Thursday, February 01, 2018

This is no time to be cute.

When I was a kid, I was taught to sail a boat. It was at a summer camp off the Penobscot Bay in Maine, and we learned the basics of sail-handling, working as a team, and navigation. It was great fun and it was also no time to fool around. One could get clonked on the head by the sail when coming about, or fall in the water, or burn your hands on the line. It was a blast, but one of the lessons I learned at nine years was focus on what one was doing. To be present, attentive, and disciplined.

As one of the wise “old” college-aged camp counselors would say while navigating the sail boat across the bay, “this is no time to be cute.”

I am remembering that lesson because this is one of those strange years when Ash Wednesday falls on Valentine’s Day and when Easter is also April Fool’s Day. This is no time to be cute.

One must tread carefully on Ash Wednesday, because what is called up on this day most centered on penance is at once deeply personal and at the very core to our being and identity. We are acknowledging that we can’t go it alone. We recognize our limitedness. Together we will stare into our mortality. We will face the fact that we are broken. We will recall, I hope, with sadness and chagrin how we mistreat each other and the evil that we do. Ash Wednesday is all about sin.

There. I said it. Ash Wednesday is all about sin.

There is nothing cute about it. But it is very necessary.

And if it feels hard or scary to enter into, it's because the process we are invited into is both. What we are dealing with is both immediate and eternal, a grace that we don't earn but always learning to live.

I have to admit that it took me a while to warm up to the idea of mimicking basketball brackets to think about saints and the nature of holy discipleship as we move through Lent. It's a balancing act, for sure, popularizing contemplation. What we don't want to do is to fall into the temptation to mute the depth, the hurt, the pain, and the implications of human sin with an excess of cleverness.

When I was a clinical chaplain, we'd take ashes around our hospital to patients and their loved ones keeping vigil, This was punctuated by a liturgy in the chapel, and accompanied by an act of confession, absolution, and prayer at each bedside. I was always fascinated that even in the most American Protestant town as you could find, where this hospital was, everyone wanted "in." People would walk up to us and ask for "their" ashes.

Last year, I tried my first "Ashes to Go" at the local park-and-ride and I felt myself leaning over the precipice of the cute. Doing this in the hospital and at the bus stop was, well, different. One was for the sick, and the other was for the busy.

There is a tension between taking pastoral ministry and the Gospel to where people are and the place where it gets cutesy, covering over the rough, uncomfortable spaces. I suspect that this was one reason that Martin Luther got so riled at Tetzel five hundred years ago.

So, I would hope that we avoid the temptation to get cute and draw heart shaped ashes on each other’s heads on Ash Wednesday instead of the smudged cross or to distribute candy along with the Sacrament. And, come Easter morning, it will be interesting to see how we use the most obvious punchline ever handed to every preacher on the planet, but we should probably leave the joke to the professional comics.

Giving in to the temptation of the cute distracts people from the core task of Lent, Holy Week, and the Triduum: that “God proves his love for us in that while we still were sinners Christ died for us (Romans 5:8).”

We will also miss the irony that while the world is passing out chocolates or playing pranks, it is also revealing-- and trying to cover over-- our deep need for love, our brokenness of heart and spirit, the depth of our division and loneliness, and our powerlessness. One day, the world will be dripping with sentimentality and on the another, crazy with cheap tricks. And on those very days, we will know precisely where the discomfort comes from and can offer God's answer to it.

That doesn’t mean we can’t use the days to talk about what’s really going on. We should never pass up the opportunity to speak about God’s love for us in the person of Jesus. After all, everyone else in the room will be noticing the coincidence along with the preacher. But this is not a moment for cuteness, it is moment of humility. And six week and a half weeks later, it won’t be a time for pranks, but for awe.

God loves us, and through the incarnation, death, and resurrection of Jesus, God is going to the depth of human sin, and into the reality of the human heart, the contrast between what the world values and how God responds could not be plainer. Underneath secular Valentine’s Day is a search for connection and love. And certainly on the first day of April we will discover again that in the resurrection God has turned human wisdom into folly and what will seem foolish to the world is God’s gateway to life.

It might be a good time to crack open the forgotten Inkling, Charles Williams, and think about how romantic love points us to divine love. There might be a chance to think about the contrast (and tension) between God’s foolishness and our own.

See? There’s plenty to contemplate without resorting to heart shaped candies with clever sayings or lame pranks in the hope that we will seem cool. We don’t need to belabor the irony to get the joke.

As for me, I plan to transfer the feasts. We Episcopalians are pretty good at that. I will take my beloved out the weekend before Valentine’s Day, and I will save the foolishness for after Easter dinner (and the liturgical nap).

Wednesday, November 01, 2017

The Odd Three Days

If the period from Maundy Thursday through Good Friday to the Great Vigil of Easter can be called "The Great Three Days," then maybe the series of observances from All Hallow's Eve, going through All Saints Day, and then ending with All Soul's Day (or Faithful Departed), might be "The Odd Three Days."

Look at the arc of the story. It starts with ghosties and ghoulies and long-legged beasties and things that show up on your doorstep asking for candy, and then it ends with two feasts focused on the dead: All Saint's, remembering all those holy people who don't get their own holy day; and, All Soul's or All Faithful Departed, where (depending on where you land on the universalist spectrum) we remember all the faithful (baptized) who have died, even if they weren't all that saintly, or everyone who has died regardless of their fitness for the Kingdom.

At any rate, what we are doing is recalling those who have died while at the same time thumbing our noses at death.

Back on April Foole's Day, we made fun of Kings, Queens, Bishops and other clergy, the wealthy and the celebrity, and anyone who thinks themselves important.

