Saturday, October 26, 2013

Do the Job: "Bishop" Means "Overseer"

Years ago, under the administration of a previous bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of Minnesota, thousands (if not hundreds of thousands) of dollars were spent for consultants to help the bishop do his job. The faithful, lay and clergy alike, were increasingly outraged. The word "bishop" stems from the Greek word "episcopos," which means oversight. It seemed that the bishop himself was unable to perform the essential functions oversight, and thus, non-ordained outsiders had to be brought in to coach him in doing his job.

Fast forward to the current mess over the repeated mishandling of instances of clergy misconduct by top officials in the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Minneapolis and Saint Paul. Following the example of successful damage control in at least six other Roman Catholic dioceses, the Archdiocese is hiring outside consultants to review the files of all its "active" clergy to ascertain that any allegations of misconduct are being handled more appropriately than in the past.

Consultants shouldn't be necessary for common sense to be exercised by leaders. A priest who attracted repeated police interventions through cruising known gay hook-ups spots very obviously shouldn't be allowed to work in a parish without at least alerting lay leaders and staff members to their priest's particular failings, and requiring that priest to undergo massive therapeutic interventions and intense supervision. Duh. The consequences of this lapse in obvious common sense: two boys of a parish staff member were abused, and the perpetrator is now in prison. Kevin McDonough, first appointed by Archbishop Harry Flynn and key player in making this absurd judgement call, deserves major opprobrium for it, because this particular instance of abuse was so easily and obviously preventable.

Then there's the case of the popular priest who, at minimum, had an intense emotional affair with a minor, and allegedly some inappropriate physical contact, as well. Post-investigation recommendations that this priest not be permitted contact with young people needed to be followed. Duh. But what was this priest's assignment? Campus minister at a college, where his duties included private counseling with students and leading overnight student retreats, both locally and abroad. The obvious common sense recommendations were not followed. So to establish credibility, the Archdiocese needs highly-compensated consultants to examine the files and ascertain that no further idiocies like these are being committed.

Showing the door to overly-troubled clergy and guiding reasonably-healthy clergy are essential functions of oversight. If a particular bishop's administration is so fundamentally--let's not mince words--screwed up--that it can't make these obvious judgment calls correctly, it's time for a drastically different network of oversight to be substituted. Frankly, I wouldn't be surprised if the average pewster will not be terribly impressed with new actors simply being placed in old roles.

The mysteries of a supposedly-universal charism of priestly celibacy are admittedly beyond the ken of this Episcopalian (i.e. American Anglican) writer. But my deepest hunch is that this dual-headed problem of sexual misconduct and horribly-skewed oversight would mostly disappear if clergy were permitted to marry and if women were welcomed into the ranks of the clergy.

More than a few folks have asked me why I bother with so much concern about a denomination not my own. The answer is that all of us Christians are in this together. A lack of credibility in one part of the Church Universal affects every other part. We don't each, separately, need to reinvent the wheels that carry us towards a more perfect Church. Experience in one part of the body can and should benefit another if we can offer and accept it non-triumphally and non-defensively. There are many, Many, MANY things this conservative Episcopalian admires about the Roman Catholic Church and wishes her own denomination would emulate. When it comes to handling clergy misconduct well, however, I do think that the Episcopal Church, while not enjoying a perfect record (as recent news stories reveal) is further down the holy path of common sense.

Thursday, October 10, 2013

Could they REALLY be THAT Stupid? Apparently, Yes.

Imagine getting a call from your child's high school principal. "Mrs. Smith? We have learned that your son recently stayed after school alone with his teacher, Mr. Jones. In the future, please make sure that another adult is present in the classroom with your child if he stays after school with Mr. Jones. We need to protect our teachers from the appearance of scandal."

Absurd, right? Yet, according to the mother of two boys abused by the (former)Rev. Curtis Wehmeyer, this is precisely what happened when now-Bishop of Duluth, Paul Serba(then Vicar General in the Archdiocese of Minneapolis-St. Paul) called her and asked her never to allow her son to go camping alone with their parish priest again. By that time, the Vicar General knew of Wehmeyer's encounters with police and that the troubled priest had been propositioning young males at known hook-up spots frequented by gays.

