Wednesday, February 27, 2019

... I was a stranger and you welcomed me ... Matthew 25:35

Just four days after my ordination to the priesthood in February 2008, on Shrove Tuesday, I had to make a difficult call to my bishop informing him that the mission congregation I was leading was likely going to close. I hadn't counted on my first call out of seminary turning into a hospice chaplaincy for fifteen faithful souls who had run out of money, energy and time - but here we were. The congregation entered a focused discernment and by Holy Week they had come to the conclusion that staying together was not the faithful option. We stopped worshiping as a community on Good Friday - the quintessential day for a death and burial.

Thankfully, the members of that community found homes in other churches and most even remained in the Episcopal Church. But for me as a newly ordained priest, this was not the optimal vocational move. Closing a church is every clergy's worst nightmare and having this as my first "resume item" had some pretty bad optics. Even though I was a "second vocation" priest having 38 years of Episcopal experience in ministry, I was still a "rookie priest" and it was 2008 ... remember what happened that year? By fall, the financial markets had collapsed and we were in a worldwide recession - honestly it was an economic depression but nobody likes to speak that truth.

Unemployed, and in the eyes of some unemployable, I was considering option of leaving the ministry already. Who knows? Maybe God's plan was to call me to close a congregation and then I was done. Maybe God was mad at me for something. Maybe I needed to go back to the choir and hang out there. Looking back, this was not my faith talking but my fears - it's what happens when you're unemployed. But I kept getting up and I kept showing up, mostly through the summer doing clergy supply - thank God for my fellow priests who needed vacations!

One September day, I decided to show up at the Frederick Ministerial meeting at Frederick Presbyterian Church. It was there that I reconnected with Pastor Ken Dunnington of Calvary United Methodist Church in Frederick. We hadn't seen each other in awhile and he asked if I was still in search for a new call.

"Yes, but things aren't looking too good," I replied.

"Well, I may have something for you. Would you consider something part-time?"

"Sure. Part-time beats no time."

And that's how, on All Saints Day, I was called to be the part-time Visitation Pastor at Calvary United Methodist Church in Frederick, Maryland. I also concurrently served a very part-time interim position at St. Luke's in the City in southwest Baltimore and a brief stint at my home parish - and I learned how two part-time calls are harder than one full-time one ... but I digress. My role as Visitation Pastor was to call on the home bound members of Calvary and bring them Holy Communion. In addition, I made hospital calls, preached on occasion and presided at many funerals. I served there for about a year after which I left for full-time employment as a chaplain at a local hospice - no question that my time at Calvary prepared me for that call.

During my pastorate at Calvary, I came to know many people whom I love and cherish as fellow pilgrims in the Jesus Movement and I came to more deeply appreciate the Wesleys - their passion for social justice, their deep commitment to the practice of praying the Daily Offices and regular reception of Holy Communion (they were the "high church Anglicans" back at the time of the Reformation), the beauty of their hymnody and music. I made some lasting friendships and ministry colleagues in Pastor Ken and his wife Sandy, Pastor Eliezar Valentin-Castenon and his family, Pastors Kate Heflin and Sarah Schliekert, Pastor Ray Moreland, and my predecessor (who would later become my successor) Pastor Harry Cole. This was all in addition to the remarkable staff and members who lived their Christian faith not only in the congregation but in the world. Like all churches, it had its ups and downs as we followed Jesus imperfectly and clumsily trying to be the Beloved Community and be the gospel in the world; but overall, I experienced a genuine and loving community filled with sanctifying grace.

In truth, I was a stranger and they welcomed me, this displaced Anglo-Catholic priest. I danced to a syncopated leitmotif in the UMC liturgy. I crossed myself during the Creed, bowed my head at the Name of Jesus, and when I gave the blessing made the unabashed (and rather large) sign of the cross over the congregation - and overall it was cool with them. When the Book of Worship was just so close in wording to the Book of Common Prayer (but not quite) that I stumbled, they were patient with me. When I prayed in "collect form" rather than a longer pastoral prayer - they accepted it. In turn, they taught me all the alto parts of the Wesleyan hymns, what it felt like to have your heart "strangely warmed", encouraged my preaching and teaching, and to be accepted as a "stranger in a strange land." I hold deep and lasting gratitude for my year long sojourn in the United Methodist Church.