Yesterday, on Halloween, we made fun of devils, demons, ghosts, goblins, and monsters. We looked death in the face and laughed.

Halloween stores and parties aside, secular society does this very nervously. That's because most people don't get the joke.

The reason that we followers of Jesus can put on make-up and join the mockery is that by reason of Jesus' incarnation, death, and resurrection God has defeated and put to flight the ultimate power that sin, death, and the grave have over us. Our bodies may die, but the spiritual power of death no longer has any hold over us.

We might be tempted to think that when are praying for our deceased loved ones that we are pleading that God might give them a break from the torments of purgatory or hell. This kind of fear, combined with clever fund-raising, is one of the things that sparked the Reformation 500 years ago. But, in fact, what we are doing is joining with all those everyday saints and souls from all time and every place who, as we heard in today's reading from Revelation, have gathered around the throne of the Lamb and together we sing "Alleluia."

During this Lesser Triduum, these Three Odd Days, we look at the expanse of the church year now winding down, gear ourselves up for how God will wrap up history and fill all things, reflect on the coming of winter, and remember all the ways that God has shown up in the lives of ordinary people--especially in the ones we love but see no longer-- and we discover once again that God in Christ has swallowed up death forever.

The saints and souls we pray for, those near and dear to us, and those known to us only in name and story, are--just like us-- going from strength to strength in the life of perfect service.

These "three odd days," this lesser triduum, may seem like we are whistling past the graveyard, but why settle for whistling when we can sing?

We are able to sing as the Apostle Paul did to the Corinthians; "Where, O death, is your sting...? ...Thanks be to God, who gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ!"

We are, in fact, living in a new creation where the power of death, the power to separate us from God, each other, and creation, has been defeated forever in Christ's life, death, and resurrection.

Homily for The Feast of All Saints, November 1, 2017 at Trinity Episcopal Church, Easton, PA.

Wednesday, October 04, 2017

When thoughts and prayers are more than just thoughts and prayers

As a parish priest, I am in the business of “thoughts and prayers.” 

We hear that phrase gets tossed around a lot. Especially after a mass casualty incident, whether it’s a hurricane that decimates Puerto Rico or one perpetrated by a man with as many guns as he can buy and modify and who kills nearly five dozen people in just a few minutes.

And we’ve heard many people rage in frustration that all our leaders seem to be able to offer are “thoughts and prayers.” I have heard many people rightly dismiss that phrase as nothing more than an empty, distracting platitude.

The popular mind has a point. It’s not just annoying. The misuse of “thoughts and prayers” does real harm to both thought and prayer.

For one thing, when confronted with traumatic news, especially when it is repeated over and over again from every possible angle, and when it intrudes on us from every which way, the last thing we want to do is think about it! Which is why when, in moments like this, we say “you are in my thoughts” we are not telling the truth.

The truth is that we want to keep the trauma as far away from us as possible in any way we can. So in order not to feel overwhelmed by all the news, we put the shooter, all his victims, and how they died or were injured as far from our thoughts as possible. We can do this when we are far away from the event, or when it has not touched us or someone we care about. On some level, we all know trauma when we see it, and so if we can we reach over and change the channel, if not the “off” switch.

Don’t feel guilty about that. From our safe distance, we can turn it off. The actual victims and their loved ones would dearly love to.

As for prayers, the truth is that most of us say it, but few of us do it. Which is not to say that we shouldn’t, it just that it does neither us, nor the victims, nor their loved ones, nor, for that matter, prayer, any earthly (or heavenly) good to reduce prayer to “good wishes.”

Certainly, we want to wish the victims and their loved one well. And we certainly want God to embrace, comfort, and strengthen the injured and bereaved. We want to dead to be cared for with dignity, and—if we are people of faith—we want them to be embraced by God.

If our “thoughts and prayers” do not inform what brings meaning, hope, and purpose to our living it is not doing us any spiritual good.

And if our “thoughts and prayers” are not urging us to act not only more mercifully, but more firmly towards the end of violence, the curtailment of easy public access to weapons of mass-murder, then our “thoughts and prayers” will do us no earthly good.

Our “thoughts and prayers” require discipline and work if they to do any earthly or spiritual good. They must be formed in the context of a community that takes faith seriously, and which—even on a secular level—takes seriously the hard work of ethics, accountability, and relationship.

Without that kind of community, then our “thoughts and prayers” can become the occasion for evil. Even the Las Vegas gunman has his own thoughts and prayers… but they were apparently tuned for evil.

Fr. Anthony Clavier noted that 
“People are trying to diagnose what was wrong with the Las Vegas killer. His brother says he had no religious or political opinions. His life centered on beating the odds at the casino and amassing money, property and weapons. There seems to have been no altruistic impulse motivating his life. In Christian terms he was open to evil, and had no built in responses to counter its malevolence. This horrific event should remind us all that the discipline of daily prayer for the world, the church, the poor, the suffering, our friends and families, and lastly ourselves, in that order, is vital if we are to be protected from evil in all its seductive and self-serving reality.”
If we do not want to feel helpless in the face of that kind of evil; if we do not want to return that kind of evil when it falls upon us; then we need to turn our thoughts and prayers in more than a distancing mechanism. It must rise above kindly meant platitudes.

In undertaking the discipline of prayer, we will find ourselves motivated to action.

Our prayer must cause us to stand up to evil, to no longer accept platitudes, and confront the impulse to return evil for evil. We must name and confront those who would exploit our fears for profit and turn our hapless “thoughts and prayers” into a market for more and bigger firearms. Instead of giving in to our fears, our thoughts and prayers should open us to the power of God to confront and name evil, care for the victims of evil, and call upon our society to turn from platitudes to action.

