Friday, April 25, 2008

An Old Versus Modern (Postmodern?) Friday Five

Singing Owl has posted the Friday Five with some interesting questions. It is going to make me think because I am getting to the age when I am beginning to really think about what has changed in the world

Yesterday I had two separate conversations in which people were musing about how much change is occurring. The WW II generation, of which my mom is a part, went from horse and buggy to automobiles, saw the lessening, or even the end of many diseases, went from widespread use of kerosene lamps and outhouses (in the country, and most folks were rural)) to a totally electrified and plumbed society. The fastest means of communication was a telegraph. The second conversation--gulp--was about MY generation and how much change occurred in the last half of the 20th century. The person said his 13 year old had not seen a vinyl record album until a few days before, couldn't remember a time without cell phones, and on and on.

As for the questions!

1. What modern convenience/invention could you absolutely, positively not live without?

Ooooh, this would be a toss up between my laptop and my cell phone because I have a Blackberry. I get my email on my phone. I couldn’t live without my car either—I would consider that a modern convenience as we did not have an automobile until I was well into grade school. They were impossible to buy right after WWII.

2. What modern convenience/invention do you wish had never seen the light of day?

IPods. Why? I am tired of people listening to the things rather than carrying on a conversation with strangers.

3. Do you own a music-playing device older than a CD player?
I have cassette players. Yes, more than one which I use either in the car or when walking when I want to listen to a book on tape that I can still get from the library. I still have a turn table on my stereo set but we don’t use it any more but we do use the radio part of the system. We still have some vinyl lp’s in the basement.

4. Do you find the rapid change in our world exciting, scary, a mix...or something else?

I can’t keep up with the technology. I need to spend some time with colleagues who understand the new stuff because I don’t understand the jargon used in the directions. Even the language used by Revgals on how to link flummoxes me. It doesn’t scare me; it irritates me and I feel dumb because I can’t keep up.

5. What did our forebears have that we have lost and you'd like to regain?

TRUTH! The Baby-Boomer tendancy to trivialize truth is really beginning to bug me. Granted, there is a wider understanding of point of view. But the human heart knows what is true and it drawn to it like we are drawn to good art, good music, beauty and love that is wholesome.

Bonus points if you have a suggestion of how to begin that process.

No, bonus point for me—I don’t know how to address this issue.

Monday, April 21, 2008

I am the Way

Sometimes, after I preach on something, I find one of my colleagues has said it better than I. My good friend Elizabeth Kaeton posted this sermon on her site. There are a few things that I don't agree with in this sermon. I do believe that Christ is A way. It happens to be the ONLY way for me. But for the Moslem, Jew, Buddahist or Taoist it is a way.

One of the things I so enjoy about Elizabeth is her ability to poke fun at Episcopalians while still being unfailingly loyal to the Episcopal Church.

“I am the Way, the Truth and the Life.” John 14:1-14
V Easter – April 20, 2008
The Episcopal Church of St. Paul
(the Rev’d) Elizabeth Kaeton, rector and pastor

There is a deep pastoral irony in this passage of scripture. Whenever I sit with a bereaved family who has just lost a loved one, nine times out of ten, this is the passage they will select to be read at the funeral mass. There is something deeply comforting about the image of “In my Father’s house there are many dwelling places.”

However, nine times out of ten, that same family will ask, “Um . . .but . . . could we end it at “I am the Way, the Truth and the Life? Could we not use that one line: “No one comes to the Father except through me.”

We live in a pluralistic culture which knows pluraform truth. Many of us have either intermarried or have very dear friends whose ethnicity as well as religious belief and spiritual expression are vastly different than our own. And, we believe, deeply and with all our hearts, that we will all be together in Paradise.

The old joke is told that a man dies and goes to heaven and is given the grand tour by St. Peter. At one point, they approach one room of the many roomed mansion of heaven, and St. Peter cautions the man to be very quiet and, in fact, walk on tip toes. After they pass the room, the man turns to St. Peter and asks, “Why did we have to do that?”

“Oh,” says St. Peter, “that’s the room for the Roman Catholics. They think they’re the only ones here.” Well, the same can be said for some Evangelicals. Indeed, some of them are Anglican.

But, there’s another part of that story. At one point, St. Peter beckons the man to look down to a particular place in hell. “My goodness!” exclaims the man, “What did those poor souls do to deserve such punishment?”

“Oh, them?” says St. Peter. “Those are the Episcopalians and Anglicans who couldn’t tell the dessert fork from the salad fork.” The man gasps, “Oh, but look! There’s a special place in hell for those who can not tell their bread plate from their neighbors.”

