Diary

The other day I read about Tony Benn, who my mother idolized. He was passionate orator, and a political diarist. Good diaries can be compelling windows into an age, especially by discerning writers. Some use it to document feelings, to work through one’s thoughts. But I had one parishioner who made lists of what was done. I’m tempted to make it into a list of things I need to do. 

So yesterday I preached. The gospel was on Nicodemus, and his misunderstanding of Jesus. John divides the world into light and dark, and Nicodemus is from the dark, and so he is forever in the fog of misunderstanding, who can’t figure out the riddle Jesus. Who do we understand? Those who have suffered along side us, who’ve fought the same battles. And in a more balkanized society, where we are separated by class and by media demographic, we simply don’t understand what we think we do. A solution? To free us from that misunderstanding, we must try to hear one another. I referred to the Buddhists who would meditate on corpses in Sri Lanka, which would prepare them for burying the bodies after the tsunami. Only when we hear, see, contemplate the stories, can we carry them, recognize them in others. I made the analogy that seeing the serpent was like inoculation – and perhaps the cross is like that as well. The cross casts light upon the suffering of others. 

After, I taught on the Apostles creed. We discussed hell.

I went to a wake for a well-loved deaf priest who lived in the area. At the funeral home I saw the mayor and his wife and a couple parishioners who knew his son through boy scouts. Sometimes when I see a local politician I feel like we have a lot in common because we have to please a lot of different people. I’m not sure if that’s a good thing. Theoretically I have a lot more freedom, but then, I restrain myself.

I said a few prayers from the prayerbook, which were translated by a signer. 

I went to the library where a local buddhist temple was making gifts for clients of Meals on Wheels of White Plains, where I am a board member. The temple is supporting a lot of public projects. It feels a lot different than other institutions – they make no effort to evangelize, but have become much more involved in the variety of institutions in the area. They have even started sending one person to the White Plains Religious Leaders. 

I almost went dancing, but my friend’s aunt died. So we ordered pizza, opened up a bottle of Pinot Noir from the Languedoc Region (not a classic, but perfectly tasty), and watched Monty Python. 

 

Being a Prayerbook Christian

I’m a “prayerbook” Christian.

That means I’m formed by the Episcopal Prayerbook, called the Book of Common Prayer.

It doesn’t mean I can’t say or write my own prayers.  And it’s not my book because I’m a priest. It’s a book for everyone.

I’ve heard people say they believe only in spontaneous prayers from the heart.

But there are times I don’t have the words. I’m perplexed, tired, or unenthusiastic, but the book is there. Even if I don’t feel anything, the words enter my consciousness. I find snippets of phrases pop up during the day, to ground me. And when I do pray spontaneously, it’s usually a combination of the words that I’ve repeated.

It helps that the prayers written in the BCP are beautiful. They use direct, visual, active language. They are efficient and succinct. They both have plenty to say, but they don’t prattle on. They say enough. One doesn’t need to be constantly talking to God. One can just move on and do the work.

Prayers from the book let words be words. They take away the responsibility for a perfect prayer, the right words, from the speaker, and just let’s the speaker’s heart be what it is.

However, the prayerbook is not sacred. It’s flexible. It offers room for others. At the convention, we can add more.

In many places, the prayerbook is where we best explain Episcopal teaching. The prayers within the marriage rite exemplify the church’s theology of marriage. Likewise, the ancient burial prayers say what needs to be said about what we think of death.  The prayers are miniatures of longer stories. Canon law is fine, but prayer is prior.

The prayerbook is efficient and egalitarian. I think people confuse “order” with hierarchy, conformism and taboo. Actually, order is about efficiency. It provides the minimum. Anyone can, for example, bless anything: a car, a squirrel, parmesan cheese. But the prayerbook provides the basics. Furthermore, when a priest is not present, we can change the pronouns – because the gathered people are the church. Order also ensures not everyone has to worry about everything. Let the Bishops worry about church. The rest of us have these simple prayers, and we can deal with life.

Sometimes Episcopalians say they don’t know much about the bible. The prayerbook, however, has also compiled the scripture that’s useful for personal edification. We may all want to read the bible cover to cover, but if the time isn’t there, the prayerbook has plenty of verses. We know more about scripture than we think; and it’s used for prayer, rather than as a rulebook or a hammer.

Being a “prayerbook” Christian is not better than any other sort of Christian. However, it it allows the reader to be relaxed about faith, rather than filled with anxiety about perfection or God’s response. Our strength becomes more easily woven into the everyday, for we can be liberated from worrying about how to please Him.

 

Interfaith Relationships

One of the pleasures of my work is the opportunity to work with pastors of many different traditions. White Plains has some very talented clergy.

More recently our group has gotten much more diverse – and much larger.

We have historically African-American churches, Roman Catholics, Baptists, Lutherans, Rabbis, two Episcopalians, a Unitarian, and a Buddhist.

The prayers are, of course, broad. But we’ve gotten in the habit of charity. We have learned to translate each other’s traditions. When people say that religions are the source of violence, I have counter data.

Collaboration without rivalry allows us to better address our local needs. Today we heard a speaker discussing the needs of the elderly population. We discussed ways we can better partner with each other.

I think it’s one virtue the church must train: collaboration. It’s not instinctive in a culture where spectacle and self-promotion leads to pretty things. Sharing leadership, seeking each other’s welfare, taking joy in other’s successes, that takes spiritual work.