This is why my heart is breaking for them this morning. Yesterday, their 2019 General Conference concluded after rejecting a way forward over the matter of full inclusion of LGBTQ members. The One Church proposal would have given local congregations the ability to make the decision about full inclusion of the LGBTQ community. This proposal failed in favor of the Traditional Plan which asserts that same-sex unions are incompatible with scripture and clergy in same-sex relationships and marriages are subject to discipline/removal. The unicameral, worldwide polity of the UMC is weighted the vote in favor of a very conservative approach as African and Asian churches have equal voice and are more conservative in their views of same-sex relationships. Today, many of my UMC friends are feeling like strangers in their own church but sadly not welcomed.

St. Paul spoke of he Church as the Body of Christ and said, "If one members suffers, all suffer together..." (1 Corinthians 12:26a). Today, one member is suffering and we all suffer together. Conferences and legislative processes can be antithetical to building community. Disciplinary measures and proof-texting of Scripture can become weapons used to purge the Church of people whose presence makes us uncomfortable - and all the while Jesus weeps.

My heart aches because my own Episcopal Church is no stranger to these kinds of divisions. We have been wracked by the same forces and arguments the UMC is now experiencing. We too have been the targets of the Institute for Religion and Democracy (which I would argue is neither for democracy or religion but rather a thinly veiled Christian Taliban promoting a narrowly interpreted theocracy) and we know what money and partisan politics can do to the Body of Christ. We have experienced the forces which would rend us asunder and the broken relationships which result. We grieve with you today and hold you in prayer.

So for my friends in the UMC on both sides of this painful issue, I am praying. For those who would exclude LGBTQ folk from ministry based on your interpretation of scripture, I pray your hearts may be soften (dare I say "strangely warmed") to listen deeply and humbly to the LGBTQ community remembering Jesus had much to say about self-righteousness (spoiler alert: none of it was good) that you may see there are other ways of interpreting scripture and that these beloved are created in the image of God as much as you are. For those in the LGBTQ community and your allies: I pray for healing grace to soothe your pain, to remember your are beloved of God, to remember the Church and Jesus are not one in the same, and that you may find rest for your souls no matter where Christ leads you in the future.

When I was a stranger, you welcomed me. I pray you find the way to welcome each other in the love of Christ.


Wednesday, May 2, 2018

Michelle Wolf, Crass Speech and the Prophetic Tradition

The Twittersphere has been on fire after the White House Correspondents Dinner and comedian Michelle Wolf's acerbic truth telling. I'm a little late to this party as I've been reflecting on her words, the broad reactions, and in particular the reactions of fellow Christians. I've been watching many Christians expressing offense at her "crassness", her "language", her "mean spirited attacks" and how "unchristian" this all is. Meanwhile ...

Flint still doesn't have clean water and Sarah Huckabee Sanders still lies.

What is annoying to this priest is how pearl-clutching Christians have such utter ignorance of the crass language in the prophetic tradition of their own Bible. Don't believe me? Well, sit back and hold onto those pearls.

Let's look at Isaiah - the prophet who spoke hard truth to the leaders of Israel who wanted to "Make Jerusalem Great Again" while exploiting the poor and oppressing the foreigner (sound familiar?). Isaiah to told them to knock this off or they would be destroyed and then said, "See, I told you!" when Jerusalem was sacked (SparkNotes version). Of course, later he spoke of restoration, but there was a whole lot of judgement and truth telling first. Consider Isaiah 64:6:
But we are all as an unclean thing, and all our righteousnesses are as filthy rags; and we all do fade as a leaf; and our iniquities, like the wind, have taken us away.
The underlined words in Hebrew mean "menstruation covering". That's right - the bloody, discarded rags women once used in the "pre-Stayfree" days.

Now before you get all caught up in your own "EWWWW GROSS!!" reaction to that (and no, menstruation isn't gross, but that's another post), think about how Isaiah's original audience would have reacted. It was crass. It was rude. It was offensive language in polite society - and that's exactly what telling the truth is. Was it mean? Perhaps. Was it provocative? Absolutely. Provocative speech is the realm of prophetic when it wakes you up and gets you out of your spiritually anesthetized state. Did Isaiah's hearers get pissed off at him? Very likely.

