Wednesday, November 30, 2016

Send in the Clowns: Political Theatre and the Current Political Climate

It has been nearly a month since Election Night and, for many who had hoped for a continuing journey along the path of social and economic progress, a continued process of stumbling along the slow, tortuous path of racial reconciliation, things have not noticeably improved. The news media, having discovered a new power source composed of the fusion of fear, anger, and hopelessness, has continued to report--in excruciating detail--of the ins and outs, the ups and downs, and the tweets and trials of our President-elect Donald Trump. Trump was the winner of the so-called "Republican clown car" primary and somehow managed to amass enough votes in enough places--or deny them to Hilary Clinton--that he is poised to be confirmed by the Electoral College as our forty-fifth President.

There have been many theories about why Trump won. Some count it as the last gasp of a dying white evangelical voting block desperate to turn back the clock to when institutional Christianity occupied the chair at the head of the American political table. Others say it was the white working-class voter who is tired of seeing his or her job outsourced to China, India, or Mexico leaving near-ghost towns across the rust belt. They want President Trump to bring back those manufacturing jobs and "Make America Great Again." Of course, there is the white supremicist fringe whose assistance with Trump's ascendancy has ripped the scab off the racial turmoil that has been at work under the surface like hot lava, exploding in killings and protests. School children are afraid of what their fellow students will say and do, now that racism has apparently become politically and socially acceptable. Yet Trump received double-digit percentages of minority votes and did particularly well among young, white, well-educated people.

Others have commented on all of the above, but as much as all of that had something to do with it, I think we overlook one crucial factor: the rise of political theater. You have perhaps seen it on C-SPAN: A lone senator or congressional representative stands in a nearly-empty chamber and pontificates about this or that issue, knowing full well that he or she will never need to cast a deciding vote on the issue but there to register their support or opposition "for the record"--and for commercials in their campaign for reelection. The reason that Congress's approval rating is in the single digits is that nearly everyone across this country knows that Congress has largely abandoned the compromise-laden, win-some-lose-some, rough-and-tumble task of making laws and governing our nation for the far more lucrative (in both actual dollars and political capital) and far more enjoyable task of starring in a play of their own creation, funded by corporations and wealthy patrons and finally paid for by the audience, the American people, who are required to purchase season passes every April 15.

Frankly, we treat our elections as entertaining sporting events--with just as much consequence as voting for members of the baseball All Star Team. Actually, the All Star Team election is probably treated with more seriousness--at least we attempt to chose the best players based on performance! In the political arena, we just know who we like--or who we hate less--and choose them to come back on the political stage for another act. It is no surprise, then, that our next President is skilled not with statecraft or governing acumen, but with entertainment and misdirection. This is the final result of our tolerance, even encouragement of polarizing political theater--we've finally elected a clown who is selecting more clowns. Now, I know that they aren't pure clowns, pure entertainers. Many of Trump's appointments have serious government experience. Yet the media presents them as clowns. "Wow, you think HE was bad, look at THIS one!"

I know both Hillary Clinton supporters and Donald Trump supporters, and I somewhat sympathize with both. But the way to stop this never-ending political play is not to simply boo the current actors off the stage, it is rather to lower the curtain on the whole charade. Not to leave the "theatre" (cease voting and paying attention), but to refuse to watch the play. To be extremely skeptical of media hype and characterizations. To hold our senators, congressional representatives, state legislators, and even city council members and county supervisors accountable for the answer to this question: How are you addressing issues of environmental, economic, and cultural sustainability for the good of the country rather than for just your re-election? Want to get money out of politics? Refuse to attend the political play. Ask politicians what they've done, how they've had to debate, discuss, and compromise on a range of issues. In other words, judge our elected officials on how well they govern, not how well they act.

Sunday, July 10, 2016

New Ministry, New Opportunities, Goodbye to old friends

After more than a year, I have broken my blogging silence to announce the happy news that I have been called to be Rector of St. Mark's Episcopal Church in Medford, Oregon! These last six months have been difficult for my family and me as we contemplated what was the decision on June 4 by the Vestry of Good Samaritan Episcopal Church (my current parish) to retain Fr. Mike Ferrito as sole Rector and to release me to pursue other ministries. At that time, what those other ministries would be was an open question with a dozen or so search processes in progress. However, I'm pleased to report that I will be moving six hours north of here in San Jose to pursue and enable ministry in the Rogue Valley of southern Oregon.

