Tuesday, January 10, 2017

When is a Parable not a Parable?

Let me be direct and say one only needs to look at the patio to be sure there are problems that still need solving.  There are good suggestions from just about every quarter of the congregation. There is diligent effort on the part several parishioners, Dick Hodgetts principal among them as he more than fulfills his vestry commitment.  There are others and to you all we are grateful.

We will finish the patio's restoration in time and as is becoming increasingly obvious not without the help of donations toward the increased costs.

But the patio and its persistent disarray is also a metaphor, just like the walls and corn in the quote below.  Don't get me wrong.  It's real.  But it means something.  It means something by way of and beyond the troubled process of replacing what had to be removed because we didn't know where the sewer pipe went and we needed the toilets to flush.  It means something that hurrying to get it back to some usable condition left us with more cobbling and danger.  It means something that yet another round of help and suggestion has joined what is already long in consuming the vestry's attention.  It means something that the anxiety level among some -- one is too many when it's people you love -- of our parish elders and patrons is sky high.

Writing about this reminds me of my favorite, Soren Kierkegaard who himself wrote about writing.  Actually he wrote about communicating and meant it to refer also to the preaching he heard on Sundays and the discourse in the streets and parlors of Copenhagen.

One of his consistent concerns was the value of indirect communication as compared to the direct kind.  He saw the ready resistance to truth,  especially the self critical kind in the church and the sad substitutes that were offered.  His geese parables are sad depictions of a population preferring to be told what they have already determined to hear so much so that they will reduce greater truths to match their prejudice and fear.

So Soren intentionally often avoided directly addressing "issues" and instead wrote metaphorically and parabolically, under pseudonyms.  His hope was that the truth as he understood and felt compelled to present it would slip through the filters with which those waddling christians had grown accustomed to protecting themselves and their interests.  Here's one of those parables.
"A certain flock of geese lived together in a barnyard with high walls around it.  Because the corn was good and the barnyard was secure, these geese would never take a risk. One day a philosopher goose came among them. He was a very good philosopher and every week they listened quietly and attentively to his learned discourses. 'My fellow travellers on the way of life,' he would say, 'can  you seriously imagine that this barnyard, with great high walls around it, is all there is to existence?
I tell you, there is another and a greater world outside, a world of which we are only dimly aware. Our forefathers knew of this outside world. For did they not stretch their wings and fly across the trackless wastes of desert and ocean, of green valley and wooded hill? But alas, here we remain in this barnyard, our wings folded and tucked into our sides, as we are content to puddle in the mud, never lifting our eyes to the heavens which should be our home.
The geese thought this was very fine lecturing. 'How poetical,' they thought. 'How profoundly existential. What a flawless summary of the mystery of existence.' Often the philosopher spoke of the advantages of flight, calling on the geese to be what they were. After all, they had wings, he pointed out. What were wings for, but to fly with? Often he reflected on the beauty and the wonder of life outside the barnyard, and the freedom of the skies.
And every week the geese were uplifted, inspired, moved by the philosopher's message. They hung on his every word. They devoted hours, weeks, months to a thoroughgoing analysis and critical evaluation of his doctrines. They produced learned treatises on the ethical and spiritual implications of flight. All this they did. But one thing they never did. They did not fly! For the corn was good, and the barnyard was secure!"
Soren Kierkegaard
We are always at risk -- no matter the challenges our world presents us -- to succumb to the perceived comfort of the known, to the good corn and the high walls.  Think "the way things used or ought to be."  Even when corn is not our natural or best nourishment and walls not the best encouragement to grow and learn.  

But according to Kierkegaard's parable we are often more at risk because of HOW we hear than we are by what we hear.  Accordingly, I have more than once used metaphors or stories about others not of this community to get at ideas or issues, indirectly.  To not trigger your filtering, to not blame, to not embarrass.

But based on my reading of the above parable its a mistake for me to think that I have that much influence over your filters.  We are going to hear what we choose to hear,  especially since I have no coercive capacity or intent.

