Saturday, March 30, 2013

The Bishop Speaks: Easter - Who is Welcome?

It has been an issue for many clergy (at least the honest ones) to look out on Easter morning and see the faces of people they have rarely or never seen. Who are these people? Why will they not be here next Sunday? It is nice to have a full church, but why just on this Sunday? Is it their new clothes? Is it because they have a church standard which requires them to attend twice per year? Is it because God or the resurrection story has somehow touched them and they just felt they had to be there?

What ever the reason, these folks are there. Now arises the real questions. What do we do with them? How do we treat them? Will they return? Does it matter? Are they welcome?

Here is how many Episcopal churches respond. At a point before the beginning of the consecration of the elements at the altar a priest will say something like this: “The Episcopal Church is an open communion church. All baptized persons are welcome to receive communion at this altar.” (Then follows a commentary on how to hold your hands to receive the host/bread, how to receive the chalice, and how to conduct yourself if you want to come forward for a blessing).

I just want to scream at this point. I look at the program for Good Friday and there it is in print, right after the Lord's Prayer, BCP, Page 364. “All baptized Christians are now invited to receive Holy Communion.”

What are we doing? What kind of place is our church? We welcome people who are visiting. We tell them we are glad to have them with us. We don't care if they came with a friend, because they know a member, because they say an ad in the paper, because they felt a message from the Holy Spirit, or if they just wondered in from the street. We welcome them and ask them to fill out a card in the pew and give us their name and a way we might be in touch with them and really welcome them.

HOWEVER, when it comes time for communion – only the baptized are invited to the altar.

What are we telling people who find their way in, feel a warm welcome, and then, at the big moment, we say, “Not so fast there, newcomer.”

Is that what we want? Let us stop this. Everyone is welcome at the table. This is not our table. It is God's table.

In the past few months, I have heard two priests say this in the liturgy. Once at a funeral and once at the blessing of a couple. These were special times.

I thought perhaps we were getting better. Alas, it has not been heard since by me.

It is my belief that every celebration is a special time, but I have been disappointed before. I, a baptized person, have been in churches where I was not welcome at the altar and it felt very bad. There was a sense that whatever God I knew, it was not enough to take communion in that place. It is a terrible feeling to be in a church and to be thought of as unwelcome at the altar. I do not wish that on anyone from any church or from no church. Our God is larger than that.

The issue is really about us and how we wish to be a welcoming community. This is not yesteryear. It is now and it is us.

Please, let us be more Christ like. Happy Easter to all.

