Episcopalians Make It Too Difficult

This column is aimed at Episcopalians, but I suspect changing a word here or there might make it about most other mainline and Catholic Churches as well.   It begins with a question.  How much Jesus are Christians supposed to take with them into the market place?  Episcopalians are a little nervous about that, even when motivated by Christ to do good.  They make it too difficult to talk about religion, much less Jesus.  It’s not that hard.
The congregation from which I retired had, and still has, a long established practice of social outreach through generous gifts and parishioner engagement in the life of the community.  For years I sat contented that this was good.  It’s what doing God’s work looks like.  On the other side of the table sat Jack Ellis.  Jack, now deceased, was a professor of social work, and the chair of the outreach committee.  He wanted to know where Jesus was in all that we did?  How was Jesus made known?  How were others to make a connection between our faith and what we did?  If they couldn’t make the connection, how were we different from any other group doing good works?  It took me a long time to understand what he was talking about.   
Maybe it was because the town’s conservative evangelical churches had other ideas about how Jesus was to be made known.  It was to save souls, with a string attached to every deed and every gift.  Crudely put, it went something like this: Jesus loves you, but if you don’t accept him as your personal savior, you’re going to hell.  Accepting Jesus came with conditions imprinted on a long menu of social issues: homosexuals are bad; poverty is the poor’s own fault; Jesus will cure your bad habits; women are subordinate to men; if things aren’t going your way, your faith isn’t strong enough; Satan has seduced the nation with secular humanism.  All of it delivered with a toothy smile.  It wasn’t disingenuous, they believed it all, and delivered it with bible thumping enthusiasm, giving them ownership of the Christian brand, according to popular opinion.  And why not?  Weren’t all the mainline churches in decline?  Either they had abandoned God, or God had abandoned them.
Not wanting to have our Christian faith painted with that brush, we were content to be St. Whosit Church that could be counted on, along with Rotary and the Lions, to do good things for those in need.  Members, faithful followers of Jesus, were committed to civic involvement, serving on boards, volunteering at social agencies, belonging to Rotary and Lions, all of it inspired by their faith, but without eagerness to bring the name of Jesus into it.  
I was wrong. Jack was right.  But what’s the right way to help others understand the connection between our shared faith as followers of Jesus and way we live into it through what we do in the community?  It turns out that there are quite a few ways, all of them simple, and all Episcopalian friendly.
One is to honestly admit that not everyone knows who we are.  The general public has no idea about what we believe or how we worship.  Most couldn’t find us on a city map.  They can’t pronounce Episcopalian, much less spell it.  A local church leader once told me that everyone in town knew his church so there was no need to elaborate.  I tested it by stopping at a few gas stations and stores to ask if they knew where St. Whosit was and what kind of church it might be.  Most had no idea, never heard of it.  Those who had were unsure if it was Christian, or maybe something else, Catholic possibly.  It takes little effort to send a gift or crew of volunteers along with a letter or pamphlet explaining that the work they’re doing, the gift they’re giving, is in the name of Jesus Christ, and a little about what that means.  
Hosting free meals in the parish hall?  It’s become a popular thing to do, and much needed.  How hard is it to put tent cards at every table saying it’s a gift from Jesus, a few prayer cards to take away, and a warm invitation to spend some time in the church.  How about offering an early evening lunch group bible study? Who knows what might happen?
Be alert to opportunities.  Sooner or later someone will ask you whether you believe in God, what you believe about God.  It happens more often than you think, but most of us aren’t paying attention.  It can happen anywhere at anytime.  This afternoon my wife and I took a stroll up and down the main drag on Nantucket, where we’re visiting for a few days.  I was sitting on a sidewalk bench soaking up the sun when John from New Jersey sat down nearby.  We said hello.  John’s 86, just hanging around waiting on his family as they stopped in the shops.  He asked what I would think about being 20 again.  Not on my bucket list, that’s for sure, but he wondered about having another sixty years ahead of him instead of just staring at the end of things.  Depends on your theology, I said, some of us don’t believe it’s the end, and the conversation took off.  No, I never told him I was a priest, but I did say he might want to look into the Episcopal Church because it’s open to questions and doubt.  And, by the way, Nantucket’s St. Paul’s Church is right around the corner.  I’ll be there at 10, you come too.  Will he?  Probably not.  That’s not the point. 
Look behind the veil.  Questions or statements about evolution, global warming, fundamentalism, atheism, and the good old days, are often invitations to a conversation about God from people who are curious about Christianity and don’t want to be thumped on the head by a bible.  Or maybe from people whose experience with conservative evangelicalism has them wondering if there is another way of knowing Jesus.   
Share your weekend.  Who hasn’t had someone ask what they did over the weekend?  Why not throw in church?  It won’t hurt.  Interesting things can happen.  
Got a suit coat of some kind?  Put an Episcopal Church or diocesan lapel pin on it.  Now and then someone will ask about it.  After all, it’s not the usual Rotary or American flag pin.  Nothing complicated about it, just cocktail conversation, but it’s cocktail conversation about Jesus without pounding a bible or threatening hell. 

