Tuesday, February 9, 2016

Relaxing the Bow

A hunter in the desert saw Abba Anthony enjoying himself with the brethren and he was shocked. Wanting to show him that it was necessary sometimes to meet the needs of the brethren, the old man said to him, "Put an arrow in your bow and shoot it." So he did. The old man then said, "Shoot another," and he did so. Then the old man said, 'Shoot yet again," and the hunter replied "If I bend my bow so much I will break it." Then the old man said to him, "It is the same with the work of God. If we stretch the brethren beyond measure they will soon break. Sometimes it is necessary to come down to meet their needs." When he heard these words the hunter was pierced by compunction and, greatly edified by the old man, he went away. As for the brethren, they went home strengthened.

By the Abbas standards, we Americans are seldom about the bow. We value entertainment, relaxation, leisure. I wonder if Abba Anthony saw us today, if he'd think we ever picked up the bow, much less stretched it out.

At the same time, we are a stressed out people, and not because we are too stringent in our spiritual discipline. We're stressed out about traffic, schedules, jobs and bosses and lack thereof. As I type this, I think it may be unfair to compare eras. Anthony lived in a desert and had to worry about scarcity of food. It's likely every age and place has it's own set of stressors.

My point being . . . .

The above story of Anthony came to mind this morning as I found myself tensing up about what I was doing about lent, about how it's starting tomorrow, how I didn't have a completely firm plan in place for how I would be observing it this year. Jesus had something to say about that, too. Don't worry about tomorrow . . . I 

So, I remembered that today is Fat Tuesday. Mardis Gras. Fastnacht. Among other names. Today is a day to relax the bow and enjoy ourselves. Dressing for work, I remembered to put on my purple shirt with the my green-tinged khakis. (It's not exactly Mardis Gras colors, but my coworker from New Orleans, perhaps, will appreciate the effort.) This evening, I'll go to my church's pancake supper and try not to obsess about what this will do to my blood sugar readings later in the evening.

I'll worry about ashes and dust tomorrow.

Sunday, February 7, 2016

Diversity and Vocation

Diversity in a church is important and that usually means things like racial diversity or whether there are gay couples in the pews, which is all important and the sort of thing I look for in a congregation.

But we seem to still want us to be all of one mind.

Some of this is practical, I suppose. A congregation that agrees on how to approach hunger issues is able to focus their time, talent, and money in that direction and so there may be visible results. We raised this much money to this end. We made this number of items to send to this place. This individual and this individual, they were helped by what we did. I cannot find much fault in this (unless I want to get into the sort of pride that becomes more about what we did and less about the people who is being served---but that's perhaps another blog post).

This past year, so much was written about the Syrian refugee crisis. On my Facebook newsfeed, there developed two dominant strains of what to do about it. One was to welcome refugees into our nation, help them get resettled here. The other was saying the better way to help them was to send aid to Syria, to help them with resources there or at least closer by to Syria.

All the details of those arguments, and there are endless details, are not my point this morning. What bothered me in seeing these arguments was how many people were adamantly saying one was the way to help and the other was fruitless. One was a waste of resources, the other the best use of resources. One was dangerous, the other safer. Most problematic, to my mind, was that one was considered the "liberal" response, the other the "conservative" response.

I found myself thinking: Surely some need to get away and be resettled here and we need to help them. And surely some will not be able to get away and they will need just as much if not more help there. Why is it either/or? It should be both/and.

And they should not be politicized as the Democrat or Republican responses.

The refugee crisis is only an example. There are other places that we spend too much time arguing about the correct way to help. Is it better to give directly to the homeless on the street or to the organizations set up to help the homeless? Is it better to give to cancer research or to organizations that support cancer patients? Or AIDS research/patients? Or work in the local community garden or work for a political lobby group on food issues? Or . . .

I suppose the questions basically can be divided into serving locally or globally.

