Friday, July 26, 2013

The B-I-B-L-E

I am one of those people who just grew up reading the Bible. It may not sound surprising to people that an ordained person did this but I was not always ordained, nor did I grow up thinking I would become an Episcopal priest. I read the Bible because it was central to my Christian formation. I had a Baptist grandmother who insisted that the first step was to memorize the books of the Bible - kind of like learning scales if you want to play the piano. In Sunday School, and at Vacation Bible School, I sang "the B-I-B-L-E, yes that's the book for me..."

And then at just the right time in my life when I needed it, as a college student attending a Jesuit University, I had the opportunity to take my first "academic" Bible course - addressing questions that had emerged for me along the way. Amazingly, this journey began with Jouette Bassler, who would become one of the editors of the Harper-Collins Bible. This encounter allowed my journey to continue in new and exciting directions. By the time I got to seminary, I was pretty sure I would continue my studies in a New Testament PhD program so I took all the Greek and New Testament courses I could at Drew. My love of the Old Testament came much later, when I discovered Walter Brueggemann, who opened door after door into parts of the Bible I had been taught previously to read only as "prelude." For the past twenty years or so this journey has continued as a preacher and teacher and EfM mentor, living into the rich narrative of both testaments and inviting others along on the journey. Out of all that, I continue to hear "a Word of the Lord." And then I came full circle when I was given the opportunity for several years to teach the Bible to college undergraduates.

I realize that this is not a typical journey, even for people who have grown up in the Church and even for many clergy. One of my friends once told me that he thought the Bible was taught in our theological schools like it was some kind of hazing, leaving stunned clergy who had learned just enough to know how little they knew, and therefore ill-equipped and fearful about teaching the Bible in critical ways to their congregations. I don't know if that diagnosis is correct or not but I do know that even among faithful Episcopalians it is hard to find people in the pews who have a level of confidence when it comes to opening the Bible.

In moving books from home and office to a new home and new office this summer, I came across Kenneth C. Davis' Don't Know Much About The Bible: Everything You Need To Know About the Good Book But Never Learned. It was published in 1998. When I found it on my shelf, I was not certain how I came across it and the first thing I did was to look inside to see if someone had loaned it to me and I'd forgotten to give it back. But there was no name there. I did not recall reading any reviews of it at the time, but I brought it along with me this past week to the beach.

I have not learned a single new thing from it. It is not an earth-shaking or radical book. But this is it's great strength; it is what it claims to be. It's solid. It's written for people who did not have a Baptist grandmother - or who did but did not have a course in college to balance that out. It's a book for open-minded people who want to know more. (I read some of the reviews and not surprisingly a few fundamentalists did have strong, visceral reactions to this book. If one insists on believing that the earth is 6000 years old or that every word of the Bible was dictated directly by God, this is quite frankly not the book to read.)

Davis' style is conversational, and sometimes his sense of humor gets in the way. It reminds me a bit of Thomas Cahill's How the Irish Saved Civilization - in both cases I admire the writers' skill at taking a great deal of information and making it feel like you are sitting down over a cup of coffee to patiently talk it all through, without sounding pedantic.

As I said, I didn't learn anything new. But this is not a criticism. When I used to teach the Bible to undergraduates I'd ask them to buy the New Oxford Annotated Bible and we would begin by reading the rather challenging essays at the front of that Bible that most people usually skip over, about textual criticism and translation and the history of Biblical criticism. I always had to promise my students "it will get better when we get to texts, but this stuff matters." The first chapter in Davis' book, had I known of it, would have been a better-than-adequate substitution for those essays. It covers all that ground, but in a far more accessible manner.

In fact this is the great strength of the book: that he is not a Biblical scholar mired in the details. He has done his research and writes well. This is not the last book anyone ought to read about the Bible. But it is a  very good place to begin for people who wish to go deeper, people who have questions and are ready to move beyond what they did or did not learn in Sunday School. And it's the kind of book you can read on the beach. I know, because that is where I've been reading it.

Tuesday, July 23, 2013

Clay Pots

As often happens in life, and in ministry, I've had one of those "two sides of the coin" experiences this week that reminds me about the joys and limitations of pastoral ministry, and of the importance of boundaries even when that may be heart-wrenching.

