Friday, April 22, 2016

Christianity -- One of the Oldest Games of Telephone?

Remember the game "telephone," in which one person whispers something to someone, who then whispers it to another, and the message is passed on down the line until the last person, who then announces the message out loud to the group?

Because errors accumulate each time the message is passed along, what is said at the very end is often hilariously different than the original message.

Or have you ever played the related game "broken picture telephone," where someone writes something on a post-it, and the next person has to draw what has been written, and then the next person has to describe what has been drawn?

In the above example, "a car at the mechanic" becomes, in only 11 steps, "I bring you flowers and I have blue pants." 

Makes me wonder if Christianity is one of the oldest games of telephone.

In Sunday's gospel, Jesus said,

"I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another."

It's a simple opening statement:

Jesus said

1) love one another the way he loved us. And 
2) people will know we are Christians by our love.

The earliest Christians painted imperfect images of that message -- the early church -- in their lives. 

Luke wrote down what he saw in The Book of Acts.

Other Christians tried painting images of church based on Luke-Acts. Accounts of those churches got written down, which resulted in more drawings, and more summaries.

If "a car at the mechanic" can become, in only 11 steps, "I bring you flowers and I have blue pants," is it any wonder that "love one another the way I love you and people will know you are Christians by your love" can become, over 2000+ years, everything from love-filled Mother Teresa serving the poorest of the poor to hate-filled people picketing veterans' funerals with "God Hates Fags" signs?

Come to think of it, isn't the real miracle, the real surprise, the fact that after all those years of broken picture telephone, some Christians still get the original message?

So -- you know I'm going to say it -- that's why daily Bible study is so important. That's why it's so important to go back, on a daily basis, and read the original message (or, more accurately, that which comes as close as we can to it). Don't rely solely (or even primarily) on what a hierarchical, power-hungry, neutered, tamed, trained, in-love-with-itself religious institution is telling you about who Jesus is and what Jesus said. Read it for yourself.

And -- you know I'm going to say it -- that's why daily private prayer is so important. That's why it's so important to find daily solitude, to "go into your room, shut your door," and pray to God in secret. Don't rely solely (or even primarily) on ordained clergy, already-written prayers, or structured, formal times of worship for the basis of your relationship with Jesus. Take time to develop, and become more and more conversationally intimate with God, yourself.

That way, "love one another the way I love you and people will know you are Christians by your love" might have a better chance of getting painted, in your life, as something pretty close to "love one another the way I love you and people will know you are a Christian by your love.”

Thursday, March 31, 2016


There is a version of Chrisitanity that implies (or comes right out and says) that it's somehow un-Christian to doubt.

Even worse, there's a version of Christianity that implies or says doubt is a sin.

If that's the kind of church abuse you were exposed to, you'll be glad to hear Sunday's Gospel and hear more about a branch of Christendom where doubt is not viewed as a sin. You'll be glad to know that
  • doubt has a place in the Bible; 
  • "doubting Thomas" has a place among the disciples,
  • doubting people have a place in this church.
God can work through any kind of doubt we have, but it's interesting that Thomas' doubt is a particular kind of doubt.

Thomas doesn't say, "I'm not interested in believing it."  He doesn't say, "Jesus alive again?!?--that's a stupid story!"

He says, "Unless I see the mark of the nails in his hands, and put my finger in the mark of the nails and my hand in his side, I will not believe."

So -- more about this in my sermon -- I think Thomas' doubt is really a desire. 

What Thomas wants more than anything is to experience God, right where he is.

And that's why all of us -- not just doubters or the doubting part of us -- can connect with Sunday's passage: because we can all connect with Thomas' desire to see and touch the Living Son of the Living God right where we are.

This is why church -- the Body of Christ -- is so important: how can Thomas -- how can we, how can the world -- possibly believe in the resurrection, unless he sees -- unless we see, unless the word sees -- the resurrected?

Thursday, March 17, 2016

Holy Week: Faith is Something we DO

Too often, Christianity is thought of as something we believe in, and Christian faith as something we think.

Holy Week, which begins this Sunday, Palm Sunday, is a helpful corrective.

Each year, Holy Week reminds us that Christianity is something we participate in, and Christian faith is something we do.

