The Good Old Days (Proper 20, Year A)

The good old days.

When I was in high school I worked in a deli with an old school butcher. The sort that stored a couple huge carcasses in the freezer, where behind the counter the owner made his own sausages and ground his own beef. He cooked and spiced his own roast beef, which was always a perfectly cooked medium rare. The radio tuned to a golden oldie’s station that played a lot of Frank Sinatra.

“Those were the days,” he’d say. “When singers could sing and songwriters wrote.” Billy Strayhorn and Cole Porter, they wrote, and Tony Bennett and Ella Fitzgerald sang. The Beatles? They lacked depth. Even Bob Dylan was a disaster.

“He can’t sing. What is this? Who wants to listen to that voice?” He’d say this in his thick German accent. The good old days, when songwriters wrote and singers could sing. Way before Autotune made Katy Perry a star.

There’s the story of Pete Seeger getting so upset at Bob Dylan’s use of the electric guitar at the Newport Folk Festival that he just went up with an axe and cut through it. It actually never happened; and the reason was probably more because of poor sound overall than a hostility to the electric sound. But when people tell the story, it’s to reflect the feeling of some time being more pure and unadulterated. A previous time, and a fear about the future.

And so the Israelites are busy thinking about the good old days. Yes, they’d been enslaved; yes, they were busy nursing other people’s children; and perhaps life was hard and difficult, but they were fed. While they are now free, they are also starving, and deeply insecure because they’re entering foreign territory. Security usually trumps freedom when you don’t know where you’re next meal’s coming from.

Sometimes hope requires a full belly.

We construct narratives, stories of our past in part to survive. Who wants to remember the bad times, the times we were hurt and abused and bullied? And those who always remember, who wants to hang with those guys? Get some therapy, keep your chin up, and endure! Ideally we learn to talk ourselves out of the resentment, fear or the simple feeling that we’re damaged because of what we’ve inherited. But our faith says we cannot avoid the truth, no matter how hard it was, is and will be.

Those narratives can be misleading. Was life great in the 1950’s? Well, for some, yes; for some, no. It’s great that families may have eaten together; but then, who was doing all the cooking? Some people wish we could return to some of those glory days, but do you remember how high taxes were during Nixon? We trusted government, but then, what of the Gulf of Tonkin? Not a lot of African-Americans want to go back to the 1950’s, but on the other hand, some would argue there was a stronger black middle class. So let’s talk about the good old days without idealizing them. We can admit they made us who we are, but who we can and will be, that’s another story.

So the Israelites create this story – life was better in the old days. But they don’t see how, even in the wilderness, there are resources that God provides. One woman in recovery once said to me, when I gave up the drink, I then had to find an inner strength I didn’t know I had; but I also had to look around me and learn about what I really wanted in my life. I wanted good friendships, so I started calling people; I wanted to read more and I learned to value a cup of tea instead. They were all there beforehand, but I just overlooked them.

Around us we have what we need. We just don’t see it.

And so in our own wilderness, part of what we do is to find what has been placed there all around us that can feed us. If we seek transformation, the work will be difficult; because we are like novices, or children, at being free. Nobody just grows up learning to be free in any society; that’s work that requires formation, in an environment where it’s also alright to get things wrong and make mistakes. It’s easier to live a liberated life when you have some security around you.

But the gospel today does not say, “it’s tough to be free, so, if you make a mistake, then go back to Egypt.” It says, you can keep going. It doesn’t matter when you begin the journey. Some have been around a long time. They had their spiritual vision and insight when they were 20 and still organize their lives around it, and God Bless Them. Others won’t get there until they’re 85, when they suddenly realize, “wow, I’ve been an Episcopalian all my life, and I’m only now realizing how wonderful the daily office is!” When the landowner rewards the worker who came late, it may seem like the eldest child who suddenly finds the youngest getting more attention; or even like a newcomer who the rector spends most of their time cultivating. Te youngest will not know what the good old days were like, except through fantasy and legend; the newcomer only intuits what has gone before, and has no desire for the fleshpots of Egypt.

So some people have come late to the party. It may have been a tough road for them to get through the door. That just as some of us have been here a long time, in this church, on this planet, our work in the wilderness also requires the ones just arriving. Perhaps also, we’re the newcomer, we’re the ones who got to the vineyard at 5pm, and we’re benefitting from all that has been given to us from before.

Whoever has come late, the truth is that we need as many hands as possible, because there remains plenty of manna around, for us to discover, for us to gather and for us to eat.

