A Church Without Privilege

It is both a tragedy and a grace to be a Christian in the age of Trump.

A tragedy because 81% of people who identify as an evangelical voted for a man who is anathema to the teachings of Jesus Christ. It is a tragedy that so many souls have mistaken white supremacy and nationalism for the Good News of the Savior.

It is also a grace that the rest of us can finally discard, once and for all, the idea that the Way of Jesus has anything to do with modern evangelicalism as practiced in the USA.

We are now free. The nature of the Christian community can reveal its true, original self as a community of faith without privilege, status, or dominion. Privilege, status, and dominion are the stuff of empire, not Christ.

We are liberated from the need to support greed, hate, fear, violence, and bigotry. To cooperate with the ways of empire is to be guilty of same. We can now speak truth to power, full-throated, no longer afraid of upsetting someone. We can no longer afford to “be nice”; we should not “be nice” while the least among us, Jesus’ brothers and sisters, stand at the precipice of empire’s nihilism, ready for the final nudge.

It will not be an easy existance for us. This new Confessing Church, this Church Without Privilege, will lose members, lose positions, lose buildings, lose money, lose many things. Things we have come to expect and depend upon. Dietrich Bonhoeffer described it from his prison cell in Nazi Germany…

“It is inifintely easier to suffer in obedience to a human command than to accept suffering as free, responsible people. It is infinitely easier to suffer with one another than it is to suffer apart and in ignominy. . It is infinitely easier to suffer a public death than it is to endure spiritual suffering. Christ suffered as a free person alone, apart and in ignominy, in body and in spirit, and since that day many Christians have suffered with him.”

But it is worth it all if we live truly for Christ and The Way, not live for empire. And we must live it openly, boldly, and without apology. The only privilege we enjoy must be the privilege of the salvation that comes from living and proclaiming the Gospel of Jesus Christ, truly and fully.

Slow Reading

I have a small bookshelf for a night stand. There I keep a handful of books that are my favorites and that I read over and over. I am very much a proponent of slow reading.

They are books that I read ever so slowly while lying in bed at night. Sometimes just a page or two before it falls out of my hand and bops me on the nose as I drift off to sleep. Then it gets put away until tomorrow night and the lamp is snapped off.

I liken this slow reading to sipping a cup of coffee on the deck, savoring the taste and the moment. Or letting a slice of Swiss chocolate melt on my tongue as I eat it. There is something special going on here and we should be in the moment, being present to it, being mindful.

Some people strive for quantity in their reading, wolfing down one to two books a week, like they are gulping their coffee on the run or chomping down their chocolate in two bites. It’s almost as if they see reading as competition, racing to the finish line.

I do understand that, for many people, reading is a form of pure entertainment, like television. C likes mysteries and is a voracious reader of murder stories. She calls them her “brain candy”. But I believe much can be said for taking it slowly and allowing the writer to speak to us as broadly and deeply as she can. I have often found myself getting emotional not only by what an author has said, but by the way she has said it. I don’t often catch those sorts of things if I am jogging past them, turning the pages and cruising along.

Also, re-reading brings great rewards as well. Hamlet was very sympathetic when I was 18, but he got on my nerves by the time I was 38; by age 50, I found him sympathetic again, but for different reasons than when I was 18.

When I read a book I’ve purchased, I initial the title page in the corner and include the month/year I read it so I can keep track of my chronology of reading that particular work. I think about the last time I read it, what I may have thought about it then and what new discoveries I find in my latest reading. I have some books that I have read some dozen times or more over the past 30 to 40 years. It is surprising that to me how mediocre some of my once favorite books are today, or how good other formerly so-so books have become.

I have found myself going over passages that are particularly moving or thought-provoking to me. I will linger on a page or ponder over a passage, wondering why it has affected me so or left me breathless with its brilliance. Only slow reading allows me to experience it.

Carlyle said that the best university is a collection of good books. (He did not say a lot of books, just good books.) Teddy Roosevelt said that Lincoln, one our greatest presidents, only knew one book truly well, but Lincoln had the good sense to make that one book the Bible. (I would add Shakespeare to Lincoln’s library of well-understood literature, though.) Carlyle and Lincoln could be called slow readers in my estimation, and they were the better for it.

