Wednesday, November 19, 2014

9TH EPISTLE TO THE NEVADANS: THE GRACE OF CONFLICT

There is a familiar story meant to illustrate the key to happiness. It is a story about heaven and hell. Hell is a great banquet hall with a scrumptious feast set on the table. All of the people are holding forks but their arms are strapped to planks. They cannot bend their elbows. Consequently, everyone is starving. Heaven is exactly like hell in every respect, except one: they people are feeding each other, so everyone is enjoying the feast very much.

 The Church exists first and foremost as a place where we learn to feed each other, and – this is even harder – be fed by each other. These are not easy lessons because an unfortunate twist in human nature gets in our way.

The first congregation I served as a priest  was Christ Church, Macon, Georgia. In the mid-19th century, the rector, Mr. Reese, was of the Protestant persuasion; until he spent a sabbatical studying with Bishop Onterdonk. When Mr. Reese returned to Macon, he put candles on the altar. The uproar was --  well -- uproarious. In the end, Mr. Reese and half the congregation
left Christ Church and set up shop as St. Paul’s across town. The plot line is too familiar to be of interest, except for the endnote. By the time I got to Macon in 1990, Christ Church had become the relatively high church in town, and St. Paul’s was rigidly Anglo-Presbyterian. It was enough to make one wonder what the fuss had all been about.


We were playing that same uproar game in the 1550s when Bloody Mary had the Protestant-leaning bishops burned at the stake. We were playing it in the 17th Century when Archbishop Law was torturing Puritan clerics, and then when Cromwell returned the favor by having Archbishop Laud beheaded. “When will we ever learn? When will we ever learn?”

In recent years, the battle lines have not been high versus low as often as left versus right. But it’s the same game. We heat the pot up to a level 4 or 5 conflict boil. In the Alban Institute ranking of conflicts (Speed Leas) Level 4 means someone has to leave. Level 5 means after they leave we track them down and kill them. So we ratchet up the emotionality of the argument.  Then someone stomps out of the room in a melodramatic imitation of Martin Luther, as if their stomping proves their integrity. And the other side says “good riddance.”

I challenge anyone to seriously read the Epistle to the Philippians or 1st Corinthians, either one, but Philippians is more explicit. Read Philippians and explain to me how this mutual intolerance for each other accords with Apostolic Christian Faith.

I appeal to you, make my joy complete by being of a single mind, one in love. . . . Let your behavior be free of murmuring and complaining. . . .  I urge Euodia and I urge Syntyche to come       to an agreement in the Lord.         And I ask Syzygus to really be  partner and help them.  . . . . Have the same mind in you that was in Christ Jesus, who being in the form of God did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped
but humbled himself . . .  .

In Galatians, Paul lists “partisan spirit” as a “work of the flesh,” which corresponds to Ego or “concupiscence,” which in Augustine equates with “original sin.” That is the twist in human nature that makes our church project of learning how to feed and be fed by each other such a challenge. From Paul’s and Augustine’s perspective our dogmatic convictions look like pretexts for the assertion of our own egocentric wills. Our certainty that we are right justifies our aggression against our brothers and sisters in Christ. High and low, left and right are all equally susceptible to that partisan spirit. Nor is partisan spirit limited to ideological controversies. I have watched churches divide up and fight over electronic versus tracker organs, wafers versus loaf bread for communion, mulch versus gravel in a corner of the lawn, paper versus Styrofoam cups at coffee hour, whether to put the nametags in the narthex or the fellowship hall – no issue is too small to divide the Body of Christ into factions.

This Fall I am watching my own seminary self-destruct as students are caught in the crossfire of power plays. We prepare for General Convention by drawing battle lines over who gets power over what piece of turf. In any fight, each side marshals arguments as to why it is “right” – when being right may not be what really matters. In fact, the very notion of being “right” is sometimes questionable.

Our church squabbles like all our other squabbles in life are mostly exercises in futility. No one really wins. We have closed fighting churches in Nevada. We have seen Churches dwindle away from conflict. One new priest went around the small town introducing himself  as they new priest of the Episcopal Church there. People responded, “Are they still fighting?” Our wrangling over things, especially power, does not make us much of a light of Christ. We don’t bear witness to the Jesus

who humbled himself, taking the form of a servant, and being found in human form, humbled himself even more, even to death . . . on the cross.

Trying to get our way while proclaiming Christ Crucified doesn’t work.


