Being a Prayerbook Christian

I’m a “prayerbook” Christian.

That means I’m formed by the Episcopal Prayerbook, called the Book of Common Prayer.

It doesn’t mean I can’t say or write my own prayers.  And it’s not my book because I’m a priest. It’s a book for everyone.

I’ve heard people say they believe only in spontaneous prayers from the heart.

But there are times I don’t have the words. I’m perplexed, tired, or unenthusiastic, but the book is there. Even if I don’t feel anything, the words enter my consciousness. I find snippets of phrases pop up during the day, to ground me. And when I do pray spontaneously, it’s usually a combination of the words that I’ve repeated.

It helps that the prayers written in the BCP are beautiful. They use direct, visual, active language. They are efficient and succinct. They both have plenty to say, but they don’t prattle on. They say enough. One doesn’t need to be constantly talking to God. One can just move on and do the work.

Prayers from the book let words be words. They take away the responsibility for a perfect prayer, the right words, from the speaker, and just let’s the speaker’s heart be what it is.

However, the prayerbook is not sacred. It’s flexible. It offers room for others. At the convention, we can add more.

In many places, the prayerbook is where we best explain Episcopal teaching. The prayers within the marriage rite exemplify the church’s theology of marriage. Likewise, the ancient burial prayers say what needs to be said about what we think of death.  The prayers are miniatures of longer stories. Canon law is fine, but prayer is prior.

The prayerbook is efficient and egalitarian. I think people confuse “order” with hierarchy, conformism and taboo. Actually, order is about efficiency. It provides the minimum. Anyone can, for example, bless anything: a car, a squirrel, parmesan cheese. But the prayerbook provides the basics. Furthermore, when a priest is not present, we can change the pronouns – because the gathered people are the church. Order also ensures not everyone has to worry about everything. Let the Bishops worry about church. The rest of us have these simple prayers, and we can deal with life.

Sometimes Episcopalians say they don’t know much about the bible. The prayerbook, however, has also compiled the scripture that’s useful for personal edification. We may all want to read the bible cover to cover, but if the time isn’t there, the prayerbook has plenty of verses. We know more about scripture than we think; and it’s used for prayer, rather than as a rulebook or a hammer.

Being a “prayerbook” Christian is not better than any other sort of Christian. However, it it allows the reader to be relaxed about faith, rather than filled with anxiety about perfection or God’s response. Our strength becomes more easily woven into the everyday, for we can be liberated from worrying about how to please Him.

 

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.

God Loves a Bully

Over the last few weeks, several teens over the last few weeks have committed suicide.  The pundits and the prophets have been reflecting about the problem of bullying.

To some, the current discussion seems different than the everyday cruelty of a group of teenagers or children testing out their power, their desire to determine who is in and who is out.  It may be how easy technology connects us to each other and makes harming others easy.  Give a teen ager a cellphone, a twitter account and Myspace and it’s hard to avoid the potential for taunting, teasing and emotional brutality.

Most of us have experienced fickle friendships, inconvenient infatuations, and the occasional betrayal, and  the disinvitation to a party.  It’s not just those who played Dungeons and Dragons and ran the math team; the awkward, poor and pudgy.   Even the talented find themselves harassed by the envious and resentful.

But bullying isn’t just a confined to high school or prisons.  A waitress related the story of a internet tycoon who threatened to have her fired waving around a couple dollars, declaring his superiority; the unemployed are taunted by those who shout at them, “can’t you just get a job?”

The teased are offered advice:  walk away; ignore the bully; say “thanks for sharing” and roll your eyes.   But when these become impossible, the victim becomes both enraged and powerless, at which point they turn upon themselves.
The heart of the Christian story is about bullying, although a more academic word could be “scapegoating.”    The victim takes the place of the rest of the class, who is terrified of breaking the rule of power the bully has.    One person bullies and the others follow.

And the consequence of standing up for oneself, or for others, is intrinsically risky.  It requires being strong enough to tell the truth; to resist manipulation; to take the side of someone who is defenseless.   That strength is learned, and it is fostered through love, the encouraging support of family and friends who can’t always be present.

Christians have themselves been bullies.   Our anti-semitism, gay-baiting and alliance with racial supremacists have enabled sorts of Christians to justify all sorts of cruelty.  And yet, it would take a certain kind of blindness not to see that how progroms, gay-bashing and lynching are analogous to the cross.   The cross signifies this:  we scapegoat people, and it does not have to be that way.  Any religion that denies the brutal fact of this all too human tendency also denies our own inclination and power to hurt others, if only to protect ourselves.

