Archive for the ‘Church Life’ Category

Vacation Or Holiday?

July 17, 2017

This evening Susanne and I will board a one-way flight to spend a couple of weeks in our little condo in Daytona Beach. A one-way ticket, not because we are leaving Iowa and moving to Florida full time, but because we will drive my Dad’s car back to Iowa at the end of our time there. He has decided that, at 96, he is unlikely ever to drive again (!) and, because his granddaughter Amanda totaled her car in an unfortunate run-in with a deer, he is giving her his relatively new Chevy.

The little place we have overlooks the Halifax River (which is what the Inland Waterway is called in Daytona) and we were so pleased that Amanda, her daughter Courtney and her boyfriend Ryan were able to spend a long weekend there just recently. It had always been my hope to have a permanent place in our “home state” of Florida that the kids and grandkids could use for vacations and where Susanne and I could perhaps get out of the worst of the Iowa winters. Now, circumstances have allowed us to do this while still keeping our primary residence in Iowa City, a wonderful university town in a state we now both call home.

Being still fairly new in this time of life called “retirement,” I am still trying to figure out what a “vacation” is when basically our whole life is a vacation now! Well, not really. Susanne is heavily involved in some ministries and activities here in Iowa and I do some supply work and consulting both for the Diocese of Iowa and the Diocese of Chicago when asked. But clearly, out time is more our own these days and we are free from the multi-tasking and busy-ness which consumed so many of our years in the past.

Some light has been shed on this dilemma recently by considering the word “holiday” rather than “vacation” to describe time away from work and responsibility. Vacation indicates an “empty” time; while a holiday suggest a “holy” time. Holiness bespeaks healing and wholeness and appreciation of the sacred. Long walks on the beach, watching the endless tide and waves will be coupled with seeing the sun set over the river from our balcony as the sail and power boats return from a happy day of cruising or fishing to nestle in their slips for the night.

We’re looking forward to a holy time rather than an empty time in the days ahead.

May your summer provide such experiences as well!

 

Shaken By The Wind, Speaking With Boldness

July 3, 2017

It was an honor and privilege last weekend to participate in and address the 22nd DIAKONIA World Assembly meeting at Loyola University in Chicago. This quadrennial meeting brings together some 400 deacons, deaconesses, and diaconal ministers from a variety of Christian communions and from 26 countries including Germany, others in Western Europe, Africa, to the the U.S. and Caribbean, right across the globe to the Philippines.

The diaconate is, of course, an historic Christian ministry tracing its roots to those seven “proto deacons” in the Acts of the Apostles who were selected to “serve table” (feed the hungry) leaving the apostles free for prayer and the ministry of the word. Across the centuries, diaconal ministry has included the likes of Sts. Stephen and Phillip, Phoebe, Lawrence, Francis of Assisi, Nicholas Farrar, David Pendleton Oakerhater, Harriet Bedell, and in our own day Deacon Ormond Plater.

As my wife, Susanne Watson Epting (who is also a deacon), has demonstrated so clearly in her book Unexpected Consequences: The Renewal of the Diaconate in the Episcopal Church, this ministry has been a constant down the history of the church but has involved and changed over time and in different places. She traces some seven waves of development at least as we have experienced them in the Episcopal Church.

The theme of this recent DIAKONIA Assembly was “Shaken By the Wind” and various speakers and workshops explored just how it is that the diaconate itself, the church it serves, and the world in which it exists are being shaken by the wind in some quite surprising ways today. In my talk “Shaken By The Wind: Speaking With Boldness” I tried to trace some ways the diaconate itself has been shaken by the winds of change, but how deacons, deaconesses and diaconal ministers are called to respond to two particular “windy challenges” facing the the world and the church today — declining church membership and the simultaneous rise of right-wing extremism we see today in the United States, Europe and indeed in other parts of the world such as in the Philippines. I concluded my address with these words:

I hope that deacons, and those they form and lead in the church’s diakonia, will increasingly see their primary ministry as incarnating themselves in our changing and often troubled communities, listening deeply to the voices of need and concern and yes sometimes hope, and being bold enough to try and interpret those voices in ways the church will be challenged to respond to. Do not be afraid, dear friends, to tug on the sleeve of those in authority in church and society and to demand that those voices be heard! It’s your ministry.

It is challenging and perhaps even risky ministry in the context of the world in which we find ourselves. A world which is increasingly frightened by, and suspicious of, “the other” – the one who looks different, speaks another language, has unfamiliar life experiences, worships in a different tradition (or not at all). But this vocation is nothing else but the proclamation of the kingdom of God which is the church’s essential role. The Realm of God looks like this! It looks like a community of diversity which finds its unity in the worship and service of the one, true God.

