Friday, December 30, 2011

Episcopal Top Ten News Stories of 2011

Well, I know, I can't help it.  Everyone else is doing it - it's what you're supposed to do on New Year's Eve.  Here are my choices for the Top Ten Episcopal News Stories of 2011.

1.  The Occupy Movement that occupied so much of our nation’s psychic space in the last quarter of the year had major reverberations in the Anglican and Episcopal worlds too.  Occupy Wall Street got the whole thing going down the street from a flagship Episcopal church, Trinity Wall Street, which owns vast real estate holdings in Lower Manhattan (and engages in vast amounts of philanthropy based on its real estate income from those holdings).

Early on, Trinity was supportive of the movement in word and deed, offering meeting space and restroom facilities to the occupiers.  Late in the year, however, after protesters were removed from their original encampment, they asked permission to camp on a vacant lot owned by Trinity but leased to an arts organization.  Trinity refused the request, citing safety and health concerns, and occupiers, including retired Bishop George Packard (formerly Episcopal Bishop of Federal Ministries, including military chaplaincies), were arrested as they occupied the vacant lot, turning their protests against Trinity, which had previously been a supporter of the movement, instead of financiers.

Elsewhere in the Anglican world, a standoff also ensued at another iconic church, St. Paul’s Cathedral in London, where protesters were welcomed onto St. Paul’s grounds by the Rev. Canon Giles Fraser but later asked to leave by the cathedral chapter (its vestry or board).  The confrontation continued with the resignation of Fraser and the dean of St. Paul’s, The Rev. Graeme Knowles, and the year ended with protesters still encamped on St. Paul’s grounds.  In other cities, Episcopal clergy visited and provided pastoral care for the protesters. 

2.  Sauls Reorganization Proposal.  The new Chief Operating Officer of the Episcopal Church Center, the Rt. Rev. Stacy Sauls, former bishop of Lexington, proposed that the church consider a radical restructuring of Episcopal Church organizational structures in order to save money.  In a presentation to the House of Bishops, he pointed out a huge number of committees, commissions and boards, as well as the enormous expense of General Convention.  He proposed a special General Convention to take up the task of restructuring the church.  His proposal spurred a great deal of constructive discussion about the structures of the church.  It also sparked considerable controversy about the fact that a bishop, speaking to bishops, proposed to reduce the size and meeting frequency of the main church governing body that includes non-bishops (General Convention).  The matter will be considered in detail at the next General Convention in Summer 2012. 

3.  Bede Parry Scandal.   News came to light that a former Roman Catholic priest named Bede Parry, who was an admitted child molester, had been received as an Episcopal priest by the Episcopal Bishop of Nevada.  That former Nevada bishop is now the Presiding Bishop of The Episcopal Church, Katharine Jefferts Schori.  Although Parry has not been accused of molesting any children while an Episcopal priest, great controversy erupted over the fact that the Presiding Bishop had knowingly accepted an abuser as an Episcopal priest. 

4.  Natural Disasters.   From a tornado in Joplin, Missouri, to Hurricane Irene which devastated Vermont and affected much of the northeastern US, to an earthquake that damaged the National Cathedral in Washington, D.C., natural disasters wrought great destruction in the Episcopal world.  In the international scene, Anglicans responded to the catastrophic tsunami in Japan.  And in Christchurch, New Zealand, the Anglican cathedral was condemned after earthquake damage.  A new “cardboard” cathedral will serve worshipers in Christchurch for the foreseeable future.  In Haiti, The Episcopal Church's largest diocese, recovery efforts continued after the devastating earthquake in 2010, with many volunteers and much funding from the rest of The Episcopal Church.  

5.  Same-Sex Marriage, Repeal of Don’t-Ask-Don’t-Tell.  American society appeared to move toward increasing acceptance of same-sex marriage.  New York State legalized same-sex marriage, and Episcopal bishops in New York split over whether Episcopal clergy would be allowed to officiate at same-sex marriage ceremonies.  Hawaii and Maryland also decided to allow same-sex marriages.  President Obama overturned the Don’t Ask Don’t Tell policy that prohibited openly gay persons from serving in the military, and military chaplains were permitted but not required to officiate at same-sex ceremonies.  TEC’s Standing Commission on Liturgy and Music released educational materials related to its plan to ask General Convention 2012 to authorize a three-year trial rite for blessing same-sex unions.

6.  Anglican Covenant.  Yes, worldwide Anglicans continued to be distracted from mission by fussing over a strange animal called the Anglican Covenant.  This odd creature has been proposed as a solution to the “problem” of differing opinions among international Anglicans over issues such as, oh, let’s say, gay and lesbian Christians in the church.  Under the proposal, any church (let’s say Nigeria) that disagreed with any other church’s (let’s say, The Episcopal Church’s) action on any issue could raise a “question” with the Standing Committee of the Anglican Communion, a non-elected group whose membership is heavily weighted toward bishops.  If the complained-against church is judged to have violated standards which are not explained, there may be “relational consequences” which are not specified.

Each church of the Anglican Communion is asked separately to adopt the Covenant, ensuring that great attention will be paid to the matter before it is put to rest, one way or another.  As of the end of 2011, five churches have adopted the covenant (Burma/Myanmar, Mexico, Papua New Guinea, Southern Cone and West Indies); two have adopted it with modified language (Ireland and Southeast Asia), and it is under consideration by others.  It has been rejected in the Philippines and effectively rejected in New Zealand.  The Episcopal Church's Executive Council has recommended rejection, but final action depends on General Convention in Summer 2012.  In the Church of England, the covenant has been referred to diocesan synods, of which to date four have accepted and four have rejected the covenant (which must be a blow to their Archbishop, Rowan Williams). The conservative “GAFCON” churches (including Nigeria) have indicated that the covenant is not strong enough and they do not intend to sign it. 

Despite the decidedly mixed reception of the Covenant, and the gathering strength among its opponents, Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams continued to push for its adoption.  In his Advent letter, he declared somewhat plaintively, I continue to ask what alternatives there are if we want to agree on ways of limiting damage, managing conflict and facing with honesty the actual effects of greater disunity.  In the absence of such alternatives, I must continue to commend the Covenant as strongly as I can to all who are considering its future.”  One is led to suppose that even in the mind of its strongest supporters, the Covenant is the poor choice of last resort.