And also we do not have the luxury of measureless corn or impenetrable walls.  I no longer have the luxury of visiting you from Athens. So . . . directly, I say we have an historic property that is aging faster than are we.  We have a budget that is constrained beyond its intent to fund upkeep of this property.  We have important members of our parish upset and worried that the walls are tumbling and corn is being wasted.

I'll save directly addressing my own role and performance to another occasion.

For now,  I'm saying that Kierkegaard's direct communication is not only our complaining that "we've not managed the repair of the patio and other matters in a well prioritized manner," it is also our saying "the patio is a metaphor that shows us we are choosing how we listen to and love one another."

Thank goodness Kierkegaard's geese parables don't describe some terrible destructive outcome.  Though perhaps even more sadly he describes geese not flying.  For us that would be not only not restoring the patio but also not talking to each other about how anxious and troubled many of us are.

So . . .  let's talk about talking and let's all talk to each other about our fears and anxieties, our broken dreams and greater awakenings.  Let's talk about the patio and let's talk about flying.

Tuesday, January 3, 2017

Thresholds and Transitions

One of the ways people know they are headed somewhere is that they step or pass through portals, doorways, or over thresholds.  That horror movies use this motif is proof that not all passage is safe or without risk.  Some portals are "points of no return."  Think Adam and Eve and the fiery sword of Genesis 3:23-24.

Other significant moments are more like a "foot in the door."  A different effort must follow that commitment or somebody ends up losing a symbolic shoe. Even being "thrown out of the nest" is a threshold moment of decision for someone different than one one making the "commitment."

In all cases portals are known by one's passage.  The good or bad of each portal or threshold is always the possession of the one moving through or not.

This happens a bunch in the lives of churches, especially churches that are growing or healing.  The Alban Institute has written extensively about how churches teeter totter over and back at these threshold moments.  Its pretty simple but heart-renderingly difficult to get established beyond the threshold.  Its difficult because each next step forces old habits and practices to make way for new ways of doing things.

I worshipped in a very small parish that started a weekly email newsletter.  The "matriarch" and several members didn't "do email" and she like them received a copy in the mail.  We have the same provision here at Advent.  But all it took was one phone call from an already emailed friend.  So what was originally a tool for communicating became the symbol for "bad" communication.

Her reaction was first to be offended at being left out.  After a conversation or two with the priest (not me, BTW) and some friends she was able to identify a deeper fear under her being offended.  They were lucky that she recognized and admitted her fears.  Think of her experience as being cut from the "grapevine."

Going back to NO email newsletter didn't make sense.  But leaving that gap between Tuesday's email and Wednesday's snail mail didn't work either.  The compromise was to delay the email's transmission. That was easy.  But it wasn't until everyone was brought through the portal.

Advent is marvelously and painfully at several thresholds.  Most have to do with simple growth. Some have to do with the fuse of time burning.  And others have to do with how we forget and remember.

That we are considering budgets, vestries, committee chairs, worship leadership options, physical plant development AND maintenance is a spiritual necessity of our passage in becoming more and more of what God hopes for us to become.  That we have the moments of a new year and an annual meeting should help us to take several of the first steps need to have us on the other side.

Granted we will be taking on more than we will leave behind.  That's what it means to be a people of tradition and faith.  Our passages, whether in the election of someone new to the vestry or the revision of a budget to accommodate new staffing or the appointment of committee leadership or the redesigning the bricks in the patio depend on every step we take not just the ones that get us over the threshold.

Its not just what we do, its what we do NEXT that can glorify God just as much.

Tuesday, December 20, 2016

Son-Light in the Darkness

Easter is always on a Sunday, being placed by the Western Christian tradition on the first Sunday following the first full moon following the Spring equinox.  Basically a calculation of sun AND moon can put Easter on any Sunday between March 21 and April 25. But Christmas as a day determined by a solar calculation is seldom on a Sunday.  Instead it is on the day that December 25th finds itself.

The narrative begs this timing.  As Advent -- the season -- has turned our focus to the interplay of encroaching darkness and promising light we need for Jesus to be born within the very first turning of those longer days of winter.