With that same knowledge, the Rev. Kevin McDonough wrote an unbelievably cavalier memo about the troubled priest. Copying the memo to then-Vicar General Sirba, McDonough wrote that Father Wehmeyer

"really was not all that interested in an actual sexual encounter, but rather was obtaining some stimulation by 'playing with fire.' This sort of behavior would not show up in the workplace. I agree with Father Curtis that disclosure [at his workplace] would only serve to out his sexual identity questions (which, by the way, would be unlikely to surprise any observant person in the parish!).

"On the other hand, disclosure to a group of peers is meant to help a priest to remain accountable for the spiritual and psychological work needed to maintain and improve his trustworthiness. I do not recall: has he done so? In fact, I do not remember whether he has a priest support group of any sort. I think that he would do well to have some real friends who can challenge him about how he is doing in living his priestly vocation with integrity.

"My recommendation is that we would encourage (or even require) Father Wehmeyer to disclose his pattern of self-destructive behavior to a small circle of trusted friends."

So what kind of oversight is that--POSSIBLY requiring Wehmeyer to tell his fellow priests about his unacceptable behavior? McDonough was, until his recent resignation, "Delegate for Safe Environment," a job that includes oversight of all child-abuse prevention efforts in the archdiocese. And so, Wehmeyer was allowed to continue to serve in a parish without restrictions and without any warning to parish leaders or other employees. The sad aftermath of Wehmeyer's continued placement is that two sons of a parish employee were abused by Wehmeyer in his camper that was parked in the church parking lot. Wehmeyer is currently serving a five-year prison term.

What sense can be made of such bizarre decision-making on the part of diocesan officials charged with protecting the laity? Are there other ways that now-Bishop Sirba sought to transfer the responsibilities of clergy-oversight to those he should have been protecting? What other--perverse--behaviors might the Rev. McDonough deem only as "self-destructive," rather than recognizing them as the very clear danger they pose to innocent people?

Thomas Doyle, a Dominican priest who was an early whistle-blower on clergy sex abuse nationwide, commented, "Celibate clergy who aren't trained in psychology are in no position to make that kind of a judgment call over someone like Wehmeyer." (quoted by MPR News). On top of that, McDonough has both gay and lesbian siblings, and therefore might tend to minimize the threat of certain homosexual behaviors that would constitute major red flags to persons without that personal background. (I am battening down the hatches for response to this last statement here in liberal Minnesota where the highly-regarded McDonough family boasts of yet another sibling in the eleven-child clan, Denis McDonough, who serves as President Obama's Chief of Staff).

Where will the Roman Catholic Church go from here? The Rev. Kevin McDonough has ever-so-appropriately resigned from his position as Delegate for Safe Environment. Bishop Serba of Duluth needs to step down from his position as well, having demonstrated such incredibly skewed judgment, even though it occurred before he was named bishop. Dominican priest, Father Reginald Whitt, from the University of St. Thomas' School of Law, has been appointed as Vicar of Ministerial Standards. Six laypeople with impressive credentials have been appointed to a newly-created Ministerial Standards Task Force. The group includes a retired police officer with experience in internet sex crimes, a law professor, a federal courts mediator, and a sex-abuse psychologist. If this task force's recommendations are taken seriously, it may establish a new precedent for lay leadership within the Roman Catholic Church. Certainly the whistle-blowing former canon lawyer for the Archdiocese, Jennifer Haselberger, seems to have been pushed out of the loop of influence--if she ever truly was in it.

And this business about non-psychologist, celibate male priests making decisions about clergy misconduct? These bizarre decisions would likely all go away (along with a host of other benefits) if Pope Francis' future reforms include opening the priesthood to married men, and even better, to women. World-wide and through time, the hierarchy has never trusted the advice of non-priests, although the aforementioned Task Force may help in beginning to reverse this unfortunate practice.

Meanwhile, God seems to be weighing-in on the crisis through the serendipitously-appropriate readings that have long been set in the daily and weekly lectioneries used in Roman Catholic worship. Appointed to be read last week from the first chapter of Baruch were these powerful words:

We today are flushed with shame... that we, with our kings and rulers and priests and prophets, and with our ancestors, have sinned in the Lord’s sight and disobeyed him. We have neither heeded the voice of the Lord, our God, nor followed the precepts which the Lord set before us.

and on Sunday, all the faithful heard these similarly-convicting words from the prophet Habbakuk:

How long, O LORD? I cry for help but you do not listen! I cry out to you, "Violence!" but you do not intervene. Why do you let me see ruin; why must I look at misery? Destruction and violence are before me; there is strife, and clamorous discord. Then the LORD answered me and said: Write down the vision clearly upon the tablets, so that one can read it readily. For the vision still has its time, presses on to fulfillment, and will not disappoint; if it delays, wait for it, it will surely come, it will not be late. The rash one has no integrity; but the just one, because of his faith, shall live.