Sunday, March 24, 2013

A Christian Spirituality of Person

By A William McVey

            For the last five years, I have been sharing somewhat structured conversations with spiritual seekers. They have come to these sessions because of my interest in a dialogue between Christian spirituality and Zen. Note, it is a dialogue with Zen mainly as a method of meditation compatible with a Christian theology of Via Negativa.
            Some of these seekers describe themselves in terms such as, “used to be religious, I am spiritual, but not interested in religion; I would like to be part of a spiritual group.” I explain that I will present my practice of Zen, especially Zen meditation known as Zazen. During these conversations, I will share how this practice has impacted my approach to prayer, meditation, spiritual mindfulness and a living a life of loving compassion in Christ.
            I do notice that backs seem to stiffen at the idea that we might talk about Jesus. I realize that we hit the often present “seeker inoculation point.” In the post-modern Western culture, people have not only rejected Christianity, they have immunized themselves against the idea. Furthermore, I am sad to say in many cases even at the name of Jesus.
            Yet, I pray and stay cool, but it is painful. When we finish the Zen part, I ask if they would like to start another conversation to explore various approaches to spirituality. I explain to them that I am an Episcopalian, and we follow a method of the “Via Media”. Simply, it means we love to explore and even go to extremes in loving and sometimes difficult probing conversations. We are a people who hold together by means of a loving consensus. They like that approach and the conversations begin, but there comes a moment when it gets tense. It is the moment when I present what I hold as the foundation of a Christian Spirituality of Person.
            I show an image of Michelangelo’s painting behind the altar in the Sistine chapel. I describe how commanding it is to stand in the chapel and experience the painting. It is the huge figure of God, the creator coming from the heavens and touching Adam, the man. The creator touches man. The creator touches his creatures and his creation and life is given. It is the image of the Absolute, Transcendent, and Sovereign Creator whose out stretched finger brings life in the touch and person comes into being.
            It is now that the seeker conversation becomes serious and some backs begin to stiffen even more. It becomes apparent that postmodern seekers are more comfortable with pantheistic and panentheistic spirituality. In this type of spirituality, yes even the panentheism types, God is All and His being is defined by the All. Everything natural is pervaded by the divinity. God is in the natural. God is natural. He is also beyond the natural, but He has somehow limited Himself to the natural.
            In the Sistine image, we learn that God touched us, and we became persons. We are not material beings. We are not a combination of the material and the spiritual. We are persons. God touched and bestowed upon on us the faculties knowing and feeling so that we might do the will of the creator. In a pantheistic style of spirituality, there is really no issue of will because the blending of the spiritual and the material into the universal All Minding must happen. Indeed, we just have to become conscious of our god-like nature. There is no issue of free will; it is all spiritual determinism.
             It is different with Christian spirituality where humans are the highest expression of God’s creation. Is it our ability to blend into the harmony of the universe? No, we, having been touched by the creator, and we have a much higher destiny because we are called on earth to hear and do God’s will.
The contemporary Christian philosopher Erazim Kohak writes, “A person is a being who meets you as a Thou, not just a “you,” opening himself to you, both offering and claiming respect. In the encounter of persons, categories of respect-moral categories-are in order. Not simply categories of purpose; purpose can also be mechanical and pointless. Nor categories of causality. Rather, it is the categories of respect, of good and evil, of right and wrong that govern the encounter of persons.” (The Embers and the Stars, A Philosophical Inquiry Into The Moral Sense Of Nature P.122)
            During Holy Week, we encounter a God who comes as a person and dies on the cross. The night before his death, in agony Jesus goes to the garden to pray with weak persons who fall asleep. I have thought this Lent perhaps the real agony for Jesus is the awareness that his disciples cannot handle the image of a weak God.
            It seems to me that a pantheistic and/or panentheistic God of force and moving energy appears much more powerful to a scientific-technical age.  A God we see in the here and now blending the spiritual and the material into a  force of the universe is more pleasing than the image of a weak person dying on the cross doing the will of the Father.
             I end here on Holy Week because we have come to the essence of a person based Christian spirituality. We are only weak persons who have become strong by way of the cross and resurrection and the Christ of faith.
Lift High the Cross!    He is Risen!

Friday, March 15, 2013

The Sacred Meal - Holy Week 2013

The dawn of human-consciousness brought the certainty of mortality and the awareness of both a physical and spiritual component to life.  We, humankind, know real hunger and thirst, both physical and spiritual.  We labor to meet those needs both physically and spiritually. Food and drink are the most basic answer to these needs.  Therefore it should be no surprise that food and drink make a perfect vehicle for ritual and are of crucial importance in many religions.
“And you shall keep it a feast unto the Lord”, Lev. 23:41.  The Jewish calendar is full of festivals commemorating major events in Jewish history or celebrating certain times of the year—Passover, Pentecost, and Rosh Hashanah (Jewish New Year.)  All Christian feasts—Easter, Pentecost, Christmas and Epiphany—are celebrated with a sacred meal.  In Islam the principle feast is Eid al-Fitr, (the feast of breaking the fast of Ramadan); the other great feast day is Eid al-Adha (the feast of Abraham’s sacrifice and God’s response.)  A wedding feast is common to all traditions.
The sacred meal symbolizes communal unity and communion with deity; the Grace of God is the ultimate nourishment. The sacred meal is meant to help move the believer from being a citizen of the world to be a citizen of heaven.
The sacred meal in Christianity is understood in a great variety of ways; for some it may be only a symbol or a remembrance, or it could be just an obligation, even for those who understand that Grace is present—some believe it is always subjective while others are certain the Grace is objective.  In many Christian traditions the sacred meal is numbered among the sacraments and received frequently, while in others the sacred meal is monthly, quarterly or even annually.  Much discussion takes place about the "form" (words) used in the sacred meal and the "matter" (physical elements.)  The lamb shank at Passover and the bread and wine in Communion are examples.
But when all is said and done, we hear: "I am the bread of life. He who comes to Me shall never hunger, and he who believes in Me shall never thirst." This is the perfect sacred meal.  In just a few days we begin Holy Week and the institution of the perfect Sacred Meal.  Will you come to the table?  You, our readers of Episcopal Journey of Hope are invited to share how important the Sacred Meal is in your life.

