"I'm what the world considers to be a phenomenally successful man. And I've failed much more than I've succeeded. And each time I fail, I get my people together, and I say, "Where are we going?" And it starts to get better." - Calvin Trager
Friday, April 10, 2009 Maundy Thursday 2009, Christ Church Cathedral St. Louis, Missouri John 13:1-17, 31b-35
I’m a baseball nut, and one of my all-time favorite movies is Bull Durham. How many of you have seen it? OK, for those who haven’t, let me tell you a bit about it. On the surface, it seems like just a movie about minor league baseball, but really it’s about two people who are at crossroads in their life, who feel that everything that has been familiar to them and has given meaning to their lives is either slipping away or is about to be taken from them. It’s about two people who are at that time in life when you stop feeling like you’re going to live forever and you start realizing the phrase “the rest of your life” has a clock ticking inside it.
On one hand, there’s Crash Davis. Crash is a longtime minor league catcher, and baseball is his life. It’s all he’s ever known, he can’t imagine life outside it, and for as long as he can remember his dream was to play in the major leagues. And one year for 21 days … the 21 greatest days of his life … he was there. But now he’s reaching the end of the road and he finds himself not at the top – in the majors – but at the bottom, with the Durham Bulls of the Carolina League. And the only reason he even has that job isn’t because the major league club thinks he has a future, but because they think he can help the future of someone else, some new hotshot pitcher.
On the other hand, there’s Annie Savoy. Annie has always been a free spirit. She teaches at the local community college, but mostly she’s a fulltime life-long spiritual seeker who latched onto what she calls the "Church of Baseball" as one of many philosophies she has embraced and whose maxims she can spout as a way of making meaning from her life and keeping control of it. And every year, Annie chooses a player on the Bulls to be her lover/student. To “give him life wisdom and help him on his way” is how she puts it. But she’s careful never to let anyone get too close. But as the years have passed, this “religious practice” has seemed more and more empty. The meaning isn’t there any more. And she feels like she’s losing control.
What Crash and Annie don’t want to admit to anyone, much less themselves, is that they’re scared. They’re not young anymore, and remaking themselves doesn’t sound like a whole lot of fun and they have no idea how they’d do it even if it did! Each in their own way, they’ve spent their whole lives keeping other people from getting too close, and while that’s helped them keep control, it’s left them facing these crossroads alone. Until…
They find each other. And at first they fight because they’re so much alike and on one level that makes them so scared of each other. But then they fall in love. And the struggle of Crash and Annie’s love is that of two proud people letting down their guards and not just admitting that they need each other but inviting the other into that space inside where they have been living alone for so many years. And when they finally do it, when they finally let down their guards and put themselves out there and let each other in and embrace each other, man it is a seismic event. The richness of the lives, the dreams, the pains, the joys that come together as Crash and Annie, well, crash into each other, man it just flows off the screen.
But where the quake really leaps off the Richter scale, where the intensity of the intimacy reaches its peak, is not in some x-rated scene that’s only on the DVD versions, but a shot of what can’t be more than 15 seconds in Annie’s bedroom, where Crash is sitting on Annie’s bed, gently holding her foot in his lap and with a loving, even slightly impish smile on his face, painting her toenails.
About 10 years ago, Harlequin asked movie critics to pick the top 10 all-time most romantic bedroom scenes, and right there on the list, right up there with the steam of Kathleen Turner and William Hurt in Body Heat, Cary Grant and Eva Marie Saint in North By Northwest and even the sultry morning after of Clark Gable and Vivian Leigh in Gone With the Wind was Kevin Costner as Crash Davis gently, tenderly, intimately, joyfully, painting Susan Sarandon as Annie Savoy’s toenails.
There’s something about the feet.
“Then Jesus poured water into a basin and began to wash the disciples’ feet and to wipe them with the towel that was tied around him. He came to Simon Peter, who said to him, “Lord, are you going to wash my feet?” Jesus answered, “You do not know now what I am doing, but later you will understand.” Peter said to him, “You will never wash my feet.” Jesus answered, “Unless I wash you, you have no share with me.” Simon Peter said to him, “Lord, not my feet only but also my hands and my head.”
This night we do something we do no other night of the year. We wash each other’s feet. On one level, we do it for a pretty simple reason … because Jesus set an example and told us to follow it. The Gospel reading makes that clear enough. And, usually, we primarily see it as an act of service, and yeah, sure, it is. But it is so much more than that.
I’m not sure why, but there’s something about the feet. They’re intimate and private. That’s why that scene with Crash and Annie is so powerful and that’s why this night is so powerful, too. I really don’t know why it is. Maybe it’s because for most of us our feet bear the weight of our lives. You don’t just let anyone give you a foot massage … and I’ve had a pedicurist tell me that their job often is more like a bartender than anything else, they spend so much time listening to people’s problems.