Our “thoughts and prayers” must lead us to act for peace and justice. Our “thoughts and prayers” must move us to demand an end to violence and the propagation of the tools of violence for profit.

Our thoughts and prayers must end the hypocrisy of making firearms easy to buy and a prize worth keeping, while making quality community mental health hard to obtain and shameful to use. If our “thoughts and prayers” do not lead us out of fear and into action, compassion, and community, then they are nothing more than empty words. 

As one in the business of thoughts and prayers, I look for these to become the catalysts for community, action, and change. If our thoughts and prayers lead to changed hearts and compassionate, functioning communities, then they will become compassion that heals and faith that looks forward. 

Saturday, May 20, 2017

On the Roles of Vestries and Clergy

The Vestry is a learning, praying community of spiritual leaders
who oversee, plan and guide the ministry of the parish.
Background note: This was originally posted on the list-serve of the Diocese of Bethlehem, then known as “Bakery," in response to a conversation thread about the role of the clergy, Vestry, and congregation (through the congregational meeting). I cannot remember what the original situation was, except that what was being discussed was a lack of clarity among the members of the Vestry and, perhaps, the clergy of a parish as to the proper role of the Vestry. This lack of clarity was apparently causing a persistent “pinch." 

I wrote this post because the thread revealed many questions about the appropriate roles of vestry, clergy, and congregation in an Episcopal parish, which I found to be fairly common in the many parishes I've served and in others that I have come across. 

Canon Bill Lewellis published this on the blog DioBeth newSpin on August 24, 2014.

There is a tendency in this country to run Episcopal Churches according to a congregational (where the whole congregation makes decisions) or a Presbyterian model (where elected committees and officers make the decisions) and in both these the clerics find themselves in the role of preaching consultants or maybe as the hired help. Sometimes, in the name of promoting lay ministry, the cleric sets aside his or her appropriate role. Other times, the Vestry (or maybe one of the officers) has taken on the corporate, material needs of the parish to the exclusion of the pastoral, spiritual, and mission work of the congregation. The situation you described is apparently one where the lay leadership seems to have fallen into one of those models to bad effect. It is not an uncommon problem.

There is an equal tendency to organize Episcopal Churches along Roman Catholic lines, where the priest is in total charge and the vestry and lay leaders exist solely to raise funds, maintain the property and carry out the priest's vision. This can have the effect of holding lay leadership back from taking their full place in the life of the church. 

We Episcopalians, on the other hand, strive for that elusive via media.  Unlike our Catholic or Reformed sisters and brothers, we assume a partnership between clergy and laity. In the Episcopal Church, the congregation elects the vestry to work alongside the Rector as both partners in and leaders of ministry and mission. This works on two axes.

The first axis is procedural. The Rector has complete use of the property for mission, and complete oversight over worship including music and has final responsibility for Christian formation.  The Vestry has control over the purse strings, and yet is canonically charged to see to the materials necessary for the worship and mission of the church. That "check and balance" suggests that the process works best when the parties work together as partners.

The second axis is pastoral or theological. We assume in the Episcopal Church that vestry members share in the spiritual and pastoral leadership of the parish with the clergy. We don't specify this in the canons but best practices show us that Vestry members who attend worship regularly, give proportionally and sacrificially to the work of the church, and participate in both the formation and outreach of the parish will make the best vestry members. A well-functioning Vestry grounds their deliberations and decisions in prayer and study.  Vestry members share in the spiritual leadership of the parish along with the priest.

So the mission of the parish belongs to both the Rector and the Congregation through the Vestry. In our tradition, it is the Vestry and the Clergy working in concert that oversees, directs, manages, and envisions ministry.  And we do this in concert with the community of the diocese through the ministry and oversight of the Bishop. 

The Rector is not an employee of the congregation but is called to the congregation. The call is made and ratified by both the Bishop--who is the chief pastor of a diocese--and the Vestry. While the Rector has tenure, she or he still represents the Bishop to the congregation, just as the congregation is the living presence of the diocese in the community. The relationship in a parish is a three-way covenant between bishop, priest, and vestry. 

The rubrics and content of the celebration of a new ministry in the BCP describes this relationship very clearly.

When there is no resident Rector, the Bishop fills that role. The terms "vicar" means "representative" and in a mission church, the vicar represents the Bishop who is the Rector of that parish. In parishes that have priests-in-charge, the same applies. The difference is that missions are generally not self-supporting parishes while congregations that have priests-in-charge are generally self-supporting but without a Rector. 

The idea of a priest-in-charge is a fairly new creation of General Convention and (if I am not mistaken) was intended to give canonical authority to interim clergy, who have been utilized in the Episcopal Church for many years but, before this canon, were less than rectors but served longer than supply clergy. While the canon has solved some problems, there have been other applications which have sometimes worked well and other times not so much.

More and more, the Priest-in-charge canon has often been used to shorten the search process...a priest-in-charge is appointed by the Bishop with the Vestry's approval of a letter of agreement; and, if all goes well, then the Vestry might nominate and elect that person as Rector. There is considerable debate about the utility of using this canon in this way since, generally speaking, interim pastors do not become Rectors, but many Priests-in-charge do. In any event, the status of a priest-in-charge is similar to that of a vicar: they represent the Bishop (who is Rector in name or in effect) and serves at the pleasure of the Bishop. With both the Vicar and Priest-in-charge, the appointing authority is the Bishop and the person is not "called" in the same sense as a Rector.

Using long term supply, especially without a specific letter of agreement or with mission plans and detailed accountabilities has all the pitfalls that Scott mentions and, IMHO, tends to freeze a parish in place because they might get used to moving from Sunday to Sunday. Any congregation of any size and clerical status can slip into survival mode, for sure, but this might encourage that perspective.

