Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Schism (Once More) and Reconciliation

I am writing once more about schism in the Episcopal Church (see my first blog on this subject) because it has been on my mind, and because several of you have asked me to say more about it. Sometimes I feel like one of those biblical characters who receive an angel in the night, or a word in their dreams, or a message during the night watches, for I often receive/hear words, sentences, even paragraphs while I am sleeping. I know that might sound odd, but there it is. And last night I did have some nudges about this subject.

I recently saw a picture in the New York Times with all the bishops that will be trying to put together a new province of the Episcopal Church (or whatever they might call it) in this country. I also read that disaffected Anglo-Catholics and unhappy evangelicals and even some folks from the Reformed Episcopal Church (this offshoot happened in the last 19th century) will be attempting to form this new church. As I read this I felt—and this was a something that I related in my earlier piece—a great sense of sadness, but I also felt rather surprised. I know people in all three groups, have friends in all three groups, and it is hard for me to imagine how they are going to find a way to get together, to create something from scratch, and to forge ahead. The Anglo-Catholics left the church over the ordination of women and the new prayer book, but they did not, at least many of the ones I know, have any issue about ordaining gays. The evangelicals left the church over ordaining gays, but they have no problems with women’s ordination or the new prayer book. The Reformed Episcopal folks left 130 years ago because they felt that the church was becoming too Catholic. So, how these folks are, again, going to make a new church—well, I just don’t know. Right now they are coalescing around what they are against—and that is the Episcopal Church—but when they get over being against us, how are they going to create a church that can be for something, that can have a new mission and purpose. Being against things is easy, but it doesn’t have much staying power or much life.

There is nothing particularly noteworthy or insightful about any of the above words. And nothing in that above paragraph came to me early this morning. What did come to me is that here we are with all this brokenness, all these schisms and splits, during this time of year when we proclaim the birth of the One who came to heal all brokenness. Jesus came to heal the breach between God and us, between heaven and earth, and he came to teach us and show us that we are all children of God and brothers and sisters to each other. But here we are fighting and scraping and taking our toys (or our churches) and going off to build a new home only with those who agree with us.

The One who was born for us, who gave his life for us, who was raised from the dead for us, intends for his reconciling love to embrace all, to make peace with all. So, all our schisms and divisions are sin; all of them miss the mark; all of them fall short of God’s desire for us. And all schisms and divisions are naive. People attempt to build a perfect church, a pure church, a righteous church, a liturgically correct church, a biblical inerrant church, but have these people forgotten or are they in denial about who they are, who people are in general? We are all sinners and fools; we all make mistakes; we all are mottled; there are no pure and perfect saints.

In the early church the culture looked on the Christian community and said, “See how they love each other.” Now the culture looks on and thinks, “See how those Christians fight.” Our schisms and divisions undermine the mission of Christ to reconcile all of us to God and all of us to each other.

So, what do we do here at Palmer about all this? We pray. And, we continue to keep on keeping on right where we are with God’s mission of love for all in and from this holy and messy and real community we are blessed to be in together. At the manger, which is where we all are called to arrive, we are called to kneel, to adore, to give thanks, to lay down all that separates us from God and from other. Jesus was born into our midst to make us all family. As we go about that work together, we will find that Christmas is not a day, not a season, but our lives.

Wednesday, November 26, 2008

Bishop Doyle's Apostolic Ministry and Ours

Just minutes before the start of the 9 o’clock service this past Sunday I heard that someone had fallen on the steps in the front of the church. I rushed from my office, where I had been meeting with our new bishop, Andy Doyle, to see who it was and it quickly became apparent that the person who had fallen was Joanne’s (Andy’s wife) mother, Mary. Almost instantly it became clear that Andy needed to be with his family at that moment and not leading us in services.

