Wednesday, July 1, 2015

"Independence" and Long Fireworks

This Saturday is the 4th of July, a day on which people all over the United States will watch long fireworks displays as part of their Independence Day celebrations. So today I want to share some thoughts about fireworks and the idea of "independence."

First, fireworks: if you think about it, fireworks displays are really nothing more than a long series of explosions.

But that seems to be a really good metaphor for "independence."

They need to be long, because the fight for "independence" is long.

We designate July 4th as Independence Day because it's the date in 1776 when the Continental Congress adopted the document called "Declaration of Independence," but two other more important dates came a year earlier -- April 19, 1775 -- when the Revolutionary War started at Lexington and Concord,  and much later -- September 3, 1783 -- when the Treaty of Paris was signed, formally ending the Revolutionary War.That's over eight years: eight years of fighting; eight years of explosions, blood, and battle. A long time.

And fireworks, as a symbol of "independence," need to be explosive. We don't just wake up one day and say "I'm free!" -- not a single person gained "independence" the day the Declaration of Independence was signed just because a document was signed.

You want freedom from old habits or addictions, compulsions, attitudes? You want freedom from financial debt? You want freedom from "the spiritual forces of wickedness," "evil powers," or "sinful desires that draw you from the love of God"? You want freedom from prejudice or a -ism? You want freedom from any of these tyrants?

If so, expect a lengthy and explosive process. Whoever or whatever has a hold on us is not, generally speaking, going to let go easily or quickly. Tyrants put up a fight.

Which brings me to another point: as much as we idolize the idea of "independence," there's really no such thing.

That's right, there's really no such thing as independence.

There is only independence FROM something or another as we become MORE dependent ON some other thing or another.

Perhaps "Independence Day" should be called "Independence From Great Britain Day," because in order to achieve independence from Great Britain, early American colonists had to become more dependent on one another. Not to mention more dependent on France.

The point is, no human being is truly independent.

And that's not even a religious claim: a quick study of the process of photosynthesis proves all human life is dependent on a pigment called chlorophyll for every breath we take.

No human organization - no business, no bank, no school or government or church or nation -- is truly independent.

We are all dependent upon, and inter-dependent with others, nature, and God.

So as you watch fireworks this Fourth of July, give thanks for the long, explosive process our founders went through, teaching us something about the process of achieving "independence."

Give thanks for our dependence on and inter-dependence with other people.

Give thanks for our dependence on and inter-dependence with nature, "this fragile earth, our island home," crops, and truckers and interstate highways.  

And give thanks for our dependence on (and at times seeming inter-dependence with!) God, who could have populated this earth with angels to perfectly do God's will, but instead chose us human beings, fighting for independence from that which enslaves, so we are free to acknowledge our dependence and inter-dependence, each day.

Tuesday, June 30, 2015

Conservative Opposition to Gay Marriage?

Shortly after the decision by the United States Supreme Court that made gay marriage legal in all fifty states, the editor of the local paper, The Falls Church News-Press asked me if I had a statement. After I gave it a little bit of thought, and not wanting to repeat things already said elsewhere, here's what I came up with: 

"I’ve never understood why conservatives, of all people, would be opposed to people lining up and fighting for the opportunity to join the inherently conservative institution of marriage.

"Couples want to marry – to make lifelong promises to be exclusively loyal to one another, to be faithful to each other as long as they both shall live. And some people oppose that? 

"Couples want – to paraphrase the United Methodist pastor and author Adam Hamilton – to share their lives together as one another’s helpers and companions, hold hands, share dreams, help one another when one is struggling, share memories, companionship, and a warm embrace, commit to love one another ‘for better and for worse, for richer for poorer, in sickness and in health, to love and to cherish until they are parted by death’ — and some people are somehow against that? On moral grounds?!?

"Committed, unconditional, mutual, exclusive, faithful, and lifelong covenant love is what couples sign on for when they marry each other. None of us keep those promises and vows perfectly. But the Supreme Court has said that that now, gay couples — no matter what state they happen to live in — can at least legally try. 

"I say thanks be to God. 

"And if couples – straight or gay – are looking for a faith community in which to make, and then try to honor those lifelong commitments, well, The Episcopal Church welcomes them."

Wednesday, June 24, 2015

My Love-Hate Relationship with The General Convention

The General Convention of The Episcopal Church officially starts tomorrow in Salt Lake City, and runs through July 3rd. General Convention is the primary governing and legislative body of The Episcopal Church, and meets every three years.

