Tuesday, September 17, 2019

Belonging's Localities

“If you go to Atlanta, the first question people ask you is, "What's your business?" In Macon they ask, "Where do you go to church?" In Augusta they ask your grandmother's maiden name. But in Savannah the first question people ask you is "What would you like to drink?”
― John Berendt, Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil

I've always had an interest and respect for "local custom" just like author Berendt shared.  Not only does it provide a shortcut to understanding, with it dangers of stereotyping and prejudice, but it also helps to navigate the world in and between these environs.

In most cases local custom is the property of those "landed" gentlepersons or long-time residents who can answer Augusta's question for instance with Walton or Fannin. But ownership is not so strictly defined such that a little mystery can't also be engaged in the protection and maintenance of those customs.

My respect for local custom has matured while being a priest in the Episcopal Church.  With our Book of Common Prayer much of what I do is "prescribed." But I have yet to serve -- especially in worship leadership -- the same way in two places.

Just like Berendt's cities each parish has its customs and ownership of those customs is just as mysterious.  Advent has it's local customs, too.

For instance, our practice of kneeling for the Collect of the Day at the beginning of Sunday's Eucharists is not one I've seen anywhere else in the church.  The only source I can imagine would have been from those days of re-founding that relied on lay leadership and Morning Prayer according to the 1928 BCP would have had just about all prayers prayed while kneeling.

Somehow that practice has survived into these years of priests present every Sunday, a "new" prayerbook, and several "stints" of service by the same priest inclined toward their own habits and standards.   The cloud of mystery fades and most often I see Graham Ponder in vestments saying "The Lord be with you."

My favorite "local custom" was the one of providing a small glass of vodka on the credence table as an antiseptic aid to cleaning the vessels after communion.  I'm NEVER saying where I encountered that "mystery."

I'm sure there'd be no complaint if one were asked Macon's question in Atlanta or Savannah's in Augusta.  But these customs are local for a reason.  There are stories to be told. There is an aspiration or hope behind them.  There are memories and griefs shared.  At their best they are empowered as much by love as fear, as much to invite as to exclude.

It's not easy but belonging means living through some "bad" answers and waiting for a turn to ask the question back of the "gentry" so they can tell their stories, too.  So when we ask Advent's question -- I don't know what it is -- let's hope for belonging to be answer.

Wednesday, September 11, 2019

Forgiveness' Freedom

It was 18 years ago.  That means there are first year college students who have known no other world but the one punctuated for us by those planes and those towers and mostly those lives lost.  I'm still frightened by the memory.

What an incredible imagination, hardly anything but evil could have schemed so well to accomplish such a horror.  It seems our national defenses overt and covert are still learning how to deal with the "bin Ladens" who remain and continue to scheme.

There is no way to isolate the actions mass or singular of any terrorist.  Sadly it is not always their evil that begins the bombing, the shooting, the kidnapping.  They will almost always have some sense of injustice, some other's evil to redress that ends in what seems like a constant horror now.

Some of what I see now is a gift from God.  That is my having a perspective that protects me from a confusion of my own ego, my faith, and my citizenship.  I am not the one from whom forgiveness comes for those murderous acts.  But I surely have what God provides through me.

I wish this were case for all of those who lost a beloved family member or friend in the attack and its aftermath but for me one gift of forgiveness is that it frees me a little from the horror and it's haunting.  I do not have to remain afraid or only see those actors as of an evil for which we have no protection.  The gift extends and makes it possible to think about why it all happened.  Because God is the source of love and freedom I don't have to be afraid.

And so I'm asking a hard question; one that still triggers fear in many of the people I love. But here it is: what have we learned about ourselves, our nation, our culture, our place in the world that could be deemed an injustice permitting that retribution or even more so needing God's forgiveness?

I'm not asking about our response, most of it was heroic and courageous.  Some of it was misguided.

I'm asking about who "we" were to the world before those cells were empowered, before those passports were stamped, before those flying lessons were taught, before the tickets were bought. And I'm asking about who we can become.

Because of who God is I'm not afraid to ask.  Because of who God is I know I can still make a difference in that world and do more than push my chest out in a bravado that too often imitates patriotism.  I can forgive. 

And after that,  I can look for those ways we set a stage; not by ourselves but still with a presumption that all we did was meant for good.  Or at least enough "for good" that it covered our sins.  As if that's how goodness works.

Because of who God is I know that forgiveness exists, that it works, that it works for me, and for us too.  God is the source of love and freedom and because of who God is the whole world can be forgiven.  Without that forgiveness we may never really know why.

Wednesday, September 4, 2019

The Road's Freedom

Most of you know that I am making my way to Bozeman, MT this week to visit with my daughter and her beau as she begins her third year of college studies now a Montana State Bobcat.  She has made this part of the world as much her home as any having worked her fifth summer at Yellowstone.

I've made a trip like this three times.  Once in the famous "platform Saab," my first Prius, my second Prius and now my third (last?) Prius.  I've posted my itinerary on the parish Facebook page.  Wednesday is the longest haul from Black River Falls, Wisconsin to Theodore Roosevelt NP in far western North Dakota.