The Church is a crucible in which our egos are ground up and we are over time changed to become like Jesus. That would be the Jesus, “who humbled himself taking the form of a servant.” That would be like Jesus, who we set our differences aside, so that we can be of one mind in him.


The inveterate obstacle to our becoming the Body of Christ is the power of sin to skew our view of the very nature  of Truth itself.
We take the irreverent and arrogant view that truth is something we can grasp and use as a weapon to assert our wills over someone else.

The poetry of Jorge Luis Borges, however,  celebrates the way ideas bounce against each other striking sparks in the darkness. To Borges, no idea in itself captures truth. Truth is the spark struck when ideas collide. More accurately, ideas are at best partial truths. But when we strike them against each other like subatomic particles in a nuclear reactor, the collision emits a light, the light of Christ..

While reading Goldstein’s very clever book, Plato At The Googleplex,
I finally got it that Plato and Socrates were not Platonists. “Platonists” were subsequent philosophers who didn’t get what Plato was on about. Socrates and Plato did not intend the things they said  to add up to a comprehensive system. They were striking ideas off against each other like flint and steel.

This is the axiomatic Epistemology 101  that runs from Augustine and Dionysius the Aereopagite to Marin Heidegger and Paul Ricoeur. Once we get this, all sorts of things fall into place. Religious ideas are linguistic constructs that contain only partial truths. The big truths don’t fit inside our human minds. They sure don’t fit inside any human language and but ideas are made of language. So religious ideas are at best partial truths,  but the interplay of ideas sheds a larger light.

There are several simple, straightforward, easy to understand versions of Christianity. We call them heresies. Now I like heresies. I myself am a Pelagian. But let’s be clear what heresies are. In most cases they are not false. They are partial truths pretending to be total truths. The Truth of Christ, the Truth that sets us free, cannot be reduced to an ideology.

That’s why the Hebrew Scriptures do not present a sustained religious teaching but rather, as Walter Brueggemann says, they are an ongoing argument between conflicting visions of God and human life.

That’s why Jesus didn’t come out and say, in some direct, comprehensible way,  “This is how it is” – but rather spoke in zinger stories that leave us scratching our heads. If someone can read the even one Gospel – not to mention read all four – and find a coherent ideology that was taught by Jesus, please tell me what it is. But Jesus didn’t teach an ideology. Instead of propositions he gave us parables. His teaching was about jokes, stories, and unexpected gestures like foot washing that expressed people caring for people. Jesus didn’t teach an ideology. He instilled an attitude of appreciation, humor, kindness, and caring. It was an attitude that honored the poor and the outcast more than the rich and the inbred. But it wasn’t something you could reduce to a doctrine.

And speaking of doctrines, the flint and steel nature of religious ideas is why we find eight different doctrines of the atonement in two pages of Romans. The Body of Christ is, to use a phrase from contemporary business leadership, “a learning community.” We learn from the interplay of multiple viewpoints, not from monotonous groupthink conformity

Look at the disciples Jesus assembled  -- Zealot rebels and Roman collaborator tax collectors, sinners and Pharisaic moralists, Greeks, Galileans, Judeans, and Canaanites. It was an assembly of the mismatched and wrongheaded, all of whom called Jesus “Rabboni,” “Teacher,” not because he told them how it was but because he made them think fresh thoughts, and see the world through new eyes.

Jesus  did not lay dogmas on the backs of his followers like burdens to be borne. He challenged dogmas with his parables, so they killed him; much as Athens killed Socrates for asking too many questions.
We need the cross, the stake, and the vial of hemlock to prevent, at any cost, the interplay of ideas that will light the world up.

The concupiscent partisan spirit that drove Catholics and Protestants to torture and kill each other in centuries past is desperately anxious to keep the subatomic particles segregated in their own safe silos, lest they collide and emit the disturbing light of truth.

You see, friends, the easy harmony of like-mindedness does not challenge our egos. The easy harmony of like-mindedness will not sanctify us. When St. John of the Cross said,
        
God has so ordained that we be sanctified
         through the frail instrumentality of each other.

he meant we are sanctified by learning to love those who are the most disturbingly different from ourselves.

We need each other. We need each other for the sake of our own sanctification. We need each other in order to be the Body of Christ.

I confess I did not always like my seminary class. Most of us did not want to be there. Most of us wanted to be at a different seminary
that was more pure from the perspective of a particular faction of the Church. The liberals wanted to be at EDS. The conservatives wanted to be at Trinity. The Anglo Catholics wanted to be at Nashotah. The Low Church folks wanted to be at VTS. But their bishops had not let them. So there we were – thrown up against each other in my class.

