The blog

The blog—informal opinions and chat about the parish

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.


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


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.

Saturday, January 13, 2018

Back again again

It seems I have to keep saying this.

Anyhow, it's been a very long time since my last post here, and the time gap corresponds exactly with the Fall Semester in school.

Personally, it was a tough semester.

I had a lot of students (42 of them) and at the end of the semester had to prepare for two new courses.

The end of the calendar year always means a lot of extra work for church treasurers, and we had a couple of unusual situations come up that took even more time. In addition, I had a number of extra meetings to attend.

It's also been a time of personal health issues and a couple of sad friendship events—maybe not that time-consuming, but certainly energy-consuming. And certainly politics is all part of it. Several reputable publications have discussed the phenomenon that the current political climate has brought out a plethora of symptoms: eating disorders, depression, etc. I think I've gotten caught up in that.

It's time for a change.

With the new year, I'm going to write more blog items. Here's a beginning brainstorm list:
  • How should we react to people who disagree with us? (And what do we do about politics?)
  • "Christianism," Christianity, and the Episcopal church
  • Knowing more about churchmanship than about the Bible
  • I haven't quite decided what to think about doctrinal purity
  • A Mighty Fortress Is Our Church
I might not hit all of these, and I probably won't do them in this order, but at least I have a curriculum now.