Washing feet is not just about an unpleasant, humbling task and it’s certainly not just about podiatric hygiene. It’s about letting what happened between Crash and Annie happen among us. About letting our guards down and letting each other into our lives in an intimate way. It is literally putting ourselves, the weight of our lives, in each others’ hands. That’s why Jesus said to Peter, “Unless I wash you, you have no share with me.” It’s not about washing feet. It’s about saying “Unless you let your guard down, let go of your fear, let go of everything and let me in, you can’t experience who I am and what I bring.”
And it’s no accident that Jesus does this immediately after his last supper with his friends, the moment of the first Eucharist. Because both the Eucharist and the footwashing are different ways of saying the same thing. It was like Jesus, after sharing the meal said, “Let me put it another way” and began to fill the basin. Because the Eucharist is also about experiencing everything Christ is and all Christ gives by letting go and letting each other and Christ in.
Think of what happens when we gather at this table. We come forward and gather round and present our gifts --- sure, the bread and the wine and the money we offer --- but those are mere signs of something greater, what the Rite I service expresses in those beautiful words, “we offer and present unto you, O Lord, our selves, our souls and bodies.” That’s not about holding back and giving a little. That’s about taking all of us, the parts we usually show and especially the parts we don’t … and laying it right there on the table. And two things happen at that point.
The first is that Christ, whose life is on that table, too, sees our lives, embraces our lives and tenderly lifts them up, all our tragedies and triumphs. All our wholeness and brokenness. All our pain and all our joy. All our Crashness and all our Annieness and wraps them up with his and calls it holy and gives it back to us new.
But the second is that if we are really to enter into the Eucharist. If we are really to have a share in Christ together, it can’t be just about “me and Jesus.” And so when we gather around that table and lay our lives, “our selves, our souls and bodies,” tragedy, triumph, wholeness, brokenness, pain, joy, Crashness and Annieness on the table, if we’re doing it right, Jesus ain’t the only one who sees it … we all see it, too. I see yours and you see mine and we all see each others’. And then as we leave the table fed with new life, we have the opportunity truly to be the Body of Christ. Because having gazed on the holy chaos of each others lives, we can take each others’ lives gently into our laps and cleanse them, kiss them, even paint their toenails … but mostly just be with them. See each other for who we really are, and just BE with each other.
That means the Eucharist is more than just a personal filling station … though it can certainly be that, too. It means the Eucharist is nothing less than a vision of God's future. We heard in the Epistle reading a few minutes ago the first record we have of the church’s Eucharistic practice. But we really started the reading a few verses too late. If you go back and read it from verse 17, Paul talks about how as the Corinthians gather for the meal, each one needs to be willing to give precedence to the other. Everyone should be waiting on everyone else, attending to the lives of others.
A few years back, I heard Rowan Williams talk about this passage from Corinthians and our need to have peripheral vision when we come to the Eucharistic table.
He said: “When we come to the Eucharistic table, the needs of the neighbor come first. We must look sideways as well as forward, and as we see others fed we ask, 'How may I be part of Christ's feeding of them?' Because the first thing -- and sometimes the only thing -- you know of the person next to you at Eucharist is that they are Christ's guest. It is imperative to ask, 'How may I join in Christ's nourishment of them?'"
That’s about not just coming to Eucharist but living Eucharistically. And what we do here tonight, both in washing one another’s feet and sharing our lives and Christ’s at this table, is a sign of that Eucharistic life, of God’s future for this world and for this Cathedral community. A future where we aren’t just looking forward but also always looking sideways. And it is a glorious future.
It’s a future where we don’t need to hide who we are, where we don’t need to closet the parts of our lives we think others might disapprove of or not understand. Where we can share our joys and triumphs without worrying about offending and share our pain and fear without worrying about rejection. Why? Because we know the person next to us at this table is looking not to ridicule us but to be a part of Christ nourishing us too. A future where each of us can look sideways and ask that wonderful question. And like Crash and Annie, find that it is in caring for the other, being a part of Christ nourishing the other, that we find meaning, deep joy, and even love for ourselves.
And as we find that, we will naturally, enthusiastically and maybe even contagiously realize that this is WAY too good to be kept to ourselves. And we will go out into the streets and our schools and our workplaces and tell people of this new life we’ve found and we’ll bring them to the table, too. We will be the blood of Christ and Christ at this table will be the heart, drawing us to it and pumping us out and drawing us to it and pumping us out.
It is our future. And it is out there waiting for us. And there have been places in this community where that future has already been and even now is being realized. Where friendships of 30 years or 30 days give an abundance of life. Where prayer groups have sustained and even brought joy where there was nothing but pain because people have had the courage to let down their guards and actually tell people what they need prayer for. Where lecturing and debate has given way to listening and conversation. Where we have reached out in love and not fallen back in fear.