It took a long time for Christians to get all these elements together. Exactly when was Quirinius Governor of Syria?  How interesting that Luke recalls that Bethlehem is the family home of David the shepherd boy thus setting up a comparison with the failures of the city that David the King called home, Jerusalem.  What could be meant by adding swaddling clothes to the set of signs?  And what's with "lying in a manger?" Why are shepherds; dirty, poor, migrant-worker-like shepherds the first to hear the angels' Gloria?

Seems like all these features echo lowliness, humanity's lowliness.  Seems like the same principle is at work in the Annunciation to Mary and her Magnificat sung in response.  Lowliness and darkness are the origins of the Messiah, not Rome's palaces or even Jerusalem's temple.

Christmas is when it is because of what the light shining in the darkness means!  Indeed, has always meant.  God is at work reemphasizing His place in our lives not from the top down like a Caesar but from the bottom up, from the lowliness of a young mother, a manger and swaddling clothes, from within darkness to light.

You don't tell that story from the high noon of Summer's solstice or even the halfway point of Spring's or Fall's equinoxes.  You tell it in the dark of a winter in a hemisphere that was ancient Israel's and is ours today. You tell it so that all the subversion that is the lowly being lifted, the proud being scattered, the mighty being cast down, the hungry being filled gets right something that needs righting!

You tell it now because there is still too much darkness in our lives. Darkness that is ours no matter our rank or privilege. Darkness that persists through every human's, every caesar's, every president's, every priest's, every parishioner's attempt to be rid of it.

Only the light of God, pointed and small can make its way with us and we call him Emmanuel.  Can makes its way for us and He is Jesus.  Can make its way in us just like it did in Mary.  Can make its way through us because there is still too much darkness.

We'll miss grandeur of John's gospel this year.  It has the language in a couple of sentences that it takes Luke three chapters to convey.  It goes like this, "What has come into being in him was life, and the life was the light of all people. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it." (John 1:4-5 NRSV.)

Thanks be to God!

Tuesday, December 13, 2016

Christ is born . . . for whom?

The title is not a trick question.  The answer is simple: the whole world.  But how we make our way through these seasons of Advent and Christmas and the days after our Epiphany feast speaks volumes to how we understand the direction and effect of the incarnation.
So here are some other questions:
How do the conditions of your birth affect your life, today?
Jesus came into the world in just about the worst of circumstances.  Thanks be to God he had a mother who loved him who had the committed support of a husband.  But Bethlehem was not his home.  How many of us were born into circumstances that thrust meaning and significance onto us over and above joining a family?  How do we understand poverty or wealth as related to our beginnings?  What family histories of health concerns are now ours to consider?
How do you balance society's version with the Church's version?
Ours is a confused mix of symbols and signals.  If we take the first amendment seriously or literally then why is there a display on the post office square of wisemen and the holy family?  How much care do we take to protect the legendary nostalgic Santa Claus from the Christian history of sacrificial saints?  How so we teach so as to minimize what must be "unlearned?"
How do you understand our lives as made better or different by his birth?  We hear "god with us" and many are encouraged toward gratitude and so turn into gift-ers to those less fortunate.  Others understand His birth as indicating God's love and therefore are encouraged toward hope for a darkening and fallen world.  Some immediately feel blessed and joy is their first expression.  
How do we express our claim that God is incarnate -- think "with us" -- when the days aren't a break from routines of school and work?
The incarnation must play out over time, when the decorations are down and the season is ordinary. But will it work to chime, "Merry Christmas!" in mid February's chill?
How do we incarnate God?
If Christ is born for the whole world then how do we participate in furthering his presence, in making him real, helping others to see that greatest gift of God with us?
I'm not suggesting that we leave our trees up into Lent or that we force our Christmas traditions beyond their reach.  Twelves days is too much for many.
I am suggesting that we have a part to play in the emerging of what Christmas capsulizes and capitalizes for us.  Some of it will be to look for ways to make a difference in the world that traps people in the conditions into which they were born. Some of our part will be to disambiguate society's versions from the Church's. Some of it will be to engender hope, joy, gratitude and faith in our own lives. Some of it will be keep asking the questions of how is my life better by way of His incarnation and what difference we can make for others?  
All of it is for the whole world.

