Friday, July 30, 2010

Friday Miscellany: Jack Spong, Lambeth, and Other Thoughts

In his column for this week, retired Episcopal Bishop Jack Spong offers a brief discussion of the General Epistles in the New Testament. I was amused to find, in his concluding paragraph, that the Bishop offered this assessment of the General Epistles:

"Not all parts of the Bible are equally holy. The General Epistles we have looked at in this column do not come close to some other parts of the New Testament in either integrity or power. They are, however, 'in the book' and so, to complete our journey through the Bible, I include them. I urge you to read them once. It will not take more than ten minutes. Then you will have done it and you will never have to do it again, for, some parts of the Bible, once is enough."

I can't help but wonder what Eusebius thought about these particular epistles when he compiled the current form of the Bible in 336 - and what the general consensus was at the Council of Nicaea on these texts. Did they, too, think that "once was enough"?


While reading The Episcopal Church in Crisis, by Frank Kirkpatrick, I ran across the following quote first spoken by the Right Reverend Simon Chiwanga, retired Bishop of Mpwapwa Diocese in the Anglican Province of Tanzania: "Forcing your point of view by excluding from your circle those who disagree with you, or by compelling acceptance, is to usurp the place of God."

That line is worded in such a way as it could be used on both sides of the current debate within the Anglican Communion, but I can't help but wonder how many people in can honestly say they are taking those words to heart? Since 2003, how many people - particularly on the side of the more conservative folks who have broken away from the Episcopal Church and are now aligned with the Southern Cone bishops - have stopped for one moment to think that they are trying to stand in God's shoes?


Conservative Anglicans are quick to claim that the rulings which come out of the once-a-decade Lambeth Conferences should be acknowledged as "law" by the 38 global provinces. The recommendations on such things as the prohibition on further consecration of gay or lesbian bishops should be viewed as gospel until such time as the entire Communion approves such moves, or only after consideration is given to the potential impact on the worldwide Church.

But are these conservatives being selective on which proclamations they accept? Shouldn't they take that same view on all statements coming from Lambeth? I'm convinced that they are.

In looking at some previous Lambeth and Anglican Consultative Council statements, I can't see where the entire Anglican Communion is living up to the statements to which many feel we should all strictly adhere. Some examples: (1) Lambeth 1948 - attendees affirmed that Scripture "should be continually interpreted in the context of the Church's life; (2) Lambeth 1988 - attendees reaffirmed the "historical position of respect for diocesan boundaries and the authority of bishops within those boundaries"; (3) Anglican Consultative Council 1993 - affirmed that it "would be inappropriate to any bishop to exercise episcopal authority within a diocese without first securing permission from the resident bishop." (The last quote is on page 47 of the Kirkpatrick book.

Today, I often hear that Scripture is set and shouldn't be interpreted in the context of the modern world. The move of the breakaway Episcopal congregations in the United States to invite the oversight of African bishops without the approval of their diocesan bishops (with, to my knowledge, the exception of the Dioceses of Forth Worth, Pittsburgh, and a few others, where the bishops did give approval for alternate Anglican involvement) flies in the face of the 1988 and 1993 statements.

So why the selectivity? I didn't realize this was an either-or set of circumstances when deciding which statements to adhere to and which to conveniently ignore or overlook.

Monday, July 26, 2010

Desmond Tutu on Inclusiveness

"Jesus did not say, 'If I be lifted up I will draw some.' Jesus said, 'If I be lifted up I will draw all, all, all, all, all.' Black, white, yellow, rich poor, clever, not so clever, beautiful, not so beautiful. It's one of the most radical things. All, all, all, all, all, all, all, all. All belong. Gay, lesbian, so-called straight. All, all are meant to be held in this incredible embrace that will not let us go. All."

- From a sermon preached on All Saint's Day 2005 in Pasadena, California.

Friday, July 23, 2010

A Response to the Reformed Pastor

As I wrote yesterday, I had been very charged up by a post on the site The Reformed Pastor discussing Bishop Robinson's appearance at Foundry United Methodist Church. Initially, I felt that I would stay out of the debate and talk about it just on my blog; however, in rethinking the situation, how fair or honest am I being about my own views on this situation if I'm not willing to engage in thoughtful dialogue when given the opportunity? Every debate has two sides, and both should be represented.