It is our future. A future that grows out of the best of our present and past. And it begins here at this table, and here at these chairs. With you and you. And me and you. And you and you. And you and you! And you, bishop, and me! Washing each other’s feet and feeding each other’s hearts. Always having that peripheral vision and asking the question as we see one another “How may I join in Christ’s nourishment of them.”
It begins like Crash and Annie, with us letting down our guards and letting each other in and discovering the joy of the embrace. It might be scary at first, but we’ll get the hang of it. And as we do it will be a seismic event that will send waves of love from this place to, well, who knows how far. And by this everyone will know that we are Christ’s disciples, because we truly will have love for one another.
Friday, December 05, 2008 Help our sister Heather!
Many of you know Heather Voss Barta . She and her husband live in Owosso, MI and last Friday night a fire totaled their garage is totaled - to a crisp (2 cars and a motorcycle, too).
The fire then jumped and caught the house on fire - one side is pretty fried... kitchen and dining room have wall and lots of water/wet insulation damage.
No injuries -- including pets, chickens, etc. ... but lots and lots of loss of property and the house is unliveable for the forseeable future. She has posted more on www.heathervoss.net so you can learn more there.
Heather is trying to frame this as best she can, but this is an incredibly difficult time for her and Henry. As most of us would be, she was initially resistant to me asking for help on her behalf, but I convinced her that part of being the Body of Christ is letting others be graceful to you in times of need.
So, we're going to do what we did last year for St. Peter's ...only this time it's the Voss Barta Relief Fund. You can click on the DONATE button to make your contribution!
I'm running it through my PayPal account and will make a complete accounting available to anyone upon request.
Let's rally around our sister. Even a $5 or $10 gift will be great -- and there isn't anyone on this list who can't click and do that. But if you can give a little more that would be great. Let's show Heather and Henry how we Christians love one another.
I bring up the issue of race because even though this was obviously the terrible act of an incredibly unbalanced person, it -- and how it is being covered -- are a window into some of the terrible problems in our metropolitan area that are all about race and class.
I'm a big supporter of Barack Obama's and am on the St. Louis for Obama listserv. Earlier last week, someone posted on that list disputing someone else's claim that St. Louis was one of the most racially divided cities in America. Today, someone posted a rant about what had happened that showed absolutely no consciousness that extreme racial tensions exist in this city.
For any who are interested, below are my two responses to those respective emails. I'd be interested in any comments or discussion.
Over the past 20 years, St. Louis has consistently been in the top 10 on lists of the most segregated cities and metropolitan areas in the country. I remember a few years back we were at the top of the list (prompting a cover story in the Saturday P-D). I live in a somewhat diverse neighborhood, too ... but our neighborhoods are the exception rather than the rule.
I'm on jury duty (on a lunch break) and yesterday I was with a group going through voir dire, and one of the questions the prosecutor asked was whether we were likely to give a police officer more credence or less credence than another witness. Of those who didn't say "same" it was absolutely divided down racial lines -- with people of color saying they didn't trust the police and white people saying they gave them more credence.
When we were asked about we or our families being victims of violent crime, almost none of the white people in the room came forward while a substantial number of people of color raised their hands -- and most of them felt the police had done little or nothing to help them.. Ditto for having family members convicted of violent crimes ... and most of those who said they had family members convicted of violent crimes felt they had been screwed by the criminal justice system.
Now, you can have a legitimate debate about perception and reality in terms of whether people were actually screwed by the justice system, but this speaks to a huge racial divide in our city. Remember, this is a random sampling of St. Louis citizens.
One of the big hopes I have of the Obama campaign is that we will finally have a president who has the courage to take on the problems of our cities and not sugar-coat them.
Two days later, an African American man walks into the Kirkwood City Council Meeting and starts shooting.
a few days back I wrote a post to this list about someone's objection to calling St. Louis a racially divided city. My point then was that both statistics and personal experience for those who have eyes to see bear out that we have serious racial problems in our city/metropolitan area. This does not make St. Louis unique in America but St. Louis certainly is a tragically excellent example of what life is like in many urban areas across the country.
I would hope any rational person would agree that the shootings in Kirkwood last night were horrific and there is no defending them. I have not heard anyone on this list say otherwise.
But events like this rarely happen in a vacuum. One of the gifts John Edwards brought to this campaign was his lifting up of the reality that there are two Americas. There are. And there are certainly at least two St. Louises. There is the St. Louis in which I live where events like this still shock me. And there is the St. Louis that many poor, mostly African-American people live where shootings and violent crime are a normal part of life.
