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The blog—informal opinions and chat about the parish

Saturday, October 8, 2016

That Videotape

By now, almost everyone in the USA (at least everyone who can read) is aware of an extremely lewd, demeaning videotape in which a major political candidate said things that would put him on the sex offender registry in most states, things that, if said by your 13-year-old son, would result in a month of grounding without access to friends or Internet.

In a way, it's not a surprise. A general theme throughout the Bible is that the tongue expresses the true values of a person's heart. We should have seen that tape coming.

The surprise to me is summarized in this quotation from the Washington Post:
One of Trump’s most prominent social-conservative supporters, Tony Perkins of the Family Research Council, told BuzzFeed’s Rosie Gray: “My personal support for Donald Trump has never been based upon shared values.”
The FRC calls itself a Christian lobbying organization that opposes gay rights, abortion, divorce, stem-cell research, and pornography. If those are not values, then I do not know what the word "value" means.

The question, then, to a self-proclaimed Christian leader, is why you would support a candidate, if not on the basis of your value system. Pragmatics? No matter who gets hurt or what it does to either the core ideas of our Republic or to the Christian message, you support someone because you think his ideas will "work"?

Here, then, is the danger for Christian voters. Assuming that a candidate is not Mary Poppins ("practically perfect in every way"), we are tempted to do one of three things:
  1. Vote a single issue only. "I don't care that the candidate is a fool, a liar, a bully, and a potential sex offender, at least he's against abortion." (In case you had not noticed, there is a lot more to governing that being against abortion.)
  2. Vote pragmatics. "Even though there is nothing in this candidate that reflects Christian character or even the secular definition of a good man, at least he said he will bring jobs back." (That's how Germany got Hitler.)
  3. Vote hatred. "He hates the same ethnic groups and religions that I hate, so I will vote for him." (Can you hear yourself? Really?)
We Americans—and especially Christians—do not like to think too hard and we really want a quick, easy fix for our problems. Mary Poppins is not running for office this time, so we need to make difficult choices. We need to pray. We need to set aside hatreds and ignore the hate-mongers on television and the Internet. And we really do need to vote on the basis of shared values.

Saturday, September 10, 2016

The Christian Way to Vote

With an election coming soon, it's appropriate to think about the Christian way to vote. We have a habit of getting it wrong, or at least of doing rather badly when we try.

Christian voters, after all, gave us Prohibition, with no decrease in drunkenness but an incredible increase in organized crime. Christian voters also campaigned strenuously (in some places) in favor of slavery. I remember, back in the 1960s, when a highly-respected Christian magazine for college students made the claim that if John Kennedy were elected, the Pope would actually end up running the US government.

All that should give us pause. We got every one of those wrong. Those three examples, though, give us a look at typical ways we tend to vote, and we should try to avoid the pitfalls again.

The one-issue church

It is very tempting to reduce the whole of Christian theology to one simple item. Much easier to hold in your mind. I have no real objection to people who quote John 3:16 on billboards and such (that verse has a pretty good claim to really be the heart of the Christian message), and I get amused at signs that say simply "John 3:16" (as if the average non-believer had any clue what that could mean). But we have been told recently that (for example) monogamous straight marriage is the heart and core of the Christian message and that the only thing the church should be doing is opposing abortion.

Surely there is more to the Christian message than that. My Bible has 879 pages. We could have saved a lot of money on printing if those two items were the only things worth saying.

The danger when voting, of course, is that defining the "Christian candidate" in terms of only one or two characteristics makes us blind to a lot of other issues. What do we do about the candidate who opposes gay marriage and abortion, but has a strongly unethical personal life and no real experience or wisdom to govern? Is that person the Christian choice?
Footnote: This one-issue problem is a reason many younger people shun churches in general. Our reputation is that we only get together to hate gay people or to campaign against reproductive choice. That's what they think and we are at fault for failing to publicize our larger story.

The way it has always been

Good church folk supported slavery. We need to remember that. One great danger white folks faced if slavery was eliminated was that the traditional way of life (with white privilege and prosperity) would not work the same in a post-slavery world. And somehow we have gotten the idea that God's plan for us personally is a life of comfort, ease, privilege, and a lot of material possessions. (Go to a bookstore and look in the "Christian" section. You will find dozens of "prosperity gospel" books written by preachers.)