I think that the ever-fresh words of scripture are finding their intended targets.

But meanwhile, yes, Virginia, two well-intentioned but arrogant, high-ranking priests have been that stupid. By the grace of God, and by means of some long-overdue scrambling, that arrogant stupidity will soon become a thing of the past, one way or another. And the entire Church will be the better for it; the roots and fruits of reform run deep and wide.

Sources: coverage in the Star Tribune, Pioneer Press, and MPR News

Saturday, June 8, 2013

If the Cap Fits....

The social media and even my local newspaper, the Star Tribune, are clearly enthralled with Roman Catholicism's new Pope. Francis, with his humble and authentic gestures from the very first minutes of his papacy, has both satisfied and stoked a yearning for Something Different. Wearing no gold, ermine, or red leather trappings, he bowed and asked for the people's blessing, eschewed the Papal Palace for a simple suite in the Vatican Guest House, and soon after washed the feet during a traditional Maundy Thursday liturgy not only of a female, but a female who is a teenager, imprisoned, and Muslim. Wow. And financial reform and greater transparency seems in the offing. Double wow.

While his humility and informality seem to be the main game changer, Pope Francis has also resurrected hopes for church-wide changes, such as the ordination of women to the diaconate and priesthood, potential changes admittedly dear to this writer's heart. As the various pro-change websites scour Francis' every word and gesture for possible indications of his good favor on this issue, stalwart defenders of the status quo seem oblivious to the general consensus that a new era is dawning. For example, the homily during last month's ordination service in the Archdiocese of Minneapolis and Saint Paul quoted Pope Benedict two times. Pope Francis was not mentioned at all, even though it might have been a perfect occasion to utilize Francis' recent and vividly charming statement about priests that they, like all good shepherds, should smell like their sheep.

The trajectory towards recognizing God's call to women to serve as priests and deacons in the Roman Catholic Church is something that wizened observers believe will cross into reality--eventually. It seems likely that (dare I say) --when-- Roman Catholicism traverses this decision, it will benefit from other denominations' learnings in the matter. I believe that women are priests differently than men are priests, just the way mothers are parents differently than fathers. There's a fullness to the church's ministry when women stand along with men both behind the altar and among their sheep.

Whenever and by whatever means this important fullness is achieved, I suspect one thing will have become very clear. Women's ordination is not so much a matter of justice for the women ordained, but of justice to God's people who need and want their ministry, in fidelity to God's call.

Wednesday, April 3, 2013

Surprised by Lent

A funny thing happened on the way to Easter this year. Totally independently and not even mentioning it among ourselves, a couple of friends and I each happened to adopt some diet restrictions for Lent. One friend gave up soda pop, another gave up all sweets, and I gave up wheat in all its forms.

Speaking for myself, I loved the challenge of finding alternatives to wheat. I discovered that it was remarkably easy to do. Corn chips replaced crackers and bread, rice or buckwheat substituted for pasta dishes, and pastries simply disappeared. I wasn't a Nazi about my Lenten discipline. In social settings, when I was served wheat-based foods, I ate--and enjoyed them--politely; when cooking gnocci for my son, of course I did not hesitate to take a bite to test for doneness. But, all in all, I held to the wheaten fast rather well, and felt great about it. I looked forward with eagerness to Sundays, traditionally not part of Lenten fasting, when I would find new heights of pleasure for the day in pancakes, lasagna, and BREAD, glorious bread, carbo-freak that I am. The memory of the really "fine" meals I had eaten on the previous Sunday would sustain me through the wheat-abstaining week ahead. There was a new and pleasing rhythm to my weeks that I felt on a bodily level. Come Holy Week, I was beginning to feel a bit sad that Lent and this rhythm would be coming to an end.

