A Lenten Discipline

I’ve decided to blog daily during Lent. I’m often erratic when writing.

I’ll use the daily office as inspiration. That’s an Anglican thing.

Sometimes I’ll be inspired by other words.

One of my struggles is about voice. Do I write like an academic, working through abstract concepts and relating them to the gospel?

Or do I tell stories?

Do I analyze the work of the priesthood? I could share stories of my failures. Priests usually tell of their successes.  I find those boring.

Tell me what doesn’t work.

I have a friend who is a very successful pastor. He creates programs, and announces them, and people go. Granted, he has a staff and resources. I envy him.

Evening prayer inspires me to think about being rescued. What does it mean to be resuced from being a target? Anyone who is in a position of authority, formal or informal, will find themselves the object of scrutiny.

Sometimes this is just: authorities can be corrupt. They may be wrong.

Other times it is an excuse.

For now, my goal is simply to write. Daily. In writing, let me find my redemption.

On Distributing Ashes at the Train Station

Today I offered “ashes to go” at the White Plains train station.  It’s apparently controversial, but I’m letting others do the heavy theological lifting. I wanted to experience it before I reflected.

It was cold. Below freezing. We still haven’t gotten out of the polar vortex, which I think has decided that it’s very comfortable in its new digs and has decided it will never leave.  Besides, spring has gone fishing. Ice fishing.

At first, I stood outside the train station in my cassock and surplice for a bit, but once I found myself unable to move my hands, I entered the lobby across from the newspaper kiosk.  It was also cold. The doors kept opening as commuters rushed in.  To keep my hands warm, I’d rub them against each other as I held my little glass bowl full of burned palms. I would have rubbed them between my surplice and cossack, but I worried it would look vaguely illegal. So I kept my hands visible.

I stood still, as I didn’t want to be pushy, merely present.  Available to the seeker, but conveniently ignored by the apathetic, distracted, and irreligious. I didn’t want to raise anyone’s anxieties or hurt anyone’s feelings by being so enthusiastically a priest.

People said, “I heard about this.” Apparently the radio and papers found this fascinating. Press might be good. Look at those quirky Episcopalians, standing in the cold, offering dirt and telling people they’re all going to die.

“I didn’t know this was happening,” said another. This?

“Can you do this?” Am I allowed? Well, I won’t tell anyone if you won’t, I didn’t say. I have a license. Continue reading

Holy Cross Day Sermon Prep

Holy Cross Day

I think of Moses’ serpent as a vaccine, a way of inoculation.

One rule is to just stay away from snakes.

But then another rule is when in the midst of snakes, stay focused.

How do we become inoculated in the world?  What do we seek to be inoculated from? Where are our contemporary snakes?

Moses’ snake is a form of power.  It is a form of grace. Grace is a way of talking about power: God’s power and our harnessing of it.

Or salvation, which may be a way of talking about having some space, some breathing room, some margins to move around in.  Making a little more room; not so much we lose a sense of integrity or lose our ability to act clearly, but enough so that we can see more clearly.

In Numbers, people can’t stand the change.  Who died?   Moses makes a symbol which seems to say:  take a look at the real thing here!  Don’t avoid the problems.  21:9 So Moses made a serpent of bronze, and put it upon a pole; and whenever a serpent bit someone, that person would look at the serpent of bronze and live.

In Corinthians it is written:  “I will destroy the wisdom of the wise, and the discernment of the discerning I will thwart.” Where is the one who is wise? Where is the scribe? Where is the debater of this age? Has not God made foolish the wisdom of the world?

I think of all the pundits writing about Syria.  Even the ones I like.  When we talk about signs and wisdom, we seem to be avoiding the problem of our own passions.  Christ Crucified is the clue:  how our passions make it so easy to kill our neighbor.

We’re reading John 3:13-17.  Most people emphasize 3:16 “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.”  In order to protect their being elected.  You believe, you go to heaven.  But the next sentence is the kicker:  3:17 “Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.”  Salvation, not condemnation.  Once it happened, the world could change.  One person at a time:  do you love or hate?  Can we be inoculated from the varieties of hate that destroy the lives around us?  Can you handle the truth of the passion and then choose eternal life?

Sermon Notes, Proper 13 year C

Just a couple thoughts about preaching this Sunday.