7.  Reduction in Attendance Numbers.  After a 3 percent decline in attendance in 2010, The Episcopal Church’s active membership dropped below 2 million people.  Churchwide over the last ten years, 2.5 churches have closed for every new church that has opened (that’s around 40 churches a year that have closed, or approximately the size of one small diocese).  Average Sunday attendance declined by 20% between 2001 and 2009.  The Episcopal Church is also significantly older than the general U.S. population, and our clergy are age 58 on average.  The decline in TEC mirrors a decline across all mainline denominations, but interestingly, evangelical and non-denominational churches are beginning to see decline, too, especially among younger members.  Correspondingly, the “nones” – those who profess no religious faith at all – are increasing in the U.S. population. 

8.  Property Conflicts & Wins.  Episcopal dioceses continued a good record of winning lawsuits against breakaway congregations that attempted to leave The Episcopal Church and take their buildings with them.  The church’s position has always been that people may leave the church as they choose, but the property is held in trust for the diocese, and the property cannot be alienated from the church.  During 2011, court judgments were issued against breakaway congregations in historic buildings, including Christ Church Savannah and Bishop Seabury Church in Groton, Connecticut.  A Pennsylvania court decided in favor of the loyalist Episcopal diocese and against the breakaway conservative “Anglican” diocese in Pittsburgh.  Litigation continues in many other states, but in general, Episcopal views have prevailed. 

9.  Royal Wedding.  Anglican tradition showed itself to the world in fine form at the royal wedding of Prince William and Catherine Middleton.  All the pageantry and ritual that Anglicans are so good at was displayed with beauty and taste.  A nun in tennis shoes and a cartwheeling verger completed the joys of the day.     

10.  Election of Marian Edgar Budde.  The Episcopal Church has had women bishops for years, including our current Presiding Bishop, but it is hard for a woman to be elected a diocesan bishop (the #1 bishop in a diocese).  There are many more women suffragan (assistant) bishops than diocesans.  If I am correct, there were only three women diocesans at the beginning of 2011:  Geralyn Wolf (Rhode Island), Catherine Waynick (Indianapolis), and Mary Gray-Reeves (El Camino Real).  Most diocesan elections include one woman on the slate of candidates, but the female candidate is rarely elected. 

This was not true in the case of our nation’s capital, however.  In 2011, the Diocese of Washington elected Marian Edgar Budde as its diocesan bishop, making her the bishop of the most prominent diocese to date to be headed by a woman.  I recall one little side note of the tragic events of September 11, 2011: the National Prayer Service held at the National Cathedral was opened by Bishop Jane Holmes Dixon, then acting as interim bishop of the Washington diocese.  In future years, prominent visitors at the National Cathedral will be welcomed by the female diocesan, and her presence will make a wonderful statement about the place of women in The Episcopal Church.

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

A Feast of Abundance

This Thursday, all over America, people will celebrate a truly American feast: Thanksgiving, our national feast of abundance.  We'll gather with family and friends, eat turkey, cranberries, mashed potatoes, and pumpkin pie, and that green bean casserole with the mushroom soup and the little onion strings.  (Actually, you can have that green bean stuff, I'm not going to eat it.  And the candied yams with the little marshmallows on top - you can have those too.  And anything with jello.)

If we're lucky this Thanksgiving, we'll also spend time with people we love, people we don't get to see that often.  My oldest daughter is home from college this week; my younger daughter is here too, and we will have a rare weekend with our whole family together - not to mention some very old and dear friends who will be with us.  We will be surrounded with love and laughter.  I feel that just the presence of these dear people would be enough of a blessing this year, even if I never caught sight of a turkey.

It is a time of year to be truly grateful.  And it's a time to remember the real diversity of our nation, as all over America, people will gather around tables to give thanks:  old and young, rich and poor, all races, all religions or no religion at all - people will gather together to remember their blessings.  The diversity of the people who celebrate this feast is part of our heritage as Americans.  This holiday brings us all together in one great celebration - a celebration of abundance that says for this one day, there is more than enough for everyone.  More than enough to eat, a warm house, beloved family, dear friends, and a God who provides for us all.  Because all of these blessings come from God, who is the source of every blessing.

If we look deeply at our Christian tradition, it is clear that our Thanksgiving observance reflects God's true, real, ultimate hope for all people.  The prophet Isaiah says:  "On this mountain the LORD of hosts will make for all peoples a feast of rich food, a feast of well-aged wines, of rich food filled with marrow, of well-aged wines strained clear.  And he will destroy on this mountain the shroud that is cast over all peoples, the sheet that is spread over all nations; he will swallow up death forever.  It will be said on that day, This is the LORD for whom we have waited; let us be glad and rejoice in his salvation."

Our Thanksgiving Day celebration, with its feasting and its gathering and its common rejoicing by the rich diversity of American people, reflects God's hope for the world: the world as it was created to be.

But we know that this world is imperfect: it is not the world God desires for us.  God's dream has not yet been realized.  There are people on Thanksgiving Day, and every day, who do not have enough - people who are homeless, addicted, ill, suffering, in the midst of war, lonely, impoverished, stressed and angry.  In this economy, there are more and more people who do not have the things God dreams of for them.

Years ago, I saw a cartoon with a man shaking his fist at God, up in the clouds.  "God!" he is crying out.  "There are people starving!  People sick and suffering, people homeless, people stuck in poverty, people dying!  Why don't you do something about it?"  And from the clouds, God's voice answers: "I did do something.  I sent you."

We are the ones God has sent to minister to this broken and suffering world.  Our hands and hearts are the ones who can continue the work our Lord Christ began, when he entered this world to share in its suffering.  We are the ones whose hearts, overflowing with abundance, can bring God's love to our troubled communities.  We who are blessed can become a blessing.  We can celebrate Eucharist - a word that simply means "thanksgiving" - by sharing God's blessing with our world.  When we celebrate Eucharist, we become the Body of Christ, given for the world he has made.

We are Christ's Body this Thanksgiving season.  As we accept the calling our Lord gives us, to work in partnership with him to restore a troubled world, we can make small steps toward that dream our God has for all people.  As we feast in abundance this Thanksgiving, let us remember that our Thanksgiving feast is a blessed, abundant reflection of the feast God intends to provide for all people of this world.