On exile and dancing

I have heard some funny responses to giving up things for lent. The cold. Bad Weather. Republicans. Church.

What I do know is that I hate daylight savings time. It just means I lose an hour of sleep and get cranky.

Today the scriptures say: You have turned my wailing into dancing. (Ps 30:12) and I sent them into exile among the nations, and then gathered them into their own land. I will leave none of them behind.

It makes me think of that quote: you can’t go home again. Decades ago, Tom Wolfe wrote: “You can’t go back home to your family, back home to your childhood … back home to a young man’s dreams of glory and of fame … back home to places in the country, back home to the old forms and systems of things which once seemed everlasting but which are changing all the time – back home to the escapes of Time and Memory.”

In other words, once you’ve gone beyond the comfort of the familiar, to return seems confining. Pandora’s box has been opened. The old ways just don’t work. The technology is obsolete. It is the insufferable who insist on vinyl.

We are exiled the past; and they were often not as pleasant as we might remember them. We can’t assume our lives will be safe and satisfying. But we carry home with us. My theology professor once offered the image of people singing hymns around a piano as true communion, being with God. It’s a pleasant sentiment, rarely experienced. I wonder if that’s what we try to emulate when experience mass culture: something shared. We get exiled and scattered, but the work of the church is to gather people again, even when there is suffering all around us.

In such a case I wonder if where two or three gather to sing and dance, God is with them. Let us not worry about what they are listening to, but hope that we can dance with them as well.

 

 

A Lenten Discipline

I’ve decided to blog daily during Lent. I’m often erratic when writing.

I’ll use the daily office as inspiration. That’s an Anglican thing.

Sometimes I’ll be inspired by other words.

One of my struggles is about voice. Do I write like an academic, working through abstract concepts and relating them to the gospel?

Or do I tell stories?

Do I analyze the work of the priesthood? I could share stories of my failures. Priests usually tell of their successes.  I find those boring.

Tell me what doesn’t work.

I have a friend who is a very successful pastor. He creates programs, and announces them, and people go. Granted, he has a staff and resources. I envy him.

Evening prayer inspires me to think about being rescued. What does it mean to be resuced from being a target? Anyone who is in a position of authority, formal or informal, will find themselves the object of scrutiny.

Sometimes this is just: authorities can be corrupt. They may be wrong.

Other times it is an excuse.

For now, my goal is simply to write. Daily. In writing, let me find my redemption.

On Distributing Ashes at the Train Station

Today I offered “ashes to go” at the White Plains train station.  It’s apparently controversial, but I’m letting others do the heavy theological lifting. I wanted to experience it before I reflected.

It was cold. Below freezing. We still haven’t gotten out of the polar vortex, which I think has decided that it’s very comfortable in its new digs and has decided it will never leave.  Besides, spring has gone fishing. Ice fishing.

At first, I stood outside the train station in my cassock and surplice for a bit, but once I found myself unable to move my hands, I entered the lobby across from the newspaper kiosk.  It was also cold. The doors kept opening as commuters rushed in.  To keep my hands warm, I’d rub them against each other as I held my little glass bowl full of burned palms. I would have rubbed them between my surplice and cossack, but I worried it would look vaguely illegal. So I kept my hands visible.

I stood still, as I didn’t want to be pushy, merely present.  Available to the seeker, but conveniently ignored by the apathetic, distracted, and irreligious. I didn’t want to raise anyone’s anxieties or hurt anyone’s feelings by being so enthusiastically a priest.

People said, “I heard about this.” Apparently the radio and papers found this fascinating. Press might be good. Look at those quirky Episcopalians, standing in the cold, offering dirt and telling people they’re all going to die.

“I didn’t know this was happening,” said another. This?

“Can you do this?” Am I allowed? Well, I won’t tell anyone if you won’t, I didn’t say. I have a license. Continue reading

On Rowan

Well, he resigned.

Unlike many of those who I admire, I was a fan to the very end.  I remained impressed by his erudition and sensitivity.  I never doubted that he worked tirelessly to fulfill his thankless responsibilities.   The trouble he caused in England was necessary.  He often had the right enemies; when the tabloids dissed him, it raised his stature in my eyes.

I admit, I wasn’t that concerned about his decisions about the Episcopal Church and sexuality.  In my neck of the woods, my side won the battle.  There are openly gay and lesbian clergy; more will become nominated and selected to lead the church; and we are slowly, in due course, writing liturgies for same-sex couples.  I see that young people lack the homophobia of previous generations.  No gay person in my own congregation, or even in my own diocese, can worry about being disenfranchised by the church.   Since my state allows for gay marriage it is only a matter of time before I perform them myself.

