Friday, March 21, 2008

A Funny Kind of Christian

The following essay was sent to me by my friend and former colleague, The Rev. Dr. Lydia Agnew Speller, who is a priest in St. Louis in the Diocese of Missouri (and former priest of the Diocese of Bethlehem). It is by Giles Fraser listed as the Vicar of Putney (in the UK). This article appeared in the Guardian on Saturday March 22 2008 on p41 of the Comment & debate section.

I post this on Good Friday and think it has everything to do with the meaning and gravity of this day.

Somewhere in the Middle East, Jesus Christ is strapped to a bench, his head wrapped in clingfilm. He furiously sucks against the plastic. A hole is pierced, but only so that a filthy rag can be stuffed back into his mouth. He is turned upside down and water slowly poured into the rag. The torturer whispers religious abuse. If you are God, save yourself you fucking idiot. Fighting to pull in oxygen through the increasingly saturated rag, his lungs start to fill up with water. Someone punches him in the stomach.

Perhaps this is how we ought to be re-telling the story of Christ's passion. For ever since the cross became a piece of jewellery, it has been drained of its power to sicken. Even before this the Romans had taken their hated instrument of torture and turned it into the logo of a new religion. Few makeovers can have been so historically significant. The very secular cross was transformed into a sort of club badge for Christians, something to be proud of.

Two weeks ago, the most powerful Christian in the world vetoed a bill that would have made it illegal for the CIA to use water boarding on detainees. "We need to ensure our intelligence officials have all the tools they need to stop the terrorists," said George Bush in a passable impersonation of Pontius Pilate. "This is no time for Congress to abandon practices that have a proven track record of keeping America safe."

Throughout his time in office, the president has frequently been photographed in front of the cross. Yet as his support for torture demonstrates, he has understood little of its meaning. For the story of the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus is supremely a moral story about God's identification with victims.

The French anthropologist René Girard is the modern voice that has done most to explain the nature of this moral change. Human societies, he argues, are often held together by scapegoating. From the playground to the boardroom, we pick on the weak, the weird or the different as a way of securing communal solidarity. At times of tension or division, there is nothing quite as uniting as the "discovery" of someone to blame - often someone perfectly innocent. For generations of Europeans, the Jews were cast in the role; in the same way women have been accused of being witches, homosexuals derided as unnatural, and Muslims dismissed as terrorists.

The crucifixion turns this world on its head. For it is the story of a God who deliberately takes the place of the despised and rejected so as to expose the moral degeneracy of a society that purchases its own togetherness at the cost of innocent suffering. The new society he called forth - something he dubbed the kingdom of God - was to be a society without scapegoating, without the blood of the victim. The task of all Christians is to further this kingdom, "on earth as it is in heaven".

Yet, for all his years in office, it is hard to think that President Bush has done anything much to make this kingdom more of a reality. Instead he has given us rendition, so-called specialised interrogation procedures, and the blood of many thousand innocent Iraqis. Given all this, what can it possibly mean for George Bush to call himself a Christian?

Easter is not all about going to heaven. Still less some nasty evangelical death cult where a blood sacrifice must be paid to appease an angry God. The crucifixion reveals human death-dealing at its worst. In contrast, the resurrection offers a new start, the foundation of a very different sort of community that refuses the logic of scapegoating. The kingdom is a place of shocking, almost amoral, inclusion. All are welcome, especially the rejected. At least, that's the theory. Unfortunately, very few of us Christians are any good at it.
"We repent of the evil that enslaves us, the evil we have done, and the evil done on our behalf"
---From the Confession found in Enriching Our Worship I page 56
copyright 1998 by The Church Pension Fund

Thursday, March 20, 2008

The Sea of Vagueness

A recent editorial on the recent Pew survey of religious life and behavior in the U.S. religious landscape said the following provocative things:

Recently, the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life released the first set of findings from its massive U.S. Religious Landscape Survey 2008. As I studied the report and tracked its initial coverage in the mainstream media, I took special note of the provocative phrases employed to catch the public’s attention: “many Americans switch faith identity,” “faith identity fluctuates,” “constant membership turnover,” “a quantum leap in the rate of change,” “Churn. Churn. Churn.

