Twitter, Outrage, and Jesus

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It happens over and over.

First: the offensive statement, the easily misunderstood opinion, the flattened phrase.

A victim is created and shouts. They claim space, a part of the territory. Here I am. They say. Look, I’m bleeding. You hit me. You meant to hit me. In cyberspace, within the pixels, there is blood.

Someone says the rules. One rule is this: they are always right. I do not know who made these rules, but someone says it, so it must be so. The sensitive and righteous tweet support and tell their own stories. They demand an apology. Twitter has spoken. They determine what will be a satisfactory penance. There are other rules, and there are hashtags.

In 140 characters we will sort through all the mixed motivations of human desire. We will make it clear; we will judge, and correct, and make right with our succinct and brief tweets.

I will feel good if I can make you feel bad. Or if you do not feel bad, if you at least retweet what I tweeted, unless it makes me look bad, then I will delete it.

I have dishes to do and a living room to clean up and I should probably return some phone calls, but I must send this tweet because it will change someone’s mind, and it’s the perfect phrase that someone will notice especially if they have an amusing hashtag to add or maybe they will have a million followers and I’ll be noticed.

Twitter shall not be for the nuanced, the thoughtful, or the reconciling.

Those do not get retweeted.

Then backlash against the hurt. There is a retort and a riposte. Who wins? The most clever, or the most retweeted? We love the attention, and then the attention is too much. Hugo Schwyzer needs meds and a little love; no, he needs to go away because the man is a trigger, and he triggers everything, and nobody controls over their emotions anymore, I will tweet everything, because patriarchy and feelings oppress us all.

And so the outrage machine will make its little idols, through its perpetual series of distractions, puffery and self-indulgence.

Twitter allows us to be like Gods, worshiped by our followers with retweets and personal messages. And then we do battle with other Gods.

We need not seek healing, for we have these weapons in 140 characters. If there is the hope of winning, we will continue to place hashtags.

What would Jesus do?

He would look up from the screen.

Taking Clergy Health Seriously

What if clergy took their health more seriously?

When the days of having multiple clergy, staff and an army of women volunteers ended, the work became fragmented, stressful, and demanding.  Unprepared clergy suffer from depression and obesity – even if they know they love their work and the call.  Especially the smaller church pastor is often underequipped to handle the demands of building management, event planning, and performance that are each separately stressful upon the body.

I do not mourn the old days. I never knew them. And to some extent I enjoy the diversity of the workday and its challenges. My part-time staff is productive, helpful and supportive, so it’s manageable. I count my blessings, which are many.

But it’s easy to get overwhelmed. And for this reason, I wonder that clergy should have a rule about health. It should be non-negotiable, and may save the lives of a few clergy, and of some congregations.

And it might be like this.

The first rule of a priest is go to the gym. Every day. Do it first. Before work. Do it also for the health of the church. Because a priest that does not make a concerted, deliberate effort to do this work, will less effectively set important boundaries in other areas.

If it means postponing meetings until 11am, then do so.

If it means that you aren’t in the office until 10 or even 12, get to the gym.

Make it easy. If your gym has a locker, rent one.

If you need to just practice going to the gym, get there, take off your clothes, take a shower and then leave.

Put your clothes back on first.

If necessary, assure the parish. This will make you more productive, happier and they will be happier as well.  If they complain, we remind them that we want them to do the same, and find ways to be intentional about their own health.  Getting to the gym at a later office hour will still require that the tasks get done. It’s not license to leave early; trust that the impact of the exercise has shown to increase brain power. The work will more likely get done.

The consequences will have a cascading effect: exercise allows for better sleep; then it’s easier to workout again.  The pastor will have more energy.

What works for me? When I’m at my best I have a four day a week lifting program. It’s probably the only thing that keeps me going to the gym regularly.  The other day I do a very light 30 minute walk / run. Admittedly, I’m not always consistent. But a “rule” of life is not meant to be a whipping rod to lash oneself with guilt but an orientation to live into.

I recognize this is flip. But that first 20 minutes may change the nature of the day. It may begin with just walking. Wise priests might get a trainer or a coach for a few weeks to get started.

I suppose there are other things about health that are probably central. Jesus hates soda, including diet soda. Addicts trying to give that up can allow themselves flavored seltzer water.  And if thats not pleasing enough, try dark chocolate or beer.