As I have reflected upon all that transpired so quickly on that morning I want to say how profoundly grateful I am to the people of Palmer who acted with such care and poise and competence and calm. On one level we missed seeing and hearing from our new bishop—he will have many more visits in the years to come—but on another level I hope that he and his family will not forget the love and support that they all received from us. That is good. And that is as it should be.

I have been privileged to know quite well all the bishops that I have served. They have all been pastors and friends. I know from every one of them that their work and ministry can sometimes be lonely and hard—just like with any other person in a leadership position. It is important that all leaders have safe places, welcoming places, refueling places, places where they do not have to prove or defend themselves. As Andy starts this new ministry and as he continues in it, I pray that Palmer will be that kind of place for him and Joanne and their daughters, Caisa and Zoe. (What a blessing it was to see their two daughters with “Uncle” Ed Razim about halfway through the 9 o’clock service all huddled up with the Razim boys, Thomas and Alex. It was a snapshot of the Kingdom and the Church at its best.)

And so, as much as we may have missed hearing from Bp. Doyle about his hopes and visions for our common life together, we did—under difficult circumstances—greet and care for him and his family, which is indeed part of the Apostolic Ministry that we share together in Christ’s name and to His glory.

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

Schisms in the Episcopal Church

This past weekend the Episcopal Diocese of Fort Worth became the fourth diocese to break with the national church. Many of you asked me on Sunday how I felt about this break. Mostly what I feel, at least initially, is sadness.

I was once connected to a church that eventually broke from the Episcopal Church over the revision of the Book of Common Prayer and the ordination of women. Both of these changes took place in the mid to late 1970s, and my parish priest was adamantly opposed to both of them. When he dropped me off at seminary in September 1980, he said, “I am leaving you here in order to learn how to protect the one, holy, catholic, and apostolic faith that was once delivered to the apostles.” It felt like a heady, heroic charge and I was ready to embrace it with zeal and conviction. Until. Until I began to read the bible. Until I began to reflect upon what it meant to be the church. Until I tried to make sense of how Jesus lived, how he acted, how he dealt with and treated people, how and why he died. I had once believed—and I had certainly been taught this—that God could be captured, or least better and more completely captured, by some particular words in a bible or a prayer book. But then I began to see and understand that all of our language about God is provisional, that all of our concepts about God can at best only point to God, suggest God, give us hints and guesses and whispers about God. I had once believed that only men could stand at the altar because Jesus had only chosen men to be among his apostles. But this understanding began to break down when I read in Genesis that we are all made in God’s image (1:26f), when I read in Romans that all of us fall short of the glory of God (3:9 f), when I read in John that Jesus died to bring all of us to himself (12:32), and when I read in Galatians that “There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male or female; for all of [us] are one in Christ Jesus.” (3:28)

Many of the people that I trained with came from and then returned to these dioceses that have left the church. One of the dangers of being a church in schism is that schism leads to schism, which leads to yet more schism. Another danger for churches who are inclined to leave in order to find or make another church, a purer church, is that they tend to define themselves by what they are against rather than what they are for, and that they often move towards a fortress-mentality and embattled-spirituality, rather than a vision-oriented, mission-minded, ministry-shared, and hope-inspired life.

While I do understand how and why some churches, some dioceses, could be upset or even angry about how the Episcopal Church has made some decisions in recent years, I am, finally, distressed about all such schismatic activity. I am distressed for those who leave and I am distressed for those who stay. I am distressed for all of us because I believe that we all need each other. At our best, Anglicanism has had room to disagree, room to see things differently, room to be both Protestant and Catholic, room to believe different things about how Jesus is present in the Eucharist, room to be more pastorally-oriented or more prophetically-edgy, room to stress contemplative spiritually or muscular social action, room to wrestle with different readings of scripture. Now there is less room, it seems, and that make me sad and distressed. I don’t want to be in a church of ghetto like-mindedness or conformity. I like a messy church, a church full of people who are passionate about their ideas, their theologies, their instincts about faith and discipleship, but then a church that can get on its knees together, that can admit our sins and foolishness together, that can receive mercy and grace and love together. I don’t want to be kneeling next to someone who agrees with me—I often don’t even agree with myself—but next to someone who is going to love me, just like I am going to pray to love them, despite our differences and through our disagreements.

