I’ve used the word pugilistic in a number of posts as a way to describe certain individual and political behaviors.  A pugilist is a boxer.  In the old days it meant a professional boxer, one who did not fight except when in the ring and according to whatever rules were in play at the time.  But to be pugilistic is to use language and behave in ways that threaten a fight as a way of asserting one’s self and one’s beliefs.
It used to be a fairly rare thing.  For instance, we had a neighbor who could not say a word without sounding like an irate drill sergeant ready to kick butts.  He talked that way to his wife, kids, and anyone else who came within earshot.  It was the bravado of an abusive, insecure man who had very few behavioral tools in his kit.  I imagine that he lived in a world of fear most of the time, and he did imagine enemies and danger to be ever present in the most fantastical of ways.   A relative was so convinced that the armed and violent house burglar was just steps away that he pugilistically described the probable event each time we visited, and assured us that he would shoot first and ask questions later.  Considering that he kept a loaded revolver in the nightstand next to his bed, it took courage to make a midnight trip to the bathroom.  Eccentric to say the least, but these examples were not all that common. 
Now that kind of pugilistic bombast has become the ordinary language of some politicians and political commentators.  It’s the language of abusive threat.  It’s the language of insecurity.  It’s the language of ignorance.  It’s the language of imagined violent adversaries.  It’s the language of those who would seek scapegoats on whom to impute all that is not good in their own lives and punish them for it.  It is a dangerous language.

Greek Churchspeak and the Flat Earth

I could have sworn that I recently wrote a post on this subject but I can’t find it, so here goes again.  It has to do with flat earth speak.
We just wrapped up our annual diocesan clergy conference at which it one person said that he thought when non believers hear our churchspeak language they hear “flat earth.”  It’s true.  We speak first century Greek using English words in phrases heavily influenced by the High Middle Ages, Renaissance, Reformation and Enlightenment.  I don’t think that is bad, but we need to face facts.  It’s a strange and mysterious language that does not seem to resonate well with the latest hit on MTV, anything in People Magazine, life on the street or the popular understanding of science.
The mainline churches in my community that have tried to do something about that have failed in two ways.  Some of them come off as a bunch of old people trying to be cool by using music and words at least a decade out of style.  Others have made a genuine offering to the young in their language only to become little more than concert venues under thin veneers of barely visible Christian formation.
Oddly enough, I believe that the best job of translating our Greek churchspeak into language intelligible to the modern non believer has come from the pastor of one of the local Roman Catholic parishes, and the young new rector of my former parish. When I think about it, neither of them is deliberate about trying to appeal to youth per se.  Instead, they are adept at using the ordinary language of the day to open up the depth of meaning hidden in churchspeak, and they are very clear about breaking down the artificial barriers between faith and science.   
What I would really like to hear is your take on all of this.

Christmas Tree Ornaments & Episcopalians

It’s been several years since I’ve written an article for the Sunday pastor’s column in our local paper, but I’ve been reading most of those that others have written and often wonder what non Christians think about them.  My guess is, that if they read them at all, they are a little confused about how there can be so many different traditions in the same faith, and how they can sound so different while saying much the same thing.  One possible way of looking at it is to think of the Christian Church as something like a living Christmas Tree decorated with hundreds of ornaments of every size and description.  Each ornament might represent a denomination that has it’s own distinct shape and color offering up it’s own way of adorning the tree.
I suppose that a purist might want to get rid of all the ornaments and just let the tree’s natural beauty shine forth on its own.  The problem is that the first followers of Jesus Christ each had their own way of expressing what it meant to be a Christian.  That made them the first ornaments, and every generation in its turn has added more.  That’s the way we humans do things.  The truth is that the bare tree all by itself does not exist and never has.  
My own tradition, the Episcopal Church, a part of the Worldwide Anglican Communion, has its way of adorning the worship of God through Christ.  For instance, although we are certain that the bible reveals and illuminates the truth of God’s holy word, we do not take the book itself to be literal or inerrant.  We do not affirm our faith in the words of a written confession, but in the language of our worship and through the ancient Apostles’ and Nicene creeds of the Church.  It is sometimes said that we have an incarnational theology meaning that we heavily emphasize the duty of Christians to continue the healing and reconciling ministry of Jesus through the works of our daily lives.  Our own way of being Christian is deeply rooted in the legendary origins of Celtic Christianity in Britain somewhere in the second century of the Common Era.  I doubt that many pew sitting Episcopalians could say a single word about Celtic Christianity, yet the Celtic soul lives on in the unspoken ways in which we treasure God’s creation and our place in it.  
We have a strong affection for the early Church fathers and mothers, and we are committed to forming our own faith in the light of the wisdom handed down to us through the ages.  It would be hard to find an Episcopal Church where Holy Communion, the Eucharist, is not celebrated every Sunday because we believe that Christ is truly present to us in the bread and wine of that holy meal. We have an unusual tolerance for ambiguity, realizing that what we think we know as true, we can know only in part.  We must always be prepared for God to speak to us in new ways that can startle us out of our comfortable ways.  That means that in our tradition it is unlikely that you will be told what to think or believe, but you will be encouraged to ask the hard questions and be fearless in entering into conversation with God, Holy Scripture and the community of believers in search of answers. 
Finally, as Anglicans we existed for 870 years within the bosom of the Roman Catholic Church, but that ended in 1533 as the result of an argument between a mad king and an embattled pope about a divorce.  Since then we have followed our own way as a “Reformed Catholic Church.”  Both Protestant and Catholic at the same time, no wonder we have a high tolerance for ambiguity.  Any other Episcopalian who reads this, and being Episcopalian, is sure to disagree and suggest his or her correctives.  That’s the way of Anglicanism.  