I travel without the benefit of the radio.  Silence or talking to myself is the mode.  A bunch of what happens is straight up prayer.  God gets to hear everything with every emotion and every "tone" of voice.  I've even had to pull off to let the tears flow.

There's something about being by myself, with just enough occupation on the road and my driving to minimize those distractions that plague my hyper mind.   Walking my labyrinth does the same for me.

The freedom of those miles that I love has much less to do with distance or only being encumbered by an itinerary but much much more with a sense that it's just me and God.  Sometimes I let God have a say. (winking emoji) To me that means I've got a lot less in the way.  Things like self defense or trying to win an argument.

Every time I've gone on one of these trips I've come back with some clarity or understanding that I had not packed.  I'm getting to where I intend for that happen.  I don't want to jinx it so I'll stop. (same emoji)

Some of my sense of freedom is that I am with God on this road.  It connects me to the first name for those crazy Christians: the People of the Way.  It's still true that when we are moving forward WITH God we share a freedom like no other.

I'll be back September 13 excited about the road WE are on and how God is with us.

Wednesday, August 28, 2019

The Truth's Bell

Our church has a modest bell in its steeple.  Much smaller than the Morgan County Courthouse bell that is my constant companion in the rectory.  Still it rings with sufficient charm on those occasions like weddings and Easter and with some solemnity when we are laying a loved one to rest.  We're inconsistent in our practice but that is not the bell's fault.

On this past Sunday a small group of parishioners and friends gathered to commemorate the 400th anniversary of the arrival of slaves in Jamestown, Virginia.  I had cobbled together a liturgy of prayers and a pledge to action centered around a hymn whose words could be sung to a tune we had just used earlier in worship that morning.

We took turns and while the rest of us said our prayers and sang this hymn we pulled that stiff little rope to ring the bell at least 400 times:
Let press, let pulpit thunder
In all slave−holders’ ears
Till they disgorge the plunder
They’ve garnered up for years;
Till Mississippi’s valley,
Till Carolina’s coast,
Round Freedom’s standard rally,
A vast, a ransomed host!*

Important to several of us including some who were not attending is the accuracy of the claims about slavery's beginnings in "America."  My heart is settled that our claim of a 400 year history is damning enough such that other beginnings or practices in other settlements, that other competing histories or claims only reinforce the judgement.  Slavery should never have been, period.

That it gets the mention it does from the great missionary Paul as a standard of society and culture out-gained indeed undone by the saving act of Christ Jesus is indication enough that it has gone on too long.  Our 400 or whatever number of years it "really" is observance is more modest than our bell.

The truth is that humans can and have been horribly sinful and have from the beginning found ways to subject one class below another.

The number of years in our commemoration do not just speak of a shameful past.  They speak just as loudly -- the truth's bell is ringing -- to turn our attention to our current sins against each other.

Part of our liturgy was edited from prayers for those children enslaved in a sex trade actively practiced right here in Georgia, most likely even Morgan County.  Part of our liturgy named the horrible remainders of Jim Crow still infecting our right to vote.  Part of our liturgy begged for us to make a difference now.

So the truth is not so much undone by competing histories.  All of them are damning!  But our bell can also ring for more than commemorations.  It can and should ring to say to God "save us!"  It can and should ring to proclaim God's power over our histories, over our divisions, over our sins past and present.  The truth's bell is ringing and like Paul it is proclaiming:
. . . for in Christ Jesus you are all children of God through faith. As many of you as were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus. (Galatians 3:26-28 NRSV)
*John Pierpont (April 6, 1785 – August 27, 1866) was an American poet, who was also successively a teacher, lawyer, merchant, and Unitarian minister. His most famous poem is The Airs of Palestine.

Tuesday, August 20, 2019

The Conversation's Source

From last week, "We are called to join in civic/civil discourse just like we are called to love.  Indeed that is when the people of the church are at their best, when we speak the truth in love. (Ephesians 4:15)"

There are lots of ways a conversation from love shows itself.  Perhaps most obvious is what we used to call "good manners."  You'd have to be living in a cave to miss how much of those practices are missing in our current public discourse.  

As much as we may lament their absence there is more to our speaking the truth in love than good manners.  That is to say that love is more than a style element.  It is an anchor, a foundation, a strength, a source.  Many conversations that are missing their manners can still be sustained to finding a point of resolution and learning for both parties when start with love. 

Indeed, it is incumbent upon us to trust the source of love more than any style when the topic is hard.  Violations of "manners" or social custom have long been a way for the powerful to silence the powerless. Sometimes the asking itself is the violation no matter how the question is presented.  I think about that moment in the film "Oliver" when he approaches Mr. and Mrs. Bumble for "more."  No one asks for more! Conversation over!

When love is the source of what we say it shapes much of how we say it.  But love -- especially love in our public discourse -- has many pretenders.  For instance, fear can generate passions that we confuse with love.  

