Playing Ain’t it Awful

The clergy in my diocese are having a vigorous online conversation about the meaning of contemporary ministry, burnout, change, and so on.  It’s probably a familiar litany to any gathering of clergy.
I can see in the exchange a tendency to focus on one issue or another that, if solved, would make everything OK.  It’s very hard to examine issues as elements of systems in which the interconnectedness of things is both recognized and understood, especially if overlapping systems are in play, which they always are.  So it’s not surprising to hear the argument that if we could just solve this one thing, all would be well.  
Now and then someone will suggest taking the broader view of things, but even that seems to be prefaced on assumption that if you simply understand the systems, they will somehow work better.  The connection seems to be lost between seeing the big picture and working on one thing at a time within that picture.  Of course there are dozens of books and consultants who, for a few bucks, will tell you how to do it right, and, for the most part, it’s good advice.
Not much has changed in the forty years I’ve been working on organizational systems, and I do get discouraged at the lack of progress.  Maybe it’s that working on these issues is hard, and most people are so busy trying not to drown that they don’t have time to learn to swim.  It may also have something to do with the glazed over eyes whenever a consultant starts into the interconnectedness of all things.  It’s just too complicated and intimidating.  The not infrequent response is, “Oh yeah, I read that book, but it didn’t work.”  Which is true: reading a book does not make something happen. 
I think that’s what keeps me going back to the AA model.  It’s God centered.  It’s simple.  It’s focussed on what one person can do, one step at a time.  It introduces the concept of interconnectedness at the right time in a way that one person, doing what he or she can, is able to comprehend.  The problem is that it requires commitment, time and patience, which flies in the face of the too busy and want a fix right now mentality that many of us share. 
So, will I share these observations in the ebb and flow of the on line conversation in our diocese?  Absolutely not!  No one wants to hear from an old retired priest that they are unlikely to accomplish anything more than continuing the ancient game of Ain’t it Awful.  Who knows?  Maybe there’s something therapeutic in playing the game, and maybe that’s enough.

Land, Culture and Grudges

Yesterday, a friend told me about a new member at Rotary with the endorsement that his family goes back five generations in the valley.  That seemed to put an indelible seal of approval on him as a man of worth.  I wonder why?
What is it about generations of rootedness in a place that become a mark of authenticity and approval?  How does that add up to the mythic assumption that families with generational roots have a greater say in and ownership of the community than do newcomers?  It’s an especially poignant question considering that generational roots in this part of the country were laid down barely 150 years ago on land that was taken from Indians who consented to the taking only at the wrong end of a rifle.  
I don’t have answers, just questions, and a few guesses.
Part of it might have to do with our human desire to shortcut the assessment of others by imputing worth according to the accumulated deeds or misdeeds of previous generations, which is hard to do if previous generations are unknown.  Some current generation families assume a degree of social standing for themselves based on their ancestors’ successes, and are not reluctant to judge others on the failures of theirs.  It’s a handy way to judge self and others without bothering to look very deep, but it’s a pain in the neck when newcomers, whose families are not known, settle in.
Part of it might have to do with a desire to preserve and value the history, culture and traditions of a place.  Hawaiians have a word, kama’aina, that means someone who belongs to and loves the land.  In contemporary usage it means anyone with a State of Hawaii drivers license, but the more traditional sense separates someone who is kama’aina from visitors who have no vested interest in the land and its culture, and cannot be relied upon to respect it.
The Umatilla, Cayuse and Walla Walla tribes that once populated our valley understand that because early European settlers did what they could to erase the tribal culture that permeated the land in order to replace it with their own.  In like manner, families representing several generations of European settlement fear that newcomers, and the social changes they bring, will erase the cultural values that their people sowed, replacing it with something unknown and probably disrespectful.
How long does it take to get over that kind of thinking?  Considering the current movements in Britain calling for the secession of Wales and Scotland from the United Kingdom, it takes more than a few centuries.  The Picts and Celts are still angry about the invasion of those upstart Anglo-Saxons, who are still smarting over the drubbing they took from the Normans.
We hold nothing closer or longer than a good grudge.
Obviously there is more to this subject, but that’s all for now.

