Monday, January 5, 2015

HEY MR. CUNNINGHAM: REFLECTIONS ON ELIZABETH KAETON & TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD

One of the great moments of American literature is in To Kill A Mockingbird. Tom Robinson, a black man in 1930s Alabama, is in jail awaiting trial for the alleged rape of a poor white woman Mayella Ewell. Sheriff Heck Tate has left town for the evening and a lynch mob has gathered at the jail to hang Tom. His lawyer, Atticus Finch, sits on the porch with a shotgun in his lap to defend his client. The situation is tense and the chance of violence runs high. Out of nowhere Atticus’s elementary school age daughter, Scout (Miss Jean Louise) shows up having slipped out to check on her Daddy. Innocent of the nature of the situation, she greets the leader of the lynch mob:

“Hey Mr. Cunningham.”

The man did not hear me, it seemed.

‘Hey Mr. Cunningham, how’s your entailment gettin’ along? . . .
Don’t you remember me? I’m Jean Louise Finch. You brought us some hickory nuts one time, remember?” I began to feel the futility one feels when unacknowledged . . ..

“I go to school with Walter,” I began again. “He’s your boy, ain’t he? Ain’t he, sir?”

Mr. Cunningham was moved to a faint nod. He knew me after all.

“He’s in my grade,” I said, “And he does right well. He’s a good boy.”

And so the lynching was stopped, the crowd dispersed, the peril diffused by a child reminding a man of his humanity, reminding him that we are connected by intricate organic bonds of social intercourse.

Something like that happened on social media last week. There was a social media frenzy rushing to judgment of Heather Cook, Suffragen Bishop of Maryland, over a traffic accident in which bicyclist Thomas Palermo died. Partly because I know very little about the accident, and partly because I am Bishop Cook’s coach in College for Bishops (all new bishops get coaches), I do not intend to comment on what happened in Baltimore, but only on what subsequently happened in social media. Opinions came fast furious, filling in the blanks of the story with imagined facts.

Enter the Rev. Elizabeth Kaeton, who posted an article on her blog, not defending Bishop Cook, not saying what the facts are or what the outcome should be, but simply appealing for a measured search for truth instead of an emotional stampede to retribution. She challenged Episcopalians as Christians to step back and think. Her critique of the social media response is essentially captured in this sentence: The conjecture and supposition, assumption and presumption – not to mention evidence of a very active imagination – have been second only to the mean spirit in which they are written. Rev. Kaeton implored us to allow the investigation to proceed instead of writing a dark tale out of the imaginations of our hearts.

When I read her post, I heard a voice saying Hey Mr. Cunningham. Don’t you remember me? I go to school with Walter. Rev. Kaeton was calling us back to our identity as humans, as Christians, and as Americans. For that reminder, she has now been pilloried in social media along with Bishop Cook.

Her words – amounting in my mind to Remember who you are -- bring me up short. They make me think of what it means to be an American. When I was in school, from grade school to law school, we learned that the Bill of Rights was central to our identity, that due process of law, trial by jury, and presumption of innocence all distinguished us as a people. We still sing about the land of the free. But today the land of the free imprisons a higher percentage of its population than any other developed nation. We imprison 707 out of every 100,000, as compared to 492 in Rwanda and 470 in Russia to name our closer contenders or 118 in Canada and 211 in Mexico to name our neighbors. We have a passion for incarceration, which no longer even seriously attempts rehabilitation but seeks instead to satiate our need for retribution. Whenever the basic principles and processes of justice that have traditionally defined the American way so much as temper or even slow the gratification of our vindictive impulse, we are ready to abandon them without blinking. These principles and processes are the things I understood our warrior heroes killed and died to protect and our statesmen heroes forged from the wisdom of history and philosophy. In short, they are important. They are definitive for our very identity as a people. So, speaking strictly as an American, I am grateful to Elizabeth Kaeton and anyone else brave enough to remind us who we are.

