December 31, 2011

The New Year blew in a month or so ago along with the Occupy movement. A tempest of blessed confusion and change, it began quietly in the sea of summer, advancing to the shore of public awareness, and gaining more momentum after the brutal international raids on Occupy communities in mid-November.  Two days later, 30,000 (a low estimate) marched across the Brooklyn Bridge in joyful solidarity on a cold night. All ages, vocations, a few carrying signs that read “Screw us and we multiply.”

Now that was some candlelight vigil – Welcome Advent!

The Occupy movement brings with it provocative topics for discussion and action.  A few of its principles include anti-consumerist, anti-corporate, anti-hierarchical world views. Along with these are many pros: the movement is deeply spiritual – to be close to an action and the leadership involved is to experience something akin to another Great Awakening. Those involved are dedicated in a way we have not seen for some time in America to principles of community and caring, and respect for the dignity of every human being.

It’s about occupying space, interior, exterior, positive, and negative. With occupying space comes the question “What is public property, what is private property?”  You hear the call and response around the country:  Whose streets? Our streets! Whose park?  Our park!

If we were to ask a group attending a Sunday morning liturgy and started chanting “Whose church?” could those attending chant back as confidently as Occupiers “Our church!”? Or more accurately “God’s church!”?

That question –“Whose church?” – has been at the center of this blog since its beginning.  The great divide of wealth that has been increasing over the past 30 years has been mirrored in the institutional church in terms of power and control.  Control born out of fear. Economically, a few parishes hold on to their privilege while the poorer parishes start filing for the equivalent of unemployment benefits or even hospice care.

One of the things that, in my opinion, have shocked the 1% is the proud claim “We are the 99%!”  They’re confused – the meme is that everyone should want to be the 1% and if you’re not there, well it’s not only your fault but you should be striving for that particular gold ring.  We are expected to wait by the gate of envy, sites set on McMansions and bumper sticker colleges, producing another generation of dislocated masters of the universe.  They never consider that among the 99% are those who teach the children, heal the families, clean and repair the belongings of the 1%. And the 1% can’t see the truth before them:  the work of the 99% has more cultural and spiritual value and personal satisfaction than manipulating  abstract false derivatives or collecting interest on inherited investments.

In my experience, the wealthier parishes are content with “church as club” served with a palate-cleansing sorbet of charity in between courses. The less wealthy – kept from understanding the freedom that accompanies poverty – are frequently wannabes. This occurred in a parish our family attended for a number of years. It was small – maybe 75 on a big festival day – but it seemed sincere and our daughter had friends in the Sunday School. Flawed as it was, it was there for a few years of her formation.

Then money got in the way. The wealthiest parishioner fell in love with the notion of labyrinths. I suppose one should give her credit that she spent her time between trips in the mini van picking up the kids reading about the history of labyrinths instead of lunching and shopping.  She decided that what this tiny parish needed was a 50,000 dollar labyrinth – averaging a little over 1,000 dollars for each head attending Sunday morning.

The desire for more took the form of a capital campaign. Not one to fix the roof, get the asbestos out of the classrooms, but one that had a wish list determined by a few for the few more:  a new pipe organ for the organist (a relative of the rector), an upgraded kitchen, and a columbarium.  But first on the list was a fancy consultant who called in the various family heads to read us the wish list and ask us to which project we’d like to contribute.  During the discussion, it was mentioned that the campaign was considered successful as 50,000 had already been raised….for a labyrinth.  Needless to say, people found better things to do on Sunday morning since they had been left out of the discussion and had money targets painted on their backs.

The labyrinth still is there, private property of the church.  It’s empty most of the time. There is a more rustic, community-built labyrinth three miles away by the water that is open to everyone.  A few years after leaving, while on staff at an Episcopal church nearby, I suggested that the youth group walk the labyrinth.  No clergy or parents knew of its existence. We tried to make an appointment. No one answered our messages.  The parish web site says that those who have a divine experience while prayerfully on its path can send a letter via snail mail to the woman who donated it.

