So, A Couple Arrives at the Gates of Heaven, and–

Light and Salt

Last week I re-posted a joke on Facebook about a couple arriving in heaven after a fatal car crash.  They wonder whether they can get married in heaven, and ask  St. Peter.  St. Peter says  he doesn’t  know, but he’ll go find out.  The couple at the gate waits a long time (maybe an eternity), and while they pass the time, they begin to wonder if it’s possible to get a divorce in heaven.  When St. Peter finally returns, they ask him, but he blows his stack on hearing their second question.  Turns out it took him all that time to find even one priest of whom to ask the first, and he wasn’t about to go haring off all over heaven to find yet another priest to answer the couple’s second question.

I hesitated before re-posting this joke, because I have a number of clergy friends on Facebook, and I’m not sure how seriously most of them take themselves, secretly or not.

The joke is probably lost on anyone who, in response,  wants to quote the Gospel of Matthew, in which Jesus is said to have said that after the resurrection of all souls, people will not marry, but be like the angels in heaven.  And the joke is likely a puzzlement to anyone who has grown up without the cultural lore about St. Peter.  Who he?

But for anyone who has been disappointed in a church community, or anyone who has been betrayed by clergy, or anyone who suffers  from the habitual judgmental stance of church people across the board of denominations, this is a bitter joke and meant to be so.

You can bet the joke didn’t originate with clergy.  And I bet the joke didn’t start from a conversation of two people in the church, clergy or not.   Probably,  the joke started with people who once were church people and have walked away, perhaps for reasons of sanity.   Heck–even clergy have left on that score.  And of course this isn’t the only joke of its kind.

I think the joke is as full of pins and needles as the Scarecrow’s head before he met the Wizard.  Heaven.  Really?  When is that, and what?  Marriage? Why? And what’s with a gate that shuts people out after death?   Not to be too literal about it, but has anyone taken stock of the layers of insider knowledge required to make sense of this joke, let alone provide laughter?

So, ok, lighten up, it’s a Christian insiders’ joke.  Aren’t Christians allowed to have insider jokes?

Well, I rather think not.  Churchy people can claim insider status and they regularly do, using language that outsiders don’t understand, but since Christians are supposed to be salt and light in the world, I don’t believe their identity should lodge in any exclusivity at all.  Christians who are drawn to defending some or all aspects of the institution have, in effect, accomplished a very strange thing, actually unheard of–they have become salt that has lost its taste.  They are circling the wagons of tradition to hold the light in, defending their peculiarities from the world’s observation or hoping to justify themselves in the world’s eyes.

There’s  another thing about Christian insider jokes.  Understanding them depends on learning a vast amount of  complicated knowledge, much of it interesting history, but nearly all of it completely unnecessary to daily life anywhere in the world.  To make that irrelevant knowledge requisite for true Christian living and leadership is to forfeit the patience and good will of people in the world.

Christians can’t fix the way the world sees the church–any part of it.  It’s not their job to fix anyone, anyhow.  When you are salt, you don’t get to tell the person whose food is on the table whether or not to use you, or how much salt works in a dish of chili.  If you are salt, that’s all you are.  The person who needs salt and finds what is needed, takes as much as is necessary, or as little as the blood pressure can stand.  Salt has no say.  When you are light, if you mistake yourself for being the lamp, you think a lot about being turned off and on, or about the kind of light bulb  you believe would work best.  Christians aren’t the source of light–ever.  It’s too bad so many of them regularly  understand themselves as conducting light, leading them to think they are closer to the power source than people who are seeing by the light.   Light does not dictate what I can see, whether I am reading People Magazine or looking at a man at an intersection holding a piece of cardboard saying “Homeless. Anything will help.”

The thing about salt and light that is difficult for anyone invested in church itself, is the diffuse nature of either one when effective.  The sad thing about Christian insider jokes that isn’t often articulated is the fact that we think we can still remember when most people in our society shared our cultural awareness of Christian beliefs, standards, behaviors, and furthermore, shared our sense of value in all those cultural markers.  ‘Everybody knew’  Roman Catholics focused on guilt, and Reformed Protestants wouldn’t dance or smoke, and Episcopalians drank, and hats and white gloves were tickets to respectability in every congregation.  If many in the world now consider Christians to be irrelevant (at best), might not that be due to the totally irrelevant things that church people said were essential?

