The blog

The blog—informal opinions and chat about the parish

Saturday, June 2, 2018

Red Church Doors

Yes, the front door of St. Matthew's is red. (The "real" front door—the one facing toward Mifflin Avenue, even though most parishioners enter through the parish hall door that faces the parking lot.)

Most Episcopal churches have red front doors, and, as a boy growing up in Washington, I noticed that the red door was pretty common for other denominations. I've seen it on Lutheran, Methodist, and other churches. As usual with traditions, there are a lot of suggested reasons for the red door. One website collected several; here's the one I like best:
The red door tradition originated during the Middle Ages in England when it was a sign of sanctuary. In those days, if one who was being pursued by the local populace, shire reeve (sheriff) or gentry could reach the church door he/she would be safe. Nobody would dare to do violence on hallowed ground and, in any case, the Church was not subject to civil law. The red door was fair warning to pursuers that they could proceed no further. One who claimed sanctuary in this way would then be able to present his/her case before the priest and ask that justice be served.
These days, many who claim the name of "Christian" actually demean or even attack people who are unlike themselves. It is not so with us.

In my few years with the Episcopal Church, I've met quite a variety of people: rich, poor, black, white, college professors, mentally handicapped, gay, straight, transgender, We've got judges and ex-convicts. It's remarkable that all these people get along; it's extremely remarkable that there's nothing remarkable about it. Being gay is the biggest non-issue in the place. Nobody sees any point in talking about it. 

We need to remember that red door. People who are called "unworthy" by American culture really are welcome here and we will do what we can to help you feel at home.

Friday, June 1, 2018

Michael Curry and the Protest

Someone posted a video of Donald Trump on the Episcopalians on Facebook page and asked the question why Bishop Curry would protest against a man of faith such as Trump. "No other president talked like this."

The response was instant and vehement. Some questioned whether the original person was being serious, but most focused on the disagreement between Trump's words and his actions. Here's my response:
If you read the "Reclaiming Jesus" statement, which is central to this discussion, you will see that it does not name Donald Trump. It makes six definite policy statements: It rejects white nationalism, mistreatment of women, attacks on immigrants and refugees, a public pattern of lying, autocratic authoritarianism, and xenophobic nationalism. The old saying is "if the shoe fits, wear it." So if Trump is indeed a white nationalist who advocates mistreating women, advocates mistreating immigrants and refugees, has a habit of public lying, and is moving toward being the autocratic leader of a xenophobic nationalist nation, then it's an anti-Trump statement.

If "Christian" now means now means lying, mistreating women, and hating everyone who isn't my color and ethnicity, I want a new label for myself because that's not what Christ taught me. 
I suspect something deeper is going on here. Christian Dominionism has become a powerful movement within the Evangelical world, and I suspect that Trump seeks to speak their language to use their political power as an instrument to further his own dreams of dominion. It won't work. They will see through him and, when they are powerful enough, they will get rid of him. He's like a little boy who has taken a lion by the tail.

The rest of us should be more afraid of the lion.

Thursday, May 31, 2018

Church Names

After doing a bit of website maintenance, I used Google to search for "church Ashland Ohio," just to see whether we were still being indexed. (A prudent plan—sometimes an error will cause Google to lose track of a website. Google always drops you if you have malware that's been inserted by some malicious program.)

Yes, there we were, about the fifth one down. Some of our near neighbors in the Google search emphasize doctrine in their names (Trinity) or their location (Park Street). Some emphasize their denominational connection. Years ago I did a lot of work for the Congregational church, and nearly every group called itself "First Congregational Church of [Town name]." (There are just a few "Second Congregational" churches in the USA, and by the time you work down to "Fourth Congregational," apparently there's only one in the country. No "Fifth Congregational.")

I'm a bit amused at the newer groups who struggle to find some one-word, non-ecclesiastical, dynamic descriptor for themselves. Almost always with an exclamation point. Some of these new names require a trip to the Greek lexicon or to an urban dictionary. And for some of them, even this research will not quite tell you what they are all about.

St. Matthew's, like a lot of liturgical churches, is named for a person who is something of a "hero" for our parish: Matthew, the corrupt tax collector who dropped everything and completely changed when he heard Jesus calling. Like a poker player who puts all of his chips on one bet, Matthew abandoned everything when he got a glimpse of Jesus. Not a bad role model.

Thursday, May 24, 2018

Our New Visibility

First a bit of history

You probably noticed that the religious right ("Evangelicalism") got itself focused on two issues: abortion and gay marriage. Yes, there were other issues as well, for example the display of Christian artifacts (Nativity scenes, the Ten Commandments, etc.) on public land, but abortion and gay marriage were the litmus issues.