I wrote that I am initially sad about Forth Worth and others dioceses leaving the Episcopal Church, but sad is not where I end up. Where I end up is galvanized. I feel galvanized because I am ever clearer about how important our work is and how much we are daily in the business of being used by God to save lives. We have work to do at Palmer and from Palmer, so let us not be distracted by what happens in Forth Worth or wherever else. We need to stay informed, we need to pray about all these matters, but then we need to pray for God’s mission in and with and through us to have energy and faith and enthusiasm and life. Our work, our joy, is to give comfort to the dying, forgiveness to sinners, community to the lonely, hope to the despondent, purpose to the apathetic, strength to the forlorn, and love to all.

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

Post-Election Hope

I remember the summer of 1968. I remember watching the Democratic Convention come unraveled. It felt to me, at 12, like the whole country was coming apart. That spring Martin Luther King had been killed, which touched off rioting in Detroit, an hour from our home in Ann Arbor. Later, Robert Kennedy was shot. I can remember the exact moment when news of their deaths came onto the television. And then that summer in Chicago—more chaos and fragmentation.

I remember all these moments from 1968 as I watched thousands of people gather in Chicago last Tuesday night at the very place where the Democratic Convention had been held. Maybe now the forces that were unleashed 40 years ago can come to rest. Maybe now the hopefulness that so many people had then, a hopefulness that has been lost to so many leadership messes and betrayals and cynicism and partisan bickering—yes, maybe now we can find, we can be given, some hope again.

I know that Senator Obama’s election is not good news to all of you, and I know that there is still great unease or anxiety with many folks in our country (I was troubled to see how gun sales spiked last Wednesday). At the same time, there does seem to be, at least to me, more hope both here and abroad over this election than I have felt for a long time.

Some of this hope comes from our President-Elect being of mixed race. For those of us, like me, who can remember how the races had once been so segregated (I can still remember “colored” signs), this election seems just incredible. We have, obviously, come a very long way in less than 50 years. This does not imply that we still do not have a long way to go as we live into the Biblical vision that we are all made in God’s image and that we must seek and work for justice among all of God’s children.

I am also sensing hope because it seems that President-Elect Obama really does want to reach across the aisle, that he understands that he needs to be president for all of the people in this land, regardless of whether they voted for him or not. There is a crisis here at home—crises, really—that will need cooperation and reconciliation in Washington. I have been disturbed my some columnists talking about this election as a “mandate,” and encouraging Senator Obama to move ahead even more boldly that he had talked about on the campaign trail. (See Paul Klugman’s editorials from this past week.) I think such advice is shortsighted, if not self-defeating and even duplicitous.

I once read (I think these words come from Abraham Lincoln) that leaders must be “dealers in hope.” The problems and challenges for President Bush and for President-Elect Obama are enormous right now. We must pray for both of them during this time of transition.

Regardless of how any one of us voted, it is time to move on and rally behind and pray for our land and its leaders. Christians are called to be hopeful people because we believe that “…[we] can do all things through him who strengthens [us].” (Phil. 4:13)

As I write these words on this day, November 11th, I am cognizant of and thankful for all those who have served this country, all those who have given their lives, all those families who have lost a loved one in conflict. Please join me in praying for all of them, and please join me in praying for all those who are now serving our country and putting themselves in harms way.

In God’s peace, Jim

Tuesday, November 4, 2008

Election Day: Plus One

Today is a big day. I know that we make that statement every election day, and, of course, every election day is a big day. But this year, it feels bigger, more important, more critical. Maybe it feels that way, at least to me, because we are fighting wars on at least two fronts abroad. Maybe it feels that way because of the global financial meltdown. Maybe it is because of heightened tensions and even a little “saber-rattling” with Russia. Maybe it is because we don’t seem to have a clear plan, much less the resolve, to lead more environmentally-sensitive and responsible lives. Maybe it is because our political process seems ever more acrimonious and divided. Maybe it is because we seem to have lost some momentum and hope as a country since 9/11.

