The Margins

Many of us live close to the margins. And not just the poor.

There are all kinds of margins. Money is an easy one to identify. It is easy feel that we need more. We spend easily, money dripping through our fingers like water. And many don’t even notice it. But we know if we don’t have financial room, and it is tight and constraining.

Some are more so than others: they are only one hospital bill or one child away from poverty: one accident away from financial disaster, or jobless. Those are difficult margins – we don’t have any room or space.

Another margin is time. Westchester is busy. It’s easy to get caught up in the number of tasks we just have to do. We run from picking up the kids to karate to shopping. And as we get more harried, we seek convenience, and then we seem to have less time.

So how do we find just a little bit of space? To have a little cash – just enough not to worry; to have enough time to let the mind be fallow and restful? To allow for some focusing? Well, there is changing the entire system. But aside from that?

It might mean taking a quick break; going on a much needed retreat; insisting on a 1/2 hour walk without an ipod. It might mean taking a morning to try something creative. But resist scheduling; give yourself time to cook, to read, to do what gives you joy. It is in those spaces we become human.

It might mean examining more clearly how we spend our lives. Note the use of the word “spend” as if our lives are themselves commodities, that our time is equal to money. Money can be, however, simply a measurement rather than an indicator of moral worth. I have found that when I journal and monitor my spending and eating and my time, I can make choices that are more joyful. I realize how much I have already.

It takes building a resistance to conveniences, to rushing, to spending, to restoring a sense of what is lovely and beautiful. It often requires saying “enough” or “no” to another task.

It is alright not to rush, to have space. And the antidote is a healthy amount of gratitude. That’s the reason we give to each other, we give to our communities, we give to ourselves. Through giving, we find we have more space to move, a greater ability to discern what matters, sloughing off the clutter that drives us crazy. Through collaborating and sharing ourselves, we’ll find it inconvenient, but more rewarding, and a lot less costly.

For if we’re always trying to have more, aren’t we distracted from what we have which has previously given us sustenance and joy?

What’s Up with Holiness?

I’ve always found the word “holy” to be a little strange.

I usually hear it describe other nouns. Like when someone says “Holy cow” or “holy moly” or “super holy mother of all crazy freak monster trucks….”

Or maybe when it refers to my coat pocket and the reason I keep losing pens.

Perhaps you’ve heard it used when someone says they are “holier-than-thou.” These are judgmental individuals. We don’t find people who value “holiness” to be a lot of fun, and they are generally dull at parties. Holy people are the ones always abstaining and raising their eyebrows when you’ve said a cuss word to make a point or had your third or fourth glass of wine.

Well, nobody else was drinking that glass. It was a 1985 Pomerol and needed to be quaffed.

It’s true that holiness is an important part of spirituality. But it is not about our private pieties, those feelings that allow some to feel closer to God than others. Holiness is not a weapon to be used against the unholy or profane. The world has too many people trying to go to war with the “unholy.” There are too many people who think we could establish what unholiness is for all time and in all places and destroy it. As if.

The root impulse of holiness, however, is to separate and to distinguish. One object or event goes in one place; another goes in another place. Holiness is at the root of any enterprise that tries to name and categorize. It is a way of understanding the world, a way of sorting.

The new revelation in Jesus Christ is that he has changed what gets distinguished. What is formerly holy: especially sacred violence or those systems that make some people better than others, is revealed to be … human. That’s all. Everything becomes de-divinized. In some sense, Jesus’ holiness is a secular, pragmatic holiness. It may be compelling; it may be lovely, but it moves as we move.

One person remarked to me, when reconstructing our new space, that now we could experience the “holy.”

I was a little taken aback, but I knew what he meant. Holiness is not merely a description of our own emotional or physical purity, but our ability to hold together being both on the edge of the familiar while also taking a great adventure. And the space represents an adventure we are taking together as a community. We are facing each other, and we are closer together. And we have no idea what’s going to happen. Frightening? Yes. Exciting? Also, yes.

Holiness is like a place where we are on the precarious edge, as if we are at the top of a waterfall or the highest point of a rollercoaster. We have closed our options in one part of our life, and turned to look forward to another.

It is dangerous and frightening, because when we are in the presence of the holy, life and death are at stake.

