Friday, December 19, 2008

Just Thoughts

nice to be back in blog :)

First, while I find it a nice idea to write four posts on the issues dividing TEC as I suggest belwow, all I can offer when I do get to those is my own opinion. It is a real goal in my life to get an actual graduate theological education, but in the meantime, I can do nothing but offer personal thought processes. Even then, it may take me a year to write the posts, and this blog has always been more about the private than the public (I couldn't even find it in google today). Maybe writing those posts will serve more to orient me than to reach anyone else. Who knows.

Second, reading at Sandalstraps again has been wonderful. What a heart that man has. I find discernment, right now, to be emotionally taxing. Maybe it shouldn't be or doesn't have to be, but when I felt the desire/call to begin work in the Episcopal community at this convention, I hadn't even been in a great spiritual place before that weekend. I was letting my doubt side dominate my faith side. Still practicing my faith, but so stymied by the biological realities of being human (random death and suffering) that I was spiritually stuck, stagnant. Then, out of nowhere, all this talk about discernment among the people I was with all weekend (perhaps because I turned the all on to the Lagavulin 16) and then even more out of nowhere, that urge to "use my gifts in this community." That strikingly powerful Eucharist the final day. I don't think I have even told that story here. If not I will.

But lately, reading at scribere orare est (another great blog; lately it has been both personal and rather like wonderful reality Christian television as Jared takes his Orders) I find myself stranded considering the role of priests, the nature of priesthood. Just what the hell am I getting into anyway? Whatever it is, I have to be able to my real self; it has to be an expression of who I actually am.

I know from my last conversation with my priest the Evangelical model still dominates in my mind: gifted teaching as the center, the Pastor/Priest as the personality holding much of the community together. I don't think that is the usual liturgical model. And then I wondered about just what priests can and cannot do. I think of a story a good friend told me, a spiritual person but not necessarily a Christian (though I don't know). His father attended seminary when he was beginning college and my friend asked a priest whether he should pursue engineering or social work. The priest told him engineering. He is now a social worker and fantastic in his field. He shared that story as if it was a spiritually significant event. Sighs. I always think: specialism matters. If I want therapy, I find a good and experienced therapist; if I want my car worked on, I find a good mechanic; so what should/do priests get sought out for? What is their specialty?

To add to the complexity: it is no secret on this blog I suffered from major depressions, anxiety and OCD. I am relatively depression free, certainly the serious deep stuff (and this is a story I have never told in detail here; I just have not wanted to go back and remember those years, but let me tell you all, they were dramatic, explosive, hellish, and grim). I am also generally free of clinical obsession. I need more therapy, I have decided, to work on myself emotionally. But how did I get healed from that deep, deep sickness in my mind, heart, soul? Did God or a priest heal me? No. I say in all fairness, skeptic that I am, that on one or two occasions God indeed seemed to intervene, and he may have been involved more than that. But I was healed by no magic. A tenacious committment to therapy did it. Years of therapy. One of my therapists was a Christian, one wasn't (I don't count the one that took my wife...but he was a Christian too). Whatever priests are, they aren't Gandalf, magicians, seers, magical healers. They aren't therapists. Therapy itself, the thing that has completely changed me, uses technology not explicitly found in the bible. I have a lot to sift, you see.

And I find all that frustrating, painful, even (technically) depressing. I am evaluated at my teaching job, now that I have tenure, every 3 years. I always expect my evals to be awful, I go in ready for the criticism. This year, as last time also, no recommendations for improvement at all. Even my Dean, work-ethiced boy scout that he is (and I love him) had nothing but admiration for my student evals. But so far, I have not found my ministerial niche in my own parish. (Or maybe I have and don't know it). Besides reading and chalice bearing, both of which I love...the little marriage class my wife and I have been hosting has kind of fallen apart, partly because I've been too busy with the job that actually pays me to schedule the meetings far enough in advance. Maybe not that, who knows. But I am used to teaching in a very structured environment, with certain expectations and settings. Translating that to parish life; confusion and dismay. I don't know. I knew my discernment would take a long time. I hope I'm not too old for my diocese already. Bottom line is I'm scared.

I need to talk to more people. My priest, yes, but more people. People in the field, people who walk spiritual journeys as a vocation. Cause right now, if God did "call" me, I'd have to tell him: you sure you're not mistaken? Maybe it was the guy behind me in the communion line. Lots of fear.