Just look at the action verbs:

On Palm Sunday) we commemorate Jesus' Passion (his suffering, or enduring) -- the short final period of Jesus' life beginning with his triumphant entrance into Jerusalem, moving through to his crucifixion. We commemorate the fact that adoring crowds shouting "hosanna!" can turn -- in a week's time -- to murderous mobs shouting "crucify him!" demanding the death penalty. Then,

On Maundy (commandment) Thursday), we obey Jesus' commandment to serve other people and to eat a meal in remembrance of the Last Supper.

For most years in my ordained ministry, I took part in ceremonial, liturgical foot-washing liturgies. Until one Maundy Thursday I took a fresh look at the origins of the custom (John 13:1-7) and compared it to the liturgy as we've inherited it. And I came to the conclusion that Christian religion has managed to turn what was originally a private "shock value" object lesson by Jesus -- namely, Jesus taking on the role of a lowly servant and (modern equivalent) getting down on his hands and knees and scrubbing their bathroom floors and toilets -- and turned it into a public, mostly polite, mostly predictable, mostly clean, symbolic, ordered liturgy, even often set to music. The service may be tender and beautiful, and even produce fleeting thoughts of humility for those who participate in it, but done by and for people who shower daily, and divorced from its practical, everyday-necessity roots, I fear what the liturgy ends up doing by imitating lowly and loving acts of service is inoculating us from the real thing. So in recent years, I choose to adopt a two-part strategy: do, actually DO some act of service directly with and for those outside our walls, especially the poor, and two, live with the pain of knowing I don't really engage in very many lowly and loving acts of service the other 364 days of the year, and aim to repent of that sin of omission in the coming year. 

So what does Maundy Thusday look like at The Falls Church Episcopal? Well, because in January 2015, there were estimated to be over 1,000 men, women, and children who were homeless in the Fairfax-Falls Church community, and because people who are homeless often have to walk (3-5 miles a day) to get where they're going, and because homeless people stand in lines about 4 hours a day, for this year's Maundy Thursday SERVICE project, we're serving the homeless by caring for their feet. We've been collecting socks the past couple weeks, which draws our attention to the fact that we take clean socks for granted. And we'll give those socks to local homeless people on Maundy Thursday. 

Then, Maundy Thursday evening, we'll have cleared some space in the Main Sanctuary for dinner tables and inviting adults and teens for a unique experience of the Lord's Supper.  Our worship will evoke the ancient tradition of the Agape feast: worship in the context of a full meal. 

We will have a Mediterranean style dinner -- asking people to bring olives, cheese, hummus, fresh or dried fruits, nuts, honey, bread and olive oil -- and we'll read scripture, say prayers, sing, and of course, have a Eucharistic remembrance of The Last Supper.

On Good Friday) we recall the way Jesus' first followers betrayed and then abandoned him during his ob-scene "trial" and death sentence by crucifixion. As part of our evening (7:30 pm) service, The Falls Church Choir will invite us into the depths of Herbert Howells requiem. There's something powerful about a cappella  (singing without instrumental accompaniment), especially when recalling the unaccompanied-by-knowledge-of-Easter grief that Jesus' first followers felt that first Good Friday. 

On Holy Saturday -- thanks to our new Associate, the Rev. Kelly Moughty -- we introduce something new this year: A Service for All Who Mourn. Because Holy Saturday is a day between commemorating the death and resurrection of Jesus, it can be a day to wait and watch and even perhaps weep in solidarity with those first followers of Jesus who waited and watched and wept over Jesus' death. At 9:00 am in our Memorial Garden, we are inviting everyone, but especially those who are grieving the recent loss of a loved one, for a brief service of scripture, candle lighting, and prayer for those who have died, and for those of us who remember them.  
The whole time we are going through these events of Holy Week, we are also preparing for Easter Sunday. It used to bother me that at the same time we observe solemn services we are preparing, inwardly and outwardly, for Easter Sunday: rehearsing alleluia choruses in choir, printing colorful Easter bulletin leaflets, finalizing fun plans for the Easter celebrations on the lawn, preparing a joyful Easter sermon, and so on. It seemed to be a contradiction.
But then I realized that is is no point in going through Holy Week with amnesia.
Because we know -- more to the point, we live -- something that Jesus' first followers that first holy week did not know, and had not yet lived, which is that 
On Easter Sunday, God, as always, has the last move and the last Word.
And that last move and Word is that there is no place, or thought, or behavior that is beyond God's concrete actions of extravagant grace, love, and forgiveness.
So whether it through these customs and services at The Falls Church or elsewhere, if you consider Christianity something people believe in, and faith as something people think, I hope you'll find new ways to enter fully into the actions of Holy Week and the Easter life.   

