REMEMBER HOW HE TOLD YOU

As a boy, Tolstoy and two friends put together a club.  They called it the White Polar Bear Club because the only membership requirement was that a boy had to stand in a corner for 30 minutes and not think about a white bear.  Memory researchers say we’ve all got a bit of the White Bear Syndrome.  Close your eyes, if you don’t believe me, and whatever you do do not think about a white bear.

LEO TOLSTOY 1828 – 1910

Intentional thought suppression was once tested in a Harvard psychology lab.  Participants were told they were going to sit for five minutes and describe, in words, what’s on their mind; speak their stream of consciousness. They were randomly assigned to one of two groups. One group was told they could think about a white bear. The others were told they could not think of a white bear.  They would press a button if or when they thought of a white bear.  Additionally, their stream of consciousness utterances were recorded and the number of times they said “white bear” were counted. Participants who were told to not think about bears actually mentioned it less than the others, but all of them pressed the button at about equal rates.  If the goal is to stop thinking about something, it’s hardly effective.

Also interesting was a follow-up test with those who, in the first test, were told to not think about bears.  In a second test, they were told they could now think of white bears.  Those folks – first told to not think about something, then told they could think about that thing – were off the charts in mentioning white bears and pushing the button, much more so than either group in the first study.  Suppressing a thought actually leads, in time, to its subsequent over-indulgence.  Someone trying to quit drinking only thinks about alcohol; someone trying to lose weight lets himself have just a nibble of a chocolate bunny’s ear and winds up devouring the whole thing.

We humans are tricky animals, crafty, and pretty good at self-deceit.  I’ve always thought the Apostle Paul was describing me when he said to the Romans, “I don’t understand my own actions.”(Rom. 7)  “I do not do what I want,” Paul wrote, “but I do the very thing I hate.”  What do to about it?  God “gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ,” Paul wrote in another letter, so you and I should “stand firm. Let nothing move you. Always give yourselves fully to the work of the Lord, because you know that your labor in the Lord is not in vain.” (1 Cor. 15)

This is true.  When life besets us and gets us down, when the anxiety is too much to bear and the worries are real, when pain is acute or life’s direction gone missing, the story of our faith is that the victory’s already won.  For us, then, we hold on, we stand firm.

This is true, but it’s the type of truth Christians know a lot better as mystery than fact.  For the fact is that the games of life and the culture of death not only exist outside but also tear us apart, within – desires are inflated, wills are set in competition, and I continue to do the things I do not want to do and which I know aren’t good.  Christians celebrate resurrection, new life, but the context of this gift is death.

We labor but sometimes, contrary to Paul, it feels like we do so in vain.  I can only imagine that’s what it felt to those women who headed out early on this first day of the week, carrying heavy sacks of ointment and spices.  They were doing what they knew to do, laboring through life.  Like them, we are also good at finding tricks to get through the day: when life gets overturned, we make lemonade, some say, or bury ourselves in work or master a craft.  Mind over matter.  A study performed at the University of Wisconsin – Madison, in fact, suggested we’ve got some capacity to exercise mind over matter.  From an article in The Week: Twenty particpants were arranged into two groups and told to search for an item.  One-half of them were allowed to repeat, out loud, the name of the thing they were looking for.  The other half could not say the name of the thing.  On average, the group speaking the name of the thing found it quicker than the group which was silent.  Similar studies of children show that those who talk themselves through the process of tying their shoes do so faster than those who don’t.  We have the capacity, some capacity, to exercise mind over matter, to accomplish tasks, to labor well, to get through the day.

But that’s not what resurrection looks like.  Just laboring is not new life.  Breaking the culture of death and attaining new life is the goal, but it’s truly hard.  Phase two of the University of Wisconsin study is where it gets more interesting.  Again, from The Week:   “Researchers carried out a ‘virtual shopping task’ for common grocery store items, like Jell-O or Coke. Just as in the first phase, some of the participants were asked to repeat the item’s name to themselves while looking. But this time the results were ‘more complex.’ …Talkers were able to find familiar objects like Coke much quicker. But for less familiar objects, such as the slightly more ambiguous Speed Stick deodorant, the mutterers actually took much longer.  Why? ‘Speaking to yourself isn’t always helpful,’” one researcher said, “’If you don’t know what an object looks like, saying its name can have no effect or can actually slow you down.’”

If you don’t know what an object looks like, or if the events of life have so worn down the truth you once received, or if you’ve already made yourself believe there is no hope, just simply saying it has no effect on you.  In fact, it might even distract you, slow you down, get in your way.  Truly, I wonder how some of the words we regularly toss around in the church actually sound to people, to you.  What does resurrection mean?  What does new and unending life imply?  What does redemption say, to you, today?  Are you hearing something or, just as likely and for no apparent fault of your own, do these words not only sound empty, vacant, vacuous but are they a distraction, obscuring your path to wholeness?

The way the Easter story is told, then, is precisely for you, you who are tricky animals, you human beings.  The gospels do not describe the resurrection.  They tell only of its faint aftermath, the evidence of the action of God: a stone unrolled, a tomb empty, a promise kept.  Resurrection is a matter of faith, and faith is born in a place within the lives of perfectly ordinary women and men, people who can and do, from time to time, delude and trick ourselves.   Like those women we forget and lose sight, we alter memories and, as science has shown, we are actually a whole lot better at driving ourselves further from the truth than we are at doing what people say when you lose something: just stop thinking about it and you’ll find it.

That’s not what the angel said in the garden.  He said “Remember.”  “Remember how he told you, while he was still in Galilee, that the Son of Man will rise again.”  And they remembered what he said and that he said it because they remembered how.  They remembered, at that moment, not in their quickly deceiving minds but in their well-hewn hearts.  For resurrection cannot be thought or learned.  Redemption isn’t something some are better at because they pray harder or attend more regularly.  It’s a gift and is retrieved in remembering, in coming back together and returning to life.  In that moment, in that garden, those women remembered how Jesus embraced them and blessed them, how he took bread and broke it, how he welcomed sinners and loved the outcast, how gently he touched them, in a place deeper than words or meanings or thinking.

That place is the harbor of faith, and it is there in you.  It’s been there all along.

……….

Excerpted from an Easter sermon at St. George’s Episcopal Church, 2013.  Full text is available here.