A Happy Anniversary

Today is our anniversary, the 25th to be exact.  We were married twenty-five years ago in a small ceremony presided over by our four teenage children who wondered what would become of them in this Brady family arrangement that they both wanted and feared.  We, on the other hand, were scared to death and hopeful that we were doing the right thing.  Here we are, twenty-five years later, still celebrating our honeymoon, taking utter delight in each other, and somewhat amazed at how well our kids survived and prospered into successful adult lives of their own.  What can I say except thanks be to God.

Car Wash, Joel & Amos

I took my car to a new car wash yesterday afternoon.  Prius though it may be, it had started to look more like a well used farm ute, and this place promised to hand wash it inside and out down to the last detail for $20.  There was one other customer sitting at a picnic table in the warm sun and cool breeze of an April afternoon.  She was reading the bible.  So I sat down across from her and asked what she was reading.  Joel and then Amos, she said.  It turns out that a famous prophet is coming to town soon, all the way from Dallas, and the people in her church are to read Joel and Amos in preparation for the revelations he will offer on the impending doom about to engulf us if the nation does not repent and turn to the Lord Jesus Christ.  Perhaps it is already too late for the nation, but it may not be too late for our valley, or, at least, that is what I heard her say that she expected him to prophesy.  
She was mildly disappointed, but not the least bit surprised, that I had never heard of this prophet.  She had already asked about me and learned that I was an Episcopal priest whom she knew by my occasional newspaper columns to be one of those “progressive” Christians of interesting but highly questionable faith.  Any doubt about that was erased when I asked if we should anticipate a swarm of grasshoppers anytime soon.  
Grasshoppers aside, and most definitely doomsday prophets aside, I firmly believe that we should be taking Joel, Amos and each of the so called minor prophets most seriously.  God has something important to say to us through them.  This living Word that comes crashing into our time through words written 2,800 years ago is not to be ignored.   
What impresses me about them are the powerful words from God that set a high standard for social justice as the way of life for the people of God.  Worship that is not offered within the context of life lived in the full knowledge that one is ever walking in God’s sight is not worship at all.  Moreover, the issues that are illuminated through the prophets by the God in whose sight we are ever walking seldom have anything to do with adherence to levitical laws or the apocalyptic end of the world and everything to do with the very issues we struggle with in our own day:  justice for the poor, integrity in daily life, inequalities engineered by the privileged and well off, presumption of God’s grace while denying it to others, and so forth.  There is little in our individual, corporate or political life that the prophets have not addressed in God’s name.  
My car wash friend reads all of this as a warning of the coming of That Day, the day of the Lord’s wrath when all but a few will stand condemned.  I read the same as a loving God warning us of the natural and ordinary consequences of unjust lives in unjust societies, and calling us to live as faithfully as we can as followers of Jesus Christ and agents of God’s grace, doing our best to continue Christ’s work of healing and restoration in a fallen but much loved world of God’s creation.

Do We Want Seminaries or Clergy Trade Schools?

We just finished our annual clergy conference with a somewhat contentious conversation about whether seminaries are doing the right job of preparing persons for ordained ministry.  Do seminaries exist to train persons in the skills necessary to perform as clergy?  Do they exist to educate persons as theologians capable of assuming church leadership?  Or do they exist for something else?
It reminded me of conversations I often had with Episcopalian students at the top ranked liberal arts college in our community that went something like this:  

You are among the intellectual elite in the nation.  I know it’s not politically correct to admit that, but that’s the way it is so get used to it.  You are here to become educated persons and to learn the skills needed for life long learning as educated persons.  You are not here to get a job ticket.  If a job ticket is what you want or need, you can do that later in graduate school or at the local community college. 

