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 living...in 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 www.snopes.com is my friend, not to mention sites like www.polticfact.com, 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. 

Tuesday, September 20, 2016

On not being a robot

Lord, be thy word my rule;
in it may I rejoice;
thy glory be my aim,
thy holy will my choice;
thy promises my hope;
thy providence my guard;
thine arm my strong support;
thyself my great reward.
Christopher Wordsworth, 1807-1885
Hymn 626 in Hymnal, 1082
A few weeks ago, I was riding my bike and, on leaving the excellent bike trails around Easton, had to navigate for a time on the city streets. The driver of a one car did not see me riding lawfully with traffic along the right side of the road, with parked cars on my right and traffic on my left. This is, perhaps, the most dangerous kind of bike riding because if a door suddenly opens or a parked car turns out, it is trouble for the bicyclist. Anyway, the car did not give me the required four feet of space that Pennsylvania law requires and I had to dive for the curb to avoid getting smooshed.

As the car went by, I noticed that the driver must have seen me and reacted too late, because it swerved about a car-length after it passed me. Then I noticed that the car was festooned with cameras. It was a car from a certain ubiquitous web-search and software company driving around mapping the city. As I got back on my bike, I wondered if it was an automated car. I know that they are in Pittsburgh now, and these things are in the news. But I wondered, if this vehicle had been driven by computer would it have noticed the bicyclist it nearly creamed or if it was only a human that missed me.

I chuckled at the idea that if a computer car had smooshed me, at least it would have been following the rules!

Thinking about the coming technology of self-driving cars started me thinking about obedience; because when you train a computer to drive a car, you have to train it to obey traffic laws and the rules of the road. That would be easy. The hard part is training it to be attentive to the world around it. And sometimes it won't know what to pay attention to. Bicycles, squirrels, pedestrians, other drivers, the weather, and the time of day all have this way of randomly tossing us the unexpected.

I remember teaching my kids how to drive. They were so concerned about the pedestrians and squirrels, it was hard to get them to remember that that red sign meant stop, after which one much ‘go’ again!

But computers are backwards from people because they have to be taught every single thing that might possibly happen before you set them loose. The problem is that while we need to know the rules of the road, blind obedience to those rules can wreck your car or worse! They don’t call it artificial intelligence for nothing!

The life of faith does not lend itself to artificial intelligence. But we, like an automated car, have to learn to navigate both old and new roads in new ways. When we decide to become intentional about our Christian living, sooner or later we have to learn how to be obedient without causing wrecks. In the Rule of St. Benedict, obedience is not merely blind adherence to a set of rules. Instead our rule of life informs our living and our life of faith.

But when we think of the Ten Commandments or the Sacramental life or the Book of Common Prayer or the Rule of St. Benedict as nothing more than a series of religious traffic laws that tell us how to act, when to stand, who to hang around with, and so on, we make it impossible to deal with the unexpected. And know it or not, we start making silly procedural regulations that keep us in the letter of the law instead of keeping us attentive to where we are.

If we are not careful, we might feel as if we earned God’s wrath, or at least disapproval when these rules get broken. And this wears us down spiritually. It reinforces the idea that we are “not up to the task,” and that the task itself is beyond our reach. In our spiritual journey, it causes us to smoosh pedestrians and swerve too late.

One solution might be to get rid of the rules altogether. It is common these days for people to decide that since, in their view, all religion is regulation, that it is best to junk it altogether. They assume the posture of “spiritual but not religious.” That is, they seek the benefits of spiritual living—attentiveness, inner peace, creativity, compassion, and so on---without any of the regulation or dry dogma that they associate with religion.

Folks who make this choice often cite Jesus himself in telling me why they participate less and less in whatever church they are running away from.

But imagine our roads if there were no rules at all. Some say that we may as well be that way. When I was a kid in New England, my dad used to say that the dream of total global disarmament was impossible as long as Bostonians were allowed to keep their cars. But even there, as strange as it seems, there are unwritten practices that help people navigate the roads.

In other words, people come up with rules and ritual even if no one writes them down. In our culture we assume that every one of us has within themselves the resources to lead a full, happy life without any appeal to outside help. We think that we can Google our way to a deeper life, picking and choosing what appeals to us. The problem is that this cuts us off from the wisdom of people who have gone before us, so we don’t discover the lessons of the pitfalls and strengths of the rich traditions of the Church.

So without a rule of life…without obedience…we are all over the road when it comes to our spiritual living.

Another challenge for the person who chooses “spirituality without religion” has to do with accountability and transformation. One question I sometimes raise with folks who talk to me about their preference for a spirituality without religion is whether their approach has an impact on their ethical decision-making, their sense of justice, and their accountability to someone beyond themselves.

In other words, does your spirituality change you? Does it make you a better, more ethical person? Does is make you attentive to the people and world around you while, at the same time, it makes you more mature and capable? In short, besides blessing your existing habits and preferences, does your spiritual life give you a firm framework for your living?

In the rule of St. Benedict, the element of obedience balances and holds in tension the equal elements of “amendment of life” and “stability.” In other words, it helps stay put where we need to stay put; and it helps us to change what we need to change.

Everyone has something in them that they want or need to change. It might be an addiction, a habit, a tendency to repeat the same mistakes, a personal quality that gets in our own way, an unhealthy way of relating to others that needs to change, but we all have something. The leg of The Rule called “Amendment of Life” addresses our life long call to orient our life towards Christ, and that means change.

And everyone needs to be grounded. We need to not flit from new thing to new thing, or to be a chasing after the next spiritual fashionista. This is addressed in the part of The Rule dealing with “Stability,” which calls us to stay put.

What keeps from either becoming stuck, on the one hand, or from bouncing from thing to thing, on the other, is the third aspect of The Rule, “obedience.”

But obedient to what?

If you are an Episcopalian, then what we are obedient to is the structure and forms we have chosen to live apart of. In others words, the Book of Common Prayer: weekly Eucharist (at least), daily prayer both as a community and by ourselves, and the sacramental life starting with Baptism. It means we read a part of the Bible daily. It means that when are sick we call for a priest and ask for the sacrament of the sick. When we get married, or celebrate hallmarks of our lives, and when we die, these are all acts that happen in Christian community.

Obedience in our context means that we understand all of us…laity and clergy…to represent Christ in the world.

The Prayer Book teaches us that the main representative of Jesus to the world is the baptized person and that ordained orders exist to train, support, equip, and support the baptized as they live out their Christian vocation in their daily living.

Obedience teaches us to follow Christ. We may find the pattern of daily office, stopping to re-call the Saints of the Church, weekly Sunday Eucharist, regular giving of our means to care for the poor and to support the Church, to be strenuous, even at times out of reach, but in doing it we find that we learn something of the even bigger need to follow and obey Christ.


The idea of being almost run over by a robot-car reminded me that obedience is much more than following the rules. It is also about paying attention to the world around me, and applying those rules as safely, and as ethically as I can manage…it requires creativity and the occasional judgement call. I thank God that we are not robots merely programmed to go from place to place, but are growing people who seek change grounded in Jesus balanced by obedience.