Lately, I’ve been doing that which I once thought inconceivable – I am getting rid of many of my other books.

In downsizing our life here at Windy Hill, C and I are jettisoning many of our possessions. Of the many things that we have hoarded over the years, books are at the top of the list. Boxes of books are stacked in closets and in corners of the spare bedrooms. As we open these boxes and realize that we have not missed these books in some time, let alone read them, we have been asking ourselves, “Why do we keep these?” At one time, the answer was simple: because they are books! Books are held in high esteem in our household. and sit at the top of our possession hierarchy – the aristocracy of personal possessions.

But today? I literally hold much of the world’s literature in my pocket with my cell phone, accessible by the browser. I also have an e-reader which is capable of holding 1500 volumes. And that double volume of Shelly’s Complete Works I found at the bottom of a box? Can I finally admit that they have sat in the closet for ten years, that I can access Shelly for free any time I want to on my phone, and…well, I really don’t care much for Shelly anyway?

So, along with dozens and dozens of other books squirreled away in the house, they are off to Goodwill or the Book Fair. My little collection on my shelf nightstand is sacrosanct, though. They stay. They will continue to be read.  Slowly.

The Holy Family as Refugees

Outside our church, hanging from the railing of the steps, is a large banner that says “Immigrants and Refugees Welcomed”. In the corner of the banner is an illustration of the Holy Family based on classic paintings of that tableau: Joseph leading a donkey that carries Mary and the Christ child.

It is a banner that is to remind us that the immigrants and refugees of modern society are nothing less than the Holy Family itself that we study and honor at this unique period in our lectionary, and they are all welcomed at our church.

2,000 years ago, Joseph, Mary, and Jesus were indeed refugees, no less than the people we see today on the evening news. We cannot forget that just last Wednesday we honored a feast day on our church calendar called The Slaughter of the Innocents, in which we remember and lament over all the newborn children under the age of two that Herod had slaughtered in order to kill the child prophesied to take his place on the throne. We don’t find that event mentioned in the Gospel of Luke, but rather in the 2nd chapter of Matthew.

2,000 years ago, soldiers killed children by the sword. Today they use barrel-bombs.

If you doubt the comparison of the Holy Family to that of modern refugees, then consider the definition of refugees according to the United Nations that says, “A refugee is someone who is forced to flee his or her home country because of persecution, war, or violence.” …which is precisely what Mary and Joseph were doing – they were fleeing a death-sentence by an autocratic dictator.

It must have been a terrible, traumatic event for them. They probably were two people who had not traveled any further than a couple of hours walk from their homes. The roads back then were patrolled by roving gangs of bandits that preyed on defenseless travelers regularly. Remember the story of the Good Samaritan, about a traveler waylaid on the open road by bandits.

This is the kind of trip Mary and Joseph had to make with their newborn. Most scholars pose that they probably joined a larger caravan heading to Egypt, which fits the narrative of the day. After all, it is 200 miles of rough country from Bethlehem to Egypt, not a journey for a young family of three to make alone. Historically, Egypt was a haven for Jews during the 40 year reign of Herod, for he was an oppressive and violent ruler who brooked no dissent, so many Jews of Jesus’ day made their way to Egypt to seek asylum. An escape to Egypt made complete sense for the Holy Family.

Tradition says that the Holy Family made it as far as Cairo. There is still a church and shrine on the outskirts of Cairo today dedicated to the Holy Family’s supposed residence there. Imagine coming to the Temple for the naming day of your child, like we just read this morning, and just a few days or weeks later, forced to flee your native land in order to save your child’s life. I can barely fathom it.

Yet, the parallels to today’s refugee and immigrant crisis is obvious. People all over the world are in the middle of a great, global migration as they flee persecution, war, and violence. Syria, Sudan, Latin America, the list seems endless sometimes.

We Christians should be able to see the Holy Family in the faces of the dispossessed and suffering. A Quaker friend of mine once said, “If you can’t find God in the face of the very next person you meet, where DO you expect to find God?” We could say today, “If we can’t find the Holy Family in the plight of the refugee, where DO we expect to find the Holy Family?”