Of course, I was afraid to get married, am afraid to fly still, am afraid of being close, afraid of people's anger, afraid of criticism, afraid of failure, afraid to trust. Plenty of things I am afraid of are good things. I remind myself of that.

Pray for me, those who pray.

We'll be out of town two weeks and likely not in the blog. As we always used to say when I was in grade school, the day before winter break, "see you next year."

Wednesday, December 17, 2008

Handel and Reaching Out

Using my napster subscription to listen to Handel's Messiah, a yearly Advent ritual. What glorious music; what outstanding poetry put to music. The words of Luke, Isaiah, Micah..."and he shall purify the sons of Levi..." According to our faith, he has, with the righteousness of another, Jesus. We, all Christians, we are the purified sons of Levi. What a cosmic honor beyond belief.

I have been thinking, and reading online (often to dismay) about/within the split in the The Episcopal Church. It's big news, maybe bigger headlines in the secular press than it needs to be: four diocese and some parishes have realigned themselves as Anglican, renounced membership in TEC. Why? Well, the installation in 2003 of Gene Robinson, the gay N.H. Bishop, seems to be the most common thread. But also, ordination of women comes up, views on the Bible, and views of the Atonement. There are disagreements among those who have split on these issues (the ordination of women, for sure), but these are the issues/reasons I see raised as I read in the blogs and sites of those who have left.

I find it sad, truly. TEC has been, since its long and rocky inception, committed to accommodating different Christian belief structures and to maintaining openness on issues. Granted, the original issues it united over under Elizabeth I, the Protestant/Catholic tensions, are not what is splitting it now. We have managed, for the most part, to be high church and low church and maintain the communion for centuries.

However, I would like to address each of the above four issues, homosexuality, the Bible, women priests, and the atonement, from a compassionate and understanding position (unlike what I usually do on this blog, which is sort things out for myself and rant, often without counter discussion of any substance). As one who is staying in TEC. As one who has been impressed by some of those he has spoken with who disagree.

And on that note: let me say that the radical margin does not interest me. The blog I ran across yesterday that calls PB Shori the "witch-bishop." The blogs I have found full of blatantly racist, sexist, xenophobic, gay-hating voices on both sides of the Ocean. Those voices are out there. To those people I have nothing to say except this: you had better read the gospels a bit closer, and God help you as you do. I may still be an ass at times, but there was a time I was a great deal of ass; God's mercy changes me. But it can be one hell of a rough process.

In contrast to the extreme voices, many people I read or speak with who have split or who hold conservative positions on the above issues express themselves in responsible, even gentle, terms. And I can appreciate much of what they say: most of this conflict comes back to how we understand/read/apply the Biblical writings, and as all vessels which communicate the Sacred to us, from the person to the ritual to the written word to the bread and wine: it is naturally human that we elevate these to supra natural status. It happens in many, if not all, world religions. Sitting here, listening to Handel, I am shaken by those verses from Micah, for example, as redolent with meaning as they are for Christians. It is very easy to go from that place to asserting everything in Micah is God's voice for the modern world. But I get ahead of myself.

I don't know how long it will take me to write these four essays. Nor do I think I am an expert in any of them. But I see this as reaching out: if even one struggling Christian in TEC or out of it finds a morsel...then good. I think I would like to start with the atonement as it is the easiest to address of the four from my perspective.

But not today, friends. I have grading to do, lots, and will be out of town for 2 weeks after. Whether I will be blogging on the 4 before then or not I don't know. But in the meantime, my love to all.

"For unto us a child is born; unto us a son is given; and the government shall be upon his shoulders; and his name shall be called, Wonderful, Counselor, the Mighty God, the Everlasting Father, the Prince of Peace."

There are few moments that great in ANY poetry, secular or sacred. When the Christian gospel complements it, then truly, light shines in the darkness.

Happy Advent to all. And if you have time, by all means, get a copy of Handel's Messiah on your ipod and listen in :)

Love to all.

Monday, December 15, 2008

Advent 3 (the satan)

It is snowing. It has been cold, below freezing, for a few days and lightly snowing most of that time. Not much has accumulated, less than a foot, but winter wonderland is back. I am typing on our sectional, with a big window looking out into our front yard behind me, and a big shelf of snow just fell off the roof; it took about twenty seconds. For that time I was looking through nothing but that wispy white sheet. For twenty seconds, I was inside an avalanche. It is all very, very lovely.

