Small rural cities exhibit a form of nativism that is easier to encounter than it is in larger urban centers, though it is certainly there also.  The kind of nativism I mean is the sort where a self-described native expresses surprise that you would want to continue living in their town after your assignment is completed because, “…after all, you are not a native.  Remind me of where you came from.  Why wouldn’t you want to go back home?”

I don’t think there is anything particularly mean-spirited about that, but it’s always made me curious.  Is it a turf thing?  This is my turf.  You can sojourn with me for a season, but then you have to go.  Is it a social status thing?  Because I am a native I have certain rights and privileges that you cannot have.  Sometimes it seems like simple wonder.  I’m here because I don’t know where else to go, but you’ve chosen this place and I don’t get it. I’ve wondered about their parents, grandparents, or, in the case of some Eastern cities, their 17th and 18th century ancestors.  They came as strangers to a strange land.  Some combination of adventuresome spirit, need and courage either drove or seduced them into the unknown (in some cases it was the law chasing them).  Does that spirit and courage die out after a generation or two?  

Perhaps we are more a people of the land than we realize, and that deep roots are more than metaphors.  Perhaps there is something within us that needs to be deeply rooted in some particular soil.  Maybe that’s why so many rootless Americans are seeking out a real or imaginary ethnic heritage they can call their own, or trace back generations of ancestors until simple geometric progression has them related to a person of note they can now claim as theirs alone.  Most of my ancestors, so I”m told, were Puritans, and I have no desire to adopt that ethnicity.  If I had a choice, I’d just as soon discover Abraham, that old wandering Aramean, to be the ancestor I could claim.  He seemed to know that any place where he was in companionship with God gave him all the roots he needed, and he was able to live comfortably among a wide variety of native peoples.

Maybe a future topic will have to be the sort of nativism that has serious political consequences.  I’m talking about the semi-hysterical fear of large groups of new immigrants, whether legal or illegal.  It might be interesting to make some guesses about what drives that hysteria.

In the meantime, let’s get back to celebrating the Resurrection of that guy from Nazareth (can anything good come from there?) to whom the authorities said, “We don’t know where you came from or who your father is, but why don’t you go back there and leave us alone,” shortly before they hung him. 

Retirement Reflections on Easter 2

Easter 2, the Sunday after Easter, is often called “Low Sunday.”  I’ve never known why.  One source says it is to contrast the rather ordinary celebration of this Sunday to the ‘high’ celebration of Easter Sunday.  Popular wisdom says that its because the congregation sinks back to normal size after all the Easter only gang have reverted to their usual Sunday routine.  My practice has been to continue the ‘high’ celebration of Easter, and my experience is that the church is normally more full than usual for several weeks after Easter.  Easter 2 is often the one Sunday on which someone new to Christianity will make the tentative decision to give it a try for a while.  

At least for the time being I’m serving at Grace Church only twice a month, which is giving us a chance to see what goes on elsewhere in town.  This morning we went to Assumption Roman Catholic and sat behind good friends and former parishioners who went back to their RC roots hoping to get away from gay bishops.  Boy are they in for a surprise.   But I digress.  The church was full, and the celebration festive in that unique contemporary RC style that tries, with very limited success, to marry the traditional form of the Eucharist with contemporary eighth grade English.  For some reason it reminds me of an auditory version of early  ‘70s architecture.  Fr. Luke’s sermon took on good old doubting Thomas with a refreshing twist in which Thomas’ pragmatic demands were honored by Jesus’ appearance and invitation to see, hear and touch.  It was worthy of some serious reflection.

Which reminds me, why have we suddenly decided that the possessive of names like Jesus and Thomas has got to be Jesus’s or Thomas’s?  I mean it comes out as Jesus-zuz.  Same thing with the new plural for diocese.  It comes out as diocese-zuz.  Just sounds tacky, and besides you can easily lose track of how many ‘zuz’ to put on at the end.  But again I digress.

It did sadden me not to take Communion.  If I had been a little more anonymous I would have, but as it is I’m fairly well known around here as an Episcopal priest, and I would not want to embarrass or offend so many of my friends and neighbors who are present in that congregation.  Nor would I want to get any of their clergy, whom I count as good friends, in trouble with their more conservative bishop.  But it does seem a tragedy that Christians, especially those who already agree on the meaning of the Eucharist, cannot share it together.  I’m reminded of a well known Catholic writer who offered a workshop at my seminary.  He had been specifically instructed by his superiors to stop his practice of giving and receiving Holy Communion to and from non-Catholics.  He offered his apologies and then invited all to join him in his quarters for a little wine and bread.

Next week is another ‘free’ Sunday so I think we might take in a Lutheran or Methodist church.  I’m not quite ready for the Abundant Life Pentecostal Tabernacle.  It could be more than my heart could take.

Learning About Religion

American Religion is complicated because, like religion in any nation, it is so tied up in with everything else that goes into the making of  a people.  Historical events, developments in science, philosophy and theology, the ebb and flow of populations, developments in popular culture and a lot more than that all have their say in how we define religion and our own ways of expressing it.  

