Thursday, October 29, 2009

From the theological closet: Good Christian = Happy Christian

Reading these books made me think of an unexpressed but strongly implied belief from my childhood--namely, that if you are unhappy, there is something wrong with your Walk With The Lord.

Sunday School in junior high and high school always started with a few songs. Here's one of the ones we sang practically every week throughout junior high school.

It's a happy day
and I just love the weather!
It's a happy day
and I'm livin' it for my Lord.
It's a happy day
and things are gonna get better
livin' each day by the promises in God's Word.
It's a happy day, oh yeah!

verse two went like this:

It's a grumpy day
and I can't stand the weather.
It's a grumpy day
and I'm living it for myself
It's a grumpy day
and things aren't gonna get better
livin' each day with the Bible on my shelf.
It's a grumpy day, oh yeah.

OK, so how bad is this theology? Pretty darn bad. But, boy, this song has stuck with me now for over 30 years. And it came roaring back with the desperate up-beatness of the people Kevin Roose encountered at Liberty University.

When I was looking at colleges, I looked for about 20 seconds at Wheaton College, a Christian college in Illinois. I couldn't do it for two reasons: one was the intellectual dishonesty I heard in the tour when our tour guide told us that there were rules against drinking, smoking, and dancing, "not that we think dancing is wrong, but it's tradition;" and the other was seeing the encounters between people on campus, over-exuberant to the point of being unnerving. "Hyper-happy Christians," I labeled it to my parents afterwards.

I mean, I'm a person who reads obituaries for fun. Can you imagine how much it would annoy me to have people constantly telling me to cheer up? Smile, God loves you? I hate that. And the implication that if you're unhappy or don't like the weather it's because you're living for yourself--boy, is that pernicious. This has got to go. Out. Not even to Goodwill with you. In the trash.

I'm going to go be grumpy now. And I'm going to enjoy it. Phhlllbbbt.

Zombie Cards

Speaking of Dave...

Because we haven't had any zombies lately.

Thank you, Dave!

Wednesday, October 28, 2009

The Unlikely Disciple

This book is crazy good. I mentioned it last week when I was talking about things I'm reading that seem to be of a piece: books that make me ask myself what kind of evangelical theology is still hanging around in the back of my brain.

Here's the premise: this young man, a freshman at Brown University (who, I might add, grew up in Oberlin, Ohio, my uberliberal college town), decides to enroll at Liberty University, the school founded by Jerry Falwell, for a semester and write about the experience. He does a fantastic job of it. I can't tell you how impressed I am. He's so generous in his writing and clear in his understanding. He neither vilifies nor exonerates the people of Liberty University; he works very hard simply to understand.

One of the themes that comes up both in this book and in Dave's is how much energy is expended on keeping sexuality under control. At Liberty, the rule is you may hold hands, but nothing else. You may hug someone of the opposite sex, but for no longer than three (3) seconds.

There are ways in which Kevin Roose, the author of The Unlikely Disciple, finds this very freeing: he doesn't have to worry about What Is Expected. At the same time, there are still rules that his dormmates tell him (open the door for her, "You didn't walk her to her dorm?!"). He also finds a wide variety of behaviors around and under and past the rules.

It all made me think that in the Bible, we read of "sexual immorality" but there's no clarity about what exactly that "immorality" part is. Is it hugging for more than 5 seconds? Kissing? Petting? Is there a particular line when it becomes sex? And when that line has been crossed, is it always immoral outside of marriage? Can there be sexual immorality within marriage? Does it depend upon the situation? And if so, what does it depend upon?

That phrase seems to be a complete Rohrschach test; so often it seems "sexual immorality" is defined by "what makes me uncomfortable." Or "what makes the pastor uncomfortable," perhaps. I don't know. It certainly seems to me, though, that sexuality has a lot more gray area than I thought when I was growing up. This book and Dave's both help show that even in a world where sexual immorality is presented as black and white there is still a whole lot of gray.