I have pretty much the same reaction to our clergy conference discussion.  If we are most interested in raising up persons with the skills necessary to perform as ordained clergy, we can do that easily enough through local training, distance education, and a variety short course and seminars offered by some institution.  On the other hand, if we are most interested in raising up persons who are educated as theologians capable of providing leadership and competent in forming knowledgeable disciples for the Church, we need comprehensive seminary based graduate education at a high level of academic standards.  This obviously begs the question of whether that function could be accomplished just as well through university graduate schools of religion or theology, and that’s for another day. 
It seems to me that the real issue is something else altogether, and that is money.  Graduate education is expensive, period.  On the one hand, the leadership of the Church laments that seminary graduates leave with huge debt loads that are all but impossible to pay off on a clergy salary.  On the other hand, and for the most part, they do very little or nothing to invest in that education, and seem disinclined to make any moves in that direction.  It seems to me that that is their problem as much or more than it is a problem of the seminaries.
I’ll close with this.  Any move to convert seminaries, or university graduate schools of theology, into clergy trade schools is likely to result in the destruction of graduate level education while failing to live up to the expectations for a decent trade school.

A Smaller more Limited Governemt? I don’t think so.

I don’t remember that I was ever one of those who feared, or had a deep suspicion of, government, even in the days when I called my self a conservative.  That may be because I spent a number of years working for local and state governments and saw the tremendous good they did for the people, on behalf of the people and by the peoples’ authority.  I also spent more than a few years messing in and around Washington working on issues of public policy that were important to particular regions of the country, and began to recognize that whatever difficulties and disagreements might exist, government was neither the enemy nor the problem.  
What was, and is, more important is whether government is efficient and effective at doing what needs to be done for the public welfare of the community.  Of course there are those who derisively assert that government is never efficient or effective, at least not like the private sector is.  I’m not sure where that idea comes from, but the private sector has not generated much evidence on its behalf.  
What is true is that the larger the organization, the larger the administrative bureaucracy  needed to handle the logistics of whatever it is that the organization does.  Whether private sector of government, it does not matter.  The problem comes when the needs and wants of the bureaucracy become driving forces that operate by their own internal market forces.  That happens when essential pieces of information become commodities to be traded in the organization’s internal market place.  It happens when functions that exist to support the organization’s core products or services become important products and services in their own right to be bought and sold within the internal market place.  It also happens when status is conferred according to the size of one’s domain.  In the largest, richest organizations that internalized marketplace finds it’s epitome in executive offices where want, need, product, service, and market all focus on the egos of a few well compensated persons whose most important decisions can often do great damage and sometimes a little good.  
It’s a function of human nature and of the psychology of organizations themselves.  From a theological point of view, one might even say that it is the organizational manifestation of original sin.  I’ve heard the argument for smaller more limited government, and on the surface it holds out the promise of smaller bureaucracies that are able to function more effectively and efficiently.  There are only two problems with that.  First, I doubt that those who argue for smaller more limited government really want  effectiveness of efficiency; they just don’t want government that will do any more than protect and serve their own selfish interests, and the devil take everyone else.  If that’s true, it helps explain why, in recent years, government has grown more rapidly when conservatives are in power.  Second, since size is a very elusive target, the real issue has got to be how to engage in a never ending disruption of bureaucratic original sin that does not punish but redeems the necessary and important work of government.  I’d like to say that I have an answer for that, but politics and redemption are not all that compatible. In that regard the private sector does have an advantage.  It’s called bankruptcy.

Living Stones and the Future of the Church

You are a living stone, not a house, and as a living stone be yourself built into a spiritual house.  That’s a rough paraphrase from a portion of 1 Peter 2 that goes on to call followers of Jesus into a royal priesthood, a holy nation.  “Once,” he wrote, “you were no  people but now you are God’s people…”  Peter offers no hint of the possibility of being a solitary Christian in a world of solitary Christians.  A stone is not a house.  However holy and precious in God’s sight, it remains just a stone until, because it is a living stone, it permits itself to be built into a spiritual house.  Stone upon stone, course upon course, extending outward and upward from the well laid cornerstone that is Christ, the spiritual house, the Church of living stones, is built.  To become a royal priesthood, a holy nation of God’s people is collaborative, disciplined work in community.  That’s what Peter thinks.
Peter appears to be little more than an unsophisticated dreamer.  Clearly neither he nor God has any idea how dated, unrealistic and contrary to the ideal of individualism all of that is. 
We live in a time when the dominant religious theme is not only to claim spirituality without religion, but to enshrine that mantra as the new orthodoxy.  Dozens of books and articles proclaim that the Church will have to adapt to a population that has no interest in denomination, the church as institution, hierarchy, educated theologians as clerics, dogma or doctrine.  To be spiritual but without religious affiliation of any kind is not only acceptable but preferred.  Affiliation, if any, might be considered as a participant, but not member, of small spontaneous gatherings of like minded people eschewing any formal leadership, and indifferent to being led from spiritual milk to solid food by qualified teachers .
I’d like to suggest that Peter was not so far off the mark after all.  We are called to be a people of God, not a collection of persons of God, the god of our choice.  We are called to be a part of the community of a royal priesthood.  Peter suggests that we can only do that by casting off all malice, guile, insincerity, envy and slander.  Admittedly that takes a lot of the fun out of life.  It’s not easy to love others as Christ has loved us if we hang onto those favored pastimes, but that is what we are called to do.  Tradition, reason, experience, dogma, doctrine, structure and standards of excellence in learning are essential tools to help us along the way.
What I hear from too many of my clergy colleagues is fear: fear that the Church will have to adapt or go out of business.  There is nothing wrong with adaptation as such.  It’s what we mean by a reformed church always reforming.  We are always in a state of adaptation, but not for the purpose of being conformed to this world.  I have no fear that the Church will die out or be subsumed by something else.  It is, after all, God’s Church, not ours.  We are not to be measured by size or market penetration, but by obedience.   Moreover, a revitalization of a spirit of obedience does not go in the direction of a Calvin, Luther, Aquinas or Augustine, but in the direction of Christ and the abundance of the generosity of God’s grace promiscuously poured out in love for all of creation.