One result of this litmus test was that organizations such as the Episcopal Church who are not putting much energy into opposing abortion and who accept gay marriage got labeled as "not really Christian" by the loudly vocal mainstream.

Another result was that, especially in politics, "Christian" became rather narrowly defined as opposition to abortion, hatred of sexual minorities, and the willingness to say "Merry Christmas." Each of us can name a friend or neighbor who said that so-and-so is THE Christian candidate because he is solid on these points—never mind such minor issues as honesty, sexual morality, or racial prejudice.

The secular press noticed how basically wrong-headed this is, and for the last year or two, we have seen a rising tide of articles in publications such as The Washington Post, The Atlantic, and The Guardian, pondering how Evangelicalism lost its soul and became anything but Christian—essentially a jingoistic political party that meets to sing hymns on Sunday morning.

Enter Bishop Curry

When Bishop Curry was consecrated, I heard a lot of comment that he would breathe new life into an old structure and that it was great to have a Black man as our most visible leader (diversity, you know). People who know him personally are unwavering in their praise. I heard him preach a couple of times, and I was awestruck. Maybe he would be good for the Episcopal Church.

Then came the royal wedding. I don't think any of us saw this one coming. Is there a more visible moment for a preacher? Yes, we have public prayers at the President's Inauguration, and eulogies at the funerals of important figures, but the public is trained to sleep through those (and most of them aren't worth much attention anyhow). Curry's sermon was different. It came as a high point in a fairy-tale event that caught the hearts of millions of people. I doubt there's been a more public sermon (or one that got as much attention) in the last thirty years.

He didn't stop there. Curry is, according to the Washington Post, a "prime mover" in a movement to shift the church from being an arm of a political party to proclaiming that Jesus is Lord. Today, he will be part of a candlelight vigil marching on the White House, inspired by a declaration titled "Reclaiming Jesus: A Declaration of Faith in a Time of Crisis."

What this means for us

First, Bishop Curry is our leader, and I think he's got it right. The world is not waiting to hear about Episcopalianism; the world is starving for the message of the saving love of Jesus. We need to plant our feet in that message and keep proclaiming it (even if that feels a bit awkward).

Second, this new visibility for the Episcopal Church and our message will surely bring in some newcomers. Bishop Curry is never portrayed in the responsible media as just "that black church leader." He is always referred to as the presiding bishop of the Episcopal Church. We have never had an advertising campaign this extensive. Curious newcomers will show up and they will not look or sound much like the rest of us. They won't know when to kneel and they won't know our weird vocabulary. We need to welcome them. And we need to be ready to be changed by their presence.

Tuesday, May 22, 2018

Looking Outside Our Parish

A few basics about organization

(Don't be upset if you already know this stuff—it's new to someone else in the room!)

Diocese

The Episcopal Church, USA is divided into geographical areas called dioceses. Our diocese, The Episcopal Diocese of Ohio, is the oldest one in the "wild west" on this side of the Alleghenies. We're 200+ years old (had to get special permission to become organized because we were so few and so spread out). Our diocese covers approximately the northern half of Ohio.

Mission Area Council (MAC)

In other places, this would be called a "Deanery." It is an informal association of several local parishes who send representatives to keep one another up to date and to share with outreach projects. Our rector, Rev. Kay N. Ashby, is the Dean. Members of the MAC are Grace, Mansfield; Harcourt Parish, Gambier; St. James, Wooster; St. Mark's, Shelby; St. Matthew's, Ashland, St. Paul's, Mount Vernon; and Tabor Cottage, Butler.

The representatives from our parish to the MAC are Ann Shelly (MAC Treasurer) and Curt Allen (MAC Secretary).

Each MAC sends a representative to the Diocesan Council. Our representative is Curt Allen.

Latest Diocesan Council information

The Diocesan Council met at Trinity Commons on Thursday, May 17.

The first half of the meeting was what I call B.B.I. material (Boring But Important): financial committee discussion, updates on loans and grants, and a quick update on the coming 79th General Convention. I took away four things:

  1. On the financial level, the diocese is doing OK. We are declining in number of parishes (two will cease fairly soon) and in membership, but the money projection for the coming year is exactly the same as what we got last year.
  2. The diocese has a fair amount of investment income, and we already avoid investing in tobacco, liquor, casinos, and for-profit prisons, but a committee is also working to seek out proactive investment opportunities: companies which actually work to make things better. A report on their findings will become available for individual parish members who want to configure their investment portfolios to become more proactive as well.
  3. Loan and grant money is available for parishes who really need it. It's not a total gift; the parish is expected to provide the majority of the money for a project, but help is available, even for fairly mundane items. One parish needed emergency roof repairs and another emergency parking lot repairs, and grants/loans were approved for both.
  4. This wasn't a topic of conversation, but I realized that St. Matthew's is in a much better position financially than many other parishes. We do not struggle to pay bills as many do.

