Why Women Will Save the Church

I am convinced that the church will be saved by its women. It seems they are the ones doing the very things that will save us.

Women clergy and lay ministers are the ones doing the most creative things in the church today. They are engaged in much out-of-the-box thinking while still inside the box, essentially creating a new box in which the rest of us can live. Several popular examples come to mind.

Becca Stevens, an Episcopal priest, created Thistle Farms, a sanctuary for healing women-survivors of abuse, addiction, trafficking, and prostitution. She writes on her website, “We believe that in the end, love is the strongest force for change in the world.” Thistle Farms has birthed a number of similar ministries across the nation, and inspired thousands of people to rethink the church’s role in the gritty work of social justice and personal redemption.

Sara Miles, a parishioner of St. Gregory of Nyssa church in San Francisco, is a former political radical and journalist who has given new life to the ancient practice of feeding the hungry. One day a week, St. Gregory’s sanctuary is turned into a large fresh-produce market. Where parishioners normally stand around the altar Orthodox-style for Sunday Eucharist, boxes of lettuce, tomatoes, squash, and eggplant are stacked in neat rows each Saturday. Poor people eager for fresh food line up around the block to get inside, while others stream out the side door, carrying home loaded grocery bags of produce. The remarkable thing is that most of the food is donated, and the market is operated by volunteers who are the very poor people it seeks to serve. Sara’s book, “Take This Bread”, is a best-seller and a textbook for anyone who is considering a ministry in food and hunger.

Nadia Bolz-Weber is a Lutheran priest and the founder-rector of House for All Sinners and Saints, in Denver, CO. Set up in a warehouse on the seedier part of town, it is a parish for those who some describe as “the marginalized of society”: transgendered, addicts, prostitutes, street creatures. Bolz-Weber says that HFASS is “a group of folks figuring out how to be a liturgical, Christo-centric, social justice oriented, queer-inclusive, incarnational, contemplative, irreverent, ancient/future church with a progressive but deeply rooted theological imagination.”

I find all these women incredibly inspiring. All of them have re-imagined church in a way I do not often see among men. I suspect their charism comes from their position as women in the church, women who spent much of their lives outside the salon of power, looking in through the window but not allowed inside. Forced to be creative, they discovered the freedom of The Outsider: someone not required to conform in order to succeed because they would never be allowed inside anyway. Freed from conformity, they have created incredible ministries.

Because few on the inside listened to them, the women themselves practiced radical listening, and heard the cries of the poor, cries which fell on many a deaf ear in the salon. As the women practiced radical listening, it produced radical love, radical sacrifice, and radical ministries.

All of the women above are pastors of growing faith communities; people are attracted to the authenticity of their lives and their understanding of the Way of Jesus. With each passing season, more and more souls are showing up at their front doors, looking for a place in the Kingdom they can call their own. I could list other women in my own diocese who are doing similar excellent, creative, holy work, but I won’t embarrass them.  All we need do it look around, for they are there, leading us.

There is a popular maxim in the business world that goes, “Lead, follow, or get out of the way.” I often think how we need to get out of the way of these women and follow them, as they are leading our church into its future. God bless ‘em all

Is Modern Life a Disease?

“We do not die as much as we slowly kill ourselves,” goes an ancient Roman saying.  By that, the ancient Romans meant that we often hasten our own deaths by the harmful ways we live.  Looking at modern life, it seems that not much has changed since the days of Caesar.

A science researcher named Stephen Ildari poses that many of the diseases that plague us are not natural.  Diseases such as depression, diabetes, heart disease, obesity, etc., are caused by high-stress, industrialized, modern life; a lifestyle that is incompatible with our genetic evolution.  Rampant in the modern world, his laundry list of diseases are virtually non-existent among current aboriginal peoples that still live in the quiet corners of this earth.