What Does A Fire Chaplain Do?

What does a fire chaplain do?  So glad you asked.  It’s a role I’ve had for the last seven years in our small city.  In an odd way, the most important thing I do is hang around.  I try to hang around with each shift in each station at least a couple of times a month, just to listen to what anyone might want to talk about.  It’s a participation in some small portion of the care and keeping of their emotional and spiritual well being along with much more important people such as spouses, pastors, and the family that is the fire service itself.  Just hanging around has led to pre-marriage counseling for some, post-marriage counseling for others, a few referrals to other care givers, conversation about job changes, promotions and the like, and sometimes just a chance to blow off steam with someone they know will keep it private.  I have joyfully celebrated at weddings, and presided over the funerals of retired firefighters.  Last week I spoke to the graduating class of recruit firefighters for the rural volunteer departments that serve the vast ranch and farmlands of our huge county.  And only because I once taught it, I’ve been asked to offer several classes on an introduction to management and leadership for the officers academy that serves the paid departments in our region. 
A second part of the job is to respond, as called, to scenes where families, witnesses and others have been traumatized.  Most often those are scenes of violent or unexpected deaths.  Our paramedics are finishing up their brief sad chores, the police are present to investigate, the coroner will be showing up soon, their home is no longer their own and they are not in control of what is going on.  Who will be there for them and with them?  That’s where I come in.  I offer what few words of comfort make any sense at all, help them understand what is happening, what will happen, why it is happening, how long it will take, what decisions have to be made, whether they have a pastor or religious tradition that would be helpful, would they like prayers to be said with them and over the body of the deceased.  All the while I will be keeping them in a safe place, monitoring their emotional and physical conditions for any signs of critical need, and assisting with the hard but necessary questions the police and coroner will ask.  Usually it will be the only time I will ever see these people.  I will be their pastor for a few hours only, but they will be an important few hours.
We do not have many structure fires in our community, and that’s a good thing.  I try to respond to residential fires to care for those affected while the department is on scene.  I respond to serious commercial property fires where I send up a constant stream of prayer for the safety of my firefighters and to offer whatever unskilled help may be needed.  I just got back from one.  A friend’s manufacturing plant was partially destroyed this morning.  I suppose it sounds a bit silly, but I spent my time praying God’s blessing on every piece of equipment and every firefighter there.  Needless to say I also looked a bit ridiculous in my helmet, turnout coat, khakis and soaking wet moccasins.  
Finally, I serve on a debriefing team that provides psychological first aide for first responders who have been brought to the edge of what even the most experienced hand is able to endure.  
It’s a volunteer job.  It takes a few hours a week plus the occasional call.  I wouldn’t trade it for any other.

Would That We Had The Perseverance of a Squirrel

I’ve gone through a half dozen squirrel proof bird feeders.  None of them offered more than a minor challenge to our resident rodents.  Last year I mounted two feeders under the eaves of the house in places too high to reach from the ground, not near anything to jump from, and impossible for even the best squirrel athlete to dangle over the edge of the roof and onto the chain from which the feeder was hung.  
It worked.  All summer long I watched the alpha squirrel study the situation and try every possible avenue with no luck.  He, or maybe she, would stand erect, front paws raised and walk around looking and measuring.  All he and the others could do was wait for messy sparrows to toss seeds all over the place.  It didn’t take long.  They were well fed by default.  There were numerous assaults during the winter from the snow covered barbecue, backs of patio chairs, and the tops of various posts. None worked.  A few weeks ago he, or maybe she, figured it out.  We haven’t seen exactly how it’s done.  The only thing we know is that that squirrel can get on top of the feeders as long as he/she is reasonably certain that the dogs are both in the house and not watching.
You have to admire that kind of perseverance.