The second half of the meeting was devoted to an initiative called Becoming Beloved Community. As a denomination and as a diocese, we are committed to working against racism, and this is our program for working toward that goal. An Anti-Racism Training program is already in place and clergy are already participating in that training.

At our previous Diocesan Council meeting, I raised a question about all this anti-racism training. According to the 2010 census, Ashland City is 95.8% white and Ashland County is 97.3% white. The obvious question, in an environment such as this, is why we should bother. The answer has two parts.

First, racism is a heart attitude, and one does not need to be standing next to a person of another race to be a racist. (If you think about it, a black or Hispanic person in a community which is 30% non-white will probably feel a lot less excluded than a black or Hispanic person in a community which is only 2.7% non-white, so there is a point to reaching out to our neighbors.)

Second, the shift from the negativity of being against something to the positive Becoming Beloved Community stressed our obligation to reach out to those who are dissimilar to ourselves—economic, social, education, etc. When a congregation consists of a group of people who are identical, something is missing.

Training events are already taking place at Bellwether Farm and will soon be announced for other locations.

The Bishop's Time was largely devoted to a report on Bellwether Farm. The summer camp will operate on a very reduced schedule this year, about two weeks, because we are still finding our way. Similarly, financial projections are all guesses because, as Bishop Hollingsworth said, "We are running by the seat of our pants." Construction all seems to be in place, however, and the farm is scheduled for several meetings and conferences (ECW and future Diocesan Council meetings, for example). There has been some discussion of acquiring a farm across the state highway, to be used for a sustainable agriculture program.

Monday, May 21, 2018

Thoughts on Preaching

Now that James Curry has made quite a splash with his preaching at the royal wedding, several interesting threads have emerged.

One thread, normally those outside the Episcopal Church, has been saying, "Wow! That guy was really good! I had no idea your preaching could be so interesting and so moving!"

Another thread, often from within the Episcopal Church, says things like

  • "You didn't call him by his full official title."
  • "It's demeaning to call him 'preacher.'"
  • "You need to refer to him as 'The Most Reverend Michael Bruce Curry' and you mustn't omit 'The.'"

Give us all a break!

For one thing, we really are something of a minority group, and when TV commentators, who may have no connection with organized religion or who may be much more familiar with the usages of the majority churches such as Baptist or Presbyterian, refer to him as "Rev. Curry," they are not trying to be insulting. We need to admit that we have our own unusual vocabulary and just smile and nod when someone refers to Curry's production as an "address" rather than a "sermon."

I've heard Curry speak (twice), and I get the impression he'd be the last person on earth to stand on the formalities of being "The Most Reverend." I strongly suspect that he'd be much more focused on getting the Jesus message out there.

Getting the Jesus Message Out There

I recently attended a two-day College for Lay Preachers put on by our diocese. I really was afraid that it would turn out to be a seminar on how to preach the themes of the church year or perhaps something on emphasizing the history and distinctives of the Episcopal Church. Maybe we could throw together a sermon on the true meaning of "Ember Days."

Fortunately, I turned out to be wrong. The emphasis of the thirty or so lay preachers and the three or four presenters was quite uniform—bringing the message of Jesus to a lost world. That's something to get excited about, and a very healthy tone for the whole weekend. I'm glad that's our emphasis.

Saturday, February 24, 2018

Broad or Narrow

Recent surveys seem to show that Christians are, as a whole, much less accepting, affirming, and generally nice people than non-religious people.

That's not really news to many of us, though we usually think of the non-loving culprits as "those other guys who call themselves Christians." Certainly not my crowd. (Of course, that loops back into the non-accepting complaint almost instantly!)

So here's the dilemma. Built into the notion of teaching a religious truth, there's the unavoidable fact that if "A" is true, then "Non-A" and "Anti-A" can't be true too. If Jesus said, "No one comes to the Father except through me" (John 14:6), then the way is shut for those who want to come to the Father, but not through Jesus, right?

Big stuff

As Christian believers, we need to hold on to the "Big stuff"—who Jesus is, what belief and salvation are all about, and what basic morality means.