Episcopalians make it too difficult.  It’s not that hard.  

Politics and the Pulpit

An interesting question came up during our recent diocesan convention.  Raised in the form of a statement, it went something like this:  “I believe there is no place for politics from the pulpit; what do you believe is the proper role of the church in politics?  Before reading on, how might you answer that? Give it some thought.
My guess is that the guy who asked it is among those who voted for Trump and are nervous about the liberal bent of Episcopalian leadership.  There are other parts of the country where the same question might be asked by a parishioner deeply concerned about the conservative bent of Church leadership in their area.  It’s a sticky wicket for many reasons, among them, everyone assumes a general understanding of words like liberal and conservative, left and right.  Moreover, they assume that what they think is meant is the same as what others think is meant.  But none have agreed to definitions  They’re  always intended in the best possible way by one side, and the worst possible way by the other.  Not only have terms not been agreed to, the sides have assumed attributes of opposing football teams where one must win, the other lose, in games inflicting as much damage as possible on each other.
Into that melee the Church is called to boldly proclaim Jesus as the one to whom Christians owe their primary loyalty.  Not a country, flag, anthem, or political party, but Jesus.  It is a loyalty that takes its instruction from what Jesus taught and did, translating it into word and work in the world, and it gets political.  There is no way around it.  But as I’ve argued in previous columns, politics is not distasteful, bad, or evil.  Politics is the art of making decisions about how we live together in community.  Like all citizens, Christians have an obligation to be informed participants in the political arena where public policy decisions are made.   What Jesus taught and did sets, for them, the standards by which they are to evaluate information and options under debate.
What did Jesus teach and do?  By now it shouldn’t be necessary to go back over the basics, but it always seems to be.  Let’s begin with a few questions.  How do political decisions reflect love of neighbor, remembering that the neighbor must always include those one least wants to like or love?  How do political decisions reflect healing, reconciliation, elimination of barriers that separate, oppress, and marginalize?  Where does loving kindness and doing justice fit in?  How is peacemaking encouraged?  How do they help feed the hungry, house the homeless, and clothe the naked?  You know the rest.
Christians can influence public policy decisions in godly directions in many ways.  Some look liberal.  Some look conservative.  Some don’t look like either.  Some things can be accomplished through voluntary charitable work.  Some require the united efforts of whole communities through government action.   Some issues are manifested locally in ways better addressed at the local level.  Others are regional or national in scope.  Most are complicated combinations requiring coordinated efforts from all levels of private and public sectors.  Some political decisions address immediate needs.  Others  address conditions that oppress, marginalize, and create obstacles to health and economic well being.  In every case, Christians can move the political conversation in a Jesus direction. 
It’s not about making America a Christian nation.  Trying to do that turns its back on the way of following Jesus, and is an abuse of his name.  We had a taste of it in the post war years when public schools and community organizations featured a flavorless, generic Protestantism as the default American civil religion.  Promoting the illusion of unity, it was a safe harbor for prejudice and systemic injustice.  The Christian obligation is to follow in the Jesus way as they engage in their personal, business, and public lives.  It means measuring decisions and actions by his standards.  As citizens in a democratically elected republic, where every level of government depends for success on an active, well informed electorate, Christians have a special responsibility to inform and influence the public debate in directions that respond to the gospel imperative,
Christians recognize the urgency of addressing issues of social justice, but argue about the responsibility of government to address them.  It’s a legitimate argument, but not one in which there are winners and losers.  Instead it’s an argument that seeks a pragmatic balance.   Some issues can be addressed  by voluntary groups working together for the well being of all, and especially those in greatest need.  Others need governments to help, but in what way?  America is a large, complex society in which social problems have no respect for county lines and state boundaries.  Global interdependence exponentially expands the realm of decision making.  Governments at all levels are the agencies through which policies are enacted to guide private and make public decisions.  That’s what politics is all about.
Christians living out their daily lives as followers of Jesus, with churches guiding them on Jesus’ way, cannot avoid being political.  There are some who want to keep Jesus confined to the weekend in church buildings, but Jesus likes it better out in the community.  He spent of his time wandering around the countryside, engaging people where they lived, worked, and socialized.  Every time he entered the temple, he caused trouble, and still does.  Jesus will not be confined, and neither can his followers.  Having said that, conservative Christians can keep liberals from going off the deep end with elaborate unworkable schemes to end all injustice.  Liberal Christians can force conservatives to face their reluctance to change, and willingness to tolerate injustice.  Each can help the other understand that while they can’t do everything, they can do something.   They can be dedicated to discovering truth and exposing falsehoods.  Above all, Christians, both liberal and conservative, can treat each other, and all others, with respect, recognizing their dignity as children of God.  But separating pulpit and politics?  Not going to happen. 

