Tuesday, September 30, 2008

Are you a Liberal or a Conservative?

I recently ran across the following that was submitted to the last newsletter of the Church of the Good Samaritan in Corvallis, Oregon. Written by The Very Rev. George Back, Dean of St. Paul’s Cathedral in Oklahoma City, OK, it was originally published in The Anglican Digest in Lent 1991. It casts a new light on the so-called “conservative/liberal split” and is well worth reading. It also expresses my viewpoint far better than I could.

I have heard rumors that conflicts between conservatives and liberals are tearing the church apart. Don’t believe it.

Few of these people exist. I have had letters and phone calls from some who claim to be one or the other. As far as I can tell, they are imposters. Of course, I can only judge from their behavior.

If the church had many conservatives, the buildings would be packed on Sundays as they keep the Sabbath holy. Our Church would have money since they would tithe 10 percent of their income. Our Church life would be glorious as they would undertake all the traditional Sunday School, retreat, and holy day obligations. An authentic personal morality would be exemplified in their holy lifestyles

If the Church had many liberals, they would be enthusiastically including people all the time. The Church would grow as they reached out to the poor and isolated in various ministries. Our service ministries would be overwhelmed with volunteers and resources. An authentic social conscience would be exemplified in the compassionate lifestyles.

Judging only by behavior, the Church has too few religious conservatives and religious liberals. God bless the ones we have, they are doing wonderful work.

Then where is the problem? There are numerous anti-conservatives and anti-liberals. These are people who compare their particular theology with other’s actual behavior. Their convenient posture enables them to be both righteous and removed and the same time. Both know that others need to change their bad habits. The sins, failures, hypocrisy, and mediocrity of these others provide a good reason not to attend worship and not to give money and not to serve energetically and not to love affectionately in the Lord’s name.

Religion is behavior, not theory. To worship God with all one’s heart, mind, soul, and strength is not an idea, it is a practice. To love one’s neighbor as in “idea” is an illusion. Love must take up space and time; it costs lots of money and much energy. Church is a place for religious behavior, where one worships God and serves God’s children. It is large enough to include true religious conservatives and true religious liberals, since they only emphasize one or the other aspect of true religion.

The Church will never be at peace until the commitment to God and the Gospel of our Lord take priority over any personal warp to some left or right ideas. People who have a primary commitment to their own opinions and a secondary interest in religion always threaten to destroy the church. What good reason and right opinion do you have to excuse yourself from the costly practice of true religion?

Thursday, September 25, 2008

MDGs, Outreach, and Evangelism

As any readers of this blog know, I have written in this blog about my reservations regarding using the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) as a primary task of the Episcopal Church. This is primarily because I am just evangelical enough to think that the Great Commission should be the primary task of the church and am having a hard time seeing how that relates to the MDGs.

Having said that, today is the "MDG blogging day" and I've been thinking a bit on this. I think that the falacy that we as Episcopalians operate under is that at least some of those whom we serve in Christ's name as clients and recipients of various charitable endeavors during the week will find their way into our churches on Sunday morning and become members of our congregation. In other words, our outreach is our evangelism! However, in my experience, that rarely happens. So, rather than kidding ourselves that we are doing evangelism when what we are really doing is social service, let's just say "yes, we're serving the poor because that is what Jesus did and would do in our place and we are serving Jesus as we do so." Nothing else should be necessary. Part of our call as Christians is to reach out to others with the love of Christ, and supporting the MDGs (whether locally, nationally, or internationally) is a way of proclaiming the Kingdom of God even if we never use Jesus' name in that proclamation.

So, support the MDGs through Kiva, Episcopal Relief and Development, or via supporting Episcopalians for Global Reconciliation--just don't forget to do a little evangelism, too!

Monday, September 15, 2008

Thoughtful Thinking and Parish Ministry

As I perused my friend Nathan Humphrey's excellent proposal to unite the alphabet soup of "continuing Anglican" churches and halt the disintegration of the Anglican Communion and, to a lessor extent, the Episcopal Church, I took note of the fact that it has been far, far too long since I really dug into any sort of in-depth study of an intellectual discipline besides the basic discipline of writing a sermon every week. Perhaps that is because one doesn't get many "points" in parish ministry for such intellectual pursuits, perhaps it is because such things also do not pay the bills, perhaps it is that the demands of life simply crowd out such things. Most likely it is a combination of the three.