My own bias, having grown up as a Southern Baptist, was against fundamentalism. Sure enough there was a died-in-the-wool fundamentalist in my class, a fundamentalist with all the conviction of a new convert, which she was. Her presence made me very uncomfortable and I don’t think she was any happier to have me around. We did a lot of small group work in those days. And sure enough, “God so ordained” that she was in every single one of my small groups for three years. By the end of the third year, we understood each other a little better and liked each other a great deal. I am glad she is in the Church, not just so we can learn to feed each other, but because she can bring to Jesus people who wouldn’t give me the time of day.

In the 1970s a lot of young Americans became enamored of a Russian mystic teacher named Gurdjiev. He formed communes who followed him, sat at his feet, and studied his teachings. You paid good money for the privilege of hanging out with Gurdjiev. In one such community of disciples, there were a host of sincere amiable young people, but there was also one particularly disagreeable old guy. He was a jerk and a grouch. To make matters worse, he didn’t bathe, so he stank. Eventually, his irritability got the better of him and he quit, stomped out, washed the dust from his sandals. The remaining disciples said “good riddance” and breathed of a sigh of relief. But Gurdjiev followed the old grouch, tracked him down, begged him to return, and finally paid him – yes, that’s right, paid him – to return to the community. The other disciples were appalled and said “What is this?!!! We are paying you to teach us and we behave well. But you pay this cantankerous old SOB to stay here!!!” Gurdjiev answered, “Without him, there will be no enlightenment.”

This is about different ideologies, different opinions about musical instruments and communion bread, and also just personal differences. The differences are difficult but good – more than good – they are essential to the process of our sanctification, essential to turn our Egocentric nature into Jesus “who though he was found in equality with God did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped but humbled himself” to become the servant of all.

Jesus said the kingdom of heaven is like a great net that catches all kinds of fish I suppose the angels may sort us out some day. But not now. And it will never – never ever -- be our job to do the sorting,  either by driving someone out or stomping out ourselves. For us, our calling is just to be all kinds of fish, caught up together in the net of grace -- all of us good, all of us bad, all of us essential to one another.
                               
Church is the place where we are free to speak our minds openly,
but where we don’t get our pride stuck to our ideas. This is where relationships are more important than being right. This is where we let ego take the back seat while love drives.


Tuesday, October 14, 2014

BISHOP'S ADDRESS AT CONVENTION 2014

I am grateful to all of you simply for being here.
You presence says there are Nevadans
            who want to be a diocese, want it enough to drive some miles
                        to make a diocese happen.
Usually, the farther the Convention is from a population center,
            the fewer people we have.
But this year, registration has been significantly up.
So thank you for being here.

Thank you St. Barnabas for hosting us.
This has been one of the most effective convention planning committees
            we’ve had.
Thank you also to our Convention Coordinator, Karen Lantz-Feith,
            and to our office staff, Michelle McCarragher and Wendy O’Brien,
            who have worked tirelessly to make this possible.

Several things happened this year that deserve our attention.
For quite awhile, we have felt as if we had a relationship
            with the Anglican Church of Kenya.
 At past Conventions we had presentations on the good work
            we were doing there.
But those presentations did not actually show our diocese
            or our parishes doing anything for Kenya.

Several  of our members were involved
in four non-profit corporations that work in Kenya.
But as a church we didn’t do much.
We sometimes sent part of the collection from Convention
to prevent malaria.
I sent discretionary fund money for seed during a drought.
But there wasn‘t a lot in the way of real support
            by the Church here for the work of the Church there.

This year was different.
A deacon at St. Christopher’s was doing advocacy work
            for the Electrify Africa Bill;
            and she came across the alternative energy strategy of solar lanterns.
For about $10, we could get a solar lantern
            that would give light to a household for a long time.

So we put out a request to parishes for donations,
            hoping to get a few hundred dollars
            and send 20 or 30 lanterns.
To my amazement, the parishes sent us over $14,000,
            enabling us to equip the Church there
            to make a life changing difference for rural villages
                        of the Ukamba Region of Kenya.
Some people who received these solar lanterns
            now give the money they used to spend on paraffin
            to the Church.
One man who didn't go to Church was so touched 
            by our gift of a solar lantern than he has joined the Anglican Church.

