The blog

The blog—informal opinions and chat about the parish

Monday, August 28, 2017

This should be so simple

Everyone who spent a childhood in Sunday school should remember these:
The acts of the flesh are obvious: sexual immorality, impurity and debauchery; idolatry and witchcraft; hatred, discord, jealousy, fits of rage, selfish ambition, dissensions, factions ... But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, forbearance, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control. Against such things there is no law. (Galatians 5:22)
It should be very obvious. Any religion or political philosophy that runs on hatred and jealousy is simply not a Christian religion or philosophy. Hatred, rage, and selfish ambition are not characteristics of God's Spirit.

Got it? So when a hate-filled, cross-carrying person spews out venom against some person or group, you can be pretty sure that the message did not come from the Spirit of Christ. Even if the person is carrying a cross.

Saturday, August 26, 2017

The Minimum for Salvation

Back when I was in seminary, one of the professors asked just how many biblical people we are totally certain made it to heaven? OK, Jesus, but that's sort of cheating. Enoch and Elijah are good candidates because they were swept up without dying, but there is only one about whom we can really be certain. The thief on the cross.

He's the only one to whom Jesus said, "You will be with me in Paradise."

His theology is a bit thin. He believed that Jesus did not deserve to be executed, and he believed that somehow Jesus was moving toward his heavenly kingdom. That's it. His only request was "Remember me." (Luke 23:43)

In seminary, we used to ask, "What is the minimum one needs to believe in order to be saved." Again, it's quite minimal. When Paul and Silas answered the jailer's question, "What must I do to be saved?" the response is simple: "Believe on the Lord Jesus." (Acts 16:31)

Of course, this was all very confusing for students who were deep into systematic theology and church history and all the rest, but it's refreshing and reassuring. And it keeps the focus in the right place. Jesus.

Jesus plus

I remember reading a book about Christians and communal living. The book made the point that to be really a Christian, one must believe in Jesus and live in a household with other people. That seemed odd. Didn't ring true.

We see a lot of this. Believe in Jesus plus something else. Recycling. Gun control. Freedom to carry (and use) guns everywhere. Capitalist economy. Young-earth creationism.

Believe in Jesus PLUS this other thing and you will be saved, because a plain faith in Jesus isn't enough.

That REALLY rings hollow. Not the message of the New Testament.

Minus Jesus

One problem with "Jesus plus" faith is that Jesus often gets excluded from the equation. In our day we see that "Jesus plus anti-abortion" morphs into a faith that says the message of "Oppose abortion and you will be saved." "Jesus plus family values" morphs into "Support 19th century family structure and you will be saved." "Jesus plus patriotism" becomes "Support American exceptionalism and you will be saved."

Say it that way and the lie becomes apparent. If someone only opposes abortion or gay rights, many are willing to call that person a "good Christian" whether that person has any clue about Jesus or not. We even have the sordid example of a church leader claiming that it's God's will to bomb North Korea because, obviously, any threat against the American people is contrary to God's will.

What we're up against

"Jesus plus" theology always ends up losing Jesus along the way, and the current public conversation is hate-filled and self-centered, an ideal environment for churches and preachers to spring up claiming that the only point of the Bible is to oppose abortion or to oppose gay rights or to advance the political claims of the white middle class in America.

We're better than that.

I don't know about your Bible, but mine has 1220 pages, none of which mention American exceptionalism. Jesus didn't say anything about gay rights, one way or the other. The "Jesus plus" and "Minus Jesus" people will hate us for this, but we need to get on with the business of loving God and loving our neighbor, whether or not it's the politically correct path.

That was the answer Jesus gave to the rich young man who wanted to inherit eternal life. Provide for the poor. Follow Jesus. That's it. (Mark 10:21)

Wednesday, August 16, 2017

Our response to Charlottesville

When I was a boy, the pastor of our white, suburban Presbyterian congregation of peaceful, middle-class government workers would take time off to participate in civil rights protest marches.

My father thought that was terrible.

I realize now that our pastor was right.

It is very easy, particularly in peaceful Ashland, to assume that these troubles are "out there" and that we can get by with just blending in. We can't do that if we want to follow Jesus.

Here is where the Episcopal Church stands on white supremacy, "just blending in" and our duties to our fellow humans.

Thursday, August 3, 2017

We Have Almost Made It

Rev. Kay returns from her sabbatical in a couple of weeks (I hear she got to Ireland as part of it), and my worst fears didn't materialize.

People in general—and particularly in churches that make a vivid distinction between the roles of the clergy and the laity—are tempted to think of the church as the priest/minister's private project. Their attitude is that the church is like that little local shoe store: Paul owns it; Paul sets it up his way; if Paul isn't there the thing just sort of stops. The cultural attitude toward churches is the same. (How many church ads and signs do you see that really highlight the minister's name and picture?)

