotten. The secret to a successful Christian life, he said, is seeing the face of Jesus in others and also knowing that you are Jesus’ face to someone else.
Billy was Jesus. Jesus came disguised as an annoying, pesky, klutzy guy who was trying to apply the life rules learned in an institution to a world where he was now by himself for the first time and with very few rules. Billy was a lot of things and he certainly tried my patience, but he was no stooge. He was a person. He was a person with dignity given to him by God. He was alone and struggling. And he was Jesus in precisely the way and at precisely the moment I needed to see Jesus.
And it changed me.
Since then Jesus has shown up in my life—and I dare say in yours—again and again and again.
This lesson came to mind a few years later when I was teaching a class of high school seniors about Christianity and the Christian Life, particularly how they can prepare themselves to be faithful people in the new world they were about to enter in college, the military or the workplace.
It was during the Fifty Days of Easter and we were looking at all the stories of the Risen Jesus appearing to his disciples, one student asked, “How is it that Jesus only appeared to believers? How come Jesus did not show himself after his resurrection to all the unbelievers who killed him?”
My first response was “How do you know he didn’t?”
During these Fifty Days, we hear about various encounters between the Risen Jesus and various people. Some of them, like the disciples locked in the upper room, were people who knew Jesus in life but were so terrified after his execution that they don’t know what to do except hide.
Some, like Mary Magdalene, are so grief stricken that they don’t even recognize Jesus standing right in front of them, until he calls her name.
Others have heard the story—the rumors—of Jesus’ resurrection but have no idea what to make of it until someone opens the scriptures for them and explains what it all means—like Cleopas and his companion on the road to Emmaus.
And like Cleopas and his friend, some do not see the risen Jesus until they meet him in the Sacrament of Christ’s body and blood.
Paul met the Risen Jesus while he was actively persecuting Christians. It turns out that what he was trying to stamp out was in fact chasing him down.
Most other people meet the Risen Christ in the story, the actions and the lives of people who follow Jesus and have been changed by him. As Jesus says to Thomas, “blessed are those who have not seen and yet believe.” That’s us, in a way.
We have believed even though we haven’t seen the risen Jesus in the upper room, eating a piece of fish, as we heard in the Gospel today.
Just because we didn’t get to be in the Upper Room does not mean we are without a clue. The Risen Jesus is right there in front of us all the time. If only we have the eyes to see.
Jesus might come disguised as that guy looking for a handout, or as the student who can’t do anything right. Jesus might show up as your spouse or your co-worker or the classmate that everyone ignores. We host a whole room full of Risen Jesus’ every Saturday: they both serve and eat the food in the Ark Soup Kitchen. Know it or not, they are Jesus to each other.
It would be nice if Jesus were always nice. It would be great if Jesus only showed up on our time-table and in our image. We'd really like it if Jesus only appeared to people just like us. But Jesus, God-with-us, was born in a stable, and grew up to touch and heal unclean people. It was Jesus, God-with-us, who cared for the sick, the helpless and the needy, who forgave sinners and challenged the righteous. The One who blessed friend and foe alike as he died on the cross, is now alive and shows up where we least expect him and where we most need to see him.
Sometimes when I realize that I’ve just encountered the risen Jesus, it feels like a slap in the face. But it is not a pratfall, and it is certainly not pointless violence or tomfoolery. It’s a startling wake up call to the blessing of meeting the Risen Jesus face to face. It is the stunning, liberating (and often inconvenient) demonstration of how it is that God restores the full dignity of human nature to even the most unlikely of God’s children.