So today, I went back to his site and took advantage of the opportunity he gives to his readers to post comments. I'll be curious moving forward to see if there is any response or continuation of what I think could - in any circumstance - be a constructive dialogue.

My response:

"One of the great things about our country is the ability to engage in civil debate, and I appreciate having the opportunity to read your views here. However, I (and I should point out that I am a cradle Episcopalian) was in attendance at Foundry UMC when Bishop Robinson spoke, and I am curious as to whether you listened to his sermon in its entirety (which is available on the church's website). I have concerns that much of the anger and pain that people feel about his consecration as a bishop is perpetuated by offering only selected excerpts of sermons, talks, etc.; in reading this post, it appears you relied on a single source - Jeff Walton's piece - and excerpted selectively from that.

"Second, I must take issue with your understanding of the situation in the ECUSA where 'congregations, priests and members are fleeing in droves.' Of the 7,100 individual parishes in the ECUSA, 83 have left - that's 1.1 percent.

"In the comment above, Undergroundpewster refers to feeling that Bishop Robinson has discovered truth and is operating under self-delusion. I would contend that it is not delusion or the discovery of truth, but an understanding of the Bible as he has arrived at it. One of the marvelous things about any Christian denomination is that, for millennia, Christians have engaged in deep study of the Bible and n the area of scriptural interpretation. Just as you and I may disagree over whether the Bible is literally the word of God or rather man's understanding of God's word, our understanding of the Bible and the meaning that we get may also differ. I'm confident that Undergroundpewster would be offended if someone felt that his understanding of the Bible was wrong and called him deluded. No matter our differences of opinion, any debate - in the realm of theology or anywhere else - should always be tempered with respect. My wife and I have differences of opinion from time to time on church issues, but we view each other's opinions - and always those of others - with respect.

"Finally, with regard to your last paragraph, a listening of the complete sermon would clarify the use of Acts 3. I agree completely that God healed the man through Peter and John, but it was not God that allowed the newly-healed man into the Temple - it was that he finally met the rules of man that finally allowed him into the Temple. It was not just healing, however, but a new view of this person by the Temple officials - just as the view of the ECUSA towards ALL of our brothers and sisters has changed and they are being welcomed.

"The sign which hangs outside of each Episcopal parish reads, "The Episcopal Church welcomes you" - there are no asterisks, no conditions, and no requirements. I believe that we are living into that promise through the inclusion of everyone in the various aspects of life in the church.

"Again, thanks for providing a place for this debate."

Thursday, July 22, 2010

Attacks on Gene Robinson Are Off the Mark

At some point during the past few days, I heard someone make the comment that unlike 40 years ago, when we had just three main television networks which each tried to provide a balanced presentation of the daily news, we now have a wide variety of networks that take a much more partisan approach in the presentation of the news. Viewers can now turn to Fox, MSNBC, CNN, or any of a number of other channels which present the news in a way they feel most closely reflects their personal political beliefs.

I'm no longer surprised at the political approach these networks take in doing their jobs - but what I do find disappointing even now is that this style of reporting, both broadcast and internet-based, extends to the coverage of major events in the area of religion. Not only can this coverage also be very slanted to one side of the political spectrum or the other, it is often incomplete, lacking the complete details for readers to make up their own minds, or taking things out of context to achieve the desired effect. Consider how Noah and the flood would be reported today - a story with which nearly everyone is familiar: Noah is told to build an ark, take his entire family and two of every living thing inside, and ride out the 40 days of rain that killed every living thing on earth. In today's news, you would find the headlines for this story in completely new versions: "Noah and family flee flood, ignore cries of neighbors", or "Noah lacks focus on environment, fails to stop melting of ice caps and global flooding", or even "Animal cruelty - Noah locks animals in overcrowded ark; poor living conditions mark 40-day journey".