I was wondering about the relationship of the brothers. Is there a way to talk about rivalry and resentment here? Jesus response about greed invites my thinking about Gordon Gekko in the movie Wall Street where he tell students that “greed is good.” How do we express an alternate ethic, and why – when and if greed gives us all sorts of pretty things?

I was thinking about how the purpose of money is, in part, to circulate, to share. This is in contrast with hoarding. The rich man hoards – invests – in food he will not eat to day but in some unspecified date in the future. Instead, Jesus says “eat now.” Bring tomorrow today. It reminds me how I often think that tomorrow is the best day to start a diet, rather than now.

The body needs blood to circulate; the economy needs money to circulate. So what is it that we hoard? What kind of hoarding stultifies our lives? Is it about sentimentality? Is it a critique of attachment? Or is it a warning that we are always idol making creatures, to easily collecting burdens we don’t need to have. Perhaps the message is “keep moving.” Or die.

Simon Doonan Holds a Grudge: On the Proper Understanding of Forgiveness

Simon Doonan writes about the healing power of holding a grudge and challenges our “softy” culture.

I understand the sentiment.  Who doesn’t love a grudge?

Fortunately, his description of forgiveness is far from the church’s practice.   Forgiveness should not to diminish the worth of our own suffering, or to make us a nation of push-overs.  Forgiveness- or in the sacraments of the church, absolution – requires a depth of spirit.  For this reason, it is regulated.

Forgiveness cannot be demanded.  One cannot command someone to forgive, just as one cannot tell someone to “feel better.”  That’s emotional manipulation and blackmail.  The victim of a rape cannot be told to forgive; nor can the person’s mother forgive on the victim’s behalf.

Forgiveness also does not substitute for divine justice.  Liberal Christians may define hell all sorts of ways, but let us not forget what it’s there for.  It’s there so that we have a conceptual place for people who are certainly guilty of all sorts of crimes against humanity we cannot imagine doing ourselves, people obviously beyond our moral universe.  It’s there to say to the sociopaths among us that, even if the SEC won’t get you, God will.

For if Simon is saying, let’s us not abandon justice for the sake of forgiveness, he is perfectly right.

Fortunately, that’s not what tradition expects.

We don’t ask for forgiveness on behalf of other people.  If my friend gets murdered, I may ask God for forgiveness for my desire for revenge; but not for my murdered friend’s murderer.  And of course, I may choose instead to let God make whatever decisions about the murderer’s soul.  My hate can be my own.  I’ll let God do the hard work.

Nor should we forgive people who haven’t asked.  We forgive when people seriously and earnestly repent.  When they stop the excuses, the explaining, and recognize their fault and sin, THEN we can begin.  In these cases, the community of faithful people, through the church, may offer absolution.

This does not replace, of course, the demands of the law.

Certainly in the everyday work of living, we will get slighted and bruised.  These do not require forgiveness.  Instead, it is enough that a faithful person learn not to be offended, and to maintain one’s integrity in doing the work of life and seek the magnanimity and joy in life which we believe God wants for us.  An insult to me may merit indifference more than forgiveness.

The church believes in forgiveness, through the sacrament of confession, because it believes it forms a moral conscience, and it limits the damage victims also cause others harm.  We are rarely simply perpetrators or victims; we both cause harm and we receive it.  So t0 forgive has a task: to stop passing victimization along.

To forgive and absolve was handled carefully through the clergy class.   It was understood as a divine act, a gift, an opportunity to begin anew.  God is, by nature, terrifying, fearsome and jealous; the church could be alternately kind and merciful when the penitent came to his or her senses.  It was not meant to be casual or easy, but an opportunity to confirm a sense of right and wrong: a sense of order.

So although grudges are enjoyable, they are rarely helpful. They may have a place in our private imaginations, but they diminish our public life.  Our resentment may be full of error and misplaced pride as much as an expression of injustice.  Holding a grudge cannot replace restoring justice.  I share, for example, Simon’s outrage about the killing of elephants for ivory.  But I am not interested in either forgiveness or holding a grudge.  It should simply stop.  Now.

Our knowledge of goodness and sin are limited.  So we set limits to our behavior and to who has permission to forgive and absolve.  We believe, or hope, that there is eternal justice.  We know we may each be guilty; or vindicated.  But finally we will err on the side of mercy.

After my mother died, however, I ran into a famous poet who had been her mentor.  I’d discovered another time that he’d surreptitiously done great harm to her career.  When he discovered who I was, he said, “I always regretted not giving her the help she deserved.”

I told him to get a priest.

A Litany for the Blessing of a Car

A Car Litany

Priest: Let us pray to the Lord.

Response: Lord, have mercy.

Priest: Lord our God, You make the clouds your conveyance; You travel on the wings of the wind; You sent to your servant Elijah a fiery chariot as a means of conveyance; You guided man to invent this car which is as fast as the wind: Therefore, O Lord, pour now upon it your heavenly blessings. Grant unto it a guardian angel that it may be guided upon the rightful road and be preserved against all harm. Enable those who ride in this car to arrive safely at their destination. For in your ineffable Providence, You are the Provider of all things, and to You we give glory, to the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit, now and always and for ever and ever. Amen.

Or

Deacon: Let us pray to the Lord

People: Lord have mercy

Priest: O Lord our God, You make the clouds your chariot. You ride on the wings of the wind. You sent to your servant Elias a fiery chariot to carry him up to heaven. You guided man to invent amazing means of transportation.  Therefore, O Lord, we humbly ask You to bless our cars. Send to their drivers Guardian Angels to guide them and to protect them from all harm.  May they arrive safely to their destination through the intercession of Our Lady of Guidance and St. Elias-the-Living and all your saints. For in your ineffable Providence, You are the Provider of all good things and to You we render glory, thanksgiving and worship, Father, Son and Holy Spirit, now and always and forever and ever.  People: Amen

Celebrant, Will you remain attentive, forgoing eating, talking, or texting while driving?

Driver:  I will, with God’s Help

Celebrant:  Will you drive safely at the speed of traffic?

Driver:  I will, with God’s Help

Celebrant:  Will you be sober when you drive, and offer your keys when requested of you?

Driver:  I will, with God’s Help

Celebrant:  Will you forgo rushing red lights or stop signs?

Driver:  I will, with God’s Help

Celebrant:  Will you change lanes safely with space in between your vehicle and others?

Driver:  I will, with God’s Help

Celebrant:  Will you follow cars at a safe distance?

Driver:  I will, with God’s Help

Celebrant:  Will you relax when other drivers show bad judgment?

Driver:  I will, with God’s Help

Celebrant:  Will you pull over and rest when you are tired?

Driver:  I will, with God’s Help

Celebrant:  Will you be humble enough to forgo driving in bad weather?

Driver:  I will, with God’s Help

Almighty God, we give thanks for our reason and skill.  Let us remember that our ability to drive is a risk and that we are to remember the precarity of life in this world.  May all who drive do so with humility, attention and grace, so that we may be able to travel and visit the places we desire to go.

Or

O Lord God, listen favorably to our prayers, bless this …  and send your holy angels, so that all who ride in it may be delivered and guarded from every danger. And as you granted faith and grace to your deacon Philip, and to the man from Ethiopia who was sitting in his chariot and reading Holy Scripture, show the way of salvation to your servants, so that they may, after all the trials of their pilgrimage and life on earth, attain to everlasting joy. Through Christ our Lord. Amen.

AMEN

9/18/2012  The Collect is adapted from a Melkite Prayer; the closing prayer is adapted from a Roman Catholic prayer.

On Liberalism and Church decline: A response to Douthat

It’s true.  The church is losing numbers.  And yes, it has changed.

But I’m skeptical that the church’s decline has really been due to its liberality.  The liberal tradition is older.  Some trace it to Calvin, Luther or Erasmus; others Schleiermacher or Rahner; or the late 19th century pastors who dared to read Darwin.   Reading the bible was once a “liberal” act because it placed moral authority upon the reader rather than the clergy.  A few dare to trace liberalism to Jesus and the prophets.

The specific Religious Liberals, the modernists who conservatives critique have been around for more than 100 years.  Their authority and status built social security; promoted contraception and suffrage; they developed the framework that would build the UN, implement the Marshall Plan, justify decolonization and support civil rights.  They were church people who were comfortable in the halls of power, and had something to say.  For the most part, they were victorious.  Then in the 1960′s, in the midst of their success, that world changed.

This kerfuffle is not just about liberalism.  What changed is that the church became forced to compete.  And the pill.

As the economist Albert Hirschmann noted in Exit, Voice and Loyalty in the 1970s, Churches became less like families and more like franchises.   Previous generations did not leave a family.  In franchises, however, if the institution didn’t satisfy the congregants, who by this time had become consumers, they went elsewhere.  The beliefs of churches became products;  the doctrine of the church – or its practical mores – became another part of the free market.  And so, some left the church for other traditions, sports, or the church of rock and roll.   Some just decided to sleep in and didn’t care what the neighbors thought.  This liberalism freed us from some degree of oppression; it also liberated us from the burdens of obligation.  Thus attendance declined.

The other shifts were the cultural changes that gave women more power; and in particular changed the way the culture thought about sex.  Granted, the changes have, when coupled with capital, not been easy; but the liberal church accommodated those changes in practice, if not in doctrine.  That’s the particular liberalism at stake now, and why monosexual and patriarchal institutions are flummoxed by the Episcopal church’s movement.  In the Episcopal church, gay people and women have power.  It is not equal to the power of straight, white men with hair, perhaps; and it still reflects the culture; but the voices are not mute.  And this change is what threatens business as usual.

The church, the liberal church, hadn’t prepared for these changes institutionally. As the culture changed, progressive Priests were trained in the pastoral – professional model, assuming the reign of Christendom, that the culture would naturally return to their roots.  We didn’t think the world would become a mission field as people joined other tribes.

And so I will agree with one element our conservative commentators imply:  our church’s liberalism, our personal branding, our identification with niche of the Christian progressives, will not substitute for strong and powerful leadership.  In a highly balkanized environment, where communities are self-selecting and religious labels are like brands, our work is cut out for us.

Putting a sign on our office door saying we are inviting persons isn’t going to convince anyone they should spend time in a Christian community.  As one atheist said to me, “I’ll never enter to church, but if I did, I’d go to an Episcopal one.  Especially if it had Gospel music and lap dancers.”  It felt great to get his approval; perhaps he needs not join a Christian community.  But our numbers, if they matter (and perhaps they don’t), aren’t going to suddenly change because we’ve got the right progressive credential or passed a resolution to illustrate how awesomely liberal we are.

Conservatives often say, “He who marries the spirit of the age will soon be a widow.” I understand the sentiment.  For if our actions derive solely from cultural approval they will undoubtedly fail.  The qualities of leadership have much more to do with confidence, responsibility and an interest in other people than a particular political faith.  Certainly our rejoinder that the incarnation commands an openness is an appropriate one.  But its another task, and a very different one, to live that out.

The liberal church at this point could behave like Esau – it has inherited a church that once had power; but overwhelmed by the responsibility with the power and wealth that remains.  It could be too willing  to sell our inheritance for a moment of sustenance and temporary survival.  Or we complain:  “This expense could have been sold at a high price and the money given to the poor.”   Our shame about the misdeeds of the past may disable us from claiming a power and authority we could proclaim.  It seems righteous to diminish our ambiguous inheritance, but perhaps we would merely abdicate it to the market, and it would be sold for a pittance, and we’d continue to diminish our own voice.

Let’s admit that inclusivity is not necessarily inviting.   Shouting to the world “you’re invited” can be a meaningless act of theo-political theater.  What matters is our ability, person to person, to make connections within our communities – even if they do not directly benefit the church.  Our choices may signal to others that Episcopalians can fit in to educated society; that we can have coffee with religion’s cultured despisers, but our liberality will not substitute for the hard work of building relationships.  And this takes not merely resolutions, but another sort of resolve.  For it doesn’t matter if we’re liberals in the office.  It matters if we’re followers of our savior in the world.

The consequence is that clergy cannot merely be pleasant pastoral directors of its sheep-like congregations (who in Episcopal Churches behave nothing like sheep, by the way), but persons who seek to share in building a liberated humanity, one where the values of empire have been turned on its head.    That is not merely proclamation; nor is it pastoral care; it is the slow and steady work of reconstructing a certain sort of world.

And what of the snark, Church growth?  Nobody really knows how that happens:  it could be demographic luck; a handsome clergy family; strong laity; priests who’ve just stuck it out a long time.  One journalist suggested to me that the Episcopal church could grow if we just were more aggressive:  “You know your natural market, right?  Disenchanted Catholics.”

Of course, 50% of my church is exactly that.  Every priest knows the joke that church growth for Episcopalians means divorced Catholics and drinking protestants.  There are certainly some technical church growth habits parishes could practice more conscientously; but we still don’t know how to evaluate their success, and success isn’t guaranteed.  I will say that most of the people who’ve entered are those who want to be connected, and want a spiritual practice that sustains them in their life.

