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 The technology is obsolete.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 Distributing Ashes at the Train Station”

Norway and Christian Extremism

The man who killed at least 68 people was apprehended.  He confessed to the killing.

The headline by the New York Times called him a Christian Extremist.

Plenty of pundits are offended at this insinuation.  Some even blame Muslims for pushing him over the brink.   But while we search for some kind of motive, some sort of identity, a way to understand this act, so beyond any kind of sympathy, we’ll find any logic to his act slip away.

Some will blame conservatives and conservative thinking.  But few conservatives would do such an act.  Like others, some will be callous about he murders.  But they would not pick up a gun, search for a camp and start shooting.    It may be that the Manichean element in our political discourse contributes to the ease by which one justifies the casual ending of an enemy’s life.   This is usually not enough.  You may think of someone as wrong while not thinking of them as an enemy.

His attachment to Christian fundamentalism was thin.  He didn’t consider himself religious – it doesn’t look like he attended any church in Norway.  He mocked the liberal religion of the Church of Norway.  More likely, they were soft and pliable, too flexible for his ordered and righteous mind.  He was much more at home in the land of certainties, in right versus wrong, and assured he was on the right side.  It is only when one is so sure of one’s complete righteousness, one can demonize those who think differently.

But there are other ingredients for this lethal combination.  Was it video games? Probably not.  Was it simply white nationalism?  Not really.  He did have a rigorous sense of Norwegian identity, with the resentment of being displaced oozing from many of his comments.

But finally, none of these ideas will be satisfactory.

And our dissatisfaction with any clear answer, perhaps, is one reason we call such acts “evil.”  They seem beyond the notion of human sympathy that is a crucial part of our everyday experience.  They are inexplicable, and seem to arise from nowhere.    Did not a part of his mind react when as the children ran from him? Did not a part of his mind demand that he stop, and feel some sort of wound as the children he was murdering?  How was it possible that these would be slaughtered like farm animals?   Even a hardened conservative can find themselves weekping at the loss of a loved one.

And yet, I feel guilty that anything about my faith would have contributed.    But what was it?  Nothing recognizable to me.  Still, the easy way, perhaps, is to assume there was no connection.  There may not have been.  My feeling of murderous rage has usually been contained toward yelling at the computer screen, or the occasional bout of helplessness – rage not at any particular person, but toward institutions – banks, airline companies.  But yet we are responsible, in some way, for those who take on the same identity that we do.

But the prime minister of Norway said it well – that such an act would not diminish their commitment to and open and peaceful country.  This is, perhaps, the only response we can give.  That whatever happens to us, we will not be bound by the fear and hate that enters our lives, causes its terrible damage, and desires us to respond in kind.   We remain faithful that the world need not be like this, and that there will be a time when we will not be afraid of each other’s differences, but have the strength to relish them rather than be scandalized.

Gervais has an opinion about something

Ricky Gervais recently penned a little Christmas message in the Wall Street Journal.  He’s the creator of the show “The Office” and a talented comedian. I’m a fan.

In it, he declares he’s an atheist.   And Merry Christmas.

It’s the holidays.  We want to sell a few papers, and everyone wants to know what celebrities think about God.  For every Christmas, the culture wars get a little heated up, fundamentalists and atheists slogging mud at each other, pained at each other’s existence, and the conflict is, in itself, entertaining.  Even recently, atheists have organized to buy advertising on buses and conservative Christians have gotten offended.

I’m for more atheism in the public sphere.  Most of my friends outside of the church are non-believers.  A few of my friends IN the church are non-believers. Few have a deep historical and theological understanding, but for most of them, church is not where they are, or where they’re friends are.

At one time there was greater public dialogue.  Our founding fathers were far more open about religious faith.  They were generally not believers in the sense most atheists critique “belief.”  They had far more honest conversations about the role of religion and religious institutions in society.   In the late nineteenth century and early twentieth century, some atheists had great popularity.   And religion was not aways a part of political conversation.  It was not always demanded of our presidents before Jimmy Carter.  It may have been the language of civil society, but only a few of our presidents have been religious in any serious sense of the word.  Atheists were rarely persecuted in any serious sense; but they may have joined churches.