Reading (interminably) N.T. Wright again last night. I find I like to take him a section at a time. While I finished NTPG, I have been reading JVG for a couple of years, in pieces. I think it's because he is explicating the gospels and each section is like a sermon or homily. I find I need time to reflect. Also, of course, his take on apocalyptic is different from all I was taught as a young person and that kind of realignment takes time.

Last night I read the section on "the satan." A brief discussion of the Temptation narratives. Wright notes the story shows up in Mark and Q, and while he considers the possibility earlier in the book (dare I say, smiling, tome) that none of the solutions to the synoptic problem are conclusive because there may be far more strands in the gospel records than we can ever identify (a historically reasonable solution, in my view) here Wright argues for the historicity of some foundation in the temp narrs using the most plausible solution to the synoptics we have: Mark came first, but another document of Jesus' sayings called Q was incorporated into Matthew and Luke. There are problem with this, and he describes them well earlier, but if that explanation is accepted, then the temp narrative is indeed old.

And what does it mean? I personally do not know if a personal being, an evil spiritual being, Satan, exists. I do not know if demons are real. NTW doesn't seem to argue either way here in any depth; he mostly posits that Jesus must have had some kind of struggle-experience after his baptism, at the beginning of his ministry. For me, that could have been spiritual, psychological, or both. The things Jesus is offered by the satan, the adversary, represent conventional Jewish kingdom expectations which Jesus, typically for Wright, overturns. It is a good analysis.

I am reminded again that while I believe NTW to be very brilliant, he is by no means the only gospel historian writing now who is highly intelligent. I think what makes his book most readable for me (for it is not clear, concise style) is his very, very ambitious attempt to avoid what should be called "the Schweitzer fallacy." Schweitzer is still famous for undermining earlier attempts to find the historical Jesus, illustrating how many of those Jesuses were only reflections of the social or political agendas of the author/period. NTW, conversely, tries to climb into the mind of a first century self-proclaimed prophetic Jew. I love it. Not just because it provides a kind of (neo) neo-orthodoxy, but because it is the only responsible way to proceed historically. Everyone has biases, Wright included, and his show from time to time. The criticism which could most be leveled against him, I think, is that he is a Christian: the gospels are the documents which support and illustrate his faith-core. But as I have long said, and everyone who has looked at NT studies has said: no one is neutral; no one is objective. But Wright's strength is that he is methodically, painstakingly trying to be ancient. Once, after a gospel reading in a service, my son, about 13 at the time, turned and looked at me and said, with utter heartfelt integrity, "he was weird," meaning Jesus. That struck me as a better assessment, a better critical reaction, to the gospel record than I find in many professional scholars.

This post (and a stack of papers waits to be scored) was not supposed to about NTW at all. Or only briefly. It is supposed to be about my own struggle with the satan as I step out, tentative and searching, into my own ministry.

For while I have been active in my parish almost since I got there, as lector, as warden on vestry, I have not (ever) thought of my life in terms of converting it into a life of ministry. Well, not since my early 20's anyway, and I had no idea what the hell I was talking about then. But since my "call" about a month ago (and reading Genesis, I love to see how Abraham got several calls, not just one to get him to where he needed to be; bring on more, God) I have opened my heart and mind to the idea of serving in the priesthood. I still almost chuckle when I say it. I have thought about it for several years, mostly because others mentioned the idea, but I have a good tenured job and while I think I have some of the gifts priest need to have, much in me must be shaped and distilled. My call came as a desire to work in the community of the church full time. I still like that idea, but I look at my self and life in very new ways as I proceed.

Now, for the satan. I found myself Sunday, in church, not passing the chalice but just attending, thinking how much I struggle in my parish. My second meeting with my priest went very well. I saw more of his personality than I have in eight years. He is opening up, yes, but also, entering discernment has put us on a different footing. I like it. He is an intelligent and good man; I see it more every time we talk. But he is also, most of the time, inside himself, a very private and shy person. As he is our only clergy person, that can be tough. In some ways, he reminds me of my father, though my dad was much more withdrawn and much more chaotic beneath that withdrawal. Also, my church is small, mostly older people, still without a choir. There is much I like about our traditional service; the music isn't one of those things.

But how odd, after all this time, to be standing there and looking so critically at the small numbers, the age of the people. I may well need a larger community, but as I have said, I have to stay connected to this parish while I am in discernment or start all over. Of course, it's true I just entered discernment! But my wife and I seem to take just enough to keep us in the parish, and its location has always been the selling point.