Ironically, it is my observation that we need more, not less, of such intellectual forays in the church. This is especially true considering the highly politically charged atmosphere in today's church and society. The Episcopal Church has a reputation as a thinking-person's church, although I cringe when I see that asserted as a unique attribute since it seems to assume that members of other churches are not thinking people. In any case, Episcopal clergy continue to be required to acquire a Masters level degree or equivalent and so there is some justification for the premise that both our clergy and laity are, in many ways, supposed to have more than a couple of marbles running around upstairs.

At the same time, such intellectual pursuits appear to be losing their perceived value. Several seminaries are either scaling back or combining with other institutions, fewer and fewer parishes can afford a full-time seminary-trained priest (and even fewer place "spiritual development" or "teaching" above pastoral care as priorities), and most laity are far too busy in their own daily lives to take advantage of seminars, quiet days, or other learning opportunities that such a seminary-trained priest can offer. The result, it seems to me, is a much more frantic, politically charged, and increasingly panic-stricken church culture with little time or inclination for reflection or thoughtful contemplation.

I'm not sure what the solution to this is, except for the church to stand up and affirm the value of a theologically deep, intellectually rich, and deliberately thoughtful Christianity in opposition to a world that is often philosophically shallow, intellectually bankrupt, and frantically busy. I find myself constantly having to take a deep breath, think things through, and resist the temptation to "fast track" programs or ideas in my own ministry. Perhaps the emerging "slow church" movement might have something to teach us here. That sense of slow, deliberate, and thoughtful spirituality might well be the key that ultimately saves both the Episcopal Church and its members.

Monday, September 01, 2008

Counting the Cost in an Instant Society

"Suppose one of you wants to build a tower. Will he not first sit down and estimate the cost to see if he has enough money to complete it? For if he lays the foundation and is not able to finish it, everyone who sees it will ridicule him, saying, 'This fellow began to build and was not able to finish.'" -- Luke 14:28-30

It has been several weeks since I last posted and I've been observing and thinking about where we are in both our political and ecclesiastical discourse. Today is Labor Day in the United States, a day once dedicated to "a street parade to exhibit to the public 'the strength and esprit de corps of the trade and labor organizations,' followed by a festival for the workers and their families." Not unlike the church, such labor organizations today often find themselves sidelined in the public discourse and American workers often feel increasingly on their own in a Darwinian labor market. Today, Labor Day essentially marks the end of Summer and the beginning of both the academic year in schools and the program year in churches.

There has been a great deal written and spoken in the last few years about the times we live in. In my opinion, and that of others, the twenty-first century has seen a substantial rise in the inablity of people to sacrifice now for a brighter future or even to discuss the possibility. What large sacrifice was asked of us in the wake of September 11? Was it to tighten our belts, divert domestic productivity into a wartime footing, and make other sacrifices reminiscent of World War II? No. Rather than being told to sacrifice, we were urged to shop. Shop. Shop. Shop.

We've managed to shoulder that sort of burden quite well. When we clamor for an increase in the minimum wage are we willing to pay extra so those who make those products, stock those shelves, and fill those orders can be paid more? Are we willing to buy more expensive American-made goods when we can so that companies will not be under financial pressure to ship those jobs oversees? Generally, the answer is no, we want the best thing for the least money.

More generally, do we see issues such as energy independence and sagging infrastructure as equal in gravity to World War II? Are we willing to invest both private and public funds in sources of renewable energy? Are we willing to permanently divest ourselves of huge SUVs and mammoth recreational vehicles, walk, bike, or take mass transit to our jobs, and seriously alter our lifestyle in order to wean ourselves off oil additiction? Generally the answer is no, we either want the government to do it for us, mandate it, or leave us alone. As our infrastructure crumbles, do we have it in us to make the investment of the billions of dollars it will take to repair and replace roads, bridges, and water and electrical systems our parents and grandparents built but have been neglected in the last few decades. Generally, again, the answer is no.

As we celebrate Labor Day and give thanks for the millions of hours of labor that have made this country what it is, and with just over two months until Election Day, it would be well for us all to ask ourselves whether we want to pay now, or have our children or grandchildren pay later. If our parents had been proactive when faced with gas shortages in the 1970s, perhaps we would not be where we are today with gas prices. Are we willing to look into the future and act now?