Wednesday, January 29, 2014

Plastic Catholics

Yesterday I stopped in my local Roman Catholic parish.  They open their sanctuary during the day for quiet meditation and have an afternoon each week dedicated to silent prayer before the exposed Blessed Sacrament called Adoration.  I had come from a meeting and had on my clerics so everyone who saw me would have known 'I didn't belong there.'  But no one seemed to pay attention and let me just sit before God in a 'comfort zone' of prayer. And in a sense I did belong. And while my personal theology no longer supports the liturgical practice of Adoration and Benediction, the centering quiet is still like mashed potatoes and gravy, or macaroni and cheese for my soul.  Christ is there and so am I and that is enough.

I am so thankful for my Roman Catholic beginnings.  It was in that tradition that I learned to pray--learned that form of meditation of silent exposing my heart to God.  It was there that I came to learn how to live sacramentally--living out of and into the signs of Christ in whom I move and have my being.  When I claim myself as 'catholic' it is this spiritual centering that I refer to.  I am no longer a Roman Catholic.  I do not espouse the Church of the Vatican.  I am an Episcopalian through and through and a catholic one at that.

Coming from the experience of being a vowed religious, of having lived in religious community and entered into the sacramentality that that life implies, I always found that arch Anglo-Catholic experience of the Episcopal Church very disorienting.  All the outward signs of that Catholicism were there, but there was something missing in the inward and spiritual grace.  I am not saying that all Anglo-
Catholicism was at like this because I often found A-C's that lived out of that sacramentality the same as I. And found so many who found the Holy in those acts of the liturgy   But there was an arm of Anglo-Catholicism that I finally realized were 'Roman Catholic Wanna Be' rather than truly Anglo-Catholic with its mission to the poor and richly lived-out sacramental and incarnated faith.  It was that arm that so severely distorted the catholic experience in  the Episcopal Church.

This 'Catholic Wanna Be' phenomenon I most often saw coupled with a political neo-conservative mind.  I always had the impression that these 'plastic catholics' were playing church rather than being Church.  They could never have been Roman Catholics because their understanding of obedience, the primary virtue of the RCC, was not consistent enough to satisfy the RC hierarchy.  They knew all the right dance steps but they didn't feel the beat.  It was the Tea Party at prayer,  rather than the spiritual living out of faithfulness.

When I first became an Episcopalian I was in an area that was not especially Anglo-Catholic.  We referred to ourselves as committed 'Broad Church.'  I knew I wasn't committted Low-Church.  That experience of the Anglican ethos is rooted in the evangelical roots of reformed theology.  And I don't have an evangelical bone in my body.  What I used to call myself was a post-Vatican II Episcopalian.  It confused most people but that way I didn't have to explain this rather UN-pidgeon-holeable position where I stood on the Anglican/Episcopal continuum.

The almost 4O years' experience of the 1979 BCP has healed some of the wounds of the Anglo-Catholic/Low Church split that was threatening the Episcopal Church following WWII but it has done nothing for the 'plastic catholics' who find solace in 'doing church right' rather than living into the transformative life of the liturgy.  The difference can be readily experienced between the real Anglo-Catholicism and the imitation.  The bogus conveys feelings of 'coldness' and I hear descriptions of the 'meanness of spirit' and the 'rigidity' that has never been part of any form of any authentic catholicism that I have known.

I am thankful for my local RC parish and its benign hospitality of holy place.  I am thankful that there is no fear of 'turf' in the large, silent, sacred space that today's RC churches provide.  I am not for reunification with the Vatican.  We are too different after 500 years to feel the comfort of  the holy in each other.  And yet we have gifts in the spiritual geography of that we share. I am at home there because Christ is there.  But in neither tradition--Anglican nor Roman, is our catholicism is tainted with the imitation of performance. The kinds of catholicism that speak to the heart of those who seek Christ and the community of faith where welcome is  vibrant, joyful and  life-giving no matter what our hierarchy, no matter out doctrine or practice.  The signs and symbols of our faith speak of Christ and healing.  That is enough.