Jesus loves beer and dark chocolate.

Jesus, Survivor

From a Sermon, Christmas II, Matthew 2:12-19

Jesus was a survivor.

The wise men had reached Herod.   They are about to tell him that Jesus has been born, the Messiah, and this makes Herod, and all Jerusalem – hipster central, where all the good restaurants and cool kids reside – nervous.  For Jesus is a country kid who might challenge the king.    Herod asks the magi to find the child and tell him.

But after the magi visit, Joseph and Mary are warned.   And when the magi skip town, he is enraged.  And in the verses the lectionary skips over, Herod, infuriated, slaughters the children in and around Bethlehem.

It evokes another story: the child Moses escaping the law of the Pharaohs.    But also the other stories of destruction and survival.  Jesus would have remembered that story of survival.  He would have remembered the prophet Jeremiah.  And he would have remembered the scattering of the people of Israel after the Babylonian captivity.  Continue reading “Jesus, Survivor”

Sermon, Proper 18 Year C and Syria

Author’s Note:  Each week I usually look over the text and consider a couple questions that help me think over the following week.  This is not meant to be exegetical or comprehensive – there are plenty of stronger sites for such research. 

Syria is on my mind.   Although I’m someone who wants to think that the involved institutions have the best interests of the country and world, I wouldn’t know what the answer is.  Many of the arguments either for or against are unconvincing.  Words like “credibility” and “confidence,” for example, are less important than a completed task.  For most people, feelings about the president seem to be prior to clear thinking or collaborating on finding a suitable solution.

Furthermore, I’m struck by the utter lack of creativity by the mindset that insists that the only proper reaction, ever, is a military response.  It was the view of the previous administration; it’s apparent it is the view of whoever holds the reins of power.  

It’s easy to be misdirected.  What is revealed leads us away from what is concealed. Platitudes and conviction overwhelm logic, and humility and fear disappear in a wisp of bluster and braggadacio.   It’s hard to sell a war through humility, but I wish there were more people who could just say, “I don’t know” and admit that there are no good answers.

In the reading this week, Jeremiah speaks out of a country that’s been dismantled, dispersed.  The middle east even then was complicated.  How would he seek to bring the people together out of exile?  The Assyrians sought to conquer and scatter, while Jeremiah pleads to remember.  And then, like now, the challenge for us is to remember, to gather up the broken pieces around us, and with the grace of God always be ready to rebuild.  Our community, our church, our world.

In the gospel, Luke this week has Jesus admonishing:  “you cannot follow me unless you sell all your possessions.”   Jesus reminds us that the economic must be subservient to the human; it represents kinds of social relationships.  To sell possessions means always allowing ourselves to circulate.  This circulation allows for a dynamism for us, one that allows us to better handle the cycle of disappointment and success that marks the human experience.  We cannot get out of it; we can only see it clearly.   Those who hoard and accumulate will find themselves even more afraid of losing status; unable to handle everyday disappointments. Perhaps this may explain how the wealthier we get, the less resilient we become. 

The gospel this week also makes me wonder about how little we actually plan well.  The evidence is that we don’t always know what actually makes us happy; we are poor judges of risk.  Planning well is expensive, hard work, and requires patience.  We tend to underestimate the resources it takes to make an institution viable.   Instinctively, we often complete things on the cheap, hoping our band aid solutions will last for the long term: perpetually afraid of disappointment, we diminish the possibility of glory.

Palm Sunday Evensong Reflection

“Fight the good fight of the faith. Take hold of the eternal life to which you were called and about which you made the good confession in the presence of many witnesses.”  1 Tim 6:12

Palm Sunday, 2013 Evensong

Everyone loves a parade.

Earlier today we began our service parading.  We processed outside, following a bagpiper and carrying palms and singing “All Glory, Laud and Honor.”  It’s movement for the entire congregation from the hall, outside on the sidewalk, and into the sanctuary. 

There is a hint of ridiculousness about it.  I’m in costume, and we’re waving palms,  Following a fellow in a kilt, a festive Gaelic anthem with his pipes.  I think he was Jewish.  Leading us to the doors of the church. 

