Most of the time, when people think of what churches do, they think “indoctrination.” It makes sense. Churches have schools, offer education and preach a particular story. I don’t think it is the primary role of the church, but it is one role that churches have had.

And indoctrination is not all bad: some people do need to be reminded that they should do unto others good things. It’s a shortcut to thinking – a way of training one’s instincts for the good.

I want to suggest, however, that churches are primarily about something different: churches do relationships. (They also enchant the world, but that’s another essay).

“Relationship” happens before rules. Connecting happens before doctrine. It is from experiencing relationships that the church has had with all those people who have been in the church (and outside), that the church created doctrine. Sometimes its rules don’t make much sense, but they made sense at some time.

Doctrine is not the end point of the faithful person. It is not our purpose. Our purpose is more about connecting people with each other – and through those relationships we begin to see what God looks like. Our first encounter with God is usually through the encounter of other persons. Like our children; or our parents; or our friends and spouses. And sometimes our enemies.

In England they recently agreed to consecrate women bishops. It’s a remarkable change for Catholic Christianity – one that England’s sister churches throughout the globe have already experienced. And the reason for the change is that the church’s experience and relationshp with women has changed. The challenge still continues: how do we maintain relationships with people who think differently about the consecration of women? Personally, I find that there is even a question about the merits of women’s ordination itself to be a bit strange, but there are many world views, of which I’m not familiar that have their own internal logic.

From our relationships that we begin to understand the church’s mission. How do we, as a community, become a place for healing, joy, peace and fortitude? We need to know where people are hurting; where they have conflict; and when they are weak. I suggest that this includes most of us at some point.

I imagine that in Westchester people have different sorts of anxieties. Money is a pretty central; raising children in the midst of affluence and unregulated desire; environmental challenges. Many families are trying to sort through the immense changes that the culture is experiencing. How do we become the place that serves them?

This is part of a greater strategy to discern our mission. Recently I asked someone who had been a member of the church for about 40 years what he thought the mission was. He had just suggested closing the church down. And he couldn’t give me an answer. I don’t think this is unusual.

I do think, however, that there is a purpose and a reason for our community: but discerning it comes from maintaining and fostering connections with each other. From those connections we can begin to formulate the way this church can be a place of strength and love for any person who walks through our doors.

Making Space

Over the last few days I’ve been thinking a lot about one aspect of the spiritual life that gets very little attention. It affects several dimensions of our everyday work, but is rarely at the forefront of our consciousness.

Storage space.

There is the practical sense of storage: where do we put the Sunday School supplies? Can we mix them with the supplies for The House? Why does the Buddhist group have so many bins? Where are the wine glasses? And why are we storing the fire pit in padremambo’s office?

A lack of storage space produces an immense amount of anxiety. We can’t always find things. It gets sloppy. And it becomes very hard to move around in the rector’s office.

There are plenty of ways we can begin to solve the problem of storage.

The first, is to get rid of lots of stuff. We don’t need the old cables and computers and magazines and the chemicals now underneath the stairs next to the kitchen. I think I could probably rid myself of a few of my books, even though they are like old friends. Get rid of stuff – let someone else have it. Then perhaps we’ll have more room for storage.

Sometimes things are just messy. So then we need good bins. Having clear containers keeps things separated, allowing us to discern what we have and what we don’t, helping us reduce the need to buy more stuff. Then we open up space for more storage. And we might find that we have a bit more room to move around in.

Sometimes we just need to label the storage space we already have. This allows us some clarity, giving us a bit more time to find what we really need.

If this all seems a bit too practical for the spiritually minded, let me clarify: our spiritual life is often about how we store things: do we place our frustrations upon other people? Are we carrying around too much stuff? Do we find that our lives are a bit too messy? Or do we just need some labels?

Now – I’m not advocating that we should not have some mess: after all, if we are a growing church, we’re going to have to rethink storage. Just being forced to think about “storage” is itself a sign that the spirit is inviting us to change. Being able to say, “I can live with a little mess” is as important as saying “this is such a mess that we’d better do something before it gets more messy.” Either way is fine. The first step might merely mean knowing what we’re storing, where we’re putting it, and is it what is best for us.

We’re thinking a lot about storage because we’re growing. It’s a bit painful – and our space here at church is going to change. But its a good change, one that demonstrates that the spirit is working here.

But what kind of stuff do you have? Where are you storing it? On your bodies? In your daily drink? In your restlessness? Can the church help you get rid of it? Or just do you need permission to say, “hey – its ok. you don’t need to keep it. Just throw it away. Give it up” or pray that “I need some more storage space. Perhaps the spirit can help me make some more room.”

I believe it can. It does, however, take attentiveness to just see the mess, and how we’ve got things in the wrong bins, and that we could consolidate a bit or just take some things over to good will.

I’ve often seen that people who keep taking on other people’s burdens have a hard time regulating what they eat; instead of caring for their own bodies, they are running around for other people. And while they destroy their own bodies, nobody really gets any better. Their burdens become the physical weight that they carry. They end up storing other people’s illnesses in their own bodies.

