Thursday, August 10, 2017

DIOCESAN DISCORDS AND PARISH PYROTECHNICS


I hear that when you come together as church there  are divisions among you and to some extent I believe it.
                                                            1 Corinthians 11: 18

What is causing the quarrels and fights among you? Do they not come from the evil desires within you?
                                                                James 4: 1

Therefore, as God’s chosen people, holy and dearly loved,clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness, and patience.  Bear with one another and forgive one another if someone has a grievance, forgive as the Lord forgave you . . .. Let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts since as members of one body you were called to peace.
Colossians 3: 12-15
                             

Most of the New Testament was written to implore people who have divided up over this or that thing to resume relationship. Mutual respect and forbearance is a perennial issue in the Church, but not just the Church. It is a human thing. Kurt Vonnegut coined the term “granfallooons” meaning categories of people who actually have little in common but they identify as a group in opposition to another group of people who also have very little in common. He means to say that beneath the surface, our divisions are not really about what they appear to be about. They are about our propensity to divide for the sake of division.

In the face of the worldly way of division and discord, our central sacrament is communion – com = with + union. We commune with God only by communion with each other. “One bread. One Body. One Lord of All.” https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=dpe-B3VSOJ4  We all have the same God, which means we all come from the same Source, are all headed for the same Destiny, and all our lives are guided by the same Meaning. In a society that celebrates the individual misfit whose greatness is evidenced by his alienation from ordinary inferior people -- how many movie heroes fit that model? – a sacrament of relationship is counter-cultural. Religion – re-ligio (connect again) is countercultural.

 It is not an easy thing to bring a congregation into sufficient relationship to serve God together. Ask any priest. Ask St. Paul. Ask Jesus. But imagine bringing multiple congregations into sufficient relationship to support and inspire one another. If such a thing were possible, we would call it a diocese.

The old-timers in Nevada tell me that we have a long history of divisions. Not everyone agrees. A minority tell me there was a golden age of harmony. Others say it was not so. Perhaps, there is a division between those who say there was division and those who say there was not. But the consensus is that we have had our conflicts.

In my decade among you, I have noticed that a certain prickliness has existed among different categories of parishes. Interestingly, we are not divided, as many dioceses are, over liturgical style or such issues as women’s ordination and LGBTQ inclusion. We may do things differently from parish to parish, but these differences are not discords. We get along just fine regarding things over which other dioceses spill blood. But that does not mean we are united.

We divide up differently. The most obvious division is regional – North vs. South and East vs. West. (Those focused on North vs. South don’t know about East vs. West; but I assure you it is a real division). There is also urban vs. rural; big parish vs. small parish; parish with stipendiary clergy vs parish with non-stipendiary clergy. We have divisions along lines of race, ethnicity, and language – sometimes that is shamelessly explicit; other times it is more subtle. We have divisions along lines of socio-economic status. That is never stated directly, but those on the receiving end of the disrespect feel it just the same. We also have tensions between congregations where church A has a fight and some people leave church A for church B, but remain angry over the old fight. Wherever we have two or more congregations in driving distance of each other, that happens.

The old timers also tell me some good news. They say that we are more united as a diocese than ever before. I don’t know whether that’s true or not. It feels to me as if we are more united, as if we have more of a sense of ourselves as one team. But the moment I get a little sanguine about the state of our diocesan communion, something will happen in a committee or in an individual conversation, or a congregation will push away from the rest of us, and that reminds me we are still human and humans have a deeply engrained habit of dividing up into us vs. them.

I do think we have experienced some healing these past few years. Healing is a good thing. But the progress we have made is still tentative, delicate, and fragile. It’s too soon to say whether this is a lasting shift in our character or just a blip on the screen. If we want to go back to the old wars, there are multiple and easy ways to get there.

Now, this may surprise you, perhaps disappoint you. I am not going to implore you to remain united. True, loving relationality is the nature of God. True, the Church exists to embody that loving relationality and thereby constitute the living, breathing Body of Christ in the world. But that is an opportunity – granted it is the basic core opportunity of human life – but still an opportunity -- that you may take or not, to whatever extent you choose.