Christian scripture and tradition speaks of the Church as the Body of Christ, many members but one body. Many functions to be performed, but one Spirit that animates the work done. The liver and kidneys both work to purify the blood supply, but if one or the other are failing, the way the other does it will not suffice. We need both ways they work or the whole body dies.

So this brings us to calling or vocation. It's nothing new to say that we need to listen to where the Spirit is leading us to serve. There is pretty good theology in existence that covers the notion that some are called to the humanities, some to the sciences, some to whatever doesn't fit under those headings.

That theology doesn't seem to get applied to the issues around how we approach individual issues. It seems to me that we want our churches to have a particular focus on how we help and that diversity on approaches is discouraged.

I would submit that we need to continue to listen to where the Spirit leads us and follow. The point isn't what other people are doing, what the official party line is. The point of a calling is to follow it. I don't think making justifications for your calling matter. Certainly arguing about how your calling is more important than someone else's gets us nowhere.

Support aid to refugees who cannot get out of Syria, if that's where you feel the Spirit calling you. Surely that's needed. Give directly to the homeless on the street. Surely the organizations set up to aid are not meeting every need. Do so with humility that your way may not be the "best" way, but with the understanding that the calling is not in the least a useless way.

Every calling counts. Every way to serve counts. Some will have larger impacts, other smaller, but we need this diversity of vocations in the church. Without it, we will surely die.

Tuesday, February 2, 2016

Sitting Hospice with the Church, Keeping Vigil with the Body of Christ

Very truly, I tell you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains just a single grain; but if it dies, it bears much fruit. [John 12:24]


Last week, Chris Hedges published an online essay called "The Suicide of the Liberal Church." It went viral in social media, at least in my circles of social media. It sparked discussion in different groups and forums and, no doubt, prompted a few formal replies. The reply that I saw most in my circles was the Reverend Dr. Christian Scharen's "The Death and Resurrection of the Liberal Church."

I honestly thought both had salient points to make, the thing that I believe both got right is that the church is currently undergoing great change. I think the church as I've known and loved it is dying. Suicide or natural causes or something else, I can't say for certain. 

But the two essays have had me thinking about this more in the last week. I have said to friends more than once that I recognize that the church is dying and that something new will come along to replace it and carry on but that I'm now of an age where I'm part of the old guard. The new thing I see emerging is something different and I find myself with the choice of trying to be part of this new thing or clinging to all the things I love about the thing that is passing away.

I've told friends that I've decided to sit hospice with the church, to love it into its grave.

I think it is a reasonable choice for someone of my age. I'm securely middle-aged and have lost touch with a lot of what is "youthful." At the same time, I'm not so old as to be elderly and in need of care myself. I feel like I'm in a place to lovingly sit with this old institution, to help it as it acknowledges its end of days, and to be a presence as it slips away. It is work full of grief and regret, like any child might experience watching a beloved mother, father, mentor wither before their eyes. Because the church is more than an institution and because I am a part of it, I recognize that I'm also dying.

I also do this work in sure and certain hope that it is not the end of the story.

I do look at what is emerging with wonder and befuddlement. I don't get these kids today! But I love them. I recognize them as part of this crazy family of Spirit. And if I cling to old forms and old ways of doing things, I also find myself wanting to encourage the new thing that is happening, even participate to some extent.

Because we are a people of resurrection,  I'm not only sitting hospice with the church, I'm also keeping vigil with the Body of Christ. I'm not only mourning the loss of what I knew and loved, I'm also keeping an eye on its tomb, knowing full well that it will be empty again and soon. Like Mary Magdalene in the garden or the disciples on the way to Emmaus, I suspect I won't recognize the risen Body of Christ at first. I live in hope, however, that it will still call my name and I will recognize its voice. I believe that some bread will be broken and my eyes will open. There may even be some identifying scars. Resurrection is surprising like that.

Because I am a part of the Body of Christ, I live in this tension of the dying and resurrecting, of sitting hospice and keeping vigil. It's not always comfortable. It's full of wishing for the dying to stop.

