Tuesday, November 24, 2015

Let's Call Thursday Trustgiving Day Instead

The Gospel lesson for Thanksgiving Day ordered by the BCP is Matthew's recalling the words of Jesus to "consider the lilies" as a way to understand that worrying is not as important a focus in one's spiritual life as would be trusting in God.  The lectionary framers had something in mind more than just an encouragement to give thanks.  Along with Matthew and in following Jesus they wanted us to see the close relationship that true gratitude towards God and deep trust in God have with each other.  

So let us be cautious, at least, seeing as that our American popular culture and economic mythology calls us to rely on our consumption to save us the very next day after the one for which this lesson is chosen.  The sirens of Black Friday are already sounding and one wonders how our prayers will compete.  

Please take the time it takes to read Matthew 6:25-33 and consider as many of these questions as you can.  They are the same questions we asked each other at our recent Community Thanksgiving service. 

1.   Jesus said “do not worry. . . “  Do you worry?  How?

2.   How much is enough?

3.   What possessions are the focus of your worry?

4.   How do others benefit when you “strive first for the Kingdom of God?”

5.   Did a stranger ever help you to be at ease? How?

6.   Describe how you felt when someone else gave help you with an important necessity.

7.   Does knowing what or how much you have effect your giving or sharing? How?

8.   To what needs in others around you are you most likely to respond?

9.   When is greed bad?

10.   Have you or will you reduce(d) your consumption during the holiday?

Tuesday, November 17, 2015

More Bad Theology

I wrote this May 30, 2008:

First Amendment and Bad Theology
This may take a while so bear with me. Another of my constant peeves is the misrepresentation of the first amendment by hard right fun-damn-mentalists and those of the political right using religion to seize power not meant for them by our constitution. . .

. . . After I stop screaming I screamed some more because I remembered that this methodology masquerading as a theology has been the musak of my life of southern religion. John 3:16 which promises salvation based on God's love of the world has been spun for decades as if it only contained its latter half, the part that says "whosoever believeth in him shall not perish but have everlasting life" (KJV) Believing gets elevated to a position at least equal to God's love and becomes the guarantee of one's eternal habitation. Believe first and then you can say you are saved.
Over the years two scripturally based correctives have grown in my understanding since those naive days of my childhood when John 3:16 was as commonplace in its assurance of safety as knowing one's phone number. The first is the reminder spoken by Jesus himself in each of the synoptics:
“For whosoever will save his life shall lose it: and whosoever will lose his life for my sake shall find it.” Matthew 16:25
“For whosoever will save his life shall lose it; but whosoever shall lose his life for my sake and the gospel’s, the same shall save it.”Mark 8:35
“For whosoever will save his life shall lose it: but whosoever will lose his life for my sake, the same shall save it.” Luke 9:24, KJV.
 . . . In short, faith is not the work that earns eternal life, because there is no "work" that can save us.
. . . One of the consequences of what I call "first amendment abuse," is that actions like using [our military for] evangelization will give another undeserved public hearing to what is always and sadly so just very bad theology.

  • Its bad theology to worry about the salvation of your own life when the world is starving and thirsty and oppressed and imprisoned.
  • Its bad theology to get others to believe like you so that they can be saved. Unless the world becomes a better place you have to ask, "saved from what?" 
  • Its bad theology to try to save your own life, especially if that effort thwarts another's salvation. 
  • Its bad theology to turn faith into a righteous work, to turn human believing into an eternal guarantee.
Granted the cost is higher and the damage greater and religion different but what happens in places like Paris and Beirut and in the skies over Egypt is also born of bad theology.    

We need to look at how we contribute as a denomination, as a culture, and as a nation to a practice of bad theology and without intending -- as far as the average Joe can tell -- contribute to other bad practices from around the world.  

Tuesday, November 10, 2015

Better than Bigger

Before my children were school aged I started playfully acknowledging that they were growing. Each night as I tucked them into bed I would reach from the tops of their heads to their toes and show them how far it was.  This was no fish story.  I would keep my arms spread as close to the original measurement as I could and back away with a "Wow!  I think you really are bigger!  How did you do that?"

Like most parents when we begin to marvel at how our children grow we are almost always focused on physical characteristics.

