The blog

The blog—informal opinions and chat about the parish

Wednesday, July 19, 2017

Not One of Them

I read recently on Facebook that Christians are the major cause of people becoming atheists. Reading further, the article made the point that Evangelicals preaching hatred, particularly toward the LGBT community, drive younger people away from the faith. That keys into this Religious News Service article about Eugene Peterson, a retired Presbyterian pastor and author who is best known for his Bible paraphrase, The Message. The article discusses the pressure tactics, both financial and personal, deployed by the Evangelical community as a result of his comment that he would probably marry a gay couple if he were a pastor today. Christianity Today reported that Peterson's reported shift in opinion was actually a misrepresentation.

But the damage was done. The Evangelical troops were released and Peterson is now under attack.

In Judges 12, the Bible says that the Israelites used the word "shibboleth" to distinguish friends from enemies. The word itself is actually a very common word, but the point is that the Israelites pronounced it differently from the Ephraimites. You say it wrong, and we kill you.

Down through the ages, American church folk (I can't speak for other countries) have come up with a number of shibboleths to try to distinguish "true believers" from those terrible outsiders:
  • "Real" Christians don't read novels.
  • "Real" Christians don't play cards.
  • "Real" Christians don't smoke.
  • "Real" Christians don't go to movies.
  • "Real" Christians don't drink alcohol.
You notice that none of these terribly important distinctives are mentioned in the Bible. (And these rules prohibit activity that the good church people didn't feel like doing anyhow.) A few others (like prohibiting all work on Sunday) do get a biblical mention, but mainly in passing, and mainly in the Old Testament.

All this line-drawing has two terrible results.

The first is that it tempts people to say, "Well, I don't drink and I don't smoke, so I must be a Christian." No comment about Jesus, the Bible, or how one deals wit the poor or the rest of one's ethical life. No smoking and no drinking equals entrance into heaven. Or in our age, hatred of sexual minorities and hatred of abortion.

The second is that all this hatred and line-drawing is designed to keep people out of the sanctuary. There's nothing about a loving, welcoming Christ in all this—it's all about identifying and victimizing the outsiders.

No wonder that article said that the christian church (I'm intentionally using lower-case "C" here) is a major force in making atheists.


Reclaiming the language


Maybe the damage is already done and we just need a new word or two.

I miss "Evangelical." Its root is a Greek word that means "good news" (though you'd never guess that from the behavior of modern Evangelicals). In the 1970s, the label was used by a movement to distinguish Fundamentalists from a newer group wanted serious Bible scholarship and a radical devotion to Jesus along with reaching out to the poor and disadvantaged and showing real care for God's earthly creation.

I also miss "Christian" as a term that would unite Baptists, Presbyterians, Catholics and Episcopalians around the core values. Now it's not about core values; it's about who we vote for. And I always feel awkward when I say, "Evangelical Christian is not really the right word for me. I'm an Episcopalian who believes that Jesus loves all of us and invites us into his Kingdom."

Tuesday, July 18, 2017

Redoing the Website

My personal computer crashed about a month ago, taking with it all the backup files for everything, including all the website backups. (Yes, I know I was foolish not to have a copy somewhere!)

The website itself was just fine, but this seemed like a good time to look things over. One thing I discovered is that some of the old links had gone bad, so I had to fix those. Then I took a look at the whole thing.

As you might expect from a teacher and a writer, it was incredibly wordy.

And I began to think about my students, who spend all their time looking at smartphone screens, and about our President, who continually sends out 140-character Tweets. I realized that big, wordy webpages don't fit too well on screens that are three inches wide. That's the format people are reading, though, not big fancy computer monitors. (Mine is 18" wide, which explains why the website looked just fine to me!)

I'm redoing the whole thing in a series of very small pages that are designed to work well on cell phones and other tiny screens. Here is a sample page. It's obviously not done yet—I just wanted something that would demonstrate whether this idea will work. Think of it as a rough draft.

The "Parish Announcements" and "Parish Transitions" are already Blogger sites, so I wanted to make these new "mini-pages" resemble those in color and format.

One sad omission that I discovered was that our Rector, Rev. Kay N. Ashby, somehow got deleted from the website. I'll have to fix that!

Monday, May 15, 2017

A gentle reminder from the Treasurer

With Rev. Kay gone on sabbatical—and I think it's a grand idea that she gets to do this—the Treasurer part of me wants to put out a gentle reminder.

I will continue paying out her stipend as usual, because she is still working for us. And, of course, our other expenses (water, sewer, electricity, and so forth) will continue through the summer as well, so I am hoping that our donation income does not diminish just because of this brief change.

Just a gentle reminder. Please keep contributing to the church.

On an associated note, we have something called the "Rector's Discretionary Fund." Most of the money for this comes from cash offerings on the last Sunday of the month, and the money gets used (very quietly in most cases) for personal needs of members of the parish. Someone is in the hospital and needs money for medication, or someone is a bit short on rent payment—that's the sort of thing. While Rev. Kay is gone, Sister Nadine is the Pastoral Associate, and she is also taking care of Discretionary Fund needs.