And that was a moderately middle-class parish suffering from the wannabe ethos. An ethos identical in intention with that of reality TV shows. Four miles north is a different, wealthier parish that embodies “church as club”. When the local high school performed Les Miserables (Les Comfortables present Les Miserables!) the choir director had the professionals in the choir give free private voice lessons  to the high school choristers. He then purchased a booster ad in the program congratulating them as they had gotten leading roles. When the same choir director moved on, the Anglophilic search committee chose from a short list of four the one who came from the UK subsequently paying over five thousand dollars in visa fees. Let’s add to the cost of collusion in this elitist endeavor the fact that the church had to bear false witness  in order to hire outside the US.

Whose culture?

What is public culture and what is private? Whose church? God’s church?

Wealthy parishes are, of course, in wealthy towns. The parishioners reflect the demographic of the area. Taxes are high; real estate in many of these areas has not been affected by the crash so far. When I say high, I mean crazy high – like the taxes on the rectory alone in our town would be the equivalent of the average American family income.

Whose building? The parish’s building. Well…the Vestry’s building for a while. But with tax exemption there ought to come some community responsibility.

Here’s a proposal and a challenge to all those who do not go to church – and there are so many of us: work for local legislation  stating that a church does not receive tax exempt status unless it proves it is doing the work of the Gospel – particularly Matthew 25.  And then, if the parish makes the cut and achieves tax exempt status determine what its responsibility should be to the greater community.  What’s the exchange for city income deprivation?  A little give-back like ensuring the church’s real estate, grounds, meeting rooms, libraries, and even worship space are open all the time.  To a person of faith, all is God’s world and there is nothing secular. With real leadership and vision everything is sacrament and blessing, a banquet table to be shared by all.

Another challenge to those still attending church regularly: occupy your church. Not warm the seats on Sunday morning, or go to a few classes, or feel guilty because you missed that choral evensong, but really question who and what is “church”.  Do you have a nursery school that is open just 3 hours a day and caters to the tennis mom set? How many working mothers could use affordable full-day early childhood education live surrounding your church? A lot.  Stop the music style arguments. Now. Instead, ask who is singing our music, chanting our psalms. Educate upwards. I once heard a rector respond to the question “Is your new call high or low church?” that the church preferred a more relaxed style of worship, but she would be changing that as soon as she could. Whose pastor?

Are you in one of the churches on life support? Open the doors, define Christian community historically, and embrace the changes The Holy Spirit has in store for you. It will be sweet or raucous or both and indeed divine.

We cannot rely on those who have visible power in the church hierarchy to change things. They have too much self identity and comfort tangled up in the status quo. Take the recent kerfuffle over private property between Occupy Wall Street and Trinity Wall Street.  The Bishop of New York and the Presiding Bishop both chose private property over people, the latter clumsily asking Occupy Wall Street to “put down their arms” – not even stepping into the ministry of wisdom – and the NYPD exercised their typically brutal response.  Who was acting in holiness?

“If you consider the holiness that is God’s,
you can be sure that everyone who acts in holiness
has been begotten by him.

See what love the Father has bestowed on us
in letting us be called children of God!
Yet that is what we are.”

We are the 99% in the pews or out. Whose church? The church of the children of God!

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Happy Easter! Expect the Unexpected

Confusion is a word we have invented for an order which is not yet understood. Henry Miller

My transition from sleep to wakefulness comes as a result of a solid internal clock –courtesy of age – and the ambient sounds of the world around me – birds, the Latino radio station from the man delivering newspapers,  the family stirring. On Easter morning the hotel alarm buzzes me awake at five in order for my husband and myself to attend a sunrise service.

The location of the service is St. Andrew’s by the Sea in Hyannis.   The staff at the motel can’t recall where it is located.  It’s not in the telephone book and online references are fuzzy.  Through the Massachusetts diocese home site we get a street, but no no parish profile or web site. Programming this spare information into the GPS we set out before sunrise on a literal quest for the sole Episcopal church in this town.