The Golden Calf of Ritualism

Ritual is important, I wrote about that just recently, but ritualism is idolatry, and the Christian church is rife with ritualism.  Ritual becomes ritualism through those who believe it was set by God in institutional concrete, and becomes for them the primary object to which unwavering obedience is due.  It’s a golden calf that imitates Christianity.  Heretics who fail to do it obeisance are deemed unfit for the kingdom of God.   
I’ve been thinking about the danger of ritualism since picking up Ken Follett’s book, A Column of Fire.  Unyielding loyalty to institutionalized ritual is its dominant themeOne of his trademark historical novels, it’s set during the time of conflict between Catholics and Protestants in the Elizabethan era.  While theologians argued about the nature of a right relationship between God and humanity, Follett portrays ordinary people, Catholic and Protestant adversaries, as obsessed with the rightness or wrongness of rituals, and the institutions that enforce them.  They’re committed to their own without the slightest regard for, or awareness of, what it means to follow Jesus.  To them, to be a Christian is to be an observant, obedient Catholic, Calvinist, or emergent Anglican, but it’s never to follow where Jesus has led.  Having chosen one way of being Christian, all others are condemned as heretical, their followers worthy of eternal damnation.  Aiding their early transition through the gates of death into the hell they deserve is not only right, it’s the godly thing to do.  Justice, if there is justice, is retributive.  There is no other kind.
That sums up the book’s plot, although Follett weaves into it enough history, scheming, betrayal, cruelty, brutality, and sex to fill out the pages.  Having said that, he does a good job of illuminating what it means to fall into ritualism.  When rituals become objects of ultimate loyalty, the test of another’s right to salvation, they become idolatrous ritualism.  Follett’s characters are idolaters bowing before golden calves dripping in blood.
Well, it was a bloody age.  Thank God we are a better people now.  We live in a kinder, gentler age.  Or do we?  When we fall into the idolatry of ritualism, we do it with all the emotional cruelty of our Elizabethan ancestors, except that we don’t draw, quarter, and burn heretics, at least not literally.  In our intolerance of perceived deviance, our words and actions do what they can to inflict as much pain and damage as possible, while we assure ourselves of nothing but godly intent.  
Who is this we of whom I speak?  Surely it couldn’t be you or me, could it?  We exist whenever defense of the institutional church and its rituals replaces the gospel of Jesus Christ as the center of our loyalty.  It happens in some form in every denomination and congregation.  
Not long ago, an Adventist pastor friend shared a copy of an article by Christopher Thompson in Adventist Today entitled “Don’t be an Adventist Jerk.”  In it he chastised doctrinaire Adventists who, with harsh arrogance, judge other Adventists whom they deem to be lax in observance of Adventist ritual.  In their strident defense of Adventist practice, they have lost sight, he wrote, of what it means to follow Jesus.  Reading it, I thought, if a few nouns were changed, it could be retitled “Don’t be an Episcopalian Jerk.”  When churchmanship is more important than following Jesus, and the rightness of one’s churchmanship is measured by ritual purity, the golden calf of ritualism has made its appearance.     
Adherents of idolatrous ritualism deny the validity of God’s sacramental presence unless performed according to their received custom.  Is baptism valid only if immersed, or administered by clergy of a particular denomination?  Wine or grape juice?  Common chalice or little communion cups?  Female clergy?  Unleavened or leavened bread?  Gluten?  Closed Communion or open?  Organ or praise band?  Gay or straight?  East or West?  How many ways can we fence Christ in while separating us one from another, condemning each other in the name of God?  How many ways can we denounce others within our own traditions as we assert our own righteousness over theirs?  It’s ritualism, and it’s idolatrous. 
Ritualism claims to be in defense of God, but measures the righteousness of all things according to social customs of a particular time and place.  Railing against the world of secularism, it’s enslaved to it.  Ritualism places greater faith in the way things are done than in following Jesus.  Ritualism places greater faith in the biblical text than in the one about whom it is written.  Ritualism insists that what one was once taught about what God said can’t be wrong, and can’t be superseded by what God is saying now.  Never mind that scripture itself is the story of God’s continuing self revelation bringing new understanding into the lives of God’s people who are, themselves, always growing in new ways.
Change is never easy.  Ritualism seizes on that by  inducing fear into the lives of believers.  What if a change might be morally wrong?  What if wavering in the way I am is at the risk of my eternal soul?  What if “they” are intent on leading me down a dark and dangerous path?  They’re serious questions, but not ones , I suspect, often asked.  More likely, adherence to ritualism incites fears of losing status, power, confidence in knowing one’s place in the world.  It’s the fear of losing a sense of comfort and predictability, and the embarrassment of having to accept a new understanding of what is morally acceptable in God’s sight.