Once again, the problem is that folk who believe God's plan is to make us comfortable and to keep American traditions going have simply not read much of the Bible. The Old Testament is full of requirements to provide for the poor, the alien, and the stranger. Jesus didn't own much of anything at all, nor did his disciples, and the book of James is full of comments about providing for the poor. I do not find many places where Jesus said that he came to keep everything going just the way it had always been.

The voting danger is that we can be seduced into thinking that the USA in some sort of golden age (steam locomotives, "I Love Lucy" and Christian prayer in public schools) was God's Jerusalem. It simply wasn't. When Pilate asked Jesus if he was a king, Jesus made the specific point that his kingship was not an earthly kingship. Candidates who promise to return us to a golden age (that never really existed for the majority) are not pushing a particularly Christian message.

Fear and terror

We love to be terrorized. Just look at all those Internet ads telling you "shocking news" that you won't believe. Whether it was the razorblades in Halloween apples (a thoroughly disproven myth), "Four things you should never order from a Chinese restaurant," or the idea that Harry Potter will turn all our children into disciples of Satan, we just absolutely thrive on the idea that the world is a hugely dangerous place, that nameless terrors are out to get us, and that we need to be afraid of everything.

That's why everyone wants to carry a gun to Wal-Mart. That's why people refuse to have their children vaccinated. That's why we have been hearing for years that "those people" are out to "steal" the election.

Yes, there are things to be afraid of (global warming, the gun-toting fool in my classroom, and drunk drivers, for example), and the prudent response is to find ways to counteract the danger (EPA regulations, gun control, and reasonable restrictions on alcohol).

It is worth remembering, though, that the Christian church got its start in an era when Rome was a terribly oppressive overlord, when disease and famine would wipe out whole populations, when the most basic public safety and hygiene concepts were unknown. It's also worth remembering that, even in the face of much more danger than we ever experience, the Christian message is one of hope, not fear.

The John Kennedy warning is only one of many issued by churches. I have a campaign flier that proclaims Richard Nixon to be God's man for the White House. Voting from fear is not a particularly Christian response, nor is it a particularly wise one.

So what?

What should we do? For one thing, we should be aware that many politicians claim the Christian label just long enough to run for office. If you want to vote for a Christian candidate, look deeper. For another, be aware that we live in an incredibly complex time. Simplifying the vote to one issue or one comment probably lets in many things you weren't prepared to accept. And above all, "be wise as serpents and innocent as doves."

Tuesday, September 6, 2016

Slogging through HTML

I have just spent nearly two hours working on the church website, trying to bring the code up to the current standards. Aside from the hacking (which was real), a big problem was that I had used methods that were about five years old for doing such things as inserting photos. And everything has changed. Not in very obvious ways either.

In the middle of all this, I posted a Facebook comment (somewhat grumpy) that I agreed with Harry Potter's Dolores Umbridge, who said that "change for the sake of change must be discouraged." As is usual with quotes from memory, I got that one wrong. What she actually said was "Progress for the sake of progress must be discouraged." Quite a difference! And Umbridge was mangling a more reasonable version of the old proverb: "Change for change's sake does not always result in progress."

We in the Episcopal Church often get accused of "going with the flow." Female clergy, a gay bishop, and now we are on record supporting transgender rights. Do we do this because we use The New Yorker magazine as our moral compass?

Actually no, and it takes a LOT to change our official stance on anything. The process is similar to amending the US Constitution, and for similar reasons. Big-time proposals have to go through committees, be voted on in major legislative bodies, then down to the parishes, and on and on. We do this so we are not tempted to jump on every bandwagon that comes down the street.

Then there is the "three-legged stool," our nickname for the three sources of authority in our church: Scripture, tradition, and reason. (In practice, that's a misleading metaphor: We should talk about the old-fashioned stool at a lunch counter. Scripture is the shiny pole embedded in the floor, while reason and tradition are like the footrest you use to keep from falling off the thing.)

In practice, Episcopal theology has a baked-in stability. I just wish HTML programming language did the same.