Tuesday, April 18, 2017

On being accepted

Easter always gets me to thinking, and my thinking is not the pious kind. There was a time when I seriously thought monks' robes were appealing, but that era is long in my past. Easter gets me to thinking because, like most other holidays, it is an alone time for me.

I guess I've generally been a loner. At my previous church, I never quite fit in. I was too intellectual, too socially liberal, not Republican enough, and just was a general oddball. I have always had the sort of job in which I am an independent contractor who shows up, does stuff, and then goes away. (That is really the life of the adjunct instructor at most colleges. They go out of their way to say, "You are not really part of us." Ashland University breaks that trend, I am glad to say.) Divorce, of course, is a highly legalized way for people to say, "You are not part of our family any more." So life has been a tale of solitude for me.

I guess there are some advantages to this lifestyle, especially when it comes to holidays. In our culture, holidays are a time when people with families gather for feasts and try to put up with the bizarre political opinions of their relations. I eat something simple and take a walk. (The wild flowers were amazing this Easter.)

We humans were not made to be alone, though, and deep in my heart, I longed for the kind of Christian community that I couldn't find in "a bunch of people who get together to sing Christian songs." That's why I went searching for a new church.

Before coming to St. Matthew's, I had a rather fuzzy idea of who Episcopalians are. I pictured nice ladies who wear a hat and gloves to church—even in the 21st century—and who drive Mercuries.


I didn't really see myself that way, though I am more likely than most to wear a tie and jacket to church, but I was very hungry for worship that went beyond repetitively singing the same short songs (with drums, guitars, and PowerPoint words) every Sunday. I wanted substance. I figured I could put up with the little old ladies and their Mercuries if they could put up with my jeans and my Toyota station wagon.

The odd thing is that they didn't care. We have several nice old ladies (who do not drive Mercuries or wear hats and gloves), and they seem just fine with our mixture of firemen, teachers, insurance salesmen, real estate brokers, and farmers. One of the nice old ladies told me that we just don't have enough gay people in our church. We only have about half a dozen.

I'm not looking for sympathy here (or for Easter dinner invitations). Oddly enough, this congregation has turned out to be incredibly welcoming and a real home to me. I don't need the holiday dinners that much because I know that I have a home for the other 362 days a year.


Thursday, March 23, 2017

Maundy Thursday

This word, Maundy, seems to be a uniquely high church thing. My childhood church was Presbyterian, but we weren't Ohio Presbyterians—we were the kind of East Coast Presbyterians whose pastor wore a clerical collar even in the middle of the week and on Sunday morning the choir and minister (all properly robed) would solemnly march up the aisle at the beginning of the service. Making the transition to the Episcopal Church was mainly a matter of learning when to kneel and when to cross myself.

Anyhow, I distinctly remember the first time I heard the term Maundy Thursday, thinking someone had foolishly mispronounced "Monday Thursday" (and wondering how those two days got mashed together). It wasn't until much later (in another Presbyterian church) that I learned that the term comes from the Latin "mandatum" ("commandment"), from Christ's words in John 13, "a new commandment I give to you."

As holy days go, this one deserves a lot more recognition. We get excited about Palm Sunday because we get to wave palm fronds around (and some of us craft them into origami crosses during the sermon), but that cannot compare with the intensity of the Last Supper, complete with Jesus's last teaching to his disciples, his object lesson of washing their feet (even the feet of traitor Judas), and the institution of the Eucharist.

At St. Matthew's we will be celebrating Maundy Thursday this year on April 13 at 7 PM, complete with foot-washing (optional, if you are squeamish) and Eucharist.

By the way, I don't expect the Queen of England to show up (she saves those visits for cathedrals in England), but here's a discussion of the roots of Maundy Thursday and the Queen's Royal Maundy. Interesting stuff.

Tuesday, March 21, 2017

Just how gay are we?

That title for this post is an odd, awkward question, especially in a very conservative community. On the national level, on the Diocese level (north half of Ohio, for us) and locally, we're very welcoming toward gay, lesbian, transgendered, and queer people, but visitors often have trouble seeing it. I wonder why.

Part of the reason, I suspect, has to do with age. People who were born 40+ years ago grew up in a very different environment than today. For just one small example, the popular entertainer Liberace won a libel suit against the British newspaper The Daily Mirror when they ran articles claiming he was gay (homosexuality was illegal in England at the time). There were almost no positive gay role models until recently, and even now, in the American Midwest, it is not too difficult to find ideologues who scream terrible things at the gay community. Little wonder that middle-aged and older gay people try to keep a low profile.

And simple age has something to do with it too. As a college teacher, I know that 18-year-olds in general try out all kinds of self-expressive personal styles, but tend to settle down a bit by the time they are 25. It's not a sexual orientation thing. Everyone does it. That means that a church such as ours that is middle-aged and older just is not very flamboyant. Especially on a Sunday morning.

One speaker at a conference for gay Christians said, "We're just not that interesting. We take out the garbage like everyone else."