Navigating a warren of roads that pass darkened summer homes closed in off-season, we happen upon a police officer who escorts us, headlights on, past the skeletons of privet hedge to the dead-end street where St. Andrew’s stands high on a bluff next to a local beach and yacht club.

We don’t know what to take in first : the location of a church that must have a dramatic view of the Atlantic once the sun is up or the fact that there is barely a place to park.  The road dead ends at a local private club with a capacious parking lot but it is barricaded in off-season. And most likely barricaded in-season to the hoi polloi.

St. Andrew’s is closed as well. At least the doors to the building are closed.  There is a gathering of 60 or so eager to witness and reconstruct in our own humble way the event that shattered the world.  Easter fest 2010!  We wait on a small patch of ground next to the stone building.

The service begins with a lone trumpet leading the hymns.  Everyone sings along.  The invocation and prayers are direct – nothing precious or overly intellectual.  As I say the words out loud in community I feel changed, lighter inside, a greater sense of understanding which quickens commitment.  It is terribly cold on this bluff by the Atlantic and I am not dressed for it.  My husband takes off his jacket, wraps me in it, and holds me firm and strong.  We had argued on the way here. In his loving, intimate action, there is proof of resurrection and healing. I think – no I know – this one of the best Easters ever.

The homily is short and one of the best ones I’ve heard. Here’s what I remember: Expect the unexpected, particularly when the unexpected exposes Christ in others.

The prayer that follows the homily begins like this:
God of such amazing surprise, put a catch in my breath today. Put wings on my heart.

This Holy Week, on the dune and ocean landscape of New England, the site of new buds on thorny bushes has caught my eye. There are rows of these dotted about the small patch of ground next to the closed Episcopal church.  

The church building is still dark as the sun rises over the cold Atlantic. The Church turns to see the morning fog begin its dispersal, chatting about where to go for  a warm breakfast and cup of coffee. Continuing the fellowship.

This worship was hosted by a confederation of Baptist churches in surrounding towns.  The participating pastors will be going off to their respective churches for indoor Easter services. One announces that there will be six baptisms that morning.

In the light, it becomes clear why no one knew where the church was: those who attend it want it for themselves. It is a seasonal church, intended for the people with summer homes. Most likely it is a summer cure for a priest who gets a small stipend, a place near the beach, an honorary membership at the yacht-beach-tennis-dinner club, and regular invitations to cocktail parties.

Peeking through the front window we can see that it is well-appointed: crisp volumes Lift Every Voice and Sing side by side with the 1982 Hymnal.  Although it is possible the volumes look crisp because they are held for a few minutes each week, 4 months out of the year, by people who are used to taking care of nice things.

The week before Easter the House of Bishops met at Camp Allen in Texas. Part of their time together included two days spent on the Emergent Church.  From what I’ve heard there was an amusing awkward tone to all this as the Emergent Church is anti-hierarchical as well as anti-institutional.  The bishops listened to presentations and were given a book to take home so they could read about about the Emergent Church.  The book has two introductions: one by Katharine Jefferts-Schori and the other by Rowan Williams.  The other chapters are written by people who, while insightful about the enormous transition going on in Spirit and Faith as well as the dissolution of the institutional-hierarchical church,  rely on its financial resources for their livelihood.

The bishops were also given two CDs with examples of Emergent Church music.  The music, skillfully executed and even occasionally sincere, was intended for soloists and bands.  Not a single song that could be sung by a congregation on either recording.

The readers of this blog are too wise for me to have to explain the irony of all this.  But two caveats for any bishops or canons or program people trying to understand and evolve:  First, buying the program is not the program.  If you need this verified, ask the hard-working and resourceful director of your formation program.

Second, there is an army of clergy in your diocese deeply invested in the status quo of their seminary training and the reality of parish politics.  The House of Bishops may meet as an International Entity but church is local.

