The Pygmalion Effect

One aspect about church life is that when a congregation believes it can accomplish great things, they are more apt to do the work necessary to get there.  This is not the Law of Attraction, or The Secret.   But such confidence allows goals to be broken down into manageable tasks.    It is not a quick fix, nor is success guaranteed.  New challenges arise even in the midst of success.  We’ve done a great job at St. Barts at balancing the budget, but there’s always another pipe that needs to be fixed.

This idea is called The Pygmalion effect.  Expectations orient results.  Leaders who trust and enable their congregation will have greater success than those who withhold authority.   Students do better with teachers who believe in them. Children respond differently after getting hurt with a parent who expects tears, and a parent who expects tenacity.    It affects creativity as well – feeling like a sucky writer will not make one a better writer.  Writing with encouragement will get the work done.

Not to say that there aren’t times people truly get hurt.  Sometimes we need… improvement.  But a perspective that allows for opportunity and openness is frames our choices we see before us.  It’s not a matter of promoting optimism:  but if I trust my volunteers, we’re likely to do more than if I don’t trust them.  People can rise up to each other’s expectations.  There can be a great transformation.

False Memories and Resilience

The NY Times reports there is a bill to extend the statute of limitations for cases of sex abuse.

Although I believe that the church should take a zero-tolerance rule regarding sexual abuse, I have two nagging anxieties.  One is that human beings are often prone to suggestion and false memories.    It is possible that people, in the hunt to figure out the root cause of their personal challenges, invent stories.

Secondly, I also wonder what it means to say that being sexually abused ruins someone for life.   This intimates that one’s life is worth less because of the abuse.   Is there merit if someone says, “this horrible event happened to me, but I’m not ruined”?   Must we assume that healing is always beyond our reach?  Resilience is a worthy, admirable virtue, even if it may not be mandated or expected.   Throw the offending priests in jail.  Let’s also, however, expect the truth and hope that the victims lives are still considered worthy rather than damaged.  Let us resist saying a victim is “damaged goods.”

Arizona’s Immigration Law

Although it feels good to plenty, this law is a bad idea.  Even for Republicans.

1) Undocumented workers now have greater reason to fear the law and will find more dangerous ways to avoid it and the police.  It entrenches the black market in human traffic.

2) Not only undocumented workers will be affected, but anyone who is a police suspect.  If you go for a drive without having your papers, a cop could stop you, and you’ll have a very bad afternoon.

3) It increases the opportunity for police corruption.  Police may, instead of having to do the work of the INS, decide that getting more kickbacks are the way to go.  This law invites the abuse of power.

4) It’s a huge F.U. from Republicans to Hispanics.  Many hispanics share moral and financial values of moderate Republicans.  But this meanness simply looks like the Republicans maintaining their whiteness.  This is one way the GOP screws itself long term.

5) It will affect the state coffers.  Enforcing these rules is expensive, and a responsible government will have to find ways to fund it.  Higher taxes anyone?

6) It was NAFTA which initiated the great wave of immigrants from Mexico.  Perhaps people might examine the costs of ruining the economy of the Mexican countryside before pinning the blame upon those simply seeking to survive.

7) The Law is unconstitutional if the Fourth Amendment has any meaning.

8) Leviticus 19:33-34; Exodus 22:21

The Clergy Abuse Scandal

Andrew Sullivan has a couple blog entries about how the Episcopal Church handles sex abuse cases.  It was not always like this – and Episcopal clergy have transgressed other boundaries – but I’ve seen the zero tolerance policy in action.

A few times a year I get a letter from the Bishop that I’m supposed to read aloud for the vestry.  It will have the name of a priest that has been inhibited, defrocked, or left the priesthood.  It’s yearly reminder of our humanity.

When I was studying for my doctorate, I did some research into the history of my parish.  I learned that in the early-mid 40’s a popular young priest had exposed himself to a couple young boys.

The parish was divided.  The vestry, it seemed, liked the priest.  They didn’t want him severely punished.   The wardens interceded on the priest’s behalf.  The bishop’s response was electric:  What would you do if it were your son?

