Monday, July 23, 2018

Same Story, Different Voice


Each of my children, at some point in their life, has enjoyed the story of the three little pigs. Usually, I tell the story at night, right before bedtime. Occasionally, if I'm feeling particularly enthusiastic about my role as storyteller, I will change my voice to match the different characters. As one would expect, the little pigs have a high-pitched, squeaky voice, and the big bad wolf has a growling malevolent voice. Of course, I'm the only one speaking, so the difference isn't as dramatic as it would be if someone hid in the the hallway outside the bedroom and, when it was time for the wolf to speak, knocked on the door and bellowed out the wolf's lines in a terrifying tone. That might add some dramatic authenticity to the story, but it would probably give my children nightmares, so they're stuck with just me.

This coming Sunday, as we often do throughout the lectionary year, we jump from one gospel account to another. Since it's Year B, we've spent most of our time in Mark's account, but this week we will leave Mark and head into John for the feeding of the five thousand and a several-week exploration of the bread of life. What's particularly strange to me is how similarly John and Mark record the sequence of events yet how differently they tell the story. Often John's account diverges from the synoptic accounts pretty dramatically, so, when there's considerable overlap, it's worth paying attention. You can compare the two readings (Mark 6:30-52 and John 6:1-12) here.

Notice how closely they follow one another. Both begin with Jesus and the disciples setting sail in search of some quiet. Both are set in a deserted place. Both include an exchange between Jesus and the disciples about providing bread for the crowd and an estimate of the cost to do so. Both show that Jesus had the disciples get the crowd to sit down. Both include the same meager provision of five loaves and two fish. In both accounts, everyone was sated. Both mention the gathering up of leftover fragments and that the leftovers filled twelve baskets. And both are followed immediately by the walking on the water, Jesus' declaration of "It is I," and the stilling of the storm.

Clearly, they were recalling the same episode. Most scholars think that Mark was the earliest gospel account written and that John was the latest, which means that John probably had Mark or some of the other synoptic texts available to him when he wrote his account. Or, to put it more plainly, the story of the feeding of the five thousand was so critical to the Jesus tradition that John, who often leaves stories out or changes them to make them fit his own narrative, preserved it almost perfectly. Almost.

Notice how John adds details to fill out the story in his own way. John reminds us that the crowd was following Jesus "because they saw the signs that he was doing." John tells us that the Passover was near. John puts the question of where the bread will be found on Jesus' lips, not the disciples, and then explains to us that Jesus was asking Philip about it in order to test him. In John's account, Andrew volunteers the bread and the fish without being asked, but Mark makes Jesus the instigator of that search. John tells us that there were five thousand people in all, but Mark tells us that there were five thousand men, and Matthew later clarifies that there were additional women and children present. John places the command to gather up the fragments on Jesus' lips instead of as the natural act of the disciples, emphasizing that "nothing may be lost." John shows us that the crowd concludes that Jesus is "the prophet who is to come into the world" and that they were going to make Jesus king, but Mark ends the story by sending Jesus and the disciples on their way without such attention.

Part of me wishes that we had stayed in Mark's account. Mark is my favorite gospel writer. But I think switching to John is a gift. We get to hear the same story in the same place in the lectionary, but we get to hear it through a different voice. John's voice adds extra drama, symbolism, and depth to the story. John has taken the synoptic tradition of the miraculous feeding and added layers of meaning: Passover, fragments, prophet, king. I don't know whether they will come out in a sermon, but I trust that they will come out in our shared hearing of the gospel. And, given that the next four Sundays are from John 6 and the discourse on the bread of life, we'll have more than enough opportunity to explore them.

Tuesday, July 17, 2018

Aliens And Citizens


People joke about it, but meeting someone for the first time and then asking that person where he or she goes to church is a very real way to make conversation in the south. Church is who we are. It's what we do. Even people who do not belong to our congregation apologize to me when they see me wearing a clerical collar in the grocery store on a Sunday afternoon. Last night, I was talking with a friend about a mutual acquaintance and, wanting to know some background on that person, I asked where she had grown up going to church. Seriously, it's how we define ourselves and others.