Now let's turn to Paul, the prolific letter writer of early Christianity. He wrote a letter to a little church in the city of Philippi. In that letter he trotted out his Jewish pedigree:
...circumcised on the eighth day, a member of the people of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew born of Hebrews; as to the law, a Pharisee; as to zeal, a persecutor of the church; as to righteousness under the law, blameless. (Philippians 3:5-6)
Yeah, sounds like he was pretty impressed with his CV, but then he says this:
For his sake I have suffered the loss of all things, and I regard them as rubbish, in order that I may gain Christ ... (Philippians 3:8b)
Only ...

He didn't say "rubbish". Going back to the Greek, he said (pearl clutch trigger warning):
For his sake I have suffered the loss of all things, and I regard them as shit, in order that I may gain Christ ...
OMG! Paul said "shit"???!!! Absolutely he did and if you didn't know that, it's because your sanitized English translation cleaned up Paul to make him presentable for your delicate sensibilities. That Greek word skubala only occurs one other time, in the apocryphal book Jesus, Son of Sirach and it still means shit.

Was that offensive? Maybe. Paul was, after all, writing to a church full of ex-military guys so maybe they just got a good laugh out of that in church. Was it provocative? Absolutely. He was making it clear he had totally changed in Christ. I kind of miss my seminary professor who charged us to read this passage from Philippians in seminary chapel just as it was written because, "You'll never get away with that in any church."

Which brings me to the problem. Christians who don't understand the role of crass language in the prophetic tradition failed to see the truth-telling Michelle Wolf did. They get caught up in her style and totally missed her substance. Did I like everything she said? No. I thought her crack about abortion was cavalier and showed a lack of respect for life (and FWIW, I believe abortion should be safe, legal and rare - but that's another blog post). BUT, she did some serious truth telling to an utterly morally bankrupt power structure whose lies and corruption are undermining our democracy.

Michelle Wolf had the nerve to speak truth to the compulsive lies Sarah Huckabee Sanders tells to cover up a president who is anything but a Christian. She had the audacity to call out the press for its complicity in using the antics of President Trump to sell papers, because if it bleeds it leads. If you as a Christian are more upset with Michelle Wolf because she was "crass" and "mean" than you are with the moral bankruptcy of our political leaders and their phony-ass Nationalism wrapped in a paper-thin veneer of Jesus talk, then you are part of what is wrong with the Church right now. You are seriously misunderstanding the call to speak truth to power. Perhaps you want a Jesus who won't challenge, provoke and upset you. Let me remind you that people who don't challenge, provoke or upset others never get crucified.

Jesus taught us the truth will set us free but he neglected to add that first it will piss you off.

