Notes on MLK Jr

Martin Luther King would be 85 this year.
I wonder what he would notice about race in today’s world.  Certainly our president; perhaps that there are more public displays of diversity.  Casual racism, at least, is gauche and impolite.   There’s little disapproval for having friends of different ethnicities.  Certainly there’s a generational shift, and as those who grew up comfortable in a more racially divided environment die, I trust younger generations will find racism to be confused, unnecessary, wrong. 
I imagine he would still notice that the country still struggles with many disparities between whites and blacks.   Our country remains, for the most part, segregated.  Black men get incarcerated for non-violent crimes at a disproportional rate.  Many African-Americans struggle to build the generational capital that others take for granted.  And 2008 had a huge impact on black wealth throughout the country.  I suspect he would be outraged at the way some states are restricting voting rights.  Although there has been some improvement in the material conditions of many people, but others are still poor and the way out of poverty seems obscure. 
Race has had a very specific impact in the US.  It is certainly not the only country that has difficulties with rival ethnic groups (remember the Danes and the Saxons?  Just don’t get me started on the Picts).   But our political choices and conversations have usually begun and ended on our inability to come to terms with the consequences of our specific racial divide.  Defining who we are as a country is necessarily woven in with the narrative of racial injustice and the institutions that have protected white control of the political and economic process.   And we forget how recently most blacks lived in a country where they were repeatedly terrorized.
So what is to be done?  In the church, we have a role to build networks, tell stories and listen.  We remember that we were once enslaved by racism, but that there is a better world.  We will still build golden calves long the way:  we will wonder if the previous world was worth leaving.  But we have faith that building communities based on love and freedom is worth the struggle.   It means that sometimes the privileged learn to share; and the oppressed risk to speak; that our stories and desires are probably more tightly linked than we understand.  But it’s tough, for often the smallest differences that cause the greatest anxieties. 
How would we eliminate racism and injustice?  It’s hard to change hearts, but we could diminish the impact of racism in our country that are not based on race.  Such policies are expensive and currently politically unviable: full employment at a living wage, universally affordable health care, and excellent education would benefit everyone, and could certainly be paid for if we simply substituted our three wars on Iraq, Afghanistan and drugs with such investments.  This would not end the discomfort between the different, but it might mitigate the consequences when the rules are rigged.
So we celebrate Martin Luther King Day.  Let us remember this prophet, who died unpopular, who challenged us to stand and sing until our land rings with liberty, so that we may discover the promise of our God and of our native land. 

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 “Do Churches Need Denominations?”

Conversation and the Intelligence of Groups

Apparently Smart People don’t make smart groups.

“What mattered instead was the social sensitivity of individual members, the proportion of women (who tend to be more sensitive) in each group, and a balanced participation of conversation.”

The New Scientist writes “Social sensitivity – measured using a test in which participants had to identify another person’s feelings by looking at photographs of their eyes – was by far the most important factor….”  Anita Woolley, the senior scientist also said, “What it suggests is that if you don’t know the social sensitivity of a group, it is a better bet to include females than not.”

In the Episcopal Church, The Rev. Eric Law started the Kaleidoscope Institute to examine and enable diversity in congregations.  His methods tried to ensure that there was greater participation in communities with different styles of communication.

One of the primary tasks of the parish priest is simply this:  to gather and talk.  It need not lead to action (although it may).  There are rules to this:  one person need not dominate the conversation; all should be able to speak equally and freely; people will pay attention to the dynamics of the group.

But this is not that easy.  Congregants may need to be trained and taught.  There is a discipline to maintaining a learning culture that harnesses the intelligence of a group, a discipline which is worthy for clerics to maintain and teach.

I also wonder if this explains problems in churches that are run only by men.

Making Space

Over the last few days I’ve been thinking a lot about one aspect of the spiritual life that gets very little attention. It affects several dimensions of our everyday work, but is rarely at the forefront of our consciousness.

Storage space.

There is the practical sense of storage: where do we put the Sunday School supplies? Can we mix them with the supplies for The House? Why does the Buddhist group have so many bins? Where are the wine glasses? And why are we storing the fire pit in padremambo’s office?

A lack of storage space produces an immense amount of anxiety. We can’t always find things. It gets sloppy. And it becomes very hard to move around in the rector’s office.

There are plenty of ways we can begin to solve the problem of storage.

