Saturday, October 26, 2013

The Bishop Speaks of Finding Hope

Parsifal is the legendary knight who sought the Holy Grail. The Grail was the chalice used by Jesus at the Last Supper, and for Parsifal it symbolized a contact with the holy, with spiritual reality. His quest for the Grail was a quest for the truth about life and immortality.

Now, the secret of the Grail was held by an old king, but this king was suffering from a mysterious illness, and his whole kingdom was cast under this same spell. The palace and its gardens were in decay, the springs of the kingdom were drying up, trees would not bear fruit, and even the animals were no longer bearing young.

Knights from all over the realm arrived every day seeking news of the king's health. Then one day Parsifal arrived – poor and unknown. He paid no attention to courtly custom and politeness, but made straight for the king's chamber, and without greeting or inquiry about the king's health, said: “Where is the Grail?” As if to say, “Where do I find the Holy? . . . Where is the truth about the meaning of life?”

The king said: “It is here.”

In that instant, everything was transformed. The king rose from his bed and was well. Springs brought forth water, vegetation began to grow, animals were with young, and the castle was restored. Parsifal's question regenerated the whole land.

It seems to me that this parable applys today to many institutions. They are perishing because there are few seekers of truth, few adventurers. It is enough, you see, simply to raise the central questions, to pose the problems, to become a seeker, for life to return.

For a congregation (or diocese) to begin to ask questions inevitably leads to seeking answers, which leads to thinking, which leads to vision.

I have long thought that too many church leaders (mostly clergy including bishops) operate with answers, which are theirs, which makes for starting at the wrong place. They do not operate with the knowledge that they are the newcomers. They must listen to the people most of whom have not been invited to speak.

Parsifal is a model which dares us to take the chance of offering hope to the people by listening to them.

Hope is not something we capture. It must always be sought. It will hide or be hidden again and again.

Where is hope? It is there to be discovered. The rest is up to us.

Friday, October 18, 2013

The Habit of Hope

                “I’ve Grown Accustomed to Her Face” is from the musical, “My Fair Lady”. It was taken from the novel Pygmalion by George Bernard Shaw. The musical starred Rex Harrison and Audrey Hepburn. Harrison played Professor Henry Higgins (the phonetics professor) and Hepburn was Eliza Doolittle. It was about the relationship between a cultural elitist and a slum girl. Eventually, despite extraordinary differences, they begin to form a deep bond. When the relationship is threatened, Higgins cries out, “I’ve grown accustomed to her face. She almost makes the day begin…her ups and downs are second nature to me now, like breathing out and breathing in, I was serenely independent and content before we met, surely I could always be that way again, and yet… I’ve grown accustomed to her voice, accustomed to her face.”

                 Here we have the core of the human mystery; it is that we find lasting spiritual meaning in life to the extent that we develop the “habits of the heart.” We read in Proverbs 3: “My child, do not forget my teaching, but let your heart keep my commandments; for length of days and years of life and abundant welfare they will give you. Do not let your loyalty and faithfulness forsake you; bind them around your neck, write them on the tablet of your heart…trust in the Lord with all your heart, and do not rely on your own insight. In all your ways acknowledge him, and he will make your paths straight.” We have the teaching of spiritual formation by means of spiritual and virtuous habits. It is really about the formation of allowing our soul to express itself by means of the habits of the heart.

                 Habit is when a practice or a way of living becomes “second nature to us now, like breathing out and breathing in.” Habit is defined by Aristotle as a second nature of embodied knowledge; it is the overcoming our lack of control by pursuing the habit of practicing virtue until it becomes “second nature” to us. We learn what is right and wrong, but head knowledge must be turned into heart knowledge by means of practice. Habits of the heart are a metaphor for embodied practical reasoning. It runs into our very bones. Knowledge of God must be by means of habit translated into knowledge of the heart. “My commandments…bind them around your neck; write them on the tablet of your heart.” Proverbs 3)

                 Habit is driven by the energy of the soul that moves the intellect and the will from abstract reasoning to practical reason which means that our will is driven by the loving and enlightened heart. “Trust in the Lord with all your heart, and do not rely on your own insight.” Rationality is deceiving and the will gets weary and lazy; therefore habits of the heart (practical reasoning) are essential to the spiritual life. Habits are difficult to change; they make us content and successful in our action.  In the spiritual life, we choose between habits of vice or virtue. It is not within the nature of a person to remain morally neutral. Spirituality is a call to a life of virtuous habits.