I suppose this has all come to mind over the past four days as I've read some of the media reports and blog posts based on Gene Robinson's visit to Foundry United Methodist Church on July 18 (see blog post of that same day). To a large extent, much of what I've seen to this point has taken incomplete quotes or material from his sermon and question-and-answer session out of context - obviously in a blatant attempt to curry favor with one demographic of reader or another. Some of the pieces have been composed based on other stories with no research, perpetuating the bias from one post or article to another.

The one that really triggered my negative response was a post by David Fischler on the blog of The Reformed Pastor with the headline "Robinson Tells Methodists: 'Follow Me!'" The opening line reads, "Not content with having brought his own denomination to the brink of schism and collapse, Episcopal Bishop Gene Robinson toddled into Washington to spread the joy to the United Methodists." The writer then goes on to say that "Robinson and his fellow gay activists have turned the Episcopal Church's canon law into a hunk of Swiss cheese" and have led the church into a position where "congregations, priests and members are fleeing in droves."

By this point, I was already deliberating whether to respond directly on the blog and engage or not - and I was a bit hot under the collar. What folks like Mr. Fischler (or is it Reverend Fischler? His blog purports to present "daily thoughts on Christian faith and life in the world from an Evangelical Presbyterian church planter", and yet I saw very little evidence of faith or even of a Christian mindset in the post) don't take into account is that there were many people in the congregation that Sunday, including me. I heard for myself what Bishop Robinson said and how he responded to the questions posed by the parishioners, and I even downloaded the podcast of the sermon so that I can listen to it whenever I feel the urge. I have the facts, and the facts are these:

(1) Never once did he tell the congregation to "Follow me!"; he commented on his understanding of the situation and period of discernment in which Foundry currently finds itself, and stated his hope that they approach their decision prayerfully.

(2) The phrase "brink of schism" has been applied so many times to the Episcopal Church in the last 40 years that it is becoming tiring; does anyone recall the changes to the Book of Common Prayer in 1982, or the Philadelphia 11, or the ordination of women, or the consecration of Barbara Harris? Every time, there was talk of schism - and yet we're still here. Additionally, Bishop Robinson cannot be blamed for anything - he was elected overwhelmingly on the second ballot of his diocese, and his election was consented to by majorities of the House of Deputies and House of Bishops at the 2003 General Convention; if you're going to accurately point the finger of blame, shouldn't you be pointing it at a majority of the Episcopal Church?

(3) Fleeing in droves? Out of 2.8 million members and 7,100 parishes throughout the United States, a total of 83 parishes - that's about 1.1 percent, Mr. Fischler - have left. 1.1 percent. Doesn't a "drove" constitue a higher percentage than that?

I cannot help if the folks over at The Reformed Pastor have taken the time to listen to the sermon or do any independent reading, rather than continuing to spout the same tired lines of fear and hatred that we've been hearing for the last seven years. Based on what I've seen, I think the answer is no - and I certainly didn't see much of the Christian attitude that I've come to know from people over the years anywhere in his post.

I don't begrudge Mr. Fischler the opportunity to say whatever he wants - that's the great joy of having a blog; I enjoy it because it allows me to talk about what I would like and hopefully engage some dialogue. However, I would hope that he - and all media, for that matter - would at least try to be accurate and original in what they say.

Most importantly, shouldn't Christians of all denominations be focused on the larger picture of our world today, rather than on an election of a bishop - most obviously one that the Diocese of New Hampshire wanted - seven years ago? Aren't there more pressing problems in the world? On this note, I would end with the words of the Bishop himself in this regard:

"...the thing that concerns me, from those who want to leave this church in America, or leave it worldwide, is that they're saying that this one thing that divides us is more important than all the other things that hold us together. This one thing. It's more important than the creeds that we've held up for, what, 1,700 or 1,800 years; it is more important than our baptismal covenant; it's more important than the doctrine of the Trinity - the list goes on forever, of the things that hold us together. And these people are saying this one thing trumps all of that. And I just don't believe that for a minute."

Neither do I, Bishop. Neither do I.