Wednesday, October 5, 2011

More on the Sauls Proposal

A second blog post to follow up on my thoughts about the Sauls proposal.  I am still feeling very iffy about this resolution, and will probably vote against it at GC.  I am still okay with it being a proposal from the Arizona deputies at diocesan convention, though I may express my reservations on the floor, with the caveat that I support its passage at diocesan convention only to make it possible to bring it to the floor at GC.  

Here are my reservations about the whole project:
  • DFMS includes three broad sources of power:  House of Bishops, House of Deputies, and 815.  The staff of 815 now reports to two bishops, Jefferts Schori and Sauls.  The Sauls proposal purports to reduce the power of only one of the three sources, which also happens to be the only one that is not under the control of bishops.  Please do not read this as an anti-episcopal statement or a statement aimed at any particular bishops, but I think it is absolutely central to our polity to maintain governance balanced between bishops, clergy and lay people, as the founders intended.  
  • You could define a fourth source of power, Executive Council (and its subsidiary CCABs), which does General Convention's work when GC is not in session.  This is another body which includes lay and clergy representation, and it is another body that the Sauls proposal indicates as a target of reduced influence.  I am in agreement that there are probably too many CCABs, too many meetings, etc.  But where in the world did the suggestion come from to take fiduciary power away from Executive Council?  Again, this would be a significant reduction of lay and clergy governance in the church.  
  • I think there is plenty of room to reduce expenses at 815.  Why does the Sauls proposal exempt from cost-cutting consideration the one organization that he is in charge of?
  • Whether or not it was intended this way by Bishop Sauls, I think the House of Deputies will see this proposal as a reduction of their (our) governance authority, and it will not succeed.  Yes, possibly a special convention will be called, but after much hemming and hawing, the HOD will not make substantive changes to its own authority.  We will have made a major expenditure to achieve incremental change.  
  • There is significant talk in the Sauls proposal about discerning the "mission of the church," with reference to Luke 4, etc.  I agree that if we are discerning the mission of the church, we should start with Luke 4:18-19, as well as Matthew 28:18-20 and John 20:21-23.  However, I am not sure that "What is the mission of the church?" is the question we should be asking.  We are talking about how best to spend the resources of DFMS, so I think the question we should be asking is, "What is the mission of DFMS?"  The mission of DFMS, in my view, is to provide governance for TEC so that TEC can fulfill the mission of the church.  Governance is not empty administration.  Governance gives rise to very particular views and methods of theology and mission - just take a look at how the governance of the Roman Catholic Church shapes their theology and mission for example, and contrast it to ours.  Let's not lose sight of the significance of our governance structure in the Anglican Communion and in the Christian world.
That's the way I see it.  As I said, however, I don't have a problem with this resolution passing at diocesan convention, if only to bring it to the floor at GC.

Friday, September 30, 2011

Episco-Policy Wonk

I normally avoid blog posts on arcane church-centric subjects, preferring to concentrate on things that actually matter to the average Christian.  But today, with apologies to non-Episco-wonks, I am going to post on Episco-wonkishness, because as a clergy deputy to General Convention 2012, I am compelled to consider with great seriousness Bishop Stacy Sauls' proposal about restructuring the church.

Bishop Sauls makes the following points:

  • The annual budget of DFMS* is $35 million, an unsustainable level in today's economy.   
  • The budget is comprised of "Mission" - 53.2%; "Administration" - 26.3%; "Other Governance" - 13.0%; and "General Convention" - 7.6%.  
  • Bishop Sauls therefore determines that Overhead, which he defines as everything not labeled "Mission" above, comprises 46.8% of the DFMS budget, which he deems too high.
  • In an effort to cut overhead, Bishop Sauls proposes two things:
  • A Special Convention to discuss the structure of the church, and
  • Strong consideration of cutting the costs of General Convention, by such strategies as meeting less often, reducing the number of deputies, etc. - to be discussed at the Special Convention.
Bishop Sauls has caused great consternation by making this proposal by a bishop to bishops, requesting that the bishops push it through their diocesan conventions, circumventing some of the customary consultation with lay and clergy decision-makers, and also preempting work that has already been done by other bodies.  Okay, consternation noted - I am going to ignore this political maneuvering and concentrate on the proposal itself.  

And here's what troubles me about the proposal: dividing the budget into "Mission" and "Overhead" begs the question: what is the "Mission" of DFMS?  Bishop Sauls seems to assume that the vast welter of staff persons at 815* (and the very expensive real estate that houses them) who are in charge of program areas ranging from ethnic ministries to public policy lobbying to stewardship development should all be put in the category of Mission.  But, valuable as these ministries are, my question is, are they actually central to the "Mission" of DFMS?  Because if you stick them into mission and then try to reduce everything else, labeled "Overhead," to 30% of the total budget, you have automatically exempted the things you labeled "Mission" from any consideration of budget cuts.  And you have required so-called "Overhead" items to bear the entire burden of budget-cutting.  So the classification of mission vs. overhead is vital to this discussion.  

In this light, asking what is the "Mission" of DFMS, and noting that the mission of the organization called DFMS is not necessarily the same as the mission of the whole church, I think it is helpful to consider this post to the HoBD list serve by Joan Gundersen:

Posted by Joan Gundersen, lay deputy of Pittsburgh, to HoBD list-serve:
Most of all we should be going back to the standard set by Bishop White --
do at the general church level those things which cannot be done as well at
the local level.  Thus the FIRST question we need to ask is "What DO we need
a general church to do?"  I would suggest that my list of what a general
church SHOULD DO is pass regulations for the whole church (and coordinate
our worship); be the official keeper of the records of the whole church
(archives, recorder of ordinations, statistics on the church, addresses);
provide standards for the training, education and deployment of clergy (i.e.
mission); and provide coordination.  The general church needs to be a
central place where we can be directed to expertise within the church, where
groups can be sure that they will get correct contact information so they
can network, where good resource material is produced, etc.  

In other words, if you look at it this way, the "Mission" of DFMS (as distinct from the mission of the whole church) is precisely governance.  The "Program" ministries at 815 are secondary.  