The church can be a place where people unload what they’ve “stored.” Admittedly, I know of plenty of people who when they are feeling burdened the last place they want to be is church. I can understand it – if church is a place of guilt and work rather than of rest and joy, why should anyone bother? Perhaps the church has to sometimes rethink how it stores the love of its people.

In the early church, Christ was considered a “manager of the mind.” He was the storage manager. He was the one who found places to put stuff. Taking sorrows, emptying them, placing them in places where they wouldn’t get too messy, ensuring there would be more space for us to move around in.

His promise was that there would always be enough room.

Ash Wednesday

On Ash Wednesday usually someone comes up to me and asks me why there is a smudge on my head.  Thinking I’ve not taken a shower, they try to figure out what it is, and then attempt to clean it off.  I should be thankful they noticed:  it would be worse if they didn’t.

Most of us want to be noticed.  Either by someone we like, our parents, our employer, or just strangers who can identify the various trinkets we adorn ourselves with.  We buy cars and obsess over reality TV.  We wear clothes that call attention to us.   We want to be seen.

Plenty of people used to go to church just to be noticed.  It’s not very much to ask for. There are plenty of things we do for no other reason than to be assured that we’re respectable and cool.  But when Jesus says, “where your treasure is, there your heart will be also,” he’s practically saying, “who cares if you’re cool?  Maybe the cool people.  Or people who aren’t cool and want to be like you.”  What is noticed by Love is not always what we think gets noticed.

And yet it does.  But what are the rewards?  What are people working for?  Jesus identifies how easy it is for us to be moved by others; and instead asks us about what our private wishes are.   The challenge is for us to found our own power, without the anxieties that our class or status bring.

It may take work.  At least forty days.  We are so inundated with people trying to gather out attention, that it may take us making radical choices – choices that might not be easy to make.  To discover who we are and what we are meant to be might require sacrifices; it might require a little bit of discipline.   The purpose may not be to refrain for the sake of refraining, but rather to learn to pay attention better.

Perhaps once we’ve let go of our distractions we might notice our world differently – we might relearn how to see it.  Instead of being dull and overwhelming, the world will become enchanted and reliable.  Because we have given up the craziness of always being noticed, we ourselves will notice what glorious things are right in front of us.

On Lent

From 2009

It doesn’t look good. Just the other day I heard about a few acquaintances who have lost their jobs. In the scope of the disaster, they are lucky – at least one person garnishes a wage, and they’ve saved enough to manage. Another might move north to cheaper rent.

So we’re going to be in the wilderness for a while. People are hunkering down, spending less and taking shelter. People are even buying less beer. Or at least they are buying cheaper beer. And beer is counter cyclical.

Perhaps Lent is a lot like an economic depression.

Some years I’ve used this time to practice new habits. One year was so horrible, Lent became my excuse to party. Usually I give up some food group, but other times I’ve added a task. Sometimes I have six or seven new disciplines and ended up with just one by Easter.

However, I don’t think Lent is primarily about “giving up sugar in your tea” or discerning all the ways you’re bad. We can be reminded of that on a regular basis, even without Lent. After all, we fall short often, even when we work arduously for whatever prize we seek. Jesus didn’t go into the wilderness because he needed to become more perfect or because he was supposed to give something up. He was driven there to understand who he was.

The wilderness is, by nature, a place where humans aren’t meant to be. Human beings are social, and we tame nature. In the wilderness, we are vulnerable and exposed. We could easily get killed.

There are times where even the strongest of us becomes weak and terrified in the midst of immense challenges. We become alone, and just like a small child, we become aware of the monsters (Metaphorically. Real monsters are actually furry, polite and misunderstood) that await us: a sudden loss of one’s livelihood, an imagined slight, a real slight, a betrayal, a misfortune. Yes we are deeply alone; temptations and illusions await, and we don’t know what we will say or do when they happen.

But this sense of loneliness, this “depression” is not meant to be the place we land. It allows us to reconsider the superficiality of our previous life. And perhaps we realize that there is a power that will allow us to reconnect even more deeply with others. And that is the power of the spirit which resides in every human being, that life force that cannot be dulled or finally beaten forever. The first stimulus package is the awareness that Easter is on the horizon. And that even in the midst of lent, we can still connect and find the true self that awaits to be lifted up and empowered.

H. A. Williams says that during Lent we discover that yes, the bucket of water in our soul is a lot like the ocean. It is teeming with life and of great depth. Let the next 40 days be a time to plumb those depths and discover the love that has filled all things in you.

The impact of moral symbols

In India, people are exchanging zero-rupee notes to challenge the culture of bribery. Poor people who don’t have power, or money, offer them to officials looking for rewards.

It’s a challenge, and one that is remarkably creative in our paper exchange system.  It puts people on notice.

The zero-rupee note is effective because it uses the language of money to halt, interrogate, and challenge unjust exchanges.

Religious symbols can sometimes take such roles, but if they aren’t comprehensible, they won’t work.

Moving the Furniture

What does our furniture say about us?

I’ve got a garage full of furniture that my brother and I inherited after my parents deceased. In the rectory is furniture that has been donated or loaned to me over the last ten years. It doesn’t all match, but after a while it becomes more familiar. Perhaps my furniture says I have different sorts of s(h)elves.