 I do not implore you to remain united because St. Paul did a better job of that than I can and it didn’t work for him. 1st and 2nd Corinthians are actually 4 letters begging Corinth to get its act together. But decades after Paul lost his head in Rome, St. Clement was writing epistles, 1st Clement and 2nd Clement, to the Corinthians urging them to get their act together. Paul had not persuaded them. Unity is a matter of the heart. We can’t force it.

All I will do is offer two points to consider as opportunities for division arise:

1.     Centrifugal and Centripetal Forces – There is an urge for togetherness and an urge for separation. This is not a case of good vs. evil. Too much togetherness fuses us into a group think blob. Too much separation fragments us into cold and alienated hermits, loveless and bored.

Scientists are not sure whether the universe’s centrifugal force are too strong so that we will break apart and freeze in frigid darkness; or the centripetal forces are too strong and we will collapse into our fiery stars and be incinerated. Robert Frost quipped:

Some say the world will end in fire.
Some say in ice.
From what I’ve tasted of desire
I hold with those who favor fire
But for destruction ice is nice
And will suffice.

2.     There is a third option. It all turns on the possible existence of dark matter, which makes an apt metaphor for Holy Mystery. If there is sufficient dark matter, the centrifugal and centripetal forces of the universe may be in balance. In that case, the universe will neither split apart nor collapse into a cosmic conflagration. It will pulsate like a great heart. What might it be like if a congregation or perhaps a diocese pulsates?

                  We Are All One In Mission – Wilfred Bion was the father of depth psychology of groups.
He showed that groups exist for a purpose, but for some reason – he did not know why – groups resist their purpose. They sabotage it with several basic simple strategies. One is fight/flight dramas. That much seems true in my experience.

I suggest a reason we sabotage our missions. They call us out of ourselves. A kind of death to self happens when we forget ourselves for the sake of a mission larger than our ego-projects of self-protection and self-advancement. It is no coincidence that the disciples erupted into conflict over who would be greatest as they were on their way to Jerusalem and Jesus was inviting them to “take up your cross and follow me.” A mission scares us, but it is the Cross that leads to new life in Christ.

If Bion is right, our conflicts have historically been our way of avoiding our mission. The only thing that will lead us through future conflicts will be our commitment (to the point of sacrifice) to that mission. But what is it?

What is God calling the Church to be and to do in Nevada in this early 21st Century? I have some opinions about that. I see desperate needs and exciting opportunities screaming for our engagement. I see our capacity to engage those needs and opportunities. But I will not name them. The moment I name them I claim them, and the Diocese will nod, perhaps salute, and carry on as usual. If is for the people, clergy and laity together, to ask what we’ve got to live for, what we’ve got to die for. There is not a final answer we can type up as a slogan (aka “mission statement”) paste on a bulletin and forget. A real mission is a vital organic shifting thing we can never pin down precisely, but we can get the feel of it and know when we’re engaging it and when we are betraying it.

There is always reluctance to look for our mission, precisely because if we find it, it could cost us our lives. So, I will not push that project either. Who am I to goad you toward such spiritual/ existential peril? Jesus said, “He who seeks to save his life will lose it. But he who loses his life for my sake will find it.” That’s what Jesus said, but it’s your life.



Friday, July 21, 2017

33rd EPISTLE TO THE NEVADANS: FOR THE FAT LADY


Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.

Prologue: One sunny July morning in 2007, I woke up in one of my favorite cities, Buenos Aires, Argentina. Being a church-going guy, I set out for a nearby old Roman Catholic Church and took a seat near the back. During the first lesson, an elderly – or maybe she had just had a hard life – homeless bag lady came in and sat beside me. During the sermon she nodded off, slumped my way, and slept through the priest’s proclamation with her head on my shoulder. She woke up around the Creed.