Nationalism, xenophobia, sexism, racism, and unbridled greed must be named for what they are – sin! Sin is that which falls short of the values of the gospel and which separates us from God’s purposes and impedes the in-breaking of the kingdom which Jesus came to inaugurate.  Deacons, and the church they serve, must be clear about this kind of sin, and willing to confront it whether it appears in the world or in the church.

That is indeed a challenging and risky vocation. But we must know that it is the vocation into which we were baptized. For we were baptized in the Name of the Triune God we heard about in our scriptural readings for today: the One who created this good earth out of the formless void and called it Good (Genesis 1:1-5); the One who is the mediator of a new covenant and a kingdom which cannot be shaken (Hebrews 12:18-29) ; and the One who filled the apostles (after the house in which they prayed had been shaken by the wind!) so that they spoke the word of God with boldness (Acts 4:31)!

Pray for that boldness, beloved. The times we live in…cry out for it!

I don’t think I was telling the wonderful multi-hued, deeply spiritual, and hard-working assembly at Loyola anything new. But I hope I encouraged them to rededicate themselves to the witness of “the diakonia of all believers” for the sake of the church — and the world!

 

Mary’s Pentecost — And Ours!

June 4, 2017

She always felt better when she could be with his friends. True, all of them except the young one John had deserted him in the end. But she understood that. She’d been afraid too. And she wasn’t even in immediate danger from the Romans like they were. In any case, he had told her just before he died, “Behold your son.” And to John, “Behold your mother.” So, clearly, he wanted her to be part of them.

She really would have preferred to stay in Olivet which is at least a little distance from where it all happened. But, as they gathered there, it was clear that Jerusalem was where he had wanted to go, and Jerusalem was where they must re-assemble as well. So, they crept in, over the course of a couple of days….individually, sometimes two by two…and began meeting in that same upper room where they had celebrated Passover.

Now, it was the Feast of Weeks, fifty days after the ceremony of the barley sheaf during Passover. It had originally been a harvest festival, marking the beginning the offering of the first fruits. She had always loved its celebration as a child…and so had Jesus! So she accepted their invitation to be together that morning. There were other women there in addition to his brothers and, of course, the Twelve (and they were 12 again now, with the addition of Matthias – who had never been far from their assembly).

They had just begun to dance — and sing the Hallel: “Hallelujah! Give praise you servants of the Lord; praise the Name of the Lord” Psalm 113:1 – when the wind picked up. It first whistled and then howled through the streets of the old city. And, even though they had been careful to secure the door, suddenly the shutters rattled and blew open.

Strangely, there was no rain or fog as one might expect with all that wind, but sunshine – bright glimpses of it, lighting up every face around their make-shift “altar table.” But they were too caught up in their praise dance to worry about open windows now! And the volume of their singing only increased over the noise of the wind:

“Let the name of the Lord be blessed! Not to us, O Lord, not to us, but to your Name give glory! How can I repay the Lord for all the good things he has done for me? I will lift up the cup of salvation…Praise the Lord, all you nations; laud him all your people!” (Psalm 113-117 passim)

It was their custom, during the Feast of Weeks (or Pentecost) to gather the poor and the strangers, as well as the priests and Levites, for the communal meal which was the high point of this great agricultural feast. It was a way of recognizing their solidarity as people of the Covenant, across all the natural divisions of life.

And so, people in the streets were from all over the Mediterranean world. But their racial and ethnic diversity was no barrier to understanding God’s praise that day! She had no idea how it happened, but no matter in what language God’s praise was being spoken or sung, everyone heard it. Everyone “got it” — all of them, from east to west, from the different traditions, ethnic Jews and converts.

And, when the praises began to abate, Mary saw Peter slowly walk to the open window and, flanked by the other eleven, he said, “People of Judea, and all of you who live in Jerusalem, let this be known to you…and listen to what I say…” (Acts 2:14)

Well, that may not be exactly how it happened on the first Pentecost. But it must have been something like that.  Clearly, something momentous must have happened to transform that ragtag group of frightened disciples into missionaries and evangelists. Several things happened to accomplish that…in addition to the miracle of Pentecost.

 

Their experiences of the Risen Christ, perhaps particularly the one we heard about in the gospel today – the so-called “Johannine Pentecost” from the Gospel of John, with Jesus breathing on them and saying “Receive the Holy Spirit” and challenging them to forgive sins…or to withhold forgiveness. And then, gradually, their discovery of gifts in each other; gifts such as Paul would catalogue years later in his First Letter to the Corinthians:

“Wisdom, knowledge, faith, healing, miraculous works, prophecy, discernment, various kinds of tongues and their interpretation.” (I Corinthians 12:4-11). Those were the kind of qualities they had seen in Jesus, but now began to see in one another! Clearly, they were meant to do the kinds of works he had done — and to do, perhaps, even greater works…as he had once promised.