So Resurrection Sunday came, and I took up the feasting appropriate to this key Christian holiday. I ended my Lenten fasting from wheat with gleeful abandon: cheese pastries, Easter breads, and cute bunny-shaped rolls in abundance, tra-la! This, combined with joyous indulgence in the protein-rich Easter foods associated with my particular ethnic heritage (think EGGS, lots of them, mixed with ham and kielbasa) resulted in a resounding thud in energy levels come Easter Monday. Tuesday was even worse, undoubtedly because our athletic teenager, newly interested in his own health, placed his candy-laden Easter basket temptingly right under my nose, rather than hiding it in his room, as had been his custom in previous years. Not even the ultra-powerful horseradish that is also part of my ethnic Easter heritage could counteract this uberhaul of dietary disaster. My overall sense of physical well-being plummeted. In a word, I felt like--well--not the best.

And so it was that I chanced to meet my friends, first one, then the other, both of them also feeling very green under the gills after ending their Lenten disciplines. Both of them stated their intentions to adopt their Lenten disciplines as a year-round rule of life.

It seems so much easier to adopt a temporary life-style change than to summon the will-power for a permanent change. So, my friends and I tried something out for the six weeks of Lent, and discovered what a pleasing thing it is that we had done. "Forever" no longer seems so impossibly difficult. What a gift it is that Christianity's great rhythm of feasting and fasting provides.

Did I mention that I dropped a clothing size during my journey to Easter? Tra-la to that! I wonder what new discipline I will be able to try out next year....

Tuesday, March 26, 2013

Try Not to Get Worried, Try Not to Turn Onto...

I have an acquaintance--alternately known as a "Facebook Friend"--who despises politics. If a filter were to be invented that could screen out all references to anything vaguely political, he would be the first to buy it. When he announced--once again--to his readers this morning that he would be hiding all political posts, I thought of Magdalene's musical encouragement, at least in "Jesus Christ Superstar," for Jesus to "let the world turn without you tonight."

This week, my politics-averse friend is in good company, because Holy Week is the time when many Christians pull back a bit from the thrum and bustle of worldly cares. This year, for me, it is with a fresh and unusual sense that things are getting on track, and that I can safely tend to my inner world with some firm hope that the outer world will take care of itself just fine without my nanobit's worth of attention.

Last week's spiritual double-header is the source of my hopefulness. First, we saw a guy take Saint Peter's seat who personally invites trash collectors to his Papal Masses and takes the time to cancel his own dental appointments back in Buenos Aires. He eschewed the ostentatious (fake)ermine-trimmed cape-let and jeweled cross to greet the waiting throngs in the simple white cassock. He bowed his head asking for the prayers of his people before he bestowed his first Papal blessing. He used to cook his own meals and still rides in buses. I am Benedictine enough to believe in the value of physical labor for all members of a community, no matter how highly-positioned in the community. It is good that Francis is Pope. I won't engage in extensive criticism of his predecessor, but it seems highly unlikely that this guy will bother with prissy wording changes, like going back to "and with your spirit" instead of "and also with you." Nor is he likely to micromanage his generally well-trained, competent, and dedicated legions of clergy with administrivia like telling them that they must wear clerical collars every minute that they step outside their homes or that the chalices must all be set out on the altars and filled prior to the Eucharistic prayers.

All this seems very, very good.

Second, we watched this bright-eyed little guy go on a prayer pilgrimage through England before his installation as the Archbishop of Canterbury. He recycled the vestments of a beloved deceased colleague, rather than commission new ones to be made for him. He chose as a text for his sermon Matthew's "Take heart, it is I, do not be afraid," and admitted his own trepidations upon assuming leadership. He had the temerity to talk about "obedience to God, both in public care and private love." He is a man well-experienced in the work-a-day world and three times he narrowly escaped death at the hands of terrorists. Again, I do not wish to engage in extensive criticism of his predecessor, but Justin Welby seems unlikely to suggest that Sharia law would be a good thing to implement in Britain. It is good that he is Archbishop of Canterbury.

With the election of these two men, the world has gained two leaders markedly different from the current crop of secular leaders who cultivate the life-styles of rock-star celebrity. Perhaps these secular leaders will emulate the alternative that Francis and Justin embody. "Calmer, humbler world" sounds a lot like the "kinder, gentler nation" that one of our own secular leaders called for a few years back. Will the celebrity-worshipping media heed the current call to sanity better than the last? Francis' first press conference suggests that they might. Even if not, there is still the likelihood that the public at large will at last remember what true leadership looks like. Ultimately gold is much more attractive than glitz.