It takes trust to let love find its voice in us.  And we have to be honest about ourselves when we are love's intended delivery system.  None of us is worthy except and until love chooses us.  

St. Paul was often writing to communities at odds with each other and he came to understand the value of love as more than a delivery system or style or feeling.  We miss what he said in his letter to the Corinthians when we hear read at weddings.  "Without love/ἀγάπην I am a noisy gong."

Paul is talking to a community at odds with itself and he is talking about talking.  What he says is an excellent guide for us as fellow parishioners or for whenever we are joined to that broader civic/civil discourse that waits on us and begs for this love.
Love is patient; love is kind; love is not envious or boastful or arrogant or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice in wrongdoing, but rejoices in the truth. It bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things. Love never ends. I Corinthians 13:4-8a 

Friday, August 9, 2019

The Freedoms' Protections

I heard it said more than once and have said it myself, "The church would be perfect it weren't for all these people."  Laughing at that remark is a sign of health, by the way.   Interestingly it hangs on an assumption that there can be such a thing as church without its "constituating" people.

Certainly the church lives with lots of objects or artifacts that would still remain if all the members were removed.  The Bible itself is chief among those "artifacts."  There has been a centuries' long debate about it.

It's sort of a "chicken or egg" question.  Is scripture -- and in our case that is the Bible -- a product of what we now call the Church?  Or does scripture have a priority -- we call it inspired for a reason -- that when read and "obeyed" produces a community of faith.  

No matter where you might stand on that question, tomorrow waits on both scripture and its readers to decide how to live through faith with one another.  If we fail to live with one another then scripture is subject to our individual idiosyncrasies.  To each his/her own.  If we leave it behind then our shared faithfulness -- no matter how earnest -- has no standard.  Think Amos' "plumbline."

The same can be said of our First Amendment freedoms.  The protections of free exercise, speech, press, assembly, and petition wait on our practice of those very freedoms.  Otherwise what good is the amendment itself?  

Yes we credit -- and rightfully so -- our brave men and women who have defended those freedoms but we could undo all with which we honor them by failing to practice the freedoms ourselves.  It is the practice itself that ratifies the amendment.  

Artifact or inspiration, scripture waits.  And does so because God is a God of love and love cannot coerce and still be love.   

God has taken and is taking a great risk in "the Church" and especially in the people upon whom God waits, to practice love.  Our Constitution also takes a risk in its people. 

Because freedom also cannot be coerced, the First Amendment waits

It follows for me that our church, made of its people, is well suited for participating in that practice that protects those freedoms in our Bill of Rights.   We are called to join in civic/civil discourse just like we are called to love.  Indeed that is when the people of the church are at their best, when we speak the truth in love. (Ephesians 4:15)

Let's not wait ourselves and risk the loss of love or our precious freedoms.  Let's breathe, listen, speak then breathe again.  Beseeching our God of love to guide us so that our practice remains free and helps in making a "more perfect union."

Wednesday, August 7, 2019

The Commonwealth's Calling

I want to continue to reflect on the interplay of church and state from that history to which I am made close through my teen-aged years in Tappahannock, VA.  But my reflection must respect the events of the past weeks which rose to a horrible crescendo in El Paso and Dayton.  We named them specifically in our prayers.  We held hands when we prayed.

As a gathered community Sunday morning we brought our anguish and holy hunger in a sublime gesture of hope and "Blessed the Backpacks" of our school children as they begin a new year of study.  There was a gift in the way our liturgy allowed for the confusion of a dozen or of so unrehearsed adolescent actors to turn into a tender moment full of humility and imagination.

We passed the Peace and settled into our places and transitioned through my notoriously rambling announcements to hear from two respected parishioners as they professed their heart-felt concern for our country, our children and our own lives.

Only during the burials of beloved parishioners like Berry, Ginger, and Charles have we been that vulnerable as a congregation.  When we closed with the prayer attributed to St. Francis I had the sense that we really wanted God to make us servants of peace.

Whenever we speak of peace in our lives we have to remember that it intends more than an absence of conflict and noise.  The Hebrew shalom/שָׁל֣וֹם means so much more and is closely kin to the historic-for-us concept of commonwealth.

Think back to how our role in a constitutionally structured discourse is to bring together and act on the new authority of citizens whose speech is protected, whose assembly is protected, whose press is protected and whose petitioning the government is protected.  The First Amendment imagines our church, actually that ALL churches empowered by protected citizens are to speak from a respect and affinity for the commonwealth.

And when we speak as the church we speak best as servants of the God of shalom.  We speak knowing the false assurances of bigger barns and abundance beyond our use.  God says "your life is required!"

God is calling us!  Calling us everyday! There is no security or privilege that frees us from this calling!  We honor the spirits of the past like Berry, Ginger and Charles and countless others as we move forward into a community, a nation, a world desperate for shalom.

It will not do for us to be silent or to add to the partisan noise or to assure ourselves falsely with bigger barns. "This very night your life is being demanded of you. And the things you have prepared, whose will they be?" Luke 12:20