These days, much is being made among people doing the heavy, cutting edge thinking and speaking for everybody else in the church, about ‘being missional.’  That’s a churchy term for figuring out how to be relevant again as Christians,  in larger society.  I am interested in the fact that bitter jokes like this one about priests in heaven, appear in social media at the same time that prominent Christian clergy, like Presiding Bishop Michael Curry, are focusing Christians on joining a Jesus Movement.  Maybe the joke is a slant kind of question.  Will the church make the same mistakes in this century that she has made in all the centuries previous?

What’s an example of a church mistake? Going beyond all the ready accusations,  I’d say it’s a mistake to expect being missional to be about the lamp, the light bulb and whether or not Celtic gray salt is as acceptable as French flake or Himalayan pink.   There are better questions.  How is it you are salt when you go to your job as grocery market cashier?  How are you light in your work of business-to-business marketing?  How are you light as you cut hair, salt as you teach biology to 8th graders, light while you repair air conditioners, salt as you sell used cars, rent apartments, make bank loans, inspect elevators?  Can prison guards and state police be salt or light? Can politicians?  How?  The answer is most likely not, “Go to church.”   The question remains.  Ignore it at missional peril.

I can think of an insider-outsider revision to the joke on St. Peter.  Of course it’s next to impossible to find a priest in heaven.  Where are they, who are they? Poor St. Peter will have to run the length and breadth of the world instead, looking in dementia wards and at border crossings, going into refugee camps,  nursery schools and advertising agencies, knocking at the doors of roofing companies, asking in department stores and coffee shops, talking to chamber maids, public restroom cleaners and truck drivers,bar tenders,  astronomers and physicists.  And when he finds people being salt or light, they won’t have time to answer his question anyway.  That’s the rest of the joke.  There are lots of things that don’t matter in heaven, after all.



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Why Rush?

In 1847, Ebenezer Davies, a visiting Englishman, was invited to preach while in Cincinnati.  Later he wrote, “At the close of the sermon, having pronounced the benediction, I engaged, according to English custom, in a short act of private devotion.  When I raised my head and opened my eyes, the very last man of the congregation was actually making his exit through the doorway; and it was quite as much as I could manage to put on my top-coat and gloves and reach the door before the sexton closed it.”  Ebenezer Davies, American Scenes and Christian Slavery; A Recent Tour of Four Thousand Miles in the United States.  (London; John Snow, 1849)

Americans have always been in a rush.  Sometimes we notice ourselves hurrying through time; sometimes we are astonished to find time has gone past faster than we expected; somehow we are always surprised to discover that rush and hurry don’t make us more efficient, that speed affords less profit than we imagined, that we get a hint of some other value we might want, when suddenly we are forced to stop a moment.

I’d bet that most intentional Christians in their own places of worship have had a hard half year–hard years are a norm, even with joy and gladness interspersed.  Congregational leaders have certainly had a hard half year so far—most are working for most of the time with fewer members than usual; at any given moment some were surprised by the former music director’s taking a new job in mid-year; some have not been able to raise up new leaders for essential ministries yet; all have kept up with hard work of getting their congregational house in order—learning how to plan for building maintenance rather than letting the building reach emergency needs first; learning how to become good stewards of the members’ trust in them; getting  finances from a state of savings and funds in many coffee cans to a gathered, intentionally ordered unity of giving and resources, planning how stewardship and giving will reflect the whole church and provide for the whole church’s work in mission and ministry.   The heaviness of the half year thus far might have made some feel anxious or pressed on them a sense of falling behind, but I’d be surprised if most meet and work in this way every month.  Some leaders have been changed by taking up the habit of praying together at the close of each meeting; some leadership groups  have taken on praying each for the members they represent and care for, in some order of grouped names each month.  Praying for their work and the people they are keeping house for, changes leaders, gives them a vibrancy in the Presence.

Bishop Ronald H. Haines has proved one of the five most influential people in my life.  He was an extraordinarily busy leader, working steadfastly while under rather constant attack from many of his peers for his decisions, including his decision to ordain the first openly lesbian priest in the Episcopal Church while he was Bishop of Washington, D.C.  He never sounded rushed or hurried, anxious or angry as he went about his work.  I knew him in retirement.  I asked him once why all these pressures did not affect him in that usual way.  “You should ask yourself:  what’s the good in that?” he said.  “Remember: it took a long time for things to get into the state they’re in; it’ll take a long time to make them better.  You can’t get to the end before you start, and you’ll never begin if you rush.  Nobody can really think in a hurry.  When I drop things and I get angry, I know I’m going too fast.”