No one needs to feel bad about this.  This is how it works around the world.  But eventually we start to notice other ways that growth manifests itself.  The first time a child is generous without being prodded almost always gets attention.  Whenever a piercing question is asked we marvel then, too.

Somehow though it is still the physical measures that get to go first.  Maturity or intelligence or compassion wait to be seen.

In the Episcopal Church we have our own fixations on "gross measures."  Calculating the Average Sunday Attendance (ASA) is the current practice.  Each Sunday, usually during the readings I'm counting heads.  Most Sundays I like the numbers.  I'll admit that some Sundays I want to fudge a little.

Our ASA is growing.  That's a fact.  We are now averaging more than 80 per Sunday morning.  I've joked that our 8:00am service is the fastest growing in the diocese having doubled in ASA in the five years I've been serving.   We've gone from 8-10 to 16-20.

Just like our wanting our children to grow in compassion, intelligence or maturity we want to be able to measure our lives in ministry and service by more than just the numbers.

But it needs to be said plainly and clearly, when our numbers are good we can count ON so much more. Another way to say it is that ASA is more symptom than fact, more lens than a thing to be looked at.

I cannot point at any one thing and say that is why the numbers are good.  I can say that we are as compassionate and generous as we have ever been.  I can say that we are as careful in our discernment and decision making as we have ever been.  I can say that we as welcoming and collaborative as we have ever been.

I can say that we are growing.  We are growing into a more mature practice of our faith that makes all these others ways of growing possible.  Our ASA is a bonus.

Here's another bonus that comes with these ways of growing.  Nothing of what we were before needs to be punished or criticized.  You wouldn't pick on your own child for being "small for her age," would you?

Instead what we do is to marvel and wonder and celebrate that we have grown.  And we give thanks that God has loved us through it all.

Tuesday, November 3, 2015

Jesus Movement

If you have not watched it yet please take the thirty minutes or so needed to watch and listen to our newly inaugurated Presiding Bishop Michael Curry as he delivers an inspired and encouraging word to the whole church.

Two phrases keep echoing throughout his sermon.  The first to hit home is his take on the moment reported in chapter 17 of the Acts of the Apostles:
“Now when they had passed through Amphipolis and Apollonia, they came to Thessalonica, where there was a synagogue of the Jews. And Paul went in, as was his custom, and for three weeks he argued with them from the scriptures, explaining and proving that it was necessary for the Christ to suffer and to rise from the dead, and saying, “This Jesus, whom I proclaim to you, is the Christ.” And some of them were persuaded, and joined Paul and Silas; as did a great many of the devout Greeks and not a few of the leading women. But the Jews were jealous, and taking some wicked fellows of the rabble, they gathered a crowd, set the city in an uproar, and attacked the house of Jason, seeking to bring them out to the people. And when they could not find them, they dragged Jason and some of the brethren before the city authorities, crying, “These men who have turned the world upside down have come here also, and Jason has received them; and they are all acting against the decrees of Caesar, saying that there is another king, Jesus.”” Acts 17:1-7, RSV.
Bishop Curry said more and said it this way, "they have turned the world upside down, which is really right side up!"

Right next to that he reminded us that Jesus did not come to establish a church but to join a movement that was passing through John the Baptist, having been handed down by the prophets as they helped Israel live according to the tradition forged by Moses and the children in the wilderness.

And now God is calling us to join that same movement.  It will have some characteristics -- usual for some and difficult for others -- that will not be easily accomplished by a hierarchical, liturgical and nearly established church.

Evangelism is one of the pieces in this movement that will seem unfamiliar or uncomfortable to many.  But Bishop Curry said this:
"I’m talking about a way of evangelism that is genuine and authentic to us as Episcopalians, not a way that imitates or judges anyone else.  A way of evangelism that is really about sharing good news. A way of evangelism that is deeply grounded in the love of God that we’ve learned from Jesus. A way of evangelism that is as much about listening and learning from the story of who God is in another person’s life as it is about sharing our own story. A way of evangelism that is really about helping others find their way to a relationship with God without our trying to control the outcome. A way of evangelism that’s authentic to us. We can do that. (my emphasis)
Bishop Curry reminded us that our own General Convention had already begun the hard work of that other characteristic of the Jesus movement: reconciliation and in particular racial reconciliation. 

