Wednesday, August 20, 2014

What I'm Reading: American Grace

Robert D. Putnam and David E. Campbell, American Grace: How Religion Divides and Unites Us(October 2010.)

Here is a review that appeared in The New York Times in 2010.

I read this book shortly after it was published - the old-fashioned way, by buying a hard-cover copy. At the time I was a parish priest and found it interesting - there was (as some will recall) a flurry of blogs and articles that grew out of this amazing book, so I was glad to have encountered "the source." In particular, there was and still is a lot of talk about the "nones" - those who in the research done for this book reported having no religious affiliation. (The authors point out that these "nones" are not hard-core atheists; in fact those who declare themselves to be atheists or agnostics are decreasing. The "nones" may well believe in God; it's religion they have a problem with!)

So now I'm technically re-reading it, and really I am having it read to me as I commute back and forth on the Mass Pike -  i.e. this time around I'm listening to an audio recording of the book. I am learning, even at this latter stage in life that it is a good way for my brain to take in information - while I'm an avid reader I think I'm actually a better listener than reader, and it forces me to slow down which is a good thing. (I'm talking about the speed of the recording, not of my car!)

Something else has changed for me: my own context for ministry. When I read this book I was focused on its implications for parish ministry. This time around I'm more involved in the larger systemic questions related to diocesan ministry. The book has implications for both, but one of the things I find really striking, for example, is how important it is to gather actual information about American socio-religious trends and not just anecdotal intuitive "feelings." It struck me today, for example, that the numbers show that by 1990, evangelical mega-churches were starting to decline - following the trend that began affecting "mainline" congregations much earlier. Yet as a priest I experienced a lot of "solutions" being offered even in the late 1990s (and beyond) about how mainline congregations just needed to be more like Willow Creek.  It was argued that if we just ditched the Hymnals and Prayerbooks and projected the liturgy on a big screen and sang praise choruses we, too, would grow. Others argued if we just got more conservative we'd attract more folks. Regardless of one's liturgical or musical or theological preferences, however, the fact is that this decline has more to do with generational and demographic shifts than anything else - and also starting with the 1950s as the "height of American civil religion" as if that were normative, when in fact it was absolutely not.

In a sense, the ripples that came about after the 1950s and into the 1960s and 1970s are still playing out. Understanding these social dynamics is crucial to trying to be the Church in this time and place.

It's not a "how to" book. The authors are not even interested in how to revitalize congregations. But as someone who is very much interested in that, I find their work to be crucial to understanding how we got where we are - and why we cannot go back, only forward.

Sunday, August 17, 2014

Jesus and the Canaanite Woman

All Saints Church in Worcester
This Sunday, I served at All Saints Church in Worcester after what has been about a six-week "sabbatical" from preaching. Good to be back and getting ready for the fall!

Today's text comes from the 15th chapter of Matthew's Gospel, and goes like this:

Jesus left Gennesaret and went away to the district of Tyre and Sidon. Just then a Canaanite woman from that region came out and started shouting, "Have mercy on me, Lord, Son of David; my daughter is tormented by a demon." But he did not answer her at all. And his disciples came and urged him, saying, "Send her away, for she keeps shouting after us." He answered, "I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel." But she came and knelt before him, saying, "Lord, help me." He answered, "It is not fair to take the children's food and throw it to the dogs." She said, "Yes, Lord, yet even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their masters' table." Then Jesus answered her, "Woman, great is your faith! Let it be done for you as you wish." And her daughter was healed instantly.  (Matthew 15: 21-28)

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Here in Massachusetts we have inherited a whole lot of place names that subtly remind us of the native people who lived here before waves of immigrants arrived from Europe. I live on Monadnock Road, and last week I crossed over the Sagamore Bridge heading toward Hyannis and beyond. I’m told you have a priest here is rather fond of Cuttyhunk. Every time we cross over Lake Quinsigamond or hike up Mount Wachusett or out by the Quabbin Reservoir, these place names remind us of the people who were here before us. 