Yep--it is with heightened gratitude and decreased anxiety that many will be saying their Good Friday prayers for all the world. China, North Korea, Syria, and Russia may all be rattling their sabers, fellow Christians are being martyred by Islamic hardliners, our national debt continues to soar, and in some places kids can get abortions on demand but not large-sized soft-drinks. Everything is not, as Superstar's Mary Magdalene sang, "all right, yes," but things are, overall, just possibly, trending up.

Wednesday, March 13, 2013

Skin in the Game

The soles in the picture to the left belong to some anonymous person visiting St. Peter's square early this week to pray at the Vatican as the world awaits the election of a new Pope. It was a cold, wet day, as is apparent from the protective foot gear on the person standing next to the kneeling pilgrim. The pilgrim's dirty, naked, vulnerable feet provide a good reminder of what Jesus was all about.

Did Jesus array his apostles in beautiful but frightfully costly matching vestments that set them apart from ordinary people? Did he speak in the elegant language of the educated elite, or did he tongue the popular Aramaic dialect of his first disciples? Did he wine and dine sumptuously? Yes, probably, to this last question, but as a means of reaching the sinners whom he joined at table, not as a customary privilege elevating him above the hand-to-mouth contingency of daily life for most people on the planet at the time, if not also for the majority of people on the planet at this time.

I do not begrudge the opulent architecture of all the Vatican's churches. Beauty is a powerful language for teaching about God, and praying for the protection of these religious treasures is a great idea. A terrorist bomb or two could obliterate these memorials of spiritual magnificence forever, because wealth sufficient to recreate them is no longer in Christian hands, even if there were new Michelangelos equal to the task. Obliterate these artistic splendors, and their power to witness and transform is lost forever.

I do, however, begrudge the grand trappings and lifestyles of the aptly-monickered "Princes of the Church." I wish that I could reproduce here an image of the bedraggled Saint Francis appearing before the oppulently-arrayed Pope Innocent from the movie, "Brother Sun and Sister Moon," but copyright sanctions seem to make that impossible. Who is remembered more today--the bare-footed friar or the wealthy Pope before whom he stood? Similarly, who today could speak most credibly in the name of the carpenter from Galilee?

I include my own denomination within this reflection. I so would love to smack those colleagues who smugly hint online about how busy they are and how hard they work. They are a tad out of touch with the ever-increasing demands in the secular work force, not to mention the stresses of prolonged unemployment, not to mention the grinding systems of poverty institutionalized abroad and increasingly created here at home through misguided social programs. "Pampered" is not too strong a word to describe the level of privilege many clergy are provided, especially considering that the work we do is of the same sort that laypeople do in addition to earning their living.

But--back to this Pope-election thing. One very particular, humble, spiritually-authentic follower of Jesus undoubtedly sits among the splendidly-attired cardinals now gathered in the Sistine Chapel to select Saint Peter's newest successor. Let's keep our fingers crossed (in prayer!) that the Holy Spirit enlightens the Cardinals to properly discern that very particular one. Then let's keep those fingers crossed in prayer that the Holy Spirit will further inspire and empower that person to cast away or clean up everything that would tend to prevent the world from seeing who he truly is and hearing his message that Christ came into the world to save us all. And while we're at it, may that chosen person throw open the doors to all who would join him in his work, so that his people might flourish and not watch churches close for lack of sufficient priests.

Monday, February 25, 2013

Politics & Prayer in Filling St. Peter's Chair

The occupant of Saint Peter's Chair holds the most visible and powerful position in all of Christendom. Therefore, the selection of Pope Benedict VI's successor is a matter of concern for all intelligent Christians, no matter what their denomination. Given the decisive role that John Paul II played in the downfall of Eastern European Communism, it is arguable that whoever becomes the next Pope is a matter of concern even for every human being on the planet.

My hopefulness about the Papacy skyrocketed with Benedict's resignation, signifying as it did, I think, that it is possible for the ancient and venerable institution that is the Roman Catholic Church to make needed changes. If a Pope's physical and mental capacities are no longer equal to the tasks set before him, it is good that this can be admitted honestly and the underlying truth of the situation handled through his resignation. The alternative, namely for Benedict's work, in the face of his incapacity, to be handled through the inevitable machinations of a power elite surrounding and covering for him, would NOT a good thing. So, Benedict's resignation is a very good thing, perhaps his strongest legacy, hopefully setting a precedent for all his successors to follow in similar humility.