Ritual is important.  Ritual, rightly understood, is a conduit to a deeper relationship with God.  Ritualism is idolatry.  Sometimes it’s hard to tell them apart.  

The Imporance of Ritual

What follows is an article published in the local paper a few weeks ago.  I want to add it to the blog because I’m about to start work on an article on ritualism as a popular form of Christian idolatry.  The importance of ritual, and the idolatry of ritualism should not be confused.
Some folks have a spiritual hunger, and seek a more intimate connection with God, however they understand God.  It seems many also have reasons for not liking church, synagogue, or maybe even mosque (something I know little about).  One complaint I hear often is a dislike of ritual, so perhaps we can talk about that a bit.  
Rituals are all around us in every place.  Service clubs, athletic teams, classrooms, city council meetings, job sites, even getting up in the morning.  Each has a ritual that illustrates what’s going on, why it’s going on, and how to participate in what’s going on.  Rituals give structure to what we are doing.  They’re important.  
Think of ball team rituals with coach’s pep talks before they gather in a circle to clasp hands, yell a cheer, and get themselves up for the game.  Religious rituals are like that with some added dimensions.  In the end, they help us get ready for the game of life.  No matter how different they are from one another, and different they are, each is designed to open doors to God’s presence in a time and place, and to strengthen “the team” for the work ahead.
I once had a coworker who attended a large Baptist church of mostly black members.  She use to say that my Episcopalian services were so formal and orderly there was no room to rejoice in the power of the Spirit.  What dull way to spend a Sunday morning that was.  To which I responded that her services were so loud and rowdy, God couldn’t get a word in edgewise.  Whoever heard of yelling at the preacher to “bring it home” because it was time for lunch?  What a waste of time that was.  It was our shared ritual. 
Liturgical churches, such as mine, share a style of worship borrowed from Jewish tradition.  The opening includes music and singing, an explanation of why we are gathered, an invitation to prepare our hearts and minds to hear what God has to say, and several fairly long readings from scripture.  Singing of hymns often separates the parts.  That’s followed by a brief sermon or homily about how what we have heard can be applied to our daily lives; then a time for reflection, affirmation of faith, and prayers for ourselves and others.  Finally, for us, comes the highlight, a ritualized meal of bread and wine in which we recognize the real presence of Jesus entering into us to be a part of us.  
It’s true that we tend to sing traditional hymns out of hymnals accompanied by traditional music.  We do a lot of standing, sitting, kneeling and stuff like that.  Other traditions have other rituals: more contemporary music, bands that entertain while leading worship, shorter readings and longer sermons.  For many, the ritual meal of bread and wine is seldom celebrated.  What we all share are rituals intended to welcome all into a time and space where we make ourselves more intentionally present to God’s presence in our lives.  What works for some may not work for others.  There are lots of choices.  It’s also true that each of us thinks we have it more right than the others.  It’s one of those human foibles we can’t seem to ditch.  The point is, there is one that’s more right for you.
Do you need church to do that?  Yes!  It’s hard to become knowledgeable about God if you don’t go somewhere to learn about God.  It’s helps to be among others trying to do the same, each burdened by their own doubts and failures.  Knowing you are among others you can call on, talk to, share your hopes and fears with, become friends with, it’s all part of being in community.  
From the beginning, God has called us into community.  History is dotted with those who went off to find God all by themselves.  Those who succeeded never found God.  They were found by God, who sent them back into community to do God’s work.  Those who didn’t simply wandered about learning little, accomplishing less, and never finding that sense of fulfillment for which they had yearned. 

There’s a church, synagogue, or mosque right for you.  Find it.  You’ll be glad you did.  Needless to say, I recommend the Episcopal Church.  It’s the one that most got it right, so we claim – with tongue slightly in cheek. 