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Richard Gladwell

WXXI in Rochester is probably my favorite radio station in the world. When I lived in Rochester for eight years, WXXI was my radio station of choice. Primarily a classical music station, it also had wonderful variety music shows like Salmagundi, to which I cleaned my apartment every Saturday morning (alas! I see it is no more), and Fascinatin' Rhythm, which featured the American Songbook.

Before church each Sunday, there was also With Heart and Voice with Richard Gladwell. Richard was a member of my church, Christ Church downtown, but I didn't know that for a long time. Mostly I knew him as a voice, this lovely British inflected tenor who played Rutter and Finzi and CV Stamford. It's from Richard and the Christ Church choir that I have my education in Anglican church music.

Richard died on October 15th. I heard about it from Rochester friends, and then saw it on the Episcopal Cafe and I was amazed at how amazed I was--my Richard Gladwell, the Richard I knew, being known far and wide. But of course he was. And I'm probably not the only one to owe my church music education to Richard Gladwell.

WXXI did a wonderful commemorative show celebrating Richard Gladwell that I listened to this morning, partly because today is also the day of his funeral at my old parish, Christ Church. It seemed an incredibly fitting tribute that his obituary should be aural in nature. You can hear Richard himself, talking about being at the Invasion of Normandy as an orderly. Then the announcer says, "Maurice Durufle was the organist at such-and-such a church while Richard was stationed in France." And then his motet Ubi Caritas. Such a wonderful thing, hearing the life and the music together. I couldn't imagine anything more appropriate.

Prayers and blessings go out this day to Claire and all the Gladwell family, and to my church family at Christ Church, Rochester. I'm thinking of you all.

Thursday, October 22, 2009

I vote yes.

Just read the obituary for Sheldon J. Segal who developed the contraceptives Norplant and Mirena. He also co-wrote the book, Is Menstruation Obsolete?

Cleaning out the theological closet: the reading material

So I've been thinking about what I wrote yesterday about cleaning out my clothes closet and realized that, yes indeed, I'm also working on cleaning out my theological closet, partly in thanks to several books that have ended up on my bedside table at the same time.

The first is Dave Dickerson's book House of Cards. I can call him Dave because we're Facebook friends, don't you know. You may remember he's the guy who did the Greeting Card Emergency I posted here for Coming Out Day.

Dave's book is a memoir about working at Hallmark and losing his virginity and there are parts that are laugh out loud funny. Other parts are simply cringeworthy (as well as funny) because he's simply ruthless about exposing himself in all his geeky foibles. But one of the themes in his book is moving from being raised fundamentalist to converting to Catholicism to losing his faith. I think he's very astute in observing what his faith required of him and how it doesn't match up to his own experience and what he sees as true.

Another book that's come to my attention, thanks to the Internet Monk, is called Jesus Girls: True Tales of Growing Up Female and Evangelical. It's a collection of essays from women on areas of community, worship, education, gender, sex, and identity, and the ones I've read so far have been very good.

Finally, just in at the library is a book I hadn't remembered placing on hold: The Unlikely Disciple: A Sinner's Semester at America's Holiest University. A Brown University student enrolls for a semester at Liberty University and writes about his experiences there. I just picked this up yesterday so I have no idea what I will find there.

But there seems to be a theme, here, and I'll be curious in future days to explore a little bit of what I find in my own theological closet from my days growing up Evangelical. I already have a couple of things I know are worn out but still hanging around. We'll see what else emerges. Stay tuned.

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Cleaning out the closet

Following the advice of the invaluable PeaceBang at Beauty Tips for Ministers ("Because you're in the public eye and God knows you need to look good"), on Sunday afternoon I did a ruthless purge of my closet. I mean, Stalinist. With Goodwill standing in for the Gulag.