Just so you don’t all end up in hell, I’ll give you a little hint that I was taught in seminary: put your fingers together to form a lower case “b”. The hand that looks like a “b” is the side your bread plate belongs. The hand that looks like a “d” is the side your drink belongs. There, now you are all assured of getting to heaven!

It’s all a bit silly, isn’t it? Except, some folk take this stuff very, very seriously. Dead seriously. So do I. So let me say this clearly: I believe Jesus is the Way, the Truth and the Life. I don’t believe He is “a” way. I don’t believe he is “a truth”. I don’t believe he is “a life.” Indeed, he has become the centerpiece of my life and vocation.

I can scarcely sing the words of George Herbert’s poem put to that magnificent hymn “Come my Way, My Truth, My Life,” without becoming all girly-blurby, as the English say. In a few moments, we’ll be singing that great hymn, which I will sing from the deepest place of truth in my heart and my soul.

And . . .and, . . and . . . I believe what Ellie Weisel is quoted as having said: I believe there are many paths, but one way to God. My path is, I believe, also my way. It may not be the way of others but that does not mean that they are not on their way to God.

I believe that Mahatma Gandhi is in heaven. So is Anne Frank. Oscar Schindler is there with her. So is every living person who has ever made the ultimate sacrifice and laid down his/her life for a friend, as well as those who have done other amazing, albeit anonymous deeds of courage and faith.

Indeed, I believe that there are special places in heaven that even Calvinist Evangelicals won’t get to see which will be inhabited by Muslims and Jews, Sikhs and Hindus, Shintos and Buddhists.

Someone is crying “Blasphemy!” Well, okay. You are absolutely entitled to your belief. And, my friend, so am I. Why do I believe this? Well, let me tell you this story before I answer your question.

While traveling separately through the countryside late one afternoon, a Hindu a Rabbi and a Critic were caught in the same area by a terrific thunderstorm. They sought shelter at a nearby farmhouse. “That storm will be raging for hours,” the farmer told them. “You’d better stay here for the night. The problem is, there’s only room enough for two of you. One of you’ll have to sleep in the barn.”

“I’ll be the one,” said the Hindu. “A little hardship is nothing for me. He went out to the barn. A few minutes later there was a knock on the door. It was the Hindu. “I’m sorry,” he told the others, “but there is a cow in the barn. According to my religion, cows are sacred, and one must never intrude into their space.”

“Don’t worry,” said the Rabbi. “Make yourself comfortable here. I’ll go sleep in the barn.” He went out to the barn. A few minutes later there was a knock at the door. It was the Rabbi. “I hate to be a bother, “ he said, “but there is a pig in the barn. In my religion, pigs are considered unclean. I wouldn’t feel comfortable sharing my sleeping quarters with a pig.”

“Oh, all right,” said the Critic. “I’ll go sleep in the barn.” He went out to the barn.

A few moments later there was a knock on the door. It was the cow and the pig.

The point is, of course, that while we may be tolerant of religious diversity, what most of us can not tolerate is arrogance and the pretense of superiority and illusion of perfection. Let me fill you in on a little secret, if you haven’t already figured it out: no one, no thing, is perfect on this side of Eden. The only way you get to perfection is to enter the Gates of Death.

Which is how I want to answer your question: Why do you believe that heaven is also for those who are not Christian? My answer comes from the very lips of Jesus who said, “In my Father’s house, there are many dwelling places. “ It’s just that some of us will think we’re the only ones there. That’s not true, of course. It’s just that we’ll each have our own room in which to ‘dwell.’

What does this have to do with the church? Well, one last story. It may be apocryphal, but I understand that it is true. It happened in France, during WWII, in the last days of the war. Four US soldiers had been through the war together. They had shared their dreams and laughter, their fears and longings. Each felt the other was a brother.

One of the men was shot and mortally wounded. His three friends deeply grieved his loss and wanted him buried before they left the country. So, they went to see the local priest at the church in the center of town which had a very large graveyard, and asked if their friend could be buried there. The priest asked, “Well, was he baptized?”

The three men looked at each other and were completely dumbfounded. “You know, Father,” said one, “I know that he was a man of prayer. I know he loved God. But, I don’t think he ever mentioned being baptized.”

The men were sorely disappointed when the priest told them that only the baptized could be buried in that cemetery. Finally, the priest took pity on them and agreed to bury the man’s body in a plot of land just outside the fence which enclosed the graveyard.

Five years later the three men got together for a reunion and returned to that little town in France to visit the grave of their buddy. But, when they got there, they were startled not to find his grave. They searched high and low but could not find it. Finally, they found the priest and, deeply upset, asked him what had happened.