Perhaps this is why we experience holiness at the top of a mountain or at the edge of the ocean. We understand how fragile our lives are when we are at the edge of the earth’s immensity: mountains and oceans can kill us with a fatal step.

Perhaps it is also why we experience holiness at the birth of a child, or when someone is about to breathe their last breath. It is also why witnessing two people hold hands while they are jumping to their death, when people hold on to love even as they meet their tragic end, we are in the presence of the holy.

Holiness is being on the edge of the precipice, when we are aware of the balance between what makes a life, and what we have lost. It can be most present when we are witnessing a terrible tragedy.

Or it can also be a feast.

Being Thankful

A happy thanksgiving to you!

Travel safely. Make sure your tires are filled with air.

What are you thankful for?

I’m thankful for an excuse to open a 2004 Petit Vougeot.
For my brother’s apple pie, still in the refrigerator.
Kids outside my office door. Yelling.
A balmy day, for November.
That most of my friends are employed.
And those that aren’t who are glad to have time.
For work that is rewarding and fruitful.
Fresh fruit from the CSA.
The organic short ribs in my freezer.
Those that help with the bulletin.
Who make the sanctuary beautiful.
For love, undeserved.
The possibility of competent government.
The anticipation of a transformed and loving community.
Getting rid of stuff.
The new saloon that opened down on Gedney way.
Reconnecting with friends I haven’t seen for 20 years.
Accidental friendships that are new!
For reconnecting with family I didn’t know I had.
Tito Puente’s “Picadillo a la Puente”
The first movement of Beethoven’s 6th symphony.
For the latin word “et cetera.”

Don’t Invite People to Church

I recently read a fabulous article by a young Episcopalian. Her tag: stop inviting people to church.

Yep. Don’t invite people to church.

I understand why she says such. “Conversion” is often confused with “you’d better believe what I believe, or else.” I know it is a misunderstanding of the word; and I’m personally convinced that the Episcopal Church may save all that is good and holy and just in the church. But as someone with an interfaith background, I’m simply not interested in proselytizing.

I suspect Jesus was less interested in getting people to think the same, than to invite them into peaceful relationships.

Since we are in a post-Christian age, the faith will encounter lots of suspicion. The stereotype of Christians are that we can’t stand difference, sex and bomb Muslims.

Clearly, Episcopalian, modernist Christians will be misunderstood.

So stop inviting. That just affirms the wrong things about the faith.

Besides, it’s not working for us.

Instead, she suggests, just get out there and listen. Meet people and enjoy them. Chances are they are just expecting you Christian person to be another crusader for an agenda they don’t believe. Defeat that expectation.

When they say “I hate organized religion,” you can agree – we’re theologically disorganized, after all, compared to our sister Roman church. When they say they are “spiritual but not religious” there is no reason to mock their lack of commitment. And when they express their fears about religion, you can hold their hand.

It’s enough that you know that St. Barts is a different place. You are making it into a different kind of institution. In the fullness of time, our church will respond better to the lives around it – as we become a listening, learning, organization.

Don’t be afraid to be who you are. When your religious identity comes up, articulate it. State what you believe: I don’t hate gays, I don’t think other faiths are damned, I believe in evolution, but I follow in the path of Jesus Christ and believe that he liberated us from the powers of the world. If you aren’t sure you can say at least Yes, for what it is worth, I believe, even though I don’t always know what the end of that sentence is.

Chances are they are expecting you to convert them. Instead, stop. Don’t let it cross your lips. As they ask you about your theology, your commitment, your practice, do not invite them to church. If they ask to visit, don’t tell them how much you want them to be there. Say instead how much you love the community and what it has done for you. Be the church by simply letting the holy love lead them.

But don’t invite them to church.

You are now, and forever, off the hook. It is enough to hold fast to the idea that the Divine Affection cradles you in His arms and loves you effortlessly. I promise you, it will come up, where you to church. Tell them I’m not allowed to invite people. I’m only allowed to care for them.

Yes, we are called to preach the gospel. But the strongest evidence that we have inculcated the Gospel is a confidence in our own hearts; one that trusts that He knows what He is doing, even in the lives of those who misunderstand the nature of God, Christ, and His Church.

Because the faith is not just holed up in the institution. It is manifest in every relationship we create. It is enough to get out there, love and challenge the world that has been created, and work to build the peaceable kingdom with those who would have it.