Little stuff

Church history is a constant story of items migrating from the "Little Stuff" category to the "Big Stuff" category. Can you be a Christian believer if your church uses grape juice instead of wine for Eucharist? Can real Christians smoke? The list goes on and on, and it's a very sad testimony. Last I looked there were 217 "real" Christian denominations in our country, but there must be thousands more tiny splinter groups that have pulled away, mostly because of "Little Stuff" issues. Can God save a person who who owns a gun? Will you meet the priest from the neighboring Catholic church in heaven?

There's a reason all this is important. We do make distinctions, and we need to, but when the distinctions are all "little stuff" distinctions, we're excluding Christian brothers and sisters.

And when we ignore our own issues—focus on finding what's wrong with you and telling you about it—we really do deserve to be called judgmental.

Non-stuff

Because we Americans have gotten foggy about what the Christian faith really is, another religion is gaining a lot of ground. The Christian faith, as defined by a very vocal segment, is defined as opposing rights for minorities, rejecting immigrants, hating sexual minorities, living in fear with a gun under the pillow, and grabbing as much power as possible, with dishonest strategies if necessary, for our subgroup. That's a strongly appealing religion/political party for many, but Jesus didn't have much to do with it, even if the adherents meet in church buildings. The true Christians, Episcopalians, Roman Catholics, Baptists, Methodists, and the others, need to band together and reject this new false religion.

Sunday, February 11, 2018

Not always boring

When a jazz pianist plays for your morning service, you sometimes get surprises. Today was Transfiguration Sunday (with the bonus O.T. scripture that describes the prophet Elisha sticking with his mentor Elijah until the very last second when Elijah was taken up into heaven), so the background music for Eucharist was "I've grown accustomed to your face."

Thursday, February 8, 2018

Ash Wednesday Sermon

Next Wednesday, I give the Ash Wednesday sermon (twice—noon and 7 PM). Ash Wednesday has always been a bit of a curiosity for me, for although I grew up in a heavily Roman Catholic state (Maryland), most of the Catholic kids went to their parochial schools, so we never saw them. And we never saw the cross on their foreheads. Never had one on mine either.

We were always sort of reticent about religious symbols. Though most of my friends were Jewish, you would never have known to look at them. Boys never wore yarmulkes. If a girl wore a cross on a necklace, we thought of it as just a pretty symbol, nothing religious.

Next Wednesday I get an ash cross on my forehead. And I preach about it. And the text is Matthew 6 "Beware of practicing your piety before others in order to be seen by them."

Now what? The writers of the lectionary have set me a pretty dilemma.

Let's back off a bit. I've spent most of my adult life associated with universities and colleges. Almost every building I have worked in has had someone's name attached to it, and even though we normally forget who these people were, the point was to memorialize a rich donor. On my campus, one of the dorms was Liggett because the tobacco magnate gave money for it. I attended classes is Busch because the beer manufacturer was a donor. Now I teach in Dauch, named after a man who made his money in auto parts (a less ominous trade than tobacco or beer).

Back in Jesus' day, wealth was seen as a sign of God's favor, and public praying and fasting was a way to show off how devoted one was. it was a great way to get public honor and praise. I think that's what Jesus is warning us against.

I'm always uneasy when some noted religious person stands in front of a TV camera to give a public prayer. When someone compliments the way someone prayed in a public meeting, that sets my teeth on edge. Some of the prayers God likes best are not too artistic—Romans 8:26 says the Spirit helps our prayers when we just cannot do it with good words.

So what about that mark on my forehead? I don't think it's a case of "Little Jack Horner" Christianity ("He put in his thumb and pulled out a plum, and said 'What a good boy am I.'") It's more a mark of ownership and possession. After all, we burned the Palm Sunday fronds to make the ashes. Those were earthly signs of Jesus' kingship. He's the king. Not me. It's not a smiley face. It's a symbol that someone died for me. It's a symbol of death and burning and destruction. It's also a mess and hard to get off. I'm stuck with the thing all day. I didn't put it there. I don't deserve any real credit. It's all Christ's doing.

Friday, February 2, 2018

I or We?

A few weeks ago, we had a Sunday morning visit from Brad Purdom, Canon for Congregations. He was supposed to be doing an "instructional Eucharist," and I thought I knew what to expect. "Here's when you cross yourself, and here's why."

Not bad stuff. Kind of interesting. Useful if you aren't too comfortable with the usual Episcopal way of doing things.

That's not what he did.

I have probably forgotten half of what he said, but the half that remains is that when we get together on a Sunday morning, it's all about US the corporate Christian entity, not about the I of my personal devotional life.

That emphasis is all through the liturgy. The confession of sins is first person plural. A prayer we all repeat every Sunday begins "Our Father." Several versions of the Nicene Creed are available, but the one for Sunday worship begins, "We believe."

Like most really good teaching, this one elicits the response, "Why didn't I catch that before? Of course!"