In a culturally synchronous moment, Holy Week was the week that Priest Barbie became a fetishistic fad among certain Episcopalians.  The Facebook page garnered thousands of fans.  Priest Barbie showed up with a bitchin’ liturgical wardrobe, including a miniature sacristy at her imaginary Malibu parish.  People thought a plastic priest with an anatomically impossible figure, the most hated and tortured toy in recent memory, was a hoot, a role model, and a signal of the The Episcopal Church’s “coolness”.

Can’t we stop pretending?

It is a natural human inclination to stave off the difficult but necessary aspects of transition with totemic figures, programs, and magic thinking. During Easter we not only honor Jesus, but the lifetime journey of mindfully, reverently nurturing the Christ in ourselves and others. Miracles not magic thinking. The truth – the Word – is so very near us.  It’s in night blossoms, and buds in thorns, the narratives of our prophets, matriarchs, and patriarchs, our relationships. There are portals of sacred transformation among us.

The Emergent Church has been around for two plus millennia. It is not “out there”.  Unless the leadership of The Episcopal Church considers a confederation of Baptist ministers leading the faithful to worship at dawn “out there”.

Holy Saturday 2010

I not only gave up Lent for Lent this year, I also gave up blogging.  There are times when the impulse to come to conclusions prevents living mindfully in God’s time.  Strict adherence to arbitrary calendars, deadlines, and relentless standards also prevents us from living mindfully and compassionately.

Yet another good reason not to attend church for Lent.  Jesus goes out on the desert to discern his life’s mission, and we’re asked to sit like cattle while the church staff tells us what this is all about.

We are poor little sheep who have lost our way…baa, baa, baa.

A while back I was at a staff meeting planning the parish events for the year.  The organist-choir director looked at the calendar sighing dramatically.  “There is absolutely no place for us to have a choir fundraiser for our trip to England!”

I pointed out a nice empty weekend in March – not a schedule conflict in sight.

“But that falls on the second weekend in Lent!”

“And the problem is….?”

“We want to have a festive atmosphere in order to raise money!”  There was scorn in his voice; you could hear the bumper “Dummy!” in his inflection.

I explained to him that some very great thinkers in the church had experimented with not observing Lent.  Holy Week, of course, but Lent was made from whole cloth. Just as New Year’s Eve is party night for amateurs, living a disciplined prayerful life for exactly 40 days seems to miss the point.  Moreover, hadn’t we all experienced people who gamed the system?  Those who conflate sacrifice with vanity or self congratulation, or those who are eager to drop their discipline on Sundays when it’s “technically” a mini-Easter? (40 days minus Sundays = piety.)

The implication that I was a dummy gave way to a look from the clergy and organist as if I was suggesting the sacrifice of goats to Baal on the altar.  The rector said that no weddings or baptisms would ever take place in “his” church during Lent.

Silly me! I thought that the church belonged to the Body of Christ, but it really belongs to the clergy collecting a salary from the Body of Christ.

And for those of us with birthdays that occur during Lent, I suppose this priest would have us wear hair shirts as we sup on soup instead of ice cream cake. Darn, if only I had been born during the season of Pentecost, I could enjoy my birthday in a festive atmosphere.

This is the week that we remember the most important part of Jesus’ story.  Even though we are intimately familiar with it, each day, each story has its own vibration. If we tune in, we will hear a distinctly unique pitch sounding from the past, present, future, this world, and the other world all at once.

The vibration on Holy Saturday sounds the story of the women waiting to honor in death their beloved friend and rabbi.  They ready themselves to prepare not only his body, but for the reality of transition that is sure to come.

Too bad so many miss this part of the story.  The church staff is exhausted from coordinating “correct” Palm Sunday processions, Tenebrae services, forcing people into ritualized intimacy with Maundy Thursday liturgies, (it took me years to really hear that foot washing in this artificial situation is indeed gross for the average citizen!), getting everyone on board for the ecumenical Good Friday service, hiring the brass ensemble to replicate the shadow of a joyous Easter morning…and I forgot to include the Great (or typically Not-So-Great) Vigil of Easter.