He is not alone in his observations.  Since WWII, biologists and medical researchers have observed that the fast-paced, stressful life of the industrial revolution, a period of human history barely 200 years old, is incompatible with the 2,000,000 year evolution of hominids. Some pose that, if we lived as simply and stress-free as many aboriginal people and combine that lifestyle with modern medical practices, we’d all live to be 120 years old.

Personally, I’m not so sure I’m ready to live to 120 years of age.  I’ve known too many people who were ready to move on by the time they reached their late 80’s, even those who still enjoyed a decent level of health.  That said, it is intriguing to consider that we have been way too eager to embrace a 21st century lifestyle that is high on speed, stress and achievement, and low on relationships, relaxation, and presence-to-the-moment. What have we gotten for our choices?  A lot of money to spend on doctors to cure our self-inflicted diseases?

One anthropologist poses that while most of us put in a 50-hour week to support ourselves, our hunter-gatherer ancestors worked 17 hours a week, on average.  Sure, not many hunter-gatherers had to make payments on a second car, but they didn’t need a car, or the need to work off the stress and extra weight from riding around in a car.  Ildari says that “exercise” is a foreign concept among aboriginal people.  “Exercise?  What for?”

This leads me to consider a book I’m reading called “Slow Church: Cultivating Community in the Patient Way of Jesus”. Written by two hip millennials, it is an examination of the challenges of being hip millennials in the Christian church.  Up to this point, they’ve been involved in pop-up church plantings. It was only recently that they discovered the Benedictine concept of stability.  Instead of churches being spiritual filling-stations where you drop by to fill up and get back on the road, they are places where people come to live, make connections, grow in faith together and be leaven in the world. It has struck them as closer to the Body of Christ they read in the New Testament that what they have been experiencing.  This is a new concept to the two authors, but we in The Episcopal Church simply call it “The Episcopal Church”.  I’m sure it sounds real familiar to Romans, Lutherans, and a whole bunch of other mainliners as well.

It seems to me that modern life can inflict many diseases upon us if we are not careful, physical, psychological, and spiritual. We can find many of the causes in how we live and the cures in how we decide to change.  It appears that the cures are all around us if we but stop, lay aside the new, and reconsider the old.  We will be healthier for it.