We Christians have always seen ourselves as a pilgrim church, for indeed we were described as such by Jesus himself. He says in Luke 9:58 “Foxes have holes and birds of the air have nests, but the Son of Man has no place to lay his head.” He also goes on to teach that no one is above his or her Master.

The message that the apostles and disciples heard over the centuries were obvious to them all: We are all passing through this life, just like Jesus, and it is not our actual home. Our real home is elsewhere, in God’s Kingdom in heaven.

But… in a serious way, we are also all refugees in this world. Yes, we are supposed to be a pilgrim people of a pilgrim church, on an endless journey to heaven. But equally we are refugees, fleeing our homeland for our very lives, fleeing the persecution of conformity to this world and its values, fleeing the war waged against our souls with greed and avarice and dominion, fleeing the violence perpetrated on our very existence because we live, move, and have our being differently than what is expected by modern, secular society. Our lives can be one, long, endless flight to an Egypt we cannot find.

But then… there comes a day in our journey when we find a place of asylum and we finally can come to know and claim our true names, names known by the very angels themselves before we were born, like Jesus; that we find the asylum of Egypt for each and every one of our lives and come to know ourselves, and each other, for the children of God that we are.

On this, the first day of the New Year, I pray that this community, St. John’s, with its welcome banner hung outside our banister, can be your safe harbor, your Egypt, your new homeland, safe from the Herods of life.

I pray that we will always be a place where you have a human name and not a title or classification or an insult; where you will be called by the name given to you by God, like Jesus was given his.

I pray that we all are humble shepherds to one another in this place and in this time, no matter what storm clouds may be gathering on the horizon, ready to carry the word that “Christ is among us” to the rest of our Bethlehem. Amen.

(A sermon given by me on Jan. 1, 2017 at St. John’s Episcopal Church-Tower Grove.)

If You Keep Doing What You Do…

Old maxim: “If you keep doing what you do, you going to keep getting what you get.”

A number of people think that, because our church membership numbers are shrinking, that religion in the US is dying.  We read reports from top-flight research organizations like PRRI, who recently said:

“By the end of the 1990s, 14% of the public claimed no religious affiliation. The rate of religious change accelerated further during the late 2000s and early 2010s, reaching 20% by 2012. Today [2016], one-quarter (25%) of Americans claim no formal religious identity, making this group the single largest ‘religious group’ in the U.S.”*

So, the percentage of unaffiliated in the US rose 11% over the last 20 years or so, from 14% to 25%.  That seems to be a lot.  But…

…if we dig into the numbers, the general population of the US rose by 22% during the same time-frame, twice as fast as the 11% rise of the unaffiliated people number.  That means that the pool of people in the US who are most likely to affiliate with a religion is larger today than, say, 1996. (1996: 228M, 2016: 243M)

So, if our churches are struggling with decreasing numbers, it’s not because there are fewer and fewer people today who believe; there’s actually more today than in the golden past.   It must be because we are doing something wrong to attract and retain them.  After all, they’re out there.  It’s just that they aren’t in here!

I find this good news, actually.  There is this “Eureka!” moment when many of us finally gain an insight into a thorny issue and understand it better.  Better understanding of a problem means we are closer to a solution to the problem.  And maybe things are not as bad as we think.

Despite the reality of a growing number of people who no longer believe, it is also a reality that there is a growing number of people who do believe.  The percentages are shifting a bit, but people of faith are not disappearing.  They just aren’t showing up in the pews like they used to.

One thing that comes to mind is the notion that pew-sitting may not be as popular as it once was – or convenient.

Perhaps the Sunday-morning-worship, everybody-in-the-pew model of parish life is neither attractive nor compatible with 21st century western life.  Lots of people work on Sunday, or it might be the one morning per week that they get to sleep-in, for we all are exhausted from the 50-hour work weeks we now live.

Perhaps, now that we know that there are more believing people today than in the past generation, we need to look at how we “do church”, and get creative with how we gather as a faith community and preach/teach the Way of Jesus for a 21st century society.  We don’t need to abandon the traditional model of parish, but rather expand our definition of “parish”.