Friends, family, and readers of this blog may recall that this is a return to the Diocese of Oregon for me, as I served for over seven years as Vicar of St. Alban's Episcopal Church in Albany, Oregon from 2002 tr 2009. In a somewhat interesting twist, it was less than 24 hours before I received this call that The Rev. Robert Morrison was formally welcomed as my successor as Vicar of St. Alban's in a service there!

While I look forward to new opportunities and challenges in ministry, I will be sorry to bid farewell to friends at Good Samaritan and in the Diocese of El Camino Real. I have spent over six years here in ministry and would like to thank Bishop Mary Gray-Reeves for all of her support for me and the congregation I led for that time. I'm grateful to her and to my colleagues in the diocese.

I begin my ministry at St. Mark's on September 1, so have six weeks of frantic activity in front of my family and me!

Friday, May 29, 2015

The Presiding Bishop and General Convention

This morning I awoke to the happy news that my article with profiles of all four candidates for Presiding Bishop of The Episcopal Church has been published online and will soon appear in print in the June 6 issue of The Living Church. Having done profiles of two candidates in advance of the last election nine years ago (including one of Katherine Jefferts Schori, the eventual selection) I was pleased to be asked to do profiles of all four candidates this time.

As I noted in my article, we are in a very different era than we were in 2006--especially as far as the number and variety of information sources available to us. In 2006 the iPhone had not been announced and Twitter, Facebook, and YouTube were in their infancy. Now, in only a few clicks, one can have more than enough information about the candidates as well as the General Convention as a whole. Scott Gunn has provided an excellent summary of the reports and resolutions of General Convention in his series of articles. Others have provided their own commentary, including an excellent series from Susan Snook in her blog and via the Acts 8 Moment group she helps lead. Speaking of the Acts 8 Moment, there is also the related Memorial to the Church at the newly-created Episcopal Resurrection site.

We are now less than one month away from the 78th General Convention of the Episcopal Church and, as you can well imagine, there are fast and furious discussions going on the House of Deputies and Bishops email list, the General Convention Facebook group, and via innumerable blogs. This coming convention promises to either be a transformational moment in which The Episcopal Church institutionally breaks itself open to facilitate more effective mission and ministry in the twenty-first century or the biggest disappointment in recent memory as the energy behind the near-unanimous vote for restructuring the Episcopal Church dissipates amid the realities of parochialism and turf wars. Bishop Andy Doyle has blogged about our human tendency towards limited vision here and I hope we are able to rise above such tendencies and truly position the church for twenty-first century ministry. We shall see.

Thursday, April 23, 2015

From Sheepdog to Lead Dog to--Listening Dog?

There is an old saying that if Jesus is the Great Shepherd and human beings are the sheep, then the clergy must be--sheepdogs. We even have collars! And, sometimes we clergy can feel that way--just barking at the sheep, trying to get them to do what we believe the Shepherd is calling us to do. And, frankly, most pastors I know don't have the energy to keep up that frantic pace and most "sheep" are tired of being barked at. So what's the solution?

Shut up and let the Great Shepherd speak. Listen to Him yourself. Help others listen, too.

As we approach the upcoming General Convention in the Episcopal Church, the upcoming general election in the United States, and the constant bombardment of apocalyptic thinking continues, I find myself being sucked into the temptation to simply do things faster or do more things, or find SOMETHING that will save the institutional church (and, oh yes, my job) from what seems a constant and inevitable death spiral. Yes, I know that may be overstating things. Yes, I know that there are plenty of examples of vibrant, growing churches. But mine is not (yet!) one of them and I can only go with what I have.

As I consider all of the challenges in the church and in the world, one disturbing thing was made clear to me in our bible study of the Gospel for this coming Sunday, often called Good Shepherd Sunday:

Jesus does not care about the institutional church.

