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.

Pastors Spell Things Out for Nelson

As Nebraska faith leaders, we call for systemic change that is guided by the following principles based on our religious values. We support universal access to good-quality health care that: (1) Provides comprehensive and affordable coverage for all. (2) Eliminates health care disparities. (3) Includes effective cost containment. (4) Simplifies administration. (5) Eliminates pre-existing condition exclusions from coverage.

We turn to U.S. Sen. Ben Nelson, knowing he stands with us as a person of faith. As governor, he left a lasting and important legacy of strong public insurance programs such as Kids Connection and CHIP, which provides insurance to thousands of Nebraskans who would otherwise join the uninsured.

Now we turn to him again to leave another legacy: health care for all Nebraskans. If we can fix the broken health care system, we can ensure that Nelson’s legacy in Nebraska is continued with his vote this year to pass health reform.

The Letter.

George Clifford agrees.

Pro-life people should support the bill because greater health care will mean more women freely choosing to have children with or without an abortion amendment.

Deal!

The public option has changed. Broaden Medicare and Medicaid. Keep cost-cutting devices. Personally, I think it is a smart move. Medicare and Medicaid are public options. Eventually, a single payer system, if possible, will arise from expanding institutions already in place. Politically, these changes happen in steps, and there is plenty of good in other parts of the bill.

Still, they should break the trusts and allow a little more free enterprise.

A few facts and numbers for ya
! A few more.

Update: The Washington Post decries this idea, saying “The irony of this late-breaking Medicare proposal is that it could be a bigger step toward a single-payer system than the milquetoast public option plans rejected by Senate moderates as too disruptive of the private market.”

Overturning the Tables

Overturning the tables in the temple was probably the main reason Jesus got nailed to a cross.

The story seems to indicate a severe separation of commerce and church. Money in church? No way! Take it out!

However, I don’t think that the problem of money is the primary message. More crucial was the nature of trust. In overturning the tables, Jesus challenged how and who we are expected to trust.

Nate Silver, the writer in one of my favorite blogs, reports in the General Social Survey that people are losing their faith in everything. Only 20% of people have trust in organized religion – down 10% from 30% in 2000. Just a little more trust than in banks.

That’s not very reassuring if you’re in the organized religion business. And we only forgive sins, not debts.

I don’t think the lack of trust is an entirely a bad thing. Given the number of clergy scandals, even in White Plains, suspicion makes sense. But trust is how we are still called to live.

Jesus was redefining who we are to have trust in.

Overturning the temples was a pretty important symbolic act. At core, following Joseph Schumpeter, Jesus’ act represented creative destruction. Jesus predicted the temple will be destroyed and replaced by a body.

It may undermine the idea that holiness is bought; but Jesus also seems to undermine the ritual itself. When he overturns the tables, it may be that Jesus locates true transformation not first in the temple, or through commerce, but in his body. Transformation is embodied, and participating in the life of God means beginning with your own. It may require creative destruction.

Sometimes an alcoholic realizes they cannot stop drinking after an event of creative destruction. Then they are called to continue rupturing their entire context to keep sober. They stop going to bars; they end their destructive contexts. They begin a long process of recalibrating their habits and renewing themselves. This is hard work. But they can then begin to trust themselves around drink after a time of training themselves differently.

Perhaps this is what we are living through now – this time of creative destruction. out of the broken shards of the old church, a new one will be born. Even in our own parish, people who have left congregations that they could not trust, are rebuilding a new community. And perhaps this church will represent, with God’s grace, the hope of a new generation.

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?

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.

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!

Who will pay the bills?

Sometimes you can hear the desperation of the church crying out into the wilderness.

Where are all the people?

How will we pay the bills?

Why is our roof leaking?

It’s not a pretty sight. I’ve seen churches where parishioners trounce upon new members like vampires, sucking out life from these unsuspecting innocents.

“Will you serve on this committee? Will you do the work? Will you give us money? Blood or your first child is also OK.”

It is discouraging for vampires. I mean, discouraging for us in the church who truly want to serve, and require resources to do this.

We are caught pleading and begging. It’s the season for us not-for-profits to beg and plead. Blah blah blah. I need your hard earned cash. Now.

Many visitors know that they will be seen as prey and have the sense that they will be valued mainly for their financial contribution. I know because sometimes I, myself, have felt like a predator, wanting desperately to be liked, begging for people to come again. And then making newcomers do the work other congregants burnt themselves out on.

It’s the way many churches work.

I want us to do something different. I’ve noticed that the energy of new members has reinvigorated long term members. We’re at an important time in our history.

But before getting on this treadwheel, let me offer a new way of thinking about what we are about to do.