The Tsunami of Life & Following your Vocation

(July 3, 2016 sermon by Deacon Kevin McGrane, on Luke 10: 1-11,16-20)
   There are many things going on in today’s rich Gospel reading. It’s difficult to pick out one thing to meditate upon.
   For example, there are the 70 appointed missioners that Jesus sends out to the surrounding countryside. Notice that they are NOT the apostles, but a group of hand-picked and commissioned preachers/healers/teachers. IOW, regular people from the community. That’s one thing to consider.
   Another is how they were instructed to conduct themselves while on mission. They were to conduct themselves with modesty and reserve, being polite and unburdensome guests. No prima donna’s allowed.
   Another is that these people were granted power and authority by Jesus. They could cure, forgive, and preach as official representatives of Jesus of Nazareth. Their authority was supernatural.
   I want to go back to the very beginning of the reading today, though, and consider verse 2, which says, “The harvest is plenty but the laborers are few…therefore ask the Lord of the harvest to send out laborers into the harvest.”
   This should speak to us this week, particularly in light of Rev. Peter Van Horne’s sermon last week and what he described as the “death tsunami” which is rolling towards much of the Christian church…the tsunami of people 65 yrs and older who will disappear from the churches, leaving a rather large leadership gap behind.
   I am SO SORRY I missed that sermon! I have never heard a sermon with the phrase “the tsunami of death” somewhere inside of it! That must have been so cool! I can just hear it now from an echo-chamber: “THE TSUNAMI OF DEEEEATH!”
   Peter+ is right, of course. We know that among most mainline churches, for every 40 clergy retiring, there are only 25 new clergy stepping up to take their place. You’ll notice the discrepancy between those two numbers.
   What to do? Well, don’t panic. We’re not dying. In a decade or so, the number of new leaders taking over will match the number of those retiring, and we’ll reach a point of equilibrium. Also, there will be an entirely new set of circumstances in the church…what that will be, I don’t know…no one does….BUT…
…there is a very important thing we can do, and we just read about it in verse 2 of today’s Gospel reading: we can pray for more workers and leaders to arrise from our community. And I, as a deacon, can do yet one more thing, which is the following…
   I am certain there are future priests and deacons and lay ministers sitting in this congregation right now. We all have a vocation based on our baptismal covenant; make no mistake about that! Yet there are some people here who have a vocation to an ordained life, and I am officially, publicly inviting you to answer your call.
   Some people here may think I am talking about someone other than you…as if I’m speaking to your child or that person sitting in the next row who is really involved in whatever ministry.
   Well, yes, them too…but, I’m actually talking to you.
   You may be thinking, “No. No way. I’m too old or I’m too young or I’m too married or I’m too single or I’m too you-fill-in-the-blank. At one time, I said the same thing. God answered and told me, “Not your decision. That’s between Me and the faith community. Your job is to answer the call.”
   A call to follow your vocation comes in many forms and most of them are not a voice from heaven. It’s not like the Tsunami of Death phrase…”This is God! You are called!” Nope. Usually not that way.
   Let me tell you about mine. I think I’ve described it before in another sermon once upon a time, so I’ll keep it brief.
   Catherine and I attended an adult ed class at Emmanuel called “We Believe”. It was something like an “Episcopalian 101” course, six weeks long. Deacon Susan Naylor gave the class on types of ministers in the church, and she described how deacons are, among other things, “ones who are sent”…sent by God and God’s community to preach, teach and model diakonia, sacred servanthood. I loved that. It really spoke to me.
   That same week, I watched a youtube of Bishop Smith’s sermon at the annual convention, and I was deeply impressed by his call for all of us to “go deeper, and go outside”. We are to deepen our faith in Christ, and take our faith beyond the walls of the sanctuary. Once again, I was much affected by his words.
   When I experienced these two events back-to-back in one week, I had this “Eureka Moment” and realized that I wanted to go deeper, go outside, and be sent. I understood this to be my call…and here I am, speaking to you today.
   No voice from an echo chamber spoke to me. No beams of light from a Technicolor sky shone down on me. But it was a life-changing moment never the less.
   One of the best parts of my journey is coming here and becoming your friend.
   Is today the beginning of your eureka moment? I hope so. I’m going to do my part and invite you; I pray that you do your part and answer. And I really am going to pray for you. We will start the Tsunami of Life together. With Christ with us, who can be against us? The harvest is plenty, the laborers few; we need many more laborers, and I believe you are going to be one of them.

Broken Windows and Broken People

It is against the law to feed the hungry on the streets of St. Louis. Hand a homeless man a PB&J and the police will ticket you. Kindness is illegal here.

I suppose the idea comes from the belief that the homeless are like stray dogs – if you feed them, they keep showing up at the back door. If you don’t, they go away.

It is more likely, though, that it comes from the policing theory called “the broken windows doctrine”, first described by the sociologists James Q. Wilson and George L. Kelling. To quote Wiki, “The theory states that maintaining and monitoring urban environments to prevent small crimes such as vandalism, public drinking, and toll-jumping helps to create an atmosphere of order and lawfulness, thereby preventing more serious crimes from happening.”

Chief Dotson, of the St. Louis P.D., is a proponent of broken windows policing, and directs his officers to enforce minor infractions vigorously. Apparently, this also applies to panhandling by the homeless, and handing out free food by the charitable: come down hard on the homeless and the charitable, and they will go elsewhere, maybe even to the point of “going straight”. Neighborhood life improved.

What the chief and people like him don’t get is that broken people are not broken windows…not like he thinks.