Jesus makes it clear in and around the gospel passage that the "sheep" (a.k.a. the People of God) are his responsibility. He also makes clear that the "hired hands" (pastors?) are apt to run off and abandon the sheep at the slightest sign of trouble--maybe even for the best of reasons, I'm thinking. Maybe to get help. Maybe to try something else. Maybe just out of fatigue. Whatever it is, Jesus draws a very sharp distinction between the hired shepherds and Jesus as the Great Shepherd.

But it gets worse for us institutionally-minded folks.

Jesus not only says he is THE Shepherd and that hired shepherds are not always to be trusted to stick around, but turns around and pretty much indicts the Pharisees and temple authorities for being more concerned about preserving the temple than they are about caring for their people. They have, in effect, struck a bargain with the occupying Roman (pagan) forces--we won't bother you and we'll make sure the people don't rise up in revolt if you promise not to come in and destroy the city, including the temple. This was way before Karl Marx wrote that religion was the "opiate of the masses."

In fact, it is precisely this alliance between the temple authorities and the Roman forces that ends up getting Jesus crucified! And, lo and behold, less than 40 years later the temple is destroyed along with the city, and the people are scattered. It is so tempting to get ourselves wrapped up in institutions, in survival, in preservation, and in busyness. If we do so, we are apt to miss the voice of the Great Shepherd and left standing in the middle of a parched, overgrazed patch of ground wondering where all of the other sheep went. A useful reminder.

Thursday, January 22, 2015

TREC Post: A Proposal for Reimagining General Convention

Those who have been following the goings-on in the Episcopal Church are aware that the Task Force for Reimagining the Episcopal Church (or TREC) has been hard at work for the last several years. That work culminated in a report issued last month. Unfortunately, it was long on good theology but short on specifics. So, by way of advancing the discussion forward, here are a few thoughts:

General Convention as a Unicameral Legislative Body

I like TREC's recommendation to make General Convention a unicameral legislative body rather than a bicameral legislature composed of the House of Bishops and the House of Deputies. I think the combined "house" can be called what it is--the General Convention of the Episcopal Church. I think it makes a great deal of sense to have bishops sitting with the clergy and lay deputies from their diocese and thus having a chance for ongoing dialogue. I also think a "vote by orders" where one must receive a majority votes in the order of bishop, clergy (priests and deacons) and laity makes sense for controversial and/or important items.

Reduction of General Convention Deputations from four to three people

I am in favor of reducing the number of people on a diocesan deputation to General Convention from four to three (and three alternates). I say this fully aware that, as the first alternate clergy deputy, I would likely not have gone to General Convention this summer had that system been in place. The issue of diversity has arisen, but my take is that if a diocese is not electing a sufficiently diverse slate of deputies, simply enlarging the deputation isn't going to help that. If diversity of persons in a diocesan deputation is a persistent problem in your diocese, perhaps you need to do a little diversity work--or state flat out that you are attempting to elect a diverse slate and so you do not need five middle-aged straight white men to run. Also, one would need at least a dozen deputies to fully encompass the range of diversity that one might want (racial, sexual orientation, sex, etc...). Reducing the number of deputies would allow for a smaller venue, thereby reducing costs. Having three rather than four deputies but having one's diocesan bishop at the table means that there are four seats at each diocesan table (unless a diocese has more than one bishop).

NEW: Meet in General Convention every four years, 
and in Provincial Convention the two years in between

This is something I came up with, and I think it has a lot to recommend it. The idea is that General Convention will meet every four years, rather than the current three, and that the deputies to General Convention will also be deputies to a Provincial Convention which will meet two years prior to each General Convention. In other words, people will meet every two years--once as a Provincial Convention and once as a General Convention. Deputies would need to be elected no later than 90 days prior to each Provincial Convention and would remain deputies until their successors were elected four years later prior to the next Provincial Convention. I am aware that there is currently provision for the meeting of a "Provincial Synod," but it is not explicitly tied to General Convention in the way this would be. Provinces could certainly meet more often, if they wished.