There are good reasons for us to turn away from the cross.   To be so humiliated, diminished, embarrassed is to suck the life out of someone; to render them ashamed and powerless.     This is one reason the cross was so offensive to imperial religion.  Jesus remained weak and powerless – all too human.  What kind of God is this?  A bullied one.  And nobody wants to be on that side.

His response, of course, was remarkable.   It was not to punish those who crucified him; rather, he instead said, “peace be with you.”   The mark of those who follow Christ would be fearlessness in standing against injustice; and reconciliation with those who killed him.  We need not be afraid of the bully; we may pity them.  Instead of fear, a transformation – and an offering of mercy.

The Health Care Bill

A few things:

First it’s not a perfect bill.  Everyone knows that.  But politics is the art of the possible, and for the first time government is trying to do what one task it should do:  coordinate.  It’s more like a bill a liberal Republican in the 1970’s would have passed than a Democrat, who throughout the century have worked for a federal plan.

Second, this bill will help more poor people, and more African-Americans in concrete ways.  The long term effects will be enormous, and will go a long way to mitigate health care challenges between the races.

Third, this bill will put more pressure on insurance companies, big pharma, hospitals and doctors to work together.

Fourth, by 2016, it will reduce the likelihood of families being bankrupted by poor health.

Last, this bill demonstrates Obama’s strong, sensible leadership.  If he had pushed harder, he would have not gotten any further.  He allowed the bill to come from the legislature, not from on high.   He’s done what no president has done before.   It is clearly political leadership – not prophetic leadership.  It is practical leadership, not idealistic leadership.

The difference, perhaps, between Obama and the previous president is that Obama was conservative enough to let institutions do their work.  He was a strong enough leader to make them do it.

It’s a conservative bill.  It’s not a perfect bill.  But it will help millions of people and reduce long term costs.

A Christian view on Health Care

Christians desire health and wholeness, and call for our public institutions to encourage such.   Just as Jesus’ witnessed to the old, infirm and sick, church communities have been intimately involved with healing.  In our modern age, many denominations established hospitals and mutual aid societies.   But we have a problem: Americans spend the most on health care anywhere, but get the worst health care in the developed world.  This is because of the system of incentives that makes profit the center of the relationship between patient, doctor, and intermediate institutions, not health.

Some would object that it is Churches and not government, who should be working for such a change. Yet, if Christians truly were to embody the virtues of self-control and charity, they would drink moderately, refrain from smoking and keep a trim waistline.   Christian doctors would provide free health care and churches would create free clinics. Churches would also create mutual aid societies and cooperatives that would help mitigate the everyday illnesses and injuries that occur on a regular basis. This would be an appropriate religious response to our current health care crisis.  However, these are often challenging to manage and require immense resources to care for catastrophic events or long-term care.

Until churches make such contributions to their communities, public reform is the next best option.  A public option would decrease inefficiencies in the private health care market, encouraging companies to cut bureaucratic fat and coordinating administrative paperwork.

As institutions, churches would benefit from a reformed health care like other small businesses.  I’m fortunate:  most of my employees have health care under their spouses.   However, I could get the public option, my church would have more money to spend on mission.   My church can’t afford my getting married.  It means I can only marry someone with better health care than I have.

Health care would change the culture in a variety of ways.  One of which is subtle.  It would integrate society in a way we have not seen since the military was integrated.  It is one of the few places where both poor blacks and poor whites will benefit.   That many of the protestors are whites who feel disenfranchised exemplifies how universal health care will crush the ideology that connected socialism, civil rights and liberalism:  a resilient theology that has been losing credibility since both capitalism and civil rights won.

The Democrats should be aware that a policy that penalizes individuals, however, will end their current position as the party in power.  A universal health care system, however, will shift both parties to the left, ending the rightwing alliance of race populism, tax-cuts and nationalism.  A strong health care system would destroy the Republican party.  Blue Dog Democrats should realize that passing such a health care program will make their positions stronger, not weaker, with their constituents.

A universal system will bring down costs, liberate a sector of the economy trapped by insurance bureaucracies, give small businesses greater freedom in hiring employees, and further integrate our culture.  A mixed economy will catalyze the market.  People will need to be employed as caregivers rather than as insurance bureaucrats.  It will be easier to hire people full time.   It will restore that constitutional idea that the responsibility of the government is for the general welfare of all people.

I understand the resistance.  The Israelites resisted Moses.  Many wanted to return to Egypt.  They created false idols.  Remember – for some people, the idols probably worked.   Just as the current health care system works for some people.  But it doesn’t work for everyone.  There is a promised land.  It’s time for us to move toward it.