I spoke even less Spanish then than I do now. So, the sermon did not stir my soul either. As an Episcopalian, I was not supposed to receive the Sacrament; and I honored the boundaries of the Roman Church.

So, what was the point of my being in Church that morning? One rarely knows the point of what one is going to do before one does it or even while one is doing it. In retrospect, I believe I was there to provide a shoulder for the bag lady’s head.

Maybe Americans are losing interest in going to Church because they were going for the wrong reason in the first place. I have often heard, “I used to go to St. Swithens, but I stopped because I wasn’t getting anything out of it.” That is the cry of the spiritual consumer. I want to ask, “What exactly were you putting into it?” To be clear, I don’t mean “you have to put something into it to get something out of it.” I don’t mean you have to hold up your end of the bargain in a spiritual/ commercial exchange. I mean the point of going may not be to get something out of it. We might go to support others, maybe people we don’t know, maybe some bag lady who wanders in. Maybe we say the Creed not to express our opinions but rather to give voice to the faith someone else may need to keep them going in life.

Community As The Starting Point And the Destination. My last Epistle troubled some people. It was meant to. It troubled them because I argued that individualistic spirituality in which we practice our own private religion, standing alone is not the way practice our faith. http://bishopdansblog.blogspot.com/2017/06/32nd-epistle-to-nevadans-ruth-reality.html Authentic spirituality has its roots in community. I said:
           
Ruth’s religion began in a human relationship. Her God was not her own, not “the God of her own understanding” but the God of someone she loved and the God of a people to whom she had consented to belong. How utterly and shockingly foreign to the individualism of our contemporary culture!

Ruth the Moabite loved Naomi the Jew and chose to be a Jew. To be a Jew was not to make up one’s own idea of God, but to worship the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, the God of Sarah, Rebecca, Rachel, and Leah, the God of Naomi. That understanding of God arose out of an older, larger horizontal flow of human relationship. There were tribes. There was a tribe of Ephraim, a tribe of Zebulun, a tribe of Naphtali, a tribe of Benjamin, a tribe of Judah, 12 tribes in all -- and they each had their god. Some called their god El, some called their god, YHWH. Then Moses drew them all together in a covenant law of freedom, justice, and equality. He convened the 12 tribes, calling them all by a single name, “Schema’ Israel. Hear oh Israel.” Then he continued, “Your God is one. You have the same God. YHWH and El are One. Adonai elohanyu Adonai echad.” They agreed to worship one God, no longer divided over whether god looked like a bull or winged lion but praying together to an imageless nameless God whom they worshiped first and foremost not by sacrifice but by treating each other justly.

In sum, I said authentic spirituality is a group project. It takes the church, the synagogue, the mosque, the sangha, the AA meeting. We need each other. Without each other “the god of our own personal understanding” is a projection of our own psyches, an idol of our own making, not the Wholly/Holy Other who can summon us beyond the prison of our little selves.

The objection to my argument is: what about our own private spiritual practices. Is there no value in that? Is there no point in going to the garden alone? https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8RadBma-4P4 The Spiritual Exercises of Ignatius Loyola are a solitary practice. Is faith just group think? Can I love a God with whom I do not meet intimately in solitude? My beloved Byron said,
           
            Then stirs the feeling infinite, so felt
            In solitude where we are least alone.
                                                Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage

The Place Of Personal Spiritual Practice. Our technology and social structure train us in linear thinking and that makes religion – any mystical religion: Judaism, Christianity, Islam, Buddhism, Taoism – hard for us. Religious truths are not linear. They come in paradox. The tension between community and individual spirituality is such a paradox. We pray together our common prayers in order to be sent forth to pray unique prayers privately out of the depths of our unique hearts. We then bring the experience of those one on one meetings with God back into the community, both in our worship and in our care for one another. When I lead a congregation in the common prayers, I can feel without a shred of doubt how much private prayer has gone on the previous week. Without the infusion of spirit from those private encounters with God, our worship together falls flat.