HUMAN FLOURISHING IN A CONTEXT OF LOVE

The new Archbishop of Canterbury is giving a lesson in ethics.  What he’s actually talking about is changing the way the church functions.

ARCHBISHOP OF CANTERBURY Justin Welby

Yesterday, the Archbishop didn’t zero in on the political mess the Church of England’s gotten itself into.  The pundits on the sidelines are striving to get him to say something about women bishops or gay marriage.  Welby mentioned several times his own “fear and trembling,” but I think he showed remarkable strength in not talking about those things – in not chattering on about the church in self-reflexive ways, focusing with profound insularity on theological method (as his predecessor did); in not taking a prophetic stance toward the issues of the world while ignoring the clutter of his own spiritual house (as our Episcopal Church, I’m afraid, too quickly does).  Archbishop Welby showed great steel in turning our textbooks back to Aristotle and Jesus, in focusing our attention on a simple message: the church must be in the business of human flourishing.

In his inaugural sermon, Welby argued that the goal of the Body of Christ should be to enable human persons to flourish: in his words, to “make space for our own courage to be liberated, for God to act among us and for human beings to flourish.”  The church has taken prophetic stances over the years, Welby acknowledged, positions which became manifest in social campaigns – freeing slaves and ensuring the safety of factory workers, among others.

Similar issues confront human society in the 21st century, he noted, but his analysis, interestingly, didn’t go from cause to cause.  Rather, he quickly moved the conversation back to traditional Christian social thought.

Dissapointing media pundits and stumping secular critics, Welby’s message appeared, at first, to be about our work, our message, our cause and then, just as quickly, became a message of God. “Fear imprisons us and stops us being fully human,” he preached. “Uniquely in all of human history Jesus Christ, the Son of God, is the one who as living love liberates holy courage. …Courage is released in a society that is under the authority of God, so that we may become the fully human community of which we all dream.”

Early Christians adopted from Plato and Aristotle the concept that there is an end to which all human striving should be directed, a goal which is good for its own sake.  The Greek word is eudaimonia, often translated as happiness or flourishing.  In the Aristotelian worldview, eudaimonia is entirely egoistic: an individual’s self interest is to flourish, so a particular individual’s good is to flourish for the sake of her own good.  That obviously wouldn’t do for the early Christian community whose Lord commanded them to love one another, so the Christianized concept of eudaimonia also had to do with mercy, justice, forgiveness, and community.  Human flourishing from a Christian point of view is to strive towards the only goal which is good unto itself.  That we call the Kingdom of God.

The kingdom of God involves people, but what’s good for people is not necessarily a good unto itself.  That’s not an ultimate good.  The kingdom of God has a church but what’s good for the church isn’t necessarily a good in and of itself.  Better not chatter on about the church with incessant insularity.  The kingdom of God is expressed, from time to time, in our social campaigns to make this world a more just and equitable and liveable place, but those causes are not necessarily the same as the reign of God.  Best not confuse our social politics and theology.  If we want to understand what it means to flourish, we’ve got to understand what it is to be of God, firstly, and to have our actions and words speak Him.

Although this is deep within our tradition, it’s also a new teaching for the church.  It’s hard for many to understand, let alone embrace it.  We, the church, allowed secular society to put us in the center of their world – first it was Constantine, then Charlemagne, then in America our own interpretation of the Bill of Rights.  For centuries, we thought Christendom spoke for itself.  Even when it’s been waning these past several decades we tried to bolster the buttresses, talking on and on about ourselves and our self-proclaimed mission and our business.

That’s all falling apart.  Not the Way of Jesus, mind you.  Not Christianity.  Just the force of the predominately institutionalized shell.

And that’s why Justin Welby is the right man for the job, the right man, that is, at this moment.  While bishop of Durham, he seemed uniquely able to speak the truth plainly.  In an address in April 2012 to the Anglican Alliance for Development, Bishop Welby pointedly said, “The question that faces the church is that of what is human flourishing, good news, amidst the deep poverty…and utter spiritual bankruptcy and increasing material poverty?”

In that address, Welby named a profound truth: “Our good news,” he argued, “must be unique, because the radicality of the gospel call[s] us to a sense of what we are doing and saying utterly different from all other groups.”  This can be unsettling.  For those who have grown accustomed to Christendom this is a difficult teaching to bear.  Yet almost automatically, Welby’s mind readily goes beyond insular theological methodology – a threat to those hiding inside the church – and criticizes the way of the world from nothing more, nothing less than the Gospel of Christ.  To his credit, he already knows that world.  When he mentioned “suspicion of the NGO industry, its thousands of employees and the tendency to be as donor dependant as the recipients of aid, with whom one is drawn in a grim dance,” Welby quickly added: “I know, I ran one.”

Authenticity is the litmus test these days, which is both an opportunity and challenge.  We live in a time in which our message is heard only so long as the audience knows, already, the depth and quality of its source.  It’s no longer sufficient to make grand speeches without mobilizing the People of God.  Nor can we shirk from the obligation to speak a word of life in the public square; now, however, it requires the harder work of turning the hearts and minds and lives of those already among the body to influence those not yet.  The new Archbishop put it as a question:  “As Christians,” he asked, “are we simply a spiritual bit of the same tribe or, as self-proclaimed disciples of Christ, how is what we bring good news?”  Reading Micah 6:8 (“do justice, and love kindness, and walk humbly with God…”) and Romans 12:1-2 (“…do not be conformed to this world but be transformed by the renewing of your minds”), Welby reminded:

“the language of our good news is not GDP, output and so forth, though they are part of the means. It is human flourishing in a context of love. The tools of our good news [are] the unique ones of reconciliation and peace, with its fellow travellers of generosity, community and self-giving love. All aid outside the context of the grace of God leads to the abuse of power and the creation of dependency. So we are called not merely to do, but to be. The inner motivation matters as much as the outer.”

These days anyone and everyone can see directly inside, beyond the stuff we’ve projected in order to protect us – our beautiful churches and stately liturgy, our pomp and circumstance, our cathedrals and order, our tradition and customs.  Real human flourishing is an inside job, and that matters a great deal.