And granted, I’m embarrassed just considering conversations between Christians and Atheists. I pity the Christian, eager to please and convert; I empathize with the atheist, surrounded by idiots and hypocrites, insisting on using an obscure language created somewhere on the Alien Planet of the Past.   I think there are plenty of different ways to have conversations about religion and faith, but usually they end up being variations of “you’re an idiot” vs “you have no soul.”

Nonetheless, I was disappointed.  It wasn’t that Gervais had once loved Jesus and then abandoned him at the age of at eight.  Hell, I first gave him up when I was four.  The bible itself for me was a weird, incomprehensible document,  confused on the number of animals in the ark or where Jesus was really from.   When I asked my father about God and Jesus, he gave me a book about Greek myths.   At nine, I confronted a Methodist pastor, a friend of my Atheist father, about dinosaurs.  “Do you really believe that the earth was created in six days?”  After all, I knew better.  The pastor, by the nature of his profession, an idiot.   He came back with “It’s a story,” he said.  “I believe in Dinosaurs also….  It’s a story that we interpret.”  But there he was – a living breathing thinking Christian.

I didn’t give up my atheism there, but realized that I was doing a grave disservice to myself if I thought that religious people were as simple as Gervais presumes.

In plenty of churches, people don’t believe in a God that looks like the God he describes.   So when Gervais argues we’re more like atheists, I wonder if he has read the pagans who accused Christians of precisely this:  our God was more like no-God than the imperial God.    Who are the clergy and lay people who believe in an anthropomorphic God?  No clergy I know; and my unscientific internal polls of my own lay people indicate they’re much more skeptical than your average Ayn Rand reader.

God made him an atheist?  Well, yes.  That’s actually the way Christians have typically described faith – as a “gift.”   It’s the challenge inherited from both Calvinism and the idea of the “invisible church.” His funny retort has been a theological response to understand unbelief.

He compares science’s gifts over the comforts of religion; identifies of cultural taboo with religious creed.  All trite; and all ignorant.  Not even a passing understanding of the church’s contribution to astronomy; or it’s doctrinal antagonism toward folk superstitions.   I don’t need every atheist to get the history right, but it remains disappointing when someone who loves truth can’t get his own facts straight and seems to believe that the content of religion is found mainly in the propositions people make about their faith.  Most clergy would cheer his brief proclamation of the beauties of truth.

Religious people do not oppose evolution.  We enjoy “imagination, free will, love, humor, fun, music, sports, beer and pizza.”    A few of us are unimaginitive puppets without heart or joy who won’t watch a Lions game at the local pub.  But Jesus at the right hand of the Father is a place in our imagination that refers to a particular understanding of relationships; we haven’t given up on free will as a way of explaining evil; and we’ve got some pretty great music.   Our heaven is like a wedding feast.  We also had something to do with making beer and wine. Just a little homework, Ricky, and you’ll find that boozing and Godding have a long, intimate history.  Some would argue that without religious institutions, we’d be far more sober than we’d enjoy.

His pedestrian confusion of faith and the afterlife confirms he knows only one sort of believer.  How many mainline Christians actually believe in fire and brimstone?   I asked my senior posse that question a couple years ago.   Not one of them did, although they did express a wish that some people would go there.   They were much closer to the traditional annihilationist conception of hell without any formal classes in theology.  They had just spent probably 10 minutes more time thinking about the question than Gervais.

And last, I just wish he were funny.  But perhaps this is an improvement.  Atheist comedians can now be as unfunny and thoughtless as all the other pundits.  I guess I’m going to have to lower my standards.

But until then, I’m sticking with Woody Allen.

Nun Embezzles

Every now and again one of my “anti-” religious friends sends me an article of some priest doing wrong.  In conversation they are usually polite, but inevitably the link has to do with bad clergy, bad religion, or an atheist insight they guess I’ve never heard.

Recently a nun was charged with embezzling at a local Catholic college.

Of course, I’m always disappointed, frustrated and saddened whenever this happens.  Not just because it’s bad for the institution and the individuals who are hurt, but because it affects me.

Whenever a priest or a nun is accused of a crime, of any denomination or tradition, it wears off a little.  I become embarrassed and ashamed, even though I did nothing wrong.  A conviction of one priest, and we’re all convicted.  One accusation, and we’re all accused.