What are those works for us today? Well, there are a lot of lenses through which we might view those works, the “mission of the church” in our day. In fact, contemporary missiologists no longer speak so much of the mission “of the church” but rather of “God’s mission” (the missio dei) in which the church has a role to play. All people of good will can be partners in God’s mission, the “ministry of reconciliation,” not just Christians. But I have found “The Five Marks of Mission” defined first by the Anglican Communion and then signed on to by The Episcopal Church as a helpful check-list for us. First of all, we are:

  1. To proclaim the Good News of the Kingdom – that is, to talk about, to preach about, to set forth the reign and the commonwealth of God. To know that God is sovereign and we are not!
  2. Secondly, to teach baptize and nurture new believers – Christian formation for adults and children, so desperately needed today.
  3. Third, to respond to human need by loving service – direct action to feed the hungry, clothe the naked, and protect the defenseless is not an outdated concept. It is still needed today. (Sanctuary is still needed today!)
  4. But – number four – we also need to seek to transform the unjust structures of society, to challenge violence of every kind and to pursue peace and reconciliation – we need to get upstream from the problems and to address the systemic causes of what a recent conference in Chicago called the “unholy trinity:” poverty, racism, and violence.
  5. And, finally, to safeguard the integrity of creation and sustain and renew the life of the earth – -environmental stewardship, in all its forms. (Whether or not our government chooses to lead in this area, we must!)

Well, I expect even Jesus would have to admit that, while these are the kinds of works he began to address in his ministry, the challenges we face may be even greater today. We will need every one of those gifts of the Holy Spirit listed for us in First Corinthians today to get on with this mission – wisdom, knowledge, faith, healing, mighty works, prophecy, discernment, and prayer beyond our ability to put into words.

But, dear friends, we are promised today, on this Feast of Pentecost, Jesus’ own first gift to those who believe – the very spirit of God. Perhaps our Collect for today puts it best:

“Spirit of truth, whom the world can never grasp; touch our hearts with the shock of your coming; fill us with the desire for your disturbing peace; and fire us with longing to speak your uncontainable word. Through Jesus Christ,

 

Amen.

We Are Living A Nightmare

June 2, 2017

We really are. Not only is the Trump Administration under investigation by the FBI and Congress for likely working with the Russians to influence the presidential election in favor of the GOP, not only has Donald Trump successfully undermined the Affordable Care Act by assuring people that it is collapsing and “unsustainable” (rather than working to improve it), not only is he preparing to build a wall across our southern border to keep the “bad hombres” out, and not only has he terrorized Muslims by threatening a “travel ban” from some of their countries, he has now pulled the U.S. out of the Paris Accord, a worldwide agreement to stem the harmful effects of man-influenced climate change.

I am not so much concerned that our pulling out of this Accord will plunge the world immediately  into a death spiral with respect to global warming. The New York Times lead editorial today expresses some confidence that “…the United States, whatever Mr. Trump does, will continue to do its part in controlling greenhouse gas emissions. Market forces all seem to be headed in the right direction. The business community is angry. A Gallup poll found that nearly two-thirds of Americans are worried about climate change, and the Yale Program on Climate Change Communication found that almost 70 percent of Americans wanted to stay in the agreement, including half of Trump voters.”

The Presiding Bishop of the Episcopal Church, Michael Curry, agrees that “Despite this announcement, many U.S. businesses, states, cities, regions, nongovernmental organizations and faith bodies like the Episcopal Church can continue to take bold action to address the climate crisis…Faith bodies like the Episcopal Church occupy a unique space in the worldwide climate movement…We are an international body representing 17 countries in the United States, Latin America and the Caribbean, Europe, Asia, and the Pacific…Furthermore the Episcopal Church is a member of the worldwide Anglican Communion, the third largest Christian tradition, and we remain committed to ensuring that Anglicans everywhere are empowered to undertake bold action in climate change mitigation and adaptation.” (Episcopal News Service, June 1)

No, this decision will not halt the progress of environmental stewardship, even though it may set it back and cost us valuable time. My real concern is that this decision, added to the many unfortunates ones made already by this Administration, further erodes confidence in the United States around the world. Pulling out of NAFTA and the T.P.P., reversing commitment toward universal health care, threatening to weaken NATO (which is, at least, not now considered “obsolete”), and rattling an economic saber at Canada are now joined with reneging on what was in any case a purely voluntary international commitment to work together across national boundaries to combat a global environmental crisis.