What was very hard about it was actually throwing away clothes. In the actual trash, don't you know. There was something in me that resisted even though they were stained or torn or unusable. "Surely someone could use this," part of me thought. Then another part sternly said, "No. These things have served their time. They need to be thrown out."

Another difficult thing for me were the Perfectly Good Clothes that I simply didn't like. "These are Perfectly Good Clothes," part of me thought. And another part sternly said, "You don't like them. That's a good enough reason for them to go." So they went in the Goodwill bag.

In all, I got rid of two full trashbags of clothes: one for the actual trash, and one that went to Goodwill. And you know what I had left after that? All of the clothes I actually wear! It was amazing! I was so afraid that if I got rid of all of this stuff I wouldn't have anything left, and what do you know? Everything I had left was the stuff I like to wear, that makes me feel good, and that looks good on me.

This feels like a sermon illustration that hasn't quite found a place yet. Or maybe it's a personal illustration for me. Something to do with what I truly believe and all the old worn out beliefs I keep in the closet, just in case. More to ponder.

Monday, October 19, 2009

Quote of the Day

A lifelong atheist, she admitted that she had been tempted to believe in a creator when she discovered that the flea had a penis.

Obituary for Miriam Rothschild, though not the one linked here. It's from the Economist Book of Obituaries, a treat I bought myself for my birthday, and a terrific bathroom book, if I am allowed to review such good writing in such a way. It is a great book for reading for short spans of time, in other words.

Thanks, Lorin, for telling me about it many moons ago. It is wonderful.

Sunday, October 18, 2009

Sunday funnies

I just loved this.

epic fail pictures
see more Epic Fails

I wonder if they also serve Sunday brunch while they're at it.

Thanks to @eselqueso on Twitter for posting this.

Friday, October 16, 2009

Four ways to pass the peace without spreading the flu

I just got my flu shot this morning (thank you, Kaiser!) and here's hoping the flu season is not as bad as I fear it might be.

There are lots of suggestions out there for changing rituals during flu season: nodding or bowing to one another, using an alcohol gauze to wipe the common cup or using intinction--dipping the bread--instead of drinking from the cup.

I have been thinking about this a bit and how hard it would be for me to not shake hands or hug people during the peace in part because I'm not sure what to do with my body. I wonder if some choreography would help to make the passing of the peace seem more deliberate and intentional. Here are four thoughts I've come up with.

1. Use sign language What about using the ASL sign for peace? It's a very satisfying movement, kind of like a handshake with yourself. Plus you really are saying "Peace." If you want to get fancy, you can add "with you," but folks may need a little practice.

2. Use another gesture that indicates peace. There's "namaste," for example, also a bit more satisfying and gestural than just a nod, that means "I bow to you," which seems lovely to me. It's very simple, easy for any age. Assuming we can get past the concern that it's unChristian, it seems like another good way to honor one another with a sign of peace that doesn't involve sharing a lot of germs. Plus, apparently, you can do it behind your back to the people in the pew behind you. I sure can't, but maybe you can.

There may be gestures from other languages that indicate that level of respect. Certainly I can think of a lot of disrespectful gestures. I think it would be wonderful to add more body language that indicates our care for one another and get that ingrained in our system.

3. Sing the peace One thing we did at our former parish was to sing during the peace. The one we sang was "La paz este con nosotros," which might be in Wonder, Love and Praise (I don't have one here), and was accompanied by maracas and all sorts of wonderful joyous percussion. It limited the time for the peace, but kept it very upbeat and celebratory. Why not use that and have people bow or reverence one another in some way?

Another, more low key song (which I know is in WLP) is "Peace before us." I could see using that, just one verse, with the ASL sign for peace, maybe singing it through twice.

4. Create a special phrase I remember visiting a Greek Orthodox church where we were instructed at the peace to turn to the people around us and say...I wish I could remember now. It was during Advent, though, and it was seasonal. I can imagine doing something like that, where we turn to one another on All Saints Sunday and say, "You are surrounded by a cloud of witnesses." On the other hand, that may sound vaguely like the preface to "You're under arrest!"