But Kaeton writes most explicitly as a Christian and is most concerned about the spirit in which people are so hell-bent on condemnation that there is no room for a compassion that might see a complex tragedy that cries out for healing. Where is Jesus in this story? That may be Kaeton’s implicit question and, if so, that is the most inconvenient question whenever we are too sure we know what should be done. There is a strong Zoroastrian streak in us. Our films and books are full of it. We divide the world up into the good and the evil so that we may violently destroy the evil. That dualism finds its way into Christianity too, particularly in Revelation. But Jesus was no Zoroaster. He said Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you so that you may be like your Father in heaven who causes the sun to rise on the evil and the good and sends the rain to the righteous and the unrighteous. Matthew 5: 44-45. When we are eager to label and condemn, Jesus is inconvenient. Judge not that ye be not judged. Luke 6: 37 When the Pharisees demand punishment, what does Jesus do? John 8: 2-11 This is not to say that secular justice must not be administered to preserve the order of the state. But the spirit of vengeance ill-becomes the Christians among us. So Kaeton says to the Christians in the social media world, Remember who you are.

Because of who Kaeton and her primary audience are, there is a particular reminder here to Episcopalians. Among Christians, we are particularly inclined to thoughtful moderation. In the bloody 16th Century, when the Elizabethan Settlement was formulated, we adopted an ethos of measured restraint. Our piety was the Book of Common Prayer, which gave birth to the poetry of the Caroline Divines. Perhaps today, when feelings are so readily manipulated by spin-doctors, there may be a special need for thoughtful Christians with the capacity to reserve judgment and hear more than one side. So as an Episcopalian, I am glad to be reminded who we are.

Having begun this reflection with one Southern author from yester year, Harper Lee, I will conclude with another Southern author from today, Donna Tartt. One of her less popular, but to me most important, books is The Little Friend, which I read as a cautionary tale about narrative theory. Like Scout, Harriet Cleve Dufresne is a little girl in the South. All the situations that define her family life have coherent stories, except one – the murder of her little brother. It is an unsolved mystery. Tormented by a grief that has no meaning, no narrative structure, Harriet assembles a bit of evidence, does a cursory child-like investigation, and creates a narrative to identify the culprit so she can bring him to justice. The plot turns out rather badly and in scary ways because, quite simply, Harriet’s narrative, though coherent and even compelling, is not true.

A quick simplistically contrived narrative gives us a sense of order in the world. How much better if it is the familiar Zoroastrian order of good guys and bad guys! How reassuring to know we are on the side of good and that evil can be vanquished through the unleashing of our pent up anger and violent urges! We live in a time when the standard of righteousness is too readily invoked to do harm. These are times in which it is more important than ever for Americans to remember that we are Americans, for Christians to remember that we are Christians, and for Episcopalians to remember our value of thoughtfulness, deliberation, and restraint. Thank you Elizabeth Kaeton for reminding us who we are.


12th EPISTLE TO THE NEVADANS: THE 1ST NOBLE TRUTH MEETS THE 1ST MARK OF MISSION

I like Buddhism because it starts with the obvious. The 1st Noble Truth is Suffering. It doesn’t say “life is suffering” or suffering is the foundation of anything. It just says there is suffering. We don’t have to look far to find it. If we check our own lives, we are apt to find some unhappiness. If we look at our friends and families, we will find some unhappiness. If we look around the world at the poverty, the sickness, the war, the crime, the prejudice, the injustice – the list goes on – we see suffering.

There is a Buddhist story about a woman whose little boy had died, so she rushed in desperation to the guru to ask him to resurrect her son. He said, “Yes, I can do this. You need to do only one thing. Bring me a cup of rice from a home that has not been touched by sorrow.” She rushed back to her village and went door to door. Everyone she met was ready and willing to give a cup of rice to save her son, but there was no home that had not been touched by sorrow. So she returned to the guru and told him she had learned the lesson he had meant to teach her. Suffering touches all of us.

I love Christianity because it has something helpful to say in response to Buddhism’s 1st Noble Truth – the gospel – the good news, the excellent news, the tears of joy news of God’s healing, liberating, transforming love signed, sealed, and delivered in the person of Jesus.  An old gospel song says it straight out:

         When nothing else could help
         Love lifted me.

Sharing that good news with suffering people is The First Mark of Mission. To be clear, it is The First Mark Of Mission.  To put a point on it, evangelism, sharing the good news of God’s love is the Episcopal Church’s Number One Reason To Exist. We get around to offering social services to the poor, advocating for justice, and saving the environment after that. First, first, we proclaim the gospel.