My hopefulness about the papacy just plunged with the news that the winsome leader of the Roman Catholic Church in Scotland has been forced to resign. Cardinal Keith O'Brien, just two weeks away from the Papal conclave, tendered his resignation after decades-old accusations suddenly, mysteriously came to light. The timing cannot be mere coincidence, but suggests that Vatican politics is rearing its ugly head. Cardinal O'Brien had just admitted in a BBC interview that he believes that priests should be allowed to marry, as they had been permitted in the early church (listen here: BBC interview).

Of course, whenever even just two humans gather, the politics of power come into play. Politics cannot be avoided, but they can be waged in a good-hearted and transparent way, thoroughly grounded in prayer. Therefore, may no Cardinal speak or act, except as the Holy Spirit prompts him. Christendom's supportive prayer might now become that all the inevitable political behavior involved in the upcoming Papal election serve God's purposes. May the next Vicar of Christ be the man who is most Christ-like. May the Vatican's political processes serve to identify that man, and that nothing other than God's will be done. The future and flourishing of all Christianity is at stake.

+++ +++ +++

UPDATE Normally reliable sources are providing contradictory information on the details in this story, such as whether Cardinal O'Brien will participate in the Conclave or not. I humbly call an end to my attempts to pass along the latest versions, and commend the whole matter of the Papal election to every reader's prayers.

Thursday, February 14, 2013

Yes, HAPPY Lent!

It's only Day 2 of Lent, and already I've met with a few raised eyebrows indicating that wonderment, "Are you bonkers?" One person even gave voice to their puzzlement, "Whaddya mean--happy?. This is Lent, we're not suppposed to be happy!" Au contraire. I love lent; it makes me happy, so the natural greeting for me this season is "Happy Lent!"

I'm actually in good company with this tendency towards happiness during Lent. For catechumens preparing for baptism in earlier centuries of the church, Lent represented the home stretch--soon they would be initiated into full participation in the church during the upcoming Easter festival. Likewise for notorious sinners who had been assigned public penance: soon they would be restored to the community during the Easter Vigil. True, there was a challenging path ahead, but Lent was the beginning--of the end--of their troubles, so, indeed it was a happy time.

The best rationale, I think, for being happy and wishing people happiness during Lent is found in the Bible itself. In the Greek language of the New Testament, "makarioi" is accurately translated either as "blessed" or "happy." That is why we see the more popular "Blessed are the meek..." right alongside the "Happy are the meek" of newer translations. If we're comfortable with the idea of wishing people, "Blessed Lent!" perhaps hearing greetings of "Happy Lent to you!" will trigger some thinking as to what "blessed" actually means. Somberness is not the sine qua non of blessedness. In fact, joyfulness seems to be the more usual manifestation of holiness. Even in the midst of her long "dark night of the soul," people were constantly struck by just how joyful Mother Theresa of Calcutta seemed. And John Paul II was famous for his natural good cheer, even amidst his rigorous self-discipline, to mention just two famous examples.

Still not convinced? Consider the Gospel advice from Ash Wednesday not to feign sadness or gravity when fasting. Instead, look your best and wear a bright smile, we are told. For some, perhaps that smile will seem a bit forced at first. I maintain, however, that any forced quality to that smile will melt with the satisfaction of knowing that we are on the right track. Isn't it a GOOD thing to be praying more, disciplining ourselves with some sort of fasting, and consciously giving more to the poor this season? Solemnity would be the appropriate accompaniment to blowing off Lent, not to our endeavors to keep it. If we truly feel deeply out of sorts or ornery as a result of our Lenten discipline, perhaps we need to lighten up a bit. Snacking on a small slice of cheese does not destroy a fast; it's not the ego-gratification of perfection we are seeking, but rather a heightened attentiveness to God, our short-comings, and thus our need for Him. If a little nibble enables you to replace those overwhelming thoughts of a cheeseburger with something a tad more spiritual, I say, bring on a few peanuts! And, if you grab your small snack in thankfulness that you have the means to do so, unlike so many in the world with empty larders, that would make for a rather good start to Lent indeed.

Resurrection Sunday will soon be here. Meanwhile, may your Lent be HAPPY and fruitful!