Rowan, however, heard voices that I do not hear.  Not everyone in the world understands sexuality the way I, nor many of us in the US, do. We tend to see these issues through the lens of individual choice and preference.   It reflects more of a sea-change in other parts of the world.  And for many in the global south, our focus on sexuality seems like a first world problem.  Rowan was aware of many religious traditions that don’t yet understand modern, liberal, secular explanations of sexuality.

We underestimate the worth of those voices.  And while they could be wrong, Rowan asked different questions about the consequences:  how do we live with one another given our different contexts?

But what did Rowan do which changed the way TEC operated?   There was no way he could force the Episcopal church to toe the line.  He tried.  He hurt our feelings.  We can pout all we like because he never gave his stamp of approval, but we should have noticed we’ve still continued ordaining the priests and bishops we like.  Our presiding bishop still got to go hang out with other presiding bishops.  And so we’re still in the councils of the church.  This isn’t Rome.

Certainly, he made mistakes.  I believe he should have let Jeffrey John become a bishop, if only to expose how the English choose their bishops.  I think he might have been a bit more plain spoken about the real stakes in the communion.  It is possible that he did not get good advice, and that he was surrounded by people who were concerned with the machinations of English politics than the fate of the spiritual lives of people in the American church.  Sometimes I wish he could have been media saavy – his nuanced, thoughtful arguments were too easily made into fodder for ridicule by the British Tabloids.

Certainly Rowan didn’t understood the dynamics of the American Church very well.   And the confusion about his role in England, as the first foreign archbishop, is probably the same on our part.  The Episcopalian Church is more congregationalist in its order than we care to admit, perhaps, and the Anglican Church is interwoven with the English establishment in a way that Americans would find hard to fathom.  And perhaps spiritually we wanted him to be like the pope who we could ignore at whim (kind of like the way Americans treat Benedict).

But I believe Rowan understood what the long view looked like.  The English church will ordain women bishops; they will reject the covenant.   These debates needed to happen in the open, over time, in a messy, public, difficult way.  There was no avoiding it.  Although most of us wanted bold declarations and clarity, the Archbishop seemed to understand the dangers of moving too quickly.  I don’t think he idealized caution in itself, but he believed that listening takes a longer time than we like to believe.

Last year an Indian priest visited New York and said to me, “I understand more how the Episcopal church sees the world.  I don’t think my context is ready.  But I feel much differently myself.  And perhaps this will open even more minds.”  He said this after the Idaba process brought people of various perspectives together.  It was a model of mutual understanding, one which Rowan adapted to keep the Anglican communion in conversation.

I think that we’ll miss Rowan.  I’m personally glad he was often misunderstood.  It was an implicit, subtle challenge to the media and even to we liberals who work in internet-oriented, market driven time.  Perhaps over the long haul, we’ll see that he laid a good foundation for the perspectives of gay Christians to be heard throughout the world, and at some personal cost.   We don’t see it yet, but that story will be told.  And for all our focus on the issue of homosexuality, he wrote some remarkable, important words and essays that have gotten lost in the din.

So God bless you, Rowan.   Thank you for your service.

Do Churches Need Denominations?

A few weeks ago, The Lead at the Episcopal Cafe quoted an article by Ken Carter, who argues that churches need denominations.   He contrasts denominations to sociologists who argue that we are entering a post-denominational phase.

Certainly the particular denominations that make up the mainline traditions are losing their distinctiveness.  Episcopalians are no longer only prosperous WASPs who enjoy early cocktail hours.   Lutherans chant.  Congregationalists use the BCP for weddings.   However, individuals raised in one denomination will go to any church that has a strong leader or a vibrant Sunday School.

But as Ken Carter implies, churches are more effective when they organize together.  They can harness resources.  They can protect hard working pastors from poisonous congregations and hard working congregations from narcissistic pastors.  They assure some modest degree of reliability by establishing set norms amongst the professional clergy.   They can assist congregations, who work as volunteers, by providing professional help when they need it.

So yes, churches need denominational structures. Continue reading

Cool Christianity?

A recent article in the WSJ by Brett McCraken has gotten a bit of play in the Christian blogosphere.   The general thesis:  young Christians don’t want “hip” Christianity – they want Jesus Christianity.   It’s a fine thesis.