REAL POWER, SHARED AUTHORITY – FRANCIS AND LUMEN GENTIUM

Moments following his election as Pope, Cardinal Bergoglio, now, Francis I eschewed the custom of going up to a high platform and sitting on a white throne.  Instead, he stood on the floor and greeted his brothers, one by one.  We already know he hopped on the bus instead of taking a triumphal ride in the Pope-mobile.  And the name Francis, he said, came to him when his friend said “remember the poor” – it’s also a name which speaks of purity, simplicity, and a man of the people.  Just yesterday, in his first Sunday as Pontiff (17 March), Francis gave his security detail a headache when he wandered out in public, shaking hands, exchanging hugs and pats on the back, not only before but after saying mass at St. Anna’s Church.

POPE FRANCIS
outside St. Anna’s Gate on Sunday, 17 March 2013

Image consultants call this very good “buzz.”  The secular media – which, let’s be honest, simply does not understand religion – calls Francis “spontaneous” and “a Pope of the people” and then, in the very same breath, says something about how conservative he is and that little is going to change in the Roman hierarchy.

The press he’s getting is obscuring the point.  Most likely, Francis is not doing what he’s doing for good popularity ratings nor does he see any contradiction between his theology and taking a stroll on the street corner to kiss babies near St. Anna’s gate.  This is not about publicity.  Neither is this is not about conservative versus liberal.

This is about the Roman Church and indeed the rest of Christianity coming into its own, bringing to fruit the ideas shared a half-century ago.  From 1962 to 1965, the Second Vatican Council was an opportunity, in the words of Pope John XVIII, to open the windows of the church and let in some fresh air.  It purported to carry on the essential teaching of the Councils of Trent (Catholicism’s 16th century conservative reaction to the Protestant Reformation) and Vatican I (the church’s 19th century engagement of the modern world which resulted in a decidedly more monarchical papacy), yet Vatican II also articulated a hope, as John XVIII said, for a “new enthusiasm, a new joy and serenity of mind…; that this certain and immutable doctrine be…reformulated in contemporary terms.”

Francis, I think, is trying to move our attention to Vatican II’s teaching about power and authority in the church, expressed in the Council’s 1964 document Lumen Gentium.  Specifically, Francis’ early actions suggest he might be preparing to turn the church for the first time into a body in which real power is claimed and authority is shared.  Vatican II did a new thing in trying to balance monarchical authority and conciliar decision making, and Francis is the first Pontiff who grew up with that approach.  Interestingly, in 1964 Francis was still Jorge Mario Bergoglio; he was not yet ordained and was teaching high school literature in Argentina.  It would be another five years before he became Fr. Bergoglio, SJ.  In that same year Francis’ predecessor, Benedict XVI, was Josef Ratzinger – a well-respected professor, priest and theological consultant at the Second Vatican Council.  Francis lives and breathes the spirit of Vatican II in a way his predecessor simply could not.

Lumen Gentium is characteristic of conciliar thinking: it tries to straddle the line, draw continuity between what was and what should be.  In its third chapter, “On the Hierarchical Structure of the Church and in particular on the Episcopate,” it both affirms the real power of the papacy and (re)introduces concepts and practices of shared authority.  “[F]ollowing closely in the footsteps of the First Vatican Council,” in its words, Lumen Gentium acknowledges a monarchical papacy – not wanting to go against Vatican I:  “The pope’s power of primacy over all … remains whole and intact. In virtue of his office, that is as Vicar of Christ and pastor of the whole Church, the Roman Pontiff has full, supreme and universal power over the Church. And he is always free to exercise this power.” (L.G. 3.22) That said, it also tries to enrich papal dominance by reprising the Catholic conciliar tradition:

“…the Roman Pontiff, the successor of Peter, and the bishops, the successors of the apostles, are joined together. Indeed, the very ancient practice whereby bishops duly established in all parts of the world were in communion with one another and with the Bishop of Rome in a bond of unity, charity and peace, and also the councils assembled together, in which more profound issues were settled in common, the opinion of the many having been prudently considered, both of these factors are already an indication of the collegiate character and aspect of the episcopal order; and the ecumenical councils held in the course of centuries are also manifest proof of that same character.” (L.G. 3.22)

In case you thought this was about American checks-and-balances — checking unbridled monarchy by instituting shared decision making – the next line is a quick rebuke: “…But the college or body of bishops has no authority unless it is understood together with the Roman Pontiff, the successor of Peter as its head.”

The same journalists and media types who are trying to figure out Francis’ odd behavior would also call this strange.  In fact, Vatican II so confuses secular political thinking that hardly anyone these days is talking about it.  No one, that is, except the man in white.  This is deep in Francis’ heart and it’s certainly influencing his behavior.  Francis – along with many faithful Catholics, Roman and otherwise – sees no contradiction between claiming real power and sharing authority.  Lumen Gentium describes it in richly spiritual terms, seeing this “collegial union” as an invitation to practice more deeply what it means to be the Body of Christ on earth, expressing in our very existence “the bond of peace, love and unity.” (L.G. 3.23)

A highly vaulted Roman Curia, along with a Pope seen as ruler of the rulers of the earth, is what has gotten the church in great trouble.  That kind of thinking trickles down into very dangerous behavior.  For this reason, the butler who stole papal documents is a criminal but, to many, a hero.  To his credit, I suspect Benedict XVI tried to bring about the reforms that young Ratzinger described, but there is a world of difference between understanding something, envisioning something and having it as part of your world entire.  Part of me wonders if Benedict resigned because he knew that the reforms he dreamed of could only come about from the heart of one who embodied those ideals, one who grew up in that church, one who was younger than he.

But this is not only a message for and about the Roman church.  Similar to the ecumenical awakening which followed Vatican II, this is an opportunity for Catholics to lead the rest of Christianity.  Specifically, this is an opportunity to model for all Christians a church in which real power is claimed and authority is shared, a church in which there is no apparent contradiction between the two.

JOSEPH CARDINAL BERNARDIN
1928 – 1996

Many of us know all too well the dangers of monarchical leadership.  But what we also need to appreciate are the limitations of conciliar thinking, at least as a singly dominant organizational theory.  Power is still there; it’s always been there, it always will be.  Desperately needed in more conciliar churches, then, are leaders who have enough self-confidence to be honest about what power is and how they’re using it or striving not to use it.  One of the most dangerous things is eschewed power — which can become, in truth, a wide opening in which one may act as if consensus guides the process while, behind the scenes and because of power’s implicit yet subtle presence, effectuate its use in passive-aggressive ways which make the body ill.