A Question About Holy Sight

How do we see each other?  I’ve been pondering this in view of the parable Jesus told about the Pharisee and tax collector who were praying in the same place, but not together.  You may know the story.  The tax collector beat his chest, confessing his sins, while the Pharisee gave thanks that, unlike the sinful tax collector, he was an upright religious man.  

Obviously the Pharisee saw the tax collector kneeling in prayer, but he could not see him in the fullness of his humanity or dignity as a child of God.  Within the context of the parable he could not even see himself in any truthful way through the veil of his prideful religiosity.

As for the tax collector, he could more honestly see himself as an unworthy and sinful man.  Perhaps, through the act of being in conversation with God, he might also become more open to seeing himself as one created and loved by God.  We don’t know.  Maybe he could see himself more fully if he could also see the Pharisee in the fullness of his humanity and dignity as a child of God.  Maybe, but did he even know he was there?

It brings up the question of how well you and I see the other, and whether, for those of us who claim to be Christian, it’s an important ingredient of our faith?  How well do we see ourselves?  How well do we see the other?  How well do we see us in our relationships with each other?  I suspect not very well because the discipline of seeing the other, through eyes that have been fearlessly honest, is hard work.  

Consider the healing stories in which Jesus restores sight to the blind.  In all but one, the newly sighted person can see immediately with full understanding.  Persons long blind who recover their sight have a hard time doing that.  The visual image of something as simple as a chair may be all but incomprehensible to one who has only learned its use through other senses.  How much more difficult to comprehend a crowd of people.  Yet those healed by Jesus could see with understanding, and I think that’s important. 

When Jesus heals our blindness, we are able to see both ourselves and others with understanding.  I call it holy sight.  However, we are reluctant to receive that kind of healing, because we don’t think we’re blind, a little short sighted maybe, but not blind.  We are like the blind man in Mark’s gospel who was taken to Jesus for healing, but on the first try could see only things that looked like trees walking.  Jesus had to take another shot at it.  

I was struck by that in recent meditations on St. Teresa and John Calvin.  To oversimplify, Teresa’s life long search for holy sight discovered an essentially good self, which contrasts with Calvin’s lifelong search for holy sight that discovered an essentially corrupt self.  Each could see, but not clearly.  Perhaps an unlikely marriage of Teresa and Calvin would bring them closer to the restoration of holy sight. 

The Episcopal baptismal covenant takes me in that direction by asking me to affirm that I will, by word and example, proclaim the good news of God in Christ, and that I will respect the dignity of every human being.  I’m not very good at doing that, but the more intentional I am at engaging in that work brings me a little closer to the restoration of holy sight.  

In like manner, during the general confession each Sunday we admit that we have not loved God or our neighbor in the right way.  In other words, we have not seen with holy sight either ourselves or the other.  I regret that I too often mumble the confession out of rote memory without pausing to consider the depth of what I have said.  Like the man with restored but fuzzy, out of focus sight, I need Jesus to take another shot at it.  It’s what we all need.  I’m not very good at it.  How about you?