So I was afraid that with Rev. Kay gone, the whole thing would come to a hideous, screeching halt. It didn't.

Our numbers have been typical for a summer. The offering plate is doing well (always a concern for a treasurer). Recent newcomers have kept attending, and so have the regulars.

Those special Saturday events were well-attended (surprise!), yet the following Sunday Morning Prayer also had people (bigger surprise!). We have one more of those this weekend (Saturday at 11 AM) because this Sunday is Transfiguration Sunday (a big deal in our church) and we couldn't get a priest to do Eucharist on Sunday.

Aside from the usual glitches (mainly focused on problems getting the Sunday program printed), it all went well. We did have one odd Sunday when we all thought we were going to do Morning Prayer, and we had people prepared to officiate and to preach—but then a priest showed up, having gotten dates confused.

I'm glad it all worked. I'm glad we were able to pull together and actually depend on one another and cooperate with one another.

And I'm glad Rev. Kay is coming back. We did miss her.

Monday, July 31, 2017

Reading Suggestions

The whole idea of the new website design is to be more friendly and accessible to newcomers and outsiders. When I looked at the thing, one whole section that I loved (but didn't fit into that "newcomers" idea) was the "Further Reading" section. I don't want to lose it, so I'm going to put it in the menu on the right on this page.

Saturday, July 29, 2017

A Sense of the Holy

The church website is making progress, bit by bit. I think I've got the appearance of the thing tamed, and it really is pretty. (I cannot take much of the credit for that. I'm using a free pre-formatted template from HTML5 UP! and it's beautiful. The artwork is mainly scrounged from the Internet.)

I would really love for it to go live early next week, to try to catch the new arrivals at Ashland University.

Right now, I'm still struggling with the concept of Episcopal DNA. We're an odd bunch.

  • In a lot of ways, we are more Celtic than the Church of England, and this leads us to a deep respect for the environment. Prayers for the physical world are part of normal Sunday worship. I think I should stick in something about Bellwether Farm, the new camp and retreat center the Diocese is building. Part of the ethos of Bellwether is that it will be a working, sustainable farm.
  • The Three-Legged Stool illustration probably should go in because it emphasizes our focus on tradition and scripture and intellect. Some of the finest minds of the age have been in the Anglican tradition.
  • We're willing to laugh at ourselves. Want to hear a good joke about Episcopalians? Ask one of us.
  • I have read more than one comment saying that the younger generation is seeking a sense of the holy, a sense of worship. The shallow, all-about-me themes for worship seem to be losing out. (Certainly, this aspect is what drew me to the Episcopal Church). This poster isn't from St. Matthew's, and we don't use incense, but it gives an idea about this return to tradition:

Tuesday, July 25, 2017

Episcopal DNA

Like most of my projects, the website revision has grown and multiplied to a point where it threatens to become unworkable.

A friend looked at our current home page and said, "Wow! That's really dated!" Well, OK. I never did put myself out there as a designer, and the page's general appearance hasn't changed in years. So I began all over again, this time with a web search for a template that will do well with both desktop computers and phones. I found a really pretty one. The next task is filling it with material that will work for us.

I asked myself what a first-time visitor would like to know about a new church. Here's what I came up with:
  1. Where is the church?
  2. When do they do things?
  3. Will they accept me?
  4. What am I getting myself into?
The where part is pretty easy, but previously I depended on a link to a Google map. Now we will have easy written turn-by-turn directions for the person who just wants to get here. The when part is easy too.

Now we get into the accepting part. That's difficult to write. Yes, we do have four or five gay people who attend regularly, but I certainly don't want to put them on display. When a person walks into our sanctuary, the gay people don't just stand out. That's partly because gay teenagers will present themselves differently from gay middle-aged people, and partly because a person 40 or 50 years old has had a lifetime of trying to fit in. We're mainly a congregation of older white people, so you won't see young people, immigrants, or African-Americans. It's not that we would reject them; it's just who we are and who shows up. If you come to our annual Winter Convocation, you'd see a lot more diversity because people from the whole diocese show up. How do I write all that down to emphasize that we really do welcome folk regardless of race, sexual orientation, or wealth? That's a challenge.

A pastor at a church I used to attend would refer to the church's DNA. I like that term. What are the basics that are baked into the mix—not just layered on the top? How do I write about that DNA? That's even more of a challenge than the article on accepting. Do I go all the way back to King Henry VIII and comment that a church started by a guy who had six wives isn't likely to be judgmental? Do I point out that we're really more Scottish than English because we didn't have a bishop of our own after the Revolution, and the English church refused to consecrate one for us, so the Scots did? (Thus beginning a tradition of our being the "loyal opposition.") What about immigrants? What about electing leaders who are not always drawn from he pool of straight white old men? How do I convey, in just a few words, our tradition of thoughtful response to both Scripture and tradition? It's quite a task.

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, 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: