Mistakes about Religion

Occasionally I read an article about religion that is so irritating, I obsess over it. It’s not, say, a writer who looks into the deep abyss and experiences nothing, or complains about an institution’s excesses. I can handle a well-informed atheism, including those that still see the world and its traditions and history as complex and interwoven.

And then I read articles that claim all religion is oppressive to women.

I’m sympathetic to a point. After all, just look at some texts. It seems pretty obvious.

But religion is not the same as the bible, or any specific religious text. The assumption seems to be: just give us a book, and we religious people are happy as pie. I’m sure some of us do wake up and let the book fall open like an oracle and let it tell us what to do. That works until you’re asking what kind of pizza God wants you to order, and it opens to the first chapter of Matthew. Hint: God wants you to order whatever you want, but just remember, back in the day they called Jesus the One True Olive, and asked for the church to be coagulated together like cheese.

What does that mean? I’m just saying get a good bottle of red to wash it down.

So when religious people fling verses at one another like food in a high school cafeteria, one reply could be “why don’t you all just agree on the food?” or “just go to a different restaurant than the religion one.” But they don’t see what’s happening: we’re having a conversation. And as long as we’re not throwing bullets, verses are a lot safer. 

We’re accused of cherry-picking the bible to choose verses that agree with what we already believe. To be honest, that’s a pretty solid accusation. But also of everyone. Hunting for facts to back up a position already held is the most popular way to have an argument except for the few lukewarm souls. Does this mean that Kant was wrong? That there aren’t some universal moral or metaphysical principles? No – it just means we must reside in humility and charity along the way while we get there. Our hope is that in the course of the conversation we’ll remember where our true priorities are.

For most of us who are in religious institutions, scripture has a life. It’s not a rulebook that moves us as if we were marionettes, but the ingredients with which we understand an interior reality. It’s not static – its meaning will change for us over time. That’s why we consider it sacred and canonical.

Is religion oppressive? A better answer is: yes, and no. Religion is a lot of things, and it reflects whatever culture it comes out of.  But if secularism is a good (which it is), then it was not because it arose simply as an alternative to religion, but because it mediated the multiplicity of religious voices. Secularism is weaker when there is only one religious voice out there. 

From my vantage point, I have seen both a decline in women’s rights and a decline in the power of liberal religious institutions. I believe the two are linked: without powerful faithful voices supporting the basic idea that women are human beings, secular feminists will remain on the defensive, especially in the areas of the world where women need the greatest support.

Jesus, Superhero

The people of Israel forget and remember God.

They live when they remember.

The church has its bones.

But it didn’t believe what it said.

Instead, it made rules and pointed at the unclean people,

But it did not say,

God flows through you.

Though you have been spiritually dead,

Sleepwalking,

Like a zombie,

King Jesus has wakened you.

 

It said very little. It was consumed in its causes, rummage sales and dinners.

 

But this does not mean you,

If you are Lazarus,

become a Zombie,

or that Jesus is King Zombie.

Instead, Jesus is like the Hulk.

Or a Transformer.

 

Mary and Martha got mad at Jesus.

He could have saved his friend,

but he wanted to show people he was a superhero.

 

It was a little self indulgent, but the work was done,

and I’m sure Lazarus just needed a bath. Even though that part isn’t in the scriptures.

 

Perhaps Jesus modeled what life could be in church.

We bring our frustrations and anger, and just let them be.

We don’t hide them, but focus them.

We become a space

where others can simply be unburdened.

They don’t have to worry about being contained.

 

We don’t wag our fingers.

We don’t give them a list of rules.

We don’t ask them to be in the vestry or hand over their wallet.

 

Instead we let them be, offer a meal, and

trust that the rock will be moved,

And we’ll feel the living God flow through us again.

 

Perhaps He always is,

But we’re just sleepwalking through it.

 

 

Twitter, Outrage, and Jesus

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It happens over and over.

First: the offensive statement, the easily misunderstood opinion, the flattened phrase.

A victim is created and shouts. They claim space, a part of the territory. Here I am. They say. Look, I’m bleeding. You hit me. You meant to hit me. In cyberspace, within the pixels, there is blood.

Someone says the rules. One rule is this: they are always right. I do not know who made these rules, but someone says it, so it must be so. The sensitive and righteous tweet support and tell their own stories. They demand an apology. Twitter has spoken. They determine what will be a satisfactory penance. There are other rules, and there are hashtags.

In 140 characters we will sort through all the mixed motivations of human desire. We will make it clear; we will judge, and correct, and make right with our succinct and brief tweets.

I will feel good if I can make you feel bad. Or if you do not feel bad, if you at least retweet what I tweeted, unless it makes me look bad, then I will delete it.

I have dishes to do and a living room to clean up and I should probably return some phone calls, but I must send this tweet because it will change someone’s mind, and it’s the perfect phrase that someone will notice especially if they have an amusing hashtag to add or maybe they will have a million followers and I’ll be noticed.

