Friday, August 31, 2007

In Transition

Well, after a five hour flight (and three hour time-change) on Tuesday and a twelve hour drive (ride, actually, since my wife drove) on Wednesday I am back at home in Albany. Not too much to report -- the cat is alive, the house is still standing, and there are a ton of things to unpack and put away. The one really odd thing is that after two months away and six weeks in another person's house I don't immediately recall the location of some of the things in my kitchen!

So, two weeks and counting until the end of my Sabbatical. I'm already having pre-return anxiety about some of the issues at work when I left in June. I have to keep telling myself two things: First, that I really need to give the anxiety-producing stuff to God and let God handle it. Second, I am not back for two more weeks and I hardly need to return mentally before I've returned physically! So, I am looking forward to a week at home and then a week in Southern California attending Percept's VISTA training program and dropping in at Saddleback Church (of Pastor Rick Warren fame) the previous Sunday. Both should be instructive and will "spin up" my mind so that I can return to St. Alban's both fully rested and fully ready to step into the pulpit and behind the altar.

Thursday, August 23, 2007

Service, Sacrifice, and Scars

Today I ran across an amazing article about Mother Teresa talking about a new book entitled Mother Teresa: Come Be My Light. It is a collection of previously unreleased correspondence between her and her confessors and superiors over 66 years. What it reveals is that one of the icons of Christian service, of service to thousands of "the least of these" in the slums of Calcutta, and a Nobel Peace Prize winner nevertheless endured a spiritual desert, no sense of the presence of God, for over fifty years. I can't do the article justice (and it is no doubt copyrighted anyway) so read the article for yourselves.

I have three initial reactions to the article.

First, I am struck by how much we rely on surface clues about a person's wellbeing and how tortured and spiritually lost even those we think of as godly, even holy, are. If that is the case, how many wounds does your average person-in-the-pew (or in the pulpit!) hide, gloss over, or simply ignore? I shudder to think how many walking wounded are in our midst including, if truth be told, myself. That sense of one being taken, blessed, broken, and given to the world as the bread of the Eucharist is, seems a more powerful metaphor than I previously grasped. Perhaps that is what Jesus knew when he commanded us to pray for our enemies: that they were broken and wounded and needed our prayers perhaps even more than our friends!

Second, with all of the correspondence with confessors and others in the church, why, literally for God's sake, didn't someone see this spiritual desolation and seek to help alleviate it? What an irony that a woman who brought hope to the world and to so many who were hopeless was herself spiritually adrift! I can't tell much from the article, but it appears that while some reassurances were given her, Mother Teresa worked tirelessly for a Savior whose touch she had not felt in her soul for over five decades while the church stood by watching. Was her work so valuable that piercing that veil of holiness and sacrificial love was deemed too great a cost? I ask myself, is she a saint because she persevered in service without a "sign" from God or is she an example of someone who gives themselves so much to others that she can't bear to receive consolation and solace from others? I don't know. What I do know is that God wrapped her in God's arms a decade ago and said "well done, good and faithful servant." Of that I am sure.

Finally, I am confronted with the stark reality that even someone like Mother Teresa, by all accounts a model of servant ministry if ever there was one, had neither an easy nor secure relationship with God. Oddly enough, it gives me some comfort that if others can serve God effectively with such impediments, my own humble attempts at a stable and fruitful spiritual life may at least suffice.

Be that as it may, as I count down the weeks remaining of my Sabbatical, I am struck anew by how much difference a strong spiritual foundation makes in one's ministry. More specifically, I am struck by how the strength of my own spiritual foundation relates directly to both my effectiveness and endurance in ministry. Making sure that foundation is strong and that my self-worth is rooted in God's love for me rather than the perceived day-to-day success or failure of my own efforts to faithfully shepherd the flock of St. Alban's will be a primary goal upon my return.

Wednesday, August 22, 2007

Theologically Orthodox and Socially Progressive

For many, many years now I have been making the assertion that it is quite possible to be both theologically orthodox and socially progressive. More specifically, it is possible to take Holy Scripture seriously, to see Jesus as the way to God, to hold mainstream views of the Incarnation, Resurrection, etc... and still believe in the blessing of same-sex unions and the ordination of homosexual persons. I happen to know several people, among them gays and lesbians, who nevertheless hold very traditional, orthodox views on core Christian doctrines.