So he has a list of complaints.

First:  pastors who refer to pop culture.   Granted, I’m equally confused by the passions of Lady Gaga, but I confess the occasional retelling of a Star Trek, X-Files, or Law and Order Episode.  I’ve quoted The Onion.     My youth group got my references to Friends, The Simpsons and Zombies and sometimes complained to me when I got stories wrong.

But isn’t referring to pop culture part of our work?  I don’t think it is much different retelling the insights of Malcom Gladwell or the poetry of Mary Oliver in a sermon.  People tend to have their eyes glaze over when I quote Calvin rather than Calvin and Hobbes, or offer extended quotations by the theologian Rene’ Girard.  My feeling:  it’s always justified for Christian pastors to talk about vampires, and better than referring to Hegel in German.

His other complaints: pastors in skinny Jeans (someday I’ll fit, really); showing ‘R’ rated movies; holding services in nightclubs.  But what seems inauthentic, fleeting and manipulative to him makes me wonder what are they teaching?  Instead of being horrified, I’m intrigued.

Being an Anglican, of course, I prefer the robes and holy ponchos, films with subtitles and attend nightclubs after mass.  But it seems to me that fussing over image is actually making image out to be more important than it actually is.

His complaint about churches being technologically adept, however, seems especially off the mark.  A pretty good indicator of a church interested in other people, for example, is a website that’s been updated within the last month.  Although tweeting during the service offends this Anglican, sharing religious references seems a justifiable part of my job.  We may not be able to create youtube videos on a weekly basis, but refusing to engage a visual culture seems irresponsible.

Mr. McCracken does seem to be a bit on the defensive about sex.  I admit, I will also be shunning sermons, podcasts, and twittering about the holiness of fellatio between married couples, it does seem to me that people are rightly curious about the Christian perspective, if there is one.

But I think, personally, that’s our own fault.  Our denominations have been dancing around trivial issues of sexuality while refusing to confront the very real challenges people face at all ages.   Personally, I admit, I think the gospel has very little to say about sex.  We might examine why it’s a subject about which most people are fascinated.

And although I’m completely in agreement that being shocking for its own sake seems opportunistic, self-serving and ill-considered,  I just can’t get very excited about it.  I’m bored by being shocked.   And what’s more shocking is that Christians are just now talking about subjects that have been played out in contemporary culture.  Are they really just NOW talking about these titillating practices?   It’s not the practices that are shocking, after all.  It’s that Christians are talking about them.

That said, the gospel is shocking.  Just in a completely different way.

He gets close.  He writes, “If we are interested in Christianity in any sort of serious way, it is not because it’s easy or trendy or popular. It’s because Jesus himself is appealing, and what he says rings true. It’s because the world we inhabit is utterly phony, ephemeral, narcissistic, image-obsessed and sex-drenched—and we want an alternative. It’s not because we want more of the same.”

I understand this.  But I admit I cringe a little at the hyperbole.  Is this world created by God “utterly” phony?  Is it completely ephemeral?  Or is he talking about how Christianity, like the “cool” has become just another spiritual product?  Because what is certainly true is that the commercial enterprise has infected every part of human engagement.  Interrogating that reality, holding the mirror of the gospel up against that, would require a more severe look at our current system of social and economic priorities.  Then we might end up examining the powers, and not merely some misguided attempts to be relevant.  Money, not sex, is closer to the gospel’s true concern, and its consequences are, perhaps, shocking.

He’s right about some things.   From my vantage point, I doubt the institution will be cured by any quick fix.   But what is certainly true is that mainline churches don’t have any fixes.  They’re not even on life support.   Young people aren’t flocking to your local 930am Sunday Morning service with genial overweight pastor with a nice smile who loves everybody and quotes Auden and Kierkegaard.    Twitter and Good Sex might not save the church or compel the curious, but what mainline churches have been doing for the last 30 years isn’t working either.

It’s the work of pastors to engage people, churched and unchurched, where they are, communicating with the technologies that people have access to.  It does make our job more difficult.  We have to know a little of everything.  But it also focuses the work.  We are, fundamentally, communicators of the gospel.  We’re not building managers or administrators; we’re not therapists or nurses.  Technology is one of our tools.  Perhaps technology, itself, is the message, but that is for another post.

And since God is at work in the culture, we will necessarily be referring to His presence there.  He was not confined within the church; nor does he only speak in the alphabet of the creeds.  Sometimes to help a young woman understand the cross, a reference to Mean Girls will have to do.