Tuesday, December 6, 2016

Echoing our vows

When I was ordained to the deaconate at Trinity Cathedral in Columbia, SC in June of 1993 I was handed a bible, "The New Oxford Annotated Bible with the Apocrypha Expanded Edition.   It is leather bound, black, heavy, a little floppy (think Billy Graham) and . . . seldom used.
Don't get me wrong I read a Bible everyday, either electronically or from among the other 20 plus translations and copies I own.  I even have another "New Oxford Annotated Bible with the Apocrypha Expanded Edition."
I seldom read from my ordination Bible BECAUSE it is special.  I want to use it as a symbol as much as a tool, as a milepost as much as a map.  Maybe you have something like this in your life.  A piece of wedding cake?  Some jewelry? An article of clothing?
But the marker IS a reminder that at a specific time and place in my life I committed to those ordination vows, gave up my life as a lay person (including my parish membership), was blessed and with the laying on of hands made a deacon.
There is something about our vows that begs an echo, a reminder, a re-upping.  When we celebrated as we did this past Sunday with Bishop Whitmore's help we all participated in echoing the first vows I made as an Episcopalian. Vows I made in May of 1989.  They are the vows of the Baptismal Covenant.
As Anna, Daisy Jane, Debbie, and Holly and the several others who presented themselves to the Bishop in reaffirmation and as I accepted your call to serve this parish as Rector WE ALL renewed our baptismal vows.  The echoing refrain of "I will with God's help" is just plain beautiful, deeply stirring, consistently encouraging, bright but sobering.
So I will remember this past Sunday without a Bible but with a people.  A people together renewed and committed to:

  • Continuing in the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, in the breaking of bread, and in the prayers
  • Persevering in resisting evil, and, whenever you fall into sin, repent and return to the Lord
  • Proclaiming by word and example the Good News of God in Christ
  • Seeking and serving Christ in all persons, loving our neighbors as ourselves
  • Striving for justice and peace among all people, and respecting the dignity of every human being

To each of these we aspire "with God's help."  Over and over we recall the promises we made first at our own baptisms, then our own confirmations, and then every time we've welcomed others into this fellowship.
There's a post-it note in the front of that New Oxford Annotated Bible with the Apocrypha Expanded Edition.  It says, "Please bring this Bible to the ordination May 21, 1994.  [signed] FCB
I was ordained to the priesthood a little earlier than that. January 21, 1994 at the Church of the Good Shepherd, Augusta, GA.  I brought the Bible.

Tuesday, November 29, 2016

Giving: A Path from the Past to Future

Travelocity has published a list of cities that are good examples of benevolence. Three Georgia cities are on the list: Atlanta, Augusta and Athens.  Having lived for several years in Athens I can vouch for their inclusion.  I remember learning that the annual Relay for Life held on campus raised more donations than any other college-based relay.  That's just one example.  There are many more, UGA Heroes, Dance Marathon, all the Greeks and their service events.  Coupled with what comes out of all the community groups there's probably an opportunity for every week of the year in Athens.
I'll bet Madison would be on the list if we were the size of Augusta or Athens.  This is a very giving community.  Didn't we just raise more than $30,000 for the Boys and Girls Club at the Dancing with the Madison Stars?  How many families were fed by the Thanksgiving dinners Calvary Baptist organized?  Seems like Madison has its own constantly giving spirit.  
I've been thinking about our giving for several reasons.  First because I recall our Dickens "A Christmas Carol" movie viewings last year.  More on that in a minute.
Another trigger is my own finishing out my pledge for 2016.  I'm on track but still have more than 10% of my promise to keep.  
Another trigger is our current and closing pledge campaign. Excuse me for being so direct but it feels like we do not have the same spirit in us this year as last.  I'll take some of the hit for that difference being the one who escaped on sabbatical so abruptly this summer.  Coupled with the accident my absence caused more worry and anxiety than we've ever known together.  
There is a future we have not considered as well this year as we did last and the year before.
So . . . back to Dickens.  Scrooge is visited by three spirits or ghosts of Christmas past, present and future.  The visit to the past saddens Scrooge and the one to the future scares him.  Just remember the cold dark scene in the cemetery as Scrooge's own grave is pointed out to him.  He jumps out of his nightmare-ish slumber and is converted.
For sure there is plenty in his life to fear and plenty to have him say "hold on tight," "don't be a spendthrift," "you never know when things will get worse," and most of all "don't waste what you have on the poor."  My take on it is that the inevitability of his own dying and the likelihood of his being dismissed from loving memory because of his stinginess triggers a conversion to giving.  
I believe in the hearts of each of Advent's parishioners.  I do know that we are among the many in this community who give so well for the benefit of others.  In many ways we are the leaders.  
I also know that at present we are not as confident, not as hopeful, not as ready to embrace the future and to give to each other.  
I'm not complaining.  Instead I'm hoping to build on a truth about our anxiety, our worry, our fears and move through the present moment.  
Ironically, it's the ghost of Christmas present that looks more like we want to be; generous, exuberant, happy, hopeful.  Also, we are NOT Scrooges.  We have not denied that our lives will end and as faithful people we are already doing whatever we can for those less fortunate around us and beyond our boundaries.  
I'm here to say this: We have so much more to do so that a future Advent, and a future Madison, and a future Georgia -- think "ever widening circle" --  can give like we can give, can hope like we can hope, can celebrate like we can celebrate. Our future in God is calling us.  

