Pugilism

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.