I am old enough to have been taught a rather sanitized story about the first Thanksgiving that I took for granted for a long time. My kids, now in their twenties, are young enough that they learned early on that the first Thanksgiving was a lot more complex…

So there is a certain football team that plays in Washington, DC – perhaps you’ve heard about the controversy around the name of that team in the news. The name feels like a painful slur to many. Think for a moment about the kind of visceral reaction you have—the emotional (more than the intellectual) feelings about that name and all that it conjures up. It is that more visceral stuff that I want you to be in touch with as we come to this morning’s gospel reading, to this encounter between Jesus and the Canaanite woman. Are you with me?

In Jesus’ day, that name Canaanite itself was loaded, because it referred to the native people, the indigenous people who were on the land before God promised it to Abraham and Isaac and Jacob and their offspring. When people talk about the violence in the Old Testament, very often they are referring to some of the stuff in Joshua and Judges which is anything but a sanitized account of forcibly trying to take the land from the Canaanites—who had no desire to just walk away. While Joshua did win the battle of Jericho and the Israelites did eventually win the war and the land, that didn’t mean they eradicated the Canaanites or a memory of their presence completely.

If you do a little word search of the Old Testament, that word “Canaanite” pops up 78 times. Only once, though, in the New Testament – in the gospel that has our attention today. In Genesis it is used to refer to the people who were living in the land before Abraham was promised it. You may recall that both Isaac and Jacob go back home looking for spouses, because they are commanded not to marry the local Canaanite women. These old stories hint at a “problem” that emerged; at least these inter-faith marriages between Jews and Canaanites were perceived as a problem by the folks writing the Bible.

By the time we get to Exodus, the Lord is promising to “drive out” the Canaanites (along with the Hittites and the Jebusites and Amorites and others.) Check out Deuteronomy 7:1 where the Lord promises to just “clear them away.” Yet as I mentioned, by the time you get to Joshua and Judges, there is the realization that you can’t just clear Canaanites away – any more than you can clear away Native Americans, or Palestinians, or any proud people.

The more the world changes, the more it stays the same, eh?

So at first glance, today’s Gospel reading may seem to be from a world very different from ours, a world before Google and Facebook and all the rest. But it is in fact really about an encounter that is an age-old problem, a challenge that remains with us today. In fact this gospel reading could have been ripped from today’s headlines in Iraq, or Gaza, or Ferguson, Missouri. What we see is an encounter between people who inhabit very different worlds: a Jewish male rabbi and this Canaanite woman who starts shouting at him. Have mercy on me, Lord, Son of David; my daughter is tormented by a demon.

It’s important to slow down in our reading to see what happens next. First, Jesus tries to just give her the silent treatment. He ignores her- maybe hoping she’ll just go away. Then the disciples tell him he needs to make it clearer and tell the woman to get lost. Instead he offers her an explanation, of sorts: lady, I just don’t have time or energy for this. My mission is clear and it’s to the lost sheep of Israel.

If he’d stopped there it might not have been so bad, but it’s the words that come out of Jesus’ mouth next that are so jarring: it’s just not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs, he tells the woman.

Wow. Did he really just say that? The Word of the Lord, thanks be to God?

But here is the really extraordinary thing: this Canaanite woman is undeterred. Call her whatever name you want; Matthew doesn’t give her a name except this one - she is a mother. No, it’s more than that – she is a mother with a sick child. And as such, she is on a mission from God.

So she takes Jesus’ slur and turns it back on him:

Even the dogs get the crumbs under the table. Sir. I am begging you – please help my daughter.

As one scholar puts it, she is fully aware of her social location and the limitations that places on her. She doesn’t deny that social reality; instead she claims it and embraces it even. And in so doing she insists on being seen and heard. She refuses to be silent and invisible. Hands up; don’t shoot!