The point to all this being, I think people need something very concrete and specific to do at the peace. Perhaps a passing of the Purell? Combine the ideas listed above? What other things do you suggest?

Update, January 2013:  People are finding this post again with the current flu epidemic, and as I re-read it and read the comments, I think we need to distinguish between embodiment, connection, and touch.

The most body-aware priest I know, a former professional dancer, works in an environment with a lot of elders where passing the flu is a real issue; as a culture, they have taken up the Namaste gesture at the peace. I think it is a mistake to say that if we no longer hug, kiss, or shake hands, we are disembodying worship. But I also think it's important that we keep worship in a physical, embodied form with rituals that convey love, warmth, and connection. The deep question is not "how do we not spread the flu?" but "how do we show our love through our actions and gestures?"

Kitten recovery update

"Keep the kittens quiet," the clinic said.

Good luck with that.

Thursday, October 15, 2009

World in Prayer

As happens every couple of months or so, this week I was scheduled to write the prayers for World In Prayer. This happened to coincide with the feast of Teresa of Avila, which didn't work too well for me, actually. These prayers left me feeling slightly uncomfortable--disturbed, even--which I suppose is good, in a troubling way. I mean, my goodness, Teresa didn't exactly live in peaceful times herself; she got hauled up before the Inquisition personally, after all. Nevertheless, these prayers only partially represent the conflict I feel between Teresa's words to "let nothing disturb you" and the very disturbing things I hear going on in the world.

Prayers on the Feast of St. Teresa of Avila

Teresa of Avila wrote, “Let nothing disturb thee; Let nothing dismay thee; All things pass; God never changes.” It is hard not to be disturbed when we hear

Attacks in Lahore, Pakistan have left about 40 people dead;
Somali pirates have taken a Singaporean ship with 21 crew members, in addition to holding at least five other ships for ransom;
•The United Kingdom has deported 39 Iraqis seeking asylum back to Baghdad;
•The number of people suffering from hunger is at its highest rate in four decades.

When we hear this bad news, what can we do? How should we respond? Like Job, we want an answer; like Job, we do not understand.

In the face of great suffering, give us faith and courage, wisdom and love. Let us be moved by compassion to understand and to take action. Keep our hearts and minds from fear and despair. In the midst of the maelstrom, answer us.

God hear our prayer.

Teresa goes on to say: “Patience attains all that it strives for. He who has God finds he lacks nothing; God alone suffices.” We pray for all who strive:

•For the U.S. legislature and all who are working towards health care reform;
•For those working to prevent the spread of the H1N1 flu and other infectious diseases;
•For those who marched on Washington, D.C. last week in support of equal rights for gays and lesbians;
•For President Obama and his advisors as they try to determine the best course of action in Afghanistan;
•For the Secretary General of the World Council of Churches who will be paying a pastoral visit to churches in North Korea this week;
•For the Evangelical Lutheran Church in Namibia that has started microgardens in its churches so that people with HIV/AIDS can grow their own vegetables.

We pray that we may do your work in the world. We pray that we may have the endurance to carry on. We pray that we may rest in your changelessness. We pray that we may find our needs met in you.

Let nothing disturb us; let nothing dismay us; all things pass; you are unchanging.

God, hear our prayer.

Are your cats old enough to learn about Jesus?

This one's going out to Jack and Charlie who are having a little surgical procedure right now. Today, you are unmanned.

Are Your Cats Old Enough To Learn About Jesus?
FEBRUARY 28, 2006 | ISSUE 42•09
The Onion

People often ask me when they should teach the Good News to their housecats. I have but one answer: "What are you waiting for?"

A pet is a beloved part of your family, and as a Christian, you should do everything you can to guarantee that this valued member of your family receives the glorious
eternal reward for which Christ gave His very life. Think of the alternative: your cat mired in darkness for eternity because you put off a 10-minute conversation.