                 For Thomas Aquinas in his book on Ethics, a habit is a relatively permanent acquired modification of a person that enables the person when provoked by relevant stimulus, to act consistently and with ease with respect to the objective. We cannot replace a habit of vice by means of intellect and the will; rather, habits of vice are only replaced by habits of virtue. Habit is the mediator between our behavior and the intellect and will. Aquinas insists that habits are different from instincts because habits are responsive to reason. By reason, he means the power of decision making and personal strategizing that changes character. Habit is unlike disposition in that habits are not easily lost. Habit is not an instinct; it is far more than a hunch or an insight, a feeling, an urge, a mystical awareness or therapeutic clarity. It is more than an attitude or a disposition that easily changes.

                Habits have their great persuasive force over our character because our spiritual and moral habits are founded on our beliefs. What is a religious belief? “First, it is something we are aware of; second, it appeases the irritation of doubt; and third, it involves the establishment in our nature of a rule of action, or, for short, a habit…the essence of belief is the establishment of a habit, and different beliefs are distinguished by different modes of action to which they give rise.” (Pierce Charles Sanders, The Essential Pierce, Vol.1, p.129).

                Habit defines the indispensable nature of Christian spirituality and the living of a spiritual and moral life. The Christian life is not an intellectual enterprise. It is not the acquisition and sharing of spiritual and humanistic insights. Living a Christian life is a matter of living in a personal and communal lifestyle of spiritual habits, such as the habit of worship, of prayer, meditation, spiritual reading, personal and communal interpretation of scripture, establishing and sharing in intimate Christian friendships, examination of conscience and acts of loving compassion. 

Based on the norm of habit in Christian formation we might ask some easy questions.

 Question: What is the best worship service we ever went to?

 Answer: The one we didn’t feel like going to.

Question: When do we pray best?

Answer: When we don’t feel like it.

Question: What are the most effective acts of charity we ever performed?

Answer: The ones we did not feel like doing.

Question: When was our commitment to the church the most pleasing to God?

Answer: When we were feeling empty and discouraged.

The point is that life as a journey of hope is not about the feeling of hope, or an intellectual insight into the nature of hope; rather, it is about developing the spiritual and moral habit of hope.



Saturday, October 12, 2013

Episcopal Church Achieves Boutique Status

Preliminary membership numbers released last week by the Episcopal Church confirm another year of decline.  Last year, 2012, the Church experienced a 4.15% membership loss.  This now reduces the Episcopal Church to 1.8 million members – a 13% drop in the five years since 2007 and a 50% loss in the last 50 years.  Average Sunday Attendance (ASA), often hailed as the best indicator of active membership, also nose-dived last year by 4.9% which was called “staggering” by one reporter.
The Episcopal Church is no longer a part of America’s religious narrative, according to one commentator.  That bears repeating: “The Episcopal Church is no longer a part of America’s religious narrative.  That is to say, we are no longer a meaningful part of the future religious story of America; even the National Missionary Baptists are bigger than we are and how often do you hear about them? The best the Episcopal Church can hope for is a place in the “boutique” culture – joining boutique shops, boutique hotels, and boutique medical practices.  Boutiques in any endeavor are upscale, trendy, expensive, exclusive, snobby, and cater to an elite clientele.  Boutiques do not worry about reaching the masses; a few well-healed patrons and they can survive.
Consider the recent House of Bishops meeting with the theme of “Transforming Loss into New Possibilities.”  The 148 bishops in attendance considered re-imagining the Episcopal Church but it is nowhere reported that those same bishops addressed the fact that they, themselves, will cost the Church over 22 million dollars this year just for stipend and benefits; their staffs easily triple that number to a cost of $700,000,000 or more in the next 10 years – pricy even by boutique numbers. 
The bishops heard Dr. Elaine Heath, Perkins School of Theology, challenge them “…to go into neighborhoods and engage people where they are, where they live.”  Let’s be fair; scores of good men and good women have been bishops over the last 50 years and they have all understood what Dr. Heath advocates and even after spending over a billion dollars for bishops and staffs – our membership is down 50%.
We can play Monday morning quarterback and wish we had dramatically avoided all the dumb stuff of the last fifty years and instead shrunk the number of dioceses, reduced the number of bishops, kept multi-millions in assessment dollars in parish treasuries, and refused ordaining late-vocation, non-seminary graduates – would our declining situation be different?  Perhaps, but we’ll never know.
We do know that nothing we have done in the last 50 years has stopped the hemorrhage.  Time to bind up our wounds and actively plan to be the best boutique church on the block. 