Saturday, April 8, 2017

The problem of nostalgia

We're now about 12 weeks into the new Trump Republican administration and the rhetoric and vitriol have not slowed down, especially on social media. We are a divided people and it's not getting better. The name-calling and viciousness in both directions is painful. Families are divided and not speaking to each other. Partisanship has wreaked havoc on a people who once all called themselves "American." Elected politicians now believe they only have to cater to (or perhaps pander to) the constituencies who elected them and they have no obligation to represent those who did not vote for them. After all, those people are "losers" (in the words of our Republican President), so why should anyone listen to them?
As a student of history, theology and business (the latter was my first degree and I owned a business prior to ordination), I see this Republican president tapping a sense of nostalgia for an America around 1950: back when things were "great" (at least for straight, white men) and "prosperous." Well, America was #1 in manufacturing & trade in the 1950's and that did support our job base; however, many forget the primary reason we were #1 was because we had NO competition - all of our potential competitors' infrastructures had been destroyed by a world war. It's easy to be #1 when there is nobody else competing with you! In sports, we'd call it a forfeiture.
What we seem to ignore is this fact: time does not move backward. It never has and never will. The globalism train has left the station and those left behind on the platform want it to come back so they can get a "do over." This will not happen. Our economies are intertwined on so many levels with other countries, robotics has displaced more workers than foreigners and off-shoring jobs ever did, and the kinds of jobs being created are different from the 1950's. No matter how nostalgic people want to be, the fact remains you cannot turn back time.
We have also experienced a devolving in our governance. We are now no longer a representative democracy. We are now an oligarchy, governance by a ruling class, and that ruling class are the plutocrats, the extremely wealthy who support unmanaged capitalism because it works for them (and largely only for them). This is the natural course of political evolution when you don't properly manage a capitalistic system.
So Trump's supporters are angry. They are angry about "jobs" and the foreigners they blame for "taking our jobs". They are angry at "the elites" but rarely do they seem to connect those "elites" with the policies they created which have exploited the working class: like dismantling labor rights and protections and creating tax policies which threw the working class a small bone while the wealthy made out like bandits. Trump supporters are grieving what they perceive to be the loss of "America" as they knew it ... or perhaps as they never really knew it because younger Trump supporters were not even alive in the 1950's (I admit I wasn't alive then either ... I was born in the early 60's).
I recall theologian Walter Bruggemann saying in a lecture I attended, "Grief, when it is not processed well, turns to violence." I think this is what is happening in our country. There is grief on both sides of this election and it has turned into violence because we are not addressing it at all. It turns into violence in our words with name-calling and threats. Those who support this president disagree by lashing out with words like "libtard", "snowflake" and other derisive comments like "get over it" and "you lost." Rather than seeing those "libtards" and "snowflakes" as fellow Americans who also care about their country, Trump supporters seem to be bent on the utter destruction of anyone who disagrees with them.
Now I won't claim the "libtards" and "snowflakes" always take the "high moral ground" either. Nope. They can descend into name-calling like anyone else because they are human, not divine. But guess what? Those "libtards" and "snowflakes" also care about their country and they are grieving too. Contrary to what Trump supporters may believe, they are not grieving because "Hillary lost." They are grieving the dismantling of hard won rights protecting the masses (read WORKERS ... you know, the 99% of us who are not plutocrats). They are grieving environmental destruction by business which will bring back the polluted water and air that plagued our country in the 1960's and 1970's. They are grieving the return of a two-tiered education system which will favor the rich and leave the working class behind.
Why were things "great" in the 1950's - that time for which Trump and his supporters seem to long? Well, in addition to the opening premise of my post about lack of competition, consider this: the 1950's reaped the benefits of Roosevelt's socialistic economic policies. Yeah, I said "socialistic" because they are. Things like Social Security, Medicare, the G.I. Bill that let thousands of returning soldiers get a college education without bankrupting their families, worker's rights laws demanding a 40 hour workweek and overtime pay when you had to work overtime. All of those benefits and regulations came from a populist form of socialist democracy (the form of governance throughout Western Europe) and benefited WORKERS. These are the kinds of things "libtards" and "snowflakes" want for America and they are angry that over the last 40 years, our country has been moving backwards and the WORKERS are being exploited once again. The Bible has a lot to say about the exploitation of people for the gain of a few. The prophetic writings of Amos, Jeremiah, Isaiah and the teachings of Jesus are clear: God does NOT favor the wealthy but has preference for the poor and oppressed. Unfortunately, since the 1950's, America has heard a "prosperity theology" that says God blesses the rich with more wealth - this is heresy and is not in the Bible. The Biblical message is clear that God favors the righteous and wealth is dangerous because it has the corrosive effect of idolatry which makes people selfish, greedy and prone to exploiting others.
The problem of nostalgia is that we put on our "rose colored glasses" and believe if we could "just go back" to when things were "great," all would be well and our problems would be solved. The truth is, nostalgia makes us look at the past with a revisionist view which conflates the good and ignores the problems of those past times (things like segregation, laws relegating women to chattel status, and the persecution of the LGBT community). It's a longing for a time which really never was and never can be.
Staying mired in nostalgia and allowing that to fuel a misplaced anger towards other human beings rather than address the policies which have grossly enriched a few at the expense of many will be a path to destruction. History tells us destruction of our empire may very well be inevitable: all empires fall and we will be no exception to that rule. As Christians, we are not to allow the dividing lines of partisan politics to divide and enslave us to the powers of this world. We are to look forward, not backward with nostalgia. We are to be in this world but not of it and we have an obligation to follow the Biblical teachings and show God's care for the poor, marginalized and oppressed. Nostalgia is not the way of Jesus.