My own cats accepted Jesus into their hearts before they even opened their eyes. The light of salvation has brightened their lives, but perhaps the most noticeable
change has been in me. I am filled with warmth knowing their eternal souls have been saved.

Kittens' hearts, at birth, are filled with what theologians call "original mischief." Mischief, if left to grow on its own, can sprout into evil. That's why you must fill their hearts with Jesus instead. If you wait, your cats might find seductive role models among the back-alley strays and rough felines from the wrong side of town. You could also end up with an unwanted pregnancy.

That's why it's so very, very important to tell your cats about the life, crucifixion, and resurrection of Jesus as early as possible. The Nicene Creed is a good place to start: Recite it to them when they are about 10 weeks old.

Remember: If you give a cat a fish, it eats for a day. If you teach a cat to fish, it eats for a lifetime. Perhaps that's not such a good proverb to use in this case, since fishing is actually instinctual in cats. But Jesus is not. Your kitties need to know early on that there is a fisher of men and cats alike who can save their souls.
A lot of people say, "Oh, but Whiskers doesn't even answer to his name yet." They raise a good point: Sometimes you have to teach your cat at its own level. If you give your cat a rubber Jesus to play with, it will sense that there's more to this toy. If you give it a scratching cross, it will contemplate Christ's love and ultimate sacrifice while it stretches and sharpens its claws. I myself have put an image of Jesus at the bottom of my cats' food bowls. That way, when they finish their food, the face of He who provided it is revealed unto them.

Teaching your cats the Gospel of Christ isn't just important for their eternal souls, it is also the only way to ensure that they know an eternity of damnation awaits them if they scratch your favorite chair. Before they cough up a hairball on the rug or leave a dead mouse on the doorstep, they'll know—without being scolded—that they had better watch it, as a Final Judgment awaits at the hands of the Lord.

Of course, once your cat has accepted the Lord in its heart, it's ready to be baptized. The righteous cat is one that is born again in the eyes of the Lord. People think that baptism is a rite that requires a fancy baptismal font and a preacher, but that's simply not true. Just fill your bathtub with water, say a little invocation over it, ask your cat if it rejects Satan and all his evil, and then dunk it. Make sure it is fully immersed, in accordance with Scripture.

So now, all you have to do is choose your cat's baptismal name. My cats' birth names were Meowser, Fluff, and Mr. Boots, but their baptismal names are Ezekiel, Caleb, and Mr. Paws.

Remember, a cat may have nine lives, but it only has one eternal soul. We all must one day appear before the Holy Seat Of Judgment, and although my Oliver and Lady Twinkles passed on long ago from this vale of tears, I take solace in the knowledge that, when the time comes for me to receive the ecstasies of Heaven, all of my housecats will be waiting to spend eternity on my lap.

And don't get your cats vaccinated, either. The Lord will provide protection from feline leukemia.

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Two thoughts from Sunday's sermon

I preached at Trinity again on Sunday, a long sermon that didn't go where I thought it would. But there were two points from the reading that struck me. I probably needed to think more about them before preaching on them; they are still in raw form.

Here's the verse:

Jesus, looking at him, loved him and said, "You lack one thing; go, sell what you own, and give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me." When he heard this, he was shocked and went away grieving, for he had many possessions.

Here are the thoughts:

1) When Jesus tells the man to sell all he has, he does not tell him to then make out a check to Son of God Ministries, a non-profit, tax-deductible organization. In fact, he tells the man to give it to the poor, to no one related to him at all. Jesus manages to not get himself entangled in the very possessions that he sees bogging this wealthy man down.