Because church is such an integrated part of our culture, I find it hard to understand the dichotomy of alien and citizen that Paul (yes, I'm going to call him Paul) writes about in Ephesians 2:11-22. He's writing to those members of the Christian community who were once pagans, and he's reminding them that their transformation from outsider to family, from slave to heir, from alien to citizen, is a fundamental part of their faith: "Remember that at one time you Gentiles by birth...were at that time without Christ, being aliens from the commonwealth of Israel, and strangers to the covenants of promise, having no hope and without God in the world. But now in Christ Jesus you who once were far off have been brought near by the blood of Christ." And, for Paul, this is more than a statement about the Gentiles. This is a statement about who God is and what God does. He writes, "For he is our peace; in his flesh he has made both groups into one and has broken down the dividing wall, that is, the hostility between us...that he might create in himself one new humanity in place of the two." In other words, it's not only the effect that Paul is focused on but also the source, the cause.

In my own journey of faith, I experienced a moment of clarity when God's love became real to me. Before that, I didn't feel like I belonged. I wasn't confident of my place in God's family. But that was an internal struggle. No one turned me away because, with magical x-ray faith glasses, they could see that I had doubts. No one shut me out of the fellowship because they sensed that I didn't belong. To my parents, my friends, my classmates, my Sunday school teachers, and everyone around me, I represented someone who belongs in the family of God. Yes, my experience of reconciliation was real and powerful, but it does not capture the real alien-become-citizen transformation that Jesus Christ represents. Instead, I need to pull from a different referent, an experience that isn't my own, to understand how God works.

God is in the citizenship business. The gospel is a gospel of amnesty. In Jesus Christ, God declares to those of us who were outside the promise that the promise belongs to us as well. Those of us who came out of the womb assuming that we belong, that we have access, that we have power, need to hear the gospel from the perspective of the undocumented immigrant, the convicted felon, or the mentally ill neighbor. God grants to those who never dreamed that they could belong that they are members of the family of God. If that's what God does for us in Jesus Christ, who are we to exclude others from this family? We, too, were accepted not because we belong but because God is the one who gave Jesus in order to bring us into God's family. If we will not welcome strangers and aliens in God's name as our sisters and brothers, we deny the work that God has done in us and for us.

Monday, July 16, 2018

Stitched Together Story


Sunday's gospel lesson (Mark 6:30-34, 53-56) is a mess. It starts with Jesus receiving a report from the disciples about what they have accomplished and Jesus inviting them to come away and rest. Then, on their way to a "deserted place," they are spotted by the crowds, who follow them. Then, the lectionary breaks off from the story and jumps ahead to verse 53, in which Jesus and the disciples are described as having finished their trip across the lake and are again met by large crowds who touch the fringe of Jesus' cloak in order to be healed. That's no so bad until you stop and read what we've missed.

After that first boat journey, Jesus and the disciples come to a "deserted place," which is to say a place without a name, an unincorporated spot along the sea. But the crowd, which saw them, met them there. Presumably Jesus ministered to them until it got late, when Jesus' disciples urge him to send the crowd away because they need something to eat. After a brief exchange with the disciples and the procurement of five loaves and two fish, Jesus miraculously feeds the 5,000+. 

Then, Jesus sends the disciples across the sea to Bethsaida, staying behind for some time for his own rest and recovery. But, in the middle of the night, a storm arises, and the disciples struggle on the water, so Jesus walks out to them. There's the dramatic response by the disciples, who think it must be a ghost, and Jesus' words of reassurance--"Take heart; it is I; do not be afraid"--and then the stilling of the storm. When that episode is over, we pick back up in the lectionary with the arrival of the crew in Gennesaret, where Jesus is rushed by the crowd and worked hard all over again.

Skip the feeding of the 5,000? Omit the walking on the water and the stilling of the storm? Why the strange lectionary pattern? Good question. Next Sunday (July 29), we will have the story of the feeding of the 5,000, but we'll read John's version. There is no walking on water or stilling of the storm. The two encounters of Jesus and the crowd in this Sunday's reading are usually separated by some major miracles, but the lectionary wants to strip those away and leave us with the struggle for rest. What may have been a minor point in Marks' gospel account becomes for us a big deal: we must seek out rest.