Thursday, March 3, 2016

"Prodigal Son" -- Wonderful Story, Horrible Title

This Sunday's Gospel (from Luke 15:1-32) contains one of Jesus' most famous -- and perhaps most wonderful -- parable.

Unfortunately, the name by which many people call this section of Luke's Gospel - "The Parable of the Prodigal Son" is horrible.

I mean, horrible. On a number of different levels, that title is just plain wrong and misleading.

First of all, it removes the parable from its context, which is the grumbling of religionists. Luke 15 starts with a reminder that many people of bad reputations (tax collectors and sinners) were gathering around Jesus.

People from "the wrong crowd" have always offended people who care more about worship, justice, and religion than about Jesus.

And sure enough, these religionists start grumbling: "this man welcomes sinners and eats with them."

Second, it's that grousing that triggered a series of stories, a series of parables from Jesus. Contrary to their misnomers, they are NOT "the" story of "the" lost sheep or "the" lost coin, or "the" lost son.

The way Jesus tells them, the sheep, coin, or sons are not even the subjects of the stories!

The way Jesus tells them (again in response to religious grousing) is  
  • asking you to imagine losing a sheep, going out searching for it, and upon finding it, hosting a joyful celebration for friends and neighbors;
  • asking you to imagine a woman losing a coin, and upon finding it, throwing a celebration for her friends and neighbors;  
  • asking you to imagine a father who loses two sons, one of whom was prodigal (wastefully extravagant) the other of whom was dutiful, obedient, and hard-working. Upon the return of the prodigal son, the father throws a celebratory party. Again, in the context of religionist grousing and the other two parables, it's the refusal of the dutiful, obedient son to join the celebration-of-generosity-party thrown by the father that is the point of the story; arguably, the prodigal son is only a foil to set up the real point of the story, which is the grousing, anger, resentment, and jealousy of the other, every-bit-as-lost older brother.
As Julian of Norwich wrote, and as I hope to explore further in Sunday's sermon, "Some of us believe that God is All-Power, and can do all. And that God is All-Wisdom, and knows how to do all. But that God is All-Love, and wants to do all -- here we restrain ourselves. And this ignorance hinders most of God's lovers, as I see it."

Wednesday, February 24, 2016

Honduran Abundance

I'm away on a mission trip in far-western Honduras this week, and the project I'm on is to supply rural mountain villages with access to clean water. Below is an excerpt from one of my emails reflecting on how things are going.

Yesterday (Monday) was a full day: delicious breakfast, then into the pick up truck for a long ride up to the village we are serving. The long ride is in the cab of or riding in the bed of the pickup truck, going up and then down a mountain on switch-back, dog leg narrow, deeply rutted roads. Think being a tennis ball inside a clothes dryer, on wheels. But it's also some of the most gorgeous countryside any of us have ever seen. We spent from about 10:00 to about 3:00 working alongside the villagers on the trench line. There are photos and videos on Facebook of 14-year olds lugging 75 pound sacks of earth straight up a hiking path, while we huff and puff to fill those sacks. Humbling!

Back down the the mountain, into town to shower and eat at La Llama del Bosque. Some stayed up to chat more, others of us fell into bed.

The rural poverty of far Western mountainous Honduras is starker but somehow gentler than the urban poverty we saw in central Honduras. Mostly we drive through land that is being farmed, and that's mostly coffee and corn. There are chickens and sometimes pigs and sometimes livestock.

A recurring theme for me - this is my 6th time on this trip - is that Americans have one of the highest standards of living, but one of the lowest qualities of life, of anyone. What I mean by that is we have so many material comforts and conveniences that people here probably don't even imagine exist. But we have so little "down time," so few times our pace is gentle, our conversations leisurely. I try not to romanticize the people here and certainly don't want to romanticize poverty. There is a lack of material goods and medicine and school supplies and even things we'd consider necessities like electricity and clean running water. But there is also an abundance here: an abundance of time, an abundance of gentle eye contact, an abundance of cheer and hospitality and non-cynical laughter. We think we're blessed, but after only two days, I think it's fair to say that we are the ones receiving the blessings from those who are richly blessed.