Friday, September 2, 2016

Deanery = MAC

Last night was the MAC meeting in Wooster, and, like a lot of what goes on in the Episcopal Church, it was important but generally invisible to most parishioners. So I'm going to let you in on the secret(s).

Elsewhere, this group would be called a "Deanery" because it's under the supervision of a Dean (our own Kay Ashby, in this case). Somehow ours is called the Mission Area Council (MAC). It's a group of seven local churches plus Tabor Cottage, and each group sends a clergy representative plus a couple of laypersons.

Aside from sharing a dinner and exchanging the usual chit-chat, we get progress reports (for example, the church in Mount Vernon just got all the stained glass windows on one side of the church refurbished, which makes them look great, but the ones on the other side now look pretty dull). We find out about area-wide events (such as Shelby's all-day youth event a few weeks ago).

More substance

Every year, we have a couple of Diocesan gatherings. One is the Convention (this year on the weekend of November 11 in Bowling Green), and each church is urged to send a couple of delegates; MAC helps out by giving money to help defray the cost of transportation and lodging. The other is Winter Convocation, usually held in January. Convention is very official; we are discussing policy and decisions. Convocation is much more fun, more like an inspiring get-together. And MAC also provides scholarship money to help people get to Convocation.


Over the years, MAC has provided money for a number of projects, for example computers and solar power for schools in Belize. Currently, we are assembling household goods (sheets, pots, pans) for recent refugee immigrants.

Sunday, August 28, 2016

Where did the Website Go?

The ways of Google are very mysterious, and they are famous for not explaining themselves to anyone at all.

Anyhow, a few weeks ago, I put a really nice picture of the church building into the website, resulting in the whole site vanishing entirely from Google. I have just spent the entire evening simplifying the home page as much as possible, hoping that I can somehow knock out whatever error has generated Google's ire. Still nothing.

The link to the right works, and I will continue simplifying (no more pictures, alas), hoping to finally take out the offending code. There's no problem related to virus (so your computer is safe); it's just that Google refuses to index a site with the smallest error, and there's really no way to get information from them about what went wrong. Then if/when Google finally does index us (it usually takes six weeks or so), I will gradually add things back in.

Late-breaking News

Technical stuff here. After a long evening of research and teeth-grinding, I finally figured out that two causes contributed to the problem. The first was my fault, when I put that picture on the wrong side of an LI tag (mea culpa). The second was that we got hacked, and the hacker left behind several little files that were designed to track visitors to the site. (I can hear my Calvinist friends commenting about the general sinfulness of mankind at this point.)

Anyhow, both of those problems have been sorted, so I'm hoping Google can index us again, and sooner than 6 weeks! In an aside, web standards keep evolving, and things that used to work stop working, so they must die out. (This is starting to sound Darwinian!) Our website only has four pages, but I have a lot of those extinct structures. More research!

I am full of hope, though, that we will have a working website that is indexed by Google.

Thursday, June 23, 2016

Politically Correct

We have heard a lot about political correctness recently, mainly from a candidate for President. I suspect, though, that outsiders who look at the Episcopal Church see us as a bastion of political correctness, a place where nice people say nice things to one another and don't rock any boats.

One Episcopal joke (OK—I'm spoiling the punchline) has an Episcopalian missing out on heaven because of using the wrong fork on a salad.

And it's easy to see our advocacy for gay rights and full inclusion of women in leadership as attempts to "go with the flow" and just be nice to one another.

That's not how we do doctrine. Our process for dealing with truth has sometimes been called a three-legged stool, but that analogy doesn't quite work, for it implies that all three legs (scripture, reason, tradition) are equal. Scripture is the overwhelmingly important one, so the analogy should be more like the old-fashioned stool one used to find at lunch counters: one main pillar embedded in the floor (scripture) and a couple of side supports (your legs) that you use to balance yourself. The good thing about the three-legged stool analogy, though, is that it works against the tendency some have to pluck one verse out of the Bible, read it in modern English without discussing its historical context or linguistic background, and apply it as an unchanging rule. Here are a couple of examples to show what I mean:

Women in the church. We often hear, for example, of I Corinthians 14:34, which says that women should keep silent in the church and 1 Timothy 2:11-12, which says that Paul would not permit a woman to teach or to have authority over a man. But what about all the important women in the Bible, including some who had a great deal of authority? What about the passage that says in the Kingdom of God there is neither male nor female (Galatians 3:28)? What about our own ancient history in which it was common for Celtic Abbesses to be persons of authority over both men and women? What about the modern missionary movement, which would have been impossible without female missionaries? Obviously, some thinking beyond a one-verse proof-text is necessary here.