It’s an expansion of what we do every Sunday, a miniature of the church’s intention.  On most Sundays, the choir and a few ministers, for the sake of efficiency, process on behalf of the entire congregation. The procession itself can be a miniature of our collective walk on earth.  Today we recollect this moment of expectation, hope and celebration.

Most of us love parades, and this one’s a spectacle.  We follow Jesus on a Donkey.  A Donkey.  An ass.  We might not be that organized – it’s spontaneous and festive; they didn’t receive a license from the police department.  Some of the participants are not in line.  Others might be laughing and shouting.  Still others holding back.  Perhaps we are all following him because we are fools; fools for Christ as Paul says.

Many traditions use the metaphor that describes life as a journey. I suspect the intensity of that metaphor reflects our culture’s individualism – we’re out there alone in uncharted territory with only our Good Friend Jesus holding us by the hand, leading us into the sunset of our days until the apocalypse or the end times.  But that view diminishes the way we live together, which is a more chaotic, and less private than we think.  We tend to go where others go, and we follow them, and lead others, and perhaps we don’t give that all that much thought when we’re always thinking of ourselves as individuals.

Many of us have been talking about “leadership” in the church, and it’s true that there’s a lot to be done, and a lot that could have been done if we knew what leadership was supposed to be.  For some it’s charisma; for others it’s taking responsibility; and for others it’s merely having a follower.  But one of the other ideas floating around is called “active followership.”  We’ve got a lot of people who want to lead and need to learn.  But then there are many of us who are just in the parade.  Some of us don’t even know how we got here, but we’re having a good time and going in the same direction.

The letter of Timothy says “fight the good fight.”  This alludes to one aspect of following.  Good followership might mean working, struggling and fighting – engaging – with other people, even your leader.  It means being the sort of follower who knows how to take the initiative and when to be wrong.  It may mean allowing the leader to do the public work a leader does, for almost all the visible work a strong leader accomplishes only happens when there are lots of people supporting the same vision. 

I sometimes say, “my bishop right or wrong.”  Surely some times I’ll find that a difficult place to be.  But I will submit as I’m convinced he’s got the interest of the church, of the world at large, and not merely his own, in mind.  Certainly we will have our differences, but this practice is partially to admit – and I know this will be hard to believe or hear  – I have, sometimes, been wrong.  But the nature of followership, healthy followership, allows me to admit this possibility, and to offer the person I follow the responsibility of making decisions.  

Certainly being a “follower” of Christ is not easy, especially as he’s always asking us who we think he is; but perhaps what makes it bearable is that we – this community here – we are in this ridiculous parade together.

But let’s take care.  Where is Jesus going, anyway?  In the reading, Jesus overturns the tables in the temple.  Today we’re headed – to the temple.  It would be completely reasonable for you to end right there and say you didn’t want to be a part of the parade any more.  Perhaps it might be the reason we sometimes fight with one another:  for the confrontation at the end of the line, the invitation to transformation, are going to be hard places to endure.  But the good fight, one that is shaped by our Lord’s desire to reveal ourselves to ourselves, is how we will be able to stay in the parade and see the work of a changed world that is promised.

It is not all grimness, though the work is hard.  It is not all sourness, though we can be resentful, impetuous and petulant.  But we are led forward, led in a parade, shouting praises.  Sometimes our solemnity and our serious is more like a circus, but we have confidence in our direction.  It might be all we have, now at this time, moments of levity before our Lord is nailed to the cross.  At least we know now what happens after.  We’re graced like that, on the other side of the resurrection; an Easter world.

And everybody loves a parade. 

On Selling our Inheritance

Last June, the General Convention of the Episcopal Church, the organizing body of the esteemed institution that I serve, decided to sell its property on Second Avenue in NYC.  It’s where our Presiding Bishop resides and the central office is located.

Certainly there are some good reasons.  After all, our church is declining and we have little money.  And what do they do there in NY, anyway?  NYC is such an elitist, expensive place, with their snobbish restaurants, cultural activities with foreign artists, and expensive hotels.   They have theater.  An entire theater district.   And we’ve got enough of that, thank you very much.

Couldn’t we sell the building and give all the money to the poor?  To the Sudan.  Just wire transfer it there.  If not the Sudan, then Mali or Honduras.   Just give it away.

I appreciate the sentiment.  It won’t create the changes we seek.