Or that I’m just too lazy to throw any of it away.

The furniture we love the most is that which lasts. We associate memories with furniture thats been around a long time. Such timeless furniture is also the most expensive, and sometimes requires the care of talented artisans. It is even more ecologically responsible.

Most of us have probably bought furniture that is beautiful but doesn’t last very long, like at Ikea – good enough, of course. And I remember in college taking some cinderblocks and boards and thinking I had some very elegant bookshelves.

Of course, there are times when when we have to move furniture around. Although moving furniture is exhausting, it can completely alter the sense of a room. Moving a desk, a trash can, a bed can change the way we work. I have a garbage basket next to the mail box so I can throw away bills I don’t want to receive. I have my desk next to my library. I have a little island in the middle of the kitchen. Furniture in the right place changes the way we move and think. Puting a TV in the bedroom makes it our bedroom companion. Putting one in the dining room does the same. Personally, I think it’s best to have only one, and put it in the den. Not that I’m judging others who do things differently.

A little more than a year ago we moved the furniture in the church. We did this in part because the nature of the spirit is one that should bring people closer together and see the image of God in people who are different: old, young, black, white, male, female, bearded, and limping. To name a few. Having to see each other makes us aware of the many dimensions God is reflected.

There is a style of having furniture called “feng shui.” I’m not a proponent of this style of arranging furniture, but it does point to the fact that arranging furniture is important, and it reflects a sense of our own humanity and sense of the sacred.

There is a small irruption to thinking about furniture too much, and that is because our Israelite forebears were very much pilgrims. Perhaps this means we are not to be so concerned with furniture: we’re reminded that God is not an idol – a piece of furniture – but actually works in our lives when we have arranged spaces for Him to express His life.

Have you ever been in a place that is too crowded? A closet, a room with just too much furniture? A space that doesn’t allow for movement? The word “salvation” comes from a concept of opening up space: and perhaps this is what we are trying to do now: move the furniture so that we have space. Space to love, space to play, space to touch the God that seeks to move in our lives.

So when you see the furniture moved in our sacred space, ponder what it feels like. And perhaps it is useful to consider what your space says about who you are, what you value, and how you work. If you’re stuck in your mind, in your work, or in your life, perhaps the simple answer is to move some furniture around and see what happens.

Which is exactly what we’re trying to do here. Just see what happens. Because that is what the church is for: making things happen.

Atheists and Public Office

Rob Boston reports the story of a North Carolina councilman, Cecil Bothwell, who some local politicians would like to remove.  He’s an atheist.  There is also a legal reason to do so.  Being an atheist, and a public servant, is against the law.

This law should also be offensive to believers.

I understand the argument:  there is a generally held belief about believers that atheism cannot provide a general account of the common good.  I don’t think it is a bad argument, but it is empirically wrong, if deductively plausible.  Religious people should be wary of such requirements for the simple reason is that it makes politicians hypocrites and liars.

Most politicians are opportunistic in their belief.  There are plenty of ultra right wing conservative Christian politicians who have no faith, but find it useful to proclaim it.  Announcing one’s faith says “I’m on your team.”    S/he may say they don’t believe in evolution but insist on requiring their own kids take science classes.  They still want their children to go to a secular, private, ivy schools.

Religious requirements make politicians liars.

Religious affiliation is, after all, a low cost marker.  It doesn’t require commitment; it doesn’t require sacrifice.  Just parrot the right things, and the credulous will believe you.

So when an atheist runs for office we should commend them for their honesty, and evaluate them on their politics.

And that’s actually the real issue.

The issue is not, in my view, about his beliefs.  If he had been an atheist who believed in conservative politics, would there have been such an outrage?  Chances are he would have been a bit quieter, perhaps, but I doubt politicians would be aggressively challenging him.  What has happened, alas, is that non-belief becomes an identifier for progressive politics.  It need not be that way, of course.  There are lots of libertarians and conservatives who have no truck with religious institutions, traditions or thought.

The mistake that we make is to assume that this issue is primarily about belief.  It is more about how progressive politics will get framed, challenging the standard narratives of political discourse.  If this creates more honesty, then we should welcome it.  But it’s not first about religion; its about politics.  We need more truthfulness in institutions, and should commend those who can speak about their religious allegiances, or non-allegiances, without fear of judgment.

Annual Meeting

We had the annual meeting yesterday.  No priests were harmed in the process.  Or treasurers.  We didn’t discuss sexuality or the Anglican Communion.  We celebrated the best pledge drive we’d had in several years.

We did a few tasks differently this meeting.  The budget was far more detailed than before, and we sent it out for review to everybody in the congregation.  It was a risk.  We didn’t know of someone would complain about the price of stamps or my subscription to the New Yorker.

My reflections were, in sum, like so:

Thanks everybody, you rock.  Now here is what we need to do.

Now let’s do some work.   It’s simple.  Painfully so.  First, we love each other.  Then we do the work of loving as best as we can.  Then communicate this to the world.   Simple.

I just said this in longer paragraphs, with greater detail, which is where, it is said, the devil lies.