Shootings happen all the time in that "other" St. Louis. But the Today Show doesn't lead its broadcast with the shootings that happen in that "other" St. Louis. The St. Louis I live in doesn't wake up stunned and angry the way I and the other citizens of my St. Louis woke up this morning. That's because it didn't happen in our St. Louis. We can agree it is tragic and "a shame" ... perhaps the same way we look at civilian casualties in Irak ... but it doesn't rock us to the core like this shooting. And that's to be expected. Because we live in two Americas, two St. Louises. And except for incidences like what happened last night, it's not really happening to "us".
What John Edwards lifted up and what I believe Barack Obama continues to lift up is a message of unity -- of there being one America, one St. Louis. That's not a pep rally, folks. That's hard work. That's those of us with the privilege of not living on streets where shootings and gunpoint robberies are an everyday occurrence putting ourselves out there in common cause with those for whom they are. That's about us being every bit as outraged at the elderly woman who was gunned down by stray bullet fire from a driveby in north St. Louis this month as we are by the senseless death of the people in Kirkwood last night.
Yes, it's about us holding the people who do these things accountable. But it's also about recognizing that the Meacham Park neighborhood is in the state its in today not just because of its own actions but because of a long history of segregation and discrimination and that unity means TOGETHER we are going to have to look honestly at the past we have wrought and how we can walk TOGETHER on the hard road to a future we can embrace.
I was listening to talk radio this morning and someone was railing against the "idiots" in Meacham Park, showing a profound ignorance of the deep racial divide in our city and the deep pain and frustration of the people who live there. That's not about excusing the action, it's about opening our eyes and ears and truly seeing what the world is like -- all of it.
My wife is a Hillary Clinton supporter. One of her beliefs about Barack Obama is that we who are supporting him have been captured by inspiring flowery rhetoric ... and that both the rhetoric and we who have been captivated by it lack substance behind it.
What happened last night is a tragedy, but it is also a moment of opportunity. I believe there is substance behind Barack Obama's message ... but it is a difficult and challenging substance. It is the substance of opening our eyes and honestly tackling our past and our future. It is the substance that goes beyond rhetoric and easy answers to the complexities of life in a stratified society where there are at least two Americas and St. Louises and Philadephias and more.
If we are really about the "Audacity of Hope" ... then that cannot just be a pie in the sky phrase. Because true hope comes not from ignoring the past and the present but honestly examining them -- especially the worst parts -- so together we can create a future that doesn't just look good, but truly is good ... for everyone.
Monday, December 17, 2007 Give to the St. Peter's, Chicago "Tongues of Fire in Advent" Fund
Last Wednesday night, my Gen X Episcopal clergy colleague Sarah Fisher had a minor disaster at her church -- St. Peter's, Chicago. The advent wreath was not extinguished after the 6 PM eucharist ... and overnight it burned and melted what was the form, charred the rug (which the vestry had already voted to replace) and left significant smoke damage in the chapel. It is nothing short of a miracle that the chapel stands at all (and for that Sarah is definitely grateful). Whether the fire is the result of human error or a smoldering ember that nested inside the greens is anyone's guess and really beside the point.
It's been a rough time for St. Peter's, especially since this came on the heels of the death of one of the parish matriarchs.
It's just times like this that we show who we are as Christ's body ... and how we can come together in times of need.
St. Peter's isn't equipped to accept donations online, so I've set up a PayPal account to receive them for them. Between now and Christmas, let's see how much money we can raise to help St. Peter's pay for the smoke and fire damage (they haven't even calculated the bill yet). Even a $5 or $10 gift would be a wonderful thing.
Just click and give ... and help give this one church a tangible sense of what it means to be part of an Episcopal Church.
Thursday, October 04, 2007 The numbers game, all of our fundamentalisms and being unafraid
If you stay awake in the Episcopal Church long enough, the same conversations repeat themselves over and over ... and the causes of the numerical decline of the Episcopal Church and other mainline denominations is one that's made the circuit several times.
Besides people of every theological/political bent succumbing to the "post hoc ergo propter hoc" fallacy, which assumes that just because something preceded an event it caused that event (i.e. -- the church has declined since GenCon 2003 so that's what caused the decline), the debate is generally confined to finding "THE cause" for the decline. The world is much more complex than that (praise God!). And as much as we might not like to think so, individually and corporately we are all heavilly influenced by many societal factors. There is no ONE marker event cause for the decline. There are enormous global forces at work.
So given this ... a few not-so-brief thoughts and reflections:
We want reality to be predictable and controllable. We don't like feeling out of control, because that makes us feel powerless and believe that others will see us as powerless and insignificant, which in turn will make us even more powerless and insignificant (a pretty vicious circle). This is pretty basic -- systems of all sorts seek equilibrium. Chemical reactions will tend toward stability. Same thing with humans. So given a situation where things are out of control and chaotic, human nature is to try to establish control.
One way we establish control over our environment is to establish rules and absolutes. One way we do this in a chaotic universe is through the scientific method -- testing hypotheses to see which are trustworthy enough to make the transition from theory to fact -- things we can count on that allow us to predict (and control) reality.