“Oh,” said the priest, “I remember you. Well, I thought and prayed about it, and, well, I decided to move the fence.”

Given the realities of our world, understanding the great diversity and plurality of our culture, I think the church is going to need to consider moving a few well-constructed church fences around some of the graveyards where our most cherished ideas are buried.

I believe there is room enough in heaven for everyone who loves God and does the will of God, because no matter what particular path they follow, there is one way to God. That won’t make everyone happy with me. Thank goodness that’s not in my job description.

Oh well, at least I can tell my bread plate and my water glass! Now, you so do, too! See you all in heaven! And I believe we’re ALL going to heaven. Amen.

Comment: Perhaps it is the exclusionary use of this passage over the centuries that makes this passage difficult. The emphasis on THE way, THE truth and THE Life that has been translated ONLY over the past 200 years or so, that makes me cringe about this passage. Jesus, in every thing that he did and preached, included those who were generally excluded. That we should recognize that John's gospel was being written for a group of followers of Jesus who were being excluded is part of this passage. And from that perspective, this passage is very comforting. But from being one who is being excluded, this passage hurts more than it comforts.

I know that at one point in my coming to Christ, I had to recognize that Jesus was calling me to have faith in him. I could easily have been a Jew, but it was not my culture. I might have been a Buddahist but I was raised and was comfortable in a Christian culture. My faith in God worked itself out in how I lived, in the life that I knew. For so many reasons, faith in God is mediated in our surroundings. For me and for those of us who are in the Church of Jesus Christ, we have come to have a relationship with God through the presence of Christ among us, in the communion of the assembly, in the word preached and lived, and in the shared vision of life. It is this truth makes itself known and reminds us of God's presence now and forever.

Friday, April 18, 2008

Friday Five: For Just 24 hrs.

My colleague hrod from Revgals has been under the weather. She posted the following 24 hr. set of questions. She has obviously recovered some, but I do wish her continued relief.
“Yesterday I had the 24 hour flu. I had been told by the people who had it first that it really was a twenty-four hour bug. And so while I dealt with all the blech of the flu, I kept reminding myself that morning would come and I would feel a lot better.

This is certainly a strange way to start out a Friday Five but it made me think about what I might like to do if I knew it would only last for 24 hours. There are no reality boundaries to these imaginings. So here are the five things for you to consider...
1. If you could dramatically change your physical appearance for 24 hours, what would you do?

There are a couple of things I would like to do. One, I would love to spike my hair. But then I could never show up at church and since I like showing up at church, I couldn’t do that. The other would be to drop 70 lbs. for the day as an incentive to lose some more weight. But then I wouldn’t have anything I could wear and I would have to stay home because I couldn’t go anywhere naked. Hmmmm. I think I need 24 hrs. to think this one out!!
2. If you could live in another place for 24 hours where would you go?
I would like to spend 24 hrs. in one of the artic regions—Antarctica or the North polar cap. I would like to see the stark beauty of the Polar Regions, but I wouldn’t want to spend more than a day. Everywhere else I would want to spend more than 24 hrs. Perhaps I would like to spend 24 hrs. just in the Garden of Gethsemane if it was a quiet 24 hrs.
3. You get to do somebody else's job for a day... I would like to be Presiding Bishop of TEC for just one day. Of course, the Church would never recover! But I would like to see the inner workings of the PB’s job and meet some of the shakers and movers of the Church at that level. Part of me would like to be Archbishop of Canterbury for the day, but the thought of dealing with all the arcane stuff of the Church of England would make me bilious. But then again I would love to be the conductor of the San Francisco Symphony for the day or perhaps the Atlanta Symphony. I thought about the Vienna, but Ich kann nicht Deutch sprecht. I would love to direct the orchestra to play the Mahler First Symphony.
4.Spend the day with another person from anywhere in time and space...
Of course I would love to spend some time with Jesus on one of his times when he was alone. I would love to ask what he intended for the Church to be. I don’t think we have gotten it right. Another person is Dag Hammersjkold. He was a man that I respected in my youth. I would love to have met St. Augustine before he developed the doctrine of Original Sin. It might be interesting to think of what kind of people we would be, or what kind of Church we would be if we had not been worried that we were going to hell all of the time. I would have liked to have been with the writer of Leviticus 18:22 and talked him out of it. It might have spared millions of people over the ages.
5. A magical power is yours. Which one would you pick?”
I am not really crazy about miracle powers because it is one of those “playing God” things that always gets me into trouble. But I would like to be able to settle peace on the people of the Middle East for 24 hours. The question is: would 24 hrs of Salaam/Shalom be enough to make the people there thirst after peace instead of vengeance? I think the other magical power I would love to have is a way to zap all the politicians in Washington, DC so that they might have the people of the world in mind rather than their own self-interests.
I feel something like a Miss Universe candidate replying that she wants world peace. But isn’t that what we all want?