Here are some very good resources that describe this in the Episcopal context very well:

Beyond Business as Usual by Niel O; Michell from Church Publishing. Michell offers a way forward for Vestry's to become learning communities and to take their place in the mission and spiritual leadership of a parish alongside their priest.

Back from the Dead: The Book of Congregational Growth by Gerald W. Keucher also from Church Publishing. Keucher has brought together most of the best thinking about congregational development and put it together with his experience in the stewardship and management challenges of parish ministry.

I also recommend another book by Keucher that helps vestries and clergy understand their proper relationship: Humble and Strong: Mutually Accountable Leadership in the Church.

Finally, I appreciate the bringing together of Benedictine spirituality and intelligent organizational wisdom found in Bob Gallagher's Fill All Things: The Dynamics of Spirituality in the Parish Church from Ascension Press. I have trained with Gallagher and have found his approach to be most useful and accessible to congregations. 

Tuesday, April 18, 2017

Words worth a thousand pictures

Easter Sunday, 2017

Words are worth a thousand pictures.

Today’s Gospel is a good example.

“I have seen the Lord!” With these simple words that Mary Magdalene paints an image evoking a thousand stunning, unexpected images.

There are no caveats like “You won’t believe this but…” There is no “I think” or “maybe” and no defensiveness in these words. Here is what happened: “I have seen the Lord!”

These are the words of a person who has experienced something so amazing, so wondrous, so real and so unexpected that all pretension has fallen away. These are the words of a person who has met the Risen Christ. “I have seen the Lord!”

When we say it during every liturgy through the fifty days of Easter, we say it another way. We say “Alleluia! Christ is risen!” And we answer “He is risen indeed. Alleluia!” But try to imagine when we say this that we aren’t in church full of people but one of two people who meet in the street. Imagine that you cannot contain yourself. “Alleluia! (or praise the Lord!) Christ is risen!” And the answer is “He is risen indeed” (or “You betcha!") Alleluia! (Praise the Lord!)”

Now imagine yourself in grocery store, or at work, or walking down the street and saying out loud to your friends,  maybe even to a total stranger “I have seen the Lord!” Go ahead, try it. “I have seen the Lord!

Oh! You sound so sure right now! But getting there was tough, wasn’t it? Took a little coaxing, didn’t it?

Mary’s journey was not so easy either. In John’s Gospel we hear only of Mary Magdalene coming to the tomb, not the other women mentioned in the other three Gospels. John tells us in the most detail how it was that she brought the news of the Risen Jesus to the apostles. She was a friend and apprentice of Jesus Christ. She was a friend—a person who knew Jesus and a person Jesus knew well. Jesus healed her and she became his follower. Tradition gives her the role as a prostitute, but don’t believe everything read about her especially if you found it in a novel or movie or something because nothing in the Bible says that. That "tradition" didn't come around until around 600 AD or so. Here’s what we do know: she was a follower of Jesus, and that she’s the one who first meets the Risen Jesus! 

Mary goes to the tomb, probably to care for Jesus' hastily buried body. She finds the tomb and the stone has been rolled away. She does not go in, but runs away. The first time she returns to the disciples, it is out of fear and distress mingled with grief. Her words are not assured but distressed: “They have taken the Lord out of the tomb, and we do not know where they have laid him.”

In effect, she told the disciples "I can't find the Lord!"  When Mary Magdalene sees the empty tomb the first time, she assumes that the grave had been robbed and that the body stolen. 

Notice also that the apostles are not expecting this news…they have to run to see this for themselves. The Beloved Disciple peeks in, then Peter steps into the tomb; then the Beloved Disciple goes in, as well. Peter knows the body is gone; the Beloved Disciple believes that Jesus is risen, but neither of them know just what this means just yet. That is left for Mary Magdalene to discover.

John is telling us in these few sentences some important facts: 

One, Jesus’ body was not stolen by his followers (they did not expect nor understand the empty tomb); two, Jesus was not resuscitated like Lazarus (notice the burial clothes are left aside in the empty tomb, whereas with Lazarus was raised by Jesus, he came out of the tomb wearing his burial cloths.); and, third, he is not a spiritual being translated directly to heaven. Jesus is raised bodily from the dead, and in this Gospel it is Mary Magdalene who will discover that for the first time.

We also learn that the followers of Jesus were surprised that he was raised from the dead. They did not expect it! Up until now, Jewish ideas of resurrection (which were not universally agreed upon, and in many ways not so different from popular ideas today) assumed at most a spiritual resurrection not a bodily one.

Because of the experience of these eyewitnesses, the early Christian concept of resurrection was completely different than the theories that came before it.

So it took Mary, not to mention Peter and the other disciples, a little while to wrap their arms around this experience. It was so different than what they expected. Once again, a word is worth a thousand pictures, when Jesus says to her gently“Mary!”

Now, she understands! Her friend and teacher is not dead—he is alive! His body is not stolen—he is right here! The grave is not desecrated—the grave and gate of death is burst open!

“Rabbi!” she says and she hugs him. Jesus tells her to go to the other disciples and tell them that he is going to his Father and our Father, his God and our God. The chasm between all of us and God is healed. The breach of sin has been closed. We are now God’s one, undivided family.

Seeing, and holding and talking to the Risen Jesus changes everything. Mary, this woman who was so tentative, and so weighed with grief, now goes to the disciples, bursts in on them and announces “I have seen the Lord!”

Say it with me: “I have seen the Lord!

Where have you seen the Lord?