I've always had mixed emotions about The General Convention, but this one in particular is stirring up even more mixed, "love-hate" feelings.

Because I'm not there.

This will be the first General Convention I haven't attended since 2000 (Denver) -- I was in Minneapolis in 2003, Columbus in 2006, Anaheim in 2009, and Indianapolis in 2012.

On the one hand, I LOVE The General Convention, because it's a ten-day chance to catch up with a lot of fabulous people -- lay people, priests and bishops from all over the country (and world) who love The Episcopal Church and all it stands for. Reading Facebook posts and seeing photos, I miss them; I miss catching up over dinners and drinks. I feel like there's a large, fun party going on in the apartment next door, and I'm stuck at home trying to catch up on work.  

I also love meandering around the Exhibit Hall at each General Convention, where hundreds of people from lots of different advocacy groups, church supply companies, Episcopal seminaries, booksellers and others set up shop to hawk their wares and ideas for the week.

I even love attending the quirky, self-conscious worship services held there. Especially after my good friend The Rev. Daniel Simons gave me great advice for attending worship at The General Convention: sit up front, he said, right next to the musicians; changes everything. And you get to not only hear, but see some fantastic preachers: in fact, of the ten best sermons I've ever heard, two were preached at a General Convention.

But unfortunately, those things (fellowship, idea-sharing, and worship) are -- or seem -- tangential to the central purpose of The General Convention.

That's because unfortunately, the raison d'ĂȘtre for The General Convention is legislation. Which means every time there's a General Convention, the Episcopal Church's loud-mouthed cousin called Church Politics shows up. Not only shows up, but takes over.

Now here's the thing:

I used to like "church" -- the institution itself, the way we're organized and run.

And I used to like "politics" -- hell, I worked on Capitol Hill for four years; I was briefly on a Presidential campaign staff; my last job before seminary was as a press secretary in a state-wide race.

So liking church, and liking politics, I used to love church politics. And The General Convention is the Super Bowl/World Cup/World Series of Episcopal church politics. And there I was, being paid to observe, and write about, church politics! Not quite heaven-on-earth, but a blast, a ten-day blast.

But then something odd happened. Not overnight, and not completely. But enough to change things in major ways.

And that's this: I fell in love with the Bible, and with the God-made-known-in-Jesus to whom the Bible points. (That's somehow embarrassing to admit, even though it shouldn't be. But that's another story.)

As a result, over time, I started to be impatient with, and eventually dislike "church."

When I say "I dislike "church," I do NOT mean the Church defined as the Body of Christ gathered for the apostle's teaching and fellowship, breaking of bread, and prayers; I still love that dynamic, organic Church.

I mean the church institution -- its bureaucracies, its structures, its "meet-for-the-sake-of-meeting" tendencies, its soul-crushing amendment-to-an-amendment-to-the-fourth-resolved-clause-of-an-even-more-earnest-substitute-resolution about The Issue We All Must Really Care About.



Please, God, no.

The funny thing is, I believe that a majority of people out in Salt Lake City can empathize, or even feel the same way themselves. I've had dozens of conversations about this, with folks who are out there, even now. There's a general and growing sense that the System is Broken, and there's a general and growing sense that We Must Do Something About It.

And so -- ironically -- task forces are formed and resolutions are written and debated and amended to address the brokenness of the system.

It's what we do.

And it's what we'll always do -- as long as we see ourselves as a legislative body that happens to have fellowship and idea-sharing and worship. 

For real change to happen, we need think of ourselves as an idea-sharing, fellow-shipping, worshiping body that happens to legislate.

Oddly enough, that mindset -- thinking of ourselves as an idea-sharing, fellow-shipping, worshiping body that happens to legislate -- is already in place on the congregational level at annual meeting time. It's even in place in some Dioceses at Diocesan Convention time: some Dioceses see their Convention as a time to gather the wider Church together for fellowship, prayer, worship, and idea-sharing, and are de-emphasizing if not overtly discouraging all but the most necessary enabling (Constitution and Canons, plus Budget) legislation.  

My unscientific research concludes those are the healthiest, fastest growing congregations and dioceses.

If that's true, since I'm not there this year to ask in person, may I ask a favor?

And that is -- if I'm onto something here -- may their representatives please speak up?  