2) Jesus was unsuccessful in his efforts to gain a new member. Nowadays, so many of us in the church get the message that “You must grow,” and that adding new numbers is the key; it’s somewhat cheering to see that Jesus didn’t get that memo. So often in the church it’s tempting for us to make sure that new people with resources of time or money who come through our doors are made to feel comfortable and welcomed so that they will stay and help us—and, it’s true, we need to be welcoming, we need to be hospitable. At the same time, Jesus seems more interested in staying true to the message he has been given than in drawing a crowd. And there’s comfort in that, that just because someone leaves doesn’t mean we have failed, that people have their own reasons for coming and going and it doesn’t necessarily mean we’re doing something wrong.

The point for me (at this time) that this one little verse is antithetical to so many messages I hear about church: that churches are desperate for money and desperate for members. I'm not even sure what to do with this, except sit with it for a while and, perhaps, take some hope.

Monday, October 12, 2009

The Sparrow

How apropos that I have finished re-reading The Sparrow in time to report on it on Columbus Day/Discovery Day/Indigenous People's Day. The inspiration for the novel, about an expedition to another planet gone tragically wrong, was the 500th anniversary of Columbus' arrival in the New World. As the author, Mary Doria Russell, reports in the interview at the back of the book,

It seemed unfair to me for people living at the end of the twentieth century to hold those explorers and missionaries to standards of sophistication and tolerance that we hardly manage even today. I wanted to show how very difficult first contact would be, even with the benefit of hindsight. That's when I decided to write a story that put modern, sophisticated, resourceful, well-educated, and well-meaning people in the same position as those early explorers and missionaries--a position of radical ignorance.

I never expected to have a lot of sympathy for Columbus and company, but reading this, and having sympathy for the characters of The Sparrow, forces me to be a little more charitable.

This book is tremendously successful on many levels, but it is a truly harrowing read. You know from the beginning that disaster has struck, but do not know until the very end exactly what that disaster was.

The plot sounds preposterous--Jesuits in space sums it up--but it's serious, compelling, and remarkably believable. I'm extremely impressed with how Russell deals both with religion and the religious life in this novel. I read it when I was in seminary; reading it now after being ordained for 8 or so years, I keep wondering, "How did she know? That's exactly what it's like."

Again, not an easy read, but a good one. There's also a sequel, Children of God, which provides some closure.

Sunday, October 11, 2009

Marty Forscher

The obit du jour that caught my eye is for Marty Forscher, "Tended Cameras and Owners." Like Gerald Gardner who I wrote about back in July and used data for causes he believed in, Mr. Forscher was also aware that his own particular skill could be used for social change.

In the early 1960s, Mr. Forscher began begging discarded cameras from magazines, fixing them and sending them South. There, members of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee used them to document the civil rights movement in images published in newspapers and magazines around the world. Some were of signal events, like Bloody Sunday — March 7, 1965 — when state troopers beat black marchers in Selma, Ala. Others captured small daily victories, like a black child learning to read at a Mississippi Freedom School.

When the cameras were dashed to the ground or drenched by police fire hoses, Mr. Forscher repaired them and sent them back again.

Isn't that magnificent? I love this example that the gifts we have been given can be used to serve God in the world, if we are creative and generous with them.

Sunday Funnies: Snuggie Update

This dog wants to kill you.

Full details on the Snuggie for Dogs at the Official Site.

Saturday, October 10, 2009

Vida Dutton Scudder

Speaking of National Coming Out Day...

I read the little bio of Vida Dutton Scudder this morning from the Episcopal Women's History Project which includes this eyebrow-raiser:
Throughout her life Scudder’s primary relationships and support network were women; her closest companion was Florence Converse, who shared in her religious faith and political ideals.

Oh, really?

Wikipedia up and says, "She was one of the most prominent lesbian authors of her time." Thank you for not being coy. Though I'm also annoyed at the descriptor. Does she have to be a prominent lesbian author? Can she not be a prominent author?

Why is Florence Converse even mentioned at all? A spouse, partner, or any sort of relationship status is not mentioned for Wilfred Grenfell who lived during almost the exact same period, though since he had two sons and a daughter, you might think there was someone else in his life.