Here’s an interesting thing:  It’s hard to hurry through evening prayer, especially if one is using a liturgical service like Compline.  The rhythm and language of the liturgy opens time to reveal us as we are, where we are, when we are:  always moving and breathing in God’s presence, in whom there is no rush or hurry that overlooks details, drops things, inclines to forgetfulness or defensive anger.  True:  we can’t keep from being American, from holding an almost instinctive impatience with whatever it is that holds us back from going fast and even faster.   But we can grow more mature as Christians by practicing the virtue of patience until we find ourselves formed more closely as the people God can call and into whom God can pour increasing energy  for worship, witness and service.

Your session, vestry, consistory, council, meets on a regular day of the month.  Why not take time at the end of the evening on those days, throughout the rest of this coming year, and read Compline yourself, or some other service of evening or night prayer, wherever you are, joining your leaders in prayer and praying for them by name, once a month, as they do the work of leadership you have laid on them for 2013?

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Is “god” Dead–Yet? Now? Still?

William Hamilton died last week, aged 87.  While he was a tenured professor of church history–my father’s calling and profession–William Hamilton, who taught at Colgate Rochester Divinity School in the early 1960s, wrote a book with Thomas Altizer called Radical Theology and the Death of God.  Its publication in 1966 generated a Time Magazine review, and according to the NYTimes obituary, roused no great interest.  (Note: links to all articles and books mentioned in this essay are found at the end)  So Time went all-out and in the 8 April 1966 edition, published the single most famous cover of its history,  with a very long article inside that didn’t come to the main point until readers had gotten well lost inside an extensive church and religious history lesson.

The article was, I suppose, meant to offer an adequate context for the shocking question on the cover.  Even reading the article now, notwithstanding all the pictures Time included, I am as bored as I was then.   At the time I was both informed about and interested in church history up to the 19th century, but Time’s writers didn’t have the courage to make the point that church history underlined the theology of the cover’s question.  I needed then–and now–much more direct thought about the contemporary social and religious contexts for the questions Hamilton and his fellow theologians had been asking, ten years before the article was published.

Time Magazine fudged the real question being asked, in favor of sales and in favor of the status quo that the magazine’s right wing editors were constantly defending.  The writers weren’t up to framing a serious argument around the death of the gods who were male, anti-Semitic, anti-feminist, racist, dominating, violent, exclusively Roman Catholic or exclusively Protestant, and so on.  The right wing influence at Time Magazine wasn’t ready, even in 1966, to question Christian theology in light of current American society and the growing secularism in the nation’s heart and spirit.

Who is an intentional Christian now, and of the youth fellowship age then, who does not recall something about the impact that article had on religious communities at the time?  One of the theologians quoted in the New York Times obituary for William Hamilton,  Ellen T. Charry of Princeton Theological Seminary, asserted that “the call to action inherent in ‘Death of God’ ideas stirred an interest in social justice among liberal Christians and influenced the liberation theology movement of the 1960s and ’70s.”   She might well have added that we owe our 21st Century advances in feminist theology and gay and lesbian ordination, to Hamilton’s work.

But I think Professor Charry barely touches the hot topic of religion in a secular society.  That shouldn’t be a seminary professor’s job anyway–that articulation should be the work of any thinking believer in any religous setting today.  We Christians are too willing to respect that fact that we have beliefs; we aren’t willing to ask ourselves the hard and obvious questions that non-believers ask.  We rightly stand accused of fearing the answers, and no amount of doing good deeds for righteousness’ sake will help us erase that cowardice.  For instance, we don’t reckon the consequences of ducking the tough thinking about truths we can’t deny.  Instead, churches are willing to hang by the fingernails on crumbling walls and old, dry ivy vines of dogma and doctrine, hoping to survive by means of praise bands or interior decoration like big screens in sanctuaries.  In this case, we’ve all checked our brains at the door, as it is said, no matter what denomination the doors open into.

The Christian church in America anyway, whether Roman or Protestant, had pretty much been domesticated by American culture by the 19th century, and as a result, 2oth century Christianity in general offered a social setting very much out of step with society. In some cases, the Christian setting was deliberately against society, but by the 1960s, fewer and fewer families could boast that all their children were church members and attended regularly.

Listen to the lyrics of Billy Joel songs, or of most popular songs about the 50s and 60s written in the 1980s, and you hear the clash of church culture with American culture at large–the secular culture–in line after line.   Comedians and playwrights, sitcom writers and novelists, essayists and journalists all flocked into the very large, open, public spaces with their mocking, dismissive, critical voices knocking down Christian and Jewish religious culture from the privileged places of respect occupied for a thousand years without fear of secular opposition (even through the Enlightenment and the industrial and scientific revolutions of the 19th century).