His story of his parents taking communion in an Episcopal parish where they were the only African-Americans in attendance that Sunday was stirring and precious.

The heart of the story was communion itself.  Holy Communion that invites us to eat the bread and then drink from the same cup.
The man [taking communion for the first time] would later say that it was that reconciling experience of Christ in the sacrament of the Eucharist that brought him into The Episcopal Church.  He said, “Any Church in which blacks and whites drink out of the same cup knows something about the Gospel that I want to be a part of.” 
That couple later married and gave birth to two children, both of whom are here today, and one of whom is the 27th Presiding Bishop.
How we undertake our part in this movement will not necessarily look a lot like Morgan County.  It is about God's dream, God's love, God's hope for us.  It will feel new and unfamiliar.  Some of it will feel like something other than the church we remember Sunday after Sunday.  It will push us out of our own comfort zones.  And some of it will feel like turning the world upside down.

Tuesday, October 27, 2015

Vessels and Vessels

 All metaphors eventually leak. They leak when we use them beyond their capacity to describe the reality to which they've introduced us.

 Last week I wrote to the parish I serve about the connectedness of our Outreach Committee's giving. I bragged 10% of our budget is spent on outreach and I celebrated that each ministry we support has a connection to us.

 Later that day I saw some fairly recent data on how the average American's income compares to the incomes of all the others inhabiting "this fragile, our island home."

 This was the most impressive piece of what I read and shared on Facebook. Those of us with incomes at or above $50,000 are in the top 1% in the world. 

 This hits in an interesting way because our own current U.S. political news has repeatedly named the "1%" as being a socioeconomic group that doesn't include me or most of those I call "us."

 It is a matter of perspective.

 And here's the rub; ours is the perspective that needs addressing just as much or more than the view held by the American 1%. But they are "on top" of us and everyone else on the planet and so do not have the luxury of thinking that someone above them is preventing some positive outcome meant for them.

 I do not say this to vilify them. Granted many of them are fairly recent new-comers to that "club." Some have moved into membership by way of modern legislation to help "the economy" using economic theories known best by metaphors like "trickle-down" or "rising tide."

 Nonetheless, they are not compelled to consider a complicity of which they could claim to have been ignorant.  I am.

 They have known where they stand in the stratified world of incomes ever since they arrived. We are the ones who can rightly claim surprise at the Credit Suisse report.  We are the ones who can say we thought the changes were going to benefit everyone.  That's how "trickle down" and "rising tide" were portrayed to us.

 But we can't stop there. As disappointed as we may be in our current state we cannot deny that it could be worse and it IS worse for most of the planet already.

 Making our situation even more difficult to acknowledge is the way in which the newest members of the 1% came to their positions.  Some knew ahead of time, some were the ones who sold the metaphors, but all advanced when what we described with those unfortunate metaphors allowed practices and gained results the metaphors failed to describe.

 "Trickle down" failed by not identifying the "vessels" first to receive the inflows made by reducing taxes "at the top." The metaphor works if those at the top retained the same amounts and allowed what first flowed to them to actually trickle-down.

 Some saw that the opening the tax changes created would just as much provide the moment and the means to increase the size of the vessels -- cisterns? -- at the top of the flow.

 Rising tide was also a lie.  It led us to believe all our vessels -- the boat kind -- were free to float.  It did not accurately describe the mooring and anchorage of poverty or the dangers inherent when one's vessel is the smallest or most porous in the harbor.

 So what do we do now that those above us have carved out a space distancing even us from those below with benefits so little that we enjoy less or at least no more discretion over our expenses than before the tide supposedly rose?

 So much income has been redistributed to the top, the majority of us can no longer consume enough thus to rise the tide and stimulate the economy like in the good old days before these bad vessel metaphors.  

 Some could say we are complicit in our ignorance and that even though surprised we bear a responsibility to turn and face those below us and do more than cry "it's not my fault" or "we're doing the best we can."

 Again not vilify but to clarify: doesn't the response we are being called to make include addressing the realities our metaphors hid regardless of who is responsible for the hiding?

 Only some, say .001%(?) really are to blame.  But aren't all of us in the world's 1% living at someone else's expense whether we were fooled into it or not?

Parable of the River

There are several versions of this parable but in general they go like this.

There's a river and one day someone notices something floating in the current.  Its a dog in one version, or a cow, or a baby, or a person and worse a dead body.