This is our danger as Episcopalians.  We’ve confused shared decision making and consensus discernment with an utter abandonment of power, leaving power, then, in those dark corners from which no good can emerge and much bad still does.

There’s a story many Chicagoans know and treasure about the late Cardinal Bernardin — even I know and love it, and I’ve never been Roman Catholic.  In 1982, introducing himself to the priests of his new archdiocese, he said “I am your brother, Joseph.”  A clear departure from the style of his predecessors, Bernardin’s words were like a lightning bolt to that assembly and were quickly reported to the city and nation and world.  His biographer, Tim Unsworth, says “Bernardin set an entirely new style, one marked more by gentle leadership than feudal authority.”  As Bernardin showed us, there is no contradiction between claiming and using real power and sharing authority in the councils of the church.  Erring on one side or the other, I’d say, is where danger lurks.  Perhaps in Francis, then, we have an opportunity to get honest about call and responsibility, about owning and sharing — all of which are essential parts of maintaining those bonds of “peace, love and unity.”

DANCE, DANCE WHEREVER YOU MAY BE

Even before the title comes across the screen, you get the sense that the 2006 movie Little Miss Sunshine – if it is, in fact, a comedy – is going to be a pretty dark one.  You’re introduced to the Hoover family, one by one.  First, you meet seven or eight year old Olive Hoover in the living room of her Albuquerque home.  She’s watching Miss California win the Miss America contest, rewinding it and watching it again and again, mimicking the acceptance poses.  Olive, it strikes you, isn’t necessarily beauty pageant material, not that that’s a value in itself.  Then there’s Olive’s dad, Richard, a motivational speaker who’s peddling his nine-step life philosophy.  According to him, winners choose to be winners, and losers choose to be losers.  (Not such a great father, you fear.)  Your first glimpse of Olive’s mother is of her driving somewhere in some apparent haste.  She’s on the phone with Richard.  He asks if she’s smoking again; “No,” Sheryl says, tossing the cigarette out the window.  She’s on her way to the mental hospital to pick up her brother, Frank, a brilliant academic, who tried to take his own life following a bad breakup and loss of a research grant.  The 15-year-old Neitzsche-reading brother, Dwyane, has taken a vow of silence until he can enter the Air Force Academy, and Edwin, Olive’s grandfather, is also at home after being kicked out of a nursing home for some untoward activity.

Obviously, this is a collection of broken and dysfunctional people, to say the least, all of them except Olive – the one redeeming, honest, pure character in this whole story.  More than that, they’re all dealing with an incredible weight of stress, and most feel like they’re on the verge of breaking down; some already have.

The first scene is all of them in the Hoover home for dinner on the night Sheryl brings Frank home – all of these wounded folks shoved together with individually-tailored, dark clouds of anxiety and stress.  Dinner, for what it’s worth, is a bucket of chicken served on paper plates with popsicles for dessert, a meal obviously grabbed and served in haste to a collection of individuals being pulled apart at their own seams.  All except Olive, again, who at that dinner asks gentle and sweet questions.  All except Olive.

A few weekends ago, Olive entered a beauty pageant while visiting her aunt and cousins in California.  The Hoover’s got a call earlier that day, announcing that the winner was pulled out and Olive, as runner up, is eligible to compete in that weekend’s Little Miss Sunshine contest.  That’s just the spark to ignite the powder keg.  A screaming back-and-forth fight ensues between Richard and Sheryl – whether they can go and whether they can afford it and who would go and if they can use Richard’s seed money for his motivational book for this expense, a fight which makes any feeling that you have dysfunctional family gatherings palatable, at least.

Eventually, they decide they’re going.  With an elderly grandfather and suicidal brother-in-law who can’t be left alone, in fact, the entire family has to go.  All of these incredibly broken people cram into a VW Bus and make the 800 mile trip to southern California, thus kicking off a great road trip comedy.

Stress only builds and challenges mount throughout the trip.  From beginning to end, each character, Olive included, face serious difficulties.  Each character, for themself, has to chose by movie’s end whether they’re going to let the outside stressors and anxiety knock them out of whether they’re going to just quit playing that game.  In typical fashion, little Olive is the one who leads – culminating in the final, great scene: Olive’s talent offering at the Little Miss Sunshine competition, an exotic dance number her grandfather choreographed set to Rick James’ hit “Superfreak.”  When the pageant coordinators try to forcibly remove Olive from the stage, Richard jumps in and protects his daughter.  He starts dancing, in turn.  Frank, too, hops on stage and dances, joined by Dwyane who by this time has started speaking.  Laughing, Sheryl also joins her family on stage and, together, they dance and smile and, for the first time in the entire movie, seem to be sucking the nectar out of this thing called life, all of them dancing together.

It’s a moving, lasting image – dancing when the world has got these folks by the throat.  It’s true in our own lives, isn’t it?  In every one of our lives, when the air outside gets thick and oppressive, when relationships become fractured and the demands increase, we take that into our souls and selves, somehow, sometimes in ways we’re not fully aware of.  And we also, from time to time, take it out on others.  Too often we inflict on others the hurts and harms others have shoved on us, oftentimes in unthinking, reactive ways.  That’s just the nature of life.

But redemption, we know, isn’t achieved in the nature of this life.  No, redemption’s a different, an ironic choice to break the mores of this world and dare to be different, dare to risk new life in a world which feeds and feasts on finality and mortality.  To dance while the world won’t and dance, at that, to a song others don’t want to hear or simply cannot.  Dance, anyway, then.  Dance on.