Do we have a home-church movement in our denomination, where people can meet for liturgy and fellowship in an intimate home setting on a Tuesday night?  Or meet at a private dining room of a restaurant on Thursdays? Or at the Elk’s Club?  Or a picnic table at the park?  Or even at the church sanctuary itself, but on a Wednesday?

Do our sermons and lessons talk about income insecurity, or bigotry, or domestic abuse, or depression, or the frenetic pace of life, and how God is intimately concerned about all these matters, and why God’s concern actually can matter to us? 

Do we sometimes forget that many of our sacred parables and lessons often sound childish unless properly explored and taught?  If we do not know our stories and understand them as 21st century adults, how can we know what it means to be a disciple?  Disciple to what? And to who? And why?

If we keep doing what we do, we are going to keep getting what we get, and I know that a lot of my colleagues are not happy with their Average Sunday Attendance.  How about we start changing things up a bit?  Let’s try some different ways to meet, different ways to worship, and different ways to relate…and let’s see what happens.  We don’t need to study this to death.  Study time is over.  It’s now time to act.

*”Exodus: Why Americans are Leaving Religion”, P.R.R.I, Sept. 9, 2016

A Mission to Missouri?

I have an unusual proposal to make to my church.  I wonder if it isn’t time for a home mission initiative to rural Missouri.

As a church, we travel to far-away places to be the church for others and to learn from them. This is all good and in keeping with The Great Commission.

With the recent election, though, it’s become glaringly obvious that there are people in our diocese we don’t know or understand. They live in a world that is separated from many of us, and what they understand to be The Way of Jesus looks and sounds very different than what we hear from the pulpits in our parishes.

I wonder if it’s time for a “domestic missions initiative”; planting settlement houses and community farms and homes churches throughout Missouri?  Maybe even the whole country?

Why is this important? I think we can find the answer in the recent meeting between the bishops of the A.C. and the R.C.C. They made a public statement confessing their mutual neglect of women, children, and indigenous people of the human race. They announced that the care of the oppressed and neglected is at the core of the Gospel message and way of life.

It is increasingly apparent that those very people, as well as p.o.c. and lgbtq persons, are under threat like no other time in recent memory. Add to this the economic neglect and marginalization of poor white folk, and we have a witch’s brew of sorrow and rage in our diocese and our nation. This cries out for the redemptive message of Jesus, and we need to bring it to rural life like it hasn’t been in quite a while.

The religious and culture vacuum in the rural areas is being filled with something other than the Gospel of Jesus, wrapped up in Christian lingo and Christian window dressing.  It’s small, mean, narrow, and compassionless, infused with a tremendous amount of rage.

Back in November of 2015, Presiding Bishop Michael Curry said:

God came among us in the person of Jesus of Nazareth to show us the Way.  He came to show us the Way to life, the Way to love.  He came to show us the Way beyond what often can be the nightmares of our own devisings and into the dream of God’s intending.  That’s why when Jesus called his first followers he did it with the simple words “Follow me.”  “Follow me,” he said, “and I will make you fish for people.”

I wonder if what we are seeing in our nation today is due, in large part, to our selective fishing for people.  Are we fishing for rural people like we fish for urban and suburban people?  Because of our abandonment of our rural brothers and sisters, are we now reaping the whirlwind of another message, a message of hate and fury?  If we hope to create a church of love, compassion, and reconciliation, do we not first go to the abandoned places of empire and seek out the lost and the lonely?

We should be there, and be there in a serious way.  We need to plant faith communities and base camps that reach out to the abandoned and the left-behind and fulfill the Great Commission.  Jesuits did it with their reductions in the Americas, Anglicans did it with their settlement houses in the English speaking world…there is great precedent for such a mission.  We have a department in the national office called “New Church Starts and Missional Initiatives”.  We have the Jubilee Ministries for support.  There is also the Episcopal Service Corps.

Perhaps it’s time we go where the rural lost are found and go fishing.