For those who read beyond the headlines and initial paragraphs of these news stories there was important information. Based on a sample of more than 30,000 adults and done with a methodological rigor that will make this survey a benchmark for future attempts to map the religious life of Americans, the Landscape Survey offered much to ponder. First, America remains stunningly Christian, at least in terms of religious self-identification. Of those polled, 78.4 percent identified themselves that way. After more than a century of modernity, secularism, higher education, enlightenment, and new religions, the vast majority still see themselves as in some way Christian.


What do all these statistics mean for those who lead American congregations? Interestingly, the survey does not focus on congregations at all. Yet the local churches, synagogues, and temples of the land are the places where all this switching, fluidity, and vagueness manifest themselves week after week. In every worship service, board meeting, Sunday school class, social event, and rite of passage, all the churn that the Landscape Survey points to “out there” in the national environment is going on “in here”—in the lives of individual members and the small faith communities they belong to. Once upon a time religious leaders represented very distinct religious communities that were clearly differentiated from the ones down the street or across town. Now our leaders work in a sea of religious vagueness and search for ways to help people surrounded by a growing tide of “nothing in particular” find something in particular to build a life upon. Stay tuned.

James P. Wind “Crunching the Numbers” Alban Institute

Churn. That was the evocative word for me as a pastor and priest. Churn. By that I understand him to mean that the individual American who participates in a faith community by-in-large approaches religious institutions as basically a consumer enterprise. Like cell phone service, Internet provider or cable company, Americans appear to gravitate to the faith community that meets their need at the time. Some will form a bond and identity with that congregation, others won’t. No longer is there a cultural expectation that people will have some denominational affiliation which is internalized to the point of being part of their identity, but religion appears to function much more on surface level of “What serves me and my family most?”

Sometimes this churn manifests itself in changing churches because of some conflict with the leadership (lay or ordained), sometimes it’s a program (like programs for children and youth), and sometimes it’s a geographical consideration (a move across town), and sometimes its none of the above, but convenience of location and worship time.

Maybe I’m wrong, but I always feel sad, somewhat sold down the river and bemused at parishioners when they change Churches. Perhaps for me in my early life as a pastor, I assumed I was about building community, people to people connections that would transcend program or pastor. I had the mistaken impression that people joined the Episcopal Church for the same reasons I did---liturgy, polity and comprehensiveness. But that doesn’t appear to be the case for generations behind me.

Another compelling sentence was his conclusion in the above article:

Now our leaders work in a sea of religious vagueness and search for ways to help people surrounded by a growing tide of “nothing in particular” find something in particular to build a life upon. Stay tuned.

To preach into that vacuum on a weekly basis is a challenge. The “sea of vagueness” is daunting. Perhaps that vagueness has to do with Protestantism’s fear of taking stands, of its love affair with accommodation. We have made a good peace with war, state execution, economic promiscuity (Walter Bruggeman’s term which I love), sexism, racism and (for the most part) homophobia just to mention a few. When a preacher approaches these subjects directly in sermons, there are always comments at the door about “being too political” or “I come here for spiritual nurture, not politics”. Indeed the highest ethic one can perceive is “don’t upset anyone” and the hidden message is “or we will lose their pledge”.

Here in Holy Week when do we ask the questions that go beyond “Jesus loves you”? What does embracing Jesus as my savior have to do with my life in the world? What distinguishes me ethically from my non-practicing neighbor? Perhaps the vagueness has been conditioned by financial needs of the institution which is the epitome of the church selling out its most precious commodity---faith in a God who shows us that the way to peace and salvation is through the cross. Do we actually preach with power and authority that its not about winning, domination, individual salvation, but transformation of the world in incarnational ways.. How does one get to transformation if one is always trying to blend into this “sea of vagueness”? It seems to me a good question to take into Holy Week.

Friday, March 14, 2008

It's (one of) the Most Wonderful Time of the Year!