The gospel author, John, records a wonderful story about an evening Jesus and his disciples enjoyed at the home of his close friends, Lazarus and Mary and Martha, siblings who shared a home in Bethany, a little town just outside Jerusalem.  This was “six days before the Passover”, the gospel tells us, and the reader is aware that by this time things in the ministry of Jesus have changed substantially, so much so, one suspects, something bad is going to happen on or near that very Passover, something imperiling the life of Jesus.  Days earlier, Jesus had raised his friend, Lazarus, from the dead.  That sign – the last and greatest sign John records – drove the Pharisees and chief priests into conclave with one another.  They said to themselves, “What are we to do?  This man is performing many signs.  If we let him go on like this, everyone will believe in him, and the Romans will come and destroy both our holy place and our nation.” (Jn.11:47-48)  The high priest, Caiaphas, arguing a shrewd and yet, you might say, perfectly normal political philosophy, instructed the Council that it would be better to have Jesus executed than to suffer that fate for the entire People of God.  The gospel tells us, then, that “from that day on they planned to put him to death.”(Jn. 11:53)  And that “Jesus therefore no longer walked about openly among the Jews” but hid away with his disciples (Jn. 11:54)

This is the situation while Jesus and his band of loyal followers dash off to Mary and Martha and Lazarus’ home for dinner.  The air outside was thick with death threats and fear, not to mention likely strategizing on the part of the twelve: how to get him out of there, how to save his life, how to save their own lives, how to cut a deal, whether this will turn fatal.  Talk about stress and anxiety.  Within that looming, palpable scene, there in that house, Mary takes a pound of incredibly expensive perfume, pours it over Jesus’ feet and rubs her hair in it, so much that the aroma of flowers and buds overpowers that small abode.  Let me add a visual:  this is a pint of amber-colored oil, a pint of an aromatic perfume, a pint of oil drawn from a flowering bush found only in Nepal or India or China, far, faraway from Bethany and wildly expensive.  And Mary just pours that all over Jesus’ feet, all over the floor, all throughout her hair.  Oh, did Mary ever dance that day.  While the others stand there, watching.

Not all characters in the story just stand there, though.  Indignant, Judas Iscariot argues against the obscenity of this scene, making, I’d say, a rather compelling point – they could’ve sold that oil for “three hundred denarii”, the pay an average Galilean would’ve earned if he worked for three hundred consecutive 12-hour workdays!  They could’ve done great good with that money.  They could’ve actually helped the poor, given bread and real care to the widows and orphans and all those marginalized by society, those whom Jesus reached out to save and redeem and love.

Jesus errs on the side of Mary’s extravagance, though, praising her wildly irrational, complete abandon.  “Leave her alone,” Jesus says.  Mary is celebrating, he indicates, enjoying the feast, dancing while the world was too busy getting stuck, stuck on itself.  Mary may be the only one doing the right thing, and yet it’s such a strange, unexpected thing.

It’s so easy, when life gets us by the throat, to turn inward, to fret and fear, to struggle and wrestle.  That is, I fear, the beginning of a deep and profound illness.  Of all the things remarked by and about Pope Francis, I was moved this week by his sense that there’s value in a church which strives to get out of itself, even if that means a church which will fail and fall and have “accidents,” as he put it.  In an interview while still Cardinal Bergoglio of Argentina, Francis said,

“There is a tension between the center and the periphery. … We must get out of ourselves and go toward the periphery. We must avoid the spiritual disease of the Church that can become self-referential: when this happens, the Church itself becomes sick. It’s true that accidents can happen when you go out into the street, as can happen to any man or woman. But if the Church remains closed onto itself, self-referential, it grows old. Between a Church that goes into the street and gets into an accident and a Church that is sick with self-referentiality, I have no doubts in preferring the first.”

Like the church, we all struggle with what Francis calls a “spiritual disease” – turning too dangerously inward, becoming too self-referential, too closed off.  It’s understandable.  Of course it is, given the stress and anxiety with which we wrestle.  But if that’s our only turn, only inward, we’ll never reach out, let alone dance.  We’ll never strive towards redemption, never come close to joining that Lord of the dance, as the song goes.

I wish I could say that I’ve done this most of the time, but I can’t because I haven’t.  Like you, I know how hard this is, how taxing and counter-intuitive it is to go against the tit-for-tat trends of this world.  But I can also say that those times in which the circumstances of this life have come close to suffocating my spirit, those moments in which stress and anxiety have truly weighed me down, nearly to a breaking point, I, too, have become sick and self-referential; I, too, have turned inward and foisted my own struggles on to others.  And it is in those moments in which I have hurt myself the most, and in very significant ways.  I have also hurt others, I’m certain.

But life also gives the choice, again and again, in fact, day after day.  And it turns out that the choice whether to dance isn’t easy but, if you can set aside the difficulty, it’s just a little bit different and twisted and ironic and contrary to the way you and I are sometimes wired.  Turns out that we’re a whole lot better at dancing, maybe we could say we’re supposed to dance, and perhaps dance to a song this world doesn’t want to hear or simply cannot.  Dance through life, then, or strive to … especially when the stuff gets too heavy, too much, too daunting, the air too thick outside the thin walls of your soul.  Dance, then, towards Easter.  I’ll bet you’ll find your own new life, in turn.

……….

A Sermon preached at St. George’s Church on the Fifth Sunday of Lent, year C (17 March 2013).

FORGIVENESS

Forgiveness is probably one of the hardest things to do.

Jesus’ well-known parable of the Prodigal Son, I think, is about forgiveness and yet it’s not a neat and tidy story, mind you.  For that matter, I’d say true forgiveness itself isn’t neat or tidy either.

Jesus tells this story in a string of parables.  In Luke’s fifteenth chapter, there’s the story of the lost sheep, the lost coin and then this one about a lost son.  A woman lost a coin, Jesus told the crowd of tax collectors and sinners, and she turned her whole house upside down until she found it.  When she found it, she threw a great party.  Or have you heard the one about the shepherd who had ninety-nine good sheep, but there was that one who ventured off by himself?  The shepherd left the others and found the lost sheep and brought him home.  And then this story about a son who broke his father’s heart but wound up penniless and broken.  He dragged himself home but not as a son, only in the hopes he might get a job on his dad’s farm as a day laborer.  With the same abandon as the woman who threw a party because she found her missing nickel, matching the joy of the shepherd who organized a block party to celebrate that an errant sheep was found, the father rushes out, embraces and kisses his beaten, broken younger son and plans an all-out banquet.  This is a story of redemption, the best kind of forgiveness.