Some of you will be called to the new thing, some of  you are already in the middle of it and experiencing resurrection in ways I can only observe. Some of us will continue to love the dying church in it's last days, honoring the gifts it has given us and forgiving the ways it's failed us. We are each members of this Body and we function according to the ability of each member.


Saturday, January 23, 2016

On the Uses and Limitations of Labels

"The sabbath was made for humankind, and not humankind for the sabbath." [Mark 2:22]

A few things have me thinking about labels. Some of it comes from having just read Drawing the Line by Carrol Clarkson, wherein language and how it is used gets discussed quite a lot.

A lot more comes from this being an election year in the USA.

I recall when I first starting coming out as a gay man. Obviously "gay" was a word I knew, but never wanted to apply to myself. When I my faith and sexuality finally met on friendly terms, I had to start to think about what that word meant as applied to me. I had some notion of what it meant to other people (and I learned more as I came out more!), but how did it apply to me? I decided, more or less, that it simply meant that I was physically, emotionally, sexually attracted to other men. Beyond that, I could claim possession of some of the stereotypical attributes (disco, Barbra Streisand, Joni Mitchell, modern dance) while deciding that I was not going to fit into other stereotypes (drag, Doris Day, Liza Minnelli, interior decorating). I also learned that there were sub-subculture labels that I didn't know before that fit me (bear), and then I had to decide how that label settled on me.

As a young man, I wore the label "conservative" very comfortably. I knew I was a Christian and the conservatives were the ones who most easily and comfortably wore that religious label, so I went with it. Throughout college and into seminary, I also found myself not quite going all the way with that label. I kept trying, but then ended up hanging out with the liberal kids. In the end, I found myself saying things like, "all my liberal friends think I'm too conservative and all my conservative friends think I'm too liberal." (This may still be happening today, come to think of it.)

Then, as I came out, came to understand sexuality slightly (who ever fully understands it?) better, I began to feel my views on all sorts of things shift. This shifting continued happening until one day, at a stoplight on Koenig Lane in Austin (I think the Guadalupe intersection---yes, this is one of those kinds of memories), I sort of startled myself and said, "Oh my goodness, I'm a liberal!" Twenty years later, I still wrestle with what that actually means.

As you might sense, I find myself explaining my terms a lot. When I say I'm a "German Lutheran farm boy," I find those things all bring up images with which I may or may not identify. When I say I'm a "middle aged, gay, performer and writer," middle aged is easiest to understand and it still has some argument attached to it (but, seriously, I'm sorry---I'm not going to live past 100, maybe not even very close to it, so I'm safely middle aged and, equally sorry, so are a lot of you wanting to argue the point).

As this political year begins to heat up, it's interesting for me to watch people on the right argue about whether a candidate is a "true conservative" and people on the left wring hands over what to do with the word "socialism."

And somewhere in all this musing about labels, the words of Jesus, quoted at the top of this post, came to mind. Obviously, it's not a direct application, but let me see if I can help you across my synapse jump.

Some years ago, a friend (who shall remain nameless) really latched onto being a liberal. The title became such that it felt to me like she was reading any and everything labeled "liberal" so she would know how to be the liberalest. I began to make jokes like, "if someone would label televised puppy executions as liberal, she'd be all for it."

I see this sort of thing happen with other labels. I've seen people come out as gay and then try to learn how to "be gay," like studying how to play a role in a theater production. There are ways that the dominant culture still, after 50 years of "women's lib" and sexual revolution, tries to teach us how to be men or women---"real men do this, real women do that."

And here's the thing. All these labels are useful. They help us communicate who we are, some of the ways that we move in the world.