Generally, when I make the above assertion to a conservative-leaning crowd, I am greeted with stares and responses of disbelief that such a thing is even possible. It seems that one's views on sexuality are the de facto litmus test on both one's orthodoxy and one's view of scripture as authoritative. I do not think that should be the case. Now, I have online proof that the orthodox theology and progressive views of sexuality can co-exist! Fr. Jake, in his blog, has a posting on Christians in a Pluralistic World which is well worth reading and pretty thoroughly orthodox, especially regarding evangelism and the unique revelation of God in Christ. Have a read, add to the more than 150 comments if you like, but note that Fr. Jake does in fact hold strong views of the uniqueness of Jesus Christ and the impetus for evangelism. He's revealing what he calls his "inner Baptist."

So it is possible. Given that, might we hypothesize that there are thousands, perhaps millions of people who can affirm the Nicene and Apostles Creeds without reservation, see scripture as "containing all things necessary to salvation," and yet still affirm same-sex blessings and homosexual ordination? If there are folks for whom that is true, then if the real issue is the authority of scripture, then let us dispense with questions of sexuality, affirm the creeds, core doctrines, and witness of scripture, and we're done! That just leaves those who have some particular axe to grind with the issue of same-sex blessings and homosexual ordination, but since that isn't the real issue, the rest of us in the Episcopal Church and Anglican Communion should be able to move on.

Gee, I solved the problem with more than a month to go before September 30! Hmmm....

Friday, August 17, 2007

The Christian Center

As the "d-day" of September 30 grows closer and voices (and bloggers) from both sides become ever more strident in their assurance of the rightness of their respective causes, there are many voices from the center who are being increasingly heard. Though I would not want to characterize the Primate of Ireland (he can do that for himself), his recent sermon is the subject of entries in several blogs, among them The Anglican Centrist and Fr. Jake Stops the World. While others have highlighted various parts of this sermon, the part that speaks most forcefully to me comes near the end. Archbishop Harper says:

I have yet to meet any “leader” who does not treat with the utmost respect and indeed reverence the Holy Scriptures of the Old and New Testament. I have heard no one in this crisis deny the fundamental tenets of the faith as Anglicans have received them. Yet I have heard believing Christians attack other Christians for not believing precisely as they themselves believe. Equally, I have heard believing Christians attack other Christians for not attaching the weight they themselves attach to this biblical text compared with that.

This is not the way of Christ; it is the way of fallen humanity. It is a boulder of our own creation and I do not know who will help us to roll it away.

So before either side continues to stack up blocks in walls to protect the church from either rampant heresy or homophobia, it might be wise to remember that the people of both sides (and the vast majority in the middle) are faithful, sincere, believing Christians, not raving lunatics or heretics bent on destroying the church.

Every time my commitment to remaining within the Episcopal Church wavers, generally because I'm simply tired of the fight, statements like those of Archbishop Harper shore up my resolve to do so. We are always better together than we are when we are apart, no matter who else is at the table. After all, the table isn't ours, it belongs to Jesus and Jesus can (and does) invite anyone and everyone!

Wednesday, August 15, 2007

Theology, Ecclesiology, and Real Life

I'm an ardent fan of Fr. Jake's blog, though I suspect he and I would disagree on any number of theological questions. However, I return again and again to his blog because I find his comments sincere and thought-provoking. I ran across the following on his blog tonight:

Now one can argue theology (study of God) or ecclesiology (study of the church), debate and discuss what this or that bishop thinks about this or that theological concept, or a host of other items making the rounds of blogs across the church and newspapers around the world. I can spend long afternoons surfing from blog to blog in the nice comfy living room in the house of the person I'm house-sitting for in Hawaii. I have that luxury. The folks who sent the postcards above do not have that luxury. I suspect many of them stagger through life trying to put enough of the pieces together to get through each day. Many, if not most, have absolutely no idea that there even is a God, much less that God loves them and desires the closest of relationships with them. Some of the later postcards begin to express hope and a sense of being valued, even loved. Such transformation is what everyone, including those of us who pretend we have it all together, longs for.