The students in the class I’m auditing are among the brightest in the land.  Graduate school is all but guaranteed to those who graduate from Whitman.  What they are learning about American Religion from the Civil War to the Present is amazing.  But I realize, as I sit in on their small group discussions, that brand new never encountered before information has to have some kind of context in which to settle or it makes no sense at all.  In their cases, and in spite of their intellectual acumen, their context for understanding American religion tends to be whatever they were taught

 by parents, Sunday school teachers or heard on the playground.  You know what that means; their small group discussions of celebrated theologians and religious historians are understood dimly and in the context of simple, often terribly misinformed and sometimes bigoted learning of their childhoods.  

I doubt that many of them will ever have another course in religion for the rest of their lives.  But they are smart and inquisitive.  They listen to each other and begin to test, question and challenge each other to reach beyond the ground from which they came to something deeper, more profound and maybe that’s enough to open a door to a vigorous faith journey in their adult years.  It’s a start.  Where do they go next? How will they find that place?  What will attract them in?  What will they learn there?  Will that bring them into a closer relationship with God?  With God in Christ Jesus?  What role, what responsibility, lies with the clergy for all of that?  

Lucy says that my posts are too much like lectures and it’s hard to know how to enter into the conversation with me.  I guess that’s true.  Maybe that’s just the way with old teachers.  So what: wade in anyway.

Going back to College

Even though the semester is half over, I have been invited to sit in on a class at a local college: Religion in America from the Civil War to the Present.  I’ve been to two so far and am having a great time.  Who were the Know-Nothings and how did they relate to nativism, the rise of the Republican Party and opposition to Catholicism in the mid 19th century?  How did religion affect the way immigrant groups entered into American culture?  What forces drove the Second Great Awakening and the rise of Fundamentalism?  If the twenty or so students in this class are representative of our future, then we are in good hands.  They are bright, inquisitive, eager to look into questions like these and willing to reflect on how their own upbringing has influenced what they think.    

Just A Few Questions

If you wanted to learn how to play soccer, how would  you go about it?   If soccer became your passion, how would you go about engaging in it?  How might that same question apply to any other activity, sport or discipline?  There  are, of course, many stories about self-taught persons (Abe Lincolns galore), but were not most of them drawn by their self-education into the company of other educated persons in order to hone their skills?  When I was a young teenager my friend Jim and I tried to teach ourselves Judo and Karate out of a book as we practiced on each other in his yard.  Only our gross incompetence and dumb luck prevented us from doing some serious harm to each other..  So how is it that we can feel so comfortable with the idea that living into a relationship with God requires only a willing mind, a heart that asserts its own brand of spirituality, an affirmation of belief in the higher power of one’s own choosing, and possibly the reading of a book or two?  We Episcopalians tend to come down on the universalist side of the salvation argument, so can we say, with a straight face, that a faith built on that sort of foundation is enough?  Enough for what?  If it is enough, is there any value in looking into the two thousand year old argument over salvation and learning anything from those who have had their say?  If ours is a faith built on Scripture, Tradition and Reason, should we in any way assert the need and value of disciplined formation in knowing what Scripture says, being guided but not governed  by Tradition in our understanding of it, and developing our abilities to Reason it all out?  Scripture seems to suggest that there is something important about coming together to discuss these things with one another, and, through prayer, with God.  Scripture also suggests that there is something essential about developing our relationships with God and one another through some rather mysterious gifts given to us in the sacraments.  Is that still true?  Now here is a really tough question?  Does God care, and if God does care, is there any evidence that the touted power and presence of the Holy Spirit to do great things beyond our understanding  has been doing anything but resting these one hundred years or so? 


Maybe this is not a suitable thought for Holy Saturday, but I am  among those who believe that Peeps, those wonderfully slightly stale sugar coated marshmallow chicks, are more essential to the secular celebration of Easter than eggs in baskets.  The problem is that, according to the resident health and nutrition police, they’re not allowed in our house.  With grandchildren too far away to corrupt under the noses of their parents what am I to do?  Maybe I’ll take some to Grace on Sunday morning and see if there are any other aficionados there.  In any case I’ll have to think of some errand that has to be done in order to sneak off to K-Mart to buy a package and then hide it in the back seat.  The resident health and nutrition police has discovered most of my hiding places in the house. 

Things I learn at Grace

Grace Episcopal is a tiny church in a town of less than 3,000. Average Sunday attendance waffles between 10 and 15. Along with several other priests, I’ve been serving there once a month or so for the last eight years, but now, in my brand new retirement, I’m there on a pretty regular basis. Here are some things I’m learning:

  • Liturgy does not always have to be planned more than a day ahead (but it helps)
  • Each has a gift to contribute that together make up a full ministry for all to each
  • You don’t have to like everyone today in order to love everyone today
  • There are no secrets and not much privacy
  • Sermons are OK but conversation is better

More on what I learn at Grace as time goes by.