Steve Pankey wrote a piece this morning on the struggle for sabbath, and it's a great, personal account of the collision of worldly and godly priorities that I encourage you to read. Even if we don't own a grocery store, we face that struggle in our own lives. Rest is, by definition, unproductive--at least in measurable ways. To pursue rest, we must sacrifice profits, accomplishments, returns, progress. There's a positive side of that trade-off, however. I don't know how Chick-fil-A measures the lost revenue from being closed on Sunday against the added benefit of being an ostensibly Christian company, but I'm sure it's more than a religious calculation. Still, in the last month, my family and I have wanted Chick-fil-A on Sunday twice, so I know they're giving up something. What about us?

As a clergy person, whose job is never-ending, whose calling is to respond to the never-ending needs of others, I have a hard time putting those demands aside for self-care. In my mind, I know it's important. I know that taking care of myself is a critical way for me to do a better job of taking care of others, but it's not easy to play golf while someone is in the hospital, to spend a day with my family while a stewardship program is on hold, to go for a run while a sermon still needs to be written. You have that struggle in your own world. It's real. And the need for sabbath is real. Jesus himself seems to struggle with it, which confirms for us that it's not easy. This week, the lectionary takes some time away from the story to teach us something outside the narrative. It's also my one week of unprogrammed transition from St. John's to St. Paul's. If I can just get all the things on my to do list finished, I'll have time to sit and think about it. 

Friday, July 13, 2018

Echo Chamber?


Today is the last day to hear the dulcet tones of the Secretary respond to the President's question with, "The matter before the house is the Legislative Calendar. The next item on the Calendar is Report..." I love those words. Those words mean that we're getting something done. We've gotten a lot done, but there's still more to do, which is why we're starting at 8am today.

Today will be tedious. Most of the exciting, eye-grabbing work is done. We're finished with prayer book revision. We're essentially finished with access to same-sex liturgies. We've passed a budget. But there's still a lot of important work to do: the Book of Occasional Services, safeguarding issues, plenty of canonical amendments, and a host of other things. Still, it's probably safe to begin summarizing our work and reflecting on the substance of this Convention.

Despite what might grab headlines and get discussed back in our parishes, I think the most important work we have done is make space for individuals to tell their stories of sexual harassment and sexual assault. We began that work liturgically with a service designed by a group of bishops for stories of abuse within the church to be given voice and to be lamented by the congregation. They were terrible stories of clergy and other church leaders using their power to subject individuals to physical, emotional, and spiritual assault. And they were just a few stories. Everything I have heard leads me to believe that there are more stories like that throughout the church than anyone could count.

We also responded to this in the legislative process. We voted to suspend the statute of limitations on Title IV offenses for a three-year window so that victims might bring their stories to the clergy disciplinary process. We voted to make the omission of material facts by a postulant, candidate, or ordinand from the ordination process a Title IV violation. We are preparing to vote for a study on the vocations of women and minorities to try to explain why "there has not been adequate investment in [their] career development." And we voted to make the demographic data of all nominees for bishop elections available for study and publication in an attempt to address the lack of women and minorities in the House of Bishops. Those are important steps toward a safer church, but they aren't enough.

The treatment and value of women is one area in which I think the General Convention is in danger of becoming an echo chamber. Our home parishes will be interested in prayer book revision and same-sex marriage. They will want to know about budgets and liturgies. Will we stop to talk about the church's role in sexual assault and in covering it up? Will we likewise make space in our parishes for people to tell their stories without retaliation? Will we address the deeper issues of misogyny and patriarchy that upon which these acts and their shielding have been built? Just because the General Convention has voted to suspend the statute of limitations does not mean that anyone will tell their story. A canonical change does not suddenly make it easy for a woman to talk about the priest who abused her, the priest to admit how her bishop spoke to her, or the church worker to talk about the boss who treated her in subhuman ways. That requires a culture shift. It requires the unraveling of decades of patriarchy. It requires that the power structures of the church be turned on their heads. Will we take that back with us, or will this be a moment for the Church to pat herself on the back for spending a few hours pretending to take sexual assault and harassment seriously? In other words, we still have work to do.