Monday, February 4, 2013

Who's your Daddy?

As all the various Christian denominations seek to create new believers in a spiritually hungry world, I hope we can avoid the competitiveness that insists that our own particular "brand" is best. I know that a deep confidence in our own tradition of believing and worshiping is necessary in order to be willing to share the tradition with others. Still, that deep confidence need not overshadow the knowledge that other denominations are seeking to do God's work in the world, as well.

In all honesty, I come to this concern with a certain axe to grind. Favorite authors of mine and even close personal friends tend to speak of basic Christian tenets as "Catholic," and they don't, unfortunately, mean the "little c catholic" that we refer to when reciting the Nicene Creed. As Roman Catholics, they even claim the word "catholic," but I don't think the non-Roman portion of God's "one holy, catholic, and apostolic church" is willing to let the word go.

Actually, we "little c catholics" ourselves give away more than makes sense. We tend to acquiesce to the notion that the early and medieval church and everything not explicitly Protestant is by default Roman Catholic. It would be more accurate to say that Roman Catholicism and Protestantism share the same roots in early Christianity and in the medieval church. Just because the Roman Catholic branch is by far the largest branch does not mean that the other branches do not still draw their primary nourishment from the roots of Christianity.

The branching off process was not an abrupt or tidy process. Luther's congregants were still buying indulgences in 1517 when he nailed his 95 theses on the Cathedral door, and Henry VIII was named Defender of the Faith for opposing Luther in 1521. Queen Mary would reinstate Catholic Mass in place of the Book of Common Prayer's Communion service a full thirteen years after Ignatius of Loyola finally managed to get his famed Spiritual Exercises published. Reformation leaders did not have lobotomies that cut all of Roman Catholic piety out of their brains. And, yes, it is true that reciting the Angelus and Ave Maria remained an integral part of the personal spiritual practice of Luther and other key reformers.

So why, in explaining the spiritual influences in his life, does the newly-installed Archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby, refer to the Benedictine and Ignation influences as Roman Catholic? He needs to claim them proudly as his Anglican birthright just as clearly as I cling to Copernicus, Kosciousko, and Chopin as part of my Polish heritage. That my branch of the Polish family tree now stretches across the ocean to America does not expunge my ancestry. Likewise, the Reformation did not expunge Protestantism's ancestry. It is ours forever, to be shared with loving respect for the other descendants of our beloved ancestors who also cherish our common roots.

Pride in our respective denominations is a good thing, but may it not devolve into an unhealthy religious jingoism. Paul figured this out 20 centuries ago in writing to those quarrelsome, egocentric Corinthians. Is claiming denominational supremacy any less a manifestation of jealousy than claiming Paul or Apollos? Christ is the destination: leaders and denominations are only the vehicles, wonderful though they be.

Let's be circumspect, generous, and honest in claiming and studying our roots. Doing so will make us more attractive and convincing in our efforts to spread the Gospel in a diversely-populated world.

Friday, January 18, 2013

Listening to the Music

Preaching, like tango, takes two: a speaker and a listener. Actually, it takes three, but if we think of the Holy Spirit as the music animating both speaker and listener, the dance metaphor still holds.

In ballroom dancing, there is a set leader and a set follower among the dancing duo. In our metaphor, the preacher is, by far, the leader in the sermon dance, and the listener is the follower in the sermon dance. Sometimes the listener needs the skill of Ginger Rogers dancing backward (in heels!) to transform a lackluster preacher's attempt to do justice to the grand music of God's word being played. It is a good thing in this situation that the listener hears the music directly, along with the preacher. Most preachers have had the experience of being thanked sincerely for saying something in a sermon that clearly they never actually said. Sometimes this is a good thing, the Holy Spirit singing something true and good directly to the hearer. Other times, it is a sign that the sound system, for whatever reasons, isn't working up to snuff, and something rather awful has been "heard."

I belabor this mixed dance duo metaphor in acknowledgement--and even hopefulness--that the preacher of the sermon I am about to describe did not actually say what I am about to describe. But--it is what an intelligent, generally reliable listener took away from the sermon and related to me. Something in this particular sound system is screwy, be it the transmitter or the receiver. As I said, I hope it was the receiver gone awry, but my hunch is that it was the transmitter.