First, a longtime former parishioner of mine died. She was a founding member of St. Francis Church and a member of the search committee that called me to serve as their fifth rector over fifteen years ago. It is the first death in the parish since I left and it saddens me not to be presiding at the funeral. (As it turns out, I"m on vacation so even if I was still the rector I would have found myself away and this probably would have been even more difficult. Even so...) 

Most lay people (and too many clergy) do not understand why this is so. I had a pastoral relationship here; why can't that continue? The answer is that if I kept being the pastor past the time of actually being the pastor, there would not be space for my my successor(s) to step into the breach. 

And here is the thing: the family is in perfectly good hands with my former Associate, who is a wonderful pastor. So this is a good reminder that it's not all about me! My absence makes the presence of another possible. This is not a justification, but a great mystery, I think. On the one hand our faith is deeply incarnational: it is about being present in-the-flesh by word and by action. On the other hand, it is not about us. We are servants, not messiahs. We carry this great treasure in earthen vessels - in clay pots. (see II Corinthians 4:7)

In my new job I am working with a nearby parish whose rector has just announced his departure. In the midst of that transition I was asked to officiate at a wedding this fall that has been scheduled before an interim arrives, but after the current rector has departed. I am happy to do this wedding and make some deeper connections to a family I already know, but whom I would otherwise not get to know in this way. In this case, the absence of another makes my presence possible. I'm now able to step into that breach created by another clergy transition. I am invited to be a servant. 

Ministry is not about us: it is not about fulfilling our ego needs or about our need to be needed. It is tempting for God's people (and especially, I think, the ordained) to think we are indispensable. We are not.

And yet ministry is all about us, because we can choose whether or not to say, "here I am, Lord." We carry a great treasure in clay pots...

In my new role, I am increasingly aware of our web of interdependence as God's people and in fact just as people: no man (or woman) is an island...  I knew this as a parish priest, but in a relatively "successful" parish it was possible to operate as if it were otherwise: to take care of our own. In diocesan ministry, it is increasingly clear to me that we must learn to be more collaborative and rely more on one another in partnerships and for the health of the system to share ministry. We are not cogs in a wheel; not "interchangeable parts." But neither does the work of the Kingdom rest on our shoulders alone as Father or Mother "Lone Rangers." 

We need each other. But more importantly we need to trust one another. This extends to serving as a bishop, as a priest, as a warden, or as the director of an altar guild. And there is a time and a season for everything under the sun. This does not make it any easier to let go; if anything it makes it harder because we care so deeply. But as we live more deeply into this mystery, we find even greater health within the Body. 

Tuesday, July 16, 2013

For the Human Family

Recommended Reading: Trayvon Martin Murder Trial Reactions | News & Notes, What Matters Today |

Yet again, we are asked to view an emotionally charged event through the prism of racism. There is a part of us all, I think, that wants to just move on - especially when we see protests turning violent in Los Angeles and elsewhere. In fact, I think prayer takes us to a deeper listening.The link above, from Bill Moyers' website, invites that kind of reflection and prayer.

Yesterday I wrote a more personal blog post quoting Faulkner about how the past is not dead and is not even past. Faulkner was of course fully aware of what this meant for race relations.

Here is the prayer I am praying these days with fervor, from The Book of Common Prayer, for the human family:
O God, you made us in your image and redeemed us through Jesus your Son: Look with compassion on the whole human family; take away the arrogance and hatred which infect our hearts; break down the walls that separate us; unite us in bonds of love; and work through our struggle and confusion to accomplish your purposes on earth; that, in your good time, all nations and races may serve you in harmony around your heavenly throne; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen. 

Monday, July 15, 2013

A History Lesson

"The past is never dead. It's not even past." (William Faulkner)
My family recently moved out of a church rectory where we had lived for the past fifteen and a half years, Important years, at that, especially for my two sons. For the rest of their lives, when asked where they are from, both of them will answer "Holden" (as I still answer "Hawley" - even though I have not lived there for over three decades now.) That is where they went to school. That is where they graduated from high school. 