Is it any wonder that our Allies and even our enemies are wondering whether the United States has any core values any more and whether we can be trusted to keep our word on various international treaties, trade agreements, and the like? German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s recent comment that Europe must now be prepared to go it alone is only the latest expression of the rapidly-eroding confidence in the United State’s ability to lead…or even to be counted  upon in a crisis. The next time we need Europe’s help in sending their young women and men to die in support of one of our foreign interventions, we may look in vain for such assistance. And who could blame them?

With respect to the climate crisis, I can only hope that a coalition of U.S. businesses, states, cities, NGOs, and faith bodies such as mentioned above will have a sufficient megaphone to assure the world that the people of the United States are with them — on this issue as on so many others — no matter what this Pitiful Little Man in the White House may do next.

 

Interfaith Dialogue and Evangelism

May 22, 2017

In 2001, I was asked by the Presiding Bishop of our church, then one Frank Griswold, to come onto his staff in New York to oversee ecumenical and interfaith relations for the Episcopal Church. It was not an easy decision because I had loved being Bishop of Iowa. But I had lost my wife, Pam, to an untimely death and decided (after much spiritual direction and counsel) that a new venue and context for ministry might be just what I needed.

And I had become deeply involved in the ecumenical movement, especially with the Lutherans, while still bishop here. So I thought I might be of some use to our church doing that ministry fulltime. I knew less about interfaith relations, dialogue with Jews and Muslims and the great Eastern religions, but I had studied them some at the university and even once taught a community college course in comparative religions while I was still a young priest in Florida.

It turned out that I had a steep learning curve in both ecumenical and interfaith relations, but I wouldn’t take anything for those nine years where I was blessed to travel around this country and the world engaging in conversation with fellow Christians and people of other religions on behalf of the Episcopal Church and the Anglican Communion. Most of the people in our church understood ecumenism – the movement to draw closer one another as Christians, heal the divisions between denominations, and seek closer cooperation or even full communion with each other when possible.

But interfaith relations were a different matter: Often, people would say – in an adult forum or coffee hour discussion — what are we doing dialoguing with the Muslims? Are you trying to create some kind of one world religion and do away with the uniqueness of Christianity? Do you think all religions are the same and one is as good as another? I always tried to assure them that, No, we are not trying to merge all the religions together. In fact, It’s been my experience that the more committed you are to your own faith the more you will be respected by people of other faiths.

What we did try to do was to find common ground with those folks. We tried to see where, with all our differences, we might find some agreement, at least as a place to start. I think we were trying to do what St. Paul was doing in our First Lesson today. As Luke tells the story in the Acts of the Apostles, Paul was in Athens, that great seat of intellectual and philosophical curiosity and dialogue in the first century.  He was standing in front of the Areopagus which was a big rock outcropping located northwest of the Acropolis in ancient Athens. In Paul’s day it had become a popular center for trying court cases and engaging in all kinds of debate.

He begins his conversation with these intellectuals (as he often does in his epistles to the churches) by complimenting them: “Athenians, I see how extremely religious you are in every way. For, as I went through the city and looked carefully at the objects of your worship, I found among them an altar with the inscription, ‘To an unknown god.’ What therefore you worship as unknown, this I proclaim to you.” (Acts 17)

He even goes on to affirm their common humanity as children of the one God as he speaks of “The God who made the world and everything in it (who) gives to all mortals life and breath and all things…” These are themes the church will explore on Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday of this week as we observe the Rogation Days which some of our hymns pick up on today. A celebration of the Creation!

Now, clearly, Paul’s purpose here was not interfaith dialogue. He was trying to convert the Athenians as the rest of our passage this morning makes clear. But he started, as we do in interreligious relations, by finding common ground.   He doesn’t ridicule the Greeks’ faith. In fact he commends them for being extremely religious. He doesn’t begin by disrespecting their worship of other gods. But he finds an opening by referring to an altar they had dedicated to “an unknown god” (covering all their bases, I guess!). And he says, what you acknowledge as unknown, this I am proclaiming to you!

He’s starting with them where they are, not where he would have liked them to be! Unfortunately the church has often forgotten this diplomatic approach by the greatest missionary who ever lived. Our latter day missionaries have often gone into cultures – be they Native Americans right here in our own land, or societies overseas – and have begun evangelizing by trashing their indigenous religions and even making it appear that they had to adopt Western culture in place of their own if they converted to Christianity.

Desmond Tutu puts it this way about our missionary work in South Africa: “When the missionaries came to us, they had the Bible and we had the land. They said, Let us pray, and when we opened our eyes, we had the Bible and they had the land!” Not exactly high praise for Christian missionary work in the 19th century! We’re doing a little better today for we often send our missionaries into foreign lands, but as partners not conquerors these days.