Second story.
A few years ago, we started St. Hugh’s Outreach Center in Silver Springs.
We didn’t start it on a shoestring. We started it on nothing.
It is an air plant, depending on donations from the people of Silver Springs,
            the very people we are ostensibly there to help.
It is an unfunded, small, intimate, but lovely human ministry.

One of the donations St. Hugh’s receives locally is free rent
            in  a ramshackle little building.
But this year, we had to come up with $1,400 in back property taxes
            in order to keep the building.
So I sent out a request to the priests to invite their congregations to help.

Churches and individual clergy all over the diocese
            pitched in to help us keep our building.
Trinity, Reno single handedly raised more than enough
            money to pay the taxes.
The other gifts will go to help poor people get by in Silver Springs.

Third story. Bob Green of St. Martin’s, Pahrump
            serves on our diocesan property team.
He was helping St. Mark’s, Tonopah with getting a new roof,
            bringing the electrical system up to code,
            and addressing a few other safety issues.
In the course of working with St. Mark’s,
            Bob learned that they weren’t receiving enough
            in the collection plate to pay their monthly expenses,
            so the priest, Mother Joan LaLiberte, was not just working for free;
            she was paying church expenses out of her own retirement check.
Bob took this matter up with the vestry of St. Martin’s, Pahrump;
            and our Church in Pahrump pledged $100 per month
            to our Church in Tonopah to support operating expenses there.

Last story.
This has been a bad year for us financially.
Income from parishes, is way below budget,
            which is simply because income in the collection plate
                        is down in several of our larger congregations.
So the Standing Committee proposed a budget
            more in line with this year’s income instead of last year’s hopes.

That’s the bad news.
But here’s what happened next.
I recently got a letter personally signed by each member of the Vestry
            of All Saints, Las Vegas.
It said, “We can pay more than you have predicted.”
We can pay $5,000 more next year, so you need to revise the budget.
That still leaves us with a deficit to make up.
Although the $5,000 additional income is good news,
the best news is the generous spirit behind letter.

We have an unusually high assessment on our parishes,
            but we still have an unusually low income.
With rare exception, that’s because the parish income is low.
Of course I wonder what that’s about.
Sometimes we trace our problems to Nevada culture.
There is a little truth in that.
As compared to our neighboring states, we are pretty tight with our money.
Utah is the most generous state in the nation and Idaho is right up there.
But nationally Nevada actually ranks 41st in charitable giving,
            which is better than I expected.

Our problem may have more to do with our history.
We were a missionary diocese for a long time.
That means we lived off money sent to us from the Church
            in the East until the 1970s.
Even after that we got significant grant subsidies for a while.
It was generous of our East Coast brothers and sisters.

But the downside is we got the notion that it is better to receive
            than to give.
We got a bit dependent, doing more grant writing
than evangelism and stewardship.
Living off the national dole won’t get us by today
and that may be a good thing.

Two stories from abroad.
At Lambeth conference I met Bishop Wannadag
of the Episcopal Church in the Philippines.
I asked if they had a companion diocese.
He said, “We don’t want one. We are ruggedly independent.”
I said, “Then we are the companion for you
              because we have nothing to give.”
That’s how we became partners with the Diocese of Santiago.

The Episcopal Church formed the Philippines
into a missionary district in 1901;
but the Episcopal Church of the Philippines claimed independence in 1990.
They turned down the American money and raised their own.
In the Philippines today, churches sell food from their gardens,
            they keep bees, they manufacture herbal medicines.
Everyone who comes to church brings something to give
– money, food, clothing, whatever they have.
Independence isn’t a matter of nationalistic pride.
It’s that they want their people to experience the full joy
            of Christian faith.

Their members are far more joyful, far more committed,
            and far more passionate about faith than we are.
That happens when we trust God, let go of possessions,
            and give our time, talent, and treasure to God’s mission.

Second story.
Recently, the President of Taiwan spoke to our House of Bishops.
He thanked America for 20 years of foreign aid
            that helped them become an industrialized nation.
But in 1965 that aid stopped,
            and Taiwan set a goal to stop being an importer of compassion  
            in order to become an exporter of compassion.
Taiwan now supports needy children in developing nations
            and provides the very best disaster relief services.
They have come to the rescue in the Japan, in Haiti, and around the world.
The Taiwanese have learned the joy of giving.