Twitter shall not be for the nuanced, the thoughtful, or the reconciling.

Those do not get retweeted.

Then backlash against the hurt. There is a retort and a riposte. Who wins? The most clever, or the most retweeted? We love the attention, and then the attention is too much. Hugo Schwyzer needs meds and a little love; no, he needs to go away because the man is a trigger, and he triggers everything, and nobody controls over their emotions anymore, I will tweet everything, because patriarchy and feelings oppress us all.

And so the outrage machine will make its little idols, through its perpetual series of distractions, puffery and self-indulgence.

Twitter allows us to be like Gods, worshiped by our followers with retweets and personal messages. And then we do battle with other Gods.

We need not seek healing, for we have these weapons in 140 characters. If there is the hope of winning, we will continue to place hashtags.

What would Jesus do?

He would look up from the screen.

The Woman At the Well

Last Sunday the Gospel Reading was on the Woman at the Well. The reading invites scandal: is Jesus flirting? Hey Babe, I’ve got something for you. She banters back, Really? Whaddya got, sailor? The story has a hint of ridiculousness: she’s saying, I’m not here for fun, I’ve got work to do, and I know what you want and you aren’t getting any.

She even forgets her water bucket.

Who was the woman? Easy? Loose? Sleeping outside of marriage? There’s pain and toughness in her, curiosity and astonishment. Who is this fellow who would talk to someone of the enemy tribe? Jesus is from the Jets and she’s from the Sharks.

That’s a West Side Story reference.

I don’t think it’s useful to avoid the passage’s edginess. Jesus seems to enjoy being the riddle here, enigmatic and obscure. And yet, he knows her, and has identified who she is. Then there is what is missing: judgment. Perhaps she had always been an extension of other men, sometimes protected, sometimes used, vulnerable at one age until reality made her tough, invulnerable to the critiques of others.

One person asked me, “why didn’t anyone just believe him?” People don’t usually just believe – they need proof. First we’re transformed, then we look for language to describe it.  After he’d given up heroin, a Jewish friend said to me, “I didn’t believe in the resurrection, until I experienced it myself.”

I think the experience of transformation begins with being recognized, not as an extension of others, not as the cause of pain or pride for others, but by being seen as a person worth loving, without the burdens of what she was carrying. Perhaps that is what the living water, the running water is like: one where life is clearly flourishing, unburdened and unshackled by the fears and limits and shame imposed by other people. She was seen and recognized. And perhaps that was the beginning of her freedom.

She didn’t need the water.

Fred Phelps RIP

Fred Phelps died.

And now words are getting spilled. I will add a few letters to the end of this era.

Like all responsible mainline Protestants, he outraged me. He said what? How dare he! He was giving Christians a bad reputation.

On the other hand, Christians were already doing that.

I would get angry, imagine my own counter protest, invent signs in my mind.

Once I grew tired of my own outrage, it became clear Westboro Baptist Church was barely a church. It was a family business. Nor were they in any sense effective: their outrageousness forced other Christians to moderate their equally pernicious language.

Marriage equality continued. Possibly, because of the utter ridiculousness of his project, faster.

I can’t think of a single religious person I know, or even one I do not know, who would want to be identified with the antics of Westboro Baptist.  

So all that anti-gay protesting? Theater. Not that WBC thought they were performing, but they definitely were.  They were playing a part in orchestrating a response, one that was deliberate and scripted.

I began to experience reading about Westboro as if they were a travelling sideshow. I found my own personal, perpetual, outrage morphing into a deep sense of incomprehension bordering on entertainment. I didn’t understand what they were saying or doing. They were a spectacle speaking a completely different language, whose intentions were obscure.

And so the best responses to Westboro were ones that treated them like performance art. Counter “protestors” wrote signs like God Hates Figs. God hates Signs. God hates Little Tiny Fuzzy Kittens. When faced with hyperbole, go with it. Can I add a few? God hates low fat yogurt and toe fungus.

Sometimes I feel WBC was a huge diversion. Many other groups not only teach the same beliefs, but they organize and lobby. That’s where we should be resisting. But it’s hard not to watch the circus.

The internet asks for prayers, to not get caught up in returning hate for hate. Such a view is faithful and reasonable. But the ease for which I can do this is because, to be honest, I was never harmed by the man. His outrage was never my own. He was tired, angry, sick. He was pitiful.  In the end, the play was outrageous, so he got what he wanted: attention. I gave some to him. But I’ll looking forward to the moment I don’t care.

As our country forgets how to fear gay people, he will become a curio.

Rumors abound that Phelps had gay tendencies himself. It fits what Episcopal Clergy have known: the closet is the most violent place for a gay person. That rage turns inward killing the soul; and it turns outward wreaking its own havoc.

My real sympathy lies with his children and the abuse that they experienced first hand. I admire their resilience.

So my wish? In heaven, he’s out of the closet, and enjoying himself for the first time. Let him become, instead, an angel who liberates others from the self-hate they find being inflicted upon others.