Most anyone who has worked with the homeless will tell you that homelessness is not a lifestyle choice of the lazy. Their homelessness is the result of mental illness and/or severe depression often mixed with a series of bad breaks. Treating them like stray dogs or petty vandals does nothing to solve the problem of homelessness. Criminalizing those who try to help them only exacerbates the problem further: it poisons the relationship between the police and the citizens.

We may have driven the homeless out of our neighborhoods so we don’t have to see them or think about them, but they are still somewhere, festering, hurting, and abandoned by their own government.

I have my own broken windows theory, and it comes from Jesus, who said, “Whatsoever you do to the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you do to me.” The poor are broken windows; they aren’t the ones breaking windows.

Jesus did not treat the poor and homeless like stray dogs to be driven away. He did not treat them as petty criminals to force into conformity. He did not prosecute those who tried to show compassion and empathy to the poor among us. He treated them all like the children of God they are, and he taught us to do the same.

The enforcement of laws that punish the homeless is unethical. The creation of laws to punish the charitable is immoral. The city government must repeal the laws that punish its citizens for taking care of fellow citizens, and the police need to stop harassing both the poor and the charitable. I can’t imagine cops like doing it anyway. I know enough cops to know they probably cringe while doing it. Stop it now and let’s do something constructive, because this isn’t it.

The Strain of Fascism in America

There are many strains of thought and culture in this very large country of ours, like various strains of music found in a symphony.  One of those strains happens to be fascism, and we need to come to terms with it.

The fact that we are the birthplace of modern democracy does not make us immune from the fascists among us and their fascism.  If we define fascism by a few common markers, we can see how fascism has dogged the American ethos for generations.

While the idea of America is an egalitarian rule by majority, fascism is rule by an authoritarian strong-man.  America supports human and civil rights; fascism rejects them and rules by authoritarian fiat.  America believes in the equality of all people; fascism scapegoats minority people, declaring them the enemy of the common good.  America believes in discussion and consensus-building; fascism resorts to violence as a political tool to impose its will.   America has no desire for empire; fascism believes empire is its destiny.

The American civil war was much about fascism, wrapped around slavery.  When you consider the nature of the Confederacy, it neatly fits the definition of a fascist régime: authoritarian government, eschews human and civil rights, scapegoats and oppresses a minority, employs violence to impose its will, has design on empire.  So it should be no surprise that we find people in 2016 who embrace a particular strain of fascism – it is part and parcel of our history.

Fascism is rising again in America in the form of a presidential candidate.  He gives voice again to anger, the will to dominate, an unquenchable need for security, a willingness to resort to violence as a political tool, and a desire for empire.  Empire is always based on greed, and its two tools are theft and slavery.  The last time we allowed fascism to rise among us, 1.8M people were dead by 1865, and it took us over 100 years to recover politically, economically, and morally.  In fact, we are still trying to recover from it.  We cannot make this same mistake again.

On the Making of a Man

How does one write about “men’s issues” without sounding inane?  It’s not easy.

I scanned an odd website the other day that was devoted to “men’s issues”, and I stopped reading after about 15 minutes for it did not pass my smell test.  I have seen and heard too much in life to buy the notion that men are victims of an anti-man culture.  No doubt, men are set-upon by many things in life, but gender-bias isn’t one of them.

Rather than waste energy addressing such nonsense, I wish men would address what I think should form men in our society.  I boil them down to three things – peace, responsibility, and respect.  The men I admire practice all three, and the men I do not admire neglect them to one degree or another.

I think about a friend of mine named Joe (his real name, btw) who is the personification of all three of these virtues.  He is a man who carries himself such that he makes kindness look manly.  He takes his job, and people, seriously, and he considers everyone he meets worthy of courtesy and dignity.  This may not seem complicated, but it is amazing how little I see it among the men I know.