Memories: powerful but they don’t have to dictate the future

I posted a Facebook note about a memorial service for a 91 year old woman.  One of her high school friends, using a walker to get around, told stories about their teenage escapades with such freshness and vigor that they might have happened last week.  It was a reminder that in the minds of the elderly are memories of other days  that are as vividly present as if they were now.  The post generated a lot of comments.  One was about a visit to an 87 year old parishioner who talked about being a 17 year old girl with 70 years of experience.  What a joyful, joy filled way to live into one’s years, but not everyone enjoys them.   Some memories of youthful escapades would better be forgotten, but they can’t.  Nevertheless, they’re vividly present.  Our memories, all mixed up, reside somewhere in unknown recesses.  Sometimes we can call them forth.  Just as often, they pop up randomly, nailing us with unexpected, unwanted broadsides, or delighting us with unbounded joy.
It’s hard, I think, for the young to understand.  When I was a boy, my dad would show photographs and tell stories about growing up on the Kansas prairie during the Depression.  The funny old trucks and cars, strange clothing, and old fashioned backdrops were as ancient history to me.  It was hard to believe he was so old that he had lived in those times.  What was he then?  In his thirties, forties?  Later, as a young adult, he and I visited a ship, now a museum, on which he had served during WWII.  His tears flowed.  There were parts of it he couldn’t enter, and some he had to.  It didn’t occur to me, even as an adult, that something that happened so long ago could have such an effect.  I wondered then if it had anything to do with his photographic record in black and white, while I lived in a world of color.  Two generations living different worlds separated by Kodachrome and television.  It’s an interesting thought even now, but wide of the mark. 
Now in my mid-seventies, I realize how recent were the days of my youth, and how current the memories.  The old woman’s claim about being a 17 year old girl with 70 years experience makes perfect sense.  Dad’s black and white photos, the ship visit, my own escapades and adventures, were not a long time ago in another world of another time.  They were yesterday, a yesterday that is not yet gone.  It makes me wonder about the memories of friends who served in Vietnam, and the memories we are creating in those we keep sending into battle for reasons we can’t quite explain.  
A friend, now in his eighties, was once a well known NFL player.  He may be slow and stiff with a hard time hearing, but in his mind lives the same person who can run, catch, dodge, and leap for the end zone.  Another, now thirty years sober, has as her constant companion the young and foolish drunk of her youth.  It doesn’t diminish the good times she had, nor does it threaten the good times ahead.  For good or for ill, our memories remain as fresh today as they were fifty or sixty years ago, maybe more.  They are a part of who we are, and they have tremendous power over us.  But it need not be determinant power.  The past does not have to dictate our future, even as we engage in creating future memories by what we are doing today. 
Paul was able to tell his readers in Philippi that he was could forget what lay behind, pressing on toward what lay ahead.  How could he?  He imprisoned whole families, helped murder an innocent man, and had a terrible temper.  What he had in mind was the fullness of redemption, already his in Christ Jesus, but not yet fully realized.  That’s a hard sell.  Not everyone can buy it.  Yet that’s what Jesus is about.  In every one of his acts of healing, he created a new future freed from the constraints of the past.  Never more so than when he forgave sin, for it is sin that creates the haunting memories assaulting our souls.  Jesus never erased the past, but the healing grace of God poured into one’s life removed its power to dictate the future.  It is the holy power of  holy resilience.  What God did then, God still does.
Can that power be ours without God?  To an extent, yes.  There’s a strong movement in our community to teach resilience skills to children who have endured psychologically damaging Adverse Childhood Events (ACES) .  They’ve developed a promising track record.  The local VA mental health clinic continues to work on ways to treat post traumatic stress among their clients, and I’ve spent the last sixteen years working with first responders on critical incident stress management.  
There are tools at hand and skills to be learned that can help redirect the power of memories in less harmful, more positive ways.  They work, but they work better when supplementing the powerful work of the Spirit offering the fullness of  God’s redemption and reconciliation.  In a society where half are disinterested in what God in Christ Jesus has offered, it isn’t that easy to explain.  It’s made harder by some of the other half, Christians who have shackled Christ with rules, regulations, dogma, and prejudice, restricting his grace to a few while condemning the rest.  They create their own narrow doors, insisting that everyone has to walk through them before Jesus will help.  It ignores the Jesus who allowed anyone and everyone to come to him without a single rule or regulation to get in their way.
I’m digressing again.  Memories.  Let them be redeemed by God’s love, treasured, informing but not dictating our futures.  And may each of us delight in the youth that is still ours, regardless of what our bodies might say.