This does not mean that we should not look at ways to cut "governance" expenses.  General Convention is too large, in my opinion, and would benefit from cutting deputies from 8 to 6 in each diocese.  It is crazy for us to hold off on committee business until we arrive at General Convention, requiring a long convention because all business must be done on site.  We would benefit from beginning committee hearings long before GC, conducted electronically.  The number of CCABs and other standing committees we have is absurd.  We have too many small, non-sustainable dioceses.  We can cut lots of expenses, especially, I imagine, in the "Other Governance" category.  But why should the brunt of cost-cutting fall upon the one area that the national church structure can do and no one else can?  

Unwieldy as General Convention is, we should not lose sight of the fact that it is absolutely central to who we are as Episcopalians.  We are distinct from, say, the Roman Catholic Church, and indeed from most Anglican churches, precisely because we include laypeople and clergy people, not just bishops, at the highest level of governance.  Let's not cut costs to the point where we decimate the effectiveness of lay and clergy participation.  Such a move would tip the balance of power back toward bishops, away from the wise checks and balances adopted by our church's founders in 1789.  I say this will full respect for the position of bishop and its centrality to our Episcopal polity.

Understand also that I am deeply passionate about the "mission" of the church, defined in terms of evangelism, worship, service, formation and fellowship - the basic purposes of any church.  But I think it is worth considering where these purposes are best accomplished - in the throes of a national church bureaucracy, or at the local level?  In fact, Bishop Sauls acknowledges that these purposes are best accomplished at the local level in his commentary to Slide 34.  So maybe, given that "mission" is best accomplished locally, DFMS should start this analysis with asking what "Program" functions should be shifted away from national staff positions, toward providing limited funding for national volunteer networks of stakeholders?  I am deeply involved as a board member of one such network, The Episcopal Network for Stewardship.  TENS accomplishes great things on a limited budget (including a small amount of funding from DFMS), with its own fundraising and a national network of folks who are passionate about stewardship.  Perhaps this model is the shape of things to come in TEC.  

Having said all this, I am not necessarily opposed to a Special Convention to discuss having less frequent Conventions - though I note that this idea is absurd on the face of it (more conventions to talk about fewer conventions?).  I note that the President of the House of Deputies* is now on record as opposing a Special Convention, and I think we should give her opinion due weight.  Our own deputation will probably propose a resolution to our diocesan convention, as Bishop Sauls requested, with some changes to take into account the work already done by the Standing Commission on Structure.  I am OK with going along with the proposed resolution at our diocesan convention, because I think it is worth considering at General Convention.  I just don't promise to vote for the idea at GC.  I don't think the proposal proceeds from the right set of assumptions.

*Definitions:  TEC = our "national" church structure - though it is not a national but an international church; therefore it is called TEC, The Episcopal Church.  The strictly churchwide portion of this body (that is, not the local dioceses or congregations) is also known as DFMS, the Domestic and Foreign Missionary Society, its legal name.  TEC is ruled by General Convention, a bicameral legislature composed of the House of Bishops (all bishops) and the House of Deputies (4 clergy and 4 lay deputies elected by each diocese); General Convention meets every 3 years.  (The bishops meet four times a year, though not in their official legislative capacity except at General Convention.)  In the interim between GC meetings, governance is conducted by the Executive Council, an elected body of lay, clergy and bishop members.  The Presiding Bishop, the Rt. Rev. Katharine Jefferts Schori (elected by the House of Bishops and approved by the House of Deputies) serves as chief executive officer of a large administrative and program staff headquartered in Manhattan and referred to in Episco-code as "815," but also comprising a number of branch locations throughout the U.S.  The President of the House of Deputies, Bonnie Anderson, a layperson, is elected by the House of Deputies.  

Saturday, September 24, 2011

This is My Blood ...

The Roman Catholic Diocese of Phoenix has announced that Phoenix laypersons will no longer receive wine in the Eucharist.; they will receive bread only.  The weirdly conservative Roman Catholic bishop has explained that (1) wine is not necessary, as someone who receives either the bread or the wine is considered to receive the full benefits of communion; (2) the change is required by a new translation of the Roman Catholic missal; and (3) receiving wine was an innovation after Vatican II, and he is returning to an older (presumably purer) tradition.  There has also been some whining among commentators who agreed with the bishop, about wine spilling and suchlike, but let's just agree up front that a few careless accidents are not good reasons to deny to people what Jesus has already given them.

Of the bishop's arguments, (1) is certainly correct.  I have parishioners who receive either bread or wine, but not both, for reasons of their own, and they are considered to have received the full benefits of communion.  Not a problem.

Argument (2) is not something I am qualified to comment on, but since no other Roman Catholic dioceses in the U.S. have announced plans to emulate the good bishop's stance, and he has come under strong criticism from a number of Catholics, I find it a highly suspect rationale for the change.

Argument (3) is patently absurd, since  the practice of laypersons abstaining from receiving wine was an innovation in itself, dating to the high Middle Ages.  Giving communion in both kinds (bread and wine) to the the entire assembly has been the longstanding tradition of the church, with the exception of a detour in the Middle Ages.  I suppose the bishop and others of his persuasion might look to the medieval period as the Golden Age of the church, but really, most Christians would look to a Golden Age much earlier than that, much closer to the time of Jesus, for authoritative practice.  Jesus gave both bread and wine to everyone at the table; Jesus invited everyone, saints and sinners alike, to the communion table; Jesus ate at the Last Supper even with his betrayer.  Surely ordinary Catholic laypersons are qualified to receive what Jesus poured out his life to give.

The fact is, the bishop's decision is nothing more than rampant clericalism - the idea that clergy rank higher in the church than laypeople, so clergy should get wine, but not the hoi polloi.  If you believe that being a priest is somehow a holier calling than that of the layperson who works, raises a family, and does the best he/she can to live a holy life and follow Jesus, then you reserve the expensive stuff for the priests.  But don't forget that this way lies danger: Jesus says the first shall be last, and the last shall be first.  This high idea of clerical authority can even lead to the extreme kind of sin we see in the inexcusable scandal of clerical sexual abuse in the Roman Catholic Church.  

If, on the other hand, you accept your priestly vocation with humility, you begin to realize that the church is only the place where people come to be nurtured in their faith.  Outside the church is where they live it out.  Every single day of a lay person's life is a holy day, and every day presents opportunities to live out the vocation of the baptized Christian in a remarkable, miraculous, sacred way.  We clerics need to understand our role as servants of all God's people.  As servants, we should be the last to be served, not the first.

As a priest, I pray that I may never forget who I am called to be: the servant of Christ, and the servant of all Christ's people.  Amen.