We men are so lacking in the qualities of peace, responsibility, and respect that it has become the norm for us.  We barely know what the aspects of responsibility are (both micro and macro), and we think disrespect is a form of worldly wisdom.  We are responsible for so much violence and conflict in the world, both physical and emotional, that many women and children can barely stand to be in the same room with us.  There are secret safe houses where they hide from the men in their lives until they can escape to a new city under a new name – we are that dangerous.

Rather than give a laundry list of tips and best-practices about manliness which sound trite next the enormity of the issue, I’ll just refer back to my friend Joe.  He is a man who has embraced the practice of peace not only in his politics, but also in his personal dealings with people in his life.  It was not easy for a former US Marine to do, but he did it. He understands what his yes and his no means, and will do whatever it takes to see through his commitments if he says yes.  He also understands that all of us are fighting our own secret battles, and he honors the dignity of each individual person he meets as the sisters and brothers of Jesus that they are.

I would like to see more men speak of these virtues.  It is an on-going conversation worth having.  We need to explore more fully peace, responsibility, and respect as the groundwork for raising boys into men, and encourage other men to claim them as their own in their walk down this path called Life.


(Photos: above: Welsh miners at a union gathering; below: Million Man March, in DC.)

“The Practices”- on the Brilliance of Mundane Things

Tim is the only person I know who attended university on a weightlifting scholarship. When we met, I had no idea that such a thing even existed. But, years ago, the University of South Dakota had an NCAA weightlifting team, and Tim had been a member.

One season (he told me) the team was not doing well. It kept getting beat tournament after tournament, and the team decided that they were not working out correctly. After all, they did the same routine of dead lift/bench press/squats week after week, and they were not winning. They came up with the bright idea of taking a road trip all the way to Venice Beach, California, to visit the weightlifting Mecca of the country and learn all the secrets from the professionals to become a great weightlifting team.

After a 20-hour car ride, the guys arrived at Venice Beach and, sure enough, there were a number of the champions of the weightlifting world exercising at the outdoor facilities right there in front of them. The team was amazed at what they saw: here were the icons of the weightlifting world doing dead lifts/bench presses/squats just like the team had been doing back in South Dakota.

Tim, being the brains of the outfit, actaully asked a group of the champions what was the secret to their routine. After all, they were doing the same dead lifts/bench presses/squats that the team did back home, but they were champions and the guys from So. Dakota were not. Tim never forgot what they told him.

They said, “The secret is not what exercises you do, it’s how well you do them.

“There is no substitute for dead lifts, bench presses, and squats, but do you give them your full attention?

“Do you concentrate on every one of them to get the most out of them?

“Do you pay attention to the details of position, technique, and intensity every time you touch a weight?

“Do you prepare your head and heart for your workout, and do you think about how you can improve even an ounce or two next time?

“In other words, have you really given yourself over to your practice?”

I think about this story when I think about The Practices in the Micah Society.

When we look at the details of the formation program called The Practices, we do not see anything particularly unique. We see regular prayer, bible study, regular worship, fellowship and accountability. They are the dead lift/bench press/squats of spiritual formation. Like Tim and his team mates who were quick to dismiss their routine of formation, we are often quick to dismiss ours.

But, as the great saints who practiced these exercises of spiritual formation might say to us: “The secret is not in what exercises we do, but how well we do them.”

There is no substitute for prayer, study, and worship…but do we give them our full attention?

Do we concentrate on every one of them to get the most out of them?

Do we pay attention to the details of intention, attitude, and intensity every time we address our practice?

Do we prepare our heads and hearts for our prayer, or worship, or study, and think about what we can do to make our walk with Jesus just a bit better than yesterday?

In other words, have we really given ourselves over to our practice?

Let us return to the practices of our faith that have created great saints among us. We waste precious time and effort when we look for the novel and the unique, as the very practices that will help us become dedicated disciples of Jesus are sitting at our feet, waiting for us to take them up. If we but give ourselves to them, they will give back tenfold.

(Visit the FB page The Micah Society to learn more about The Practices and what the Micah Society is all about.  Pax!)