We establish hospitals and schools not primarily to convert people but to carry out Christ’s command to care for the least of these. And to show the people what Christ was like. Missionaries today look to raise up indigenous leadership in new churches, hoping to ordain native deacons, priests and bishops and to – as it were – work themselves out of a job as soon as the new leadership is trained and deployed. That’s how the Anglican Communion has developed so rapidly and why our churches in Africa are among the fastest growing and most committed in the world.

But what I want to point out most of all this morning is how this missionary strategy can work for us right here at home. Each one of us is a missionary in our day.  Our culture has become so secular, so “anti-religious” in some quarters that it’s almost like we’re starting over again, evangelizing in America! Well, let’s take as our model St. Paul, as I said perhaps the greatest missionary who ever lived, and modern missionaries be they Anglicans or Jesuits or Maryknoll Sisters around the world.

Start where people are, not where you would like them to be. Become a good listener before you become a talker.  Let people tell you of their lives, their joys and their sorrows, their struggles and their successes. People long to be listened to today. Listened to deeply and not only with 140 characters on a Twitter feed… or by so-called “friends” on Facebook.

Listen to other people deeply and compassionately. Then, when you can, make a connection with your own life perhaps even with your faith. “You know,” you might say, “when I was going through something like what you’re going through my church was really helpful. It was so good to have a community I could rely upon.” Or, in another conversation: “that’s fantastic, thank God (literally!) you had the gifts necessary to take advantage of that job opening.”

Something like that simply can be a way of sharing the good news with your family members, friends and neighbors, and others who so desperately need to hear such news these days. When you do something like that, know that you are standing on the shoulders of St. Paul the Apostle and countless missionaries and evangelists around the world.

And, like them, know that you can rely on the same Advocate Jesus promised his first disciples in our Gospel reading this morning. He said “…I will ask the Father, and he will give you another Advocate, to be with you forever. This is the Spirit of truth, whom the world cannot receive, because it neither sees him nor knows him. You know him, because he abides with you, and he will be…in you!”

That’s a promise, dear friends, from Jesus to us. His spirit is within us to guide us in our sharing of the good news. And we can rely on that Holy Spirit!

The Greatest Prayer

April 5, 2017

As I prayed the Lord’s Prayer this morning, I was reminded of how easy it can be to say it mindlessly because it is so familiar to us. In my tradition we say this prayer twice each day as part of our Morning and Evening Prayers and it is included in every Eucharist. Most other Christian traditions use the Our Father frequently as well.

I am also aware that the prayer is difficult for some because of its largely first-century world view and the dominant masculine and patriarchal imagery (“Father,” “Kingdom,” etc.). Allow me to share how I understand what generations of Christians including modern biblical scholars like Marcus Borg and John Dominic Crossan have called “The Greatest Prayer.”

First of all, when I say “Our Father” the emphasis is on the “our.” Alan Jones used to send his students at General Seminary out to ride on the New York subway and say the first two words of the Lord’s Prayer. “Our Father,” Alan would smile wryly, “surely not Their Father, God?” Yes, my friends, “father” of us all. And though the masculine image of parent should be supplemented in other prayers with more gender inclusive terms, no serious scholar debates that “Abba” was Jesus’ favorite way of referring to the God of Israel. It is at least one way to understand God.

This God “who art in heaven” surely does not only live above the clouds in the top story of a three-tiered universe. But just as surely God can be found in heaven…in the heavens. I see the Holy One in the beauty of a sunrise and in the orderly rotation of the planets around the sun, and in the dying and the birth of stars too far away even to imagine. That God is in the heavens as well as all around me and in the depths of my spirit.

“Hallowed by thy Name,” of course, refers to the holiness of the very name of God which the Hebrews believed had been revealed first to them. The Tetragrammaton (YHWH) of the Hebrew Bible is unpronounceable in the tradition but is perhaps best rendered “Yahweh” – I Am Who I Am or I Will Be Who I Will Be. Or, “Being” itself, “Existence.” For this is the essence of holiness. Holy is our very being.

I refuse to stop praying “Thy Kingdom Come” just because a monarchial system may be foreign to many today and not the best way to understand God anyway – as some kind of Middle Eastern potentate. But, as biblical scholars as different as Borg, Crossan, and N.T. Wright all remind us, to speak of the Kingdom of God really means God’s king-ship, sovereignty and reign. And it is another way of reminding ourselves that God is king and the principalities, powers, and rulers of this age are not. This has enormous implications for our mission as Christians.