In Defense of Centrism

I asked a couple of questions on Facebook: Does it occur to anyone that liberals are not all left wingers and conservatives are not all tea partiers? Anybody ever heard of center right and center left?  
I got some interesting answers.  Those who agree that centrists exist tended to believe they’re important, but boring.  Doing the hard work of negotiating workable policies on important issues across the aisle, and within their own parties, is not headline grabbing stuff.  Others didn’t care whether centrists exist or not because, for them it’s win or lose and take no prisoners.  Good faith negotiation is for wimps.  Some believe all the fun lies in lobbing vitriolic word grenades at anyone whom they tag as not on their side.  It’s sport.  The rarest, and often the loudest ranting, are subsets who have the notion that centrists are really wishy-washy, wannabe extremists, unwilling to take a public stand.  They cannot conceive of a person on the center-left not being a raving Marxist, and anyone who is center-right must be an ignorant tea partying lunatic. 
My guess is that centrists are the majority of voters and thought and opinion leaders.  Perhaps they will be in the halls of congress once again.  I hope so.   I’m encouraged by thoughtful op-ed pieces in major national publications that tilt left and right, each calling attention to the destructiveness of political extremism.  What we need are legislators, conservative and liberal, committed to working with each other toward public policy that will contribute to the commonweal.  It’s hard work that doesn’t generate entertaining fireworks, and that’s a problem.  The primary voting political base is energized by fireworks, not calm reasoned thinking.
The rural west, where I live, is conservative, but until recently it hasn’t been hard right doctrinaire.  That changed with the advent of tea partiers, hysteria over second amendment rights, extreme forms of libertarianism, and associated conspiracy theories.  But where did all that come from?  My guess is right wing talk radio and Fox news channels, supplemented by social media.  Yes, I know someone will add Koch brother type conspiracy to the mix, and they play a role, but only a role.  
One of the great marketing triumphs of the 20th century was the creation of a product no one knew they needed or wanted, selling it so well that it became the standard against which all others were measured – Crest toothpaste.  The marketing triumph of right wing extremism is something like that.  It only needed a spark of ignition to move it out of the shadows into the light of  mainstream politics.  They got it with the election of a black president whose most powerful primary opponent was a pushy establishment woman.  
Social media, once a bit player, has given a world wide platform to supporters on both extremes.  The far right has mastered the art of using it far better, giving them an appearance of great numbers and the illusion of broad public support.  What exactly have they mastered?  It’s the art of addressing every issue with vitriolic belligerence, countering every response with insults and accusations, asserting opinion as fact while denigrating fact as opinion.  Part of it they learned from talk radio.  More of it, I think, they learned from reality t.v. shows where angry disrespect for one another is the normal way of talking.  It’s become the fodder of entertainment, and an endorsement of the way in which one is supposed to respond to conflict. 
It’s become so pervasive that it raises its ugly head even in non controversial matters.  For example, a few days ago I posted, on two local Facebook news pages, a simple plea for greater voter turnout in local elections.  While those who ‘liked’ it were in the majority, those who commented were insultingly combative with irrelevant rants about candidates, the local paper, government in general, gun rights, and their right to an opinion as an equal to any other opinion, facts be damned.  Invitations to conversation were slammed with invective.  Would they be so nasty if you met them for coffee?  Probably not, but on social media, it’s not just OK, it’s they way one is expected to respond.
In such an environment, what’s the future of centrists?  Can they again take, as it were, center stage?  It think they can, but it won’t be easy.  In my region, they must assiduously appeal to the broad majority.  Trying to convince right wingers is a frustrating waste of time, so don’t do it.  Ignore taunts about left wing socialism, and focus on real solutions to real problems.  Be bold in supporting universal health care without apology.  Be bold in recognizing the reality of climate change, and the need for environmental protection, without apology.  Be bold in endorsing tax reform that can benefit economic growth  while reigning in deficits.  Be bold about a strong national defense without pandering to wasteful defense spending.  Be bold when talking to the majority of voters about the failures of extreme libertarianism.  Be bold about applying cautious, pragmatic measures of accountability to government programs.  In other words, be unapologetic about being centrists.  I tend toward the center-left, so that’s my preference, but center-right candidates and their supporters must be equally bold, rejecting any invitation to enter the mud pit of tea party ‘rassling’. 
What about all those rabid far left wing socialists?  There aren’t enough of them to fill a one room school, so forget about it. 

Will it work? We shall see.  In my opinion, Obi Wan Kenobi, it’s our only hope.