As people of faith, we are no different. Part of what we love about God is the assurance the divine gives us. "Nothing can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus" is the height of comfort for me. I think and hope I believe it for reasons that go beyond that desire for comfort, but I also more quickly flock to that assurance during points in my life where I need that comfort, where I feel unloved or like all the rugs in the world are being pulled out from under me. As Christians, communally we take vows at baptism that give structure to our lives as disciples of Jesus Christ. Those vows, and the scripture, tradition and reason from which they spring are a polestar for us that help us navigate the chaotic seas of life.
We live in an age where the pace of global change is faster than perhaps at any point in human history. Much of this has to do with increased global connectivity and that we are now face-to-face with the diversity of this planet in ways my grandfather never dreamed of.
A mere hundred years ago traveling to Africa was unheard of for all but the most adventurous Westerners. Last March, I sat in my friend's living room in Kigali, Rwanda and video-chatted with my wife and kids back in St. Louis on my laptop! As we become increasingly interconnected, the boundaries which once gave structure to our lives are becoming more permeable (or disappearing altogether!) and we are becoming truly a global community.
We see this perhaps most clearly in immigration and economic/trade patterns but also in the evolution of political structures. The nation-state, the primary locus of power for centuries, is rapidly taking a backseat to other confederations of people -- be they Al Qaeda for Microsoft or even Facebook and MySpace! Even the nation-state is not autonomous anymore, as more than $2 trillion of our national debt is owed to foreigners ... $1 trillion to Japan and China alone!
Much of this change has happened in the past 20 years -- the two watershed moments probably being the dawn of the internet age (which broke down geographic walls of global separation) and the fall of the Berlin Wall/end of the Cold War (which opened the world up economically and also for the first time -- in the West at least -- created a world without clear definition of who was "enemy," a core unifying principle for any society).
Going back further, the biggest marker event was 50 years ago today when Sputnik's beeps signalled the opening of a new frontier previously untraversed by humanity.
For most people whose formative years were before those watershed moments and for whom "home" is a place of relative isolation, safety and predictability (particularly those who were the "haves" and not the "have nots" oppressed under the old, predictable reality and for whom change is welcome!) these changes are incredibly challenging, stressful and anxiety producing. For those people, there will be a natural longing to go back to the way things were. For EVERYONE, there will be a natural longing to establish SOME sense of control over and predictability of reality.
History has shown us that periods of intense change inevitably bring about rise in fundamentalisms. Fundamentalism can be broadly defined as a single-minded devotion to a guiding principle or principles. There are fundamentalisms of all sorts -- not just the conservative right with whom the term is usually identified. This is also not just about having standards ... it's about living by absolutes that cannot be challenged -- to the extent that everything has to be black and white.
And it's all perfectly natural.
Because fundamentalism is all about establishing control or at least enough of an illusion of control to bring comfort and ease the stress and anxiety of the rapid pace of change. It's about taking the unpredictable and confusing grey and separating it out into black and white. That is what is happening in the world today. There is a rise of fundamentalism of all stripes, and it is a direct response to the rapid pace of change and how those things that we used to count on are becoming less and less trustworthy. We need to feel safe. We need to feel in control and powerful.
Fundamentalism gives us that control. It helps us know right from wrong, and even more, know that we are right and our enemies are wrong (and even gives us enemies over and against whom we can define ourselves).
It's very predictable and very human.
Does this mean that the "fundamentals" to which people are clinging are wrong? Not necessarily. It DOES mean that the reason people are clinging to them probably has a lot more to do with many, many other factors than whether they are right or wrong. Fundamentalism is attractive because it makes us feel powerful and right. That is completely apart from the truth of the "fundamental" in question. But we cannot determine the truth of any principle unless we are willing to test it. So we can't claim numbers of followers as proof that our particular fundamentalism is right or that "God is on our side!"
Fundamentalism is a natural reaction to a changing world. Because of that, and because the power of fundamentalism as a whole is completely apart from the question of truth of any "fundamentals" it is an external societal force that has us in its grip and prevents us from determining what Truth really is. And until we get in touch with and name the anxiety and fear that grips us. Until we acknoledge that a part of what makes any of our fundamentalisms attractive is the sense of power and control they give us -- and that's human nature and nothing of which to be ashamed. Until we can step out in faith away from that fear and anxiety, we will not be able to discern Truth because we will be too heavily invested in one answer to that question to give alternatives any possibility of emerging.
This is where our faith comes in. And this is where Christ, as always, is our best and truest model.
If there was ever a time in human history where an event happened that shook the foundations of everything people had thought was reality, it was the resurrection. People who died stayed dead. OK, there were a couple examples of Jesus disproving that ... but he had to be around to do the job! Now Jesus had died. They saw it. They laid him in the tomb. And then there he was appearing behind locked doors and having fish breakfasts with them. And what were his first words to them every time?