On the other hand, while the labels are there to help us define ourselves, the definitions are not there to shape us. I mean, of course the labels shape us to some extent. Saying "I'm a Christian" or "I'm gay" has an accumulative effect on me and it shapes me. But the moment that I start start looking for all the ways that I can fulfill those labels, I can begin to lose myself, too. Is there a gay "orthodoxy" that says I must make such and such choices, must present in this or that way? Yes, there is. Can I become so doctrinaire as a Christian that I lose sight of loving my neighbor and start denying the Reign of God at hand? Absolutely.

The labels, like the Sabbath---or even more broadly, the Law---are there to help us. They are helpful to us. But we are not there to help the labels. They can only define us so far. To serve the labels in that way is to make them idols, molding ourselves to their inanimate dictates.

I believe we are freer than that. I believe we have to be freer than that.

Thursday, January 14, 2016

Divisive

I do grow weary of being a divisive presence in the church.

Today, the primates of the Anglican Communion sanctioned The Episcopal Church for allowing people of the same sex to marry in the church. Setting aside that I don't expect to get married anytime soon, I still find it hard not to take this personally.

But let's be clear on something.

I'm not the divisive presence.

I'm here in the church, seeking unity as much as anyone who has heard and yearned for the idealism of "There is one body and one Spirit, just as you were called to the one hope of your calling, one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all, who is above all and through all and in all."

I have prayed with Jesus his prayer "that they may all be one."

Look, I'm sorry I'm gay. I'm sorry I want to assert the fully humanity of all LGBT folk. I'm sorry that this is icky for a lot of you.

But I'm not telling anyone they can't come to the table, fully who they are, in full dignity of one made in the Image of God. I'm not telling anyone they can't have a voice in any church body because they support everyone's access to the blessing of the church.

I'm not the divisive presence here, not by my own making.

It's heartbreaking because I've come in contact with a  young man in an African country who relates how hard it is just to get medical advice that is particular to gay and lesbian folk. It's against the law for doctors to offer information or medical attention to someone who needed LGBT specific help. I wonder how safe it is for this person to even seek information through a Facebook group, even as I'm glad he could access that resource.

For this reason, I cannot easily say "makes no difference to me." I mean, I can---my life is not immediately impacted by this news. I and the congregation where I worship will carry on much as we have for some time.

But here's the thing---I do believe this young African man and I are connected and I can imagine how much it would mean to the LGBT folk of his and other nations to have a religious authority speak up for them. (Let's be real, I can imagine that because it wasn't too long ago that I didn't think I'd live to see it in my own nation---so there's hope for change!) I actually to believe that we share in one baptism and one Spirit.

These things matter, these divisive decisions matter because the violence, spiritual and physical, that is enacted on these LGBT folk in the shadow of this sort of decision is on the hands of the church, on the hands of these decision makers. They have authority and it matters how they exercise it.

Of course, there's so many ways the church has forced division through the centuries. Just two American examples leap to mind. I do not believe Richard Allen wanted to create the AME Church. I do not believe Troy Perry wanted to create the MCC fellowship. Those are just two American examples of the way a patriarchal imperialism has forced people, for their own spiritual well-being, to create divisions. But neither of them were a divisive presence, either!

Sometimes I look at how this is true of Christianity the world over and I wonder if this is what Jesus meant when he said, " . . . you cross sea and land to make a single convert, and you make the new convert twice as much a child of hell as yourselves."

We have to do better. We have to see the expansive love of God, not just for us, but more so for those we are not like. We have to keep reminding ourselves that we're all made in the Image of God and that maybe the thing that is different in the other person is the part of the Image of God that you need to see, respect, love. The strangeness of God is real and it is in all of us. It's hard, so very difficult, but we must learn to love the difference.

At the very least can we start to have enough self awareness that when we tell someone they are not welcome here that it is us who is being divisive?

I feel myself ranting a bit, maybe less coherently than usual. These things make me angry and I don't know what other recourse I have but to spill it onto the internet.

Primates of the Anglican Communion---your actions and your reasons behind your actions matter. This will affect people under your care. Their wounds, spiritual and physical, are yours to answer for.

I pray other authorities will rise to take up your slack.