Saturday, January 25, 2014

The PB is coming; The PB is coming.

Years ago I remember a very funny move:  The Russians are coming; the Russians are coming.  It came out at the height of the Cold War.  And it is the story of a rather inept and bumbling Soviet submarine and crew that run aground on the isolated Maine coast while trying to see what the US was like.  Of course the people of the remote fishing village think they are being invaded and the plot goes downhill from there.  It starred Carl Reiner, Theodore Bikel, Eva Marie Saint, Allen Arkin and Jonathan Winters.  And the title, of course, comes from the historic Paul Revere ride.  It poked fun at provincialism that was keeping the people of Russia and the people of the US from finding that they had more in common than the nationalistic jingoism was protraying.  It raised up just how absurd the posturing of the governments and  military-industrial complexes of both nations were when humans really wanted the same thing: freedom and safety to live their lives in peace. 

In a couple of weeks the Presiding Bishop of the Episcopal Church, Katharine Jefferts Schori and the President of the House of Deputies, Gay Clarke Jennings are coming to the Diocese of F
TW to offer a program of "Re-imagining the Church" for the diocese.  There has been really very little organized conversation in the parishes or among the clergy to prepare for this event.  There HAS been a good  bit of gossip, however.  I have heard every thing from "SHE is coming to appoint a new bishop"; "SHE is coming to shut down our diocese"; SHE is coming to make us join the Diocese of Texas"  ..... the Russians are Coming; the Russians are coming...

This is the kind of gossip that surfaces in a climate where the people have had a long history of being kept out of loop.  It is the kind of gossip that unwinds when there is not enough open discussion or transparency and ancient fears come to surface.  I do not fault our leadership.  I am just recognizing that the historical isolation of  past regimes still reside among us and how we fall prey to those old patterns even when we were not part of their formation.  The problem is that we are not looking at the old patterns and owning our complicity in them so that we CAN re-imagine a Church for the future.

I can't make it more clear than to say that neither the Presiding Bishop nor the President of the House of Deputies have the power to shut us down, make us join another diocese or make us do anything.  And what I know of ++Katharine and Gay+ is that they do not operate that way by way of nature.  They are here to help us us think again of what it means to be Church.  ++Katharine did it five years ago and is visiting us to see how it is going.

There is also a temptation to think that our diocese is the only one doing this. And many of us are tired and discouraged by legal delays. We may be the first, and perhaps the most in need, but re-imagining is something that is happening all over the Church.  In fact, it is happening in nearly every denomination and even in non-denominational churches.  Church, as I have known it and given my life to for almost 50 years is not like it once was.  On the one hand, thanks be to God!  I would not care to revisit the types of control, the types of brutal teachings that we once taught that excluded folk because they were not of the same race, culture, sex, or class or whatever.  On the other, there are important things that have been lost that I grieve:  I miss the flexibility and liquid form of government that we once had that honored each order of ministry with the authority to work with the others.  And most of all, I miss the freedom to disagree with one another without the kitchen sink being thrown.  I miss the laughter that having different opinions used to engender and the trips to the local pub to discuss what faith meant.  I miss the center of the ministry being in the local parish and unique rather than programed from the diocese or national headquarters or some publishing house.   

I have invested nearly my whole adult life to herding cats in the name of Christ, I know.  But the word religion means to 'bind oneself to', yet it is the oxymoron of faith that the more I bind myself to  relationship with the Holy, the freer I become.  The transformation that the relationship of God finally leaves me with is that I find myself watching this 'Re-imagining' from afar.  Not because I am above it or because I am not interested, but because the intricacies of the institution no longer grab my attention.  I am more concerned that the people I meet can carry on a conversation about Christ without fear, can look at their lives and find the Holy, and can be convicted by goodness, truth and justice.