(As some of you have noted.  This and the prior two Goodtrhunder articles cover three of the Seven Ancient Spiritual Disciplines—Stewardship, Fasting, and now, Sacred Meal.)

Sunday, March 10, 2013

Episcopal Abundance: the great mystery of poverty

It is not the man who has too little, but the man who craves more, who is poor"~Jose Mujica, President of Uruguay

Under the leadership of Presiding Bishop John Allin in the late 1970’s until 1985, a mission funding process called Venture in Mission was developed and fully realized in hundreds of local, national and international projects for a monetary total of $175 million. It was the largest single capital funds project in North American Church history and stands as such, as far as I know, to this day. Ward, Dreshman and Reinhart, the fund raising consultants, who managed the VIM, have stated that only one other effort was ever bigger that they had handled, the Red Cross. The genius of VIM was its basis in grassroots mission definition and project development. Its theological vision roots probably go back a hundred years but was directly related to the Anglican Communion vision, document and process called Mutual Responsibility and Interdependence (MRI) of 1963. MRI was a practical and theological approach to mission stating that all God’s children have gifts to give to share and that our mission was to enable this abundance. The practical effect was creating autonomy for national Anglican churches all over the world and it final fruition in VIM. The synergy created by MRI and VIM is still sustained and carries on in a variety of ways for instance locally in Kansas and Missouri organizations that continue to support volunteer efforts to the serve and support those is need.

MRI pointed out what I call the mystery of poverty:  the paradox that much poverty is a false image of empty desire born of fear that calls us all to false needs, desires that never can be filled which can only be remediated by intentional, decisive acts of generosity. When we share with others that sharing synergistically not only returns and reaps greater giving but increases the material and financial resources available. MRI and VIM proved the point many times over in the lives of literally millions of acts and dollars given and shared in grateful giving.

In many ways such MRI/VIM generated abundance and generosity continues all over our local, national and global Anglican mission. However, little to no intentional consciousness of this dynamic seems to be known by many of our own clergy and lay people who have entered the life of the Church in the last thirty years.  Further if known by title, MRI and VIM are not known in practice. So as a result, our understanding of generosity is a thin and vapid reactive sense of “it is nice to help others.” Or in the case of our governance structures in many parishes, dioceses and national body, the actual opposite, the false desire for more, that perverse sense of poverty is once again virally and infectiously active in decision making.

We wish for more money, more people, more financing our episcopal structures, more control to keep what we see falling apart. We must keep every bishop and diocese funded, keep our “headquarters” at 815 2nd Ave. in NYC, must litigate to keep our properties from breakaway Anglicans bodies. This is all poor talk. It is unworthy of our Anglican tradition. The tools of regeneration, of vitality, of abundance and generosity are available for us Episcopal sinners who wish to repent and find joy in mission once again. . .