Time Magazine missed its chance to be on the cutting edge of the end of the 20th century, because the writers and editors all thought they knew the answer to their question.  Of course not, they thought.  Even if I don’t believe in God the way my grandparents did, of course God isn’t dead.  Now, half a century on, if anybody self-aware enough to recognize the false shelter of personal defensiveness is still inclined to such cardboard theology, an hour watching Bill Maher or Ricky Gervase ought to shoot that paper tiger to hell and gone.

I began to follow Hamilton–unintentionally and unaware–in the spring of 1985.    Not from a doubt of God but from a conviction that the Holocaust demanded attention, I challenged myself to watch the Claude Lanzmann documentary Shoah.  It changed the ground on which I based my life.  In the cruel and bleak light of that film, the God of reconciliation and love in my theology and experience showed up as too small and insignificant and made of too much assumption, to encompass or defeat the evil exposed by the interviews of Holocaust survivors in that film.  A lifetime of listening to sermons had given me nothing at all with which to cope when that darkness came over me.

From then on, no answer of knowledge could be enough to meet the question “why, God?” and my following question, “where was God?” I began letting go of the certainties about God that were staples of my Presbyterian church and worshiping community at the time.  In fact, these certainties about God were leading the clergy of the denomination to argue violently with each other about abortion and ordination of gays or lesbians.  Nothing about sin or redemption could reach the horror of truth that went on showing itself–and has continued to this day–as total violence dominating so completely, and so reverently worshipped.  By the end of 1985, I was done with the God of certainty.  That god had long since died and I could see the idol standing in its place.  Was I really alone in this?  It seemed so.  All that arguing about proof of God’s existence in one social challenge after another turned on the pivot of the survival of churches, and rarely did I sense a struggle over true Christian integrity at issue.

I worked at the time for a parish with a sanctuary ceiling covered in dark blue paint and decorated with bright golden stars spangled about in no particular order–not even a constellation in view.  My metaphor for being Christian inside the church became that sanctuary–and I decided that I’d rather see the real sky and risk being blown to outer space and left to move alone in reality, than accept the ignorant and clergy-benefitting conventions of church life.  I wouldn’t leave the Christian community completely, but I would stay on the porch of any institution where I found myself–pitching a tent if necessary.

The adult who handed me (and my companions in the youth group) the April 8, 1966 issue of Time Magazine, was mostly interested in the way we all would react.  I regret that he was not more interested in the maturing of our thought.  William Hamilton wrote many decades later that he never talked about that April 8 Time cover without putting air quotes around the word ‘God’.  I think with regret of all the years I spent in intellectual cowardice because I didn’t know from the start that in the question’s intent, the word God was not an absolute.  I was not frightened or shaken in conviction when I thought about the death of the ‘god’ of the Reformers who killed each other over words indicating or denying transubstantiation, or the death of the ‘god’ that Tomas de Torquemada held supreme as he pursued heretics in the Inquisition.

Not until I came upon Thomas Merton’s tough little book, No Man Is an Island did I begin to move forward on my own.  While the clergy and staff of my congregation were occupying themselves with discussing butterflies as symbols for the Resurrection and the benefits of attracting legacies to the newly established endowment fund, I began reading Walter Wink’s life changing sinewy series, Naming the Powers, UnMasking the Powers, Engaging the Powers and The Powers that Be.    Walter Wink shot me into space from my safe space on the porch of the church.  Thomas Merton gently reeled me back in with his books on living in search of nothingness as Christianly as possible in whatever shape or size of community I found myself.

Why didn’t I just pack it in and depart, shaking the dust from my feet?  My brothers had done this.  Many of my companions from high school had done so.  I stayed among Christians because outside and beyond their communities, nobody I knew was curious about the questions that William Hamilton asked all his life long.  Instead of being bored by them, I wanted to work on those questions.  And I stayed, too, because something about the experience of the Eucharist didn’t yield to dismissal by intelligence.  Because I stayed, I was blessed by the gift of Walter Brueggemann’s work on scriptural texts of the Old Testament.  Many of the questions that William Hamilton asked seem posed in a Biblically textless world of society’s secular illnesses and technological highs.  Bruggemann puts the ancient texts into current settings that include the questions Hamilton asks.  So does Rosemart Ruether and Phyllis Trible and a host of women theologians raised up in the 2oth century.

What I notice here is that all the people whose work I was reading are theologians who were writing for seminarians.  The work is like fresh organic food found in farmer’s markets.  By contrast, parish clergy and churches are recycling canned goods, passing off bullet peas and tinned asparagus for the real thing.  And it’s only fair to point out that timorous but vocal parish members will rise up and point weaponry at any pastor or preacher who offers red meat or fresh vegetables in place of the fast food and preserved ingredients long past prime, that most people in churches are used to.