Monday, January 11, 2016

Not Especially

There's a thing I do whenever I'm the one leading the prayers of the people that I don't think I've ever really talked about before, but it came up at lunch after church this past Sunday and I found myself expressing myself in this way:

I said, "I take deep theological exception to the word esprcially."

Until that moment, I hadn't fully realized how strongly I felt about it. Now that I've realized, of course I have to spill it out into a blog.

Those of you who don't have a "prayers of the people" moment in your church service, this may not mean anything to you. But to those of you who do, please consider my argument.

Among the petitions, there is always the one that is a variation of, "We pray for all those who suffer in body, mind, or spirit" and then we list the people in the congregation who are sick or otherwise hurting.

Of course, the word that links the petition and the list of names is especially.

We pray for the sick, especially Joe, Maria, Juan, LaShell, Hannah, and Otto.

The thing I will do when I lead the prayers of the people is change especially to among us.

Because I have some issue with the notion of praying for all the suffering in the world but then asking God to give special attention to those we know. It's like helping only those we love while letting people we don't care for suffer. It's not part of Jesus' teaching to love your enemies, do good to those who hate you. If you help only those you like, how are you different from anyone else? We're called to a different standard.

At the same time, it is absolutely meet, right, and salutary that we should pray for those we know, those who "belong to us" in that broad congregational way that we belong to each other. There is absolutely nothing wrong with praying for those in our midst, who we can call by name, and bring their concerns before God.

And so, I will pray, "We pray for all who suffer in body, mind, or spirit, among us we pray for Joe, Maria, Juan, LaShell, Hannah, and Otto." Because these people are among us and we belong to one another, of course it is right to pray for them in their time of need. It is also language that is expansive enough to include, as we will at my church, friends of ours who are not members or may not even live locally, but are dear to us, who "belong" to us, who are therefore "among us," even at a distance.

It's a subtle shift from asking God to give them priority among the suffering of the world. but, yes, I can be that picky about the language of the gathered people of God. I think it matters. I can see how you may think I'm being overly semantic about this and honestly, this is not a hill I'm willing to die on. I'm not going to make demands about this.

But I do ask that our prayer writers consider this. I do think precision in language matters, particularly when it's the language allegedly of the an entire congregation. Do we pray especially for these people just because we know them? Or do we pray for those among us because we are given to each other to care for, including the spiritual care of praying? I believe how we consider these questions can shape how we think about ourselves and our mission to the world.

Tuesday, January 5, 2016

Epiphany 2016

"Where is the child who has been born king of the Jews? For we observed his star at its rising, and have come to pay him homage." [Matthew 2:2]

Matthew tells us about a star that appeared in the sky at the birth of Jesus. It caught the attention of magi from far off lands and they had to come see what it was about.

Setting aside how the religious and imperial powers were after Jesus right from the start (and that's nothing to sneeze at), here's what I think Matthew was a little big after in this story.

So, your Caesar had a star appear at his memorial games? Cute. Our Messiah had a star at his birth.

Your Caesar became a god after his death? Quaint. Our Messiah we declare divine from his conception.

You may think that comet at the games was a sign of Caesar's ascendancy to godhood, but we declare to you a God who descends in humility to live among us.

Much is made of Matthew paralleling Jesus with stories of the Hebrew patriarchs, but here I think he's also comparing this infant to a Roman warrior-statesman and not in a favorable fashion. The pagan magi may represent the eventual spreading of the gospel to gentile peoples, but the star is all about elevating a Jewish infant over a Roman hero.

This is the kind of God we're dealing with. The One that surprises from the lowly, the One that usurps the powers of this world with humility.

This is the star that shines brightest in the night sky. To mix gospel metaphors, this is the light that shines in darkness, and the darkness has never overcome it.

Blessed Epiphany to you. May you find the Epiphany light shining on you.

Arise, shine; for your light has come, and the glory of the LORD has risen upon you. [Isaiah 60:1]