Archive - Mar 2018

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March 24th

The Parable of Returning to Church

The kingdom of God is like a church on Easter morning. A person who had been struggling with many parts of her life felt a strong need to go to church even though she had not been in a long time and didn’t want to seem like one of those people that just go to church for appearances on Christmas and Easter. As she sat quietly in a pew regularly occupied by a church stalwart, members of the clergy, tired from the long Holy Week along with some of the most active participants in the church community looked askance at her and others coming on Easter after a long hiatus.

When a friend who had been praying for a long time for her saw her, she rushed up, filled with God’s love, and gave her a big hug. At coffee hour, they said down and shared many wonderful memories of Sunday School years ago where they learned the parables of the lost sheep, the lost coin, and the prodigal son.

March 13th

Poverty, Charity, Exceptionalism, and America's Glory Days

Recently, a friend shared on Facebook a link to a blog post, On Being a Millennial Pastor– Leaders who don’t Remember the Glory Days. The author talks about the glory days when the churches were full. He spoke about many older pastors grieving the passing of that era. He suggests embracing the church we have now and those “who showed up to seminary full of energy, called to serve a church in decline.”

That sounds about right to me, although I might qualify the idea of decline. It might be a church with declining membership but it can still be a church full of vibrancy. It might also be that there is a greater decline happening.

Another article I read recently was a Study By MIT Economist: U.S. Has Regressed To A Third-World Nation For Most Of Its Citizens.

In the Lewis model of a dual economy, much of the low-wage sector has little influence over public policy. Check. The high-income sector will keep wages down in the other sector to provide cheap labor for its businesses. Check. Social control is used to keep the low-wage sector from challenging the policies favored by the high-income sector. Mass incarceration – check. The primary goal of the richest members of the high-income sector is to lower taxes. Check. Social and economic mobility is low. Check.

A sharp contrast to this can be found in John Winthrop’s famous sermon entitled "A Model of Christian Charity", sometimes called the City upon a Hill sermon. Winthrop talks about how God “hath so disposed of the condition of mankind, as in all times some must be rich, some poor… that every man might have need of others, and from hence they might be all knit more nearly together in the bonds of brotherly affection”.

What made America great and can do so again, is not keeping wages for the poor low and taxes for the rich low. What makes America great is when we are knit together in the bonds of brotherly affection, rich and poor alike, caring for one another

An Op-Ed in the New York Times back in January draws this into sharper focus. In The U.S. Can No Longer Hide From Its Deep Poverty Problem, Angus Deaton notes that 1.7% of Americans live in deep poverty, living on less than $4 a day. That places us in fifth place for the highest percentage of people living in deep poverty in developed countries, with only Greece, Portugal, Italy, and Spain having a higher percentage.

Some conservatives suggest that the real problem with America is that it has lost its spiritual way. Perhaps they are right. Perhaps we need to return to the vison of America that John Winthrop preached about where the rich truly are concerned for the poor. Likewise, perhaps those longing for the glory days of Christianity in America are right. Yet what we need is not more people sitting in pews on Sunday morning. We need more people trying to live the life of Christ, helping out those around them.

March 11th

Who’s in your mystical prayer group?

Years ago, I lived in New York City and went to a church where prayer groups met every Wednesday evening. We would have Eucharist together, then eat our brown bag dinners together, and then head off into small prayer groups of about half a dozen people each. They were a very important time for me as I tried to figure out how to live out my faith in a large city in my twenties. Today, I still seek out people to pray with this way.

Recently, I went on a silent retreat at Holy Cross Monastery in New York. One of the retreat leaders share an idea from her seminary days during one of the reflections. She spoke about how one of her professors had encouraged her to find her companions on her journey; not only fellow seminarians but also important religious leaders and thinkers from throughout the ages.

It was an idea that echoes in a place like Holy Cross Monastery, where you can a sense of the great cloud of witnesses that transcend time and space. It is a similar feeling you might get sitting in an Eastern Orthodox Church or kneeling at the communion rail in an Episcopal Church.

In a formation group of seminarians I’m part of, which has a bit of the same feeling as the prayer groups of years ago, we recently talked a little bit about that sense of the great cloud of witnesses, and it seems like all of this leads to in an interesting spiritual exercise.

Who is in your mystical prayer group, drawing in people from the cloud of witnesses across time and place?