Certainly in this community, gathered for worship, for ministry and service, for teaching and learning and in care for one another. Time and again, in beautiful worship, shared meals, quiet moments of prayer and companionship, in good times and in hard times, this gathered people have shown the risen Lord to each other and to the people outside these four walls. We say “we have seen the Lord” with every meal shared in the Soup Kitchen, when we welcome the addicted into our midst and when we open our church for music and fellowship. In all we do, we show more than a thousand pictures ever could that the Lord lives.

We have seen the Lord when we find that our gifts for service are raised up and used in great ways. We have seen the Lord when we are comforted in our grief, supported in our difficulties and transformed in our learning and growth. We have seen the Lord as our creativity is called out, and when we give our hearts to God in prayer.

We have seen the risen Lord in our sacramental shared communion, in our life of prayer together, in the ways we encounter scripture both in worship and in our devotions in places like Forward Day by Day. We encounter the risen Lord in our shared story and in the stories of the saints who themselves lived out their encounter with the Risen Jesus in their daily living.

“I have seen the Lord!” 

Mary’s meeting of the Risen Jesus in the empty tomb shows us that whatever happens in our life, there is the Risen Lord. Everything that separates us from God has died on the cross and is left in the grave. Whatever weighs us down is taken away. Whatever tries to smother hope, is removed forever. Whatever deals death in your life, no longer has power over you.

In so many great and little ways, at the moments of our deepest need, the wounded, crucified, and risen Jesus meets us exactly where we are, in exactly the way we need. And when we look past our tears and our grief and whatever weighs us down, there he is: Our friend; Our teacher; Our risen Lord and savior.

“I have seen the Lord!”

You see? Words are worth a thousand pictures!

Friday, January 20, 2017

Keep your eyes on the prize. Hold on.

Photo by Peter Sprigg
We have had a lot to contemplate this week. We began by remembering the life and work of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King. And, today, we witness the peaceful transition of power from one president to another. There is much to make a Christian ponder and pray.

Our culture at once thrives upon and avoids controversy. And what a season for it! What with one of the closest general elections in US history involving two of the most polarizing figures in recent memory, where the losing candidates won more votes than the winning candidate, who won more electoral votes than the other, no wonder that there is controversy!

While there is much to debate…policy approaches, legislation, history…the thing that really bothers me is that we, as a culture, have reached new lows in the coarseness of our debate. It does not seem possible for people who disagree to do so with any civility.
Blame it on the media, blame it on the internet, or whatever, but I am not sure that these mediums even with their unfailing ability to lump people together in like-minded groups while at the same walling people off from those who disagree, are entirely to blame.

In 1970, American cartoonist Walt Kelly, creator of the cartoon strip “Pogo,” drew a famous strip on the first Earth Day. Turning the famous civil war message by US Navy Commodore Perry on its ear, Kelly showed Pogo looking over their home, the Okeefenokee Swamp, covered with endless piles of trash. Seeing the pollution, the wise opossum said: “We have met the enemy – and he is us.”

The divisive and angry tone that passes for punditry these days is fueled by a market, and that market is fed by the relentless appetites of the viewers. The trash that Pogo looks over is no longer literal pollution, but the garbage of personal vitriol and the politics of personal destruction. That’s the “us.”

Just after the election, as I was in my neighborhood convenience store buying my daily iced tea, I saw a guy wearing a red hat choose to say something derogatory to another guy wearing a blue t-shirt. I thought at first they were two friends trash talking each other. But not for long! The confrontation became loud and verbally abusive. As they moved on, and all who witnessed the altercation looked away in embarrassed silence, I began to wonder if this is what we are coming to.

For the Christian, the key will be to stay focused. So much of the life in Christ is all about keeping our eye on the prize. Our sacramental worship, our life of prayer, our common life, our Bible study, keeps our focused on Jesus Christ. In responding to God’s love for us and in seeking to carry God’s love to others, we have to stay on track…on Jesus’ track.

Thinking ahead to the big march in Washington (and around the country) tomorrow, I have found myself singing and praying an old folk song, one that was popular during the Civil Rights Movement in the 1960’s, called “Eye on the Prize”
Paul and Silas, bound in jail
Had no money for to go their bail
Refrain: Keep your eye on the prize. Hold on.
Hold on. Hold on.
Keep your eye on the prize. Hold on.
Paul and Silas began to shout
Doors popped open, and all walked out. Refrain

Well, the only chains we can stand
Are the chains between hand and hand. Refrain

I love that song for a lot of reasons but in particular because it calls up important ideas from Scripture. The song is based on the story in Acts of the imprisonment of the Apostle Paul and his companion Silas in Acts 16:19-26. Keeping our “eye on the prize” recalls Philippians 3:17 "keep your eyes on those who live as we do" and Philippians 3:14, "I press on toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus." When we are called to “hold on” we are pointed to Jesus’ words in Luke 9:62: "No one who puts a hand to the plow and looks back is fit for service in the kingdom of God."

“Keep your eye on the prize. Hold on.”

The work of the Gospel does not depend on which candidate won and who lost. It is so easy to get tied up in or the other party or candidate or ideology as the key to solving all our problems. They may useful tools, a good place to start the conversation, and they can even be useful to conceptualize what’s in front of us. But the work of the Gospel goes on no matter who is legislature, the courts, and the executive.

Today's Inauguration Day featured preachers and religious leaders who reflect the new President's own style of faith and beliefs. So it is not surprising that we will see conservatives (theological and political), with a particular understanding of America’s role in the world. What will be new is that four of the six featured preachers and prayer leaders represent a peculiar blend of evangelical faith and prosperity preaching. You will hear that God blesses America in particularly millennialist fashion…that we are both the agents of God’s judgement and subject to it in a very basic way. When things right, God is happy with us. When they don’t, it’s God telling us something. This “gospel” tells us that blessings mainly show themselves in material wealth for the person, strong military power, and a government dominated by the wealthy.