Thursday, July 12, 2018

Dancing With All Our Might


There are a few special moments in life when joy spills out of us in uncontrollable ways. I laugh uncontrollably whenever I am on a roller coaster. I remember smiling until my face hurt when each of my children was born. I danced around the room when the Cubs won the World Series. Just as trouble or sorrow brings uncontrollable tears, moments of deep gladness cause us to celebrate in ways beyond our control.

When David and his company went down to get the ark and bring it into the house of the Lord, the king was said to have "danced before the Lord with all his might." I would like to see that. I want to see King David so full of joy that he danced before the procession with every ounce of energy he had. Not just a cautious, polite dancing, but full-on, jumping, twisting, hooting, hollering, arms-waiving dancing. That's joy.

The ark was a complicated symbol of history and triumph and God's presence among God's people. It had been carried out in battle by the army. It had been captured by the Philistines and then returned. Saul had ordered it carried with his army, but then it was tucked away for safekeeping. In Sunday's reading from 2 Samuel 6, David goes down to Abinadab's house to get it and bring it back to the house of the Lord. This was a time when David's reign over all Israel was being established and consolidated. The ark needed to be brought back to a place of central authority. It was an old symbol of God's dwelling among God's people, and David understood that his reign was animated by God's very presence in his life and amidst his people. So, as they brought the ark back to the city, he danced, making a joyful, holy spectacle of himself.

When might we dance like that?

At every General Convention, we reach a point when the House of Deputies realizes that it has more business to do than it has time to do it. Last night, as we gathered for an unusual evening session, we began to acknowledge that fact. People groaned when procedural motions were made. Lines of people to end debate formed before debate even started. The big-ticket items have mostly been dealt with, and now we have to push through the little things. All day today and tomorrow, we will be in legislative session, considering one resolution after another. It's tempting to think that we will dance when we've finished the mind-numbing work ahead of us, but I hope we'll find other reasons to dance.

There's a difference between dancing and dancing with all our might. David danced with all his might because he knew that God was with him and his people as they entered a new chapter of their national life. We had a small moment that got close to that when we welcomed Cuba back into the Episcopal Church. Apparently, we kicked them out back in the '60s when the revolution happened, leaving them to their own devices, and welcoming them back was an opportunity to acknowledge the wrong we had done and seek to restore the relationship. There wasn't any dancing, but there was clapping and singing and shouting for joy. That's a moment that matters. That's a moment when the church sees God coming home. What are the other moments?

Even though the debate was long and the mood was antsy, the amended resolution last night calling for a task force to study the church's response to deaf and disabled individuals felt like that. Even though the amendment had errors in it and seemed to fail to take into account the procedural requirements for establishing a task force, we knew it mattered. The tearful and impassioned debate helped us see what really mattered. We didn't dance when it passed, but maybe we should have. What else?

At this point in General Convention, it is easy to get worn down by the work. It's easy to get hardened to the process. It's easy to get frustrated at lengthy debate. But where is God at work? Were is God coming home? What are the issues still to come before us that give the church an opportunity to dance because we see in those issues signs that God is coming again to dwell with God's people? I'll dance when it's all over, but I hope to dance in the middle of it, too.

Wednesday, July 11, 2018

Where Is Your Passion?


One of my favorite things about General Convention is spending time with friends I only see every three years. Occasionally, I will bump into a Convention friend at a conference or meeting, but, like a  dormant cicada, most of these relationships go into hiding for three years before emerging to flourish for two weeks during our triennial gathering.

"Where are you?" is a common question. "How's your family?" is another. A few days ago, one of my Convention friends asked me a question on which I am still meditating: "What is your passion?" He meant with regards to this Convention--what topic, what issue is important to me--but it's a good question to consider beyond the work of this body. What is your passion?