Well meaning people suffer from a few common errors.  The first is from the belief that if we sell our wealth and give it away, we will be doing some good to ourselves and to others.  Perhaps we think that with a little money, the poor would suddenly become the middle class with jobs and houses – in control of their lives.  More likely, we’d merely lose our inheritance, the hard work of our previous generations, and still have lots of poor people.  In addition, we’d also have lost an effective staging area, the organization that can help us transform the relationship of donor to client; giver to receiver.   It takes long term work.  It takes training, advocacy and time.  It means building up relationships and institutions.  Certainly we should reinvent our own organization; but selling our property may only diminish our strength rather than invite us to a shared struggle.

The second is a corollary:  a suspicion of any sort of extravagance.  I respect this – while people are skiing in Vail, others are dying in Syria.  How can anyone have a good time?  Yet, the poor woman generously pours out abundance over Jesus; and then the apostles complain, that money could have been given away.  How can we celebrate the resurrection when there are so many people who are dying needlessly?   We just feted our bishop in NY, and I could hear the occasional people complain about the cost.   We couldn’t even appreciate the party that he was throwing for us.  He’d already become a target.

We are eager to sacrifice, but especially when it’s with money we don’t earn ourselves.  We give the money away, cheaply.   For we aren’t actually making the sacrifices that will ensure our institutions can do effective work; we sell for a song the contributions that previous generations made.  We feel righteous for giving our wealth away; when we are meant to be stewards of wealth we inherited.  Our first step should be to give more; not to buy into financial austerity.

What’s disturbing is the number of many Episcopalians who are also instinctively anti-institutional.  I think this reflects our cultural antagonism toward “institutional” religion.  But this is misplaced:  strong institutions create sustained change.  They represent groups of people of a common mind.    We may identify changes in our culture with individuals or movements; but we forget that there were always organizations that made such work possible.    As our market system becomes more sophisticated, the institutions that make that work possible become invisible.  But they are there.  Social media may make us think  individuals are more effective, but Google, Facebook and Twitter are institutions, not merely platforms.  We are ill served when we forget that.

Certainly the institution of the central office should be held accountable; its administration should be staffed with people who are competent and energetic, who understand that good business practices and institutional power are not, in themselves, bad.  They probably should not be priests, aside from those individuals who must perform the church’s role in public.  But such leadership concerns are altogether of a different sort than the magic we expect from releasing the investments we make.

Our institution does need intentional disorganization and thoughtful reorganization.  But while we are certainly eager to do the former, we have little idea how to do the latter.  And selling prime real estate does not give me confidence in our ability to do so.  To some, the selling signifies prophetic action and deliverance.  But it also reflects our miserliness and desperation.

Palladino and Cleveland

The recently elected Republican Nominee for Governor noted that the last major nominee from his hometown was President Cleveland.   There may be some parallels.  Cleveland was known as being honest, committed to classical liberalism, antagonistic to party politics.   Palladino may want to be a principled, small government Republican.  In the Nineteenth Century, they were called “Bourbon Democrats.”  He ignores issues of race, which has always complicated class issues in this country.

The problem?  Their policies didn’t work.

The scripture this lesson seems to map out a plan.  Cut the debts of the poor; condemn hoarding; may the rich spend their money on friends and family generously.

Jesus was a Keynesian.

Palm Sunday

This Sunday we celebrate two important stories: the parade of Jesus into Jerusalem, and the passion. The passion isn’t about Jesus’ carnal desires, which are the object of literary speculation, but about his Suffering. The root of the word “passion” is “to suffer.”

Like the dangers of falling in love.

According to scripture Jesus marched in on a donkey. People were shouting and cheering. They thought it would be an end to empire; that miracles would suddenly become commonplace; that the world would be turned upside down. Little did they know how they would be disappointed.

Whether parading for the Yankees, balloons shaped like people, the Irish, or balloons shaped like the Yankees or the Irish, parades lift the spirit. We get to be a little proud. We wear fancy clothes (Or perhaps, as in Brazilian Mardigras, we wear fewer clothes), and we strut and preen or watch those who like to strut and preen. We witness the pride of all those people who like to show off.

It’s one way of celebrating togetherness.

Jesus’ parade, however, is a little different than most parades. First of all, Jesus isn’t exactly royalty. The mount isn’t a clydesdale, its an ass. We’ve all seen parades where people are on trucks; imagine parading on a small thirty year old Raleigh three speed (although I’m sure you can put a few flowers on the basket).