Sunday, July 18, 2010

Dancing in the Temple: A Morning with Gene Robinson

Over the years, I've listened to numerous sermons by and interviews with Bishop Gene Robinson and have read much of his book, In the Eye of the Storm: Swept to the Center by God. Since his election and consecration as bishop of the Episcopal Diocese in New Hampshire in 2003, many millions of people here in this country and around the world have come to know this man as a friend, a faithful servant, and a Spirit-filled priest - something which his friends in New Hampshire have known for quite some time.

Today, I was privileged to experience that faith and friendship first-hand when I attended two services at Foundry United Methodist Church in Washington. The Bishop had been invited to participate in the church's Summer in the City - Outstanding Preacher Series after the church's senior minister, Dean Snyder, had heard him preach as part of the 2009 Lenten series at a church in Memphis. (As Snyder noted, his response after hearing Bishop Robinson's sermon was, "Oh, my Lord! An Episcopalian who can preach a sermon!" - a line that got a tremendous laugh at both services.)

Both services - which were geared for very different interests, the first a more praise-and-worship style for the younger crowd and children, and the second more traditional - were very crowded. More importantly, I was so overjoyed to see a tremendous amount of diversity in the congregation; young, old, families, singles, black, white, gay, straight - perhaps the most comprehensive cross-section of the community I've ever seen in any Sunday service. The music ranged from the spiritual "Plenty Good Room" to an arrangment of a piece by Gustav Holst, and performances by the nine-person Jubilate choir, the 21-person chancel choir, the pianist/organist, and a guest flutist. All in all, something to appeal to everyone.

The Bishop's sermon was based on the two readings he had selected for today: Acts 3:1-10, which tells of the healing of the lame man at the Temple by Peter and John; and Luke 4:16-30, which tells of the first time Jesus spoke at the synagogue in Nazareth and was both admired for his ability to preach and reviled because he pointed out that Elijah and Elisha were sent by God not to the Jews, but to Zarephath in Sidon and Namaan the Syrian. He told all of us that the passage from Acts should be the one that speaks to everyone in the LGBT community - just as the lame man was prohibited from entering the Temple because of his infirmity, the LGBT community knows what is like to be barred at the door and prohibited from entering the sanctuary. And just as the man was healed by Peter and John and allowed at that point to walk into the Temple ("dancing in the temple"), those who have been discriminated against by many in today's world have also heard the call of God and now know what it means to celebrate in the center of the church.

As he said, the church is in chaos right now - which is to be expected when there is any sort of change, particularly in the area of the acceptance of the LGBT community over the past 20 years (and after millenia of the status quo). When a child goes to his or her parent to come out, there is a bit of chaos as the parents take it in and determine how to react; Robinson used this as a lead-in to his own situation, which he described as going to his father - the Archbishop of Canterbury - and saying, "Dad, I'm gay." Just as in the family, there is similar chaos as the church determines how to respond (although he feels that it is by and large over, and that we'll gradually see that we're moving on).

The Bishop also talked about the disparity between those who preach fear - the televangelists who use words like "abomination" and "Satan" to describe the LGBT community and are rewarded with increasing contributions - and others "who preach the limitless love of God and get into trouble". He said, "When I ordain deacons, I tell them that I expect them to get into some Gospel trouble. If they're not in trouble, I wonder if it is the Gospel that they are preaching." Later in the sermon, the Bishop said, "At the end of the day, we need to decide if we're going to be admirers of Jesus - or disciples. And Jesus doesn't need more admirers."

The question-and-answer session held after the second service was also very good, and the Bishop was very honest and straightforward in his answers (although as he pointed out, "Now you can see why I can't necessarily talk about this in the pulpit."). It is worth noting at this point that the clergy and congregation at Foundry have been in deep discussion throughout the summer over how they react to Washington's decision to allow same-sex marriage; Reverend Snyder said that the rules of the Methodist Church prohibiting the blessing of same-sex rites on church property or by Methodist clergy are in direct conflict with the constitution of the Methodist Church, which call for service to all regardless of race, status, background, or financial position. Snyder said that he finds himself in a position of being unable in good conscience to continue abiding by the rules of the Methodist Church, and that while the congregation as a whole must vote to determine how they will respond they should do so without worrying about getting him into trouble ("Whether or not I get into trouble is between me and Jesus."). Snyder went on to say that it may come to a point where he must continue his ministry outside of Foundry if he is to continue honoring his conscience.