Monday, October 7, 2013

The Final Resort: To Hope for Hope

In the Faith section of the Saturday Kansas City Star, two articles caught my attention. The one article was about the growing number of part time and unpaid clergy positions, featuring a number of those in the Episcopal Church including Mark Marmon, a fly-fishing instructor and unpaid Episcopal priest (or nearly so),Hitchcock, TX of All Saints’ Church.  The other article was about the growing phenomenon of “culture” rather than faith practicing Jews. “A Portrait of Jewish Americans,” by the Pew Research Center indicates that 62% of U.S, Jews surveyed found their Jewishness in cultural values and 15% about religious belief. And then on the same page, a far smaller few lines was on endearing quotes from Pope Francis, ones of solid, humble Christian faith witness. On the next page over, the number of advertisements for religious service occupied 15 to 20% of the printed areas whereas when I first moved here in 2001, probably 75% of the page was ads, if not more. . .

The landscape of the national and global religious environment has been shifting in my life time since the 1960’s, but the last ten years has been “fast forward.”  In my own Diocese of Kansas, we just have inaugurated a seminary in Topeka serving these very same part timers for all of Kansas, West Missouri and  Nebraska for occasional and monthly courses, much like what has been happening in Texas for some time. Of course just about all Christian denominations are facing the part time ministry phenomenon because many of our and all denominations’ lay persons are more or less part time themselves, just trailing the Jews and Europeans in general but moving down the same decline. And now occasionally we see the once stellar mega churches folding, as we have locally, as their slice of the lay pie was always based on numbers of folk whose commitments were never really very long term and where no work was ever much done to create reserve trusts or endowments for those inevitable “lean years.”  And many established, endowed congregations have withered their reserves for “keeping up appearances” as Mrs.Bucket used to do on her British tv series. My former parish of St. James in Wichita had a trust that I did much to protect of about $1.8million when I left in ‘01 and now has something over $400,000, but that loss is hardly unique among many congregations, dioceses and adjudicatory bodies. General Seminary and the Cathedral of St. John the Divine in NYC are commercializing good size chunks of their land to hold out for “better times,” as 815 2nd Ave. rents out about ¾’s of its space. Many years ago, I was talking with  a major fund raising company about St. John the Divine whose research profile of it indicated that by the 1980’s much of the new money they got for projects came from Jews,not Episcopalians, who understood the cultural importance of that institution while wealthy Episcopalians had grown weary of various social tirades coming from the Cathedral location. What an interesting turn of social identity, secular Jews supporting our institutional grandeur. Well, better that than nothing to say the least. . .

I am certain some sort question must be arising in the mind of the reader concerning toward what the writer is pointing. The writer is not certain either. . . Some days this author’s very human feelings are so confused by the many turns of events not only of the Church but of the many levels of American governments that seem hell bent to self destruction, of mindless but sober drivers looking at their phones swerving in front of me in full daylight, of my own issues about aging leading toward those concerns around my own “last days.” I just wonder, pray and do what may at last be the final resort of a spiritual journey. . . surrender myself to the will and grace of God as I have tried to understand it through the Christian witness of my beloved Episcopal Church. .  . I hope to find hope. And you?