However, there is also evidence, all over the country,  of thriving liberal churches.  Not all are megachurches, but they are healthy, self sustaining and making a difference.  I can name a few immediately.   They have strong, uncompromising, inviting leadership.  They communicate to the needs of the people; they organize; they are social entrepreneurs.  The congregants are excited about their congregations.  Powerful and connected leadership builds churches.  It’s built conservative churches.  It can build liberal ones.

Liberalism was never the reason the church declined; but I suggest neither shall it be our savior.   It is enough that we will remember our risen Lord; and because he is risen, we are fearless; to risk loving the unloved.

On Bulletins

Penelope at One Can Not Have Too Large a Party (How True!) asks about the use of putting everything in the Sunday Bulletin.

I’m for it.  The arguments against it are trivial.

It was once a serious issue in my congregation.  I had started, over time, to include more information in our weekly bulletin.  Initially it was simply the responses of the congregation.  Then I included more of the priest text.  Soon, the hymns.  Announcements.

No papers flying about.  No need to juggle books and worry about choosing the right one.  Ushers freed from handing out the various additional hymnals when we needed them.  We included sermons by the Archbishop of Canterbury and the Presiding Bishop.  We could use more from the Book of Occasional Services.  It was full, and comprehensive.  Like Anglican and Catholic Christianity should be.

Of course, this caused a little consternation.  Our bulletins have become fairly thick, including the lessons, ministry schedules and announcements.    But of course, quietly, a few asked why we didn’t use the Book of Common Prayer or the hymnal any more (although we often still did for non-Sunday worship), and more complained about the destruction of large forests for the sake of the priest’s pride.  “We’ll help people who are visiting” they would assert confidently.

The sentiment was generous, but I’d never seen it happen.

The central question I posed back to them: what do recent members and visitors think?  Has it made worship more comfortable for them?  Did they come to our congregation because they wanted to become more familiar with the books?  Or were they coming to be a part of a hospitable, welcoming community?  Most of the few individuals who raised the questions about the bulletin were people who grew up in the church.  After many years of formation, the seasoned don’t experience our service the same way visitors and seeker do.  I’d change it back if that’s what our recent members desired.

Some enjoy learning the intricacies of worship and its complexity.  But a service that is too obscure can also be an unnecessary stumbling bloc to individuals looking for a community or a spiritual home.  So my criteria for analyzing whether a bulletin should be complete, is to first learn what the new members think.

And let’s face it:  saving paper is a ridiculous criteria.  Perhaps once we’ve given up seating meat twice a week; forgone air travel; started walking or riding our bike as a primary transportation, then we can get all fussy about paper. Download it on an ereader!  But until then, it seems to be miserliness masked as righteousness; a sacrificing of hospitality for some reason that cannot be fathomed.

But there are three challenges a full bulletin does not accomplish on its own.

A full bulletin is merely one example of hospitality.  But it cannot, on its own, overcome a parish that does not really want to grow.  It comes out of a generous spirit; it does not create it. It cannot hide it.

A full bulletin cannot mask rushed, incompetent, or lazy worship.  Worship that does not allow for some silence and reverence; that has cringe worthy music and singing; and includes dull, tepid and inauthentic preaching; will not be aided by a comprehensive bulletin, even if it is illuminated by hand by a order of monks with gold leaf.

Having a complete bulletin also does not excuse any pastor from teaching, in some fashion, the tradition.  We should be actively, continuously, repeatedly, be helping people explore their relationship with the transcendent using the many practices at our disposal, whether it be the symbols we hold, the words we read, or the prayers we say.  Those who want to learn about the Daily Office, about asperges and anointing, church seasons and colors, should be offered those opportunities.  And certainly, we can deepen people’s spirituality as best we can, so that they do not need even the bulletin or the BCP.  They can just look up, around, and participate in the liturgy by simply lifting their hearts to God, and learning to listen.

But we do this in steps.  Certainly do not skimp on strong worship; work hard on your sermons; love the stranger.  As you have done these these, you will find a complete bulletin will be a useful tool for everyone.

On Rowan

Well, he resigned.

Unlike many of those who I admire, I was a fan to the very end.  I remained impressed by his erudition and sensitivity.  I never doubted that he worked tirelessly to fulfill his thankless responsibilities.   The trouble he caused in England was necessary.  He often had the right enemies; when the tabloids dissed him, it raised his stature in my eyes.