Prayers and Gunfire

The prayer vigil had barely started when the gunfire broke out.

I was standing on the street corner of Shaw and Klemm to attend a prayer vigil, honoring the second anniversary of the death of VonDerritt Myers.  Thirty to forty people were already there and more people were streaming into the neighborhood to attend.

VonDerritt had not died under sympathetic circumstances.  He had a shoot-out with an off-duty police officer and VonDerritt lost.  There are many versions of exactly what happened to result in a shoot-out, but VonDerritt had run-ins with the police before, there was a shoot-out, and now he was dead.  Many of us were there not to pass judgment, though.  We were there to grieve with his mother and father – two wonderful people – and lament the chronic gun violence that plagues our streets.

I knew something was amiss when a young mother quietly grabbed her little boy by the shoulders and drug him between the apartment buildings as she looked over her shoulder.  I followed her gaze and saw Mr. Myers trying to separate some young fellows who were facing off in the middle of the street as Mr. Myers spoke quietly to them.  A tingling at the back of my neck told me this was not good and it was time to go.

No sooner had I crossed the intersection to the opposite corner when I heard, “Pop! Pop! Pop-pop-pop- pop…” echoing down the street.

Someone screamed and dozens of people scattered in every direction, diving and crouching behind cars, I among them.  I then heard a deeper “Boom!…Boom!” of a larger caliber weapon answering the staccato pops of the lighter weapon.

I dodged my way up Shaw and crouched behind a brick pillar at Mullanphy School as more shots continued to echo up the street.  It sounded like a full-out gun battle.  I was to learn the next day that the police recovered 56 spent shell-casings around the intersection.  I managed to make it to my own car and had difficulty pulling away, for other people who wished to attend the vigil kept driving into the neighborhood, unaware of the pitched gun battle.  I only managed to pull away by driving up over the curb backwards across the common area between the sidewalk and the street.

In 15 minutes I was sitting at Daughter #2’s dinner table, about 20 miles and a world away from Shaw and Klemm.  I drank a beer.  I ate a meatloaf dinner.  I watched my grandchildren through the dining room window playing outside, tossing a red Frisbee about their green yard.

I am certain I do not know or understand all the stresses and strains of urban living.   I am baffled by the problem of urban violence.  People far wiser and educated in these matters than me are equally baffled by it all, so I don’t expect myself to come up with some silver bullet solution to end urban violence.  But I do see that toxic machismo mixed with guns is a lethal combination. If one were to drive down Shaw from end to end, most people would be impressed with how lovely and stately the buildings are; that it looks like a great place to live.  It is not a depressed area.

But two things keep coming to mind now whenever I hear about shootings like this.  I ask myself, “How do we corral the guns?” and, more importantly to my thinking, “How do we end the toxic machismo that’s just killing our young men?”

Our nation continues to wrangle over the first question and has for decades with little to show for it except a rising body count.  I don’t hold out much hope on that front.

Personally, I hear even less talk about the second question, particularly among men, and I think it is the more important question: how do we end the toxic machismo rampant among the young men of our nation?

How do we go about that?  How do we raise boys to be healthy, well-adjusted, self-controlled young men?  We try education programs and we still have toxic behavior.  We cram them into jails and we still have toxic behavior.  We try family support groups and we still have toxic behavior.  Few if any of them attend church, so we don’t seem to be of much help there.  Does anybody have any answers?  I’m all ears.  Right about now, I’m at a loss.

I guess, at this point, all we can do is to keep showing up for people and being there for them, listening and modeling the life that will keep young men from self-destructing.  That, and pray for strength and wisdom.  I’m not qualified to lecture anyone on this topic.  Besides, words and opinions are so prevalent today that they are becoming meaningless to many people.  At the very least, this is a moment for a Ministry of Presence.  We need to be there, wherever “there” may be.

By the way, my darling C has permanently grounded me from any street vigils.  She wants to see her husband come home at night.

A Single, Dangerous Step – Walking as a Spiritual Practice

Much has been written about the spiritual aspects of running – getting into a “zone”, overcoming physical challenges, somatically exploring places in our lives.  I suggest that, in our 21st century haste, we may be running past another, more ancient spiritual practice called walking.