The preacher in our anonymous church had gone to a lot of trouble to prepare a prop for the sermon, a big box, all nicely gift-wrapped. "This is God's best gift to you. Can you guess what's inside?" Polite, cooperative children in the congregation, each accustomed to the dialogic sermon experience, offered their guesses, each reflecting their own unique idea of what God's best gift would be in the big box. Nope, nope, nope.... What would be in the box? Maybe the statue of the infant Jesus had been hijacked temporarily from the outdoor creche? Would there be a large cross inside? Dramatic tension soared as the preacher, aided by the little hands of volunteers, slowly unwrapped the box, reached inside, and pulled out--a large, elaborately-framed mirror. The point of this Christmas-season sermon was that each child was God's best gift--to the world!

Joy, anyone?

Forgive me while your faithful blogger here has a temporary melt-down pondering the ramifications of this sermon illustration. The hopes and fears of all the years are met---in what I see in the mirror? Who needs Christ if each person is already God's best gift to the world? What happens when that person falls short, can't make it, hits bottom? Where can a person praising the image of himself or herself go to repent, or worse, how can they ever even imagine a need to repent?

OK. So maybe, as I speculated above, the sermon was never actually preached quite in this way, that some nuance was missed, and that this "hearing" was idiosyncratic and just God's way of moving the listener (after several experiences like this) on to a church with a truer, more compatible sound system. Or maybe next week's sermon at this anonymous church balanced out the self-aggrandizement suggested by this unfortunate message. Sometimes, however, you just can't compensate for a partner with three left feet, and it is time to call it a night. Some gifts are just--wrong, and no matter how well-intentioned, must not be kept.

But the Music still plays on, elsewhere. Just please don't dance alone, for long....

Saturday, January 5, 2013

On Not Using Words

As I look back over the Twelve Days of Christmas and the season of Advent that preceded it, three things bubble up in my memory as uniquely special. One occurred in a grocery store. After paying my bill, I realized that the customer ahead of me had neatly bagged all my groceries for me. Smiling and waving, she said, "Happy Holidays," and immediately turned to leave. Clearly, anonymity was a big part of the random kindness she wished to deliver to me that day. Delighted, I called out after her to thank her.

The second thing that I am still savoring is the silent, daylong vigil that a local church held to honor and pray for the victims of the Newtown shooting. Scheduled a week after the fact, I had already heard and read and said more than was helpful to me or anyone else in processing the event. The silence was exactly what my soul needed to regain its equilibrium and get back to the spiritual focus of the season, preparing for the birth of the light that shines in darkness without being overcome by the darkness. The silence shared with others helped me to personally move out of the darkness into the light of the coming Christmas season.

And lastly, I was pleased to have been reminded of J.R.R Tolkien's Christian worldview through watching Peter Jackon's "The Hobbit" in all its 3-D magnificence. Prompted by Gandalf, Tolkien's grace-filled wisdom figure, Bilbo accepts the call to leave his happy hobbit hole and undertake his grand and perilous "adventure," simply because he had a home "and the dwarves did not." Bilbo thus makes the life-changing decision (conversion!) to develop and flex his capacity for self-sacrificing love. Need I say that movies with deeply hopeful themes such as this are not exactly plentiful these days?

Reflecting on these three things--a surprise favor from a stranger, a silent vigil, and an entertaining movie delivering Christian values--together points me to Saint Francis' astute advice to "Preach the gospel at all times. If necessary, use words." Although the grocery-bagging stranger was most likely a professing Christian, she did not strain the encounter by trying to rope me into attending her church or seeing the world as she does. Actions speak louder than words: do kindness. The day of the silent vigil, I had become oversaturated with media ruminations about the Newtown tragedy; I simply could not have tolerated any sermonizing. Sometimes silence is the best thing we can "say" in painful situations: let's share more of it. Lastly, stories can teach and inspire in ways that direct discussion cannot. Tolkien's work is all the more powerful for not crossing the line into explicit evangelism. Let's cultivate direct appreciation for the great literature of Christianity. Can you hear C.S. Lewis and Dante calling you?

2013 will be year in which I: 1) Practice random acts of kindness; 2) Find more opportunities for shared silence; and 3) Read and discuss more classics. I'll bet these resolutions will make me--and anyone--a much more attractive witness to faith out in the secular world than anything that is preached or written. But hey! Keep reading the blog, please!