Sunday, January 28, 2018


Different cultures at different times
         get worked up about different things.
Our culture for the past few centuries
         has been obsessed with sex.
In 1st Century Greece, they were pretty easy going
         about who slept with whom and how.
But they got mightily distressed about food.

It was a huge moral and spiritual issue.
Aside from the kosher question,
         there was eating meat left over
                  from pagan sacrifices.
One side said, to eat that meat was an act of worship
         of the pagan god.
 To eat food from a pagan temple
         was to make that pagan god a part of yourself
         just as our receiving the sacrament
                  is taking Christ into ourselves.
The other side thought pagan gods did not exist,
         so, to be hung up about eating meat from their temples
                  was actually acknowledging false gods.

To us, it may sound silly.
But the things that get our blood up
         might sound silly to the good people
of 1st Christian Church, Corinth.
It wasn’t so long ago that we insisted
         that women wear hats in church.
Times change, issues change, but people don’t change much.
We will always find something to squabble over,
         and there will always be at least two sides
                  with powerful arguments to prove they are right.

Enter Paul with his letter to the Corinthians.
Paul was always writing about how to be the Church.
We may not care that much about how to do Church.
But the idea is that Church is where we learn how to function
         in our families, at school, at our jobs, and even in politics.
Church is supposed to shape us for the rest of life.
So how we do Church matters -- and not just Sunday morning.
Paul is writing to the smart folks
         who think the people who refuse to eat meat
         from the pagan temple are just superstitious.
Paul demonstrates to them right off that he is a bright guy too.
He reasons through the whole thing and agrees with them.
He says they are right.

But just as the smart folks are about to spike the ball
         and do a churchy victory dance,
         he goes on to the disturbing next step.
Being right doesn’t matter.//
Paul says, “Sure you know stuff,” but the thing is:
         “Knowledge puffs up. Love builds up.
         Anyone who claims to know something,
         does not yet know the main thing.”

Paul says to Group A, you are right. Group B is wrong.
But do it Group B’s way out of love.
Life does not consist in being right.
In fact, being right can be our excuse
to act out all that is worst in our characters.
Life doesn’t come from being right; it comes from being loving.
Now this is not easy.
Most churches miss Paul’s point
         in one of two directions.
Some just keep on fighting over who’s right.
In years past, the church in its rightness has severed ears,
         lopped off heads, and burned people at the stake
         because they were wrong about this or that.
A lot of congregations still divide up
         and go head to head over the issue of the day,
         drive each other out rather than bend their will
                  when they are so cock sure they’re right.

And let me tell you, no issue is too small to divide a church.
No nicety of ritual, music, architecture, or cuisine is too small.
My old church had a perpetual wrangle over
         whether to put the name tags in the narthex
                  or the fellowship hall.
It is a principle of church life, that the smaller the issue
         the hotter the debate.

 The other way to get this wrong mixes Paul’s words
          with a poison pinch of codependency.
In this mistaken way of doing church: we pick
the most angry, fragile, volatile, needy, dogmatic,
         bombastic, or whiny person – and we do what they say.
Out of love, we enable their pathology.
Out of love, we cow-tow to their dictatorship.
I call it the nutocracy of the church,
meaning we are ruled by the nuts.

The problem is: that ain’t love.
Giving the nuttiest person in the room their way
         doesn’t just hurt the church and undercut God’s mission,
         it makes the nutty person nuttier.
It feeds the flame of madness.

So, what’s the middle road, the Anglican Way?
Prayerful conversation.
On any issue – moral, theological, political, you name it –
         ask the church’s position and you’ll hear:
         The Roman Church says x.
         The Lutherans say y.
         The Presbyterians say z.
         The Episcopalians are in prayerful conversation about it.

I used to think that was just wishy-washy.
Now I see that prayerful conversation has a wisdom to it.
Prayerful conversation is an art and a spiritual discipline.
It takes courage and kindness, integrity and patience.

Prayerful conversation is expressing ourselves honestly,
         telling our story, saying what we have at stake
 -- without trying to change the other person’s mind.
Instead, we listen to them, ask genuinely open questions
-- not to challenge -- but to get a better understanding.
 Prayerful, openhearted conversation allows solutions
         to float up as an organic consensus
         instead of resolving issues with win lose votes.
That’s how African tribes work things out.
They call it Indaba.

 Nelson Mandela was a young radical
         who knew the ANC was right and apartheid was wrong;
         but that puffed up knowledge just landed him in prison.
That’s where he took up the discipline of conversations
         with people who held different views.
He chose to assume they must know something he didn’t,
                  and he wanted to learn.
That process of conversation effected a peaceful revolution.

One of our greatest living philosophers Jurgen Habermas
         argues that we create our personal value and meaning
         through participating in social institutions – like the church --
         and the lifeblood of those institutions is not their principles
                  but their conversations.

 When Frank Griswold became Presiding Bishop
         he called on all of us to step back from our
                  dogmas and certainties
         to engage in conversation with each other,
         curious, compassionate conversation
                  as an act of Christian love.

We live in a polarized world.
Hate crimes in American cities increased 20% last year,
while murders by white supremacists doubled.
Our political leaders ignore good governance
         because they are lost in a sporting theory of politics
         that’s all about which side wins.

When extremist rigidity fractures civil society,
         we need the Church to bring back the lost art of conversation.
We can learn it here, then take it home,
         take it to work, take it to the city hall.
When we are not too sure of ourselves
         to listen to one another,
         our world becomes far more interesting,

                  and livable.

Wednesday, January 17, 2018


An Epiphany Reflection for The Episcopal Network for Stewardship.

Epiphany is the season of light. Eastern religions aim toward a spiritual state of enlightenment. Christianity calls it illumination. It means seeing through the smoke and mirrors of worldly values to appreciate what truly matters, something that cannot be put into words but we call it God, and when God comes among us humanly, we call him Christ.

The basic illumination Gospel story is the journey of the Magi who set out to follow the Star of Wonder, Star of Night. They wanted to follow the Way, see the Truth, and live the Life. Matthew tells their story as fulfilling Isaiah’s prophesy of illumination. Arise shine for your light has come . . .. In chapter 60, Isaiah prophesies that those who see the light will respond with gifts of gold and frankincense. Matthew agrees and adds myrrh.

Truth and giving, light and generosity. From Isaiah to Matthew, they go hand in hand. But it is not a quid pro quo. The Magi’s gifts are not an admission fee to see the Christ child. Their gifts are a spontaneous reaction to their encounter with him. When we see through the smoke and mirrors values that make us prisoners of what we supposedly possess – but which really possesses us – it sets us free to give as God gives, freely and joyfully. Our hands open and our hearts lighten at the same instant.

The Church invites us each Epiphany to follow the star, to see the light, to glimpse a bit of truth, and glimpsing that truth to delight in generosity as an act of freedom in Christ, to open our hands and lighten our hearts.

Reflection questions

1.   The Magi gave their gifts in response to seeing the Light of Christ. But they carried those gifts a long way first, as if they had a longing to give. Do you feel a burden that could be lightened by generosity? What holds you back?
2.   The Magi’s gifts were not practical for the baby son of a carpenter. If the gifts were not practical, what made them holy enough to be listed by Isaiah and Matthew? Something to do with the heart of the giver?
3.   The Church today is held in low esteem by most of society, as Galilee was held in low esteem when Jesus was born there. Isaiah stresses the unholiness of Galilee. What would it take to open our eyes to see Christ in an all too human Church and worship him with gifts that are tokens of our very lives? Do we want our eyes to be opened? Why might we want to see the light? Why might we hesitate?