Moving after putting down deep roots is painful. Yes, it is exciting to move into a new home and to say that it is "ours" even if in fact it mostly belongs still to the bank. But it is also a bit sad to walk through empty rooms where so much living happened. I can only imagine what it is like to live in the same home for thirty or forty years, and to go through such a move needing to "downsize" after the death of a spouse, or because one can no longer climb the stairs. 

Even though this move has been unfolding for weeks now, it was not really until yesterday that I got to a box of old letters and papers that included a good bit of writing I did on the tenth anniversary of my father's death. My dad died in the spring of 1982 - more than thirty years ago. On the tenth anniversary of his death and only a couple of years after the birth of my eldest son, I wrote an "epistle" (that is really the only word for it) to my three siblings. At the time I was a campus minister, living on the second floor of a three-decker in New Britain, Connecticut. I was in the midst of a major life shift, from son to father. My brother's oldest daughter had also just been born, so he, too, had recently become a daddy. 

There were some things I needed to try to understand about my life - about our life together as children. And so I wrote to my siblings and they wrote back. 

This blog is not the place for sharing private matters. But the experience of re-reading those letters may be of interest, and may be something readers can relate to in their own journeys. I went through a lot of old memories in that box yesterday, but none more poignant and even heart-wrenching than those four letters. Like the four gospels, they were testimonies of a sort. 

We all grew up in the same home. We had many shared experiences and many happy memories, as well as some sad ones. But each of us saw things from different angles, filtered through our own experiences based on gender, birth order, and personality. Reading through those letters again, more than a score of years later still, I realize anew just how multivalent and elusive the "truth" really is. 

And that Faulkner was right: the past is never dead. It's not even past. 

Wednesday, July 10, 2013

Three Wise Women, and the Feast of St. Benedict

Almighty and everlasting God, your precepts are the wisdom of a loving Father: Give us grace, following the teaching and example of your servant Benedict, to walk with loving and willing hearts in the school of the Lord's service; let your ears be open to our prayers; and prosper with your blessing the work of our hands; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.
Tomorrow is the feast of St. Benedict of Nursia, often considered the father of western monasticism. On the anniversary of his death we will celebrate his life and witness, as well as the rule of life that he inspired - even if he did not write every word.

But for today I want to share quotes from three modern women, each of whom acknowledges her debt to Benedict and the spirituality that he inspired. Too much of what claims to be Christian spirituality hovers in mid-air, but Benedictine spirituality is grounded, earthy, rooted. If we want to know what kind of parent someone is, we best look to the children they have raised. So, too, with our spiritual parents: if you want to know what kind of lives Benedict continues to inspire into the twenty-first century then look at the lives of people like Kathleen Norris and Esther de Waal and Joan Chittister. Their words and witness require no further commentary from me.
“The ordinary activities I find most compatible with contemplation are walking, baking bread, and doing laundry.” (Kathleen Norris, The Quotidian Mysteries: Laundry, Liturgy and Woman's "Work")
"Stability says there must be no evasion; instead attend to the real, to the real necessity however uncomfortable that might be. Stability brings us from a feeling of alienation, perhaps from the escape into fantasy and daydreaming, into the state of reality. It will not allow us to evade the inner truth of whatever it is that we have to do, however dreary and boring and apparently unfruitful that may seem. It involves listening to the particular demands of whatever this task and this moment in time is asking; no more and no less.” (Esther de Waal, Seeking God: The Way of St. Benedict)
"Prayer in Benedictine spirituality is not an interruption of our busy lives nor is it a higher act. Prayer is the filter through which we learn, if we listen hard enough, to see our world aright and anew and without which we live life with souls that are deaf and dumb and blind." (Sister Joan Chittister, Wisdom Distilled from the Daily, Living the Rule of St. Benedict Today)

Sunday, July 7, 2013

The General

I have the day off from preaching today. But that doesn't mean that I am not still thinking about the next installment in this ongoing summer narrative from Second Kings. This week's installment comes from the fifth chapter, the first fourteen verses. If I was preaching this weekend, here is where I might begin...