Then, last night, I woke up in the middle of the night, from a dream, thinking, "man is only a material being; he has no spiritual component." Now, I am fully willing to admit man is only matter and mental phenomenon; that latter, the utterly complex set of sensation, thought, will, and emotion I call me. I don't think man has to have a spirit. But as I enter discernment, predictably, the tension I have long allowed (struggled with, suffered under?) in my own mind: God and my faith are real/God and my faith are not real; that conflict has to be worked out more fully.

I swear, I feel like someone brought into a college football team because he throws a football once, for the first time, well. He has natural aptitude, maybe, for throwing the ball. But he doesn't know much about football or playing on a football team or strategy or plays or clock management, etc. In short, I have to learn much and grow much more if I am ever going to wear a collar. The exciting thing, for me, is that that process itself may show me God in a way I have not known. God may have revealed himself to Abraham a piece at at time (same with Isaac, same with Moses) but what if at the first theophany Abraham (or Moses) said: forget it. Nope. Not budging. God might have pulled a Jonah on them; no way to say (and as I write of these persons, of course, I see them through the thick myth/literary/historic lens). Had they rejected their first theophanies/calls, their lives might have been completely different. If Moses had heard I AM in the burning bush and then hustled it back down the hill to check on his sheep and his wife, he would never have stood on Sinai/Horeb.

The thing this most reminds me of, the process in my own experience closest to this, was my own recovery. As some who read here know (and really, no more than "some" have ever read here: hah!) I had some very bad depressions, major depressions, in the early 90's; and I had anxiety, and OCD, since childhood. Climbing out from beneath mental illness is the crowning achievement of my life. I forget that, often. But I have not had serious depression, even briefly, in well over a decade. And I have been free (almost) of clinical obsessions and pathologic anxiety for a two or three years, maybe, with a gradual decrease before that during the years I saw Sharon, my last therapist (though, as my doctor notes, I really should get another therapist, even for occasional visits, as a sort of second string bench-resource should I need it). I still struggle with vestiges of fear, anger, what I would consider normal everyday human neurotic stuff. Even there, I gradually heal, uncover new serenity and intimacy. But the violence of my depressions, the dominance of my daily OCD. Not a part of my life. I take no meds.

When I began recovery (1990) all I could see was a dim, I want to say liminal, path ahead. Recovery, now, was painful as hell. Discernment can't be that bad! But the feeling, as my brain works through issues of faith and community, is similar.

I told a good friend I had entered discernment, an older (of course) guy at my church who, with his wonderful wife, was one of the key people who brought me to this place. We didn't have much time to talk, but he said something like, "this is going to be good for you." He could not have said a better thing. It was exactly what I needed to hear. "This is going to be good for you." What a glorious thought. Discernment is meant to be good for you, however it turns out. The church canons, my own priest, show a deep respect and concern for anyone crazy enough to begin exploring. You see, I can only hope and pray, it may well be God himself who gives me what I need to make the journey. And now, if I was wearing shoes and not wool socks, I'd take my shoes off. For to make such a claim, that the Holy Spirit would support and nurture a single person on this globe of suffering and death...that is walking on to holy ground. May God continue to let me walk there.

For if my life and faith were put together enough to enter ministry while I am solidly in "mid life," what a gift. If not, I am going to grow in one direction or other! Such exploration can only produce growth. But if God is genuinely calling me, or will genuinely respond to my awkward and human progression...what a thing that will be.


I know evangelical friends who might tell me Satan (not the satan) is already opposing my new inquiry, maybe. I know recovery friends, many of whom I have not seen in years, who would tell me God has been protecting, preserving, healing me all along. He didn't wait for discernment! Maybe. But whatever lies ahead, it will be more genuine, vital and authentic than much of what lies behind. May God bring me into his kingdom as he wishes me to be.

"By him, with him, and in him." Amen.

Tuesday, December 09, 2008

Advent 2

I think this is the week of Advent 2; last Sunday was Advent 2....just what kind of Episcopalian am I?

Tomorrow is my second meeting with my priest, and my real job has kept me so busy I haven't had much time for spiritual reflection or introspection; I even missed my last walk. Several things are on my mind, and as this blog, even though I think it needs to consider audience more when I express theological opinions....this blog is still about me. Weblog. Etc.