Monday, September 19, 2011

First Comes Marriage, Then Comes Love

Wow, I didn't see that coming.  Turns out, I'm more conservative than Pat Robertson.  America's favorite foot-in-mouth preacher says a husband confronted with a wife who has Alzheimer's disease should divorce her so he can start a new relationship.  Watch the clip here:

Apparently, the CBN interviewer doesn't see it coming either.  She gently tries to prompt Robertson with the reminder that marriage is "for better, for worse," but he's not having it.  He says, "Well, I know, if you're respecting that vow, but ... " But no, if the husband is lonely and wants companionship, it's perfectly fine to divorce.

To his credit, Robertson shows pastoral sensitivity when he acknowledges just how hard it is for a spouse when a loved one slips into the darkness of Alzheimer's.  He is right - it is hard, it is heartbreaking, and it is lonely.  More than anything, it is a grief to watch someone you love slowly fade away like that - a grief that does not come with the benefit of sympathetic outpourings, a memorial service, or the freedom to love again.  No pastoral leader could fail to recognize the hard road traveled by the spouse (and children) of an Alzheimer's patient.

But Robertson, speaking as a Christian leader on the Christian Broadcasting Network, is (or should be) speaking about Christian marriage.  And Christian marriage is not a contract, but a covenant.  What's the difference?  A contract is an agreement two people enter into for their mutual benefit, with certain agreed conditions that must remain in effect.  If those conditions don't remain in effect, the contract is null and void.  Our society in general has come to see marriage as a contract.  My side of the bargain is, as long as you make me feel good, I will continue to love you.  If you don't make me feel good any longer, then there's something wrong with you, and I'm free to declare the contract null and void.

Here's what I tell couples I am counseling before their marriage: our society sees love as one big Cinderella story.  We think that if you find the right Prince or Princess Charming, then you will always feel like you're at the ball at a quarter to midnight.  If you don't feel like that, then - oops - Prince/Princess Charming was a fake.  But here's the deal: in marriage, when the time comes that you don't feel like it's a quarter to midnight, when things get tough and life gets heartbreaking and marriage seems to be one challenge after another - that's when you get to learn what love really is.

Because love is not a feeling.  Love is a series of decisions, and a lifetime full of actions.  Love is something you decide to do every day, no matter what you feel.  (Though sometimes, we hope, you will feel like you're at the ball at quarter to midnight!)  And in doing it, in loving your neighbor as yourself, in making the good of your spouse your highest priority, you will learn to experience love at a whole new level, far beyond mere feelings.  When it gets hard is when real love starts.  And when real love starts is when we human beings get to learn the most important lesson of our life, because there is no lesson more important than love.

Which is why God gives us the gift of marriage, which for Christians is not a contract, but a covenant.  A covenant is an unconditional promise that binds two parties together for life.  When Christ gave us the new covenant, he didn't make it conditional on good behavior - he offered himself for us as a permanent and eternal Savior.  Marriage, for Christians, is an earthly symbol of what Christ has done for his church - and Christ gave his life for his church.  It didn't feel good, but it was the ultimate act of love.

That doesn't mean that Christians don't recognize divorce on any terms - there are times when human failure and sin makes it impossible for a marriage to continue, such as abuse and addiction and unrepented infidelity, or the simple unwillingness of one spouse to stay married, in which case the other spouse has no choice.  And forgiveness is always available in Christ, even if you are divorced for not-so-good reasons.  We offer a chance at new life and new love in those cases.

But that's not what we're talking about here, in Pat Robertson's advice video.  We are talking about a terminal and debilitating disease.  Would we counsel a husband to divorce his wife who is suffering from incurable cancer?  No, we would not.

I am sorry that Pat Robertson does not understand what Christian love is all about.  But for those of us who follow Christ, we need only look at Christ to understand it - Christ, who commanded us to "Love one another as I have loved you."

Monday, June 27, 2011

Shannon, Ruthie and Sara, at the Louisiana History Museum (the happy upstairs part, not the sad downstairs Katrina Museum).  Thanks to Gracie for the photos!
Meredith, Julia and others, after a day of painting at Renew School.
Jasmine and Julia, at dinner at Mt. Olivet Episcopal Church.
Sara, Meredith, Caroline and Ruthie, at dinner at Mt. Olivet Episcopal Church.
The  monument at the Tomb of the Unknown Slave.

New Orleans Mission Trip!

Nativity's youth and others, on the front porch of "A" House, where we stayed in New Orleans.