Monday, November 21, 2016

From the Bishop of Western Louisiana

Hate, Love, and Thanksgiving

The Nazis imprisoned my mother in one of the lesser-known concentration camps. Mauthausen was located about 12 miles from her home, Linz, Austria. More people are familiar with camps like Auschwitz, Dachau, and Treblinka, but Mauthausen and its nearly 100 subcamps was one of the largest labor camps of the Nazi Regime. 

ens-111416_swastikaSlave labor was a slow and agonizing form of execution. People were sent to labor camps to work and starve to death. Somewhere between 122,000 and 320,00 people died in the Mauthausen complex.

A nice if rebellious Catholic girl, my mother entered Mauthausen at around age 15. The American soldiers who liberated the camp found her badly beaten and left for dead in the dirt.

You may be wondering why I have chosen this Thanksgiving week to share a ghastly part of my family story. Well, this is a holiday unlike any I’ve experienced before. The swastika is having a resurgence in our country, and as a Bishop of the Episcopal Church I cannot remain silent.

Vandals marred Episcopal churches in Maryland and Indiana with the Nazi symbol. They added hate speech like “whites only” and “fag church.” 

Political figures are considering forming a registry of Muslims who live in the United States, whether they are citizens or legally resident aliens. And I am reminded of the stories my mother and grandparents told about the Star of David on Jewish shops and clothing. They said nothing, never imagining that a nice Roman Catholic girl could eventually become a target.

My mother always made a big deal out of Thanksgiving. She was grateful to be a naturalized citizen of this country. She understood what freedom means in a way that very few of us born on these shores will ever know.ens_111416_trumpnationwhitesonly

Every Thanksgiving my thoughts turn to my late mother. And this year, I feel the shock and the horror she would feel seeing the resurgence of the hate and the violence she thought she had escaped once and for all. 

Minorities, women, LBGT persons, and immigrants have expressed fear and anxiety. But everyone should be vigilant. In the twentieth century, Germany and my mother’s birthplace Austria were sophisticated, humane, advanced countries. And they succumbed to organized hatred. Especially Christians must speak up and stand in solidarity with the weak and the marginalized. They are always the first targets. But they may not be the last if we do not speak up now.

ens_111416_buddeandvalleIn our Baptismal Covenant, we promise to seek and serve Christ in all persons. To love our neighbor our ourselves. To strive for justice and peace among all people. To respect the dignity of every human being. Every. Human. Being. Not just the ones who look like us. Think like us. Believe like us. Speak like us.

This is what followers of Jesus look like. We look like we’re learning to love what he loves—who he loves—in response to the love he has already given us. That is what real Thanksgiving looks like.