For the last three years, I've been on an interim body that has, among other things, focused on the Church Pension Fund and whether it is meeting the needs of the wider church. I've spent hours on the phone or responding to e-mails from people throughout the church for whom the answer is no. "The 18% assessment is crippling our congregations," one diocesan staff member told me. "Health insurance premiums and mandated parity have led me to lay off staff," a rector told me. "Our parishes rely more and more on lay staff, but the pension system for lay employees does not reflect their value to our churches," another diocesan staff member said. "Too many of my colleagues who worked in small rural parishes or poor urban churches for their careers are now impoverished in retirement," a retired priest said. "Clergy who are women and minorities get stuck in part-time or under-paying positions, and that disparity haunts them in retirement because of the pension system," another priest noted.

I've also spent a good bit of time responding to calls and e-mails from rectors of large parishes who were worried that our committee would break the financial solvency of the Pension Fund. "It would be illegal for you to change the benefits I have been promised during my career," one rector claimed, hoping that I would be intimidated at the thought of doing something illegal. "There's not enough money as it is in the Pension Fund, and we can't afford to use that money to start new church projects that Executive Council wants to complete," another rector said to me, apparently misinformed about the work our committee was doing. I noted with interest that the people who called me to caution me about not tinkering with the Pension Fund were all like me: white men with big salaries. None of those calls came from women or minorities or rectors of small, struggling churches who were worried that there wouldn't be enough money in the Pension Fund to pay for their meager pensions.

Yesterday, the House of Deputies passed resolution D045, which both urges parishes and dioceses to take steps toward parity in pension contributions for lay and ordained church workers and calls upon the Church Pension Fund to study the steps necessary for true equity in lay and ordained pension systems. It isn't perfect. It doesn't do enough. But it advances the cause for equity in a way that can pass both houses of General Convention.

What am I passionate about? I am passionate about pensions. (Can anyone use "passionate" and "pensions" in the same sentence?) I am passionate about pensions but that's primarily because I've been working with them for the last three years. They are important. For all of human history, money or its equivalent has been the currency with which we express value. But pensions aren't the only thing I'm passionate about, and my friend's question awakened that recognition in me. I haven't spent time working on legislation related to gun reform, but that matters to me. Until I got here, I hadn't been engaged in conversations about liturgical reform and prayer book revision, but those certainly matter to me. There are lots of things that I am passionate about--things that show up inside General Convention and throughout the rest of the Church. I am passionate about the transforming love of God in Jesus Christ, and there are countless ways that we are a part of that transformation. Getting back in touch with my passions has helped me keep that in focus. Why are we here? Why do we debate these issues? Because, in one way or another, they are part of the work of God's reign coming more fully into our lives and into this world. That's something worth being passionate about one debate, one amendment, one vote at a time.

Tuesday, July 10, 2018

Inside and Outside


I must confess that I like to hang out with snarky colleagues. I like to sit on the back row and roll my eyes and mutter under my breath unhelpful, destructive, sarcastic comments. A former colleague used to remind me that the root for "sarcasm" is to "tear flesh." She's right, but that's exactly the kind of comment that makes me roll my eyes and say something snarky. When it comes to General Convention and the work of the wider Episcopal Church, I'm likely to hang out (in person and through social media) with skeptics. Many of my colleagues regularly remark that General Convention is a waste of time, that the decisions it makes have almost no connection to real parish ministry, and that the people who go to General Convention care more about getting a fancy trip and the prestige of being a deputy than doing real work for the church.

I'm biased, of course. This is my third General Convention, and I love being here, and I love the work we do because I think the whole thing--the process, the legislation, the worship, the collaboration--is all good for the gospel of Jesus Christ. I'm not always happy with the outcome. In fact, pretty often, when I speak out on the floor of Convention, whatever side I'm advocating usually loses. (Otherwise, why would I bother speaking?) But, here at Convention, when things don't go the way I want them to, I don't feel a sense of panic, dread, or loss, which I sense that many of my snarky colleagues back at home are feeling.

I want to focus in particular on the issue of prayer book revision and resolution A068, which passed the House of Deputies in amended form and has been sent to the House of Bishops, where it is being debated. In short, this resolution authorizes the process for the revision of the Book of Common Prayer. There's a lot more to it than that. In fact, it may be worth noting that the plan that has been recommended involves three years of conversation about a new prayer book (2018-2021) before actual revision can begin (2021-2024) and then be approved (GC 2024) and adopted (GC 2027). And it may take longer than that. But I opposed the resolution for several reasons.