The New Orleans Experience

Now that we are back from New Orleans and I have a full keyboard and wireless Internet access with reasonable speed, I can let you know a bit more about the youth group's mission trip than the snippets I have shared previously.  (Because I know your tired teenagers are not going to tell you all about it!)  Here's everything you might want to know.
  • We stayed in a house in the Garden District that has been converted to use by youth mission groups. There were 48 of us, counting Nativity's 14 people and groups from Dallas and Pennsylvania (both affiliated with Episcopal churches).  There were four bedrooms, outfitted with triiple-decker bunkbeds, plus 6 bunks in the main dining room.  There were 4 1/2 bathrooms and a large kitchen. Since there were 11 males on the trip, they took one bedroom and one bathroom, and the rest were for the ladies.  The furnishings were basic, but it was all we needed - bunks, tables and chairs, and not much else.
  • Meals:  for breakfast most days, we had cereal or a bagel, plus yogurt or fruit if desired.  For lunch, we generally packed a sandwich, chips, fruit and cookies and took it with us to the work site.  For dinner, the program varied.  The first night, the leaders cooked dinner for us.  The last night, we all ate at Bubba Gump's.  Wednesday night, the wonderful people of Mt. Olivet Episcopal Church cooked us a wonderful meal of chicken and shrimp pasta.  The other three nights, we had "Stone Soup," named after the folk tale, in which a group of 12 youth and 2-3 leaders were given $200 and told to go to Walmart, buy all necessary groceries, and prepare, serve, and clean up after a dinner for the whole group.  It was a leadership and teamwork challenge. The three groups rose to the challenge admirably!
  • Service projects: we focused on relational projects that involved interacting with people.  Our service projects included a day at Kingsley House (a Head Start program for preschoolers, an adult day care center, a summer camp for school-age children, and more), where we got to help with the children (I drew lots of pictures for several eager preschoolers who wanted to see ducks, elephants, spaceships, etc.); a day picking up trash and cleaning in the neighborhood of Algiers Point, a majority African-American neighborhood; and two days doing various cleanup projects at Renew School, which takes failing public schools and transforms the culture and education to a college preparatory atmosphere (see my previous blog posts).  We got to interact with many of the kind and gracious people of New Orleans, and (we hope) make a lasting impact on their lives.  
  • Encounter moments: One of the features of a Wonder Voyages trip is that the participants go to various pilgrimage sites in the local community, places that will impact them in a particular way.  We went to three with the full group, and then added a fourth on our own.  The three full group experiences were: (1) A visit to the Tomb of the Unknown Slave in Algiers Point (which two centuries ago was the offloading dock for slave ships), where we experienced and talked about slavery and about being "bound" and being "free".  (2) A visit to a chalkboard wall where someone has written, "Before I die, I want to ... " and people take chalk and add their hopes and dreams.  Responses on the wall (from others before us) ranged from the silly ("Write in green chalk!" [check mark]) to the gruesome ("Kill a zombie!) to the deeply moving ("Show my wife and sons how much I really love them").  Our group added their own dreams, which were thoughtful and hopeful.  (3) A visit to a traditional above-ground New Orleans cemetery.  Members of our group walked with at least 2 other people through the cemetery and read the inscriptions on the tombs, thought about the lives of those buried there, and considered their own lives.  This experience might seem odd or frightening, but many of our kids had powerful experiences there.  (4) The Encounter moment that we added on our day off, when we were guided by Bill Wallace, one of the Wonder Voyages leaders, was a visit to the Murder Wall at St. Anna's Episcopal Church.  The church is in a lovely neighborhood, but the rector there has made it his mission to memorialize every person murdered in New Orleans since Katrina, with a name, an age, and the cause of death.  Every week, the rector sends that week's list of names, along with a rose for each victim, to the mayor and governor, to remind them that they are not doing their job as long as so many people are dying.  Bill pointed out that the number of murders in January 2011 alone was greater than the entire number of murders in Boise, Idaho, the whole 10 years he has lived there.  (I was amazed by this, because all the places we visited were so peaceful and safe, but Bill said there are areas of town where no mission trips go, and we went nowhere near them.  I will have to say, for the sake of other parents, that there was not a moment of the entire trip when I felt that we were in an unsafe place.)  We gathered, read the names and ages and causes of death (overwhelmingly "Shot") and prayed for all those who have died, their families and all who have been affected by their murders.  
  • Cultural and learning experiences.  We learned a lot about the culture of New Orleans, in formal and informal ways.  Our formal learning included a visit to the Backstreet Cultural Museum, where we heard about African-American cultural experiences such as the "Indian" tribes that spend all year creating beautiful beaded and feathered costumes in which they march on Mardi Gras, and the Clubs that hold parades and lead jazz funerals.  On Wednesday, after our dinner at Mt. Olivet Church, we walked down the street to an outdoor summer concert, where we heard jazz and blues music and our kids danced and walked behind a trumpet player in a New Orleans "Second Line" formation.  On Saturday, we had two learning experiences: a driving tour of Bywater and the Lower Ninth Ward, where we saw the grids that officials spray-painted on the houses when they searched them for survivors after Katrina.  The grids showed the date searched (generally 3 weeks to 4 months after the hurricane), the group that searched it, and the number of animal and human bodies found (happily, usually 0).  In the Lower Ninth Ward, we saw empty fields where houses used to be, where nothing was left but concrete foundations, and the new, odd-looking "Brad Pitt" houses that have been redesigned to withstand hurricanes and floods by coming loose from their foundations and floating like boats.  Later, we visited the Katrina Museum near St. Louis Cathedral and learned about the impact of the hurricane.  The well-designed exhibit featured videos and sound effects that replicated the experience of the hurricane, and many video interviews with survivors that told about their experience - climbing onto the roof of their houses, being rescued by helicopter, waiting for days at the Superdome or the Convention Center, coming back to the city months later to find their houses gone, etc.  The kids learned a lot.  All of us loved the quaint charm of New Orleans - the lovely traditional three-story buildings with ironwork balconies in the older parts of town, the narrow "shotgun" houses with wide front porches, the gracious Southern mansions with gingerbread trim.  And of course, no trip to New Orleans would be complete without beignets at Cafe du Monde, where we had breakfast Sunday morning before heading to the airport.
  • Worship and devotions.  We had two Eucharists.  On Wednesday evening we worshiped at the lovely little Mt. Olivet Episcopal Church (which might hold 75 people packed hip to hip), whose congregation cooked us a wonderful dinner afterwards.  On Saturday evening I celebrated a closing Eucharist in the courtyard of Trinity Episcopal Church, close to where we were staying (a friend of mine is on staff there).  In addition, we gathered in the full group of 48 people some evenings for a meditation led by Chris Larson, the Wonder Voyages leader, and some evenings we gathered in our Nativity group for discussions and devotions that Tara and I led.  The last evening, our Nativity group had the "Passing the Candle" ceremony, where each person says one way they encountered God during the trip, and one way they saw God working through another person in the room.  It was deeply moving to hear the ways our kids saw God at work.
I think more than anything, the kids learned from their day-to-day interactions with the people of New Orleans.  They loved the people of Kingsley House - the elderly folks singing their gospel songs, and the adorable preschoolers who are getting hope for the future from their preschool program.  They also were amazed by their interactions with the people of the neighborhoods where we worked.  What friendly, kind, grateful people they were!  We talked about the difference between the ways people behave in Arizona (no hello or smile for strangers) and how they behave in New Orleans (a smile and greeting for everyone).  Since the overwhelming majority of the people we encountered were African-American, I think the kids had a chance to think about the racial divide in America in a new way - as well as to establish new ways of serving others.  

Friday, June 24, 2011

Finishing Up Service Projects

Yesterday and today our service project was with Renew School, a charter school across the street from the house where we are staying. This was previously a failing public school; after Katrina it was closed for a long time. Last year it reopened as a science and technology magnet school for k-8. It was amazing to hear the teachers' stories of how they have created a college preparatory culture with New Orleans public school students who entered the school an average of two years behind grade level, and many of whom had their educations disrupted by Katrina for a year or more. One of their ways of turning around the culture has been to create a clean and inviting physical plant. We helped with this goal, doing everything from painting stairwells to organizing a resource room for k-2 teachers to landscaping to painting the playground to painting New Orleans posters for the school's entryway. Our kids felt useful and rewarded in knowing that their work will give hope and a future to New Orleans' next generation.