Maundy Thursday, Good Friday, Racism and Tibet

I’ve often wondered at how lightly we take Christ’s new commandment ‘to love one another as I have loved you.’ I doubt that one Christian in ten has the slightest idea what the Maundy in Maundy Thursday refers to, can recite the new commandment, or would take it very seriously if they did know it. And yet, this is the very heart of what it means to be a follower of Jesus. On Good Friday that new commandment is given dramatic emphasis in our remembrance of the tremendous depth to which God was, and is, willing to go to engage with humanity for the salvation of humanity, even if humanity doesn’t give a damn.

Which brings me to the explosion of the inherent racism that seems to be embedded in the human psyche. After a rather gentle sneaking up on the subject over the course of this presidential campaign, we’ve been treated to night-after-night of reruns of the Rev. Wright’s worst rants, and the pundits shameless exploitation of them from every conceivable angle, all in the name of reporting of course. In local conversation there seems to be little remembrance of the ethnic viciousness over the last eight years from Falwell, Robertson, Dobson & Co., but boy do they want to talk about Wright. “Love one another as I have loved you.”

Which brings me to Tibet. China has a long history of deceiving itself about its own history, and I imagine that most Chinese will tell you that Tibet has always been a part of China in one way or another. That, of course, is quite unlike the honesty of American history, which remembers very well how the Cavalry rampaged over the American west rooting out indigenous resistance, and how the government made and then ignored dozens of so called treaties with them. Manifest Destiny was, I believe, what we called it then. Then there was the war with Mexico that managed to liberate California from corrupt Mexican rule and the likelihood that, on its own, it could have become an independent nation, or worse, a territory of some European power. Whew! And who knew there was gold in them thar hills? None of that justifies China’s Tibet policy, but it should do something to affect our response to it. I wonder how nations would relate to one another if they loved one another as Christ loved us? Do you remember the old Kingston Trio song from the 1950’s?

(Sheldon Harnick)

They’re rioting in Africa
They’re starving in Spain
There’s hurricanes in Florida
And Texas needs rain.

The whole world is festering
With unhappy souls
The French hate the Germans,
The Germans hate the Poles

Italians hate Yugoslavs
South Africans hate the Dutch
And I don’t like anybody very much

But we can be grateful
And thankful and proud
That man’s been endowed
With a mushroom shaped cloud

And we know for certain
That some happy day
Someone will set the spark off
And we will all be blown away

They’re rioting in Africa
There’s strife in Iran
What nature doesn’t do to us
Will be done by our fellow man.

Doing Church

Recently released Pew and Barna survey reports on the changing face of American Christianity proclaim that Americans seeking a religious experience are willing to try about anything, don’t care too much about denomination, and don’t have a very good understanding of Christianity anyway. So what are we supposed to do about that, and how should it affect they way we do “church?”

Some years ago I developed an outline of how people enter and then grow into their church experience. It was a little like a Maslow hierarchy. At the bottom, a person comes into a church, attracted by who knows what, but driven by some personal need, perhaps even a need to which words cannot be given. Personal tragedies, desires for self identity or worth, guilt, a sense of obligation to do something truly useful in life, even the desire to find something worthwhile in life can all be elements of these personal needs. Whatever they are, they are intensely personal.

A person will stay in a congregation if they discover that it is a safe place, a place of welcome and a place where their personal needs begin to be nourished in some way. In their own time they will recognize that the congregation is not a collection of individuals each individually being fed. Rather, it is a gathering of persons in communion with God and each other who find joy and mutual support in that communion, and the new “member” will find his or her own place in that communion. Some of them will also recognize that the church exists to seek and serve Christ in those outside the congregation, and will move into roles that contribute to that work. And some will be drawn to the hard work of seeing that the congregation itself is cared for through responsible stewardship of its resources.

Personal needs; welcome and safety; communion with one another; reaching out; and looking after the welfare of the congregation itself are stages that proceed sequentially, but one never leaves a stage behind, nor is one required to move from one stage to another. However, when one does move, each preceding stage becomes an integral part of the whole congregational experience, and normal life changes can bring one or another of them to the forefront at any time.

There is nothing fancy or new about any of that. It’s old stuff, and in one way or another it applies to most any organization. Two things make a Christian congregation different than any other organization. One is the central focus on God in Christ through whom the tremendous power of the Holy Spirit can breathe new and abundant life into the gathering we call a congregation. In that power it becomes a place of miracles frequently expected and frequently experienced in hundreds of mostly small and hardly noticeable ways. The second is clergy leadership that understands each of these stages is only a manifestation of a far more central question: What gives life, my life, real and lasting meaning and how can my years on this earth make a constructive difference in the lives of others? In other words, church is the place where the intimate, naked, deep heart of the soul can be fully exposed to the full light of God’s presence. That makes church a place full of people at all levels of intense vulnerability who are trying very hard not to let anyone else know that.

So what’s the point? I think there may be three of them:
• Healthy congregations pay attention to these things.
• Unhealthy congregations have often drifted far from them.
• Congregational growth depends on them.

Let the Conversation Begin

I know there are a number of regular readers out there because you send me e-mails from time-to-time, or talk with me about the subject of one post or another when we see each other. But part of the joy of blogging is to generate conversation in which we can all share through the comments function. I hope you will consider doing that, and if some reasonably incompetent advice on how to do that would help, just drop me a line.