Tuesday, June 23, 2015

"Don't just tell God how big your Problems are -- tell your Problems how big your God is."

I wrapped up a three-part series on the David and Goliath story this Sunday by using a familiar expression, "Don't just tell God how big your problems are; tell your problems how big your God is." 

To make that point visually, I took a little post-it note, held it up, and said "here's you." 

I then held up an 8 1/2 x 11 sheet of paper and said "here's your problem." And I put the post-it note on the corner of the paper, and held it up. The obvious point being, compared to the size of our problem, we seem very small. 

At the beginning of the sermon, I had asked the congregation to imagine the Goliath they were facing: a challenge, a seemingly insurmountable odd, a struggle.

Then (after preaching the majority of the sermon) I said, imagine your problem – your giant – moving closer to you. 

Like Goliath, your problem has every advantage in its fight against you: it’s above you, it’s bigger than you are, it’s stronger than you are.

It has every advantage except one, that is:

You have God-confidence.

You are measuring your giant not against your size, but God’s size.  

Up until this point in the sermon, I'd been preaching from where I normally do: at the crossing, a few steps up from the pews, in front of the altar, but near floor level. 

But at that point in the sermon, I went up to our pulpit-lectern, balcony-level, put the paper on the lower-left corner of the window behind the lectern-pulpit, pointed to it, and then said something I hope I can remember, because, as they say, preachers are often preaching to themselves: 
Photo: Debbie Gegenheimer
When we compare our giants to God’s size -- when we put our hope and faith in the mysterious, uncontrolled and uncontrollable God of surprises yet upon whose force we can rely -- then we, like David, have God-confidence. 

When we make this shift in perspective, we have God-authority and a sense of God-destiny. We’re in a target-rich environment. We, like David, have a huge advantage.

When we have a “how can I help” service mentality we use the strength of what is coming against us, against it.

One stone, with divine trajectory, takes out Goliath.

One candle pierces the darkness of an entire room.

One act of forgiveness pierces the darkness of sin.

Because ultimately, the David and Goliath story is not so much a story about David, or Goliath as it is a story about God, and God’s care and love and protection and encouragement. 

And how God can help you, like David, overcome seemingly impossible odds.

Saturday, June 20, 2015

Charleston Shooting: Politicized Pain

In response to the white supremacist terrorist attack on Emanuel AME Church-goers in Charleston, S.C. this week, and as a way of voicing not only sorrow for, but solidarity with, the victims of this attack, churches in Charleston are tolling their bells at 10:00 tomorrow morning.

We at The Falls Church Episcopal will join in this bell-tolling at 10:00, and then, before our opening hymn, pause for a moment of silence and for prayers. With thanks to the Rev. Canon Frank Logue, these will be among the prayers we will use tomorrow.

There's something about this white supremacist terrorist attack that commands attention and action.

Yes, "white supremacist terrorist attack" -- I agree with those who refuse to call it a "tragedy" as if it were a random, isolated, apolitical event, because as heartbreaking as it is to admit, this massacre was neither random nor isolated.

And while a recent Peggy Noonan blog piece in the Wall Street Journal makes good points about the power of forgiveness displayed by the victim's families, she loses me when she writes, "Don’t politicize their pain. Don’t turn this into a debate on a flag or guns."

"Don't politicize their pain"?!? The massacre was, by the alleged murder's own definition, a political one -- he made it a point to say so, even as he inflicted the pain.

And Peggy, no one needs to "turn this into a debate" about flags and guns. Flags and guns have been the symbols and instruments of one side of this debate for generations. The debate is already well underway; the only question is, "what will the counter-argument sound and look like?"    

The massacre is part of an ancient, evil drum-beat. That drum-beat grows louder and louder if unchallenged, and the way to stop hearing that drum-beat is not to merely add other voices, other instruments of peace and concord to the mix, but to stop -- physically stop -- those who are drumming up oppression and murder.

Forgiveness goes a long way toward that, and more power to those families who offer it. But only the aggrieved party to a wrong can offer forgiveness. The rest of us need to express sorrow for the greater, societal evil of white supremacy racism that this massacre represents, and then move from that sorrow into action -- concrete action, political and otherwise -- to stop the evil.

We'll toll our bell. We'll say our prayers. And then we'll make it a point to look for ways to not only speak up and speak out, but to act up and act out -- against the evil of racism.

Otherwise, we perpetuate it.