The case went to court.  The bishop waited until the verdict came down, after which the priest was defrocked and banned.    In the letter to the priest, the bishop’s held him responsible for his actions, spelling out the damaging effects of his actions, while also expressing empathy in the midst of sadness and disappointment.   Bishop Manning, God Bless You.

I recognize this did not happen all the time.  But especially since women have been ordained, the Episcopal Church has slowly adopted a zero tolerance view toward abusers.

The current divisions in our communion may have some unintended consequences.  Bishops will hold gay clergy to the same standards as straight clergy.   Suspected Episcopal priest predators who should the correct pieties may leave to join the spinoff Anglican communities.  I think some of the partners of gay clergy might not be that happy to be required to marry; and I’ve heard plenty of rumors of dodgy traditionalist clergy.

To me, our current situation reveals how the bishop’s role can protect the victims. The episcopacy should challenge Congregations that protect the friendly clergy who’ve charmed them.   It may require protecting clergy who may be innocent.   But immediate attention and decisiveness are crucial in these situations.   And even bishops themselves shall be held up for scrutiny.

I am proud of my church.  Granted, in part we have taken the zero-tolerance rule precisely because we’ve seen what has happened in our sister church.  I believe What makes us truly different is not really Roman teaching.  I personally believe in the efficacy of the sacraments; the visible church; the communion of saints; and the witness of the Holy Father.   What may make us different is something completely different.  We’ve allowed our institution to change in order to make better decisions.  In the realm of sex abuse we’ve learned to listen to the laity.   We trust them.  If only we could rebuild our church.

If Priests had Practical Skills

As the church declines, I wonder if the Church Pension Fund would be sensible enough to send clergy to technical schools.   Have the ministry programs  combine the role of public intellectual and handyman.    Bishops going to churches that are falling apart and doing something useful, like fixing their boiler.  Both women and men.

Yep, its time to revamp the curriculum.

You can have them…

I pity that the Roman Catholic Church gets burdened with Anglicans like this one.   Paranoid and a little bit batty.

A couple choice quotes:  “Jews made up the Holocaust, Protestants get their orders from the devil, and the Vatican has sold its soul to liberalism.”

“feminism is intimately connected to witchcraft and satanism.”

The Sound of Music: It’s “pornographic soul-rotting slush… By putting friendliness and fun in the place of authority and rules, it invites disorder between parents and children.”

The authors of the article, however, make a mistake: none of these should be confused, however, with orthodoxy.  It’s straight up idiocy.

Easter 4 Year C

Easter 4 Year C

Acts 9:36-43
Psalm 23
Revelation 7:9-17
John 10:22-30

After reading this week’s lectionary, I’m considering “how to build a church 101” sermon.  Or a “how not to build a church 101” if I can get some laughs out of it.

“Ignore the people around you,”  “use Schoenberg for a mass setting.”

In the first passage we read – from Acts of the Apostles – the disciples accomplish amazing wonders, including healing of a bedridden paralytic and the raising of Dorcas, of the unfortunate name, from the dead.  Transformation is promised and delivered.   Upon seeing the successes of the church, people believe.  They believe in the power.   Who needs health insurance when you’ve got Jesus!

From this pericope I might discuss power.  I believe that Christians are too shy about talking about power.   The assumption: “power corrupts.”   I’d spend some time looking at different sorts of power – physical power; spiritual power; monetary power.   I’d assess the chaotic nature of power, and the power required to create order.

Power from people with the best intentions can have terrible results; and power from individuals who are manipulative and self-interested may result in wonderful changes for the common good.  But I believe, generally, that power is inextricably linked with life itself.  God is a God of power.  Dim, vague and vascillating (as Whitehead once said), perhaps, but present nonetheless.

In the second reading, I imagine the Christians, in the midst of the apocalypse, declaring God’s glory.   It seems defiant, the chant of a team that’s been the underdog for so long on the verge of victory. God wins.    They’re Cubs fans.  Trusting in the power of the underdog above the power of… money and commerce.

Continue reading “Easter 4 Year C”

“I just want to know what it means!”

Perry Robinson, a philosopher in the Orthodox Church, wrote an interesting article Why I am Not an Episcopalian. It’s a fairly sharp response to an Episcopalian struggling with the trinity.