I remember a colleague being outraged that one of his professors in seminary, the great Joe Fletcher (Situational Ethics) no longer attended church.  J. had also studied with Joe and I asked her about that.  She said, "I think Joe just outgrew church."  That statement has stuck with me.  I find many of
the people I have respected as faithful and faith-filled people have left the Church because we have allowed the Church to be controlled by those whose visions are too short: Lay, Bishops and Clergy.

The Church, as an institution, has become less conscious of the Spirit and more conscious of how we follow can 'fit in' in the corporate 'realities' of our society.  The anxieties are more about how we are going to pay the bills than how we are going live out the love of Christ, how we are going to allow ourselves to be vulnerable to the truth we are before God and how to find the Incarnation in others. I have never known that to be a cost driven effort.

It is interesting in the movie I cited above that the way that the Russian and the Maniacs were able 
resolve the 'invasion' without annihilating each other and starting WWIII was by working together to save the life of a child.  Perhaps what our Re-Imagining needs is the willingness to take the focus off ourselves.   We need opportunities to work with one another for a common good, for our children who no longer attend or for those who have outgrown the Church.

I will not leave the Church.  Some years ago a bishop who had been attacked for saying critical things of the Church invited me to 'die with him' for the sake of the Church.  It was a charge I have never forgotten.   The liturgy alone is food for life, death and resurrection.  It is what continues to transform me as I face my declining years.  We need to find ways that those of us who have invested our souls in the life of the Church are not turned away simply because it appears that we have outgrown it. 

Saturday, January 4, 2014

Epiphany: The Gifts of the Magi

What would it have taken the Magi to make their trip to Jerusalem?  Think about it.  Say you lived in ancient Iran and were a member of a tribe of Zoroastrian priests deeply-centered in your own faith, a faith that believed in one God and waited for a virgin-born savior, which is what Zoroastrians believed. What would it have taken you to make the trip from Tehran to Jerusalem on camels?  It was a trip that would have taken months.  It would have been filled with hardship.  You carry with you gifts for a king, gold, frankincense and myrrh, gifts of diplomacy.  Because you have studied the stars as part of your priestly training, you are following a configuration of the stars or a comet but you are also seeking a phenomenon of faith.  You have hoped to find the one who will lead the world to peace.  

The story of the Magi is an important one.  It speaks of spiritual seeking—of the
journey of the soul to come to a place of contentment, faith and peace.  And it is an important part of our Christian life.  Most of us have been “taught” our religion.  We were taken to church at an early age and we were taught what faith meant by Sunday-school teacher and parents.  But at some point we made faith our own whether it was at Confirmation or even First Communion, or some other point in life.  Others of us came to faith at a different time in our lives.  But at some point we all have to ask ourselves “what do I believe and how am I going to live according to that belief.”  That is the process of seeking. 

I love the Christmas season.  Not just because Christ comes, but often I get to meet the children of my friends, the ones who live away from home.  I sometimes get to visit with those who are seeking, trying out what it means to believe through their own lights.  Often it is the trip home that gets them thinking about what they really have faith in.  And I get to have some interesting discussions with those who are willing to challenge.  Some have already had an experience of God or some realm of the holy and they are trying to figure out how to claim that experience and place themselves in a place where they might be able to experience it again.   

Others are asking questions that bring their childhood faith into question.  This is not to say that their education in their childhood was not good, it is merely the fact that their ability to understand has grown and they are “putting away their childish things.” 
They have outgrown their childhood faith and must claim an adult faith.  Some are angry that what they learned in childhood doesn’t serve them as adults—but it is more of situation is that they haven’t tended their childhood faith so that it will grow with them.  Faith is not made out of Spandex—we must let the seams out ourselves so that it will fit an adult relationship with God. Faith is made to order-- each one developing our relationship with Christ.  We no longer have the faith of our parents, or Sunday school teacher or the pastor.  Our faith in God is uniquely our own but within some kind of tradition that is right for us.