It is a big day, no doubt about it. But tomorrow may be—Election Day: Plus One—an even bigger day. Let me explain, or rather, let me share a prayer. Tomorrow I am hoping and praying that if Senator McCain wins that he will call Senator Obama, or that if Senator Obama wins that he will call Senator McCain. I know that both of them will have a great deal to do tomorrow and many phone calls to make, but, again, I hope and pray that one of their first calls, and perhaps the most important call, will be to each other. And I hope and pray that that call isn’t just a courtesy call, done out of formality. No, I hope it is a substantive call, a call for help, a call to mend the fences and come together and cooperate and find common ground and a pledge to do all each one of them can do - individually and as partners - to move this country forward, to move away from fear and anxiety, to join forces as they provide leadership and vision. The election will be over, so let the fighting stop. The votes will have been counted, so let us count on both of them to help this nation, and it will take a bi-partisan approach. The winner will have been declared, but tomorrow will be the time to move beyond winners and losers to seek the ways and means for all of us to win and fix and expand and cooperate together. In fact, if we stay with the winners and losers format, we will all be losers. We will lose as a nation, and the world will also be worse off in the absence of our leadership.

Beyond your hope for whoever you are voting for today, I hope that you will join me in praying for whoever is elected. Across this land tomorrow will be a day to take down our signs supporting one particular candidate or party. Instead of having someone’s name emblazoned in our front yards imagine if we had signs with a dream or desire that we might have for the people of this land: Hope, Courage, Vision, Sanity, Peace, Abundance, Faith, Trust, Integrity, Justice, Progress. Now, that would be something to behold. Not names, but dreams.

I have cast my vote—I did it at Fiesta last week and I had many good and interesting conversations as I stood in line. Across party lines and waiting lines we spoke and shared and joked and hoped. It was a great moment that made me proud and thankful to be an American.

I hope that you would join me in praying on Election Day: Plus One. That you would commit to praying that whoever wins this election will reach out to the one who received fewer votes so that both parties can find some reconciliation, some common cause for the good of all, and some common vision that together they can once more lead this land, this country, this people to a better and brighter and stronger future, not only for our own sake but the sake of all the world.

Tuesday, June 24, 2008

"At Rites for Russert, A Time to Mourn, A Time to Embrace"

At Tim Russert’s funeral last week, his son Luke requested that Senators McCain and Obama sit next to each other. He then from the pulpit exhorted them and other politicians to “engage in spirited debate but disavow the low tactics that distract Americans from the most important issues facing our country.” (It is obvious that the apple didn’t fall too far from the tree on this one.) At the end of the service, the two candidates embraced. It was indeed a time to mourn and a time to embrace.

As I pictured that moment of the two candidates embracing some words from scripture came into very sharp focus for me:

So if anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation: everything old
has passed away; see, everything has become new! All this is from
God, who reconciled us to himself through Christ, and has given us
the ministry of reconciliation; that is, in Christ God was reconciling
the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them,
and entrusting the message of reconciliation to us. So we are
ambassadors for Christ… (2nd Cor. 5: 17-20a)

As we move into this next round in the political season, I hope and pray that both candidates, and all those who will be advising them, can remember this moment, this embrace, this willingness to let go of their differences, so that they could be leaders together, Americans together, wanting and hoping and speaking the best for their country, and for this world, together. That is my hope and my prayer. Like many of you, I am tired and fed up with how polarized the political parties are right now, and have been. I am tired and fed up that there seems to be so little ability to compromise, to negotiate, to reach across the aisle, to seek not what is best for “my” party, but best for this nation and our connection to all other peoples and nations. I am tired and fed up with the lack of civility and sensibility and humility. I am tired and fed up the posturing, the obfuscation, the oscillating. Would that both parties and our whole political process could repent; that is, turn around; that is, make some changes; that is, soften its heart and enlighten its mind.