In the Lord’s Prayer, we express our desire that that state of affairs, this commonwealth be established soon. And that it come into existence here on earth, in our societies just as it is wherever God is truly present. Our prayer is that the commonwealth of justice and peace which is God’s dream for this world be established in our communities just as firmly as the immutable laws of the universe in which this planet exists as a tiny speck.

Too many of our prayers are petitionary in nature, asking God to do this or that for us or for someone we care about. That can be a self-serving and egocentric thing. Yet surely it is appropriate to ask the Giver of all things to “give us this day our daily bread.” It’s a way of being grateful for the fact that everything we have, even bread enough for today, comes from the Creator of us all.

Now, I also believe that we spend way too much time, in my tradition, begging for God’s forgiveness (Lord have mercy upon us, Christ have mercy upon us, Lord have mercy upon us) as though God has not already forgiven us because God is the essence of love and forgiveness itself. We don’t need to beg for it. But, if we truly believe that we stand forgiven because of the love and grace of God we see revealed in Jesus, then is it not right that we appropriate it, receive it into our consciousness. And, even more importantly, that we forgive others as we believe we have been forgiven?

“And lead us not into temptation” is the most problematic phrase in the prayer. We have no idea what was intended. We know that God does not lead anyone into temptation so that’s out! “Do not bring us to the test” or “Save us from the time of trial” may well be about as close as we can get to its original meaning and should remind us that, if we are faithful witnesses to the God of our salvation, we may well be called upon to suffer, even to face persecution or death. In that eventuality, we call upon God for strength and courage.

I am told that I have a “high doctrine” of original sin. That is probably true even though I do not believe it had much to do with the follies of Adam and Eve in the mythological Genesis story.  Whatever the cause (a “fall” from a primitive state of oneness with the creation we see in some indigenous communities still, or an “incompleteness” in this universe which is surely, but ever-so-slowly, evolving toward that perfection which will one day be)  evil is real and this world at least is full of it. From street violence in Chicago to grinding poverty is the two-thirds world to the nuclear ambitions of a madman in North Korea. I am not too proud to ask God to “deliver us from evil” such as that.

I’m glad at least one of the Evangelists and church tradition has included the doxology at the end of Jesus’ prayer whether or not it was original. I often slow my words and try to experience each concept as I pray “For Thine is the kingdom… and the Power…and the GLORY” forever and ever” This universe belongs to God. The power that holds it all together is the power we call love. And the beauty and majesty we can glimpse in the night sky or hear in the harmonies of a symphony show us something of the nature of the Holy One. And this Divine Being will remain forever and ever. To the ages of ages. World without end.

Amen…So be it.

 

Standing At The Mother Mosque

March 29, 2017

Not many people outside of Iowa are aware that the longest standing mosque in North America is in Cedar Rapids. It was built in 1934 by a local community of immigrants and their descendants from what is now Lebanon and Syria. My experience is that most Iowans are proud of this fact and of the surprise it brings to people who hear about its existence for the first time.

However, with Islamophobia rising across our land due largely to the Donald Trump presidency with his fear-mongering technique against all immigrants and his insistence in using the offensive phrase “radical ISLAMIC terrorism” (emphasis on the ISLAMIC), two Iowa women decided, over coffee, that they should do something about it. The younger woman, a lay person, said “Wouldn’t it be neat to form a Circle of Safety around the Mother Mosque in Cedar Rapids to show our solidarity with our Muslim brothers and sisters?” The second woman, an Episcopal priest from Grinnell, said, “Go for it” and got busy using her contacts to organize the event.

And so it was that I joined four hundred people from across Iowa and as far away as Chicago on a rainy Sunday afternoon for what turned out to be a glorious occasion. They arrived by the carload and parked up and down the side streets of the modest residential neighborhood where the Mother Mosque is located. There were tours of the tiny mosque, bottles of water and cookies and doughnuts to share. And then some brief addresses.

Imam Taha began by welcoming us all and thanking us for making the effort to be there. He was clearly moved by the turnout. A rabbi (college chaplain at Grinnell College) spoke of the need to stand together. The organizing Episcopal priest used Paul’s analogy of the body with many, diverse members as a metaphor for the American vision as well as for the church. A Hindu layman spoke of peace as did a Sikh woman. A representative from the Atheist Society was bold enough to point out that his group and Muslims were now the two most hated groups in America! And he pledged their support.

And, perhaps most movingly, a gentle woman from the Meskwaki nation near Tama, Iowa reminded us that, as the original residents of this land, they welcome us all here and that we need one another if we are to achieve God’s vision for the world. She spoke, as is her peoples’ custom, with eyes lowered in humility, but with a strong voice and powerful message.