I admit, I wasn’t that concerned about his decisions about the Episcopal Church and sexuality.  In my neck of the woods, my side won the battle.  There are openly gay and lesbian clergy; more will become nominated and selected to lead the church; and we are slowly, in due course, writing liturgies for same-sex couples.  I see that young people lack the homophobia of previous generations.  No gay person in my own congregation, or even in my own diocese, can worry about being disenfranchised by the church.   Since my state allows for gay marriage it is only a matter of time before I perform them myself.

Rowan, however, heard voices that I do not hear.  Not everyone in the world understands sexuality the way I, nor many of us in the US, do. We tend to see these issues through the lens of individual choice and preference.   It reflects more of a sea-change in other parts of the world.  And for many in the global south, our focus on sexuality seems like a first world problem.  Rowan was aware of many religious traditions that don’t yet understand modern, liberal, secular explanations of sexuality.

We underestimate the worth of those voices.  And while they could be wrong, Rowan asked different questions about the consequences:  how do we live with one another given our different contexts?

But what did Rowan do which changed the way TEC operated?   There was no way he could force the Episcopal church to toe the line.  He tried.  He hurt our feelings.  We can pout all we like because he never gave his stamp of approval, but we should have noticed we’ve still continued ordaining the priests and bishops we like.  Our presiding bishop still got to go hang out with other presiding bishops.  And so we’re still in the councils of the church.  This isn’t Rome.

Certainly, he made mistakes.  I believe he should have let Jeffrey John become a bishop, if only to expose how the English choose their bishops.  I think he might have been a bit more plain spoken about the real stakes in the communion.  It is possible that he did not get good advice, and that he was surrounded by people who were concerned with the machinations of English politics than the fate of the spiritual lives of people in the American church.  Sometimes I wish he could have been media saavy – his nuanced, thoughtful arguments were too easily made into fodder for ridicule by the British Tabloids.

Certainly Rowan didn’t understood the dynamics of the American Church very well.   And the confusion about his role in England, as the first foreign archbishop, is probably the same on our part.  The Episcopalian Church is more congregationalist in its order than we care to admit, perhaps, and the Anglican Church is interwoven with the English establishment in a way that Americans would find hard to fathom.  And perhaps spiritually we wanted him to be like the pope who we could ignore at whim (kind of like the way Americans treat Benedict).

But I believe Rowan understood what the long view looked like.  The English church will ordain women bishops; they will reject the covenant.   These debates needed to happen in the open, over time, in a messy, public, difficult way.  There was no avoiding it.  Although most of us wanted bold declarations and clarity, the Archbishop seemed to understand the dangers of moving too quickly.  I don’t think he idealized caution in itself, but he believed that listening takes a longer time than we like to believe.

Last year an Indian priest visited New York and said to me, “I understand more how the Episcopal church sees the world.  I don’t think my context is ready.  But I feel much differently myself.  And perhaps this will open even more minds.”  He said this after the Idaba process brought people of various perspectives together.  It was a model of mutual understanding, one which Rowan adapted to keep the Anglican communion in conversation.

I think that we’ll miss Rowan.  I’m personally glad he was often misunderstood.  It was an implicit, subtle challenge to the media and even to we liberals who work in internet-oriented, market driven time.  Perhaps over the long haul, we’ll see that he laid a good foundation for the perspectives of gay Christians to be heard throughout the world, and at some personal cost.   We don’t see it yet, but that story will be told.  And for all our focus on the issue of homosexuality, he wrote some remarkable, important words and essays that have gotten lost in the din.

So God bless you, Rowan.   Thank you for your service.

Is this the Church’s Moment?

Christopher Hedges recently gave a speech challenging churches, in particular Trinity Church, in the wake of Occupy Wall Street.  When Christopher Hedges boldly proclaims this is the church’s moment, my ears perk up.    Christopher Hedges knows religion, he knows church, and he’s philosophically sophisticated.  And I’m sympathetic, but as someone in the religion business, here are some instructions about how to reach out to church leaders and congregations.

Most pastors are an open-minded, well-read, sympathetic bunch.  And like everyone else they have their anxieties.

But of you want to engage or make demands upon churches, learn who they are.

It’s not hard.  Call the church and make an appointment.  Don’t make demands or ask for a favor.  Just to learn about the priest and the challenges of running a modern church.