Thursday, February 18, 2016

Hope Trumps Demagoguery

Earlier this week, I was texting back and forth with a friend of mine who lives in Raleigh, North Carolina, mostly about about the UNC-Duke rivalry. Suddenly she writes,

"Do you remember a sermon you preached last fall about immigration? That inspired me to get involved with refugee resettlement, through Lutheran Family Services, in Raleigh. Well, I'm sitting next to a woman from Somalia whom I brought to the health department for her initial health screening. A good reminder that there are battles being fought beyond a basketball game, and that your words from the pulpit have power!"

I thanked her -- told her she made my day, in fact. Then she went on to say,

"I took a different Somalian woman to the doctor last week and she didn't speak much English. When she first got in the car, there wasn't much to say. I asked where she was from, and if her family is here with her. And she said 'my family is no more.'

"Where do you go from there? I mean, really. But when she got out of the car, she said, 'Thank you America. You save me.' And to think my biggest worry of that day was getting my daughter a spot in Lego camp. I feel deep joy in these relationships, and deep anger around the rhetoric of our potential leaders."

My response was, "I think the hope we have, when our culture shifts so radically and so fast, is to be subversives. We need to be members of a resistance movement."

"Yes," she said, "and for me that means entering into other people's suffering. And professionally, it means being a storyteller, like you did in your sermon."

The story-telling my friend is referring to is a bit of my own family history, the story of my grandfather and my mother, who immigrated to this country as refugees after World War II.

That storytelling -- that sermon -- is my best shot at addressing my friend's concern, and even anger, over the political rhetoric and demagoguery we've been hearing lately. I encourage you to read or re-read it, because it's important to address, and counter, demagoguery.

But because "it is better to light one candle than to curse the darkness" it's even more important to be a subversive: like my friend, to actually DO something. To proclaim by word and example the Good News of God in Christ, and to respect, through our actions, the dignity of every human being.

Friday, February 5, 2016

Lent Resolution Nonsense

This Sunday, Transfiguration Sunday, we transition from the season of Epiphany into the season of Lent. (Because the date of Easter is so early this year (March 27!), and because Lent begins 40+ days before, Ash Wednesday comes early this year -- it's this upcoming Wednesday, February 10th).

So it's a good time to make our Lenten resolutions, starting by asking ourselves, "When it's Easter Sunday and Lent is over, how will I know if my Lent has been successful? - how will I know if I've had a 'good' Lent?"

A good Lent starts with good Lenten resolutions: self-examination and repentance, prayer, fasting, self-denial, and reading and meditating on God's holy word.

I hope you don't buy into the nonsense that we should only "take things on" instead of "give things up" for Lent.

It's nonsense because it's a false distinction: on the one hand, to "take something on" is, by definition, to give something up. If you take on daily Bible reading, you're giving up daily web-surfing or television or an extra half hour of sleep. If we take on self-examination, we're giving up self-indifference or self-cluelessness. If we take on repentance (reversing course) we're giving up an insistence to continue along the same self-destructive path we're on. If we take on prayer, we're giving up worry and ingratitude. To take on reading and meditating on God's holy word is to give up a myopic world view where today's sins and sorrows and stresses seem unique.

And on the other hand, because nature (and your soul) abhors a vacuum, to "give something up" is by definition to take something on. To give up alcohol (anesthesia) is to take on sobriety and to feel, for 40 days, the full range of our emotions -- higher highs and lower lows. (Which is scary, particularly if we've been numbing our emotions for decades; no wonder we reach for the bottle and continue pretending we don't have a problem.) To give up sugar (or dairy or meat or other fats) is -- because we seem hard-wired for pleasure -- to take on fruits and berries, or cooking new recipes, or trying that new vegetarian restaurant. God spare us a lugubrious Lent.

God spare us a lugubrious Lent because Lent is about more than rules, or even new inspiration. In the light of the Transfiguration, the Gospel story we hear this Sunday, your Lent and my Lent will be a success, if by the end of it, our faces glow: our countenances change.

Our countenances change when we spend more time in the loving, "do not be afraid" presence of God: more time in prayer, worship, and serving others.

So our Lent will be a success if, by Easter Sunday, we act differently and look differently, not because we're still resolving to act and look different...but because we ARE different; we're metamorphoĆ³-ed: transfigured. Transformed.

What are you giving up, and therefore taking on, this Lent? Comments welcome.