I support getting access to same-sex marriage to all of our congregations. I don't think our polity works when bishops decide which forms of worship that have been approved by the General Convention are allowed in their dioceses. If it's officially sanctioned by the church, it's up to the rector or clergyperson in charge to decide whether it gets used in the congregation. The bishop doesn't get to decide whether we use Rite I or Rite II. The vestry doesn't get to decide whether we use Holy Eucharist or Morning Prayer on Sundays. That's the rector's job. But I don't think wholesale prayer book revision is needed to make that happen.

I support gender neutral expressions of God. God does not have a penis. Except for the incarnate second person of the Trinity, God is not a man. God is not an actual father. Nor is God an actual Son. I affirm that those images and metaphors are helpful, useful, and godly. But I also affirm that God isn't always "him." I think that, when we begin our worship, it is ok for us to say, "Blessed be God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit," but I also think it's good for the congregation to respond, "And blessed be God's reign, now and forever. Amen." There are lots of ways that our prayer book needs to be updated to provide where appropriate additional gender neutral expressions of God. But I don't think it's time to start over from scratch. It's possible to make a bunch of small changes. It's possible to change the rubrics or the information at the beginning of the prayer book to allow gender-neutral expressions of God. But we don't have to throw out the whole book to make that happen.

I support deeper theological revision in the prayer book. Our baptismal theology isn't fully represented throughout the prayer book. Our Eucharistic prayers could do a better job articulating what we believe about the economy of salvation. Some of the collects and prayers and thanksgivings are theologically sloppy and could be tightened up. Liberation theology, our commitment to creation, and other important theological claims are notably absent or underrepresented in our prayer book. All of those things need to be incorporated when the prayer book gets revised. But I don't think this is the time to do it. Our theology of marriage has changed remarkably over the last decade. The role and value of lay ministry in our church has deepened substantially over the last decade. To write a prayer book now might capture some of the theological shift taking place in our church, but I think a six-to-nine-year delay before the process begins would help that substantially. Plus, by that time, maybe we'll be at a point when we can stop yelling at each other over same-sex marriage and women's ordination. Maybe we'll be able to work together on a prayer book revision instead of seeing prayer book revision as a massive way to fix some tiny issues. It's not, of course. And those who support prayer book revision aren't trying to use a wrecking ball to do some bathroom renovations, but, to traditionalists, it feels that way. And that's part of the problem.

So for those reasons I opposed prayer book revision. But the resolution passed the House of Deputies. There were some helpful amendments about honoring ecumenical commitments and respecting the Chicago-Lambeth Quadrilateral. I voted against it, but it passed. And that happens. It still remains to be seen what the bishops will do with it. I have strong doubts it will pass as that house is always more conservative than the deputies. And, even though I didn't support prayer book revision, I don't think the decision to pass A068 represents a massive failure on the part of Convention. But my skeptical, snarky friends seem distraught.

I don't get it. People are taking about General Convention as a "dumpster fire." There are posts about how terrible this is, about how people are thinking of quitting parish ministry, about how every three years the General Convention ruins everything. Really? I don't get it. The process is faithful if imperfect. People were heard. Some amendments weren't considered. Some testimony was cut short. But it seems that the will of the House of Deputies as a whole was expressed by the adoption of A068. Again, I didn't like it, but I still like the work that Convention is doing because, in my experience, people who voted for it aren't triumphant. They aren't insensitive to me and my perspective. They haven't written me and others like me out of the process or out of the church. We might disagree about the best way forward for the church, but we all agree that we want the gospel to be spread and God's reign to be established more fully in our lives and in the earth. This isn't a dumpster fire. This isn't terrible. Actually, it's a pretty beautiful thing--even for those of us who are disappointed. Maybe I'm biased. Maybe I'm out of touch with my snarky friends. But I find a lot of reason to hope and to stay connected. I hope others on the outside, especially those sitting in the back row rolling their eyes, can see that, too.