The reward is not in getting answers to questions like Is ‘God’ dead?  The reward is in asking questions like that and increasing the room for more and harder questions, bringing ever more challenging sources of understanding into play.  The reward for Christians is in being as fully intelligent as full maturity requires.

The clergy in our churches are not as courageous as they should be, in opening windows for air and doors for exit and entrance without dogmatic objections.  There is much that we in our worshiping communities would reveal to each other and to the clergy in place, that might well lead to a renewal of relevant Christian practice in today’s circumstances.   But if that is to happen, the clergy must let go of their exclusive control of practicing Christianity.  Christians meekly wander on in the illusion that the real Christians are the ordained clergy.  The concept of ‘lay’ people in the church remains in the way of any change in the church.  A lot needs to be done at that thick, gnarled and deeply buried point before any substantial effect of being Christian will be felt in history again.

I hope interest in William Hamilton’s work will be revived in the general Christian population.  Below is a link to an article about his ideas, written by Lloyd Steffan, then chaplain at Lehigh University, and published in the Christian Century in 1989.  Links to all sources cited in the essay follow.,9171,835309,00.html

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Invitation to a Holy Lent

“An Invitation to the Observance of a Holy Lent,” is the rubric in the liturgy for Lent that catches me, a third of the way into the service, every year.  The words don’t seem to fit together comfortably.  This year, I’m slower as we pass by this point in the service, and in the next few minutes I realize I’ve got the feel of an extra perspective. It’s not a particularly comfortable sensation.

One gets used to feeling like an individual in church accompanying other individuals, all of whom agree (or are polite enough) to say “we” all together.  “We confess”  “we praise” “we pray”  “we thank”—we all engage in rather an amazing act of imagination and intellect at least once a week, forming a union of spirit and body leading to the wholeness of sharing the Eucharist.

And now we are invited in—so here’s a discovery:  Lent isn’t so much a personal obligation as a communal opportunity.   And we are asked to observe—to pay moments of conscious awareness, to be careful and purposeful about what we see and do.  And ‘holy Lent’—those last two words don’t yield easy meaning.  A holy Lent, I think.  What does that really mean?

Holy: healthy; whole; connected; dedicated.  Lent:  the word is rooted in Old English, Old Slavic and Sanskrit as langa tinaz, the way people more than a thousand years ago wrote and said, ‘longer days’:  the longer days of spring.  Other European languages use the word ‘lent’ but only in English does the word have liturgical meaning:  the long 40 days’ observance in spring.

We tend to be more focused on our shared faith in these long forty days ahead.  Lent has shaping power to make us all aware that we are a whole body connected by our worship, dedicated together in the Baptismal Covenant.  I think about church leaders at this time of year.  Most churches have just dedicated, ordained or commissioned their new leadership groups.  As Lent begins, they are just taking up the long holy work of strengthening, discerning and serving the good of the Body of Christ in the community of believers they will serve in the coming year.  Surely they hope to walk all year more closely in step with the members of their congregations than they may have been in the year just past.  This invitation to a Holy Lent is to them as a group, as well as to us as the larger community around them.

When all of us leave a given worship service, we are simultaneously the whole community while we are becoming our individual selves again.  Leaders form this mysterious being of community and personality on the strength of worship experienced the Sunday before Ash Wednesday.

Leaders may look like they’re just sitting around in a big square shuffling papers, but their real task is to stop thinking of their particular parish as a personal extension of their own interests, their new opportunities to be recognized, their values and concerns.   Then, their task is to stretch into knowing their particular church as a living community with a particular character, particular gifts, a particular call from God to answer, and with work we all have to be doing.

Church leaders find themselves looking at specific decisions with the sense of many eyes and ears simultaneously absorbing impressions at 360 o.  They find themselves with heart and mind stretched well beyond their own personal concerns, and this will probably be uncomfortable for most of them, most of the time they are serving.  Besides, they find themselves with lessening time that constantly fills up with communal To Do lists and To Pray For lists.

At all times, when we talk with our own church leaders, we are talking together about who we are and where we are as God’s holy, called people.  This kind of conversation about being church isn’t somebody else’s responsibility—it’s yours and theirs and ours.  I hope you will sense the gift of community we have in each other as a part of observing a holy Lent.   As we go through the long days of spring, and as church leaders work through 2012, I hope the blessing of health and whole heartedess will come to us more connected in service, more alive in stewardship and more alight in witness to God.

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