An elder in a church where I used to sing, called this the “hot dog cooker” service. Maybe she was on to something.

Exactly how the institutional church remembers this week is the topic of another post. And another, and yet another. The liturgical year is a teaching opportunity about the life of Jesus, not what we worship instead.

In the northeast United States – and possibly other parts of the country – no matter how honest and holy and well-intentioned the remembrances of Holy Week are, attendance is low. It is spring break in the public schools: AKA “Mud Week” because it’s like trying to get wheel traction in thick mud.

I can’t count the times I’ve worked with teams planning and executing great Easter Eve Walks, powerful Palm Sunday experiences, sincere Maundy Thursday meals, celebratory Easter mornings, and a fraction of the parish population has shown up. Or the ecumenical youth group has forgotten what they were supposed to do at the sunrise beach service because they took a red-eye back from a warm, hedonistic locale and are fried.

What are leaders supposed to do about this?  Condemn those on vacation?

Take a tip from the early Christian strategists and work with the culture.  Jesus, like the Queen of England, has two birthdays – a real one and one the public celebrates in December.

Palm Sunday

Yes, the liturgical year is a helpful way to frame time.  But when the consumer culture co-opts the Easter egg hunt so it is about competition, over-buying plastic eggs and other doo-dads from Oriental Trading, it’s time for the church to stand for something.  Putting on a lonesome high-church chant fest for 20 people on Holy Saturday with the hot dog cooker and singing the Exultet is fine.  But the next weekend – Easter 1 – when all the kids, families, DINCs, retirees, singles, and young couples return from a much-deserved break, tell the story again. Save breakfast on the beach reading for the summer by making breakfast on the beach!

Make it live for yourself and it will live for those around you.  An interesting side effect of  rescheduling is that we don’t have to live with the cognitive dissonance of pretending we don’t know about the resurrection.  What an interesting contemplation. We already hold the sad knowledge of Good Friday when we re-enact the Last Supper. What if we also held in our hearts the knowledge of the Resurrection?

There is a tale that the founder of Hasidic Judaism, when faced with a problem, would go to a sacred place in the woods, ritualistically light a fire, and say a particular prayer.  The rabbi would then gain insight. His successor knew the place in the wood and the prayer, but did not know how to light the fire.  He also, would come to a new understanding. With each succeeding generation, a bit of the ritual would be lost.  When Rabbi Israel of Rishin was confronted with a problem, he stayed at home. “The fire we can no longer light, the prayer we no longer know, nor do we remember the place. All we can do is tell the tale. And that is sufficient.”

Let us go on telling the tale, and to paraphrase St. Francis, sometimes use words.

More reason to hope: We are not alone

I have heard that Sidney Sanders, former bishop of East Carolina and much beloved faculty at Virginia Seminary, had written about the theology of the Broadway Musical.  Certainly Broadway has given us much more than jazz hands and emo singing cats. It embodies story, hope, social justice, reflection, epiphanies, as well as the glory of the human being fully alive.  Anyone who has been close to the theatre knows that there is no better community for accepting brokenness, and enveloping fellow seekers in the embrace of fellowship.

In the words of one of Sondheim’s most simple lyrics: No One is Alone

This blog began as a kind of personal therapy – a place to detox from the harshness of church work and disingenuous church community.

That season is done.  Today I had a wonderful conversation with Kenny Moore – aka Kenny the Monk.  His book, The CEO and the Monk carries high ratings on Amazon.  I’m embarrassed I haven’t read it, because a conversation with Kenny is a revivifying experience filled with insight, reverent irreverence, generosity, and lots of laughs.

So in the days to come, when this Hopeful Episcopalian reclaims the path of hope rather than its abstraction, look for the deletion of some of those more therapeutic posts, a revamping of  About this Blog, and a chance for the thousands of us out there to start calling out and finding each other.

After all, Anyone Can Whistle.