Gay people and sexual minorities in the church. Once again, we get a lot of one-verse proof-texting. I'll just point out that the Leviticus "anti-gay" verse (18:22) uses the same language that is used for banning the eating of certain food, that the most-quoted New Testament verse in I Corinthians uses very unusual language that a Greek-speaker would not ordinarily use in discussing gay people, and that, by Paul's time, the real sexual transgressions of pagan society included ritual prostitution (some of it forced) in the worship of pagan deities. Forced temple prostitution is not what happens in the USA. I don't know how much weight we can put on it, but when Jesus healed the Centurion's servant, the Greek might indicate that the servant was actually a young slave who had been bought to be a lover. We certainly know, however, that the early church venerated Saints Sergius and Bacchus, who have normally been assume to be a couple.

Taking the heat for being politically correct

On both of these issues (and on several others, including our advocacy for civil rights and for the rights of immigrants), we have actually lost members who preferred the status quo, and pursuing justice on these issues has involved a lot of study, argument, and prayer, so it's not really correct to say we are advocates "just to be nice." We do these things because (after a lot of soul-searching) we're convinced that God is leading us to do the right thing.

Political correctness and the modern debate

OK—this is the part you thought I was going to write about. I'm old enough to remember when the default pronoun for a situation in which we were discussing generic humanity was "he." In the early days of the feminist movement, we struggled with a lot of silliness (for example, those who would write by alternating pronoun gender, paragraph by paragraph), and a lot of trivial campaigns (for example, the move to change the helper at a football game from "water boy" to "water person" and changing the name of an access hatch from "manhole" to "person hole").

But consider the roots of all this. How many female doctors, after struggling through medical school and residency, had to point out that they were "real" doctors and not nurses? How many divorced men can only see their children a few days a month because the mother is the "real" parent? How many Africans cringe when a Christian preacher makes reference to a heart that is "black with sin" and needs to be "washed whiter than snow"?

There is something basically loving and Christian about moderating one's language so as to avoid hurting or insulting the listener. And this isn't a matter of being spineless, but of standing firm for the truth that in God's eyes, people matter and we have no right to hurt them.

Tuesday, June 14, 2016

The Orlando Attack

To recap—especially because these comments might be read some time in the future—the material below refers to a mass shooting at a nightclub in Orlando, Florida, on Sunday, June 12. In that attack, over 100 were shot, and more than 50 died.

Our Bishop, Mark Hollingsworth, has published this excellent response to the massacre. I have only a few things to add:
  • News media and politicians, ever eager to get in the first word, instantly published speculations about the motivations of the shooter. Because of his name and his religion, he was instantly labeled as a radical Muslim terrorist by some. Reality is more complex than that, and his motives might well include self-hatred for his own homosexuality. We just don't know yet because the event is so fresh in our minds. It's only been three days. We shouldn't rush to judgment.
  • Religious figures have rushed to demonize Muslims and gay people as a result of this attack. They should know better. Self-appointed prophets of doom and hatred have little to do with the Christian message.
  • Gun control is a topic which will come up again, and the extremists claim that we should actually have more guns, and that proposed background checks on buyers and bans on military-grade weaponry would not have stopped this attack. They are right, but they miss an important point. Seat belts have been required in cars since 1968. Did the death rate from car wrecks go down instantly? No, because a lot of cars still didn't have them, and there was a lot of public resistance to using them. What we have seen, though, is a declining number of deaths and injuries over the last 48 years as occupant protection became more of a priority and seatbelt use became more universal. It's the same story with guns. Passing laws to control availability of guns, especially of military attack weapons, will not instantly decrease the number of deaths, but it will be the beginning of a process. We have seen resistance to changes that will improve public welfare from tobacco companies, from coal and oil companies, and from gun and ammunition companies. We mustn't let their desires to make money overwhelm our need to live quiet, peaceful, healthy lives.