Life Every Voice and Sing

(Note:  This article has some html code buried in it that I cannot find and cannot correct. So it’s come out in a goofy white on black format I never intended.)

I’m not convinced that the nation is more divided than at any time since the Civil War.  The divisions have always been there, less visible, and without the ability to disrupt and destroy as they do now.  They’ve always been there, but we lived through forty years under a thin veneer of national unity.  It’s been been stripped away, exposing what was always there.  Consider that the Great Depression brought many in the middle class closer to unity with the poor, that WWII brought everyone closer to unity of national purpose, and that the post war years gave us the illusion of unity under the banner of a generic white middle class ethos and standard of living.  
It’s was shaken violently by the confluence of the civil rights movement with Vietnam protests battering against demands for patriotic loyalty – meaning that blacks should behave and not expect too much too soon, while everyone else should behave and leave war against commies to their betters, even at the cost of young lives.
True though all of it may be, the strident voices of knee jerk reactionaries, klan backed racists, anarchists, rabid leftists, and an entire menu of assorted loonies, were limited to a few mentions in the national press, and an occasional five second spot on the evening news.  Certainly they were reported on, but they were given few chances to speak for themselves before a national audience.  Some were elected to high office, but they had to compete and compromise with more level headed conservatives and liberals through whom national decisions lurched, however slowly, in wiser directions.  Even the Dixiecrat walkout of 1948, and McCarthy’s anti-communist extremism, couldn’t turn the ship of state too far in their directions.  Almost no one remembers the perennial candidacy of Norman Thomas.
The point is, the divisions we now experience were always present, sometimes disruptive in powerful ways, but never overwhelming the body politic, always, somehow, on the fringe.  Two things have changed the political landscape.  The democratization of communications, and the unleashing of unlimited campaign financing.  The advent of twenty-four hour cable news multiplied the exposure of five second fringe voice soundbites, making them appear as authoritative as the most seasoned, well informed voice.  Right wing talk radio gave them a broadcast platform to reach millions, and its most prominent on-air personalities delighted in fomenting discord with whatever crock of conspiratorial rumor they felt like using, truth be damned.  Their listeners loved it, ate it up, took it as gospel.  Internet platforms like Facebook and Twitter gave each their own opportunity to develop followers from wherever the internet could reach.   Now they could leave their fringe clothing behind, put on the vestments of “the voice of the people,” and say whatever they liked with no concern for veracity, or the harm it might cause.
In the meantime, Citizens United din’t simply legalize old fashioned bribery and graft, it opened the doors to an unlimited flow of money into campaigns: not so much in support of candidates but as blunt weapons to intimidate, and beat candidates into submission.  There’s little difference between NRA campaign spending and gangster protection rackets.  If the NRA isn’t your powder horn of choice, then pick any other large industrial interest or mega-billionaire consortium.   They all say the same thing: “Nice little job you’ve got there in D.C., be a shame if anything happened to it.”  Yes, we all know unions and public interest groups could do the same.  They could, but they don’t have the money, and they’re loathe to take on the gangster persona.  It’s just not their style. 
If that wasn’t enough, we’v been distracted by outrage over standing, sitting, or kneeling for the national anthem prior to athletic games.  It’s all about patriotic respect, we’re told.  For some, patriotism demands standing to honor veterans, the flag itself, and the ideals of American democracy.  For others, patriotism means kneeling to illuminate the ideals yet unrealized, constitutional rights denied to many, and blatant racism that remains acceptable in (white?) society.  No disrespect intended.  Between the two sides reigns acrimony abetted by ears deaf to each other’s voices, and by a president who seems to take pleasure in fomenting discord for the sake of what?  His own malevolent reasons? 
In the midst of it all, nature has assaulted us with all her fury, leaving destruction, injury and death from which recovery may take decades.  And we have added to it by enduring yet one more slaughter of innocents through mass murder by gunfire.  After which we are told that it’s not the time to talk about regulating gun ownership  – nor will it ever be.
In 1928, James Weldon Johnson wrote a poem, “Lift Every Voice and Sing.”  Set to music by his brother, J. Rosamond Johnson, it’s often called the black national anthem, or the civil rights anthem.  Sometimes sound in predominantly white churches on Martin Luther King, Jr. Sunday, it’s otherwise unfamiliar to many Americans.  The opening verse soars with inspiring hope, but it’s the third verse that may speak more clearly to us, given the events of these recent days.  It’s precisely now that Johnson’s words needed to remind us of who we are called to be.
God of our weary years, God of our silent tears,
Thou who has brought us thus far on the way;
Thou who has by thy might, led us into the light
Keep us forever in the path, we pray.
Lest our feet stray from the places, our God, where we met thee.
Lest our hearts, drunk with the wine of the world, we forget thee.
Shadowed beneath thy hand, may we forever stand.