I’ll let others bless the man. I neither celebrate nor mourn – the family and his enemies can do that. The rest of us? Now, to more important matters.

Thank You, Alban

The Alban Institute is shutting its doors. From what I can tell, it’s doing so wisely, acknowledging that its current structure needs to change.

It was one of the first organizations that addressed the decline of mainline Protestantism and sought to equip pastors with the skills to understand and revitalize their churches.

Most seminaries train their pastors to be good readers, counselors and ethicists. My colleagues are literate and trustworthy, people from whom I seek feedback.  I find them intellectually astute, warm and genuine.

But as a collective skill set, we learn organizational development and building institutions on the job. Most of us presumed we came into relatively intact organizational structures, but it has not been the case. Some can learn the skills intuitively, others have learned by participating in the workforce, but some clergy clearly have stronger skills than others.

The Alban institute attempted to introduce sound management into churches, helping us think about the practical challenges of decline and transformation. They covered a broad range – from how to think of a church “system” to board development to stewardship. Their books were focused on being useful to pastors, and very attentive to the detail oriented, toolkits that pastors needed.

What was always remarkable about many of the books Alban published was the repeated acknowledgment that if we really believed all this crap about God and Jesus, we could truly rebuild the church. When Loren Mead wrote about wealth, he put it bluntly. To paraphrase, we have to remember that we are rich, and we have been given a great inheritance. Only about talking about money honestly in the context of Jesus Christ can we rebuild our congregations. And we aren’t doing it. But if we recognized what we do have, we could change the world.

It’s hard to hear. It was hard to say. And it’s hard to do.

But many of us have found it hard to take risks he thought we needed to, and in that it’s harder to ask congregants to take the same leap. In the end, our “decline” has not been because of liberal theology, or of our prophetic witness, but one of leadership. We clergy, cursed with the desire to please and be nice, so that nobody else will leave, end up pleasing nobody.

Which is why I think clergy should take up improv comedy and boxing.

Still, the mainline church is not the only place where the spirit may work. Perhaps it did what it was called to do: in the US mainline protestants laid the moral ground work for important institutions and movements such as the United Nations, the Marshall Plan, and Civil Rights. I believe it sought to hold the country together, in an imperfect way, as we began living into our country’s promise. Now perhaps we need other, more nimble, responses to Jesus’ call.  And so the role of priests and professional clergy will change once again. The economics are such that we will have some large congregations, and many house churches.

Thank you, Alban, for your prophetic witness to what the church could be. You gave this priest hope. I didn’t know always how to bring you into my congregation, but God knows, you tried.

Taking Clergy Health Seriously

What if clergy took their health more seriously?

When the days of having multiple clergy, staff and an army of women volunteers ended, the work became fragmented, stressful, and demanding.  Unprepared clergy suffer from depression and obesity – even if they know they love their work and the call.  Especially the smaller church pastor is often underequipped to handle the demands of building management, event planning, and performance that are each separately stressful upon the body.

I do not mourn the old days. I never knew them. And to some extent I enjoy the diversity of the workday and its challenges. My part-time staff is productive, helpful and supportive, so it’s manageable. I count my blessings, which are many.

But it’s easy to get overwhelmed. And for this reason, I wonder that clergy should have a rule about health. It should be non-negotiable, and may save the lives of a few clergy, and of some congregations.

And it might be like this.

The first rule of a priest is go to the gym. Every day. Do it first. Before work. Do it also for the health of the church. Because a priest that does not make a concerted, deliberate effort to do this work, will less effectively set important boundaries in other areas.

If it means postponing meetings until 11am, then do so.

If it means that you aren’t in the office until 10 or even 12, get to the gym.

Make it easy. If your gym has a locker, rent one.

If you need to just practice going to the gym, get there, take off your clothes, take a shower and then leave.

Put your clothes back on first.

If necessary, assure the parish. This will make you more productive, happier and they will be happier as well.  If they complain, we remind them that we want them to do the same, and find ways to be intentional about their own health.  Getting to the gym at a later office hour will still require that the tasks get done. It’s not license to leave early; trust that the impact of the exercise has shown to increase brain power. The work will more likely get done.

The consequences will have a cascading effect: exercise allows for better sleep; then it’s easier to workout again.  The pastor will have more energy.

What works for me? When I’m at my best I have a four day a week lifting program. It’s probably the only thing that keeps me going to the gym regularly.  The other day I do a very light 30 minute walk / run. Admittedly, I’m not always consistent. But a “rule” of life is not meant to be a whipping rod to lash oneself with guilt but an orientation to live into.

I recognize this is flip. But that first 20 minutes may change the nature of the day. It may begin with just walking. Wise priests might get a trainer or a coach for a few weeks to get started.

I suppose there are other things about health that are probably central. Jesus hates soda, including diet soda. Addicts trying to give that up can allow themselves flavored seltzer water.  And if thats not pleasing enough, try dark chocolate or beer.

Jesus loves beer and dark chocolate.