The rescuer pulls whatever is floating by out of the river.  In every version the appropriate action is taken to care for what has been rescued.

This happens again.  And again.  More animals, more babies, more bodies.   In one version broken pieces of boats and canoes also flow by.

In every version the rescuers get good at rescuing.  In one they even build a hospital.

In every version someone finally asks something like "where are these  -- animals, babies, bodies -- coming from?"

Then the variations multiply.  For some the work of rescuing means so much that they are reluctant to leave their efforts to look upstream.  Some are eager to go but worried that they will not be up to what could be an even sterner task.  Some go and find even worse circumstances.

In several versions they stop whatever is upstream causing victims to be caught in the current.

This parable became part of our conversation in Tuesday's most recent meeting of the Circle of Love support team.

Look for more information about their plans elsewhere in this and following newsletters.

As we have rightly focused a new and vibrant interest in the work being done through the shelter in Greene County we are already to a point of considering a bigger picture, to thinking upstream to the how we might address the causes or triggers or preconditions whose outcomes are all of the category: domestic violence.

Looking upstream is not only a consideration for this committee but it is really a strategy and -- even better -- an organizational model for church.

How we look upstream -- not just as an additional effort of our outreach commitments -- and consider the preconditions for the current problems we face becomes a rehearsal for how we look at the world. And often that call to consider more will have to meet the demands of an already stretched but comfortable set of responses.

There may very well be costs but there are no substitutes for going upstream.

Tuesday, October 20, 2015

Campaign Financing

I just left the October meeting of our Outreach Committee.  Boy am I impressed!!!  
  • We voted on the distribution of the last $3500.00 in this year's budget.  Gifts to Circle of Love (our newest venture), the Baldwin Farm at Camp Twin Lakes, and relief aid to South Carolinians hurt by the recent severe flooding.  
  • We committed to providing Angel Tree gifts to 24 residents at Madison Health and Rehabilitation
  • We committed to collecting Christmas gifts for the children in the Circle of Love shelter
  • We learned that the mission of the Morgan County Foundation for Excellence in Public Education, Inc. is to support and enhance the educational programs of the public schools of Morgan County, Georgia.
  • We learned that our Panda Packs ministry is now providing more than 100 packs each weekend.  
  • We finished this year's distribution of 10% of our annual undesignated parish income for a total of $21,000.00 for outreach!!!
We should note that those funds do not include the ~$800.00 we collected for Episcopal Relief and Development during our Lent Madness campaign.

More important is the realization that our donations do not go to people or places from which we are disconnected.  More typical for us is that one of parishioners makes an appeal on behalf of a ministry or effort to which they are already joined.  

If the money leads, someone has followed.  If someone is engaged they will look for support from their parish.  Chicken or egg?  In the end it just doesn't matter.  

Given the time of year with presidential politics dominating the news rooms we could use the metaphor of campaign financing to understand those moments when the money gets our attention.  

Did you know that we have supported the work of the Boys' and Girls' Club with more than $3000.00?  With more than 250 children and youth served, not only could they use more support, they need more volunteers.  

Did you know that along with a pledge from the Outreach team for $1500.00 to the Circle of Love we are also planning bi-monthly donation drives for things like pillow cases, toys, food stuffs, school uniforms?

Did you know that our annual support for the Transient/Benevolence Fund administered by Madison Baptist's Jim Nesmith is increased by grants from the Salvation Army so that they can help more than 150 families each year?

Did you know that our donation to the General Scholarship Fund for the Madison campus of Georgia Military College was part of more than $75,000 being raised?  The response in Morgan county is the largest such collection in the 9 campus system of GMC.

Did you know that the Camp Twin Lakes operation serves more than 9500 campers per year?  

Do you see? How we give and what we are interested in go hand in hand.  Our interests stimulate our giving and our giving can just as much stimulate our interest.  

I remember a phrase, I think it was from the Watergate days: "follow the money."  It spoke a sad truth about one of the worst scandals of our lives in American politics.  

The phrase is just as true in this markedly more positive application.  Sometimes we know where the needs are and we know from whom to ask for assistance.

But if we "follow the money" that our Outreach team hopes to distribute each year we will find our own lives enriched along with the thousands we too hope to help.