Words and Promises

In the Gospel, Jesus tells the parable of two sons who were asked by the father to do something. We don’t know the task. We don’t know if it was trivial or important. But we have a fairly common problem: A father, two sons, and a job to do. Like painting the side of a house or getting dinner or picking up mom.

One says “of course” and then promptly forgets, either willfully or not. We don’t know. The other refuses: “nope, dad, got something better to do.” But then does. Who did the will of the Father? The one who agreed to act but didn’t? Or the one who refused, and did? The answer is easy. The one who did as his father asked.

Everyone gets the answer right.

The easy lesson of the parable is “do” rather than “say.” We’re already familiar with how that our actions speak louder than words, that leading by example makes a deeper impression than a casual command, and that talk is cheap. We see these things all the time. After all, we’re in the middle of a political campaign.

When I was in Korea, a Korean parliamentarian reflected upon the use of Western law in Korea. She said, “one problem is that we Koreans believe that words lie.” In oppressive contexts, where tyrants rule, and power is located not in the law but in the person enforcing it, words mean nothing. You have to guess the hidden meaning within the layers of language that make law, and hope you won’t get killed. The language of empire – one that can include law – can be one of cruelty and fear.

Granted, we need words. Words, themselves, are almost like magic in what they telegraph. Words are at the heart of the law and judgment. Some say that words themselves are where God lives.

Words also communicate judgment. Yet sometimes when we say something about others, we probably could say the same things about ourselves.

Still, if consistency and action were the criteria for saying anything, I think we probably wouldn’t say very much at all, or be reduced to making bland comments about the weather and the Mets and what the heck happened to them this year.

Sometimes we use words to lead us into a future – like promises: “Yes, I’m going to be held accountable for this future action even though I might be easily distracted.” Words help us establish trust. Words can also help us reframe our thinking so that we can act more confidently.

I can imagine that one of the problems in our current economic crisis is that people don’t trust what others say. “You say you have money, but I don’t believe you. So I’m keeping what money I have.” And perhaps we’ve seen a lot of misplaced words and promises in our current situation.

Perhaps we are invited to consider that words themselves are actions. The problem with the first son is that he was careless, and flippantly went on his way thinking that what he said did not matter. His words weren’t actions to him. They were just words. They were breaths of air, babbling sounds to ease a conversation. Alternately, the second son valued his own words, and then changed his mind. And perhaps it is also useful to remember that it is alright, in our faith, to change our minds. We can say what we think, recognizing that yes, the world changes, and so can we.

Learning to Communicate

Once, when I was living in Korea, I was greeting a well known CEO of a large corporation. I had only been speaking basic Korean for about a month and said “thank you,” bowing in the manner I had been taught.

The man looked at me for a moment and smiled. A fellow priest patted me on the back and laughed. As we departed, he said, “let’s practice ‘thank you.'” We practiced a couple times. I had replaced the “m” with an “n” by accident.

I had really said, “you’re stupid.”

Cats and dogs communicate, but they have very different gestures. When cats have their tail down, they are hunting; Dogs are happy. When Dogs are on their back, they submit; when cats do, they’re attacking. When a cat is saying “kill the furry rodent” a dog is sensing “aww, the cat likes me!” The war between cats and dogs is primarily a problem of misinterpretation.

One time I thought I preached an inclusive, gentle welcoming sermon that was happy and generous. Later, I was told it was patronizing – I had chastised the congregation.

It was like being in Korea again.

Sometimes we don’t say what we mean to say. Sometimes we do, but we need to say it differently. Sometimes we don’t hear what other people are saying; and sometimes we hear the wrong thing. Sometimes our actions and words say different things.

But if we were always worried about misinterpretation, we probably couldn’t say much at all. Charity – aka love – is, perhaps, the root of all translation.

How do we manage everyday misinterpretation and misunderstanding?

1) Trust in each other’s best motives.

2) Welcome feedback. With trust, we can improve and raise our attention with one another.

3) Remain connected. This is how the church works: how we help each other. The promise of the gospel: our relationships matter, and with tenacity and love, we save one another. Being connected does not mean being fused, or thinking identically. All it means is continuing a conversation.

4) Speak with integrity. This does not mean we have to speak perfectly. State what you mean as best you can. And if there is misinterpretation, allow for charity.