Don't be afraid.
Be at peace.
Jesus knew he was blowing their minds and rocking their worlds, that he was taking everything that had ever made their reality seem predictable and controllable and shattering it ... and he knew when that happened the natural human reaction was anxiety and fear. And he also knew that they couldn't enter into this new reality he was revealing to them ... they couldn't become resurrection people themselves ... if they were in the grip of that fear, if their actions were in reaction to that fear, if their need for control superceded their capacity for awe and wonder.
He needed to give them a safety zone where they could deal with this ... and that safety zone was his love and the promise "lo, I will be with you always until the end of the age."
In this time of intense, foundation-shaking, boundary-permeating change, Christ is standing in our midst still -- even when we have locked ourselves behind the doors of the "safe" realities our fundamentalisms create for us.
And he is saying "Don't be afraid! Be at peace! Yes, lots of things are changing, but what will never change is my love for you and my presence with you. And because of that, you can face anything. Because of that you can burst through those locked doors and go out to the world beyond them. Because of that you can be freed from your need for control ... and you can even celebrate your lack of control because that is the life of true faith ...because all the control the universe needs is me. And you can rest in that ... and be loved ... and not be afraid ... and be at peace That is the resurrection life!"
And so, being freed from anxiety and fear, being freed from the need to control reality, being freed from the NEED to cling to fundamentals to give us the illusion of control, we are free to engage with God in the wonderful discernment of what Truth is. We are free to be open to revelation -- not one of absolutes that speak of a universe that is black and white with nothing in between, but of guiding principles of the life and teachings of Jesus Christ through which God will reveal to us tiny pieces of a Truth that is far too big and wondrous and complex for us to apprehend fully, that certainly can NOT be controlled by us, that is far more interesting and beautiful and kaleidoscopic than the dull black and white world of fundamentalism.
A Truth that we approach kneeling in awe not stiff-necked in certitude.
The principles are ancient and simple and they permeate the writings of our faith. We find them in the parables-- the talents, the Good Samaritan, the lost coin, and on and on. We find them in Jesus' teachings on the greatest commandment -- love one another as I have loved you! We find them in the Christ hymn in Philippians -- where Christ sees ultimate power -- divinity -- not as something to be grasped but empties himself ... choosing self-giving love in relationship over grasping power.
I'm a big believer in the truth behind Psalm 127 -- "Unless God builds the house, those who build it labor in vain." There is truth, but that truth must be tested -- and Paul recognized this, too, when he talked about recognizing the "fruits of the spirit" (Galatians 5:22-26) and also exhorting the faithful to be "guided by the Spirit" and "not become conceited, competing against one another." but rather "crucifying the flesh with its passions and desires." -- words that to my ears are about humble submission to the awesome wisdom of God which we can NEVER fully apprehend nor control and not about feeding our addiction to control and worshipping absolutes that we believe we have fully apprehended and thus can use against one another.
1John 4 talks about "testing the spirits" and immediately exhorts his listeners to love one another. How do we determine truth? By following Jesus. By following the greatest commandment ... the law of self-giving love. The law that was made flesh in Christ incarnate, crucified and risen again. And in practice is there anything less black-and-white, anything more difficult to control, anything more wondrous and complex and messy and less prone to fit into the neat and tidy controlled categories of fundamentalism ... than love?
It is incredibly human that we as Christians -- like the rest of humanity -- are so prone to cling to the illusory safety of fundamentalism. But it's ironic, too. Because while very human and understandable, it's a reaction of fear in the name of one who stands among us saying "don't be afraid!" It's a vain attempt to control and predict reality in the name of a Christ who showed and shows us that reality is anything BUT controllable and predictable by anyone but God (Forget the resurrection ... do you think the people of Israel saw God choosing Moses? or David? or a young nobody girl named Mary? Think they saw that coming?). And it's more than ironic ... fundamentalism is an enterprise that is doomed to failure for two reasons.
First, because God is bigger, and "unless God builds the house, those who build it labor in vain." We can cling to all the fundamentals we want and pretend we have absolute control over Truth and an absolute corner of the market on it. But that will be a house of our building ... and it will not stand. Have fun.
Second, because the generations that are coming of age in these times of intense change are natives to that landscape the rest of us find so alien. And they aren't afraid. In fact, they're having a blast with it! Do they have the same needs for control over their environment and predictability of reality that the rest of us do? Absolutely! But change is relative and human beings are remarkably adaptive (that great "image of God" thing again, I suppose!), and the generations that are coming of age and will come of age in the decades to come are generations whose foundations are rooted in the same things that give the rest of us the heebie-jeebies! That's why they are able to have strong diverse and even contrary opinions about many things (human sexuality being but one) but largely don't feel the need to re-enact Sherman's March to the Sea OVER them.