I believe that if the only thing the church cares about is its own institutional survival, then just let it die. In fact, let’s kill it. People don’t need clergy as personal chaplains. They should develop better friendships (although I’ll always be a friendly sounding board). They don’t need to fund a building that’s falling apart, when they’ve got more pressing needs of their own. People are not here to serve the church. Visitors don’t exist for the sake of the church’s survival.

As long as the institutional church thinks of the outside community as potential recruits into their cult, it will either become a cult that revolves around a charismatic personality, or die.

What we need is a completely different model. We’re beginning to try out here.

A few people, of course, are skeptical. In the old days, the priest was the caregiver. The congregation got served. The priest becomes the one who is responsible for explaining the faith, making the rules, and calling the shots. I do long for those days, but people don’t buy it much anymore. Nor should they.

In a new model, the role of the priest is to communicate the gospel, help people collaborate to live out their ministry, and create entrepreneurial programs that build the community.

In the new model, the church exists for the sake of building up other people – that is what Jesus Christ did. Not just Episcopalians. Not just Christians or Catholics. But everyone who needs support. Skeptics and Jews and Muslims.

Just not Methodists. And Red Sox fans. I draw the line there.

Just kidding aobut that, actually. Of course Methodists. Shintoists must go to the outer darkness. Although I have nothing but respect for those who practice the cult of Amaterasu Omakami.

I digress.

The shift means that we live into the idea of the priesthood of all believers. Instead of being priest centered – or even church centered – each one of us has the responsibility of encouraging, challenging and participating in our communities. In this time of chaos and distress, we are called to discern our community’s needs. Every individual in the parish has a calling, a purpose, a potentiality that they can live out and share.

We may have to think hard about how we connect with people. Do we even know our neighbors? Can we discover their passions, their needs, their hopes and fears, their motivations? Then, when we gather, we can share these hopes and find ways to advocate and enact them.

These friends and connections may never darken our door. But we would be there.

This requires a long term view. It’s hard to change our perspective because we’re here looking at the roof, wondering how its going to be fixed, frustrated that our kids don’t value the faith that we have. Perhaps we should ask them about what they need.

I think we’ve been telling people what we need so often we’ve simply forgotten how to listen. In many churches we’ve told them who they should be, what they should do, and what they should do better. Some people want those churches and need them badly.

Our call, however, may simply be – at this time – to listen carefully to what the culture is saying, and where it is hearing the gospel. For the gospel isn’t just holed up in church.

Maybe once we have heard, we’ll become the gathering that was intended for us all along.

And yes, pledge cards will be in the mail. Yes, we’re desperate. We want to suck your blood.

Metaphorically.

Please note that last sentence “we want to suck your blood” was meant as humor.

Complaints please forward straight to God.

Kanye West and Joe Wilson

Although I’ve tittered at the media spectacle of Joe Wilson, Kanye West and others, I’m going to hold back on making any grand comments. I haven’t read the health care bill, nor have I ever been interested in the Video Music Awards.

I do think there is a general anxiety about the loss of order around us. To some extent we’re relearning and creating the etiquette, the simple rituals and courtesies, that order our common life. Gone, it seems, are titles and euphemisms. Instead, equality and directness.

The old school perspective was like so: honor the traditions of your fathers and mothers – they still make sense. Hold on to your principles. Respect the rituals that keep us gathered. Be loyal to your family and friends. Acknowledge that there are culturally holy places. Respect the role and office, even if you disagree with person holding it. Let there be civility.

Here’s the critique: sometimes etiquette masks and legitimates provinciality, ignorance and arrogance. It perpetuates injustice by evading simple issues of fairness. In these cases, speaking out makes sense, because the truth needs to be spoken. And the old school perspective is hard to maintain when money needs to be made at civility’s expense. Rudeness sells.

We need both reverence and the shock of truth. When we aren’t sure of what is going on, then we may respect the red lights, the stop signs and the social cues around us. Sometimes in the midst of disorder, being more intentional about respecting others is crucial. But when we need to make a change, speaking the truth is part of how we move forward.

Of course, sometimes we may be wrong when we speak. That’s another risk. But we can survive our mistakes because the tension between order and the catalyzing force of truth is held together by one thing: charity. It may not have been shared with us. But it is necessary for us to survive things changing, and the many mistakes we make along the way.

If we can’t show magnanimity even to our enemies, how can we move forward?

It is difficult to do such. However, the source of that strength is nothing else but faith that we have the strength to be magnanimous in the first place. And the faith that it works. Faith that love is what God wants for us, and part of his infinite beauty. Even Joe Wilson and Kanye West, though they broke the rules, even though they might be wrong, may also in time, be forgiven by God.

The media, however, not so much.