I remember that Geritol commercial when I was growing up. Now I’m not even 100% sure what exactly Geritol is (or even if they still make it) but the line was: “if you’ve got your health, you’ve got just about everything.” I remember the line because it’s something my grandmother loved to say.

Well, Naaman is just the opposite: he has just about everything, except his health. How many ways can you say it? Naaman is an important man—a military man—an accomplished man—a mighty man—an Aramean man.  One verse is jam-packed with powerful adjectives that help us to paint a mental picture of this this man of valor, this general. But…

Why does there always have to be a “but?”  No one gets it all. If there is one thing I have learned in pastoral ministry it is this. Even those whom we may think from the outside have it all—important job, fancy car, lovely home, honor students, beautiful spouse—there is still, very often, a “but.” Maybe it is an addiction or an illness or a secret that cannot be shared. In Naaman's case, we are told that he is a leper. So he has just about everything...except his heath. 

He has the resources to get the best healthcare that money can buy; no walk-in clinics for him! He takes with him ten talents of silver, six thousand shekels of gold, and ten festal garments to pay the physician. The note in my old Oxford Annotated Bible (published in 1977) says that’s the equivalent of about $80,000. Did you know that if you Google "1977 dollars adjusted for inflation" that you get several hits to calculators that will do just that? So, adjusted for inflation, this guy is carrying around $307,518.15 . Even in the midst of the astronomical increases in health care, that still buys a lot of tests.   

Elisha the prophet sees this as an opportunity to bear witness to the healing power of YHWH, the God of Israel. The opportunity is not for financial gain because God’s healthcare plan is free. All Naaman has to do is go wash seven times in the Jordan River! Not only will his flesh be restored, but he will be clean. It’s not about money, but about the abundance of God’s grace that extends even to foreign lepers.

But to Naaman this river-water-cure just sounds like just an old wives’ tale! He’s furious. He is prepared to pay good money for the best doctors and the latest technology and for machines that go “ping.” But a free homeopathic remedy? “Surely the rivers or Damascus are better than the rivers in Israel?” he replies in disgust. “If that’s all it takes, is a swim in the river…”

Naaman is fortunate enough to have some pretty practical servants, however, who are not afraid to speak honestly to him: “If the prophet told you to do some great thing you would have done it. So what harm can come of doing this easy thing? Go down and wash in the River Jordan—what’s the worst thing that could happen?”  He does…and his skin is like a baby’s bottom! A miracle!

It’s a wonderful story. And there’s even more to the story (as there usually is) if one keeps reading beyond where the lectionary passage stops.

For me, though, it generates a whole bunch of possibilities and maybe it's a good thing I'm not trying to prech a pithy summer homily on this text on a hot summer day in some un-air conditioned parish. I suppose one could say that God's grace is free of charge. I suppose one could say a whole lot about the God whose love extends beyond the narrow confines of tribe and nation.

We might  also wonder, however, about all of the issues that healing stories generate: why do those people in the Bible like Naaman or blind Bartimaeus get cured while Uncle Charlie and my friend Joe have to settle for "spiritual healing?"  We pray and we pray for our friend with cancer and then she dies anyway: why didn't the God who healed the General not heal our friend. Is there a balm in Gilead or not? And why is there so much sickness unto death?

Cures are great and it’s fair enough to pray for them and we should give thanks when they are given. Sometimes those even happen in ways that medical science and human reason cannot explain. Imagine Naaman telling his friends: “I just went and washed in the Jordan River.” Sometimes healing does happen through the simple things, not the complex ones: a healthy diet and centering prayer or yoga do wonders to alleviate stress and lead to health, and sometimes people come into a Wednesday night healing service and ask for prayers and those prayers really do work miracles. But it's not very often that those stories make it into the New England Journal of Medicine.

That doesn’t make them less real, however. Perhaps it is left to us—the Synagogue and the Church—to keep telling these kinds of stories, and to remember that our God is an awesome God who can heal us of all that ails us.

Whether or not we get the "cure" we pray for, however, we pray for the power and presence of God in our lives. Because cure or no cure, God-with-us brings healing. And we can pray for our own receptivity to that free gift, which costs us absolutely nothing.