A Few Thoughts on Diversity

One of the things I most enjoyed about my several days at Pacific Lutheran Theological Seminary was the diversity of students in the TEEM program (see previous posts).  I’ve been to a number of gatherings where diversity was celebrated, but mostly it was in the form of there are some blacks here, let’s make them feel welcome in our white group.  Or, there are a couple of white guys here, let’s help them feel comfortable in our black community.  You know the routine, and have probably been a part of it at one time or another. 
The diversity of this group included Caribbeans, Africans, Indians, Hispanics, Pacific Islanders, and a collection of North Americans in a variety of colors and ethnicities.  There wasn’t any dominant culture into which anyone could be welcomed.  Well, that’s not entirely true.  All but we eight Episcopalians were Lutheran, but it worked out OK.  
Three of us in a small group discussion talked about where we grew up and when we first became aware of people not like us.  It turned out that each of us grew up knowing only our own tribe, found moving to other places where there were other tribes both exciting and filled with anxiety, and admitted that we are still most comfortable in the midst of fellow tribe members, even if they are not personally known to us.  That was common ground from which our three member community found enough to form the potential for friendship.  
Like any workshop, the moment came and went, but it accomplished the work of a few moments to live comfortably in a different frame of reference, and that is something that is not easy to achieve. 
So often when the members of a dominant culture want to be inclusive of outsiders, they offer a form of hospitality intended to welcome others to become one of them.  For example, a former congregation went through a period wanting to be open to Hispanics in the community.  With the very best of intentions, they thought they could welcome our immigrant Mexicans into our very Anglo Episcopalian space with a few Spanish language prayer books on a table near the door, singing a few songs in Spanish, and maybe reading a lesson or two in both languages, all with the expectation that visitors would soon be just like us, except for language.  It never panned out for obvious reasons, one of them being that many of our immigrant Mexicans have been here for several generations.  Moreover, thinking of them as ‘ours’ unintentionally and offensively implies ownership.
I think the diversity we desire is neither tolerance nor integration.  I think it is something akin to the experience at PLTS in which we recognize, respect and honor the variety of cultures and ethnicities we each bring to the gathering.  Recognition, respect and honor will always lead to friendship.  True integration will probably be the function of sex over quite a few generations.  At least that’s what Michener and Schlesinger thought, and I believe they were right. 

Workshops on Racism, A Waste of Time?

At a recent conference I heard one person tearfully lament mass incarcerations and its relationship to systemic racism.  Another passionately spoke about the built in advantages and privileges that have accrued exclusively to white European Americans.  In each case their tone was accusatory, and since they were both white European Americans, it bordered on verbal self flagellation.  Or it would have if they had not exempted themselves from the class of rich, white elite to which they ascribed the collective sins of racism and economic injustice.  
I tried to listen with the ears of my friend Ed, a crusty tea party type, rich, self made, and certain that weak kneed, namby-pamby, nanny state liberalism is ruining our country.  Ed thinks imprisoning criminals is a good idea, as many as possible for as long as possible, and if there are more blacks in prison than anyone else it’s because they commit more crimes than anyone else.  He grew up poor and made it big.  If he could do it, so can anyone else, so quit complaining.
Do you see the problem here?  Both use English words, but their languages are anchored in such different world views that they might as well live in separate universes.  Moreover, each ascribes to the other a moral turpitude that the other would both deny and find irrevocably offensive.  
Where can a bridge be built?
I think maybe in two places.
Left wing liberals, such as those at the conference, need to be made aware of the rude arrogance of their self-righteousness.  Arch conservatives, such as Ed, need to understand what systemic advantages and privileges really are, and how they have benefitted from them.  Leave the other issues alone until this foundation has been laid.   
The workshop I attended was led by Judith Roberts of the ELCA with a presentation as solid as any I have experienced.  I think that if persons of her calibre could present it in separate sessions for liberals and conservatives, it could make a real difference.  Each would have an opportunity to hear without the other making it difficult.  That doesn’t seem likely, but it does occur to me that a workshop like hers, conducted in local congregations, with the clergy disinvited, might be a reasonable approximation.  Why disinvite the clergy?  The congregations in our diocese are a mixed bag, but they tend to be more conservative than the clergy who serve them, and clergy are sometimes inclined to speak out when they should be listening, I being first among them.  
The key would be the presenter.  Other workshops I have attended often had two weaknesses.  First, they were labeled as antiracism with the premise that those who attended needed to be convinced about how racist they are. Second, they tended to be led by liberal persons who managed to raise the prickly defenses of any conservatives who may have attended.  Folks went away more convinced than ever of the rightness of their position.  However important the issue of racism is, it is someone else’s fault and someone else’s problem, and each was pretty sure who that someone is.  Maybe what is needed first is a workshop for presenters at which someone like Ms. Roberts would explain not what to teach, but how to teach.  