Now, what made John McCain and Barack Obama embrace each other at the end of this service? Now, it would be all too easy to say that Luke Russert had somehow embarrassed them to do so. After the son’s impassioned words—even prophetic words—about the political process, they would have looked churlish not to embrace, not to make some show of civility. Yes, that would be an easy position to take, and a cynical one. Maybe I am a bit of a idealist, but I am going to hope and pray that they embraced each other because they knew and felt that Luke Russert had spoken the truth and that his words spoke to their best and truest selves, the selves that first led both of them into politics. That is what, for now, I am going to believe about that moment—that it was a moment of truth and character, and that it was not a staged moment for the cameras or the press.

It is imperative for all of us as Christians to see and read these words from scripture not just in political ways, but also in personal ways. As Paul says, because Christ has reconciled us to God we are now called to be ambassadors of reconciliation ourselves. As the work of reconciliation happens between us and God—and I believe that this is a life-long, maybe even eternity-long, process—so we must commit our time and energies and words to being reconcilers in every aspect and in every relationship of our lives. Every. Reconcilers with God. Reconcilers with ourselves, our humanity, our limits, our mistakes. Reconcilers with those who are closest to us. Reconcilers at work. Reconcilers in our neighborhoods. Reconcilers in our extended families. Are we? Often not. Often we hold onto our grudges, nurse our grievances, share our unhappiness, foment mutinies, and augment disagreements. And what is the result from all this acting out? Pain. Loneliness. Separation. Grief.

So, who is the John McCain or the Barack Obama that you need to reach out to, to embrace, to move with to some higher ground? You know whom. Don’t pretend otherwise. We all have our lists. Well, it is time to shorten our lists. As we do that hard work of reconciliation, remember always, with gratitude, how Christ Jesus has reconciled us to God. He had to spill his blood to reconcile us to God. Often we need to shed our own blood—the blood of our hurt or pride or wanting to be in control or needing to be right—for us to do the reconciling work we need to do. Where does reconciliation in this world begin? You and me with God, with ourselves, and with each other.

Tuesday, June 17, 2008

Lambeth Reflections and Prayers

Our presiding bishop, Katherine Jefferts Schori, has asked all the congregations in the Episcopal Church to pray for the Lambeth Conference (L.C.), which will be taking place this July in England. I have asked Kristin to include the prayers we have been asked to pray in our liturgies this Sunday and I have asked her to write a short article about the background and purpose of this conference. Most often the L.C. doesn’t really get on the radar screen with most Episcopalians. Most often it happens and few things are reported. Undoubtedly, the atmosphere around this year’s L.C. (they transpire every ten years) will not be so quiet. Undoubtedly, many folks will be anxious to hear what is discussed, what reports are written, what is decided.

I think that the biggest issue that will be on the table at the conference will be how we can stay together as the Anglican Communion, which currently numbers about 80 million members and which many people now feel—fear—is close to schism because of our ongoing bitter dispute about homosexuality, and most particularly about whether or not we ordain homosexuals and bless their relationships. This long simmering conversation came to a controversial head when our General Convention in 2003 gave its consent to Gene Robison, the bishop-elect in New Hampshire, to be the first openly gay and domestically partnered bishop in the Anglican Communion. This decision—which was by approximately a 60/40 split—led a number of American churches to break with the Episcopal Church and to seek what is called “alternative episcopal oversight” from bishops in Uganda, Nigeria, and elsewhere in the Global South.

I am not going to try to guess about what is going to happen at this conference. We will, though, inform you about what happens and what could be the possible implications for our common life. I have asked Mark Crawford to do a Sunday morning program for us when the conference is over in August.