It’s the most wonderful time of the year for those of us who watch college basketball with relish and delight. The “Big Dance” , which means the NCAA championship series, is the time of year when basketball games on streaming video are in task bars in office cubicles all over the world. My friend who works for Boeing admitted that she had a score ticker on during a meeting yesterday during the WVU-Connecticut game at Madison Square Garden. The Big East championship is going on now. But Sunday the big bracket bingo will begin. Sports radio and TV are abuzz with “who will be in and out of the Big Dance?”

Who’s in or out is fun, but the game is what’s great. Big schools can lose to small schools. Major conferences can lose to “mid-majors”. Top seeds can lose to bottom seeds. Hero’s emerge who stayed in the shadows all season long when single elimination is on the line. It’s a most delicious banquet for those who love college sports. “My” team, the West Virginia University Mountaineers, most likely sealed up their bid and lowered their seed number (lower is better in bracketology) yesterday. Their OK season has given rise to great hope on the shoulders of Joe Alexander.

As a gay man I get accused of not being truly gay by my friends. Last night I had my usual Thursday night drinks and dinner with friends at my favorite gay establishment in Allentown, The Stonewall. I actually got control of the T.V. remote and was able to watch the Pittsburgh-Louisville game (sound off of course) while vintage disco music blared in the background.

My bemused friends just sat and talked to each other---undoubtedly debating whether my “gay card” should be suspended---but I was in heaven. Finally, one of my friends, Russell, looked at the screen and looking at one of the Louisville players exclaimed “He’s hot!”. After that the rest of my “posse” started watching this game with nothing more than the young athletic male bodies thrashing against each other as their interest. It wasn’t exactly a conversion to the sport of the game I would hope for, but it was a start.

Happy bracketing to all. May your brackets be true and your watching sublime!

Wednesday, March 05, 2008

Take A Bishop Like Him....

On Sundays and feast days, he became a giant in resplendent brocades lifting his arms as he preached. Or on Easter as a child, I am bedecked in my new finery, and there he is, dressed in white, accompanied by vested acolytes, sweeping along the dusty street on his way to the church; I get not a kiss but a blessing--his hand raised, fingers poised and moving through the air in the shape of a cross. At my father's first parish, the church was right next door; going to church was not a duty but a chance to be with the deepest part of him, to be inside his imagination. In the darkness at the altar rail, I would hold the wafer in my mouth, allowing it to become wet with the wine that burned down my throat. Take, eat, this is my body, my father would say. Just as I came to understand his splendid vestments were not ordinary clothes, I learned that during the Eucharist, the bread and wine were shot through with something otherworldly, something alive that vibrated and trembled, and when I watched my father, enormously tall, the color of his vestments blurry through all the incense in all the candlelight, it seemed to me he brought all this about, up there at the altar, enswirled in the fragrant smoke, the organ thundering, his voice carried by the King James language. It therefore made sense that when he sang Gregorian chant his voice would break and falter. He was being transported by what he called "the presence of God," a force much more powerful than his physical body. What happened to him seemed also to happen in me, behind my eyes, on the surface of my skin, and when it happened, I didn't think of how my mother looked with a baby on her hip, how my younger brothers and sisters screamed, or how awkward I felt at school. Instead, everything became comprehensible--simple, safe, and beautiful.

From the Prologue of "The Bishop's Daughter" by Honor Moore

I can't wait to read this book when it published. Not because of the apparent scandal it is supposed to bring to light, but because Honor Moore writes so eloquently for the secular media about things like the Eucharist, Easter, the mystery of Episcopal worship that draws us in and keeps us coming back.

No doubt Paul Moore (who's stature alone was formidable) had clay feet. So what? What is maybe most compelling about the promise of this book is that we will get to see a human being in all his brokenness and in all his magnificence. The Church is awash in "Tsk Tsk's" about his apparent affair with a young man with whom he had a pastoral relationship and I do not want to seem like I condone that, but I also know that good human beings do bad things sometimes---one only need crack the pages of scripture to see Moses' murderous act, David's infidelity, and Peter's denial. Redeemed humans do bad things for which we mourn, but it should not eclipse the good and shining moments where they transformed their world with redemption.