Yet, I often hear our people say they want no part of evangelism. They are in fact against it. And I believe them. The fact that our Church achieved a growth rate of zero (0) during a time when the population of our state doubled evidences how sincere we are about repudiating the First Mark Of Mission. One of our critics from another diocese compared our remarkable no-growth statistic to having “walked through a hurricane without getting wet.”

So that we can actually discuss the issue: let’s burn the straw man. No one is talking about offensive, arm-twisting sales pitches. No one is talking about manipulation and coercion. That is sales at its worst. It is not evangelism of any kind. We are talking about three simple steps:

Invitation --- Welcome --- Inclusion

Invitation is saying right out loud in an honest and attractive way: “we are here for you.” There are a lot of ways to do that. Here are a few key steps:

1.   Engagement with the Community – that could be through service like Communities in Schools, advocacy like Nevadans for the Common Good, having a float in a parade, or participating in a community cleanup project. To be inviting, a congregation must be in the game of civic life. What we do says who we are. What we fail to do says we are irrelevant.

2.   Secular Events At Church – the people who need Jesus most are the ones who aren’t going to come to Sunday worship. So host a concert, a poetry reading, a lecture, a square dance. Have something at the church that people who don’t come to church will attend. It’s your chance to make contact. Grace in the Desert has had great success with this. It isn’t as helpful to advertise the not-so-surprising news that we worship on Sunday as it is to advertise a special event that will attract the secular minded. The event just happens to be in our church because we are the kind of church that appreciates what they appreciate. Connection.

3.   Offer programs that help people – we do a decent job with the homeless and the imprisoned. But there are a lot of other folks out there who need help. Take the divorced. The recently divorced are one of the most likely groups to start attending church. But, to my knowledge, not one of our churches offers a divorce recovery group. People entering recovery from addictions are also likely to begin attending church. Fortunately several of our churches host 12 step groups, through we sometimes keep them at arms length. Offering your community what it needs starts with asking your community what it needs. St. Catherine’s did that and formed a strong mentoring and supportive relationship with a local school and a low-income apartment complex. Asking what a community needs is different from offering what we feel like giving. It’s about them. That’s gospel.

4.   Advertise – Is that a bad word? Think about Mother Joan’s ads for St. Mark’s, Tonopah. Go to our web site welcome page http://www.episcopalnevada.org/About%20Us/welcome.html, click the audio clips, and have a 2-minute listen. Have you seen the billboard in Ely with a picture of Fr. Red and a young family? We don’t advertise to get a pledge unit. We aren’t selling anything. We advertise to share some gospel with people who need some gospel. It’s a matter of spending a few dollars to show people who we are and that ought to be the Body of Christ in Nevada. It isn’t that they see or hear an ad and post haste rush to church next Sunday. The ad just tells them that we’re here so that if and when the time is right, they’ll remember us as an option.

5.    Web sites and social media – If we intend to share a message with anyone under 60, this is where we do it. A congregation that is not actively using web sites and social media -- not for internal communications, but to say to outsiders “We Are Here For You”  -- is effectively excluding young and even middle age adults. If you don’t have anyone in the congregation who knows how to do these things – that is the case for several of our congregations – call the diocesan office. We will get you the help you need.

Welcome is making people feel at home after they respond to the invitation. This is the most crucial step in evangelism. Even if we don’t invite people, the sheer force of suffering will drive some to our door. What will we do with them? We are not doing nearly as well as we think. This is the main weakness responsible for our zero-growth record. So what goes into welcome? Again, a lot goes into it. These are a few biggies:

1.   Be an attractive community. When visitors see us, they need to see Jesus. They need to feel God’s love. Often they don’t because the congregation is either fragmented by conflict or fused in a clique. These are two opposite ways to achieve the same result – exclusion. Our fighting congregations know they are fighting. They may not be aware that innocent visitors are being spiritually wounded in the crossfire. Our fused congregations call themselves friendly “caring families.” Statistically, congregations that call themselves “caring families” are the least likely to grow and the most likely to decline. Those who visit caring family churches are often shut out and ignored. Neither a fragmented nor a fused congregation is capable of our number 1 mission. The most important step in evangelism is attending to the relationship patterns of the existing congregation. One way to do that is with a behavioral covenant. Canon Catherine led her Utah congregation in that process with great success. The outline for how to do it is in Behavioral Covenants In Congregations by Gilbert Rendle, but having someone from the outside facilitate the process helps a lot.