And in the long run, the benefits are worth it.

Rebuking the Demons

On Tuesdays, I’m the chaplain to the my congregation’s branch of the Episcopal Church Women. Before they begin their handcrafter’s guild, we do a rite of healing. I don’t stand over them and ask them about their illnesses, do a diagnosis, lay my hands and them and call them healed. But we do remember those who are ill and we do a laying on of hands with one another.

I’m not sure what happens in the service, but the ladies insist, and I’m glad to be of service.  When we initiated the service, we discussed what it meant to be “healed,” the social and psychological consequences of being ill, and how people get better. 

Maybe the ritual diminishes the impact of feeling alone or abandoned. It could be a formalized representation of care. Physiologically the work of saying the words opens up the mind to better allow the body can do whatever healing it can do. The words and prayers may invite a cascade of chemicals into the body that benefit.  We know that words can hurt us and make us sick and stressed. The words we say together are healing words, and at the very least, words of hope.

Today in the Daily Office, Jesus exorcises a demon. Right after Jesus begins his ministry, he gets some guys to quit their family vocation and they go to Capernaum, where they see him rebuke an “unclean spirit.” I asked the ladies what they thought “unclean spirit” meant. Did they simply forget to take a shower? Did they break some rules?

One said, “mental illness.” Another said, “addiction.” Another said, “Alzheimer’s.”

We’re not in a culture where we see many exorcisms. If I were to lay my hands upon someone who was addicted to heroin, I doubt it would change their status. Nor would a liturgical prayer restore someone’s memory.

I wonder if “unclean” here is not merely about the chemical imbalance and physiological realities of mental illness. We only know that the man was in the synagogue, and that Jesus represented a certain kind of authority.

 I once had a congregant who would come into my office, sit down, ask me questions, and offer advice. After he’d meet with me, he’d take whatever I said, exaggerate it, and add a few false rumors to the mix, usually resulting in a flurry of phone calls. He made the congregation, and me, crazy. But he’d been around a while, so it was hard to change all the relationships who had become to rely on him.

So I began to share ridiculous stories, exaggerating them myself, which he could not possibly retell. Pretty soon he realized I was being uncooperative.

And for a while the craziness died down. Admittedly, I was a young priest, not quite able to handle conflict directly, and I didn’t know what to say. But when he whined about me not sharing with him all the troubles of church, I said to him, “it must be hard to be you. I’m sorry, but I find our conversations to get altered when I hear them back.”

I don’t recommend being ridiculous in such conversations, however. Being too flip or whimsical could escalate the conflict. It’s not a replacement for the power of being direct.  Fortunately, the other members of the church had begun to realize that he was, himself, unreliable.  Simply put, they stopped asking me if what he said was true and began to ignore him. And soon he left.

It’s not merely about causing trouble: sometimes that’s what truth tellers and whistleblowers do. If anything, in Jesus we see something about how the truth can cause havoc on a system. When someone stops drinking, starts taking care of themselves, often their relationships go through a change and people resist. Trouble can be good.

Perhaps Jesus liberated the system in the congregation, identifying the problem, naming the elephant in the room. Perhaps the miracle is how Jesus takes authority in a new way. Or even, the miracle is what happens after the man has been freed. That story is the one we live in.

Original Sin and the Apple

Sometimes I wonder if it’s human nature to feel like Eve.

If I’m told, “you really shouldn’t have another bite,” I want to eat it. It gets worse if it’s from a thin person, because I resent their slenderness. If it’s from a big person I ignore it because, what do they know?

Unsolicited advice?  Why not respond, “thank you, but I intend on doing the exact opposite.” It’s instinctive. Instead, the person who encourages us to rebel, to take matters into our own hands, that’s the person really on our side.

Admittedly, when I get the advice, the warning, the friendly feedback, I take a breath and remind myself the person has my best interests at heart. I consider if there is any truth in what they say. I play with the alternative – what if I took the advice? What if I ignore it? Continue reading

On exile and dancing

I have heard some funny responses to giving up things for lent. The cold. Bad Weather. Republicans. Church.

What I do know is that I hate daylight savings time. It just means I lose an hour of sleep and get cranky.

Today the scriptures say: You have turned my wailing into dancing. (Ps 30:12) and I sent them into exile among the nations, and then gathered them into their own land. I will leave none of them behind.

It makes me think of that quote: you can’t go home again. Decades ago, Tom Wolfe wrote: “You can’t go back home to your family, back home to your childhood … back home to a young man’s dreams of glory and of fame … back home to places in the country, back home to the old forms and systems of things which once seemed everlasting but which are changing all the time – back home to the escapes of Time and Memory.”

In other words, once you’ve gone beyond the comfort of the familiar, to return seems confining. Pandora’s box has been opened. The old ways just don’t work. The technology is obsolete. It is the insufferable who insist on vinyl.

We are exiled the past; and they were often not as pleasant as we might remember them. We can’t assume our lives will be safe and satisfying. But we carry home with us. My theology professor once offered the image of people singing hymns around a piano as true communion, being with God. It’s a pleasant sentiment, rarely experienced. I wonder if that’s what we try to emulate when experience mass culture: something shared. We get exiled and scattered, but the work of the church is to gather people again, even when there is suffering all around us.

In such a case I wonder if where two or three gather to sing and dance, God is with them. Let us not worry about what they are listening to, but hope that we can dance with them as well.

 

 

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.