Thursday, January 28, 2016

What would turn an adoring congregation into a murderous mob?

In Sunday's gospel, Jesus reads some scripture, says a few words, and an adoring crowd suddenly turns into a murderous mob.

What would turn an adoring congregation into an angry mob?

Some of you may remember I shared with you an essay that I had run across, which asks us to think for a moment about mathematical set theory.

You remember in geometry what "sets" are: sets are groups of things that belong together. A "closed set" is defined by a border, a line. Everything that is inside the line, border, or boundary belongs to the set. All that is outside the line, border or boundary does not belong.

An "open set" however, does not have a boundary - it is not defined by a line or a border. Rather, an open set is defined by a thing's relationship with the center. All that is moving toward the center belongs; all that is moving away from the center does not.

In open set theory, you can still determine what belongs in the set and what does not belong to the set, but not by looking to see what side of a line they are on: you must instead determine overall direction.

Apply this to the church. [1]

"Closed set believers have a 'territorial' concept of God's kingdom." It is enclosed within a boundary. "You become a member by crossing the boundary in an act of conversion. Once you are inside the territory, you had better be careful not to cross the boundary again."

Open set believers, on the other hand, define membership by movement toward or away from Jesus Christ as the center.

"There are still those who belong and those who do not belong, but you can't separate them easily, let alone state who is in and who is out once and for all. Those who appear to be close to Christ may be moving away from him, and those that seem far away may be heading toward him."

Instead of putting so much emphasis on a conversion process, what matters is what C.S. Lewis describes in Mere Christianity -- that choosing God is an ongoing process, and that all of our choices add up to a direction towards from or away from God.

Do you see how this helps us make sense of so much going on not only in the Episcopal Church and Anglican Communion, but in the world?  

"for closed set believers, how one defines the boundary is crucial." Where one "draws the line" determines, for them, the nature of the territory within.

"A boundary-defining issue need not be central to the faith, but as 'the border-crossing,' it is taken as the litmus test of whether one accepts the central matters of the faith or not" - whether one is orthodox or not, whether one is traditional, bible-believing, or not.

(And so it is that a single issue - like sexuality - issues not very central in scripture or in other ages - can become so highly contested., with all the hysteria and venom. From  the point of view of closed-set believers, the integrity of the [border, line] boundary  is crucial. If it is breached, the entire territory within is under threat. [What's next?!?  Anything goes!] "And so any concession on the boundary issue is seen as threatening the integrity and even the existence of the whole Church."

"Borders require policing, and policemen. In [the world we live in] fixed borders will always appear to be under siege because people will always be bumping against them. So the closed-set model will [sees] a changing world as a threat - because it is a threat, to...borders.

Open-set believers are not as concerned with defense of borders as they are with discernment - they scan the crowd to see what direction people are moving, as individuals [as a community.]

They still intervene, but having no borders to police, they intervene, not as policemen, but as shepherds - seeking to direct the flow, towards Christ.

Their kingdom map - who is in, who is out, is [not static, but dynamic], a matter of hunches and possibilities rather than certainties. For open-set believers, no single issue is enough to determine the fate of a person or the Church."

Now here's what's very interesting: Closed set and open set believers cut across liberal and conservative lines: "liberals or conservatives can get very defensive about single-issue boundaries and protect them with militant certainty,"

Just dare to not tow the liberal line on pro-choice, or gun violence, or the environment, and you'll find yourself being treated by the camp as an outsider, expelled from the company.

Just dare to not to tow the conservative line on taxes, or abortion, or gay marriage, and you'll find yourself being treated by the camp as an outsider, expelled from the company.

Here's the good news: on the other hand, "open set" liberals OR conservatives can have very strong opinions on overall direction, but be filled with a kind of joyful flexibility, not having the need to make rigid judgments or pick battles. 

But here's what's problematic: each of these mindsets offends the other, as "Closed set people think open set people are unprincipled or weak because they will not stand and fight, and open-set people think closed-set people are intolerant and controlling."[2]

Doesn't that help make sense of so much that is going on, not only in our church, but in our culture in general?

The further good news is - as we'll hear in Kelly's homily this Sunday and explore together in our "The ABCD and E's of Faith" class - these two approaches to faith and life have clashed for centuries. And for centuries we've had scriptural guidance -- and church tradition and our reason to help us make sense of that scriptural guidance - to help us.