I don't know much about the personal lives of very many priests in our diocese, but without much trouble I can name one who is transgender and several more who are gay or lesbian. The interesting thing is that their sexual orientation is not the most interesting thing about any of them. Is Father X a decent preacher? How is Father Y's parish building program going? Is Father Z's partner still struggling with grad school? But to the casual observer, their sexuality is an absolute non-issue.

It's pretty much the same at St. Matthew's. As a relative newcomer to the parish, I listen to the comments people make and I tend to store away the most remarkable ones. About the only comment I can remember anyone making about sexual orientation around here came from one of the older women a couple of years back: "We just don't have enough gay people in this parish."

Saturday, February 4, 2017

Why I Abandoned My Parents' Faith

I remember vividly my attitudes toward the Christian faith when I was a freshman in college. Dress up nice on Sunday, be nice to nice people, preserve the social fabric of America—that was about it as far as I could tell. I really did like the music and I enjoyed a change of pace every week.

All that cultural stuff proved pointless and irrelevant to a young kid a thousand miles away from home. The revolution, for me anyhow, occurred when I encountered some fellow students who really believed all that God stuff and invited me in. For them it wasn't just a matter of Americanism, maintaining the dominant culture and being nice. Faith was about how they related to Jesus and being obedient to him in their world. I was fascinated. I was enthralled. I was hooked. Suddenly the whole thing made sense.

Yes, I did leave my parents' church that was so focused on nice people wearing nice clothes and doing nice things. It seemed so shallow. Many years later, the conservative church I had landed in became more of a political club than a Jesus movement, so I was on the prowl again for a church that remembered its roots. That's why I eventually came to the Episcopal Church. I didn't plan it this way, but I'm thrilled that Presiding Bishop Curry's first words to us were that "This is the Jesus Movement, and we are The Episcopal Church, the Episcopal branch of Jesus' movement in this world."

The Opposing View

Nobody should be surprised that Bishop Curry's view is the minority view. It's not nice. It's not comfortable. It doesn't reinforce our prejudices. Slate magazine (not a publication known for its theological sharpness) ran an article recently concerning the civil religion that now masks as the Christian faith. The occasion was the National Prayer Breakfast, at which our President's remarks focused on his own television ratings, the poor job Arnold Schwarzenegger is doing on The Apprentice, and our duty to ramp up fear and partisanship within the USA. The article is a good read. For the sake of clarity, I wish there were a better label than "Christian" for the point of view Trump is pushing, but it is light years away from where we should be.

Who should we Episcopalians be? The Jesus Movement.

Thursday, February 2, 2017

Bishop Statements on Our New Immigrant Policy

Statements by church leadership are extremely important, not just because they represent an official policy, but because (at their best) they also say something about what God's intention is for our church and our interaction with the world.

My Facebook feed has been filling up with statements from a wide variety of church leaders. I will link them below, beginning with the statement from our own Bishop Mark Hollingsworth:

Voices from other parts of Christ's body:

Saturday, January 28, 2017

Personal Note Again

As a college English instructor, I am normally overwhelmed in the days between Thanksgiving and Candlemas. (I just had to throw that one in, being the recent convert in the crowd.) End of semester grades, prepping for the coming semester, clearing up the inevitable administrative foul-ups—all demand a ton of time. Family Thanksgiving and Christmas, of course, demand a ton of time. And this year, just to drive me totally insane, I have volunteered to be the church Treasurer in our parish, which meant setting up new procedures and trying to get it all running by the first of the year.

All this means that this orphaned blog got little attention.

The recent election, of course, has taken its emotional toll as well. I look back on the posts I wrote in September and November, and, in a way, I have little to add. The real question, however, for Christians is a divine "Now what?"

We see the civil government moving vividly in the direction of authoritarianism and white supremacy. We see the potential ending of many of the values that characterized America for the last hundred years. Taking a deep breath, I ask, "Now what?"

First, no matter what people may be saying, the American President is not an autocrat—yet. Executive orders encouraging torture are illegal and likely to be opposed by many in the chain of command. Executive orders targeting one religion for special treatment are illegal and likely to be challenged in court. We have a little bit of time, and we should use it wisely.

Second, there is a big difference between claiming the label "Christian" and actually being one. That's a theme that permeates Scripture. Much of what parades in public as American Christianity is little more than a dressed-up version of materialism, chauvinism, and racism, with a cross painted on the door to make it look more acceptable to the public. The teenagers' youth group question WWJD (What Would Jesus Do?) is actually a good one. Would he turn his back on refugees? Campaign in favor of the Emperor? Publicly insult people with whom he disagreed? Probably not. We need to remain clear about what the Christian faith is really all about.

And that brings me to a particularly Episcopalian point. For a very long time, we've run counter to a me-too attitude toward the culture—even the culture of mainstream religion. The poor, the lonely, the refugee, all are our business. We respect and welcome all, regardless of externals.

Talk is cheap. Today I'm firing off a check to the ACLU and another to Habitat for Humanity.