Saturday, August 18, 2007

Off for Two Weeks

Here's just a quick note to let you know I'm going to be away from my computer – I mean physically away – for the next to weeks.

Actually, I'm going to Germany for two weeks to visit old friends I haven't seen in years and years. It's been 15 years since I've been there, and in those years the entire country has undergone a radical change, what with the reunification and the move of the capital to Berlin. So, it'll be exciting, and I'll be sure to give a report.

So, say a prayer for safe travel and maybe I'll post some pictures when I get back! (C'mon, it's better than the slide show I'm going to force my friends to sit through.)

Until then, Aufwiedersehen!



Wednesday, August 15, 2007

The Blessed Virgin Mary

For those of you who keep track of such things, today is the Feast Day of St. Mary the Virgin, Mother of our Lord Jesus Christ, though to many of her fans she's known simply as the Blessed Virgin Mary, and to real close friends, the BVM.

In some of my sicker moments, I wonder what we would have done if her name had been Dinah. Would we have called her the BVD?

But I digress. The real purpose of this feast day is to celebrate her willingness to submit to God in a project that promised her heartbreak and inconvenience, not to mention a little danger. Of course, depending on how much you idolize motherhood, you might be tempted to think this particular feast is proof that, women are intended primarily to bear children and obey their husbands just like Mary did. I'm sure you figure I'm going in that direction, right? Sadly, I must disappoint.

Others of you may believe that Mary is a symbol of male oppression, woman being put on a false pedestal in order to more easily dominate her. I'll let you decide.

There are a few things you should know about her, however. One is that, no matter how you view her, she risked a lot to have Jesus (assuming you believe she was doing what God told her). And that meant that she was tough.

Another thing is that the immaculate conception was bunk – not scriptural at all (I read a Roman Catholic encyclopedia's scripture references, and the few of them that exist are highly interpretive, dare I say speculative, at best). If you're Roman Catholic, you'll just have to accept that a lot of us don't buy this one.

Don't yell – I didn't say the Virgin Birth was bunk. The immaculate conception is a post-scriptural idea that says Mary was so holy that the moment she was conceived, God granted her the grace never to be touched by original sin. If she were, she'd be too impure to be the Mother of God. In othe words, she was perfect but not divine. That's just another way of separating us one step further away from Christ. Which, of course is so very UN-Christlike.

What's more, May's not really even the Mother of God. Yes, Jesus is the Son of God. Yes, she is Jesus' mother. BUT, God existed before Mary. To say she is God's mother is to put her first, to make her, in effect, God. Like she'd want THAT job!

Here's another thing you may not have thought about with Mary. She and Jesus didn't always understand each other or even get along. They bickered. Don't believe me? Look at the wedding in Cana scene in the John's Gospel (chapter 2). Mary's trying to tell Jesus what to do, and he cuts right through it with, "Woman, what do I have to do with you?" Another, kinder, translation simply says, "Your concern is not mine." At another point, Mary and her other children try to get Jesus and bring him home because they think he's lost his marbles.

Speaking of other children, at least as far as we Episcopalians are concerned, Mary had other kids. Scripture talks about brothers and sisters of Jesus (not half-brothers or sisters, and not cousins – there are specific words for those). Not only that, but there's nothing in scripture that would indicate any possible reason why Mary shouldn't have other kids. I mean, why on earth wouldn't she be able to have more after Jesus was born? It's another one of those silly things that religious leaders started telling people much later in order to build up Mary's resume.

In our denomination, we do not pray to or especially venerate Mary. She doesn't need it. What she did was big enough already – certainly I hope that if God asked me to do something on that magnitude (okay, maybe not the getting pregnant part), I would also humbly agree. On the other hand, I'm kind of hoping God will just let me plug along….

Saturday, August 11, 2007

Muslim Priest

I'm always a little slow on the news, so you've probably already heard about this one. But it's personal to me, so I thought I'd at least mention it.

The other day, I got a call from a friend who is a priest a couple of counties south. He called me to let me know a mutual friend had been effectively suspended from her active priesthood because she announced a couple of months ago that she is Muslim. Still Christian but now also Muslim.

It's a funny thing. This friend, Ann Holmes Redding, worked up until recently at St. Mark's Episcopal Cathedral in Seattle where another friend – my former boss – is the Dean of the Cathedral. Years ago, Ann sang a beautiful solo at our wedding, and when we went through a painful period was a great comfort to us. Added to that, Ann is brilliant and gifted in so many ways. So, I care what happens to her.

But, you ask, can a person be both a Muslim and a Christian?

As I've said before, if Jesus is to be believed, what leads to salvation is our loving God with all our heart, mind and soul, and loving our neighbor as ourselves. Can a Muslim do that? Sure. Can a Christian do that? Absolutely. So, if the question is, can both Muslims and Christians be embraced by God's love and be granted entry in to heaven, then my answer is YES.