In a busy church you may instead talk to a curate or a priest for community formation.  Get to know them also, though they might not be in charge.

Meet the sexton, the person who cares for the building.  Also meet the lay leader who has some authority in the church.

Why? Those people get work done.  Church people are hard workers.  They gather in order to solve problems.  They want to help.   They’re doing a lot of the unsexy serving that happens on a regular basis.   Over the last 40 years, they’ve done lots of work that has been ignored by the media.

In bigger churches, it will be easier if you are an “institutional representative.”  If you’re not intending on joining the parish, it’s easier to get some time if you have connections with other people.  That’s what “institutional representation” is:  a way of verifying you’re not just some random person who wants time, but someone who has relationships and represents what others believe.   Clergy sometimes are very available, but in busy parishes, like corporations, they allocate their time and have gatekeepers.

Our culture has become so radically balkanized between church people (who feel besieged) and the non-religious (who are perplexed).   Churches have been burned by social justice groups.  And social justice groups seem to find most churches ideologically suspect.

I can affirm that when I visited Occupy Wall Street, I was met with unexpecedly friendly and supportive faces.  I’mused to people fleeing when I’m in my collar, as the world puts me in an unsavory category.   Here, instead, they sought my blessing.     And I, instead, felt myself blessed.

However, our institutions have resisted, by and large, commodification.  Although we are imperfect, we’ve been negotiating the public-private debate for decades.   We’re private organizations who exist for the public.   This makes us responsible in a way that our government is not.

And we may get things wrong.  But I’m sure, in the case of Trinity Wall Street, that Dr. Cooper has a lot on his plate.   He has many voices he needs to consider, and his sympathies are most likely pulled in multiple directions.  I would argue that it is not his role to take sides, but to maintain connections.    And for this reason, it is crucial that an institutional representative of Occupy Wall Street sit down with any clergy for the sole reason to help every priest discern what is actually going on.

Because occupying property owned by Trinity Church isn’t actually occupying Wall Street.  That would mean trying to enter the buildings that house the institutions of power.  Trinity might actually be able to help the occupiers, but offering space might be the least effective way it can help.  But we don’t know.

Any movement, whether Occupy Wall Street or the Tea Party, that does not lay a foundation by getting to know the players in other institutions such as the church, may find itself disappointed in the church’s reaction.  This is not because we aren’t sympathetic:  but we seek to fulfill our obligations also to all sorts of conditions, including those who are not part of whatever movement is around us.  Our reticence is not disapproval.  And our hesitation should not be interpreted as cowardice.

When I was asked in my class about how I felt about Occupy Wall Street, I hemmed and hawed.  I said I was sympathetic:  the social contract had been undermined over the last forty years; those who’d been most responsible had not been brought to justice; and our system seemed devoid of character and virtue.

But over the last few weeks, it has simply been: I don’t always know what is going on.   I’m sometimes skeptical of authority, while appreciative of its effectiveness.  I think it is an emerging movement rather than a focused one.  I’m baffled by those taking it to the university (why there?) or the ports.  But I’m attracted to its energy.  It’s intriguing how social media has transformed the national dialogue about wealth.   I hope it will invite a better discussion of how our nation builds wealth, and the complexities of class.  But as a priest, I still exist in the world of face-to-face relationships and am instinctively wary of ideological posturing or movement politics.

Chris Hedges is surely right to ask churches where they stand.  We must be more open about talking about our economic condition, the roots of our current malaise, and clear about the system’s shortcomings.

But churches do not properly engage movements.  They engage individuals.  When there is danger, of course the church must offer shelter.  But sustained engagement, one that offers the hospitality of the church, requires first that people in the movement and in the church do the necessary work of listening and learning about one another.  It is through these relationships we can build the bonds that can sustain us as we critique our disastrous system.  Occupy Wall Street will only strengthen if it builds relationships with other institutions, or else the movement will fizzle.

This is hard work.   We are in a culture that values immediacy and quick answers.  To ask OWS and churches to sit down first and learn about each other seems like a waste of time.  I suggest that this view of “time” suggests that capital itself controls the game, commodifying the work it takes to strengthen the bonds of trust that can build alternative organizations.  It is when we first sit down, without demands, to listen to each other that we can understand what is actually going on; and from there, what work needs to be done.

And that work is the challenge.