The first, is to get rid of lots of stuff. We don’t need the old cables and computers and magazines and the chemicals now underneath the stairs next to the kitchen. I think I could probably rid myself of a few of my books, even though they are like old friends. Get rid of stuff – let someone else have it. Then perhaps we’ll have more room for storage.

Sometimes things are just messy. So then we need good bins. Having clear containers keeps things separated, allowing us to discern what we have and what we don’t, helping us reduce the need to buy more stuff. Then we open up space for more storage. And we might find that we have a bit more room to move around in.

Sometimes we just need to label the storage space we already have. This allows us some clarity, giving us a bit more time to find what we really need.

If this all seems a bit too practical for the spiritually minded, let me clarify: our spiritual life is often about how we store things: do we place our frustrations upon other people? Are we carrying around too much stuff? Do we find that our lives are a bit too messy? Or do we just need some labels?

Now – I’m not advocating that we should not have some mess: after all, if we are a growing church, we’re going to have to rethink storage. Just being forced to think about “storage” is itself a sign that the spirit is inviting us to change. Being able to say, “I can live with a little mess” is as important as saying “this is such a mess that we’d better do something before it gets more messy.” Either way is fine. The first step might merely mean knowing what we’re storing, where we’re putting it, and is it what is best for us.

We’re thinking a lot about storage because we’re growing. It’s a bit painful – and our space here at church is going to change. But its a good change, one that demonstrates that the spirit is working here.

But what kind of stuff do you have? Where are you storing it? On your bodies? In your daily drink? In your restlessness? Can the church help you get rid of it? Or just do you need permission to say, “hey – its ok. you don’t need to keep it. Just throw it away. Give it up” or pray that “I need some more storage space. Perhaps the spirit can help me make some more room.”

I believe it can. It does, however, take attentiveness to just see the mess, and how we’ve got things in the wrong bins, and that we could consolidate a bit or just take some things over to good will.

I’ve often seen that people who keep taking on other people’s burdens have a hard time regulating what they eat; instead of caring for their own bodies, they are running around for other people. And while they destroy their own bodies, nobody really gets any better. Their burdens become the physical weight that they carry. They end up storing other people’s illnesses in their own bodies.

The church can be a place where people unload what they’ve “stored.” Admittedly, I know of plenty of people who when they are feeling burdened the last place they want to be is church. I can understand it – if church is a place of guilt and work rather than of rest and joy, why should anyone bother? Perhaps the church has to sometimes rethink how it stores the love of its people.

In the early church, Christ was considered a “manager of the mind.” He was the storage manager. He was the one who found places to put stuff. Taking sorrows, emptying them, placing them in places where they wouldn’t get too messy, ensuring there would be more space for us to move around in.

His promise was that there would always be enough room.

Hoarding and the Multiplier Effect

A few months ago I came across an article about the growing number of people who have been discovered with the mental illness of hoarding. As they get older, they accumulate stuff that eventually becomes a hazard. It’s not much different than the cause of our current economic state: in times of insecurity, institutions hoard. Then money stands still and people lose work. Money doesn’t do what it is supposed to do: move.

A market economy discourages hoarding and encourages exchange. Free exchange is better than the alternative: force. But as the market gets more complicated, hoarding wealth harms more people. People stop becoming generous when money doesn’t move.

But generosity multiplies. In simple capitalism, the economist Keynes, along with most modern economists, describe the importance of the “multiplier” effect. It is an accounting of how the market catalyzes trade, which ideally encourages jobs. When we employ people, we give them purchasing power, which employs more people, which encourages even more purchasing power. You get, then you spend.

In times of desperation, entrepreneurs get scared and hoard. In those cases, those who have cash lack confidence. Confidence is a dangerous position. It is an appropriate corollary with faith. It is the catalyst of making decisions. Good ones. Bad ones. It’s great when everyone’s making money. It’s bad when it drives us off a cliff. I know I’ll survive. It’s just a cliff, and I’ve been doing hundreds of squats a day.

Church economics takes this general map a step further. We give what we can, and even more so, risking ourselves. Last February we held a party to raise money for an organization that represented the homeless. It was noted that we probably needed the money ourselves. “How can we spend when we’re the ones struggling?”

But with that generosity, a few things were catalyzed. Our refrigerator broke that month; the organization replaced it. The United Way then came in and offered us cash to help with our Kitchen. Even now a funder has come to offer work on it. All following from our willingness to give to others. Because most people are surprised when a church gives cash to other people.