That might not be the question, however. Now, there are many who profess to be Buddhist Christians or Taoist Christians – most of what I've heard has to do with eastern religions – and in the Orient, there seems to be little problem with a person holding complimentary religious views. Maybe you read Life of Pi which was so popular a couple of years ago. The main character ultimately embraced Hinduism, Islam, and Christianity, causing his entire family heartburn. So embracing more than one faith is not unheard of, and I suppose it works for some.

What Ann has said – I haven't spoken with her, mind you, only read in the papers – is that she feels at home in the worship and loves how it speaks to her. She loves the discipline of the worship, too, (something that Christianity once maintained as well. We have, in western Christianity, bowed to the demands of capitalistic society. Take the number of people who work on Sundays as a small example. But I digress.). It's undeniable, faithful Muslims live out their faith with enviable and joyful dedication. Their gain.

I believe that we Christians could take much that is good and lovely in Islam and learn from it.

And yet, I for my part can't see how to reconcile the two, at least as far as my faith life is concerned. There are tenets within the two traditions which are mutually exclusive, the divinity of Jesus being a chief one. Islam doesn't recognize Christ as divine, as the Son of God, whereas that very position is the foundation of Christianity. Another part of Christianity that I cherish but that is not part of Islam is the NON-requirement of those very disciplines. They are enriching, joyful, a blessing to the soul, but those who do not fulfill their obligations, according to Christ, are still very much part of the family. And then there is my understanding of what Christ said – that ALL those who love God and neighbor will live eternally. I am no expert in Islam, but I believe that is not Muslim doctrine.

Of course, there are a lot of Christians who don't really believe what Christ taught – they'd rather have Christianity be a private club open only to those who fulfill all the secret rituals and say all the right things. Which is to say that even within Christianity, there's a bunch of confusion about what we believe. So, if someone finds a little bit of heaven in the arms of another faith as well, who am I to say it can't happen?

AND YET, there is the issue of leadership. It's one thing to carry both traditions in one's heart and find a closeness to God in both. It is something else to be a leader, to teach and preach to those who entrust themselves to you. I wear that leadership very uncomfortably and am constantly uncertain if I'm doing the faithful justice. But since each denomination, each faith, can grasp only a little of God's divinity, it seems to me that we should concentrate on that piece and preach it as faithfully as possible. Yes, leave open the reality that God is bigger than any of us can grasp, but as another priest wrote, we take a vow as priests to uphold the teaching of the church, and becoming a Muslim doesn't do that. I think it's difficult to teach that Christ is God if your other religion denies that very thing.

I love Ann, and I wish her well on this journey of faith. Maybe some time off to clarify where she is and where God is calling her is a good idea. Either way, I'm sure God will lead her home in the end.

Thursday, August 9, 2007

Wearing Black

In the days since I've been back from vacation, a lot of things have come up. Employee issues, some troubling parishioner crises, parish website problems, newsletter staffing change and, oh yeah, liturgy planning for the Fall.

But what was buzzing around my head yesterday was something so mundane that I haven't thought about it in years. It was a scorcher of a day, and there I was wearing black. I don't always wear a clerical collar, in fact, quite often I'll show up at the office in jeans. But yesterday, I was all in black – not even light colored pants. Not sure why, but there I was. And somebody at the nursing home said, "Isn't is awfully hot dressed like that?"

With all the truly important issues weighing down on the world, I spent the rest of the afternoon wondering about just how much hotter black made me feel.

Actually, not much.

You know, of course, that black absorbs heat, so in theory, I should have been boiling. That's especially true because I spent a good deal of time outside, not in my wonderfully air conditioned office. But it didn't get to me, even though my neck expanded in the heat making the plastic collar I wear all the tighter (yes, those collars are plastic! Once they used to be starched cotton, but who wants to go through all the work of starching?).

You might ask yourself, why would a person wear a uniform so uncomfortable. The answer? Well, it's my uniform. Most of the time I don't even notice it – it's just clothes to me. And there is a tremendous advantage – I don't have to think about what to wear in the morning. For a lazy person like me, that's a huge advantage: I just toss it on and go.

The heat factor isn't that big a deal. When it's that hot, it's just plain hot no matter what you have on. Besides, the material is light and airy.

The biggest DISadvantage to black clerical clothing is that people see me and think: "Professional Christian." They think I'll behave better because I'm wearing an obvious symbol of religiosity. As if the only reason to behave is because now I'm on record. I often wonder if a lot of Christians feel that it's okay to be jerks because they aren't wearing any outward sign of their faith – or if they would feel more constrained to be good if they had a uniform. Idle thoughts, I know. The important motivation for Christians to behave lovingly isn't because it will look good but because the heart moves them to such behavior.