In short, Jesus’ parade seems more like a parade of fools than an imperial parade. Although it doesn’t seem that the crowd quite gets the shift, the notion of triumph is radically trained. It is not merely about status, but a ironic twist upon status. Jesus is busy giving a wave to all his fans thinking, There is more to life than just being on top…. or its the beginning of the end, which is just another beginning.

The second half of the service this Sunday will be the passion: its the central story of the faith. It is not, however, just an intellectual exercise; nor is it meant to be a series of mere facts. The story is about you: being in character in this drama that includes Jesus.

This is one of the reasons we assign people parts in the liturgy. People take the role of Judas, of Peter, of the servants. Although we hope that those who take the role of Judas don’t get too into the character, the hope is that we can understand how at any time we can take such a role. It is the root of making choices: to see how we play in our own personal dramas. And yes, I get to play the part of the HIgh Priest.

I really don’t like it when priests play Jesus.

We change the roles up a bit: but this is a drama where you have a part. You witness the life of Jesus Christ. You shout it out to crucify him, because that is, sadly what you’d probably do. That is the warning for each of us.

The idea that this week is central to humanity’s story is to presume we do not interpret our lives as if they are propositional statements, as if the art that is our lives is reduced to mathematical propositions about the universe.

This week is a time to look at how we live what we believe. incomprehensibly, When people use the word “faith” it seems that we are insistent about knowing exactly the content of one’s “belief system.”

But there are some days, darkly cynical days, that if someone asked me about my “belief system” I want to offer a big guffaw: “Ha! beliefs? I wish I could say that I knew one thing for all time forever.”

What we can say is this: “let me tell you a story.”

You would be one of the characters.

Words and Promises

In the Gospel, Jesus tells the parable of two sons who were asked by the father to do something. We don’t know the task. We don’t know if it was trivial or important. But we have a fairly common problem: A father, two sons, and a job to do. Like painting the side of a house or getting dinner or picking up mom.

One says “of course” and then promptly forgets, either willfully or not. We don’t know. The other refuses: “nope, dad, got something better to do.” But then does. Who did the will of the Father? The one who agreed to act but didn’t? Or the one who refused, and did? The answer is easy. The one who did as his father asked.

Everyone gets the answer right.

The easy lesson of the parable is “do” rather than “say.” We’re already familiar with how that our actions speak louder than words, that leading by example makes a deeper impression than a casual command, and that talk is cheap. We see these things all the time. After all, we’re in the middle of a political campaign.

When I was in Korea, a Korean parliamentarian reflected upon the use of Western law in Korea. She said, “one problem is that we Koreans believe that words lie.” In oppressive contexts, where tyrants rule, and power is located not in the law but in the person enforcing it, words mean nothing. You have to guess the hidden meaning within the layers of language that make law, and hope you won’t get killed. The language of empire – one that can include law – can be one of cruelty and fear.

Granted, we need words. Words, themselves, are almost like magic in what they telegraph. Words are at the heart of the law and judgment. Some say that words themselves are where God lives.

Words also communicate judgment. Yet sometimes when we say something about others, we probably could say the same things about ourselves.

Still, if consistency and action were the criteria for saying anything, I think we probably wouldn’t say very much at all, or be reduced to making bland comments about the weather and the Mets and what the heck happened to them this year.

Sometimes we use words to lead us into a future – like promises: “Yes, I’m going to be held accountable for this future action even though I might be easily distracted.” Words help us establish trust. Words can also help us reframe our thinking so that we can act more confidently.

I can imagine that one of the problems in our current economic crisis is that people don’t trust what others say. “You say you have money, but I don’t believe you. So I’m keeping what money I have.” And perhaps we’ve seen a lot of misplaced words and promises in our current situation.

Perhaps we are invited to consider that words themselves are actions. The problem with the first son is that he was careless, and flippantly went on his way thinking that what he said did not matter. His words weren’t actions to him. They were just words. They were breaths of air, babbling sounds to ease a conversation. Alternately, the second son valued his own words, and then changed his mind. And perhaps it is also useful to remember that it is alright, in our faith, to change our minds. We can say what we think, recognizing that yes, the world changes, and so can we.