Why is the Episcopal Church and other mainline denominations declining? Well, one reason among many is that younger people -- raised in a generation with permeable boundaries all over the place -- aren't naturally creatures of brand loyalty the way the rest of us were raised to be. Maybe it's because just as we're moving into an age where nation-states will have less and less power, we're also moving into a post-denominational age as well.
And while that makes many of us older folks anxious and fearful, it's going to seem perfectly natural to my 8- and 5-year old.
The Good News is that God is doing what God always does ... sticking with us! If we have ears to hear and eyes to see, God is raising up a new generation of leaders who will sustain the Body of Christ -- ever changing and ever changeless -- into this new world. A new world that seems to many of us as radically different from our old lives as the one those women encountered at the empty tomb that Easter morning seemed to theirs.
We all have our fundamentalisms -- or at least most of us do ... or at least I know I do. They are seductive because they feel like they're about righteousness ... only they're inevitably about our righteousness and not God's righteousness. It's so, so tempting to get into the battle of my fundamentalisms vs. your fundamentalisms -- and to treat each other with limiting definitions that deny the beautiful complexity of one another and our lives as images of God. It's so, so tempting to cling to that which makes me feel right in part because it means you are wrong ... and it's so, so scary to step out from that into a reality that I cannot control or predict ... where that which is most dear to me is bound to be challenged or even stripped away.
But if that isn't the Christian life ... what is?
If that isn't the Way of the Cross ... what is?
If we're not about taking that radical leap of faith -- not individually but together as Christ's Body bound together in all our frustrating and wondrous diversity by his infinite love -- then what exactly are we about? And what purpose does this bizarre enterprise we call the Church serve other than to make us feel powerful and safe and RIGHT just as we are no change needed (a way of life I challenge anyone ever to find Jesus embracing!)?
And so if we are to be the Church, if we are to be worthy of the honor of being called the Body of Christ, we have to at least try to act like Christ. And that's not about easy answers. It's not about black and white and "I'm right and you're wrong." It's about being fools for Jesus, and loving those who hate you, and "give us this day our daily bread" and no more and tomorrow I'll pray it again and trust you'll give me enough for one more day, and meeting Christ in the unexpected eyes of the person living on less than a dollar a day, and being nailed to crosses all the while forgiving the guy with the hammer and trusting that even that is not the end but an amazing new beginning.
The problem with searching for THE reason for the church's decline is that the seeds of the decline lie in the very asking of that question! Our task is not to answer the question but to discard it and the search for absolutes it shrouds and instead to embrace the wondrous new, uncontrollable, unpredictable reality the shrinking of our church heralds. A new age in which God will shape us in new ways.
Scary? You bet! But we are up to the challenge. For we do not stand alone. For even as we hide behind the locked door of our fundamentalisms, Christ breaks through and stands among us saying.
Wednesday, September 26, 2007 Holy Cow ... a new post!!! It's been more than three months, and I've been meaning to get back to posting but haven't had the time. I just wrote the following in an email to my friend Rand, who sent me an editorial (excerpted below) from yesterday's NY Times. I decided to put it up here too ... mostly because I think my brother will fall out of his chair seeing that I've actually posted something....
Here's the editorial that started it:
The Center Holds By DAVID BROOKS
In the beginning of August, liberal bloggers met at the YearlyKos convention while centrist Democrats met at the Democratic Leadership Council’s National Conversation. Almost every Democratic presidential candidate attended YearlyKos, and none visited the D.L.C.
At the time, that seemed a sign that the left was gaining the upper hand in its perpetual struggle with the center over the soul of the Democratic Party.
But now it’s clear that was only cosmetic. Now it’s evident that if you want to understand the future of the Democratic Party you can learn almost nothing from the bloggers, billionaires and activists on the left who make up the “netroots.” You can learn most of what you need to know by paying attention to two different groups — high school educated women in the Midwest, and the old Clinton establishment in Washington.
In the first place, the netroots candidates are losing. In the various polls on the Daily Kos Web site, John Edwards, Barack Obama and even Al Gore crush Hillary Clinton, who limps in with 2 percent to 10 percent of the vote.
Moguls like David Geffen have fled for Obama. But the party as a whole is going the other way. Hillary Clinton has established a commanding lead.
Second, Clinton is drawing her support from the other demographic end of the party. As the journalist Ron Brownstein and others have noted, Democratic primary contests follow a general pattern. There are a few candidates who represent the affluent, educated intelligentsia (Eugene McCarthy, Bill Bradley) and they usually end up getting beaten by the candidate of the less educated, lower middle class.