Sometimes the clergy shortchange our people,
            by not teaching financial faith, gratitude, and generosity.
These are really two challenges with one solution:
            First, we need to fund the mission of spreading the gospel
                        in a place that needs grace worse than it needs water.
            Second, we need to show our people the freedom and joy
                        that come from living by faith rather than fear,
                        from gratitude rather than resentment,
to put a point on it: from giving to God’s mission.

The hard thing about church in Nevada is the high percentage
            of assessment on parish income,
            which still produces a shoestring austerity budget for the diocese.
If this is a zero sum game, we are stuck in that forever.
We need to reduce the percentage of the assessment.
There are theoretically two ways that can happen.

Restructuring of the Episcopal Church could reduce the amount
            of money the diocese has to pay New York
            and we could then pass that savings on to parishes.
 But it looks more likely that restructuring is going to hit an iceberg
            over typical churchy power struggles.
So I don’t think we can count on the East Coast to help.

The other is that we could grow stewardship in the parishes.
If total parish income goes up, we can take the assessment
            further down,  which will help parishes even more.
Could that happen in spite of our history of dependency
            on mission support from other dioceses?
Could we learn to support ourselves
            like our companion diocese in the Philippines does?
           
In 2013, Nevada had the largest representation of any diocese
            at The Episcopal Network for Stewardship conference in Salt Lake.
This year, we sent 9 people the 2014 Conference in Atlanta,
and many more participated by live streaming
            at All Saints, Las Vegas, St. Paul’s, Sparks, and St. Peter’s, Carson City.
In 2014, we had good participation at Stewardship workshops
            in Sparks and Las Vegas.
We will repeat that workshop in Las Vegas next year,
sharing costs with the Methodists.
 We are learning about stewardship here in Ely today.
Next year 5 of us will attend the Project Resource Conference in Denver
            to learn how to improve giving in our diocese.
All of this points to a deep culture shift in our diocese.
Nevada is growing up into mature faith.

Stewardship is part and parcel of the larger project
            of education that forms people as disciples of Jesus.
In order for congregations to fulfill their mission,
            attract and retain people, and demonstrate that they
            are doing something worthy of the people’s support,
            they have to offer formation programs.
Churches with Christian education and formation programs
            are consistently better attended, better funded,
            and get along with each other better than those who do not.

This year, several of our congregations have either begun
             new formation programs or expanded existing ones.
St. Michael & All Angels is now offering instruction
            in basic Christian teachings using the Animate series.

Grace in the Desert has several groups learning basic discipleship
            through the Pro-Claim series,
            which was also used this year at Holy Spirit, Bullhead City.
Trinity, Reno teaches the Ignatian Exercises and has a book group,
currently studying Richard Rohr’s Great Themes of the Bible series.
St. Paul’s, Sparks also has a book group as well as a lectio divina Bible Study.
Christ Church, Las Vegas has just started a new EfM group.

Other parishes have programs as well.
These are just a few examples of congregations engaging
the mission of forming disciples of Jesus in new ways.
For the first time in several years, a Nevadan will attend
the Western Christian Educators Conference at Zephyr Cove.

There are two connections between Christian Formation
            and our survival.
The first is that if we do not engage in formation, we will not survive.
The seconds is that if we do not engage in formation, we should not survive.
We are here to learn as individuals, as communities, and as a diocese
            (which is a community of communities).

We are here to learn how to become followers of Jesus.
If we do that, we’ll be just fine.
Unless we do that, we are wasting our time.

But it is not enough to tell congregations to offer formation programs.
We have to offer guidance and inspiration.
So we are priming that pump.
We shifted money from several things we’d been saving for,
            we allocated our rental income from the old St. Stephen’s,
            and we used a gift from one of our members
            to hire a Canon For Congregational Vitality.
Canon Catherine is coming to help us figure out what kind of formation
            will be most effective in each of our different communities.


Last weekend, we commemorated St. Francis,
            but I wonder if we remembered what his life was really about.
Francis came back from war -- broken and needing healing.
So he went looking for God in the ruins of a little church, San Damiano.
God healed him by giving him a mission.
God said, “Francis, rebuild my church.”
So Francis gave up all his worldly possessions
 – not some, not most, but all of his worldly possessions --
and devoted himself to a capital fund drive.

The first thing Francis did was rebuild a down-on-the heels little church.
The second thing was to form a community of fellow believers.
The third was to hit the road sharing the good news of Jesus
            with people who called themselves Christians
            but who hadn’t really gotten it.
I wonder, as the Diocese of Nevada lives into the coming year,   

            what we might learn from the example of Blessed Francis.