2.   Greeters, Aids, & Lurkers – Having greeters, not just ushers handing out service bulletins, but someone trained to genuinely welcome people (not just visitors – welcome everyone “Good morning. Good to see you. I’m glad you’re here.”) is a game changer. St. John’s, Glenbrook took steps to become an attractive congregation, put together a welcome pamphlet, and assigned greeters. Today, St. John’s is a new place, a much happier place to walk into. Aids help new folks find their way through the liturgy. We can be hard to keep up with for folks who are not familiar with our liturgy. I have seen Harvard educated smart people walk out in frustration. The Greeter connects the Visitor with an Aid to help them find their way. A Lurker hangs out with the priest in the receiving line. If there is a Visitor, the Lurker gets their contact info so the priest and a layperson can follow up.

3.   Follow up. The week after someone visits, they should receive a follow up. Ideally it should be a gift of some kind. My last congregation hand delivered homemade bread (we grew at the rate of 10% a year in a town that was declining in population and we were a decidedly minority denomination – but we grew 10% per year). Cookies would work. There ought to be at a minimum a phone call. The priest and a layperson both need to communicate that we were glad the person came, express the hope that they will come again, and offer to help if there is anything the person needs.

4.   Focus on the visitor. This does not mean sell the visitor on how great we are. It does not mean tell the visitor all about ourselves. It absolutely does not mean recruit the visitor into anything. I have heard from new folks that people tried to put them on the altar guild their first Sunday visit!! “Focus on the visitor” means asking them about themselves, showing some interest in them, expressing hope for their well-being whether they join us or not. We need to show them that we are interested in them – not as marks but as people and that we wish them well. The heart of welcome is the spiritual practice of looking people in the eye, smiling, and of wishing them well.

Inclusion is making the new person a part of the group, easing their way from outside in. This takes time and may actually be subtler than Invitation and Welcome, but there are only two general steps.

1.   Orientation Class. This is not the more substantial formation I hope we offer before Confirmation. It is a simple 30-minute intro to the Episcopal Church. We are different and people will not stick around to figure us out unless we give them a hint about who we are. In a small church, this may be a one on one with the priest. But in a larger congregation, it should be offered at least quarterly for newcomers. If only one or two come, that would be one or two. We fish. The angels count. Matthew 13: 47-50

2.   Focus on the newcomer. This does not mean recruiting the newcomer into one of the jobs none of us wants to do. It means getting to know them, helping them find their own place in their own time. It takes longer for some than for others. Instead of cramming them into some pre-existing job, figure out what they are good at and pin a badge on them to authorize them to do it.

But why do any of this? One answer is: there are hurting people out there who will get to know Jesus through this soft form evangelism. I’ll be a witness. That’s how I met Jesus at St. Michael’s, Boise way back in the 80s.

But what’s in it for us? There seems to be a natural human tendency to close doors. I rarely see our church doors completely open. We usually keep them half-closed, which is telling. Something in us wants to keep our group to ourselves, our church building to ourselves, our pew to ourselves. But here’s the problem. None of that will ease our suffering. None of it will change our lives, give us a reason to get up in the morning, make us say, “YES” to the universe. Our friends and our church habits that we hoard are nice but they aren’t rocking our world. The love of Jesus will. It will rock our world like nothing else. The catch is: we can’t receive the love of Jesus without passing it on. We don’t get it until we share it. If we aren’t sharing the love of Jesus with the folks who need it, we can’t experience it ourselves. What’s in the First Mark Of Mission for us? Our happiness, our healing, our transformation, the meaning and value of our lives.


Less dramatically, but no less real, there’s another thing. For a few decades now, I have been welcoming into the Church people who need some gospel. Here’s the surprise. They always, always, without exception, bring some gospel with them – gospel I needed to hear or gospel other people in the congregation needed to hear. There are wanderers out there who will bless us more than we can bless them. All it takes is invitation, welcome, and inclusion to make our world a more interesting and gracious home.