In my decades of experience in the institutional church, I've rarely seen that sort of radical transformation, or even much in the way of minor transformation. I suspect that some of that is just that we are uncomfortable when speaking of God's action, and so such action in the lives of others remains hidden to most of us, whether clergy or laity. I think that we also are challenged in that we don't often expect God to work in even moderately miraculous ways, so either miss that action or are unavailable for God's blessings.

One example of the "lostness" that I mentioned above occurred even within the most luxurious of locations. We went down to the Hilton Hawaiian tonight for ice cream. My wife mentioned the rather sullen and bored teenager she noticed who was getting ice cream, alone, at 9:30 p.m., and charging it to her room. We wondered if her parents just told her "go find something to do." We were reminded that even those who can afford to spend a week or two at a fine luxury resort in Hawaii aren't necessarily doing so with the idea of spending "quality time" with their family. Perhaps we were reading more into that scene then was warranted, but with so much opulence (including the on-site wedding chapel) around us, it was hard not to look on that with a slightly jaundiced eye.

So the next time I get wrapped up in the trials and tribulations of the church, perhaps stepping outside my office and heading down to the local homeless shelter, or even to Starbucks or the local country club and doing a little people-watching might bring a little perspective. We are called to be the light of the world, for people sunk in darkness, not to fight about the light fixture...

Tuesday, August 14, 2007

Iraq: How would Jesus leave?

In a brief diversion from ecclesiastical trials and tribulations, my mind had returned to a question I have often mulled over as the presidential campaigns of various Republicans and Democrats continues, with Iraq as the centerpiece. Let us assume that invading Iraq in the first place was a mistake, that our presence there is at best neutral (we're both provoking insurgency and also preventing it), and that we are headed for a pullout of our troops. Attempting, as with the ecclesiastical turmoil, to be both present and non-anxious, my question is: how might we leave in a way that both admits that, in a profound understatement, "mistakes were made" but also doesn't simply wash our hands of the troubles in Iraq? While I believe that we should leave Iraq, it hardly seems like anything but cowardice for us to simply say "Ooops, we made a mistake. Hope you can clean it up!" as we fly and float away, licking our wounds.

So, I'm wondering how, in the Christian sense, we might align our will with God's will and use this whole situation for good while not perpetuating the problem by remaining in Iraq one second longer than our presence is beneficial. I don't have the answer to that question, and probably don't have even a tenth of the information to even speculate, but I haven't heard the question posed by any of the candidates running for President. I would think that such a holistic departure plan, with or without a time-line, would seem prudent given the current political environment.

So, in other words, the question is: How would Jesus leave? How would Jesus have us leave?

Monday, August 13, 2007

More Reflections - Anglicanism and Christianity

I just ran across a blog post at Episcopal Cafe. The author says, in part, that when folks disagree with the Presiding Bishop or other official church teachings, they sometimes take the next step:
That step is to claim that since the Presiding Bishop has made a statement that the writer objects to, the millions of people who belong to the Episcopal Church are also therefore heretics and/or apostates who have materially repudiated Jesus.
Read the entire post here. The author, an Episcopal Priest for many years, makes an excellent point. Rather than assume that a handful of bishops, or even the Presiding Bishop, speaks for everyone in the Episcopal Church, might we assume a diversity of opinion on any given subject exists within the church? If that is so, then simply saying that The Episcopal Church is heretical, or apostate, makes little sense.

As I begin to wind down my Sabbatical (one month to go!), I am more and more attempting to cultivate that non-anxious presence that I blogged about earlier. This would seem to apply not only to parish life, but to diocesan, national, and international life as well. In a post-Christian society and a time of transition in the church, I see a huge amount of reactivity and tension in the church. Many people are reacting to it with statements and actions that may or may not be completely thought out or prayerfully considered. Discerning God's will takes time. In a world where we pace in front of the microwave, get our news in two or three minute segments, and are hyper-aware of thirty-second sound bytes, such discernment may seem to take a lifetime in comparison. Given that, perhaps a longer time-frame might be wise before making any final decisions.

Of course, it may be too late for the for some folks...but there is always repentance and restoration!