She protests in a way that gets Jesus’ full and undivided attention. And then he heals her daughter. He seems to have changed his mind—maybe he is not sent just for the children of Israel but rather that in him there might no longer be Jew or Greek, slave or free, male or female. Her witness allows him, and us, to glimpse something of the wideness in God’s mercy.

Now some pious religious folks sometimes don’t like it that Matthew included this story because let’s be honest – it does not put Jesus in his best light. I guess I’m not that pious –because I have always loved this story. It feels so real to me. If we believe in the Incarnation – I mean if really believe that the Word of God pitched tent among us and dwelt among us and took on flesh in Jesus of Nazareth, the scandal of that claim is that Jesus lived in a particular time and place as a first-century Jewish male. Living in a particular time and place, like all of us he picked up the biases of place – at home or at school or in his grandfather’s wood shop. As the old Rogers and Hammerstein piece puts it, “you’ve got to be taught to hate…”  But until you are really confronted with prejudice you don’t even recognize it as such – you just think it’s how the world is. Those dogs. They can’t be trusted, you know.

The question - for us as for Jesus - is not whether prejudice can be avoided; that is in the air we breathe. The question is how we can learn to overcome it. How do we move beyond the names our parents or grandparents used to refer to people from outside their own “tribe?” How do we break down the walls that separate people from one another? It seems to me that takes work, but today’s gospel reading gives us a glimpse into what is possible, with God’s help.  

Back to that football team in Washington – did you know that they started out as the Boston Braves? The reason given for the name change in 1933 was so they would not be confused with the baseball team that was also in Boston at the time that went by the same name. So they took on the name Redskins, and then four year later moved south to Washington. Now it’s unclear whether or not anyone perceived this name as racist at the time – perhaps it was innocent enough. But the point is that we live in different times and we know now how it makes people feel. So how do we change our minds, change our words, change our behaviors once the hurt that such words convey comes into our consciousness?

This is ultimately what repentance is all about – a turning and a changing of our minds and an opening up of space in our lives for the other. In Gaza and in Iraq and in Ferguson, Missouri and in Washington, DC and on the shores of Lake Quinsigamond – this is still how change happens, and how the world is made new. One day at a time, to be sure. But that’s where it begins.

So some old sexist man whose values have stayed locked in the 1950s has two daughters and then five granddaughters, and one day he starts to think about violence against women or about equal pay for equal work or school sports and -  some of you know this guy, right? He starts to change. Yes? Maybe?

Or a kid sits his evangelical parents down and tells them what he has always known, and at some level what they have known too: that he is gay and now he needs them to know, and to love him for who he is, for who God made him to be. And sometimes, by God’s grace, they muster the strength and courage to embrace him and let him know that he is always and forever loved.

What I love about Jesus in this story is precisely his humanity: right before our very eyes he grows in wisdom and stature, and in divine and human favor.

And what I love about this Canaanite woman is that she refuses to back off or remain invisible. She shouts until she is heard. Until justice is done – because her sick child is just as precious in God’s sight as any of the lost sheep of Israel. 

Saturday, August 16, 2014

Robin Williams and Ferguson, Missouri: Epistemological Observations

I have been, quite frankly, too sad about the death of Robin Williams to comment. I posted a flurry of film clips on Facebook early on and since then I've read some amazing tributes and insights from ordinary people and more famous ones about alcoholism, depression, and more recently Parkinson's Disease. One of the most helpful pieces I read can be found here for anyone interested. All I have to add about this myself is this: may he rest in peace, and rise in glory.

A different kind of sadness about what is unfolding in Ferguson, Missouri: a feeling of pent-up anger at the seeming ineptitude of a small town police department, of a desire for peace with justice, of knowing we remain a long way from Dr. King's dream in this country. And overwhelming grief at the death of another black man not safe in his American skin. This week the police department released a video of the victim, Michael Brown, stealing cigars from a convenience store - seemingly to discredit the victim, but then admitting the arresting officer knew nothing about this. (At least one of my more "liberal" friends commented on a more "conservative" site which was claiming that "now that we know the victim was a thug it's a different story" that knowing this does not justify killing him.) And it goes on...