I don’t think that one’s religion or faith has much to do with why or when a crime is committed.  It may be that, as churches are fundamentally trust-based institutions- it’s easier to commit crimes without being detected.  It’s easier to avoid the normal controls that businesses have.

Plenty of churches operate more responsibly.  The Episcopal church, by and large, has systems to encourage churches to monitor their money.  The priest in my church, for example, doesn’t count the money – in fact, the entire vestry is trained to do the work instead.  We have two, not one, treasurers, so that power isn’t in the hands of one person.  My discretionary account isn’t separated from the main account, and is easily tracked by the wardens.  Churches are required to have audits.

And when someone gives me cash, I remind them of a simple rule:  never give a priest cash.  I remind them that the $20 will either sit on my dresser, or be a part of my clergy beer fund, to which I buy rounds of drinks for anyone who joins me.

Priests often feel that they work hard, and are undercompensated.  When they are disconnected from their own congregations, they justify to themselves taking a couple dollars here and there.   It’s an insidious cycle.

It is one reason dioceses encourage churches to compensate parish priests enough so that they do not have to be stressed, worried or resentful.  Nobody becomes rich when they decide to enter the ministry – we are fully aware that we won’t have a Mercedes, send our children to Switzerland for skiing trips, and routinely go to fancy restaurants.  It is enough to have a wage that is just, that allows a priest to have a family without being afraid of what the next day brings.

Jesus sacrificed his life, so that we would not have to.

On the Twin Towers

Sent via my enewsletter the week of the anniversary of 9/11/01.

It’s the eighth anniversary of the attack on the twin towers. That morning, I called people who I knew worked in the area, and after doing what I could, began to drive up to Rochester to be with my father, who died the next day.

Several new people came to church that Sunday. One family is now an active member of the the church. I wasn’t there, but in my absence, the Rev. Allen Shin preached that Sunday. As the spirit would have it, he had been downtown at Trinity Church, shepherding young children with the Archbishop of Canterbury, who was there to give a talk.

It was a rough time. Some were heartbroken, angry, defensive, righteous, eager for a fight, determined to administer justice. All these sensibilities are real and appropriate. One parishioner said, “we should bomb them,” although she was unclear about who “they” were. Others simply wrestled with trying to figure out, why would this happen to us?

What the archbishop argued for was “breathing space.” At the time it seemed ridiculous. The archbishop noted that as the mob was about to stone the adulteress, he just sat in the ground, writing. Perhaps all Jesus was doing, was giving the demons time to walk away. Saying “I love you” offers space. Sometimes all we need is some time, spacious time, to gather ourselves, and think clearly.

Peter Stienfels once wrote about the Archbishop’s reflections upon a conversation with a rabbi after the war in Lebanon: “The rabbi,” Archbishop Williams told his audience, “made no political points. But he said that when in the Bible God tells Moses to take off his shoes in the divine presence, the Jewish sages had interpreted this to mean that we couldn’t meet God if we were protected against the uneven and unyielding and perhaps stony or thorny ground.”

The rabbi considered this also true “when we meet the human beings who are made in God’s image,” Archbishop Williams said. “Those who are responsible for violence of any kind, even when they think it is in a just cause, need to take off their shoes and recognize what it is like when flesh and blood are hurt.”

“Terrorism, is the absolute negation of any such recognition,” What will defeat terrorism in the end “is ‘taking off our shoes,’ coming to terms with what we share as mortal beings who have immortal value.”

It is a tough message. In a politically polarized environment, our first task is to recognize in each other the image of God, that admits that we all have fears, frustrations and questions. Perhaps we have to stop participating in the madness that elevates the spectacle and drama of emotional conflict. Instead, we are called to stand on that stony and thorny ground.

We must not rely on the easy platitudes that reveal our defensiveness or demand war. It is to simply recognize the truth that we can each find ourselves pulled in the direction of violence.

Jesus merely says stop. And without looking at us, He waits, and draws in the sand. The demons then depart. And so we hope.