It will be a very a different gospel preached than the one proclaimed in the last two inaugurals, which had a very different idea of our civil religion. Then we heard a call to service to the poor and the outcast; today, we we will hear about America’s power and economic blessedness,  ground in a particular idea traditional moral values.

The Psalmist warns us not to get too tied up in earthly governance (Yes, even as other Psalms put all their eggs in the Davidic kingly basket…!). Psalm 33:16-19 says:
A king is not saved by his great army; a warrior is not delivered by his great strength.
The war horse is a vain hope for victory, and by its great might it cannot save.
Truly the eye of the Lord is on those who fear him, on those who hope in his steadfast love,
to deliver their soul from death, and to keep them alive in famine.
The reminder is that we must not confuse earthly power, as awesome as it might be, with the might of the Gospel. The work of the Gospel goes on no matter who won the election. We feed the hungry…no matter who is in office. We shelter the homeless…no matter who takes the oath. We stand up for and welcome the outcast…no matter what party is in power. We care for the sick and comfort those who mourn...regardless of the occupant of any office.
What will matter is how well we proclaimed out loud the love of God in Christ, as well as Jesus’ teachings. It matters greatly how we have received the hungry, the naked, the jailed and the outcast. (Matthew 25:31-41). We have never needed any government’s “permission” to do this. Ever.

There were people in Hebrew Scriptures, the New Testament, and the early church…right up to our own day…who thought that the faithful must have one of their own in the seat of government. Certainly, our own Anglican tradition grows out of the union of Church and State in Britain, but we Episcopalians learned early in our nation’s history that even a church like ours is, in a secular world, essentially an outsider.

Yes, we will pray for the President and all who bear the authority of government at every level, and by name! Everyone needs prayer, and in particular those in authority! And in every generation there have been Christians praying for a government and an office-holder they disagreed with. And in every generation there have been Christians who have dared, sometimes at great risk, to stand up to secular leaders who abuse or misdirect their power. The book of saints are filled with names of people who stood for the Gospel in the face of the power of the state.

Just as many of us worked for just and humane immigration policy even as our President (who received the votes of most of those same activists) deported more people than any President in history; just as we worked for marriage equality and the full inclusion of GLBT persons in our common civic and religious life, even as that same President dithered, we have to continue to work and fight hard for the racial, social and economic justice that we believe the Gospel of Jesus Christ calls us to.

In our congregations, there are people whose candidate won the election and who are feeling elated (congratulations!). There are those whose candidate lost, and who feel disappointment (condolences!). And there are those in-between (prayers!). To all of us, I say, that, while it may be convenient when the person(s) in government has values or policy that agree with us, that’s all it is: convenient.

The work of the Gospel is necessarily independent of those in power. The work of the Gospel, like the voice of prayer, is never silent. And so, we keep our eye on the prize. Hold on.

Tuesday, November 01, 2016

How to Survive This Election as a Christian

Last July…yes, July!...satirist Andy Borowicz declared that “the bar officially cannot be lowered.” 

He wrote in the New Yorker:

A group of scholars who have been monitoring the descent of the bar over the past few decades have concluded that the bar can no longer be lowered, the scholars announced on Friday.

The academics, led by Professor Davis Logsdon, of the University of Minnesota, published their conclusion after their research definitively found that the bar had finally dropped to its lowest possible position.

“For those who thought the bar still had room to be lowered, our findings resoundingly contradict that assumption,” Logsdon said. “The bar is now essentially flush with the ground.”

Since July, I am thinking that they must now be digging a ditch because the bar keeps descending to lower and lower depths!

2016 is, without a doubt, the strangest election season I have ever experienced. And it has tested my faith. Not just my faith in democracy or my faith in civic discourse, it has tested my faith as a Christian.

And I know I am not alone. As I talk to people around the parish, around my City of Easton, and even (on-line) from around the country, this whole season has been one massive test of faith. 

How can an everyday Christian survive this election season?

Brooke Perry, a seminarian at Western Seminary in Portland, Oregon points out that there are at least two things eating at the soul of our civic discourse, regardless of one’s political persuasion or affiliation: fear and opinions.

A narrative of fear has consumed this election season. Whether it’s rhetoric on the campaign trail or what we hear in the media, a narrative of fear has crept into our daily lives.
The election. 
Those two simple words drum up a great deal of anxiety, fear and opinions. And this isn’t wrong. But I am tired of reading a lot of things from a lot of people—a lot of Christians in particular—who are speaking out, but from a distance. It seems to me that much of what we do behind a keyboard is driven by fear.

One aspect of this is that we have lost the ability to talk to each other about our common civic life. We have forgotten that “politics” is not simply about whose party, which candidate, wins the horse race. The real work is how we as a society get done the things that need doing, and how we as a society are going to order the priorities of our common life.

In that context, disagreement, even debate, should be expected. But when the goal becomes “my side wins at all costs” and even worse, our argument should utterly destroy the opposition, not a lot is going to get done. And if we can’t disagree with civility, then we cannot compromise, and if we can’t compromise then we are frozen, and all we have left is our frustration and anger.

Christian witness in this atmosphere does not arise from mimicking or blindly aligning with the culture’s values. The Apostle Paul reminded the Christians in Rome that not being conformed to the world means allowing God’s Holy Spirit to transform our minds (Romans 12:2).

Jesus, who could at times be very hard on the ‘powers-that-be,’ based his ethic on love and said over and over again that God’s reign, God’s kingdom, is present and real right now! But it is we citizens of Christ’s kingdom through faith and baptism who both bring it about and represent Christ to the world. So how respond to this political season is very important.   
The first we can do in response to this crazy election season to the Kingdom to fruition is remain calm even when the air is filled with fear-fueled and cruel words. And to do that, we must pause.