In both cases, information is limited and drips out. But this doesn't keep people from assuming they know it all. Which brings me to epistemology. For those who never taken, or forgotten, Philosophy 101 - here is a link to that fount of wisdom, Wikipedia. Actually whatever one may think of Wikipedia, the definition from the Greek is enough for my purposes: Epistemology from Greek ἐπιστήμη, epistēmē, meaning "knowledge, understanding", and λόγοςlogos, meaning "study of" is the branch of philosophy concerned with the nature and scope of knowledge. In other words, how do we know what we know?

In my intro to philosophy course (more than thirty years ago) this was presented in a rarefied way. But the older I get, the more I see it is a matter we need to talk about in our daily lives. We confuse what we believe or think with what we know. The link I shared above was the response to a pastor whom I have no reason to believe was anything but well-intentioned. I do not believe he meant to impugn Williams' character or anyone who suffers from depression. (This is an opinion, not something I know - and I know nothing about Matt Walsh beyond this one post.) But if you do go and read what Matt Walsh wrote on his blog, it's pretty obvious (to me at least) that he doesn't know much - or very little - about depression. So he is "holding court" on something he doesn't know much about.

Surely he's not alone. But I think before blogs and the internet it seemed more obvious when Uncle Charlie had too much to drink at Thanksgiving and was holding court on economics and world politics that he was just blowing smoke - or it was the scotch talking. Now anyone (including yours truly!) can start a blog and begin pontificating...

We only know what we know, and what we know is always seen from an angle. I never met Robin Williams. At most I know what his friends are saying about him now. And that I felt that he shone through the characters he played in films that were very powerful for me; but maybe not. Maybe he was just a great actor. 

And I've never been to Ferguson, Missouri. Yesterday I watched Ron Johnson, the new (African-American) police captain who has been put in charge on the ground in Ferguson chastising the media for only showing the images of violence and looting, and yet there other stories not being told, he said. He seemed like a reliable man - clearly capable. I trusted him - quite frankly more than I trust CNN or FoxNews. But my "knowing" is still shaped by what CNN and Fox choose to tell me, and what I read on the internet.

So what is the point here? We cannot sit back in silence.We are all entitled to our opinions and more than that I think we do need to act: we cannot be paralyzed by our unknowing. But a dose of humility would do us all some good. And I wonder if that doesn't begin with, or at least include, pondering this old idea of how we know what we know, and what is the difference between what we know and what we think we know, and where there are blank spaces how are we filling those in? If it's with opinion, or intuition that's not all bad - but it's worth being aware of that - and of the limitations. 

In one sense we live in an information age. In another, however, it is clearer and clearer to me that the information we get is filtered through a skewed narrative. FoxNews is (based on what I think I know) the most egregious about this, but they are all guilty of it as anyone who has ever talked with a reporter and then read what s/he said in the news the next day knows. And maybe I only see how egregious they are because they report news that is counter to what I believe I know about the world. (Now having said that let's not get too carried away here - they are pretty terrible. They beat the drum on Benghazi suggesting the President and Secretary of State were practically guilty of treason until the Congressional Report came out and said that it wasn't like that and then they just buried that story and dropped it. This is only the most recent example of a news organization that at times seems to just make stuff up and then repeat it so many times that people start to believe it. By the way did you know our President is a Muslim? According to one report, eighteen percent of Americans "know" this to be true.)

I believe there is such a thing as Truth. But I also think we see through the glass (very) darkly, and we need a sense of humility about how we uncover what is true. It is much easier to default to ideology. It is also much easier to see the splinter in someone else's eye than the beam in our own. It has always been thus, but technology amplifies the problem, I think. We live in a world where we want instant answers to complex questions. But I think the path to wiser decisions and to allowing cooler heads to prevail may begin with a reminder that there is a difference between what we know, and what we think we know - not just in our public lives but in our personal relationships, and even in what we (think we) know about ourselves.