Sunday, December 28, 2014

THE PROLOGUE TO JOHN: WHAT IF IT REALLY WAS "IN THE BEGINNING?"

The Gospel Lesson for the first Sunday of Christmas is the operatic Prologue to the Gospel According To John:

In the beginning was the Word
And the World was with God
And the Word was God
Through him all things were made
And without him not anything was made
And that life was the light of humanity
The light shines in the darkness
And the darkness has not overcome/comprehended it . . ..
The Word became flesh and dwelt among us.

John’s Gospel is a narrative, but it begins with a hymn; so the Prologue was probably written separately. New Testament scholars sometimes say the Prologue was written later as an overture to interpret the story. Maybe. But usually, Biblical Scholars think that poems and hymns are older than prose narratives. So, just possibly this hymn came first and the narrative in John was written to flesh out the imagery of the hymn, as Jesus fleshed out the Word, the Logos, the Meaning of Reality. Just maybe the hymn came first.

The Gospel According to John is usually said to be the last Gospel written. It is dated to the 90’s, while Matthew, Mark, and Luke are assumed to have been written in the 70s and 80s. That may well be true.

But why do we believe John came late? I don’t think it’s because of archaeological or historic evidence. It rests on this: In Matthew, Mark, and Luke, we see a very human Jesus.[i] But in John we see God in human form. We assume that as time went by memories of the real human Jesus faded and a loftier golden haze image of Jesus developed. We call John a “high Christology” meaning a more divine Christ; as opposed to a “low Christology” meaning a more human Jesus.

Maybe it happened that way. But to my mind there’s a small fly in that ointment – the Epistle to the Hebrews. It is also commonly said that the Epistle to the Hebrews is late like John and that is said for the same reason: Jesus in Hebrews is every bit as divine as he is in John, maybe more so. But here’s the glitch. Hebrews is obsessed with Temple Sacrifice. It makes an emphatic case against the oblation of goats, grains, etc. in the Jerusalem Temple. But the Temple was destroyed in 70 C. E. Why is Hebrews going on so about something that could not have been happening in the 90s?

New Testament scholars have not missed that point. They are bright folks, no doubt brighter than I. They argue that these passages challenging Temple sacrifice are symbolic or evoke memories, etc. They may well be right, but these arguments seem strained and convoluted to me, rather like the various arguments that the Song of Songs isn’t really about sex. If Hebrews was written before the destruction of the Temple in 70, and its Christology is every bit as high as John’s, then John could well have been written then too.

So here’s what I wonder: These days there are Christians who see Jesus as a completely human way-shower, a wise teacher, a man who showed us the path to God. There are others of us who see Jesus as the focal human expression of God. For some of us today, take New Testament scholar N. T. Wright for example, truly “The Word became flesh and dwelt among us  . . ..” But for others of us, take for example another respected New Testament scholar, John Dominic Crossan, Jesus was quite human and divinity is a subsequent human interpretation.

Maybe these different perspectives on Jesus go all the way back. Maybe in 60 C. E. Mark’s community had a rather Crossan-esque view of Jesus while John’s community took more of an N. T. Wright view. Maybe the Apostles who sat at table with Jesus each saw him differently.

Low Christology is in vogue these days. But I am of the High Christology school myself. With complete respect for the low Christology folks, the assumption that Low Christology came first is not necessarily warranted by the facts and is a rhetorical assumption that marginalizes some of our greatest theologians over the centuries, not to mention the folks I hang out with today.

On this first Sunday of Christmas, when we read one of the most beautiful passages of the whole Bible, the Prologue to John, In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God and the Word was God – those lines that set the sameness and difference of Christ and God in a pulsating fluid interchange that will ultimately flower into the doctrine of the Trinity – when we read that text, might we consider that maybe it is not an afterthought, but that maybe at least near the beginning of the writing of the Gospels someone saw this light shining in the darkness?




[i] N. T. Wright argues that the Christology in the Synoptic Gospels (Matthew, Mark, and Luke) is higher than it seems, just less explicit. Sill, John’s Jesus is much more explicitly divine.