Perry writes:

When you’re angry, pause.
When you’re scared, pause.
When you’re tempted to join the angry mobs of people who don’t quite know what to do with all of their valid emotions, pause.
Pause. Pray. Give yourself a little bit of space to invite the Holy Spirit into these very valid concerns that an election like this one will bring up in our hearts, and see what God would have us do….

Taking her thoughts a step further, when you are tempted to blast someone in person, or by e-mail, or on social media…pause.  When you are tempted to react to a wild story or rumor about a candidate by repeating it, re-posting it, or stewing about it…pause. I have found in these moments that is my friend, not to mention sites like, to put the wilder stories and images in perspective.

When you are tempted to think that only one candidate is the “Christian candidate” and begin to think of Christianity as simply another interest group that lobbies, buys votes, and must be defended, then stop. Pause. Recall that Jesus reminded his followers that his kingdom was not the same as the human polis that we inhabit.

Archbishop Desmond Tutu and the Dalai Lama are, regardless of the different religions, the best of friends. Both have experienced actual political oppression, violence and exile. Together they have written a book called The Book of Joy and they havegood advice to us as we spiritually navigate the end of this very difficult political season.

Tutu says that “fear, anger, hatred exist in our own minds and hearts as well, it’s not just ‘out there.’ If we realize that, we can have compassion for what’s underneath the vitriol.’’ Tutu counsels us to cope with unpleasantness like dishwashers, not vacuum cleaners — take dirt and wash it off, don’t suck it up and retain it.

I have been helped by turning to the Ignatian Exercises to help guide me through this season of turmoil and vitriol.

First, realize that elections are important and that we have both a civic and Christian responsibility to take part. Politics is not win-lose, zero-sum game. It is an on-going process.
We must also remember that even if “our” candidate wins, they are not the Messiah. No human leader will ever solve all our problems, and they certainly can’t give us inner peace.

Having said that, here is the pattern I recommend:

Pray -> Listen -> Pray -> Discern -> Pray -> Act (i.e. Vote) -> Pray
[Rinse, Repeat]

Listen to not only what the candidates are saying and doing, but what is going on in our hearts and minds and what is going around us.

Discern what God’s values are. Discernment means listening with our heart, our ears, and our mind. It means listening with God’s heart as well. How are Scriptural values of justice, care for the poor and outcast, and respect for the dignity of all God’s people reflected in the candidate I am voting for?

Act on what we are called to. We live in faith that our choice is the faithful choice, while remembering that we are not God. We act as faithfully as we can to live out Christ’s love in the world. And we know that no matter who wins or loses, God is still in charge of creation and Christ is still establishing God’s kingdom.

Pray. Before, during, and after each step, pray. Give our hearts, minds, and senses to God. Make your decision a faithful offering to God in the same civic sphere in which Jesus walked, taught, and healed, and for which he died and rose again.

Finally, love. You may be surprised to discover this, but there are brothers and sisters in Christ who might actually disagree with you. Sometimes occasionally. Sometimes a lot. Our relationships are not defined merely by our politics, but by our common membership in Christ. That sister and brother in Christ who votes differently than you is first and foremost, a forgiven sinner and child of God, just like you.

Jesus calls us to love the world, the sick, the wounded, the outcast, the lost, and the least. That neither begins nor ends at the ballot box. It begins at the foot of the cross, gathers us around the font and the Eucharistic table, and sends us into the world in love.

Friday, October 28, 2016

Jack Chick's mangled witness

Word has come that Jack Chick has died. Maybe you have heard of him, or perhaps read one of his tracts?

From 1964 on, Chick Publications produced little comic style tracts designed to lead a person to Christ in a fire-and-brimstone style. The tightly written and illustrated little vignettes portray a fundamentalist Gospel so stark that even Christianity Today and the Christian Booksellers Association shied away from them as being too harsh and over-simplified.
I first encountered these booklets when I was a teenager in the 1970's. Generally speaking, I found them to be a kind of theological car wreck. Too gruesome to watch, but strangely irresistible. 
They followed me around. Many hours of hospital ministry was spent scooping these (and other) tracts designed to scare the infirm and their loved ones into heaven. I used to keep a bulletin board in my office for such material under the banner "For THIS we had a Reformation?!?"