Friday, August 1, 2014

Pray for the Peace of Jerusalem

So my previous post was a nine-year old sermon. By comparison, this post is "young" - only half as old! I began writing this weblog when I traveled to the land of the Holy One in January 2010, and the post below is another only slightly edited version of that original post from January 29, 2010. It's not that I'm getting lazy (I don't think so anyway) or that I have nothing new to say. Rather (on this post anyway) I've found myself reflecting a lot (in light of the mess in Gaza) on my personal experience there four and a half years ago. There is always a danger of absolutizing what we see with our own eyes and hear with our own ears, because we never hear or see it all. But even so, it is less "filtered" than what we get through CNN or FoxNews or MSNBC. I was there. On the ground. Walking those streets. Talking to people who live there. And that experience has stayed with me...

I had actually hoped to get back there this fall, in September, to do another class at St. George's College called "The Children of Abraham." For a number of reasons that didn't work out. Part of me feels sad that I won't be there at a time when the need for the children of old Abraham to come together is greater than ever. And, of course, an even bigger part of me is relieved that I am relatively safe and secure in central Massachusetts. 

The picture of the wall below remains the problem. I don't know what the solution is. But you can't ghettoize (I choose that word with great care) the entire Palestinian population and expect them to say "thank you" very much. Tunnels aren't the solution either. Cliche or not, the solution still has something to do with bridges.

Pray for the peace of Jerusalem.

Re-entry has been interesting but it is still a real challenge when someone says "how was your trip?" to know exactly how to respond. It doesn't fit easily into a formulaic response and this pilgrimage is still working in, and on, me. So this post is probably going to be my last post on this trip - although I'm hoping to continue to write on this blog in Lent for anyone interested. It's going to be my last post not because I've "settled" things but because more than a week has passed and life goes on and all of that. 

I think the picture above speaks for itself: it's the wall between Israel and the Palestinian Territory. You have to go through a check-point to get to places like Bethlehem or Bethany, where my friend Kalil lives (and of course where Lazarus and Mary and Martha lived before him.) It took us over an hour to get through the checkpoint when we traveled to Bethlehem, it takes Kalil about 45 minutes to get to work each day (he's at St. George's by 5 a.m) and the trip is all of 3 miles. It's easy of course to condemn walls whether built through Berlin, on the Mexican border, around gated communities that keep out the riff-raff, or in Israel. As I have mentioned, however, there is a lot of fear and some of that fear is legitimate. I know angels are always saying in the Bible "be not afraid" and I'm glad they do. But there is a difference between misplaced anxiety and healthy realistic awareness, even when the line isn't always clear. People are afraid in Israel on both sides of that wall and with good reason. We take our shoes off in airports and are getting ready for full-body scans and all the rest because we'd rather be humiliated than blown-up. In Israel they live with all of that 24/7, not just at the airport.

But walls aren't going to bring about peace on earth and good will to all. Ultimately safety and security can only ever be penultimate goals that shouldn't be confused with Shalom/Salaam. It doesn't seem like any good can come of this wall, at least as I see it. The view from each side speaks volumes: Ministry of Tourism posters on the Israeli side and protest graffiti on the Palestinian side.

So, yes, it's a cliche to say that Christians are called to tear down walls and build bridges. And yes, I took this photo while we were waiting at the check-point for over an hour to go to Bethlehem. It is honestly hard to know where to begin, with so much fear and mistrust. In ministry, both at the personal level and the congregational level, I've often felt that more information, more accurate information, eventually helps people move toward reconciliation. But not always and even when it does people have to be open to that new information and it can be very hard to filter that through "what we know." Sometimes people (including me!) become so entrenched in their own "truths" that they cannot see or hear anything that contradicts that reality. I see it over sexuality issues in my own denomination and in the wider Anglican Communion, and I saw it in Israel as I listened to people like Ophir and Xavier. They literally inhabit different worlds, see from totally different angles, and it is not merely new "information" that will bring about transformation, or peace with justice.