We also had some cultural experiences today. We went to a fascinating museum called the Backstreet Cultural Museum, where a delightful elderly gentleman named Sylvester told us about the history of New Orleans' "Indian" tribes at Mardi Gras and the African-American clubs who stage jazz funerals and parades almost every Sunday. We also had the opportunity to visit a traditional above-ground cemetery, an "Encounter" moment - one of several times when we have slowed down to think about how we encounter God. Our Nativity group has also been gathering every night for discussion and devotionals.

Tomorrow is our free morning, and we head out at 9 am to see the sights. High on everyone's list is a visit to Cafe du Monde for beignets and a visit to the hurricane-ravaged Lower 9th Ward. We also have a 2:00 visit to the Hurricane Katrina Museum and Cathedral Square, and Magazine Street, a quaint street of shopping and cafes. We have dinner at Bubba Gump's, a closing Eucharist in the courtyard of Trinity Episcopal Church, and a special closing ceremony tomorrow. Then it's off to home with a tired but happy group. We've bonded, learned a lot about ourselves, discovered a whole new culture (including the culture of the majority African-American population here), encountered God in unexpected places, and served our neighbors. A successful mission!

Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Wednesday in Algiers

Today the youth's service project was to clean up an area of the Algiers neighborhood. We donned long pants, sunscreen, bug spray and work gloves and picked up trash. The kids are fine with the heat, but are not used to the humidity! But we hydrated freuently and moved slowly, and they did fine. Unlike yesterday, when our job was to interact with others, today our task was working in teams. However, we did frequently encounter neighborhood people who would invariably greet us with a warm "How y'all doin'?" Usually they would ask us where we were from and what we were doing, and when we explained, they would give a big smile and say "Thank you!" Like almost everyone we have met, they know that New Orleans is being rebuilt by volunteer efforts, not by the government, and they are grateful for what we are doing.

We are in a rest period now, and will leave soon to worship at Mount Olivet Episcopal Chuech in the Algiers neighborhood, and then the church people are cooking us dinner!

Tuesday, June 21, 2011

Tuesday at Kingsley House

Today Nativity's youth spent the day at Kingsley House, an amazing organization. We divided into groups when we arrived. Some of us spent the morning helping in a senior citizens adult day care center. Gracie told us about a "God moment" when the seniors had daily devotions and all started singing together, knowing the songs by heart. Our youth prayed with them, played games and talked with them. A second group went to the gym, where they helped supervise 10-12 year old kids in a summer camp. I joined the third group in a Head Start preschool classroom, where we helped teach and play with 4-year-old children. What an amazing experience! The director of the program teared up as she thanked us for our work. Jasmine told us about "God moments" as kids played and lit up at our presence.

We all left feeling like we had made great new friends, young and old. I have lots more to tell, but it's lights out time.

Monday, May 2, 2011

Osama bin Laden and the Many-Headed Hydra

As I read about the stunning raid that finally killed Osama bin Laden, nearly 10 years after bin Laden killed 3,000 Americans and others on U.S. soil, the image that keeps coming to my mind is the many-headed hydra from Greek mythology.  Hercules confronted the many-headed hydra, a great sea monster with numerous poisonous snake-like heads.  Every time Hercules chopped off one hydra head, two more grew to take its place.  Hercules finally triumphed by locating and lopping off the one head that was immortal, and as the immortal head died, the hydra finally died.

Greek mythology endures, of course, because it expresses truths about human existence.  Our human struggle against evil is like a fight against a many-headed hydra.  An evil head like bin Laden can be chopped off, and two more can grow to take its place.  It is probably true that Al Qaeda had a multi-pronged succession plan for the event of bin Laden's death (though this is not certain; if Al Qaeda was a cult of personality centered on bin Laden, it might not survive).  What is certain is that evil itself is not defeated.  This death of one human being may serve the cause of justice, in the sense that a murderer has been killed. It will not eradicate danger, terrorism, or evil from the earth.

So what does Christianity have to say about an event like this?  Certainly the Bible is clear in identifying evil and holding its devotees responsible for their actions.  But it is also clear that every human being is a beloved child of God.  The surge of elation that we feel when a longtime enemy is defeated is natural; but I think that the angels would rejoice if bin Laden had changed his ways instead.  The very fact that Al Qaeda exists, that terrorism persists, and that evil continually springs up anew, reflects the brokenness of our world.  The sin that infects us ensures that we humans can defeat evil only temporarily and conditionally.  The immortal head can only be chopped off by God.

Which is what Christ came to do.  Whatever Christ accomplished on the cross (and the theology of the atonement is complex and many-layered), it is clear that his self-giving love was a victory over the principalities and powers of evil and death that rule this world.  The kingdom of death did its worst to him, yet still "the light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it" (John 1:5).  In Christ's resurrection, God demonstrated divine power over death itself, and displayed to us the new creation, the resurrection life, that is the hope of every human who places her or his trust in God.  We live in a post-Easter world, and Easter, not Good Friday, is our hope.

And therefore, on a day when an enemy has died, we can be glad that that particular enemy can no longer threaten innocent people.  We can grieve the evil and corruption that caused that enemy to prosper.  We can believe that the actions taken were probably necessary in order to protect ourselves and others.  We can appreciate the intelligence, careful planning, courage, and skill that made the battle against bin Laden successful.  And we can hope that more poisonous heads do not grow to take his place.

What we cannot do is put our trust in death as a lasting weapon against evil, for death is the tool of a Good Friday world.  We are Easter people, and we place our hope in the Lord of Life.  God's new Creation in Christ is what will defeat the many-headed hydra of evil in our world.  Until that day comes, we Christians work, and pray, and love our neighbors, and yes, love our enemies, the best we can.  Our victories of love are temporary and conditional.  But God's Kingdom, when it comes at last in its fullness, will be eternal.  Thy kingdom come, thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.