If you are interested in reading at least one person’s take on the L.C., I would invite you to look at article by Garret Keizer, titled, “Turning Away From Jesus—Gay Rights and the War for the Episcopal Church,” which is in the latest Harper’s magazine. The title enough got my attention when I was recently at the airport looking for something to read, but so did the author. I knew Garrett through some mutual friends in the Northeast from years ago. He used to serve as an Episcopal priest in Vermont.

Just as I am not going to guess about what might happen at Lambeth this summer, I am also not going to try to summarize Garrett’s long and dense and informative piece, except that—if I understand him correctly—it seems to me that he is saying that in all of our worries and concerns and papers and statements about what to do in our church we may be turning away from Jesus. He starts his article by quoting from the end of John’s gospel: “Do you love me?” You will remember that Jesus asked Peter this question after Peter had denied him three times. Three times Jesus asks this question. Three times Peter says that he does love Jesus. And three times Jesus tells Peter to feed the sheep.

I recently had a meeting with one of the bishops of the Global South. He was here in town meeting folks, trying to get a wide understanding of the Episcopal Church, and perhaps he was also making some new friends and trying to gather some support, financial and spiritual, for his work there. I met with him—and I know that this may surprise some of you—because it has been my hope and prayer to maintain as many friendships as I can “across the aisle” on all the issues. I was very moved by his faith, his piety, his zeal for the gospel, his concern for his diocese and the greater church, for his leadership abilities. The longer we talked, however, the more I began to detect a difference in our visions for the church. Whereas I could tell that he wanted a “holy” church I want a “whole” church. I am not saying that he doesn’t want a whole church, and I am not saying that I don’t want a holy church. But there is a difference. Ideally, of course, we could combine both into a sacred synergy, but when it comes down to our day-by-day life, and if I need to give some ground for one or the other, I will, again, choose a whole church. As much as I acknowledge that we do need to be holy, I do not want us to be a “holier-than-thou” church. As much as I think we ought not just to blend into the rest of the culture, that we need to be salt for the world and light for our society, I have some anxiety about churches that overly stress the holiness piece because they tend to become puritanical and judgmental and before you know it there is no room for regular folks, for sinners, for the sick and lost and needy and broken; which, when you think about it and get honest about it, includes us all. Places that stress holiness tend to lose wholeness, tend to get stingy on mercy, tend to draw lines in the sand, tend to put restrictions about who can come, who can receive the sacraments, who can join. Places that stress holiness tend to like neat and tidy definitions about who the saints are and who the sinners are, but my experience of my life and my experience of being a pastor for 25 years has shown me that we are all a combination of both.

Although I said I will not give any predictions about what will happen at this summer’s Lambeth Conference, I will share a dream about what could happen. I would dream, hope, and pray that the Archbishop would just junk the agenda of all those who are driven that this conference yield some definitive statements about how we are going to deal any and all of the urgent issues. I would hope that he would lock up all this newsprint, stifle all the positions papers, close all the computers, and send the media packing. Once all that was done, I would hope that he would invite every bishop there to fast and pray and be quiet. And then I would hope that he would invite all of them into small groups where they could pray together, share their stories and joys and struggles and sins with each other, where they could affirm and proclaim and then cry out that we are all—all—of us sinners saved by the grace of God through Jesus. And then, have communion. Communion with God. Communion with each other. Communion with their deepest and best and most holy and unholy, their most whole and unwhole, selves. And then I would pray that they would come back to all the rest of us and say that they didn’t get the “issue” (whatever the issue might be) fixed and decided upon, but that they did have a Pentecost moment, a repentance moment, a vision moment, and that now, today, this fall, they are committed to doing all that they can to lead and guide and motivate us into being the kind of church for all of God’s children where love and mercy and grace and peace can be so manifest, so infectious, that we can, with God’s help, change this world once more. I want them to proclaim that the Acts of the Apostles has never ended, that we have started again, and that mission will be our foundation and goal and cornerstone and future. That is my hope. And my prayer.