I'll probably wear black today, too, despite another scorching forecast. Maybe it's just a habit.

Tuesday, August 7, 2007

Back to Work

You go on vacation, catch some rest, and you know what happens. Pow! You get back and everything that's been piling up lands in your lap wanting attention right now!

Welcome home.

Only, this time, I got into the office and had a very modest amount waiting. A few phone calls, some mail, someone interested in a wedding calling, someone just out of the hospital – nothing out of the usual. I asked my secretary how things had been, and she said, "Quiet."

Now, how did that happen? And is that a good thing? Shouldn't there be all sorts of craziness waiting for me? Is all this quiet a sign that we are insignificant and don't do anything worthwhile?

You can tell, my insecurities leap out at me when people aren't clamoring for my attention. Which is why vacation is a good thing – makes me remember that the world doesn't revolve around me, and that it won't fall apart just because I'm away.

So today, I resolved to enjoy the quiet season of the church. Yes, we have a lot planned for the Fall. Yes, there is a lot of work to get done in the next couple of weeks. But it will all happen in God's own good time. For now, it's all cream – a joy to soak up just a little more quiet time. A chance to breath deep (suck in that 95 degree heat!), and let the muscles relax, the soul unwind, the peace of Christ enter in.

"Quiet," my secretary said. Rejoice.

Wednesday, August 1, 2007

Ah, the Pope

I'm a little late in getting to this because I was busy dealing with heavy issues like Harry Potter and Vacation.

But in case you missed it, there was a little tempest stirred up by the Bishop of Rome (what we Anglicans call the pope) less than a month ago.

Benedict XVI authorized a statement which reemphasized the Roman Catholic Church's assertion that only the Roman Catholic Church is the true church, that the Orthodox Church is a church but flawed, and that all other denominations aren't even church's. Yawn.

In 2000 this same man authored a similar statement when he was a mere Cardinal, so who can be surprised? In fact, it has been official Roman Catholic doctrine for a very long time. Upon what is this claim made? And more importantly, does it matter?

I read hundreds of blog posts on this (it's addicting – you start reading and before you know it, you've missed breakfast and gone straight through to lunch). They are a heated bunch of comments for the most part, and they divide pretty neatly into three types. First, there are the Roman Catholics, many of whom say, "Yes, there is only one church and we're it." They quote the Nicene Creed as evidence. To be fair, several Roman Catholics also wrote to express their dismay at what they consider another blow to building relationships with other Christians. Second, there are the Protestants of various denominations who express their outrage at the Bishop of Rome's audacity, hypocrisy, arrogance and lack of biblical authority. Their line, in general, was that the Roman Catholic Church broke ranks with the true church long ago and therefore has no authority. The third group consists of everyone else – people of other religions gloating over our idiocy and people of no religion proclaiming all religion to be the root of all evil.

As I said, the Roman Catholic Church has claimed superiority for a long time. Peter, the rock upon whom the Church will be built, is the primary focus of this claim. Apostolic succession – that mechanism by which the apostles handed down leadership of the church to new leaders in an unbroken succession to this day – has become one of the standards by which church bodies are judged in Roman Catholic tradition. Perhaps not surprisingly, it was one of the first institutions done away with by most Protestant traditions – because it was corrupted by those who saw it as a way to make money and wield influence (selling bishoprics, for example, or giving them to relatives).

You could go on and on and on ad nauseam with arguments about whether the Roman Catholic Church is good or bad, the One True Church or the child of Satan. Does it matter?

It does only inasmuch as when people who are at odds with each other say, "We can be friends as long as you do it my way," Or "I like you, but you're really not up to snuff," they tend to decrease mutual appreciation rather than enhance it. I grew up in a part of the country where fundamentalist Christians made much the same claims, and I ignored those, too. We live in a time when many (but by no means all) Muslim clerics claim that Islam (and their brand of it) is the only way to salvation. Jews made those claims at one point, too, so nobody's exempt.

But as a Christian, I don't really care what Benedict XVI says about me. It's not for him to say whether I'm part of the church or not. In our church, we recite the Nicene Creed every Sunday. We understand those words, "The one holy catholic and apostolic Church" very differently from our Roman Catholic brothers and sisters – because we understand them to mean all who claim Christ as their lord and savior. And Christ, far more than looking at affiliation or pedigree, looks at our hearts. If your heart is filled with God's love, you're part of the church.

I have known Roman Catholics and Episcopalians and Methodists and Reformed Christians and Baptists and so on who have embodied Christ beautifully and inspiringly. I have known members of those same churches who have willfully walked away from Christ while still proclaiming faith. I'd talk about people of other faiths, but that's a totally different post.

So I'll close with this thought: It's not really for the Bishop of Rome to say whether or not my church is a true church or not. He needs to spend his time looking at the beam in his own eye rather than the mote in anyone else's. On the other hand, don't we all?