Wednesday, August 08, 2007

Back on Oahu and Reflections on Current Events

Just got back from a week on Maui, capped off by a truly amazing performance of Ulalena at the Maui Theatre. Ulalena is a live-action theatrical presentation of the mythical creation story of Maui through the immigration of people from Tahiti, forced immigration of Chinese and Japanese people to work in the sugar cane fields, and the emergence of European influence on the islands. As I watched the show, I was reminded that the interaction of native people with European explorers, missionaries, and others has often had a less than positive result, to say the least. It is interesting to be a tourist and to see so much native culture on display, often at "touristy" events (luaus, etc...) On the plus side, the Hawaiian culture seems to have permeated the general culture of the Hawaiian islands much more than Native American culture has permeated the culture of the mainland. Unlike mainlanders, it is nearly impossible for residents of Hawaii to ignore native culture. The fact that such native culture is part and parcel of the tourist industry is perhaps a mixed blessing.

On a somewhat different topic, the "fun" continues with Fr. David Anderson reacting to the following quote from the Archbishop of York, Dr. John Sentamu:
…I haven’t found that in Ecusa (sic) or in Canada, where I was recently, they have any doubts in their understanding of God which is very different from anybody. What they have quarrelled about is the nature of sexual ethics.
Fr. Anderson's response is that Dr. Sentamu just hasn't been looking hard enough. Citing Bishops Jefferts Schori (Presiding), Spong (Newark, retired), Bruno (Los Angeles), Bennison (Pennsylvania), and Borsch (Los Angeles, retired) he says that the real battle is over core doctrines, not sexuality.

The Diocese of York published a response a couple of days later, which essentially says that such citations are from the fringe of the Episcopal Church, not its center, and restates the Archbishop of York's orthodox credentials.

I would certainly agree with Fr. Anderson that there are several instances in which The Episcopal Church (TEC) has refused to discipline those who actively refute core doctrines of the Christian faith (Bishop Spong) and that many, many congregations practice "open communion" in violation of the canons. However, the Diocese of York's response is good, particularly the following:
By using such a broad brush to attack the Episcopal Church as a whole, Canon Anderson conveniently whitewashes the testimony daily offered up by all those faithfully reciting the creeds and liturgy that bear evidence to those doctrines which he alleges have been abandoned. The orthodox voice of the multitude is drowned out and ignored in Anderson’s analysis in favour of selective quotation from the fringe.
I have several difficulties with this entire argument. The first is that we have not, to my knowledge, had a prolonged and exhaustive discussion of the core doctrines of Christianity, nor do I believe that there has been a wholesale abandonment of such doctrines by significant portions of the Episcopal Church. I simply haven't seen that. Second, as much as folks talk about how sexuality isn't the real issue, it appears to be the pressing issue of the day. Archbishop Akinola is not debating the doctrines of the Incarnation, Resurrection, etc... with Presiding Bishop Jefferts Schori or other bishops in the Episcopal Church, he is focusing on the issue of homosexuality. If that is not the issue, then why does it keep coming up? Last, why does Fr. Anderson simply quote a string of bishops? I know many, many priests and laity who are far more theologically grounded than many bishops (I was taught at Virginia Seminary by some of them). In simply rattling off a string of quotes from bishops, even prominent ones, Fr. Anderson seems to fall into the trap of thinking (or asking the wider Anglican Communion to think) that TEC is run and controlled exclusively by bishops.

As I look at the wrangling currently at work, I find myself reflecting on the Episcopal Church and our core Anglican identity and liturgy. My stint at the Church Development Institute in Seattle earlier in my Sabbatical has given me a new respect and appreciation for that identity and liturgy. As I also read Diana Butler Bass' book Christianity for the Rest of Us, I am struck by the rush to claim the Anglican moniker. As institutions and denominations matter less and less in many congregations, liturgical and theological heritage becomes increasingly more important. Perhaps rather than wrestling and wrangling about who gets to stick a shield or a compass-rose on their sign, we might more profitably go more deeply into what uniquely makes us Anglicans and do so on a congregation by congregation basis. Perhaps in knowing and valuing our own identity, we might more easily claim that identity.

Sunday, August 05, 2007

Aloha from Maui

In the midst of our six-week Hawaiian odyssey, we are currently enjoying a week in Maui, courtesy of my mother-in-law. We head back to Oahu on Tuesday, and will spend the following three weeks there before returning to Oregon via California. While here, we have enjoyed the Old Lahaina Luau, gone underwater in a submarine, and relaxed by the pool at the aina nalu. Not too much more to say from here!