I sure hope that God will not judge me on my theology.  My faith is strong.  My belief system probably needs a little tinkering.   But I’ll still sing what the church says.

The general article, however, repeats the same tired analysis of why TEC is in such bad shape.  Admittedly, he’s amusing:  “TEC – “Don’t believe in that crap?  Neither do we” with KJS is in one photo.   But it is finally unenlightening (although true).

Yes, your average Episcopal priest isn’t a great expert in theology.   I wish more were familiar with the broad panentheism in the Orthodox tradition, and the deeper expressions of recent Catholic theology.  I wish priests were better able at explaining the relevance of the living God known through the Trinity.   When an Episcopal priest denies the atonement, discards the sacrificial language of the Eucharist, or explicitly avoids the readings of Revelation, I’m disturbed.  But Perry misreads the past and seems oblivious to our current context.  Bad theology didn’t simply drop into the Episcopal Church and cause it to go to hell. Continue reading ““I just want to know what it means!””

Good Friday Sermon

“Father. Can you help me?  My mother is dying and I don’t feel anything.    I’m trying to figure out why.  Perhaps she used the rod a few too many times; she wasn’t a very nice person.  But I often get a dulled sense when I think about how her life will end.  I appreciate that she had several jobs, trying to raise us a single mom, but I still think it could have been different.  How should I feel?

“Father.   I used  to be active at that church.  The priest came over for dinner every year.  He was our family friend.  But now I am so ashamed.  I don’t know what to believe.  I’m angry and betrayed.   I didn’t know.  And I thought he was a good priest.  How can I deal with my anger?

“Father.  Tell me this.   Why is it that all those suicide bombers are religious?   I just have such a problem with that.   How can people do such things in the name of faith?” Continue reading “Good Friday Sermon”


Have you ever had a big goal for yourself? Perhaps its writing a novel, painting your house, or jumping out of an airplane? Or learning to play Satie or Chopin on the piano? Become debt free?

About 17 years ago I decided someday I would train and race a triathlon. I didn’t know when. But someday I would. In 2007 I realized that dream. I finished last in my age group, but I finished. I decided to take that journey again, so I’m training for one in July.

I think that it took a long time because deep down, I didn’t believe I could. I wonder if I was afraid of failing.

This Sunday, like most “low Sundays” is when we read about “Doubting Thomas.” I imagine Mr. Thomas as the reserved, skeptical pessimist who always knows all the facts. He’s the person you turn to when you need an honest opinion, the reasons not to take a desired course of action. He’s practical. He’s smart. But he’s not enthusiastic or idealistic.

But Thomas, though he doubted, was not afraid. There are always good reasons to know all the facts, to be realistic, to understand that actions have consequences. But finally, he stood up and recognized what he needed to.

We face “doubting Thomases” in our own life all the time. We have tons of reasons not to take risks, demand the best, or think big. After all, we’ve got phones to answer, laundry to do and twitters to tweet. Our daily distractions inhibit us from asking ourselves, what orients our life? What is the one grand thing that will give us meaning, that directs us to attempt what seems impossible?

The other evening, one of our parishioners boldly prayed for World Peace. I thought that this was quite audacious. It reminds me of the concept “Big Hairy Audacious Goals” (pronounced BEE-hag). In our personal life it might be getting rid of all our debt; it might be cleaning out our house so that it is free of clutter; it might be just being able to sell everything and take that trip to Antarctica. It could be changing the lives of young people in our community.

Or it could mean a change for our church: that our parish seek to become the premier place for innovative, justice oriented Christian worship in the Northeast! Perhaps that we seek to be a place of best practices – not merely seek to survive. It could mean that we strive to have the most powerful, eclectic music program in the region. But it is these sort of goals- those beyond our reach, those that require 10-30 years of work – that can give us a sense of mission and calling.

Now I know you have doubts. Of course you do. Some big goals might be a bit beyond our reach. I’m not going to win a world-series ring, or become an olympic swimmer, or the chief neurosurgeon at Johns Hopkins. St. Barts isn’t seeking to replace the Vatican.

But I submit to you, that the resurrection is our time to consider what our big hairy and audacious goal is for St. Barts. I know you will have doubts. Living them out might get hairy. But I will tell you – if we truly want it, it lies before us.