Keeping the Word

Yesterday Jesus said in the Gospel (John 14:23) that “Those who love me will keep my word, and my Father will love them, and we will come to them and make our home with them.”  It’s one of those conditional statements that bugs me.  If you don’t love Jesus you won’t, but if you do you will.

When I think of promises, I also think of contracts and laws.  Contracts as in written agreements with the power of force; laws as in cosmic natural laws such as gravity.  Law makes the world ordered; as do promises.  They allow us to plan, to have expectations.  We have subconscious promises, ones we don’t articulate, but are present in our assumptions and habits.

We can see all sorts of ways people break promises.  People leave their marriages.  Governments lie about war.  Police are on the take, extorting criminals rather than turning them in (I just saw the movie Serpico).  Churches can’t extricate the criminals within their orders.

Often people’s words do not fit their actions.  Perhaps that’s the truly religious person:  one who’s words always match their actions.  And maybe that’s why truly religious people are silent.

Some philosophers have argued that hypocrisy is wherever you look for it.  It’s the nature of public life that our public proclamations don’t match our private lives.  A male politician might be great about supporting women’s issues, but be vile to their spouses.  Johnson was a racist, but the president who did the most to change institutionalized racism.

And the brokenness we experience in the natural world happen when different cosmic laws engage.  When someone falls to their death, we wish, perhaps, that gravity might not take hold.  But then, what would happen if we could not rely on such certainty.

Perhaps the point here is that we make promises not denying that they get broken, but in spite of them.  We are given, because we have faith in God’s deep promise – that we know through his cross and resurrection – the power to continue building trust, to continuing uttering words, to continue acting, even though our everyday confidence is a little less arrogant, a little more modest, and little more humble.  We might find ourselves in positions where we do break our promises.  But if we love one another, if we maintain our honesty, if we do not flee from the consequences, and if we accept our flaws with generosity, and trust that we can each do better, we may still taste how God continues to have confidence in us.

In the Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, Aslan makes a promise to the Witch.  But the altar is broken due to the deeper promise, one based on sacrifice, which is known in the world.  By raising it, God reveals his trump card.  We can trust in Jesus.

But what does this obscure code mean?  I suspect it means something like this:  we don’t give up.  We don’t give up on one another.  We don’t give up on our families; we don’t give up on our communities; we don’t give up on our governments or our churches.  In spite of our diminished expectations we find ways to move, to act, with the confidence we have.   Whatever promises are broken shall always be trumped by the promise we believe God has made in us.  And when our words match our actions, it may not merely be silence, but also the expression of our vitality; the simple witness that He Is.

Rules for Eating

Matt Baldwin, a close buddy of mine, has had a truly transformative year.   In one of his more recent blog posts, he recognized his own need to set up dietary rules that were specific to him.  What is useful is how he goes through a process of reflection, adjustment and recalibration.  In a way, it’s a practice that contemplative and spiritual.  This year, I’m going to do the same.  The fundamental insight I’ve gained from him is that it is about movement and improvement.

I have some good habits already:  I’m not much of a sugar junkie.  I gave up sodas, candy bars and ice cream years ago, as well as most white food.   I’m good about cooking and avoiding processed food, although I do sneak a Zone Bar occasionally.    I have three major issues:  I’m a heavy drinker; I eat starchy foods, especially rice and potatoes; and I eat very fast.  Add a habit of wings twice a week, chicken vindaloo with two cups of rice, and you’ve got a Padre Mambo with a spare tire as a partner.

I’ve read numerous books on dieting, understanding that this is really about a lifestyle change and not merely about making temporary changes.  Most fundamentally, there must always be a practice of discipline.  I doubt it is possible to stay healthy in this culture without being attentive and diligent.  There are, simply put, too many factors, interests and institutions who have an interest in people eating fatty, salty and sweet foods.

So I’ve read the literature.  I’ve especially been influenced by Mehmet Oz, Joel Furhman, David Kessler, John Gabriel, Susan Roberts, Brian Wansink and Various paleo authors.    Here is my list that will guide me, I hope, until Easter, when I will recalibrate and see what’s successful and what’s not.