We then sang “This Land Is Your Land” complete with a final verse I had never heard, written from the Native American perspective and included the refrain “this land was stole by you from me!” And, as we sang, we fanned out to ring the little mosque which sits in the middle of a manicured lawn and full city block. We were two and three deep, all around the perimeter, four hundred in all. And it was a beautiful thing to see.

A simple act. Not terribly risky. But a reminder of the better angels of our nature as Iowans…and as Americans…and as people of faith.

What is it about this vision that Donald Trump does not understand?

Grateful For Health Care

March 23, 2017

As we watch this astounding legislative day unfold before us in which the future of health care for many Americans may well be determined, those of us who are clergy of the Episcopal Church might well pause in gratitude for the committed lay people and church leadership over the years who have worked so hard to provide amazing health insurance coverage to say nothing of an extremely generous pension program which is virtually impossible to disappear as so many have in corporate America in the last decades.

“The seed for CPF (the Church Pension Fund) was planted by the Rt. Rev. William Lawrence of Massachusetts when, in 1910, he brought before the General Convention of The Episcopal Church a resolution to create a Joint Commission on the Support of Clergy because he was appalled by the ‘suffering and poverty of the aged servants of the Church’.”

“In 1913, the General Convention voted to establish CPF to provide retirement and disability benefits to eligible clergy…Initial funding for CPF was raised by a committee working with Bishop Lawrence that was led by J. P. Morgan, Adolph Ochs (owner and publisher of the New York Times, and Newcomb Carlton (president of Western Union Telegraph)). More than $8.5 million was collected by March 1, 1917 … the value of that $8.5 million raised to start the fund is over $159 million in today’s dollars.” (Church Pension Group web site — http://www.cpg.org)

Today, the Church Pension Group has expanded to include other products and services and to cover lay employees so critical to the Church’s ability to carry out its mission. In 1978, The Episcopal Church Medical Trust was formed to provide health benefits to eligible clergy and lay employees. And in 2009 the Denominational Health Care Plan was established to provide equal access for lay persons as well as clergy for health care benefits.  The DHP has not been without its difficulties in implementation, but is a much-needed attempt to be just and fair to lay as well as clergy employees of the Episcopal Church.

I have been the beneficiary of fine health insurance since my ordination in 1972 and now continue to count on its benefits in retirement as well as enjoying the security of a rock-solid pension. Having served congregations large and small as a parish priest for sixteen years and walking with similar congregations as a bishop for nearly forty more, I am well aware of the struggles many congregations have had to go through to provide such health insurance and pension payments for their clergy.

In a time of declining church attendance and participation, it has become increasingly difficult for smaller congregations to provide this health coverage and various attempts at premium cost-sharing with clergy and lay employees and other cost-saving measures are being discussed all across the church. Whatever the solutions are, I have confidence that my church will be there for its clergy and lay professionals and will do all in its power to keep us healthy as we serve and financially secure in retirement. I am so grateful for that.

Perhaps because Episcopalians have worked so hard to address this issue and we clergy realize how very fortunate we are, we continue to advocate for universal coverage, for health care seen as a right and not as a commodity, and — many of us, at least — eventually for a single-payer, “Medicare For All” type of national health insurance such as that which much of the developed world enjoys.

Let us continue to advocate for those whose health insurance coverage and long term retirement security are at risk in the modern world and specifically in today’s debates.

And let us do so, motivated at least in part, by our mindfulness of how very blessed we are and how grateful we must always be!

 

Temptation

March 5, 2017

This first Sunday in Lent is always marked by the story of Jesus’ Temptations in the wilderness, his 40-day fast, upon which our season of Lent is based. Years ago, I did a sabbatical at our Anglican College of St. George in Jerusalem and spent some time in the very Judean wilderness we heard about in our Gospel this morning.

The desert in which Jesus spent some forty days, fasting and in prayer, begins just outside the city of Jerusalem. In fact, it’s positively startling to drive, or walk, a total of a few miles from Jerusalem’s city center…to crest the top of a little hill…and to find yourself gazing out into some of the bleakest and most dangerous countryside in the world. This particular desert is not miles and miles of snow white sand drifts like we sometimes picture it.

It is bleak, barren, rocky ground so hot and dry that you have to wear a hat at all times and drink water constantly in order not to dehydrate and suffer heat stroke in a hurry. My assumption is that Jesus fasted mostly from solid foot during those forty days (as a matter of fact, others have done that) but that he did drink water.

And, during those days of fasting and prayer, Jesus – as a relatively young man, by our standards, but in those days it may have been more like midlife – struggled with just what his life and ministry were going to look like from this point on. He had inaugurated his public ministry by being baptized in the Jordan River by John, but immediately felt led by the Holy Spirit to make an extended retreat, a time apart to get some perspective on his life and to seek fresh energy for what lay ahead.