Because of this, many of the questions directed at the Bishop concerned how the church should respond if they are punished for going against the Methodist rules, whether there are similar circumstances with any congregation in the Episcopal Church, and why the Washington-area clergy - indeed, churches around the country - are the ones speaking most loudly against the LGBT community. The Bishop, response to the variuos questions he received, responded in part: (1) if Foundry is precluded from a relationship with the Methodist Church because of the vote of the congregation, and if Snyder is stripped of his certification/pastoral license, they should continue paying their dues, continuing participating in the life of the national church, and continue speaking up - because of their importance nationally, they should serve as a beacon and speak up; ultimately, another voice at another church will speak up, and it will continue to the point where "the trickle will become a waterfall"; (2) as he looks at those who are critical of those of the LGBT community and who insist on taking an "us versus them" approach, the Bishop wonders, "Is there not as much diversity in the straight community as there is elsewhere? I think people focus on homosexuality so they don't have to focus on themselves."; (3) "Death is not the worst thing; not living your life is the worst thing."; and (4) in dealing with Peter Akinola and the other African bishops who feel that the Bishop's consecration allowed Satan to enter the church, he said, "My job is to love them; how I am treated in return is not important."

At some point during the day, Robinson mentioned some of the controversy going on at the time of his election, and how there was an investigation of false charges that put off the final vote. While these charges were being examined, and he and his family were sequestered, a friend gave him a small piece of calligraphy which read, "Sometimes, God calms the storm - and sometimes, God allows the storm to rage and calms the child." Gene Robinson's visit today was to me an example of God calming "we children" by allowing us to witness the life and example of another of his children. I don't think anyone in that room would argue that we were the recipients of a tremendous gift indeed.

Tuesday, July 13, 2010

The Silence of the Soul

My soul is silent before God. Like the infant who is nursed and becomes calmed at its mother's breast and finds all its wishes fulfilled here, like the young boy who is speechless gazing upon his hero and leader, like the crying child that yearns for its mother to lay her gentle hand upon its brow and dispel and silence all its cares, like the young girl who quietly reflects on the prospect of one day becoming a mother, like the man who finds all his passion and restlessness clamed by the gaze of his beloved woman, like the person who becomes quiet before the eyes of a loyal friend, like a sick person who is calmed by the physician, like the old person who becomes calm before the face of death, like all of us who are silenced in reverence and awe at the heart of nature, under the starry heavens - just so should the soul be calmed from all the restlessness and chaos and haste, before the eyes of God.

- Dietrich Bonhoeffer, from a sermon delivered to his congregation in Barcelona, Spain, on the Sixth Sunday after Trinity, July 15, 1928

Are We Priests, Levites or Samaritans: A Parable in Modern Times

Even at my age, I am still surprised by how one line in a political statement could lead to a debate that evolves in my mind into a theological reflection.

During his introduction of Jack Lew as the next director of the Office of Management and Budget, President Obama made the comment (and I am paraphrasing) that members of both parties are in agreement that we do not want to endure another financial crisis the same as the one that we just went through. Naturally, that jumped out at me – with his choice of words (or those of his speechwriter, I should say), we were in essence being told that the financial crisis was over.

But is it? Unemployment is still at 9.5%. Millions of Americans are still out of work, with a significant number of that group losing their unemployment benefits due to the 99-week maximum having been reached. A report I read today said that for every one job opening in this country there are five potential applicants. And the Senate, locked in its ongoing struggle over extending benefits while trying to find a way to pay for them without increasing our national debt, has not taken any action.

Does that seem like the end of the financial crisis? The banks and lending institutions may be in better shape, and the stock market may be on the rebound, but that means nothing to the 50-year-old husband and father who has been out of work for two years and cannot find a job, or the single parent whose company downsized and left them uncertain about how they will support their children.