I suggest this because I think that the provincial structure is the most underutilized piece of the Episcopal Church's governance structure. I can imagine my own province, Province 8, gathering and talking about missionary endeavors on the Pacific Rim, in Navajoland, and elsewhere in the western United States and pacific regions.  Other provinces might well have similar, more local, missional concerns. Provincial Conventions could also use smaller venues, keeping costs to a minimum.

With this set up, there would be several other changes:
  • There would no longer be any "B" (Bishop) or "D" (Deputy) resolutions considered at General Convention. All resolutions would either need to arise out of the work of a CCAB (or whatever their successor bodies are called) or from a diocese or province. B or D  resolutions would be submitted to Provincial Conventions and, assuming they passed, would be forwarded on to General Convention as "C" (provincial) resolutions. This would substantially decrease the number of resolutions at General Convention and screen out duplicate or frivolous resolutions. 
  • The Presiding Bishop would serve an eight (8) year term rather than a nine (9) year term. The term would begin at the close of the electing General Convention, go through the General Convention four years later, and end at the close of the General Convention eight years later. This would be one less General Convention than the current nine year term.
  • Both General Convention and Provincial Convention could and should be reduced to one week. Beginning on Monday morning and concluding with Eucharist on Sunday. One could also have a "pre-convention" from the previous Friday to Sunday to function is a "missionary convocation" similar to what TREC envisioned General Convention turning into.
So, that's my first try at suggesting a major change and an increased role for provinces. Responses welcome.

Saturday, January 03, 2015

Being Offended vs. Being Concerned

I recently ran across this image (from Sue Fitzmaurice) which sums up a number of thoughts I've been having over the past few months regarding how easily we are "offended" at things and how few times that offense is translated into meaningful action. The Internet (and, more specifically, Facebook) allows the spreading of information, images, and opinions with a few clicks. Once we've done that, we can go on about our normal day. Some of these posts and articles we pass on are written specifically to elicit such clicks--they are designed to stimulate us to pass them along.

I wonder: What if we committed to not passing along anything we aren't personally committed to doing something about? Doing something beyond passing the information along, I mean. It is easy for me to read an article and, with a few clicks, drop it into my Facebook feed for all of my friends to see and pass along. While there is some value in making people aware of instances of poverty, injustice, greed, and violence, perhaps we should see that as a first step in addressing those issues, not the last.

Something to think about in this new year.

Friday, January 02, 2015

Of Resolutions and Transformations

As 2014 came to a close and 2015 opened, I decided to commit to three New Year's Resolutions:

1) Pray every day (Daily Office or something else).
2) Post a blog entry at least every week (to get my thoughts out).
3) De-clutter my life and home in the next six months.

A fairly good list, I'd say. I started out with the prayer goal, as I noticed that is is all too easy for me, even as a priest, to get so  busy doing what I believe God has called me to do that I forget to actually "check in" with God to see if I am still supposed to be doing what I'm doing. Prayer can be 5 minutes, 15 minutes, or 45 minutes, so I should be able to make that one.

I started out with the goal of posting a blog entry every day, but as I've missed January 1, that clearly isn't an achievable goal for me. I'm figuring that if I can manage to post at least one blog entry a week, that will be a good start towards a more regular blogging schedule.

The life and home de-cluttering is my biggest hurdle. Like many people I know, I have accumulated a TON of stuff in my life, and I have moved that stuff several times. I have too many books in my office (many of which I no longer consult, especially in the age of the Internet). I have leftover items from when my parents moved sitting in my garage (anyone need any electrical receptacles or switches?) and I just, in general, have too many things lying around my closet, bedroom, and house. So, by July 1 of this year, I hope and plan to have as much stuff out of here as possible and the rest stored neatly.

As I read the above, and as I think about Good Samaritan Episcopal Church, the church I serve, and what we will be doing in 2015, I know that any changes that I hope to lead there really start with me. I love change, I just don't like TO chnage! But obviously the way of have been doing life and ministry is not generating the transformed church that I hope and pray Good Samaritan will be. No, it isn't solely up to me, but it does start with me. If I can begin to transform my own habits, perhaps I can more effectively help the church grown and prosper.

Onward to 2015!