Friday, July 5, 2013

Gospel and Culture

In the Fall of 2000, just a couple years into my ministry at St. Francis Church in Holden, I enrolled in a Doctorate in Ministry program at Columbia Theological Seminary in Decatur, Georgia. The program was focused on the theme of "Gospel and Culture" - "enabling pastors to engage the mission field of North American, postmodern, post-Christian society." It was a great program at a wonderful seminary that gave me an opportunity to work with many amazing professors, including Walter Brueggemann and Barbara Brown Taylor.

In the midst of our recent move, I came across some boxes of old papers from that program. One of them, from the opening seminar, is called "the grid." It was an assignment to help us to think about our particular context for ministry. This matters because ministry is never generic, but particular. It matters whether our context is rural or urban or suburban; whether it's "liberal" or "conservative." Part of what I am thinking a lot about these days is how much more complex a diocesan system is because it is by definition multicultural. Even so, the Diocese of Western Massachusetts has its own identity, distinct from say the Diocese of Los Angeles, or the Diocese of Albany.

Anyway, here are the questions. I'm not sure which professor they came from, or if they are still used at CTS, but I think they remain helpful.

  • What is your operative definition of "gospel?"
  • What is the center ("axis mundi") of your church?
  • What is your operative definition of culture?
  • What is the center ("axis mundi") of your local culture?
  • If you had to make a prophetic break from the past, of what would it consist?
  • What are the key untapped Biblical texts?
  • What are the key untapped theological ideas?
  • What is your operative definition of mission?
  • How do you experience the "sentness" of the church?
  • What and who are the authorities for the people you work with?
  • How does the Bible function in your community?
  • What are the important rituals in your community?
  • How are you like and unlike the people with whom you do ministry?
  • What are the sources of resistance to doing things differently in your setting?
  • What are the spaces where change can occur within your setting?
  • How is the sacred experienced within your setting?
  • What are the practices of a gospel people that need to be added or revived in your setting?
  • Three questions you also ought to ask?

Wednesday, July 3, 2013

Independence Day

The English word patriot comes from the Latin patriota - "countryman", which comes from the Greek root πατρίς (patris) - "fatherland". Here is the really interesting part of that linguistic reminder: in the 18th century when this word came into usage in English, loyalty to the State was seem primarily in contrast to loyalty to the Church. It was even argued by some that clergy not be be allowed to teach in public schools: since their true patrie was in heaven, they could not inspire adequate love of the homeland in their students. 

Unless our faith has been completely co-opted by the dominant culture, there is always an inherent tension for followers of Jesus who rightly love their country but always penultimately, not ultimately. Since our true patrie is indeed in heaven, the order always matters: God, then country. There is a Biblical name for religion that confuses that order and wraps itself in the flag: it is called idolatry.  

I love the litany below (which comes from The Book of Common Prayer) because it embraces this inherent tension and reminds us that while we do rightly give thanks for so many blessings in a great nation, we are also brought to our knees and reminded of the work that remains before us. As we approach the celebration of the Fourth, we thank God for the beauty of the land and its many resources, for example, and yet are caught short in being reminded that these gifts are given for more than profit, and that we have been called to be much better stewards of this good earth. We pray - all of us on the right and in the middle and on the left - for healing, forgiveness, inspiration, enlightenment, and renewal. We recognize the work that remains, until there is truly liberty and justice for all. 

Almighty God, giver of all good things; We thank you for the natural majesty and beauty of this land. They restore us, though we often destroy them.
Heal us.

We thank you for the great resources of this nation. They make us rich, though we often exploit them.
Forgive us.

We thank you for the men and women who have made this country strong. They are models for us, though we often fall short of them.
Inspire us.

We thank you for the torch of liberty which has been lit in this land. It has drawn people from every nation, though we have often hidden from its light.
Enlighten us.

We thank you for the faith we have inherited in all its rich variety. It sustains our life, though we have been faithless again and again.
Renew us.

Help us, O Lord, to finish the good work here begun. Strengthen our efforts to blot out ignorance and prejudice, and to abolish poverty and crime. And hasten the day when all our people, with many voices in one united chorus, will glorify your holy Name. Amen.