THE PRODIGAL SON

Why bother including the petulant, whiny, bitter, resentful – yet faithful, steadfast – older son? Doing so breaks the string of parables.  It’s unlike the previous two.  And if the parable of the Prodigal Son was only about a bad boy and his loving father it would’ve been good enough, it would’ve been a great story, in fact.  Why ruin it, then, by including the older son?

Because if forgiveness is just about me and thee, it’s good but not enough.  Not enough to be called fit for the Kingdom of God.

At this point in Jesus’ ministry, his fame had spread so far and wide he was being courted, it seems, by the powerful elite, the teachers and scribes.  Days earlier, Luke tells us at the start of his fourteenth chapter, Jesus was invited to a Pharisee’s home for dinner on the Sabbath.  If you were trying to show off your power or intelligence, your prestige or wit, Jesus would be the worst possible guest to invite to a dinner party.  That night in the Pharisee’s home, Jesus told the esteemed guests they should sit at the lowest place, and that they’ve invited all the wrong people – rather, he said, they should’ve welcomed all those whom that group regularly excluded.  Not only did Jesus make a mockery of the function, but he pierced that crowd to the one place where it struck the most: their pride.  Jesus saw through all of that.  And he called it out.

Jesus was such a bad dinner companion that he was not only removed, for ever, from the social roster of Galilean soirees, but they came to hate him.  They wanted him gone.  They wanted him silenced for all time.  So much so that days later, by the beginning of Luke’s “lost parable” chapter, those whom he shamed are grumbling on the edges while Jesus’ time is now filled by throngs of those whom he said should’ve been invited to that swanky party.

When Jesus begins to describe, for them, what the Kingdom of God is like, he not only describes a God who searches for those whom the world would otherwise ignore but Jesus also includes them, those scribes and Pharisees who grumble at him and want him silenced and, more than that, want him dead.  The story of the Kingdom of God is that they, too – yes, they who have not and likely will not forgive Jesus – they, too, are included; they, too, are a part of the story; they, too, are loved.  That’s why the older brother is included.  Because all are included.

Like it or not, all must be included.  Forgiveness is about community, although it may not be a community in which each member recognizes him or herself as a constituent part.  True forgiveness is more than simply me and thee.  It involves self, God and, yes, other.

For ourselves, forgiveness is getting to a place where you know yourself to be loved, protected, whole and treasured.  Forgiveness is a realization that the hurts and harms which have been inflicted on you do not define you.  It is self-love.

Forgiveness also involves the other, like it or not.  Forgiveness demands we walk that much longer road towards placing genuine hope in the bonds of common humanity which unite us with one other, even if the other has been mean or vindictive or cruel.  It’s tapping into that deeper love which awakens your own spirit and, surely, must do the same for the other, even if you feel they’re going about it all wrong.  Forgiveness is hoping, indeed loving the basic essence of the other.

It’d be good to admit that this is made more difficult because of the economic view of human interaction too many of us share, too fundamentally:  if you love me I will love you; to the degree that you harbor hope for me, I will hope in you.  There’s very good chance that our loving the other, especially the one who has walked away, will not change them.  Perhaps the other may not love you, but love them, still.  Perhaps the other may not rejoice in you.  Rejoice in them, nevertheless.  Scripture isn’t a psychology textbook, distinguishing between forgiving and forgetting. Like I said, forgiveness isn’t neat or tidy or easily summarized into quick slogans.  This is where it gets hard.

I suspect that for this very reason, then, the parable of the Prodigal Son is left unfinished.  The brothers never unite.   In fact, the older son never calls his sibling “brother”.  The slave calls him “brother” (“…your brother has come”, verse 27); the father, when speaking to the older, calls the younger one “brother” (“…your brother was dead and has come to life”, verse 32), but the older  does not recognize the younger as a part of him.  To him, there is no brotherhood.  There is only brokenness, anger, divorce.

That’s how the story ends, not a summary but an offering – asking to be made complete in your hearing.  To the degree that we, ourselves, try to live into God’s free offering of full and perfect love and, yes, try to love self, other and God we make good news out of the raw material of our lives.

That’s why there is always that third component of forgiveness, the love of God, by which I  mean two things: first, our love for God and, second, God’s love for us – inviting God’s love into our admittedly feeble attempts to be nice and get along.  Like the brothers in this famous story,  we, too, on this side of heaven, are not reconciled with everyone with whom we should be.  Ours, too, is an incomplete story.  The love of God is that which brings the possibility of completion.  While we are still far off from one another, on roads set apart by resentment, bitterness and mistrust, our Father God walks alongside all of us, in a sense holding all in a profound yet subtle embrace, holding us until we find our way back home, until we find our way back together.

In the Nicene Creed, if you’ve noticed, we don’t confess that we believe forgiveness, as if it’s a neat and tidy and straightforward thing.  No one believes forgiveness.  Everyone has a story of brokenness in which they truly cannot heal, not yet at least, an experience they fear they may never forget.

What the Creed asks us to confess is that we believe in forgiveness.  Believing in something is more like hope, more akin to trusting in the possibility of something, even something far off and remote and seemingly impossible.  So we believe in it, we hope in it, we strive for it, as hard as it may be, saying boldly with the universal church “we believe in one baptism for the forgiveness of sins.”

……….

Excerpts from a sermon preached at St. George’s Episcopal Church on Sunday, 10 March 2013.  For the full text of the sermon, click here.

WHAT THE CHURCH SHOULD LEARN FROM GROUPON

This past weekend, I enjoyed a great retreat with St. George’s vestry.  It marked the beginning of a new chapter in my own thinking about ministry.  Some years ago, we started to chip away at having vestry function as the unpaid, overworked staff of the church.  That was was turning more people away than towards the Body of Christ.  In recent years, we’ve started to end the thinking that vestry are the ultimate institutional managers.  That wasn’t healthy, either — one, they weren’t able to see the hand of God in the whole of the parish and, two, it had the potential to set-up a battle between rector (visionary) and vestry (management).  For the first time since ending those unhealthy ways of functioning we’re on the verge of beginning something new.

ANDREW MASON

As a team, we’re preparing to follow a new and fairly bold vision.  At the same time, we wonder how we might grow or, rather, nest this vision organically, not impose or even teach it.  If the vision gets properly nested, we wonder, it may very well change the way we operate from the inside out, making the institution called “church” all the more akin to the living Body of Christ.