A friend of mine – someone I respect a great deal – questioned whether 99 weeks isn’t long enough. If it isn’t, he wondered, how many years are enough?

Immediately, my mind turned to the traveler on the road from Jerusalem to Jericho – the subject of Jesus’ parable of the Good Samaritan in Luke 10. And I began to wonder: are we a nation of priests, a nation of Levites, or a nation of Samaritans?

I understand very well how much money the government spends each year in supporting unemployed men and women throughout the United States – those who are looking for work, those who have given up, and those who never intended to look to begin with. I understand the need for fiscal restraint and the importance of getting our national books back in balance.

More than that, though, I understand what in mind is a moral obligation to be the friend of those who need help – the Samaritan to the man who was beaten and robbed. If Congress does not extend the benefits, how will we react in the face of situation which will become even worse? Community organizations, relief agencies, and churches can only do so much.

Assuming benefits are not extended, millions more families may become homeless. The roll of those seeking help with increase dramatically. The suffering experienced by so many in this country – the stress, the depression, the uncertainty, the hopelessness – will be compounded more than we can imagine.

What will we do?

Will we be a nation of priests, who come upon the scene and move to the other side of the road to avoid what we find? Will we be a nation of Levites who react in the exact same manner?

Or will we be a nation of Samaritans who stop, offer aid, bandage their wounds, take them to safety, and see things through to the end?

Saturday, July 10, 2010

Faith and Costly Grace - Do You Have Them?

How strong is your faith?

Is it strong enough that you could confidently make a decision to leave a job to return to your home, knowing that you might never be able to leave that home ever again?

Is it strong enough that you would willingly take a course of action in a certain situation that you knew could in all likelihood end with your death?

Having just completed the new biography of Dietrich Bonhoeffer by Eric Metaxas and read with great interest how this simple, unassuming pastor, theologian and martyr dealt with these very same issues, these questions have been on my mind quite a bit. Much of my contemplation of his life has centered on trying to put myself in his shoes to see how I would react.

While visiting and studying in New York City in the late 1930s (his second visit there during that decade), Bonhoeffer - against the advice and pleading of many of his close friends - gave up what would have been a safe and secure teaching position in the United States to return home to Germany and confront Hitler's tyranny from the front lines. In the early 1940s, he joined a conspiracy of high ranking military officers, aristocrats, ministers and other other opponents in an effort to assassinate Hitler (culminating in the July 20, 1944 attempt). In both of these instances - indeed, throughout much of his life between 1932 and 1945 - Bonhoeffer acted out of principle and love for his country, but even more out of a sense that what he referred to as "cheap grace" would not be enough.

"Cheap grace," as Bonhoeffer writes in his book Discipleship, "is grace without discipleship, grace without the cross, grace without Jesus Christ, living and incarnate." Bonhoeffer's objective for himself and for all mankind was "costly grace," which as he writes "is the treasure hidden in the field; for the sake of it a man’ will gladly go and self all that he has. It is the pearl of great price to buy which the merchant will sell all his goods. It is the kingly rule of Christ, for whose sake a man will pluck out the eye which causes him to stumble, it is the call of Jesus Christ at which the disciple leaves his nets and follows him."

To say that Bonhoeffer in the living of his life sold all his goods, plucked out his own eye, selfed all that he had, left his nets and followed Christ would be a tremendous understatement. But he did so with trust in God and by living out his faith through his actions - and in so doing, achieved the "costly grace" to which he was trying to lead others. He returned to Germany when it was safer to remain, and he became involved in a plot that would end his life when he could have remained on the sidelines - but in both instances, I strongly believe he did so seeing not the hangman's noose, but the cross.

So again, I ask - of you and of myself - how strong is your faith? Could I do in similar circumstances what Bonhoeffer did, and give up safety and security for a route which could end all things for me?

I honestly can't say (but know that God knows), and that is one of the struggles with my own faith. But it wouldn't necessarily be the end, as Bonhoeffer stated not long before he died: "This the end; for me, the beginning of life."