The Gospels recount multiple episodes of Jesus in synagogues and in the Temple, places of common prayer. Jesus was a good Jew and Jews show up. But Jesus also said:

            When you pray, go to your room, close the door,
            and pray to your Father who is in secret . .  .
                                                            Matthew 6: 6


It takes both. Neither works alone. Common prayer that does not draw together the vital private spiritualties of individuals is drudgery. Private spirituality untethered from the community is like a kite with a broken string. It doesn't soar.

The Real Point Of Personal Spiritual Practice. Lest I seem to have made an easy peace with the privatized spirituality of our time, the one I challenged in the Ruth and Reality epistle, I must offer this twist. Most of our private spirituality still misses the mark.

Let me preface this by saying I am talking about my private spirituality too – not just yours. I started meditating to relieve my law school stress. I resumed it awhile back to manage my anxiety. I pray regularly, mostly intercessions for people facing troubles. But the most sincere prayer I ever pray is “Help!” I pray hardest when I’m the one in trouble. That’s where I am and I do not criticize you for not being better than I am. This self-focus is where we all start.

But if our private prayer is stuck in private agendas – like I want to get in a spiritual zone or I want to feel elated or I need some peace – natural and legitimate as those things may be, they are not enough. Private spiritual practice does not achieve its end unless it transcends those consumerist goals of “getting something out of it.”

St. Mary of Paris (thank you Bishop Matthew Gunther for calling this to my attention) said:

            The way to God lies through love of other people. At
                   the Last Judgment, I shall not be asked how 
            successful I was in my ascetical practices nor how    
            many and prostrations I made. Instead I shall be         
            asked: Did you feed the hungry, clothe the naked, 
            visit the sick and the prisoners? . . . . I always knew it
            but now it has penetrated my very sinews. If fills me 
            with awe.”

Our prayers do move God but only as God already desires to be moved. They invite God into our lives. When God enters our lives, we are changed – as St. Mary was changed. The change is not the sort a spiritual consumer might choose. The change does not chill us out or put us in a perpetual zone of comfort. The change leads us not out of this troubled world but more deeply into it, just as God plunged into it and went to the Cross with us and for us. Authentic spiritual practice should come with a warning label. Actually, it does. The Bible.

So, here’s the point. I went to Church that morning, not to understand the sermon – I didn’t – not to receive the Blessed Sacrament – I didn’t. I was there to provide a shoulder where the bag lady could rest her head. When I pray alone, it is no different. Even if I am praying for myself or savoring God in nature or entering into wordless imageless contemplation of the Ultimate Mystery, it isn’t about me. It’s about the bag lady. It’s for her.

And who is the bag lady? My beloved mystics and contemplatives, for the love of God, read, mark, and inwardly digest Franny and Zoey by J. D. Salinger, the greatest mystical novelist of our time. No one loved solitude more than Salinger. But read Franny and Zooey, the story of two young actors whose departed older brother Seymour was their guru. In the novel, Franny has discovered the Jesus Prayer and given herself to it a bit too whole heartedly in her brother Zooey’s opinion, At the end, Zooey reminds Franny how when they were child actors their brother Seymour would admonish them to shine their shoes, to be funny, to do their actor’s art “for The Fat Lady.” The book ends with Zooey’s corrective to Franny’s private spiritual quest.

(Seymour) never told me who the Fat Lady was, but I shined my shoes for the Fat Lady every time . . .. This terribly clear, clear picture of the Fat Lady formed in my mind. I had her sitting on the porch all day, swatting flies, the radio going full blast from morning till night. . .. (S)he probably had cancer. …. Are you listening to me? There isn’t anyone out there who isn’t Seymour’s Fat Lady. Don’t you know that yet? Don’t you know that g**d*** secret yet? And don’t you know – listen to me now – don’t you know who that Fat Lady really is? . . . . Ah buddy. Ah, buddy. It’s Christ Himself. Christ Himself, buddy.

Walk your labyrinths. Recite your mantras. Do your lectio divina, your active imagination with Scriptures. Pray your own way in your own time and place – but do it for the Fat Lady.