And Matthew’s Gospel tells us that he had to wrestle with several primary temptations. First of all, Jesus was tempted to try and meet everyone’s needs by turning miles and miles of rocks and stones and boulders into bread enough to feed the known world. And, as wonderful as that would have been, Jesus came to see that not even ending world hunger would satisfy what we are really hungry for. Deep down, we’re hungry for God’s Word.  We want to hear from God, and to know that we are loved and cared about. And so Jesus said, “It is written: One does not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God.” (Matthew 4:4)

Then, Jesus was tempted to do something even more dramatic, to do something spectacular to prove that he was God’s Son and that God would come through for him by sending angels to protect him just like Psalm 91 had promised.  Actually, we’re told later that Jesus was ministered to by angels, but not in the showy, egocentric way the Tempter had in mind. So Jesus said, “Again it is written: Do not put the Lord your God to the test.” (Matthew 4:7)

And, finally, Jesus was tempted to “sell out” for this world’s goods. “All the kingdoms of the world can be yours, Jesus, if you’ll just worship them…and me…instead of God.” But Jesus replied, “Away with you, Satan! For it is written: Worship the Lord our God and serve only him.” (Matthew 4:10) (Pause)

I don’t know what your specific temptations are, but if you’re anything like me, they may not be all that different (in substance) from those Jesus faced. The temptation to try and meet everyone’s needs…the temptation to do something spectacular to draw attention to yourself…and, maybe above all else, the temptation to “sell out,” to forget that we cannot serve God and Mammon and to cave in to the values of the world rather than the values of the Gospel. But, you know, you can ward off those temptations too — in much the same way Jesus did. By being attentive to God’s Word…by refusing to put God to the test…and by rededicating yourself to put God first in your life – and nothing else! (Pause)

We’re entering more fully today into the season of Lent. Like Jesus’ experience in the desert, it is a time for fasting and for prayer. A time to listen for God’s Word…a time to stop putting God to the test…a time for worship and for service. I hope you’ve taken on some spiritual disciplines to help you do some of that. The Ash Wednesday Liturgy told you what some of those disciplines are (but it’s not too late to begin today, if you missed the first days of the season!)

Those disciplines are: self-examination and repentance…prayer, fasting and self-denial…reading and meditating on the Bible. I invite you – once again – to keep a holy Lent this year. May our prayer for these days be the prayer of the Psalmist this morning…a prayer which, quite likely, Jesus himself prayed during his Lent, his forty days in the desert.

You are my hiding place; you preserve me from trouble;

you surround me with shouts of deliverance. (Psalm 32:8)

 

 

 

Reading The Bible Again

March 2, 2017

I am choosing an unusual Lenten discipline this year. In addition to acts of abstinence and dipping back into some Marcus Borg, I am once again embarking on “the Bible Challenge” (reading the Bible through from cover to cover). But this time I am daily reading three chapters of the Hebrew Bible, one Psalm, and one chapter of the New Testament — in the King James’ Version!

Why in the world would I do such a thing? Well, after decades of reading only the most recent translations of the Bible — The Revised Standard Version, The Jerusalem Bible, the New English Bible, The New Revised Standard, etc. — I felt the need to immerse myself once again in the elegance of the English poetry and prose of the KJV. Certainly I am aware of the fact that more recent translations are more accurate in the rendering of the Hebrew and Greek texts and that recent scholarship is reflected in these editions which was simply not available to the translators of King James.

Yet I am thoroughly (or should I say “throughly!”) enjoying the melodic rhythms of this classic text and remembering that one of the reasons it seems so ponderous and downright difficult to follow in places is because the translators of the KJV followed pretty much the order of the Hebrew and Greek words of the manuscripts they had available. Sometimes, new (or rather old) meaning can be gleaned from this original word order  — or at least, so it seems to me.

Undoubtedly some of the pleasure I am receiving from this exercise hearkens back to the fact that I was an English literature major in college and remember with pleasure reading Shakespeare, John Donne, Spencer and Swift marveling at the sheer beauty of their use of the English language. It is a joy once again for me to relish in, and wrestle with, such literature.

I would never recommend the King James Version (or even Rite One, for that matter) for regular liturgical worship these days. Clarity of thought and contemporary theology is best understood in the language “understanded of the people.” That was the whole reason for translating the Holy Scriptures from their original languages into Latin and eventually, by the Reformers, from Latin into English. People need to be confronted with the “Word of God” in language they understand easily.

But, like browsing through an old photo album and thus immersing oneself in one’s history, from time to time it may well be worth meditating on the words of the venerable King James’ Version of the Bible. Or, at least, this Lent, so it seems to me.