5) Sometimes working together is the way of building a new language. It is only through continuing to participate together that we actively build a new community.

None of this is easy: I submit, the culture makes it hard. But with a bit of grace, and will, the work of translation isn’t so bad. Perhaps then: comprehension. And more than that: liberation.

A couple thoughts on General Convention

Over the summer, the General Convention of the Episcopal Church met in Anaheim, California. There was plenty of good work getting done. The church considered a variety of issues, from benefits for lay employees, support of the Cuban Church, and the other foundational work that allows us to support each other.

One issue excited the media: the affirmation that sexual orientation should not be a bar for the episcopacy. In 2006, General Convention resolved that the church would have a moratoria on consecrating gay bishops for the sake of the communion. It wasn’t suitable for many who opposed, who were looking for a rejection of Bishop Robinson, the first openly gay bishop in Catholic Christendom.

The resolution merely affirms this: The Episcopal Church finds no theological reason to discriminate. One’s sexuality will not be the primary criteria for a Church’s appointment.

Although this may disturb many people, it is a consequence of the democratic nature of the institution and the fragmentation of denominational life that has been happening since the early 70’s.

Because General Convention, our ruling body, is a democratic institution, the church will always accommodate changing cultural views – and the Episcopal church is an accurate bellweather for the views of the culture at large.

The shift toward an agnostic perspective toward sexuality is exacerbated by the cultural shift of the church from a “voice” institution to an “exit” institution. “Voice” institutions are like families: you might not like it, but you don’t leave the family. “Exit” institutions are like franchises or stores.

We are in an era where churches compete, like other businesses, for attention. Conservatives may leave for friendlier franchises while social liberals dominate the Episcopal church. This is the consequence of the church succumbing to the ethos of a commercial society. Do I think this is bad? Not necessarily, but I’m sentimental.

When we divide we are truly succumbing to a cultural shift that affirms our own particular ideological preference is more important than the relationships we have. That said, I do think that “capitalism” – even as churches compete – is more responsible for peace than war. And I’m willing to argue about it (and be proven wrong as well).

However, I worry as we move away from the conservative – and honorable – traditions that affirm loyalty, tenacity and engagement; that familial relationships and traditions are of equal importance to individual preference.

What does this mean for the church? My predictions:

1) The episcopal church will still continue to select primarily married male bishops.
2) Dioceses throughout the world will be split. Bishops in Africa who need our help will be in conflict with other bishops who find the Episcopal view taboo. This split will be difficult in some places, but allow for greater pockets of safety for individuals of different sexualities in less tolerant countries.
3) The Episcopal Church will become a niche church for those who are socially libertarian and theologically modern.
4) The Church of England will be forced to confront its own hypocrisy in its clerical orders as the Archbishop tries to figure out what to do next.
5) The Episcopal Church will continue to build relationships with dioceses throughout the world based on feeding the hungry, clothing the naked and visiting the prisoner.
6) Most Episcopal Churches will continue to decline because they do not offer compelling alternative views to the culture at large.

I do not think the church will grow because of our church’s clarity. It may grow. But people rarely join churches because of an idea. My friends who are cheering the Episcopal church’s liberality aren’t the sort who will find themselves darkening our doors. However, church communities that offer authentic hope, help and hospitality grow, no matter what their beliefs are.

At St. Barts I have been deliberate on ensuring that our own church does is not divided by social, political or economic issues. What unites us our mutual trust and gratitude in being able to experience God’s grand creation.

When the Lord said, “love one another” he didn’t continue with the word, “but…” or “if….” It seems like a simple command, doesn’t it? But how difficult it is when what we believe matters more.

David and Bathsheba

Over the last several weeks we’ve been discussing the David story in Samuel. A king, a bit impetuous, handsome, a celebrity. There’s illicit sex, pointless violence, hard-fought redemption. It is a story that still resonates.

In the Hebrew bible, the heroes make mistakes; they break the rules; they ignore tradition; even the anointed are punished and the righteous are wrong.

David’s seduction of Bathsheba and murder of her husband, if anything, demonstrates that being divinely approved does not insulate one from doing wrong. David, so inebriated by his own power, succumbing to his immediate whims, is blind to the violence and misery he causes. Instead of examining himself, he believes that only other men are capable of evil. After being a soldier for so long, it was always the other country.