Sunday, April 24, 2011

New Location Announcement

Church of the Nativity is delighted to announce a new step of faith: the purchase of a new location.  Since January 2008, we have been meeting in a 5,000 square foot office building suite, provided courtesy of one of our members.  Our lease on that space expires at the end of 2012, and we have been diligently searching for a new home for our growing, lively church.

On Wednesday of Holy Week, we finally reached an agreement to purchase an incomplete building located just south of the southeast corner of Williams & Miller in North Scottsdale.  We have a due diligence period ahead to determine whether all inspections and so forth are in order.  We have already raised the funds necessary to purchase the building, and will begin work right away on raising the funds necessary to complete it.

The building was originally intended to be a 24,000-square-foot, 2-story office building.  In 2009, as the recession deepened, it was abandoned in mid-construction.  What is there is simply a concrete foundation and cinder block walls, open to the sky.  Here are two pictures, one from the inside and one from the outside:

Here are some exciting facts about this building;

  • It's right in the middle of a terrific neighborhood - close to the center of where our members live; near a school, a retirement home, a hospital, a post office, a library, and many homes; right on a major street (if you exit the 101 at Hayden and go 2 miles north, Hayden turns into Miller and you pass right by this building).  It's just south of Pinnacle Peak Road, which is one of the two cross streets that go through to Tatum, meaning there is easy access from Desert Ridge/north Phoenix.  The park where we have our church picnics and animal blessings is less than half a mile away, so we can still use it for outdoor recreation activities.
  • We will have 50 parking spaces full-time, and will be able to use 200 parking spaces in the office development on evenings and Sundays - so we don't have to pay a million dollars an acre for land to park cars on, or for that matter, pay to build and maintain a parking lot.
  • As you can see in the photos, the building is in a state of incompletion that will allow us to completely redesign it to look like a church.  We have spoken in detail with the head Scottsdale city planner, who assures us that the city is eager to see something happen with this property, and will be very favorably disposed to our redesign ideas.
  • We will have a high-ceilinged, 2-story nave, allowing for terrific cathedral-type acoustics and a truly worshipful feel.
  • The rest of the building can be built out as 2 stories of classroom, office, parish hall, etc.  We would start Phase I by building out the ground floor only: 12,000 square feet, leaving expansion room for later.
  • We have a right of first refusal on the 6,600-square-foot office building just to the north, which might be a future expansion site for classrooms and offices.
  • We will have room outdoors for a patio for gathering, and either a playground or healing/worship garden.
More than anything, here is what I love about this location: it will allow us to be the incarnated presence of the Risen Christ in the midst of our community.  For the past 30 years or so, suburban churches have tended to build on large campuses, somewhat isolated from the community (at least by a parking lot).  This site harkens back to an older tradition: the tradition of building the village church right in the middle of the village, where people live, work, and go to school.  We can be the welcoming church community for our neighborhood.  We can reach out to help the hungry, the lonely, and the lost.  We can preach the good news of Easter to a world that only believes in Good Friday.  We can worship, grow, and transform lives with the love of Jesus Christ.  Thanks be to God!

Monday, April 11, 2011

The Future of the Church?

I posted this article on Facebook yesterday: "Of Storks and Canaries: Youth Ministry, New Vocations, and the Future of the Church," by the Rev. Frederick Schmidt. The article makes the very good point that we need to treat youth and young adult ministry as a serious vocation and not a way station on the way to somewhere else; and we need to call and equip appropriate leaders for that ministry, including young adults. Our future as a church depends on it.

Well and good. My post prompted the following comment from a young seminarian: "Regarding patronizing attitudes, I think the denomination needs to gain some clarity about who the church is. The 'under-30' crowd, and even the under-20s, are not just 'the future of the church.' We too are the church."

Also well and good. Although the commenter was focusing on young(ish) adults, and I am really focusing on children 18 and under, I couldn't agree more - young people are here now, and they are fully as important members in our congregations as the older members who generally exercise leadership and control resources. The fact that we should be ministering to young people in our churches should be self-evident. We shouldn't have to argue to get appropriate resources allocated to children's and youth ministries - the least and smallest should always come first in the church. Didn't Jesus say that? Frederick Schmidt's article should not be necessary, and it shouldn't be necessary for the House of Bishops to spend a meeting considering how to reach out to young people. It should be happening as a matter of course, right? Our future depends on it, right?

Well, right. But I think this whole question is framed wrong. If we're saying that we should be ministering to young people because they are the future of our church, we have it exactly backwards.

Here's the deal: we don't do ministry to anyone in order to build up the church. The church is not an end in itself, and young people are not the means to an end. We don't do ministry to young people so that the church will survive - because we fear that we will die if we don't. If we are leaders in Christ's church, then we are meant to be leading the mission of Jesus. Not perpetuating an institution. Not operating out of fear.

Don't get me wrong - I love the church. I love this institution, and I think it's worth perpetuating. But I'm a leader in Christ's church because I believe in Christ's mission. And I will stay a leader in Christ's church as long as I believe that it's the best hope for accomplishing Christ's mission.

We don't do ministry with young people so that our church will survive. We do ministry with young people because Jesus loves them. We do it because we love them. We do it because we want their world to be a better place. We do it because of who we are as followers of Jesus. And we do it because of who they are.

And who are they? This is who they are:
  • They are the two children who committed suicide this week in a neighborhood near my church. And they are all the other children in my neighborhood and yours who are depressed, sad and lonely enough for that horrible thought to cross their minds.
  • They are the gay and lesbian teenagers who are trying to understand how God made them, and whether Jesus loves them the way they are.
  • They are the bright, committed and earnest students who make straight As in school, and wonder whether they will ever be able to afford a college education.
  • They are the runaways who spend their days in the airport terminal because it's air-conditioned, they can use the restrooms, and no one will kick them out.
  • They are the kids who understand that Jesus loves them, but wonder why a powerful and loving God would allow a tsunami to wipe out whole villages in Japan.
  • They are the young people who are confronted with a parent's serious and life-threatening illness, and who have to come to terms with questions of life and death way, way too young.
  • They are the kids who come to youth group because they like the fun and games, and they are the kids who come to youth group because they want to understand Jesus.
  • They are the kids who are bullied, and they are the kids who do the bullying.
  • They are the kids who wish their parents would leave them alone.
  • They are the kids who wish their parents would pay them some attention.
  • They are children of God.
These children of God - inside the church, and outside the church - need to know that God loves them. That's why we do youth ministry.