I suppose they are trying to bring out the understanding that Vida D S was one of Those People we're so concerned about having in the church; that gays and lesbians have been here all along. But this message was given so ham-handedly, so half-heartedly, by implication rather than straightforward expression. Why not just say, either in Wikipedia or from the Episcopal Women's History Project, that VDS had a lifelong partnership with Florence Converse, a writer for the Atlantic Monthly, and leave it at that. Look, see? Nothing implied, no dancing around, no unnatural attention, no hemming and hawing. Just the facts.

I guess we're trying, but I hope we can do better than this.

Greeting cards for National Coming Out Day

Dave Dickerson, who has just published his memoir from his time as a greeting card writer at Hallmark, does these wonderful Greeting Card Emergency videos for things like "when your snake eats the class hamster" for which there is no card available.

He just did this very moving video for cards for National Coming Out Day, which is tomorrow. I hope you'll watch to the end. And send your greetings and thanks to someone you know.

For my part, this one's especially going out in memory of Harlow Russell who died on October 4--was it two or three years ago? He would often show up at church on Sunday with a little glitter in his eye, and I don't mean that metaphorically. God rest his soul.

Dave's book is House of Cards. I've already ordered it; you should get a review fairly soon.

Friday, October 9, 2009

After much consideration, here are my thoughts concerning the President receiving the Nobel Peace Prize

Congratulations, Mr. President. This is an honor for you and for America. I pray that you will be able to live up to the challenge this prize represents. Blessings.

Wednesday, October 7, 2009

Vocabulary revision

Wouldn't it be lovely if people quit using the word "heresy" when what they really mean is "I think you're wrong"? I'd been thinking this for a while, but it finally hit home for me a couple of days ago with the feast of William Tyndale, burned at the stake in 1536 for the heresy of translating the Bible into English. Well, strangled and then burned at the stake, which makes it so much better.

Reading that story has made me believe that heresy is pretty much a useless word. Looking back on history allows me to think certain parties were correct and others oppressive. I suppose you could call oppression a heresy, but I think it's more human.

To get all geeky Greeky on you, "heresy" is simply the word that means "able to choose." And isn't the ability to choose what makes us humans with free will? Aren't we supposed to be heretics?

No more talking about heresy. It's pointless and a waste of time and breath.

Monday, October 5, 2009


Given at Trinity, Sonoma, Sunday, October 4. Abridged for blog purposes.

This is Andy. He is the smartest dog I know. One of the ways he demonstrates this is that he doesn't necessarily follow commands; instead, he will assess what it is you actually want him to do (or stop doing) and do that.

For example, suppose the gate is accidentally left open and he starts out. You shout, "Andy, come," and he doesn't come; he just sits. Because it's not that you want him to come to you; you just don't want him to leave the yard. That's the kind of thing he does all the time.

In the gospel for today, it would be very easy to get caught up in the specifics about whether divorce is good, bad, or indifferent. But the point for Jesus, and the larger point for us, is that we tend to simply apply the law without understanding the reason why we were given the law. Without that understanding, we have the tendency to twist the law for our own purposes.

One of my favorite ways we do this is the "I'm not touching you" school of following the law--the one when your parents in the front seat tell you to stop touching your brother, so you hold your finger one inch away and say, "I'm not touching you, I'm not touching you," which of course misses the whole point of the command.

I think this is one of the ways in which the liberal church is most Pharisee-like. A couple of years ago, the Diocese of California had a resolution at its convention "to approve the trial use of these forms as resources in the Diocese of California for formalizing the blessing of same-gender unions." Now, I'm all for blessing same-gender unions. But the thing that troubled me was that this happened just after the House of Bishops pledged "as a body not to authorize public rites for the blessing of same-sex unions." The word on the diocesan convention floor was that we weren't authorizing any rites; we were proposing them for trial use--I'm not touching you! I would have been so much happier about it if we hadn't kept insisting we were keeping to the letter of the law when it's quite obvious to everyone that we were evading the underlying premise of the law that we disagreed with.