What I want anyone who has been reading this blog to understand is that we didn't have an "innocent" pilgrimage back in time. I have touched on this, I know, but it is most of all what I take away from the experience: you cannot separate the past from the present (or the future) in Jerusalem. They all converge. You cannot separate the Jesus of history from the Christ of faith. That's no profound revelation, I know; it's Christology 101. Nevertheless what it meant for me is that a trip to Israel isn't just about "holy" sites. Or to say it more accurately, the "holy" must be discovered and claimed in the midst of the present realities. And I think that is the deeper reality of the Incarnation: the "wall" we sometimes erect, in the name of God no less, between what is "sacred" and what is "secular." So we are tempted to force a "holy encounter" at the cave where Jesus was born by attempting to block out the political realities of present-day Bethlehem in order to do that. But that is bad theology!

I can't say if it's worse or better today in Israel than in Jesus' day, or if the prospects for peace are better or worse. I imagine they are in fact about the same, give or take. But the work of Christian ministry remains the same: even when we don't have a "plan" for how to implement peace (as if technique will save us!) we must not shun the work of being in the midst of it all as Jesus was, and is: as vulnerable, as curious and open, as reconcilers, as willing to heal and to be healed. Human beings alone won't "fix" this. But we can mess it up all the way to Armeggedon if we aren't careful. But, with God's help, human beings can be present and attentive and faithful.

For my own part, as I return and am not at all clear whether or not I will ever return to that land of the Holy One, I am more commited in a desire to grow in my understanding of both Judaism and Islam and to try not to "bear false witness" against my neighbor. There is so much anti-Semitism built into Christian theology and even the Scriptures themselves. But to counter that by conflating Judeo-Christian faith into one piece (and usually as an alternative to Islam) is no solution. I realize more and more that the Jewish Bible and the Old Testament--even when they contain the same books (albeit in a different order) are not the same library--they are read differently by Christians and Jews. I'm preparing to teach an Elderhostel course that begins in early February that always includes a healthy mix of Jews and Christians on Second-Temple Judaisms. Reading Scripture in that context always makes me realize that there is no "innocent" reading of the texts, no "objective" reading. So I guess that means putting our agendas on the table rather than pretending we have none.

The danger of this whole blogging medium, for me at least, is that it can ramble with no end in sight. I don't know how others "blog," but I realize that when I do move from pictures to words I tend to write more stream-of-consciousness than with clearly formulated "arguments." For anyone who has read this blog from the beginning to the end I guess what I am left is not a conclusion, but a continuing awareness that the past events of Jesus' life and the present events of conflict in the Middle East converge for me in the call for Christians to be peacemakers. We can't make it happen by force of will; but we can at least try to avoid bad theology. And that isn't just a head trip: what we think about God, how we imagine God, shapes how we respond to that God by deed and action. Bad theology can and does lead too many Christians to fuel the fires toward Armegeddon. No where in Scripture (including Daniel and the Book of Revelation) however, do I see a vocation for Christians to force God's hand by being instruments of war and mistrust and destruction.

So I come back home more committed to being a peacemaker, not in some cliche kind of way, not in some naive and idealistic way, but as someone who feels that this is what Christians are called to do, with God's help. I think of good old Francis and his trip to the same places I just visited so many centuries ago; his encounter with Islam and his willingness to speak the truth he knew without defaming the other or denying that they had any truth. He didn't offer a "program" for peace; just a willingness to hold that possibility before all. And of course the Franciscans, who have custody of so many of the Terre Santasites today, continue in that work. 

I hope in some small way, "me too."