Walking is one of the most basic of human activities, like breathing air or drinking water.  As people search for meaning in life or connection with the Transcendent, they discover that walking is one of the simplest and most rewarding of paths.

Buddhists have practiced meditative walking for centuries.  Created for people who have difficulty adjusting to sitting meditation, walking becomes meditation in action.  The walker is to be mindful of the experience of walking, aware of their actions and their surroundings.  There are a number of different kinds of walking meditation in Buddhism, each with its own style and intent.

Some Buddhist walks have turned into pilgrimages, like the pilgrimage tour of the island of Shikoku.  Created by the great Buddhist master Kobu-Daishi in the 9th century, it is a 750 mile trek around Shikoku, visiting 88 separate shines and temples.  Taken over a 45 day period, it leads the walker through the virtues of awakening, austerity, discipline, enlightenment, and nirvana.

Walking figures prominently in the Christian faith, as well.  Christ regularly walked the byways of Palestine, teaching his disciples along the way.  In fact, early Christians called the teachings of Jesus “The Way”.  One of the great passages of the New Testament which illustrates the life of the faith community is the Walk to Emmaus.  In Luke 24: 13-45, the writer describes in 12 verses the nature of the Christian life as one of pilgrimage together, travelers on the road of life where they encounter Jesus among them, who teaches them along the way as he had taught his apostles: “Then beginning with Moses and all the prophets, he interpreted to them the things about himself in all the scriptures.” (Verse 27, NRSV)

Christianity has several versions of its own pilgrimage of Shikoku.  The best known is the Camino de Santiago in Europe.  It has various routes throughout France, Portugal, and Spain, ranging from 800 km long to an “easy” 227 km, but all the paths lead to the city of Santiago de Compestolo and its cathedral, where the remains of the apostle St. James is reputed to be buried.

But, as formative as these pilgrimages are, they are but walking-writ-large, all based on the notion of walking as spiritual journey, walking as a way to disconnect from the thousand and one distractions of everyday life and walk to a place where we connect to the Infinite, even if it is on the sidewalk of our neighborhood.

Some people walk with the intent of simple mindfulness, to experience the act of putting one foot in front of the other and breathing, taking in and considering whatever comes to their attention.

Some people walk with a specific prayer in mind, like repeating the Jesus Prayer to the cadence of their own steps, or repeating a simple phrase like “God and I are becoming one.”

Thomas Merton described in his biography, The Seven Story Mountain, how the monks would walk back to the monastery from the fields praying the rosary in unison, beads swaying to their steps.  The Trappists would not waste even a moment on the road, but use it as a means of prayer and unity.

I myself often walk with an Anglican rosary in hand, reciting the seven prayers of each section for specific intentions – my family, my faith, my community.  I soon disappear into that “thin place” of daily life, where I and the God of Creation are in communion.

Of all the people who have written or spoken about walking, be it Ovid or Thoreau or Basho or Muir, one quote that continually comes to mind for me arises from a surprising source: it is Bilbo Baggins from Lord of the Rings, who says:

“It’s a dangerous business, Frodo, going out of your door.  You step onto the road, and if you don’t keep your feet, there’s no knowing where you might be swept off to.”

In its own way, that is a perfect description of walking as spiritual practice.  Walking as a spiritual practice is precisely not to keep your feet; it is to allow the Spirit to take us where She leads and not where we wish to go.  There is no telling where we might be swept off to, like Bilbo.

Bilbo went “There and Back Again”, as was the subtitle of The Hobbit, and he did not return as the same hobbit he was when he set out on his adventure.  The journey will change us.  T.S. Eliot put it well in his poem Four Quartets – Little Giddings V when he wrote,

We shall not cease from exploration
And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time.

We cannot be open to the mind of God if we stay safe on the path and keep our feet.  We must take that single, dangerous step in order to lose our feet.  Hopefully, we will come to know our beginning better at the end of our walk.

Look out your window.  Out there is a sidewalk or lane, and it is a world whereby, with a single step, we can encounter God’s Own Self.  All we need do is step out the door.