This isn't the way my previous Christian experience went. My memory of Eucharist is primarily of sitting in a pew, balancing a thimble of grape juice and considering my personal relationship with God. My memory of preaching (whether sermons I gave or sermons I heard) is almost all about a personal response to the Gospel: What am I going to do about it? Even the modern Charismatic movement, with all the corporate singing and dancing, is primarily focused on my emotional response to God. "Was Sunday worship good?" = "Did I enjoy it?"

I don't think Purdom wanted to eliminate personal response to God; in fact, I know that's a very vivid part of his message. But this was different. We, as a group, are the body of Christ, and Sunday in an Episcopal church is a celebration of that unity.

Tuesday, January 30, 2018

Christendom?

When I was younger, the Christian world was divided rather neatly into about three camps. There were the Liberals, the Conservatives (with their awkward cousins the Fundamentalists), and the Roman Catholics. Nobody was quite sure where to put the Episcopalians, so they usually landed in the Liberal category, along with the mainline churches such as the Congregationalists and the Presbyterians. I remember one speaker (at a Methodist church) saying that Presbyterians were just Methodists with money.

Each group was pretty content looking at all the others and saying, "Well, you're not a Christian, are you?" More than once at a youth conference I heard someone give the testimony that "I used to be a Roman Catholic, but then I became a Christian."

In those comfortable days, when we were so self-assured in our niche, the big news media more or less ignored Christian faith issues. If a church had a special music program or dedicated a new building, the news might show up in the Religion section of the Sunday paper, but about the only news that broke out of that cubbyhole was something truly groundbreaking, such as consecrating an openly gay bishop.

Things have changed. Now you can easily find opinion columns in the Washington Post, Newsweek, and other major secular news media discussing core issues of Christian faith and doctrine. One recent example was a column in the Washington Post titled "The Trump evangelicals have lost their gag reflex."

I see this new public awareness as the result of several forces:
  1. Beginning at least as far back as the Supreme Court abortion decision (Roe v. Wade in 1973), a major faction of the Conservatives decided that their path to actualizing God's Kingdom on Earth was through politics, not preaching. (To be fair, the Liberals had adopted similar priorities during the Civil Rights protests a decade earlier.)
  2. Conservative Christians had never voted much, and during the comfortable 1950s, the dominant culture had supported most of their priorities. As the 1970s and 1980s became more frighteningly diverse, these voters became an easy prey for politicians who promised a return to the good old days.
  3. Single-issue voting became quite normal. More than one person told me that he/she was voting for Donald Trump because he was opposed to abortion, and that one issue defined whether he was the Christian candidate.
  4. Because of this single-issue focus, good church folk were quite willing to swallow non-Christian behaviors and attitudes in other areas. If a candidate was opposed to abortion and/or gay marriage, some folk can easily put up with sexual harassment, racial bigotry, selfishness, and a general disregard of the values most of us have called "Christian" for centuries.
Thus we arrive in a place where "Christian" means "maintaining the status quo of the 1950s and ignoring a lot of activities that victimize others—especially if those others aren't much like me."

The mainstream media are taking notice and are heaping scorn on this kind of religion.

Where should Episcopalians stand in all this?

Every Sunday morning, our priest follows the sermon with these words, "Let us stand and reaffirm our faith in the words of the Nicene Creed." That's a good place to begin, reaffirming our faith and identity as members of the Episcopalian arm of the Jesus Movement:
  1. Faith in Christ is central. "Christian" does not mean "supporting traditional American values." It means a radical commitment to Jesus and to His priorities, even when they might be uncomfortable. If someone (whether Roman Catholic or Conservative Baptist) shares this commitment, we are members of the same family.
  2. Hatred and fear are not part of our Gospel. That's difficult to remember because it is so easy to hate people who distort the truth and spread anti-Christian propaganda in the name of Christ. We must not hate them either.
  3. Jesus has a special place in His heart for the poor, the outcast, the rejected. If we are to be his followers, we need to have the same attitude. Even if we suspect that someone is poor because of making unwise choices, it's not our business to judge; our business is to provide help.
  4. A church that reflects the priorities of Jesus will be quite diverse. It will be multi-colored. It will be multi-ethnic. Gay people and divorced people will find a home here. Muslims and Jews will understand that we are their friends.
  5. The church was never intended to be a department of the government. (OK—I know that our history belies this, but I'm going back to the "Render unto Caesar" comment.)
I'm sure there's more to say, and I'm sure that Episcopalians, being a very diverse bunch, will include quite a number who disagree with me on one or more of these points, but this is the sort of church I want to be part of.