The Internet Monk tells a beautiful story from his Baptist tradition of when the law was ignored. His church was split on whether or not to baptize a severely autistic young man, with iMonk being against it. The senior pastor went ahead and baptized the boy. Here's the key quote:

I was, I believe, both right and wrong.

Our church constitution was, as Baptist churches see these matters, correct. Bryan was not able to make a profession/confession of faith in the terms in which our church defined those things.

But the Gospel is a greater thing than a church constitution, and if you don’t know those occasions when one needs to give way to the other, there is no point in having a church constitution at all.

For me, the point, paradoxically enough, is that the rules are here to serve us, not to rule us. The whole point I think Jesus is trying to make is, does this law help us love God and our neighbor? I don't think this is about throwing out all the rules, but understanding them at a much more fundamental level, the way Andy understands that "Come" means "Don't go out in the street."

The laws are not meant to be worshiped; God is to be worshiped. The rules are not meant to rule us. And so when we look at the laws that order our churches and our family and our nation, we need to look at them deeply, in their context, at their intent, with the knowledge that obedience to the law is not always obedience to the Gospel, and with the understanding of which is most important.

Sunday, October 4, 2009

Sunday Funnies

Bless you. And blessings to all the beasts today on this feast of St. Francis.

Friday, October 2, 2009

Spy vs. Spy

A study in contrasts in the obits this week.

First I saw this obit of Nicolae Plesita. You know it's going to be bad when the headline is "Feared Romanian Securitate Chief Plesita Dies." No watering down with how nice he was to puppies; just flat-out ruthless.
In post-communist Romania, Plesita continued to attract attention with his revelations from the Communist period, and showed no remorse for having crushed anti-communist dissent.

Several times, he described how he beat up dissident writer Paul Goma and dragged him around Securitate cells by his beard.

Yeah, just not a good guy.

On the other hand, there's your friendly Los Angeles real estate agent, Maria Liu, whose obituary is absolutely fascinating. She was part of the underground resistance in Slovakia during WWII. She was a courier, once transporting a short-wave radio in a suitcase, fluent in five languages, and helped American and British OSS agents get to the Russian lines in--wait for it!--Bucharest, Romania. "After reaching Bucharest, Romania, on March 1, Liu was flown to OSS headquarters in Italy, where 'she was put on Army status so she could get paid,' said Downs."

The story ends with the tidbit that "Liu, who became a U.S. citizen in 1952, worked for many years as a real estate agent." Who knows how many stories there are like this. First Julia Child, now this. And when we look back, will we be impressed or appalled?

Thursday, October 1, 2009

1/4 time

Do you realize that we are 3/4 of the way through 2009? One-quarter of the year left, and then we are finished with the first DECADE of the 21st century? We're coming to the end of a decade, people. I find that astonishing. How is this even possible? A very strange decade, the 2000's.

For more information that will freak you out slightly, check out the Beloit College Mindset List for this year's college freshman class, the class of 2013 (most of whom were born in 1991. 1991, people! Inconceivable!) A couple of highlights for me:

* Most communities have always had a mega-church.
* The status of gays in the military has always been a topic of political debate.
* Everyone has always known what the evening news was before the Evening News came on.

And that's the way it is.

I heard a fly buzz--

I was sitting at the kitchen table this morning with a cup of tea and my blogs to read, not noticing the sound of a fly buzzing behind me until the sound suddenly changed. The buzz became much quicker. It sounded like the fly was trapped somewhere. I turned around, and so it was: it was trapped in a web and a spider was slinking over to it.

I had to leave.

It was a very strange feeling, knowing that I too had killed many a fly in my day or encouraged various dogs or cats to get them. But there was something about this particular experience that was strangely disturbing. As natural and as common as it was, it was a scene that seemed quite cruel.