Thursday, April 17, 2008

Liturgical Change

It is with some fear and trembling that I begin some liturgical change in the parish. It is always upsetting because everyone has a different take on what liturgy does.

Early in my ministerial career I was confronted with the changes from Latin to English in the Roman Catholic Church. It was a time of great pain for those who understood the Latin and loved the ebb and flow of the Latin syllables on the tongue. But for most Catholics, the Mass was impossible to follow. The great council of modern times, Vatican II, called for the Mass to be spoken in the vernacular. (Too bad the RC’s hadn’t paid attention to Martin Luther 400 years previously, but then we would never have had a Lutheran Church). When I was in the convent we had to create the daily prayer regimen in English. We used all kinds of books with the ubiquitous daily bulletin to tell us which book we were to consult and what page we were on. We must have had 6 or 7 books in our pews. The parish services were not much better. Much of the music we now claim as “contemporary” was composed during this time of transition from the Latin Mass to one in English.

Then I was ordained in the Episcopal Church shortly after the adoption of the present Book of Common Prayer. It was radically different from its predecessor. It used the YOU form for God rather than the THEE form. No one used “thee’s and thou’s” in normal speech and the way we referred to God turned the actual meaning of THEE and THOU on its head. It no longer communicated the feelings of intimacy intended by that form. Also a new theology of baptism was being proclaimed by the new prayer book. It upset people—mostly clergy who had to learn something new. Some churches were so upset that they left the Church rather than switch. Now after 30 years of using that formula to pray, few even broach the subject anymore. And now the Episcopalians will gear themselves for a new prayer book within the next 10 years. Liturgical forms need to change about every generation to meet the changes in vocabulary and communication.

The new Evangelical Lutheran Worship is a wonderfully creative aide to worship. It has 10 different settings, a full Psalter (unlike its predecessor), some wonderfully new hymns and some of the oldies and goodies that have supported Lutheran worship through out the ages. It has beautiful settings for morning and evening worship and numerous directions to help the planners of worship services to embrace the wideness available in the hymnal. It also reinstitutes the Easter Vigil of which I am quite fond, but with out all the problems of either the RC or Episc. I am amazed at the variety of offerings available in one hymnal. But I do see problems in learning the new hymnal: no page numbers in the Psalter, new psalm tones that may give us some problems and some versions of older hymns for the larger choir that won’t serve small congregations well. It will take some time to get this new hymnal under our belts, but I think it will be fun getting used to it.

Liturgy literally means the “work of the people”. It is what we do to honor God with our praise. But worship is actually God’s gift to us. It is the time we have to come in touch with ‘holy’ whether it is within our feelings, the things we learn, or if it is the mere setting aside the time to be present to God. Liturgy is not something that we are “to get something out of”; it is something that we are “to put ourselves into.” Worship is not a matter of what we learn from the pastor’s sermons, or the emotions that are generated by the music. Worship is what God does within us both individually and communally to make God’s will and presence known. There are generally moments when I am able comprehend God’s love for me and for creation within in the worship service. They don’t last long, but they are glimpses of what God holds out to me that draws me even closer to God.

I hope the ELW will be a way that will open us. Yes, it will be a bit bumpy for the next year or so. But if we are to stay present to the larger Church, we need to embrace it with all its blessings and all its reservations.

Saturday, April 12, 2008

Shepherd and sheep

When I was quite young I would go to church with my grandmother. Grandma lived in a small town in northern Missouri. Her little church had a very bad stained-glassed window over the baptistery. It was of the Good Shepherd with a lamb slung over the shoulders of Jesus. I guess it was the way that the sun that came through, or the paranoia of a 4 year old, but that lamb looked caught and very much a prisoner. At some level I knew that the shepherd was supposed to be Jesus and the little lamb was supposed to be me.

We moved to Texas when I was four. There, shepherds and sheep were not high on the social calendar. Sheep were seen as evil animals that ate the grass down so that cattle could not graze after them. To call a man a “sheep herder” was fighting words which the boys used to try out on play grounds or on the way home from school. Never was lamb served in our home—it was rarely available in the stores. Even today, my Texas relatives do not eat lamb. Ham is the traditional Easter dinner.

With this background, it has always been difficult to preach on the fourth Sunday after Easter. The relationship between shepherd and sheep in the Bible makes it difficult today to get at the relationship between the faithful and God. Sheep have the reputation of being smelly, stupid creatures in present-day culture, although there are some studies presently that sheep are smarter than once thought. They are herd-oriented creatures and in modern American culture, we are adverse to living as a flock.