Without expecting a return back.

What we created was a “stimulus package.” It was the multiplier effect. And when we live lives of generosity, we’re catalyzing communities.

Granted, there are limits. The highest form of charity encourages sustainability, not dependence. And there are lots of steps along the way. The first step, alas, is coercion. Or “guilt” as they say in the religiosity business. The last step is out of love, so that the other person can get back on their feet.

For what its worth, there are about 5 tag sales happening in the area on the same day. I imagine that people will buy from several of the sales, and next year, they will donate them to be sold again. I can’t help but think that we got donations of things that were bought from this rummage sale several years ago. The money gets passed around, enough for us to pay a few bills and continue the daily work. But the catalyzing force was the generosity of people willing to bring goods to the church.

The work of the church then transforms other people’s castaways to what other people desire. As people stop hoarding, money is multiplied.

Like love.

Easter 7 Year B

Acts 1:15-17, 21-26
Psalm 1
1 John 5:9-13
John 17:6-19

I might use the first reading from acts to discuss how the church selects leaders. I’d probably diminish using a lottery system (is this a proof text for gambling?), and look for a metaphor that describes how people get selected by God for leadership. The lottery dimension might open up other metaphors using games that require luck, but I’d probably allude to the Hegelian world-spirit idea. I would also emphasize that sometimes we just get chosen. Might be useful to find modern Matthias stories. I imagine Matthias being on the bench, and then being asked to pinch hit. Does he hit a homerun? Who knows? He’s in the lineup.

The Psalmist says “1:3 They are like trees planted by streams of water, which yield their fruit in its season, and their leaves do not wither. In all that they do, they prosper. The wicked are not so, but are like chaff that the wind drives away.”

Using the idea of leadership, this is one way of describing who leaders are supposed to be. Granted trees do sway; but the continue to grow and bear fruit. What is wicked will not last.

The Letter this week is a useful proof-text for those who believe that only a verbal, intellectual agreement with the proposition that Jesus is the Son of God is the way to eternal life. “5:11-12 And this is the testimony: God gave us eternal life, and this life is in his Son. Whoever has the Son has life; whoever does not have the Son of God does not have life.” I think that “God gave us eternal life and this life is in his son” is a very important phrase that is worth memorizing. It does encapsulate the Gospel precisely.

It is also a truism. It doesn’t give us wisdom in itself. It feels much more like a chant. The hard work for the preacher is defining what eternal life is, and what it means that eternal life is in the Son. I usually interpret “eternal” as “fullness,” so we are looking for a fullness, a completion of our task. We have a life, and we are asked to do work. God will give us what we need to do the work, if we know his Son. But what did the son offer us? Peace. For those who find the language of “life in his son” opaque, I would begin with the promise of peace and wholeness. Once we know our mission in life and have the space to fulfill that mission, we are promised a life worth living: an “eternal life.” Jesus Christ, by offering his faith that destroyed the embarrassment of a failed God, actually returns the power to us. To have faith in his Son, is to accept the gift that our work matters, and that we can do the work. Jesus did not take the power back into himself. He gave it to us.

The sermon in John continues. As I said last week, it has the feel of a hymn, a chant, a series of words designed to be etched into the hearts of the cult. They are like glue, or stitches, to heal a broken people. They tend to speak for themselves liturgically.

However, I might use this as an opportunity to explore “sanctification.” Is it something that happens when we bless? What happens to us when we are sanctified? Is it like washing our hands? Or are we set aside? How so, when Jesus then sends us back into the world. Sanctification is about setting some boundaries, at the very least, so that we can learn to see and discern more clarity. Sanctification, perhaps, allows us to understand the “truth.”

Now “truth” is pretty complex, so I am dissatisfied with leaving such a thick, powerful word become simply a song for the community. Obviously, as a philosopher, such a word requires some exploration. I’m always tempted to move quickly to Augustine’s sentence “all truth is one” (I believe he said this in his commentary on Genesis, but it might also be in On the Trinity, but I forget), and defend how science has examined truth. But I might explore how wrong platitudes are sometimes, and that truth tends to dismantle the convenient beliefs we have. I might explore how truth in Christ destabilizes other “truths” especially those that revolve around social stability, wealth and violence.

Last week my core metaphor was sky-diving and rock climbing. If I go the sanctification route, I might use metaphors that have to do with containers, clutter, and organization – for sanctification is, in some sense, a description of how we organize the soul.