Going into my second meeting I haven't lost my interest in ministry, but questions about money remain. Again, not big money, but financial security. And paying for seminary, hah, when my wife just finished grad school with a small to middle sized stack of loans. Also, my doubt issues surface a bit, as always; not a crises of faith, but the thoughts of the modern person.

I heard a very good interview on NPR this morning with Frank Schaeffer, son of the famous Francis. I think of the role of apologetics in the evangelical community I once inhabited, maybe in most Christian communities. For me, then, for us...someone who could argue the faith, who could present a rational bridge to Christian Theism; that person held saint status. It's funny to me how in my evangelical days we didn't think much about extra biblical characters who had gone before, traditional saints, but those who could argue the faith, who could give us, or at least me, reason for the hope within: they were revered. As if we were the prisoners in Plato's cave and they had seen the Light and returned to testify that it was in fact true; as if the great apologist was the perfection of Christian virtue, accomplishment, vision. The apologist had seen through the veil...reading them was like putting my hand through the dark mirror if only for a moment and feeling the heat of God's real being.

Now (and oh I have had a long day and am tired) now I don't think Christianity can be proven. I don't think theism, belief in a God who is concerned with humans, that cannot be proved because of the problem of biologically random suffering. How few, how few, of humans born into this world even have even reached adult age and been able to speculate on spiritual matters. How many innocents have suffered, children with cancer, all of it. I said a few words on this at Sandalstraps' blog the other day; I have not had the time to go back and read them.

That said, existence remains the great puzzle. For the order and beauty of this world, the aspirations of our spirituality, the meaning in ritual...the DNA strand alone; these beg the question of design. I don't care if it all evolved; that does absolutely nothing in my view to undermine design. It is only the brutal components of evolution, from animals eating each other to viruses and mortality; these remain the problem. In short, I do not think Christianity can be proved though I admire the work of those who try and think that work is often helpful to many who have faith; nor do I think Christianity or theism can be disproved.

And in the middle of it all we have the gospels. I am no innerrantist, but the religious brilliance of the biblical books is remarkable, at least to me. Likewise, the force of the personality who moves through the pages of the gospels (and whose phrase it that, I read it) is undeniable. My sheep hear my voice. That really does seem to be how it works.

While I still admire apologetics, I question the great number of American Christians I meet who think that on the rational level, the God question is settled. Far from it, in my view. I also question, at least as much, atheists who likewise think the question is settled on the rational level. Even more, I dislike any subjugation of faith and religious experience, prayer, ritual, worship...the encounter with the sacred; I much hate how that is considered secondary to reason by agnostics. Reason is over here, it's much better; there, you can have faith...but reason is implied to be the greater gift.

Are we so sure about that? Might not faith mean more, be greater than, have more lasting value, than human reason? Surely, if it connects us with the divine (and that is a big if; this is reflection, not apologetics :) ) faith and piety are of infinitely greater value than human reason. I am a fan of reason and logic; I have taught written argument, and tenaciously, for more than a decade. But might not faith belong with that set of traits we sometimes call inner beauty: mercy, compassion, optimism, humor, courage, love, hope, and faith. Is not faith a character trait which leads to humility, while knowledge, including religious or apologetic knowledge, tempt us to a false, secure pride?

I do not know. I am glad Frank S. is now in a liturgical tradition, the Greek Orthodox (as I have said before to friends who are "emerging" from the evangelical world: welcome to the's been here for an awfully long time. And any branch of our faith which can embrace reason, revelation, and experience but also embrace paradox and that is a great strength of Episcopalianism.

Which brings me to my last: I am very sad to see churches splitting from TEC and forming another Anglican branch, or trying. The priest who brought my wife and I into the E church, the one who married us, and the priest who was rector in our first parish: both have left the E church, mostly over the Robinson issue. I don't know much about this, but I found it odd that in the founding documents released from the convention in Wheaton, I believe women will be ordained by the new break away group (I wonder if all parishes/diocese will follow this) but homosexuals, no way.

Oh: Lewis said it some time ago: those who cannot read a book written for grown up should not try. I do not know what view he would take on this issue were he alive today, but the way scripture is used to marginalize a group and not another (divorced hets, women priests) when there are texts which could allow such is simply beyond me.

But now I am much off topic. I've read Genesis and am halfway through Exodus; part of my discernment you know. More on that later.

love to all.