Right now, I would chose Mary, mother of Jesus, Aelred of Rievaulx, Frances of Assisi, Julian of Norwich, Teresa of Avila, and Brother Lawrence. An interesting variation on this might be the unrecognized acquaintances of these people, one of the monks who learned about Spiritual Friendship from Aelred, one of the nuns that prayed over St. Frances, or a woman who came to Julian for advice.

Who’s in your mystical prayer group?

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March 10th

Divine Urban Renewal: Rebuilding the Community of Priests of the Torn Curtain and Broken Chalice

I woke up this morning from a disturbing dream. I was at some large conference and I was supposed to be recognized for something I had done; it was related to investigative reporting, or something like that. Yet I had a ground-hog day like foreshadowing of what was going to occur. It was a setup. The people who were scheduled to acknowledge me were actually agents of some evil regime I had exposed. Instead, they were going to assassinate me. I managed to slip out the back and drive out of town, ending up hiding in a hotel a hundred miles away.

I’m not sure what underlies that dream. As I tried to shake off the sleep and fear I checked in on Facebook. A friend had posted a link to an article in the New York Times, A Quiet Exodus: Why Black Worshipers Are Leaving White Evangelical Churches. I read the article and thought of a couple other articles I’ve recently read: White Christians are now a minority of the U.S. population, survey says and Gay United Methodist pastor in Clifton on trial – again.

Yesterday, a friend of mine livestreamed The Rev. David Meredith celebrating communion with his supporters after the trial yesterday. During the communion, Rev. Meredith spoke about the broken communion chalice of the United Methodist Church as it struggles how to be in communion with the LGBTQIA community.

As I thought about the broken communion chalice, I thought of Holy Week and Jesus’ confrontations with the religious leaders of the day which led to the crucifixion. The verse from Matthew 27:51 came to mind, “At that moment the curtain of the temple was torn in two from top to bottom”.

Recently, in spiritual direction, I identified as a priest of the torn curtain. Perhaps it can better be said as a priest of the torn curtain and broken chalice.

On the surface, this may sound pretty bleak, but underneath all of this is hope. Some of this hope was reflected in a bible study with my friends from Andover Newton last Thursday. We were discussing Isaiah 58, those wonderful verses that start,

Is not this the kind of fasting I have chosen:
to loose the chains of injustice
and untie the cords of the yoke,
to set the oppressed free
and break every yoke?

and continue on to

Your people will rebuild the ancient ruins
and will raise up the age-old foundations;
you will be called Repairer of Broken Walls,
Restorer of Streets with Dwellings.

We were reminded that this was a text written after the Jewish people returned from the Babylonian captivity to the destroyed city of Jerusalem, to start repairing those broken walls and damaged streets. One person asked if it were possible that we could be those doing urban renewal in the city of God today. I hope so. I think of the articles I’ve shared, and how desperately we need this divine urban renewal. Hopefully, more soon...

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March 3rd

Make #Wakanda Great Again

I’ve always been a bit uncomfortable watching people paint their faces and cheer on combatants representing some idealized group of people they identify with. People chanting USA! USA! at a hockey game are vaguely disturbing. Those chanting “blood and soil” are even more frightening. To what can we say the same about those posting Wakanda Forever?

I don’t want to post spoilers to the movie Black Panther, so I’ll keep my comments more general. If you have not seen Black Panther yet, please, go and see it. Ideally, go see it with a diverse group of friends. I’m a white male who has spent a bit of time trying to understand the black experience in America, but my understanding is very limited.

If you have time, read up on the slave trade. Read up on colonialism. Read up on the lives of Martin Luther King, Jr. and Malcolm X. I recommend James Cone’s book, Martin & Malcolm & America: A Dream or a Nightmare. At least in my white male mind, some of the dynamic of Martin and Malcolm is played out beautifully in Black Panther.

If you are really motivated, spend a little time reading up on post-colonial theory.

As you watch the movie, think about the responsibilities that come with privilege. Does T’Challa have privilege? What can white folks learn about wielding privilege from him? Think about reparations. How do we make reparations and seek justice and reconciliation for evils that our previous leaders have done?

After you see the movie speak with some of your black friends about how they see the movie from their experience. Ask the women about the weaponization of hair.

Then, if you find messages of Wakanda Forever appealing, ask yourself, are you saying it in the spirit of Nakia, of Eric Killmonger, or perhaps a little of both. Be prepared to own some ambiguity and think about how you might share Wakandan knowledge.