That’s what’s happening again. Obama and Edwards get most of their support from the educated, affluent liberals. According to Gallup polls, Obama garners 33 percent support from Democratic college graduates, 28 percent from those with some college and only 19 percent with a high school degree or less. Hillary Clinton’s core support, on the other hand, comes from those with less education and less income — more Harry Truman than Howard Dean.
Third, Clinton has established this lead by repudiating the netroots theory of politics. As the journalist Matt Bai makes clear in his superb book, “The Argument,” the netroots emerged in part in rebellion against Clintonian politics. They wanted bold colors and slashing attacks. They didn’t want their politicians catering to what Markos Moulitsas Zúniga of the Daily Kos calls “the mythical middle.”
The thing is, I think Brooks misses the key point here ... and that's what media is shaping what group's opinions.
The netroots are largely confined to the smaller demographic group of the "affluent, educated intelligentsia" because that is the group that has both the continual internet access to read/participate in those online discussions and the time to do it. Many of them are people (like me) who spend a decent amount of their work time online and who use that time reading and writing about politics online. They are probably more likely to listen to NPR than Rush.
The broader demographic is shaped by the mainstream media. They listen to talk radio. They watch CNN and Fox News and the rest.
Mainstream media deals in generalities, broad brushstrokes and sensationalism. They have discovered that drama ... and melodrama even better ... draws viewers. One leve of this is when OJ breaks into a hotel room in Las Vegas, everything stops. But it also means that they buy right into fear-mongering, because fear creates drama in the mind and heart of the viewer. Fear gets the adrenaline going. Fear is seductive and makes you keep tuning in because you want to be informed and you don't want to miss anything.
Fear also encourages us to think in the same black-and-white, broad brushstrokes that 24-hour cable news is built for. Fear and anxiety also make people long for the secure and familiar. For Democrats or anyone who is leaning that way, that's Hillary. Obama is black and inexperienced ... people can get excited about new ideas and inspired to hear him, but new ideas are risky, and when you're talking about a huge demographic that has been baptized into the fear culture, risk isn't something you're really interested in.
Edwards isn't risky in that way, but he's risky in another in that he is so deeply colored by his past failure. It used to be that you could run for president and lose and come back again later (without having been VP in the interim). Not anymore. There is risk in supporting Edwards because that roll crapped out last time.
Is there risk to Hillary? Well, she's a woman and for some people that's a risk ... but compared with the other candidates, she is definitely the safest bet. She is a Clinton, and for most Democrats/liberals/centrists, the Clinton era is looking better and better every day. She's also turned into a real hawk, part of which is to counteract the possible perception that she would be soft because she's a woman but (I think) mostly because it sells to exactly the group of people that Brooks is talking about and that she is capturing. Hillary is blowing away the competition because she is a known quantity and she makes people feel secure. And when you have people who are shaped by a media that trades on making them afraid, the candidate who makes you feel secure is the one you're going for.
Most people are shaped by mainstream media so most people are going to go with the candidate that makes them feel more secure. People who are more educated and affluent not only have more inclination and time to be reflective ... because of their wealth they are more likely to feel insulated from fear and more likely to want their leaders to take risks. They are more likely to go for the risky candidates -- and are thus more likely to support candidates who just don't appeal to mainstream America.
What could shake this all up is a significant shift in who actually goes to the poll and votes.
Because there is a much larger group. A group of people who don't watch CNN or listen to NPR. They don't read Daily Kos or listen to Rush. Many of them work multiple jobs and many of them have no jobs. What ties them all together is that they will not go to the polls because they are convinced it doesn't matter ... or at least that it's not worth the piece of their overburdened time it would take to be an informed voter.
These people don't go to political rallies or post online. They don't call into Dennis Miller and they don't write letters to the editor of the NY Times. And when they talk to their friends, the only politics they generally talk about is local ... unless it's in broad, largely critical terms.
If there was ever a candidate that could ever rouse this mass of people it would change the face of American politics. The problem is, for any candidate to be financially viable on the national stage they have to be sufficiently removed from the reality of this mass of people to render them unappealing to that group. Who is the last candidate that the lower middle-class and below actually believed cared about them. Bill Clinton had it a little bit, but before then? It hasn't been in my lifetime -- and, the more I think of it, I'm not sure it's ever been. I'd have to learn a lot more about electoral history before I could say.
The funny thing is, might not even know a candidate was doing this until the votes were cast. Because most of the polls were of likely voters, and as Amy Gardner said to Josh Lyman about when a third-party candidate might ever win the presidency "it's going to be the unlikely voters who do it." Josh calls them the people who are "too lazy-ass stupid to even raise their hands." I (using my own broad brush) call them people who have been completely convinced that raising their hands makes no difference whatsoever.
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"Christ's example is being
demeaned by the church if they ignore the new leprosy,
which is AIDS. The church is the sleeping giant here.
If it wakes up to what's really going on in the rest
of the world, it has a real role to play. If it doesn't,
it will be irrelevant."