Nathan – his prophet – tells him a parable, effectively holding up a mirror, shocking him out of his narcissism; warning him of the consequences. David is shocked by what he sees.

The theologian James Alison notes that religion can build a fortress from which we judge others and protect ourselves; or it can be a source of inward reflection and self-understanding. It can teach us to judge others; or it can be a way of changing our own behavior. David was king, chosen by the Israelite God who broke the code of law, believing he had every right to.

But then he is challenged by the prophet, who embodies the conscience. “You are the man!”

A journalist once reflected that the most pious individuals are most at risk to cut moral corners. The morally rigorous justify their severity towards others, but keeping their own shortcomings in private. Those who believe that they speak the Word of God are often those who have the most to hide.

And yet, if we are willing to reflect inward, to see in ourselves our bare humanity, we will find an opening for the transcendent to break in, offer enough clarity to understand who we are, and grant us enough resilience to handle the vicissitudes of our life with confidence. It is thus only with humility and great trepidation may we judge the moral consciences of others, and make the mistake that we are different than our fellow human beings.

All the Credit We Need

Remember when the market crashed in 2008?

You saw the images of traders. Some were about to cry. Others rubbing their forehead, trying to figure out their next step: the frustrated frown; the blank incredulous stare; the head on the desk, the graph of the market plunging downward, probably weeping, billions under his care suddenly vanished.

Where did it go? Did they ever even exist? All that light over the internet, symbols of great wealth and power, going dark, as the numbers rapidly decrease.

What to do? Governments are cutting rates; others are taking over banks. They are busycajoling people to share and stop hoarding, to get the big monetary institutions to trust each other again. But even governments themselves are having a hard time. Iceland, after 10 years of buying up parts of Europe, is back to fishing.

Mark Taylor, the theologian, uses the metaphor of poker to describe the desire to keep the markets trading. But the poker game has ended. We’re sitting around the table, deciding its time to go and cash in our chips, when the banker of the house says, I’ve got no money. Your chips are worthless. Perhaps we were just playing for fun (add wan smile and shrug).

The banker himself had invested a fair amount. He’d thought that when others bought into the game, they’d use real cash themselves. But some of us asked for credit as well when we anted up and we all agreed. Why not? We were doing it ourselves.

Most of us.

But now all the players are left stranded.

Nobody thought they’d want to end the game. They thought it would continue forever, until the end of time, or the King Returned. People would add money and our pots would just get bigger. Everyone could keep buying in.

Until just one person, or two, or three, decided they wanted to cash in.

Some will suggest that we have to continue playing: Give everyone a half-credit; redistribute the chips; Get some real money in the system. But everyone’s tired and nobody trusts the banker. Or each other.

Nobody realized that nobody had actually given the house any money.

I’m not an economist. I don’t have a crystal ball about the future. And I don’t think it’s all that helpful to offer a Panglossian veneer on the subject. People are hurting and scared and poorer. Bless them. Bless the investor, bless the banker, bless the retiree, the businessman, bless the homeowner.

At the very least, the light that was the virtual pool of wealth in cyberspace, has also revealed itself to connect every person in our commercial reality. So what are we to do with each other? Judgment? Of course. Mutual Aid? A few wishful chants of “never again?” Why not, if it makes us feel better.

I had begun writing this essay before seeing the Dow, exploring this idea of being the “master of the universe.” It’s what lots of traders thought of themselves as they were busy exchanging vast sums of money. Perhaps now comes the hard truth that we are not masters, even the most die-hard self-actualizing Rand worshipping libertarian. Once a master, now a servant.

I don’t have many suggestions. Buy low? If you’ve got money, then go ahead. Sell? Well, that’s what everyone else is doing. Invest in green infrastructure? It is tangible, but it won’t help the church endowment right now and that will have to wait until after the election that to have any impact. When you come to church, I’m not going to give you any stock tips. Except Berkshire Hathaway, and you’ve probably already figured that one out yourself.

But I do know this:

I hope that at the end of the day, if you’ve lost gobs of money trading, you have a sweetheart you can go home to who just doesn’t give a damn about the millions you’ve lost.

I also hope that your number isn’t published.