Recent events with the social networking site Groupon highlight this point.  Groupon’s founder and CEO, Andrew Mason, was fired last week.  The site isn’t making money.  In fact, the declining institutional Christian church looks remarkably good compared to Groupon’s performance.  Their current worth is a mere 18% of what it was just over one year ago!  Beguilingly, the company which is only five years young was Mason’s own idea.

I think the church could learn from Groupon.

Vision isn’t a Business Plan.

I guess CEO/Founders aren’t exempt from being fired.  Many church leaders think of themselves as visionaries.  Diocesan conventions reinforce this.  And no small amount of church members participate in this delusion — just ask anyone who’s ever served on a search committee.  What a shock, then, that having a vision doesn’t prevent getting canned.

The church’s only business plan is God’s kingdom.  What we call “vision” isn’t always the same thing.  The reality is that we’re mere infants in knowing how to talk, firstly, about the things of God.  It’s only been since the church was moved to the margins of society that we’ve had to learn another language, another besides secular business models.  (A priest friend once said she never passed up the opportunity to go into the “Business” section of a bookstore.  “They’re all so applicable to church life,” she said.  Guess Borders should’ve read them, too!)

And thus the cycle.  Leaders keep visioning while vestry-members fret about paying the bills.  Vision goes up against institutional management, evidenced in too many arguments about whether to give more to outreach ministry or pay the gas company.  It’s equally unfortunate to vault vision over business.

One of the ways the institutional Episcopal Church has figured out how to shut down business-as-usual is to teach its priests how to use power effectively.  The word rector (Wikipedia tells me its “from the Latin verb rego, regere, rexi, rectum“) has to do with being a ruler: “In a moral sense a rector has the function of keeping those under his authority on the ‘straight and narrow path’.” (Thanks, Wikipedia.)  This isn’t altogether bad.  In a congregation it’s important to have someone such as a priest, someone ultimately sensitive to seeking first the kingdom of God.  And yet clergy have been too well trained to know what power we have and what we do not need to share with others.

Only last week I was approached by someone from another congregation in another diocese who wanted to know if a rector had the right to hire or fire someone.  This person genuinely loved her church and her priest, but the situation was presented as a done deal.  It struck me that the better question wasn’t what power the rector had or didn’t have but, rather, whether there’s a better way altogether.

Clergy have been formed to function as we do.  I’ll go out on a limb and admit that, yes, there is a better way altogether, a way which involves honesty, openness, trust and humility.  This way is both visionary and institutional, exciting and banal, fresh and old-fashioned.  But in order to get there we need all the ministers of the church — lay and ordained — to show a real willingness to embrace the ways Jesus would have us function, and resist a ready compliance with the established business practices of yesterday’s world.

After years of work and prayer and patience, we’re at the precipice of this at St. George’s, Valley Lee.  Thank you, God!

Turn into the Skid.

One of the criticisms leveled against Groupon is that they identified the wrong client.  Others have tried to understand Google’s rise or Facebook’s IPO flop.

Social media is incredibly popular, but it’s not turning a profit in the way traditional businesses which follow traditional business models are supposed to.  The illusion of analysis is that we can understand a current trend by examining past performance.  This, however, is uncharted territory.  The connections we think should exist between popularity, use, and sustainability do not exist.

This applies to churches.  “If only we could attract the young families who are moving into that new subdivision,” someone thinks, assuming that if we attract them they’ll use us then they’ll help us.  This makes perfect sense to a previous business model.  The only fear is an insufficient amount of newcomers.

In my experience, it’s not about if we get newcomers.  Living and preaching the Gospel makes that a certainty. The deeper challenge is what happens, when?  When the Body of Christ grows it’s newer members will, more than likely, not pay or participate in the same way and to the same degree that those among the bulk of our current membership do.  The Millenial generation, for instance — the oldest of whom, at the most conservative estimate, turn 33 this year — will be the first generation of people who will make less money than their parents.  Underlying forces are changing deeply, and no one knows how this will turn out.

Learning to drive in Chicago, as I did, there’s an essential skill of winter driving called “turning into the skid.”  A driving instructor in Colorado put it well: “‘You have to go against your natural tendencies,’ he says. ‘Turn into the skid. You also need to accelerate.’ That last piece of advice seems to freak people out the most, he admits. ‘People don’t think about accelerating to control the car.'”  Your natural tendencies tell you otherwise.  Under the church’s chatter about becoming more relevant, I suspect, is a simultaneous assumption that we’ll grow in numbers, money and participation.  But if you want to truly grow, you’ve also got to turn into those underlying assumptions, crash into them and, in fact, accelerate.  That really will ‘freak people out.’

What if our increasing relevance leads, in turn, to the end of the previous business model?  What if we get more people but few care to fill the slots on committees?  Are we ready to have lots more people hungry for Jesus’ message of new life and at the same time — and as a consequence — toss out our old secular not-for-profit business model of church management?

This, I’ll offer, is our future reality.  In preparation for it, as a kind of practice, we should become more focused, nimble, lean and trim.  That’s the only way we’ll be able to turn into the forces besetting us, once they truly beset us.

Ironically, it turns out that all this work of vestry formation and leadership development was not to maintain that which we’ve had but to prepare, entirely, for something new.  It feels like that something new is also something true, something more fully the Body of Christ.  At St. George’s, Valley Lee, we’re getting ready, together.  We’ve been getting ready all these years.

THE STUPID PAROCHIAL REPORT

This will shock anyone who’s ever tried to teach me math, but I like numbers.  I believe that established metrics and regular evaluation are key to moving forward or, at least, knowing where you are and how you got there.  And I like trying to figure it out.

Episcopal Church leadership likes numbers so much they ask those of us on the ground every year to fill out “The Report of Episcopal Congregations and Missions according to Canons I.6, I.7, and I.17 (otherwise known as the Parochial Report).”  I like how they just casually toss in the Canons, a not so gentle hint.  Due March 1 this is, then, a time to celebrate that it’s done for another year.

THE PAROCHIAL REPORT

In its current form, the report stinks.  We’re hardly measuring the right things and the bulk of it measures the wrong ones.