I’ve formerly been successful at losing weight.  Two times had to do with women.  One didn’t drink; we ran a few times a week together.  During this time I would have either eggs or oatmeal in the morning; a salad with tuna for my afternoon snack; and a Cambridge shake for dinner.   It was a South Beach Diet variation, low carbs.  I stopped drinking beer.  In August of 2003 I weighed 145.   We never dated, alas.  The work was for naught.

I met someone else, during which I gained 42 pounds, reaching a morning weight of 187 in October, 2006.  My roommate at the time only ate white food, and would buy large packages of potato chips and french onion dip, both of which were comfort foods for me.  We’d make popcorn and pour 1/2 cup of butter on it.  We ate lots of pasta.  We would treat ourselves to ice cream.  Then my girlfriend and I broke up, and I changed – or restored – my eating habits.

I followed one primary rule, which helped me lose 25 lobs.  I learned to feel when I was becoming full.  I tried to eat slowly, and would only eat half what I ate.  I would eat nuts before I went out, and was attentive about drinking water.  When I had wings, I shared them.  I also stopped drinking beer and eating rice, but these were secondary.   I kept a very basic food diary.

My goal is to get to my ideal weight, which may be anywhere from 130 to 150 lbs.  I have a thin frame. I’d like to reduce my waistline to 36, which would be close to losing about 40 lbs for me – which would bring me to 142, from 182.  It’s possible.

I’m also participating in Crossfit Stamford, which is an inspiration for me.  I’ve spent this week mainly in prayer and consideration, recovery from writing for my thesis, and mental preparation for this change, and am ready to hit Crossfit on a every day basis,  starting on the 11th.

So here are my new rules.

  • One pint of beer on Sundays and Thursdays.   The rest of the week no more than 2 glasses of wine an evening.  Mondays and Saturdays dry.
  • Share all calorie dense food (say, wings).
  • Pay attention and eat slowly, at a table.
  • Eat on smaller plates.
  • Half of all plates should be vegetables.
  • Drink Water.
  • Eat at least one salad a day.
  • Say wonderful things about myself and how in control I am.
  • No less than seven hours of good sleep every night.

I will be adjusting these, testing them occasionally.  I think they are a good beginning.  I don’t exclude anything, but that may come when I start the Paleo challenge on January 23rd.  Several of my friends are teasing me about this, but we’ll see.

Lent also begins on February 17th, so as Paleo ends I’ll also be completely giving up alcohol and refined sugars (including grains) until Easter.    It will be a big shift for me, in part because I’m a heavy drinker, and have used it as a reward for a long day.   Your encouragement will be essential as I begin this journey to greater health and power.

On the Manifestation

The Epiphany is also called the “manifestation.” the light, represented by Jesus, was shown to the world: the wise men, or the kings. The light, who is represented by Christ, was thus disseminated.

Some may think we are to be like the kings. We bring gifts, show this little baby some magnanimity, and praise the light. It’s like walking down a lane without any flashlight, until you get to the beacon that got you safely there. Maybe you stick around for a while happy that the light exists. You look up at it, like a moth of sorts, just hanging out, perhaps opening your back pack and eating one of the sandwiches you’ve stored for the journey.

But then you’ve got to keep on going. The light still shows you the way, but that’s not what you’re there for.

I think that for many faithful people, the most important part is the light itself. When people assert their religious faith most fervently, they are busy praising the flashlight, the beacon, or whatever tool it is that makes them see. “I believe in Jesus Christ” is like holding up the flashlight and saying, “hey! I’ve got it!”

But that’s only going half way. What good is a flashlight if you aren’t looking around? Maybe asserting one’s faith isn’t as important as just knowing what you see – or how you see.

The story we tell is a way of seeing. One way of seeing: I believe that when we are most vulnerable, is when we might have the greatest opportunity. When we are magnanimous, we will have the greatest reward. In the midst of scarcity, is an opportunity to return to the sources of true abundance.

There are many ways of looking at the world. It’s full of rivalry, envy, fear and loneliness. There is no hope worth having in the world, and we are all doomed to die alone.

But there is another way of seeing. The manifestation that affirms that whatever life we have is worth living, that even in our bare-knuckled, hardscrabble moments of alienation and misery, down the road just a little bit farther, is Easter.

We may not see it now, but at least we’ve got a flashlight. Our job is to keep moving.