Preparing locally ordained clergy

Our diocese has struggled to find the right way to educate and train persons for ordained ministry as non-stipendiary priests in small rural communities.  The canons of the church assert that a priest is a priest is a priest – that we do not have two classes of ordained clergy, one above the other.  What the canons assert does not square with the reality of seminary educated clergy serving in financially healthy congregations and locally ordained clergy serving without pay in small congregations of limited means.  There is a two class system, and it’s obvious.  But we could do a better job bringing them closer together academically.
For some years we trained those to be locally ordained through a diocesan program managed with great enthusiasm while producing inconsistent results.  That has changed.  We have made a connection with the TEEM (Theological Education for Emerging Ministries) program at Pacific Lutheran Theological Seminary through our own denomination’s Church Divinity School of the Pacific.  TEEM provides a three year curriculum built around relatively brief on site sessions three times a year, and year round study assignments that, in the end, approximate the essentials of a seminary education.  The key to TEEM’s success is that each student must have a qualified local mentor who agrees to meet weekly with the student as an extension of the faculty.
Somehow I ended up as a mentor, and have just returned from a couple of days on campus learning what that means.  I found what it doesn’t mean.  It doesn’t mean “Hey Steve, will you be a mentor for this guy?  It won’t take much time or be very demanding.”  Moreover, there are some aspects of the program that are specifically Lutheran.  We will skip those and substitute Episcopal/Anglican classes in their stead through CDSP.
As for my student, he is sixty years old serving as a lay pastor for a small congregation a hundred and thirty miles away from me.  We meet by Skype, which seems to work fairly well.  He’s just starting this three year odyssey, and we shall see how it goes.  His most recent foray into academic study was forty years ago in high school, and his foundation in bible and church hisotry is what he learned in Sunday School.  Nevertheless, he is enthused, energetic and willing to do the work.  Between the two of us we can make it. 
In the end we will still have a two tiered clergy system, no matter what the canons say, but those who are locally ordained will have a far greater understanding of what it means to be a Christian, a priest, and a pastor firmly anchored in scripture, tradition and reason.  They will be more fully equipped for the work to which they have committed.  It promises to be a huge improvement over past practices.

It’s Wednesday and what is this world coming to?

It’s Wednesday.  The collect in Morning Prayer that I associate with Wednesday is “Lord God almighty and everlasting Father, you have brought us in safety to this new day: Preserve us with your mighty power, that we may not fall into sin, nor be overcome by adversity; and in all we do, direct us to the fulfilling of your purpose; through Jesus Christ our Lord.”
I look forward to Wednesdays as a day of reflection on God’s grace that has brought me, and those I love, in safety to one more new day.  I recall the times when I did not feel or recognize that, in God’s love, I was safely into a new day because injury, pain, chaos, and darkness were all that I could see.  Yet here I am, safely entering the morning of another new day.  May it please God that my children, grandchildren, and all who are in my prayers, not only rejoice in their own new days, but also be protected from falling into sin or being overcome by adversity.  I do wonder about those living in war torn places, subject to oppression and abuse, and floundering in the aftermath of disaster.  Did they make it into a new day at all, and, if they did, how safe will it be?  
Wednesdays lead me toward Fridays when the canticle reminds me that God’s ways, which are not our ways, will not fail to accomplish what God intends, no matter how bad we screw things up.  Moreover, the collect assures us that the way of the cross is none other than the way of life and peace.  How much faith does it take to believe that?  Apparently not much, but perhaps more than I have at times.  I’m like Habakkuk.  I want God’s assurance written in large, plain letters that I can easily read and understand even while jogging down the street.
Now and then I run into an erstwhile member of one church or another who claims that they have just such a revelation. Simple words writ large that make everything clear.  But when I hear their message it seems so far removed from what Jesus taught and where he led, that I just shake my head in disbelief.  To me it seems a better thing to just trust God and go on about the work of proclaiming by word and deed that the kingdom of God has come near, regardless of the chaos all around.