Paul Moore was/is a hero for me. His untiring placing himself on the line for justice and peace, his work to alleviate poverty and injustice, his votes for progressive policies in the House of Bishop's, his courageous ordination of Ellen Barrett (the first openly gay person ordained amid widespread publicity), starting the Urban Bishop's Coalition which gave birth to the Urban Caucus, and others too numerous to count. Paul Moore above all else did the work Jesus called us to do. Even through his woundedness the Light could shine through the cracks and gaps.

As a parent, a clergy person and a gay man I will want to read this book and give a copy to my daughter who undoubtedly has her own story to tell of her parent's brokenness and their transformative work. I am in line line already to read the whole story.

Tuesday, March 04, 2008

Olivia's Blog

Here is my daugther's Blog (which I think is pretty cool) but I can't figure out how to get it to the "Links" column to your right!

Hello Dolly

Night before last I received an E-mail from Steve which said that tickets to His Holiness the 14th Dalai Lama’s visit to the Lehigh Valley went on sale the next day and he would treat me if I would get the tickets. Since Steve would be on a commuter bus into Manhattan at that hour he needed me to do the dirty work of ticket procurement. Startled that the Dalai Lama would actually be in our area I went to his web site---yes even the Dalai Lama has a web site (I wonder if he is on My Space too?). There’s something not right about a “Dalai Lama.Com” isn’t there? I said I would and went to sleep.

Well yesterday we had a 9:30am appointment at the Second Harvest Food Bank to get food for the After School program I direct in center city Allentown but the tickets didn’t go on sale by (and get this) Ticketmaster until 10:00am. Ticketmaster is where you get your tickets for Mettalica, Rolling Stones, the Phillies, and so on---AND the Dalai Lama! So I figured I’d pick up our food order, get back to The Church of the Mediator, unload them and I would be at St. Andrew’s by 10:30am and I would go online and get tickets—no sweat right?

I got all my early morning chores done, got to the office, plugged in my lap top and was at the Ticketmaster web page in no time flat—it was about 10 minutes of 11 when I got to this. The Ticketmaster web page wouldn’t sell me the tickets. So I called Stabler Arena which told me that I could call three different Ticketmaster numbers for Arena Events. They also said that there was a ticket outlet in a Department Store at a Mall near St. Andrew’s. I figured that the Ticketmaster web page had a glitch, so I called all three of the numbers they gave me for phone tickets only to get a busy signal---for the next two hours I tried on and off.

Finally I thought I would just drive over to the Mall and go to the Ticketmaster outlet about 1:30pm when I left St. Andrew’s. I got to the place in the store and asked a nice older woman if I could buy tickets. She said “Honey, it sold out 20 minutes after they went on sale! I could have sold a thousand tickets here today!” On of her co-workers at the customer service desk ask “For whom?” And she said “The DOLLY Lama”.

I was amazed that the tickets sold so quickly. As I went back through the store back to my car (where my dog, Martini was patiently waiting) I had to walk through a maze of goods in what seemed like a retail fantasy—Godiva Chocolates, Crystal, China, Appliances, Oriental Rugs were displayed for a consumer orgy. As I was looking at all of this I thought about how the Dalai Lama sold out in 20 minutes. And how there was such a spiritual hunger in this nation that all these goods couldn’t fill as hard as they tried and as hard as their purchasers tried to fill a spiritual void with them. I thought about the Church and Jesus, I thought about how the Church somehow doesn’t get a message of peace and centeredness through to the culture---but chooses rather to fight about trifles. With a war raging what has the Church done to stop it? What has it done to raise the possibility of a balm in the Prince of Peace?

You gotta hand it to the Dolly Lama; at least he stays on message. Buddhists don’t seem to have the difficulties that the children of Abraham (Islam, Judaism and Christianity) seem to have. Christianity has been a source of strength, centeredness and a connection to the Divine for me. Albeit I have to have a constant filter on to eliminate the BS that much of Christianity constantly doles out. It’s clear we are not always good at witnessing to that experience to others. I wonder when we will get it?