True to our God, true to our native land.

In Praise of Small Rural Congregaitons

In church assessment literature, small churches are often considered to be those with fewer than 100 on an average Sunday.  In rural communities a congregation of 100 on a Sunday is not small, it’s enormous, unheard of but for funerals.  Small is in the vicinity of 20 or less.  They’re congregations that slip under the radar of those who write about the state of the church.  And why not?  Are they not dying anyway?  Why bother with them?  Some are dying because they’re in dying communities.  Some shouldn’t be dying, but are, for lack of competent leadership.  Some are not dying at all.  In spite of their small size, they are active congregations of worship doing good things in their communities.  Many of them in our area are served by retired and non-stipendiary clergy, supplemented by willing lay leaders who may or may not have been through the appropriate approval processes of their denominations.  
Often lacking in the usual resources, they can often enjoy an abundance of worship diversity larger congregations in bigger cities seldom have access to.  Consider the small congregation I’ve served for seventeen years in rural Washington: Grace Episcopal Church in Dayton, a town of about 2,000.  Dayton has relatively few families with young children.  In-migration is largely from mature people looking for a nice, affordable place to live.  It’s a town with many churches, mostly quite conservative, all declining in membership.  Grace Episcopal Church, founded over a hundred years ago, has never been large.  Average Sunday attendance boomed to a little over twenty in some years, but hovers around twelve to fifteen most of the time.  It’s not a young congregation.  Most are in their seventies.  A few are older.  Fewer are younger.  It’s been served by a cavalcade of clergy who come for a season as an adjunct to some other calling.  What that has brought is enormous variety in styles of worship, making for a congregation flexible in its willingness to try, or endure, new things.  
I began serving there once a month for a Sunday evening Eucharist in addition to my role as rector of a larger congregation some thirty miles away.  Why?  Because they said the rector of St. Paul’s always served Grace Church, so I did.  I’m fairly high church, which suited them well as a change from other Sundays when they were led by a couple of retired clergy, one of whom was rather informal in the celebration of the liturgy, and the other favored something like an anglicized version of a pre Vatican II mass.  Try laying a mix like that on a typical big city church.
Clergy come and go in small rural areas.  Grace was served for several years by a female priest when such were few in number, and not always welcomed.  A college student from a school thirty miles away felt a call to ordained ministry, but being gay, and therefore unacceptable to his home congregation, was adopted by Grace, sponsored by Grace, and is now the dean of a cathedral in a large city.  After retirement, I began to serve them several times a month at the usual Sunday morning hour, with weekly adult formation classes thrown in on a regular basis.  Everyone came.  Other retired clergy taking their turns included a gruff priest who brooked no deviation from his definition of what was right and proper, and a colleague whose approach was folksy and casual.  They’ve each retired from retirement, so to speak, making me the old guy, abetted by the latest addition to our revolving clergy cast, a retired farmer-teacher-priest whose down home country style is far different than mine.
Clergy come and go in small rural areas.  So do members.  A few die.  A few move away.  A few arrive.  The congregation continues on, singing in a variety of keys to adorn their worship.  What will be it’s future?  The most probable one is that its last members will die, the doors locked, and the property sold.  Improbably, they it will continue on as a small aging congregation in which some arrive as some leave – as they have for a hundred years.  Could they attract more families with young children?  That’s the dream of most congregations.  It’s unlikely in a town with a dwindling school age population.  Moreover, local families with young children struggle to make ends meet.  The percentage living in poverty is very high.  Whether they attend church or not, their needs are significant.  So this small group of aging seniors has taken on a ministry to care for the needs of children who have never been in the church.  Identified through the school system, they’re provided with clothing, food, school supplies, and funds to underwrite activities.  Will they and their parents ever worship at Grace Episcopal Church?  Probably not.  Does it matter?  Probably not.  If they go anywhere, it will probably be to a non-liturgical conservative evangelical congregation.  That’s a disappointment, but it’s also reality.  Will that discourage Grace’s ministry to the children?  No.

Very small rural churches such as Grace do what larger congregations in larger cities can’t.  They can accommodate a variety of worship practices that come with a variety of clergy as the normal way of congregational life.  In the context of a community where everyone recognizes each other by face if not by name, they can engage in needed ministry with people who will never become members.  They may be very small, mostly elderly, but they need not die, at least not yet.