The first section measures membership.  How many people were added?  Who’d you lose?  That’s how you get Total Active Baptized Members.  Those who are active but not baptized or were baptized in another denomination or, my goodness, another Episcopal church get a separate line: “Others who are active.”  Does no one move to a different city and not get around to having their letter transferred?  Also, in my experience, a greater percentage of the “Others who are active” are more active than those among the Active Baptized.

The longer we spend on this the further we get from more accurate metrics.  Measurements which point to vitality have to do with participation and discipleship — not membership.  The closest thing the Parochial Report comes to measuring that is Average Sunday Attendance, in my opinion one of the only worthwhile metrics.  The report tries to find the underlying story when it asks about baptisms or confirmations or “Total Church School Students Enrolled,” but these measure enrollment, not participation; sacraments, not discipleship; attendance, not leadership.

And don’t even get me started on the Letter of Transfer.  In six years, we’ve done two letters, one in, one out.  If evolution is the case, I hope the Letter of Transfer is the first thing to go.

Copyright Cartoon Church
http://www.cartoonchurch.com

Recently, a member of a local congregation told me they’d like to transfer their letter to St. George’s.  They intend to stay connected to both congregations but want to transfer membership here.  I said “No.”  I don’t want theirs or, for that matter, anyone’s letter.  In fact, I want the idea that someone becomes a member at one parish which has one priest (or a team of clergy) and is defined over against the other local parishes, Episcopal and otherwise, to go away.  I’m looking for church as a gathering of disciples or, at least, a mixed bag of those who are, those who want to be, and those who are genuinely curious about the whole discipleship affair.  At least I want the institution called “church” to model this and no longer churn out measurement tools which are pre-programmed to tell us we’re not where we were back in 1957.  I guess that’d be the second thing I hope would evolve away.

More, this distraction is inhibiting the building we need to be doing.  Leaders at the height of the Baby Boom built new buildings and new parishes; today’s Parochial Report is a vestige of that time.  Today’s work, though, is to build networks across parish boundaries, connections across geographical divisions, mission relationships beyond the lines our predecessors drew.

In our diocese, the parochial reports trickle out via a notable tradition of public shaming.  Every year, the convention booklet publishes the list of errant parishes, listing the truants by name and in categories from bad to worse.

Last year, we were one of the tardy congregations.  The report forced us to count numbers we don’t categorize in the same way, and it didn’t allow us to use the numbers which point to vibrancy. Someone said, “File an addendum,” which I knew would be read but go nowhere.  A colleague said, “Just file it.  They don’t care.”

I’ve written elsewhere about the creative way this parish has found a more lively connection between mission and money, operations and ministry.  (Read here and here and here.)  In short, we’ve set up a completely decentralized budget.  It does two things well:  one, the operations of the church are supported by a lean, central operating budget; two, the ministries of the church rise or fall depending on the movement of the Spirit of God amongst the People of God.  We don’t fund outreach or Christian education, for example.  And the ironic good news is that they raise more money because they are free.  In turn, because our operating budget is so lean we can see, at a quick glance, what’s going on with operations.

We are growing, in part, because we’ve learned that operations and ministry are both mission and yet are not the same.  We’ve freed ministry from operations.  Further, we understand that operational functions are not only a vital part of the church’s mission but also support relational ministry.  This, in turn, gives a new validity to administrative functions and operations.

This budget strategy is healthy, life-giving and the only way to make a budget according to the logic of the Body of Christ, not the illogic of the world.  But it’s squarely in conflict with the assumptions behind the Parochial Report.

Our Normal Operating Income (NOI), then, is slim.  But that’s not all the money.  Even more small mindedly, the Parochial Report enforces a myopic view of expenditures and money raised.  Outreach expenditures are “Outreach from operating budget.”  According to this illogic, we report $0.00 given to build up our community and world.  In reality, we raised and spent $13,144.76 in 2012 and $9,767.71 in 2011, lots more money than we were ever able to give out of the centralized operational budget!  The report doesn’t even ask about Christian education or young adult or senior adult or youth ministry.

Beyond griping, here are five suggestions for revising the issues surrounding the Parochial Report:

1.  Determine new actual average measurements, in addition to Average Sunday Attendance (ASA), that might point to discipleship, leadership, and participation.  Poll church leadership and ask one question, “What are the things you do in the course of your week which tell you if something’s working and there’s growth energy?”  On the basis of what I’m sure will be a fairly universal set of responses, determine new actual average measurements.

2.Establish that Normal Operating Income (NOI) be determined by the total of four actual numbers: (a) total pledge contributions, (b) total ‘plate’ contributions, (c) any rental fees from parish properties, and (d) contributions from congregation’s organizations.

3. This will force and free up congregations to figure out other ways to budget the categories the Parochial Report currently determines as being inclusive of the NOI.  It’s likely they’ll stumble upon a decentralized budget like we use at St. George’s, Valley Lee.  They, too, will enjoy the healthy distinction between operations and ministry.  Moreover, they’ll see money given to support operations go up, if only remain the same.

4.  Make timely receipt of the Parochial Report without sufficient excuse and blessing from the Bishop or Ecclesiastical Authority the determining factor whether a parish or mission gets seat and voice and vote at that next year’s Diocesan Convention.

5.  Make 10% giving of NOI — the NOI I sketched, above — mandatory for all parishes.  If the diocese enables its congregations to find a life-giving connection between money and mission the diocese deserves 10%.  Counterintuitively, the reason too many dioceses abandoned mandatory giving is because institutional, diocesan leadership is unsure of their role as network builders and uncertain how to model a new way of being of the institution and, at the same time, free of the institution.

And while I’ll bet a lot of readers were with me right up until I said “turn it in on time or lose your vote” and “give 10% to the diocese” the larger point is this:  in an age in which people from all generations are happily walking away from institutions and institutionalism, the only choice remaining for those of us commissioned with leadership of these, face it, institutions is whether we propagate the old way (which a lot of us don’t believe in) or whether we use these structures to truly help people measure the areas in real life which impact joy, success, strength, and energy (positively or negatively).  When we revise our metrics, we might actually see more liveliness, vitality and growth than we’ve previously seen or appreciated.  We might, as well, see more clearly what’s standing in the way and needs to be removed or refashioned.  Who knows?  That awakening might actually make us more boldly the Body of Christ on earth, and more equipped to model it for others.