I hope that your children will run up to you and give you a big kiss on the cheek just because you exist and ask you to play catch or read them a story.

I hope to Jesus that when your best friend calls you, it won’t just be to ask you about the thousands of his you lost investing in Lehman brothers, but about how your holding up. I hope he forgives you and will accept your buying him an extra round a drinks.

(By the way, what in God’s name were you thinking? You could have done a little research on credit swaps. They were toxic.)

And for those of us who don’t have much invested, we’re going to have some people to help along the way. Our soup kitchen is going to get a bit more crowded, our thrift shop will get a bit more busy (although these last two quarters we’ve had record breaking receipts. Ka-Ching!), and there will be a few people selling their businesses, or being terminated from their jobs.

I hope that here, our treasure was never in the stock market to begin with.

It was right here. Our confidence was somewhere else.

In our small tendernesses; in our sharing of scripture and stories. It was right here when ten of us drank three bottles of wine celebrating the new altar we built ourselves.

It was right here when the thrift shop ladies, myself and Debbie had soup and salmon right in the middle of the sanctuary.

Let everyone else hoard their stashes of money. Here we share a little of our mutual gratitude. Let it be enough.

Its enough for us to love each other and pick up the shards of that remain from the broken spirits and hearts around us. Its enough to be the presence of God for those who’ve been only in the presence of mammon. It is enough to just be the jar that contains the spirit of hope and courage.

It’s not much. But it’s enough.

And in a world that always wants more perhaps that’s what’s we’re saying. We know what our treasure is. And it is enough. And we can still share it and spread it around a bit.

We’ve got a little love, and we’ve got a little faith, and that’s enough.

It’s all the credit we need.

Praise Him!

On Being Separated From Humanity

Over the last three week’s we’ve been exposed to some fairly severe tragedies: the murder of three women by an angry, lonely, depraved man; the drunk mother who drove the wrong way on the Taconic, killing eight.

For most of us, these are clear examples of right and wrong, concrete representations of injustice and horror. I’ve heard the word “evil” spoken even by individuals who believe that everyone is, in their hearts, good. “How could she do such a thing?” I’ve heard over and over; “That man will burn in hell.”

Anger, surprise, frustration – all rational responses. The rage and selfishness of these two individuals seem beyond our comprehension. How did the man get to that stage of anger? How could that woman have been so selfish?

And our moral outrage is justified. It is our way of honoring the humanity of those whose lives were cut mercilessly short.

Last week the scriptures stated that Jesus is the “bread of life.” This poetic description of Christ is an alteration: instead of Jesus being violently sacrificed for the sake of peace, we’re invited into a different way of gathering people into a community.

What happened in the community of hearers was a complete change in their relationship with one another. As Jesus was inviting them, through love, into a relationship with a different, non-violent, non-judgmental, loving spirit, they were invited into gracious, encouraging, joyful and hopeful relationships with each other. The bread of life was the glue that helped them endure each other’s quirks, frailties and challenges: because being in relationship with other people is hard work. Jesus is saying – stay connected. And you don’t need to kill people to do it.

George Sodini and Diane Schuler were both extremely isolated. To some extent, they were free to make the decisions they made; although theologically, Augustine would argue they were “slaves to sin.” Sodini was enslaved by his anger; Schuler was enslaved by drink.

The church’s perspective is not much different than the popular view, in some ways. We mourn the dead. We hate what is evil. We pray for justice. We trust that witnessing tragedy evokes some transformation toward what is beautiful and good in others.

These two individuals, who were closed from society and their own deep own emotional needs, stand in stark contrast to the fundamental task of the church. We exist to keep people connected; to remind people that they can learn to hold their anger, rage and sorrow without violence, while trusting in a community of faithful believers, if they so choose. A friend of mine, sober for 22 months said to me, that by giving up the hooch, she gained close new friends. Although not everyone needs to be abstinent, the truth is that it is often our connections that save us, and we find many ways to cut people off.

We say there is no justice sacrificing others at the altar of our own self-righteousness, frustration or hatred. There is no eternal redemption or peace at the bottom of a bottle. They are temporary, ephemeral satisfactions at best. And at worst they destroy lives, and break our hearts.

As the innocent die, the cross again represents. As well as we must confront the implicit, if paradoxical, challenge to those of us witnessing: it didn’t need to be that way.