Every now and then, I will find them left around our parish's soup kitchen, or some kind soul will include them in an unsigned letter designed to correct the theological errors of my preaching or writing. 
My colleague on the Episcopal Cafe, Jon White wrote:
Chick was known for his Chick Tracts; controversial comics rooted in his own fundamentalist Protestant worldview.  His tracts were notoriously anti-Catholic and also attacked Freemasons, Muslims, Jews, and  other groups whose views he deemed contrary to his own evangelical brand of faith.
Chick fell for every religious conspiracy possible; rarely ever relying on actual history or fact...
Los Angeles Magazine reprised a 2003 profile on the news of Mr. Chick's death.
Chick’s most popular book, This Was Your Life!, was published in 1964. At 21 pages, it is a masterpiece of shorthand horror. By the second panel, the Scotch-swilling, ’Vette-driving protagonist has dropped dead of a heart attack. “Review his life!” the Lord commands, and an angel produces a massive CinemaScope screen in the night sky. The man watches scenes from his wasted life, in which he tells filthy stories, leers at blonds (“ummm nice!” he says to himself), and thinks about a ball game in the middle of church.This Was Your Life! created a template—sin, damnation, the possibility of redemption—for scores of future tracts.
The artist’s formula and drawing style have changed little in five decades. When an archivist at the Pasadena Playhouse began rooting through old boxes in the late ’90s, she discovered drawings that he had done in 1948. The single-panel cartoons revealed the same perspiring characters, pop-eyed faces, and 1940s Sunday-comics sensibilities of his current tracts. “He’s not worried about impressing other cartoonists, which is kind of what motivates a lot of cartoonists to pick up their chops a little bit,” says Clowes. “There’s something really interesting about seeing a cartoonist not develop at all.” Art Spiegelman, who won a Pulitzer Prize for Maus, a graphic novel about the Holocaust, is less kind. “It makes me despair about America,” says Spiegelman, “that there are so many people who read these things.”
Chick’s choice of medium was not that odd—for the 17th and 18th centuries. He comes from a grand tradition of pamphleteers, writers like Daniel Defoe, Jonathan Swift, and Thomas Paine, who exploited the new technology of movable type to reach the masses in previously unimaginable numbers. Starting in the 1640s, pamphlets about everything from religious reform and phrenology to the injustice of the Stamp Act were everywhere, their authors at the forefront of the world’s first true media boom. In many ways the pamphlets of that era functioned much like today’s Weblogs. Chick, however, has done bloggers one better, finding ways to get his message to places still untouched by the Internet. Missionaries regularly take his tracts into the world’s most isolated regions—and pay Chick for the privilege, at about 14 cents a tract.
Chick's work angered many people, as the comments downstream in The Episcopal Cafe piece illustrates. The Progressive Secular Humanist blog at Patheos was typically unsparing in its criticism of his work, saying: "The comics promoted an extreme conservative Christian message filled with hatred and justified with ignorance."

Anecdotally, at least, I know of as many people driven away from faith in Christ because of these booklets as those drawn towards Him, maybe more. At the very least, it portrays a theology and approach to evangelism as subtle as a sledge hammer breaking up concrete and about as compassionate. 
Christianity Today wrote:
Among comic artists, Chick rose to a level of fascination as one of the bestselling underground publishers in the world. Early news of his death on the site Boing Boing launched Chick’s name as a national trending topic on Twitter on Monday afternoon.
In the late 1990s, a media watchdog site described the secular fascination with Chick: “To some, Chick tracts are American folk art, or even a form of religious pornography, titillating and somewhat dangerous. Chick is the ultimate underground artist: single-minded and self-published, passionately committed to his message without regard for external social forces.”
Chick’s 150-plus tracts center around distinguishing the “saved” from the “lost,” the latter represented by various culture war targets over the years. 
The temptation to schadenfreude is almost irresistible. A lot of people have imagined that Chick has gone straight to hell without passing "Go." These imaginings have been often as cruel as they claimed his tracts were, masking the cruelty as cheap jokes. Like this one:

Over the years, a few Christians have attempted to take on Chick's theology and his narrow view of salvation. Given that the only English Bible he accepted was the King James and his view of the church excluded virtually all other Christian traditions but his how, this could only get one so far. 
It seems to me that maybe the best refutation might come in the form of a little comic book in the style of, well, a Chick Tract. Here is the musing I came up with for a comment I wrote in response to the story on The Episcopal Cafe (full disclosure: I am a member of the Cafe news team):
Personally, and perhaps in response to my own sense of schadenfreude, this is what I imagine might have happened to Jack Chick after his death:
Mr. Chick arrives in heaven and while walking around spots a little booklet on a table and picks it up. Simply drawn and simply written, he is drawn into the story and begins to read.
Titled “Surprise!” the little booklet tells the story of a very religious and zealous man named Jack who, after a lifetime of popularizing a fundamentalist vision of the Gospel, dies and is confronted by God.
In the booklet, we see Jack looking around a wondrous place filled with light. As he enters, he finds the place filled with Catholics who ate “Death Cookies” (along with Orthodox and Coptic Christians, who all look the same anyway), gay couples holding hands, Muslims, Jews, kids who bailed on Sunday school to play Dungeons and Dragons, and even run of the mill agnostics. He looks over and sees Mother Theresa and Ghandi chatting while elsewhere the Pope and Charles Darwin are taking a walk, admiring the view. 
Jack is startled and confused, and asks a passing angel if this is really heaven.Without a word, the angel accompanies Jack to God’s throne where he will receive final judgment.
In the next frame, we see a magnificent but faceless person sitting on the throne drenched in blinding life. The One on the throne begins to describe to Jack that Christ died once for all while we all sinners (Romans 5:6-8) and all along it was God’s will that all God’s sheep would come to the shepherd (John 10:16), even the ones who do not know God’s voice. God tells him that there is no law against a holy life but there are clear signs of holy living for all to see (Galatians 5:22-26). Jack will learn that God desires mercy not sacrifice (Matthew 12:7), love over judgment (Luke 6:37) and wants us do justice and walk with God (Micah 6:8). Finally, in a thunderous voice, God tells Jack that he will be judged according to how he met Christ in the hungry, the naked, the outcast, and the imprisoned (Matthew 25:31-46).
As Jack falls to his knees, shocked at what he has learned, tormented by his failure to heed God’s word, and fearful that he might be cast into eternal torment, he looks up to find Jesus helping him to his feet and welcoming him into a Kingdom more glorious…and more populated…than Jack ever imagined.
In my imagination, I see Mr. Chick finishing the booklet, and looking around, as if for the first time, comprehending the love that drew him in the first place.
At least, that is my prayer.
For those who think that I am being too easy on a person who spewed such hatred and who so badly misrepresented the Gospel to so many, all I can say is that I am mindful of the various ways that I have mangled my own witness in my lifetime. The fact that Chick's reach has outstripped my own doesn't absolve me of the call to humility in the face of the call to serve at once as an messenger of the Good News and as an ambassador of reconciliation.