But for the ancient Israelites the flock was what gave value to their existence. Nomadic herders, the forbearers of Israelite society were like the present day Masai of Africa—their whole culture revolved and evolved around their herds of sheep and goats. Their language, their ways of describing social issues grew out of their observations of their “cash crop”—their flocks. And even when the ancient Israelites began to become agriculturalists, they continued to use “flock” language to describe their relationships: The leader of human society was considered to be a shepherd—one who had care for his flock. It is not a mere historical truth that young David is out tending the sheep when Nathan comes to anoint the chosen king of Israel. It was a necessary part of the understanding of the people. The leaders of the people were shepherds of the people. The people were not sheep—the leaders were shepherds. And that is an important distinction to make if we are going to understand the image of the Good Shepherd from scripture.

Shepherds of the people, the leaders of nations, had to look after their people. That was important to this image. We need but look at Ezekiel 34 to note how the people of Jesus’ day and the people of John’s day understood what leadership was supposed to be. Ezekiel, 600 years before Jesus’ era, excoriated the leaders of the people because they saw to their own well-being and not to the well-being of the people. There was an understanding that the leaders of the people were to be ones who saw to the needs of the poor, the widow and orphan and those who “fell through the cracks” of law.

Many of the expectations we have of public office today center on the image of the Good Shepherd: politicians are supposed to lead with the thought of the whole in mind, not just their own personal or ideological welfare. Oh, that we could expect present-day political leaders to lead with the concern of the Good Shepherd! It is a great image for God, but it is a difficult image to live up to as a politician, pastor or a leader of any kind.

I have always found it difficult to separate the image of the shepherd from the sheep. They are intricately entwined. If the image of the Shepherd God is who keeps me fed and watered and safe as Psalm 23 says, it does imply that I am not capable of doing such things myself. And this is an image that simply goes against the entire spiritual, psychological, and sociological truths that have evolved over the past 500 years. Those with faith in God are liberated to use the faculties that God has given them in salvation.

I am not a sheep and neither are you. The relationship that God has with us is not one of shepherd to sheep; it is the relationship of God to the created. My novice mistress used to say that the Incarnation was the “Great Condescension”—God condescending to be human. I see it in a different way: I see the Incarnation as the lifting of humanity to a type of equality of spirit so that humanity is no longer debased and depraved—if it ever was. The Incarnation—God becoming human--allows humanity the hope of divinity. And while God protects and provides, God never takes over our will. We may not be herded.

This is why I believe that the image of the Good Shepherd for God or for Jesus is no longer viable. It may have fit with the need of John to align Jesus with the prophets of ancient Israelite memory. But for today, the relationship of sheep and shepherd needs to be taken with a great grain of salt.

Thursday, April 10, 2008


It has finally decided to be spring in the Southern Tier of NY. The crocus has bloomed. The skies are high and blue. And I can wear a light jacket and be comfortable.

Now is the time to say Alleluia!

I keep wondering how my colleagues in the Southern Hemisphere deal with Easter while embracing autumn. I asked an on-line colleague once what it was like to prepare for Christmas during the hot months of summer. She said, she didn’t know any other way since she had never lived anywhere but Australia. It really hadn’t occurred to her that Christmas wasn’t a hot summer’s festival. To try to comprehend Easter as something other than a spring feast is almost beyond my ability.

The word Easter is an old English word which comes from Eostre, the goddess of spring who is part of the Germanic pantheon. In the Mediterranean languages, the word for Easter is derived from the word Pesach, the Hebrew word for Passover. In Spanish, for instance, there is no way to distinguish the Jewish feast of Passover and the Christian feast of the Resurrection. In the Middle Eastern languages Easter is referred to as “Great Night” referring to the great baptismal liturgy of the Easter Vigil.

I would have difficulty trying to explain the Resurrection if I could not use spring imagery. And I have had difficulty getting into Easter season this year for that reason. It simply hasn’t been spring here in NY State. It has still been winter. Resurrection can happen at any time—certainly. It can happen in the dead of winter, in the retiring of autumn or in the blistering heat of summer. But whenever we experience it, we see it as “new budding.” We will even use those “springy” words to describe the incomparable experience of being restored to life after being dead.

Resurrection is not as rare as we might think. Whenever we find new life it is Resurrection whether it is physical, spiritual, or emotional. Whenever we embrace the newness that God gives as a blessing, we know resurrection. Whether it is the thankfulness for a new morning or a sea change in attitude, or the biological change from death into new life, resurrection is still a spring season.

And so I am singing Alleluias today.