Friday, March 1, 2013

"Lost in the Fities Tonight"

The title of this blog is also the title of a nostalgic popular song about the 1950s.  For those of us who
came of age in this decade, it takes us back in time to sock hops, white buck shoes, big bands and a girlfriend who wore pleated skirts and cashmere sweaters.  It also takes us back in time to the church of this decade, when Christian churches were either full or almost full on Sunday mornings.  World War II veterans, many having gone to college on the GI Bill, married their sweethearts, got a decent job, started a family and joined and attended a church.  This was the Eisenhower era of "peace and prosperity" despite his warnings about the military-industrial complex.  Sermons seemed to be either about the eschatalogical fulfillment of the Kingdom of God now or a personal relationship with Jesus Christ.

The Episcopal Church was no exception.  Our churches were full too.  We were mainly a church of the upper middle class or the wealthy.  Many of the community leaders, industrialists, leading business people in town, politicians and professionals were members of The Episcopal Church.  Many of our clergy came from these same groups and were sophisticated and well-connected.  We also had our share of middle class and poor folks too, but they were not the majority.

When I was ordained in 1961, there was still a marvelous carryover from the fifties and the future of TEC looked good.  We had one Holy Communion service and our members could be certain that anywhere they worshipped, the liturgy would always be the same.  Consistency, uniformity and Via Media were the hallmarks of our faith.  The vast majority of our clergy were seminary trained and there was even a shortage of priests.  We knew the service by heart and we were respected members of the community.  As Archie Bunker so plaintively sang, "those were the days."

Things began to fall apart in the mid to late sixties.  The church moved from emphasizing a personal relationship with God through the Sacramental life to a horizontal stress on positive and equitable human relationships.  The church did some great things under this umbrella.  We worked diligently for civil rights of women and minorities, we protested the Viet Nam War, we introduced new worship services and we became purveyors of positive human relationships.  All of these things were good to do, but we went over the edge as they became the official guiding policy of the national church and many dioceses.

Demographics aside, these were the principle internal changes that fostered a climate of decline for TEC.  Here I am not judging or second guessing the church of the sixties.  After all, I was active in and supported all those ministries.  But I am merely stating the obvious.  The less we stressed our relationship to the Holy Trinity through the Sacraments, teaching and pastoral ministries of the church, the more we declined.  However, I am not suggesting that we return to the church of the fifties.  We can never go back.  But I do have an idea.  If we are going to "reinvent" the church for the 21st century, perhaps we could look back to that more docile time and recapture some core principles upon which to build our future church.  Are you ready?  Here we go.

1.  While we will probably never have one liturgy again, we can present carefully crafted worship services, minimizing informality and refraining from extraneous comment.  Emphasize our relationship to God through prayer, the Sacraments, and personal relationships.
2.  Preach lectionary based expository sermons that elicit of response of faith in Jesus Christ our Lord.  Please minimize personal stories.
3.  Instead of planning "seeker friendly services," seek to draw people into the very heart of God through excellent liturgy, utilizing good music and the arts.  Believe me, small churches can do this too.
4.  Tell your Bishop to encourage the House of Bishops and General Convention to drastically reduce Executive Council, make a Diocesan Bishop the Presiding Bishop and structure the national church in a way that stresses mission as the conversion of souls.
5.  Appreciate our historic efforts to promote social justice but eliminate them as Executive Council Mission Statements.
6.  Clergy, get out of your offices and do personal evangelism.  Target your prospects and show people the way to God and how to have meaning in their lives through a personal relationship with Jesus.  This may sound crass, but there is no shame in evangelizing the wealthy and upper middle class as well as the middle class and the poor.
7.  Promote the unity of TEC in the worldwide Anglican Communion.

In no way are these suggestions meant to be taken as a panacea for TEC.  None of my suggestions will in and of themselves reinvigorate and increase membership.  But we do need a baseline and anchor for mission.  Perhaps these and other "old" ideas can guide us as we try to practice obedience to the Lord, salvage what is left of TEC, and move us forward into the rest of this century.