Seeking is a gift, however.  God invites us to seekgraces us with curiosity.  We are drawn by the stars of our own needs and desires.  All of us are invited to seek even if our faith is secure.  We seek to know more of God.  The Magi sought to find the Prince of Peace—the virgin-born Savior of their own tradition and they found Jesus.  We often seek through reading Scripture or studying how the Church has believed over the generations.  It is of God’s nature to be found.  God does not avoid us as we seek.  If we go looking for God, we will find.  The door will be opened to us.

Some of us need to allow ourselves to be sought.  God seeks us just as surely as we seek God.  We need to allow ourselves to be quiet enough for God to speak to us, to allow ourselves to be encountered by the holy One.  But sometimes we have to let go of looking in what we have always thought were the right places.  The Magi thought they were supposed to go to Jerusalem to find the Christ Child—their directions were not as fine tuned as they thought. Their GPS was nine miles off—their goal was in Bethlehem—down in Podunk Holler. 

The Magi had something else that the good nuns in my convent used to describe as the most important part of one’s faith: perseverance.  It isn’t a term that is used much anymore.  Everything in society these days needs to be mobile.  That stick-to-it-iveness
that the word perseverance implies is not as valued in the workday world but it is valued in matters of faith.  The Magi were unfailing in their seeking.  They did not let things like Herod deter them.  They kept on looking until they found the Messiah.  They persevered.  Seeking requires that kind of dogged, relentlessness.  It requires forging ahead even when doubts assail us, grief makes us despondent, or apathy or laziness would overcome us.  Perseverance equips us to meet the difficulties that seeking requires. 

One of the things that I see that is a barrier to God’s gift of seeking is an unwillingness to confront the issues of being faithful today.  Sometimes it comes from an attitude of
“I know all I need to know—my faith works for ME and I don’t have to learn anything more.”  That is like a forty-five year old trying to get by on an eight-grade spiritual education.  The seams are too tight. 

Another one is “I have “always believed…”.  Faith is not static.  Seeking God always expands our faith.  It forces us into thinking about how our faith must address the issues we must face life in a changing world. The other one is “I am afraid that the new teachings are taking me away from Jesus.” 

 There is nothing that can ever take us away from Jesus.  No education can take someone from Jesus Christ if it is truly education, and not indoctrination.  Sometimes it hard to tell the difference, but we must be willing to trust Christ enough to allow us to address the world’s issues in the light of our Christianity.  There are those whose religious affiliation is based more on indoctrination than faith.  But if one’s faith is
deeply rooted in that relationship between God and humanity through the Incarnation of God in Christ, nothing can shake it—no questions, no information, no way of teaching, no way of understanding Scripture, no fear, no indoctrination.  Because who we have sought has been God.  God will not allow our foot to be moved.  If we persevere in following where God leads us, we cannot fail in faith.  The only failure comes is when we give in to the fear.

 Seeking allows us to see the world in different eyes—God’s eyes.  Seeking allows us to see the parts of the world that are not our own and have compassion for people who are different from us.  It was the Magi’s compassion that led them not return to Herod
to tell where the Christ child was. 

Throughout this Epiphany season we will seek the Light of Christ in our readings.  The Light of Christ may be a star in the sky or the warmth of caring, or the delving into learning to know more of Christ.  It may be us bringing the darkness of our world into the Light so that we may find some way to conquer that darkness with the love of God.  

The gifts of the Magi may once have been gold, frankincense and myrrh.  But now they are Seeking, Perseverance and Openness.  The Magi gave us an image how to live in the world and not try to escape from it.

I invite you this season to find the places where God is calling you to seek Him.  It may be in the old—in the history of faith.  It may be in the future hope that God gives.  It may be in the here and now.  God may be calling you to bring the darkness of the world into the Light.  God may be calling you to explore issues that are difficult with the Light of who has come into the world.  But in all those places, God is with you, saving you, and opening your horizons to a greater faith.  AMEN