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Tag Archives: adventures in postmodernism

Jesus would have used a Mac

Here is a thing I have noticed:

When I run into a problem with my computer, (download a file that won’t open, an application stops working, etc) I do the following: Google the problem, see if someone else has a similar problem, see if there’s a easy/free fix, and try things until something works.  Sometimes this leads to me taking apart the DVD player to follow a YouTube instructional video on fixing the thing, but most of the time, it leads to me feeling all manner of triumphant over a box of circuits and wires.  “You shall not master me, technology!”  I shout inwardly. (Occasionally outwardly. I take great pride in my victories.)
Here is what my parents do when they notice a problem:
They call me.  (They also read this blog.  Hi Mom, Dad!  Love ya’ll!)
They call me, concerned that the beeping, or the flashing, or the current unable-to-open file situation they are encountering will DESTROY EVERYTHING THEY HOLD DEAR. Every new message from the computer system signals an emergency, or approaching apocalypse.  Technology cannot be trusted.  When I went home for Christmas last year, I discovered that my parents hadn’t run a Windows system update or a antivirus update on their computer in over 5 years.  “I don’t trust those pop-up messages,” said my mother.  “They worry me and I don’t know what they mean, so I just ignore them so nothing goes wrong.” As a result, of course, their computer was now barely functioning.  (I point out here that around the holidays, sites like Gawker and The Awl run articles about how to surreptitiously update your parents’ browser, etc, without throwing them into a panic, or overloading them with information.  This is not a situation unique to my house.)
I raise this issue, not because one reaction is better than another, but because it points towards something else I’ve noticed–as used as we’ve gotten to calling the advances in technology “tools”, that we can put down and pick up, they are, just as much, an entire culture.  And as a culture, this new world of technology has affected everything: our expectations, our world views, how we interact with each other, and each part, really, of how we live.  I hasten to add that this has happened before–Walter Ong wrote a fabulous (and short!) book called Orality and Literacy examining how the advent of written language profoundly changed the way humans think and process the world around us.  As people had access to more and more information, and as the access to that information became more permanent than someone’s memory, the way they thought, and the way they saw the world, changed.
Again, the changes, as Ong points out, were neither all good nor bad.  They just were.  As more information became accessible, thought patterns shifted from the concrete to the abstract.  The repetition that was necessary to aid in memory gave way to complex language construction.  It’s the difference between the Gospel of Mark’s limited vocabulary and the sweeping of the Gospel of John. One’s oral, one’s not.  Both are beautiful and profound, but they were written for different audiences to do different things.
I have witnessed a lot of fear recently about the rise of technology, and the effect it is having on our Church.  On the one hand, I’ve observed anxiety about whether emerging technologies will be ‘good for us or bad for us’.  On the other hand, I’ve heard the concern that as the upcoming generations bring new technologies into the church, people will be excluded, and the Church will become a more exclusive place.
Look, the ship has sailed, mes amis.  Emerging technology is already here.  And this culture, like every culture before it, is both good and bad.  American culture has always been both good and bad.  First century Palestinian culture was both good and bad.  It is our job as faithful, committed Jesus-following people to sort out the good from the bad.  What parts of this culture serve God’s purposes?  What parts of this culture are life-giving to us and our fellow creatures?  What parts seek to destroy the creation of God?  These are questions we have to ask again and again, in this and every generation.  We can go back and forth as we wish about the answers.  But it is criminally unfaithful to give up on the questions because we are afraid to do the work.
God does not give us a vote as to which culture we are immersed in.  But God, by virtue of the Incarnation, shows up in all cultures, all contexts, in one way or another.  Even this one, with its many gadgets.  Our job, as faithful people, is to figure out the culture enough to find the divine fingerprints in it.

Adventures in Postmodern Ministry: We are not Family

Last Thursday, the diocese of Arizona had another educational summit for its clergy, this one on preaching.  These summits are a chance for all the clergy in the diocese, and sometimes lay leaders in the parish as well, to receive continuing education on various topics: children and youth ministry, spiritual direction, music and liturgy, etc.  (And also see our colleagues.  An added bonus of no small worth in a diocese as big as ours.)

Our presenter covered a lot of ground, but one of the points she touched on was that the meaning of language has shifted considerably in the past few decades.  Therefore, in her preaching classes, certain words are off-limits:  sin, grace, faith, hope, etc.  She dubbed these “Teflon words” because their meanings are so loaded and expansive that anything can be thrown at them with no effect, unless the preacher specifically defines them.
I agree with this Teflon concept.  Especially for folks who came of age in a post-Christendom world, there exists no one meaning for any of these theological terms.  Just as the pleasant concept of a unified theory of systematic theology has broken down into a multitude of varied voices singing in (one hopes) harmony, each of our nice theological terms now has a variety of meanings attached to it.  ‘Sin’ can mean what your mom says when you were 5, as well as what the crazy guy on the subway is yelling about as well as what Rick Santorum is currently pontificating about.  Plus, probably whatever the preacher on South Park says it means.
Which means a couple things:  #1, the average person is confused about theology and #2, preachers had better start defining their terms, unless they want their folks to be educated by the loudest voices in the room.  (Who are liable to be Rick Santorum, and South Park.)
And, #3. Due to this varied soup of influences, words have ceased to mean what you think they mean.  And perhaps, some words should only be used in the pulpit with the utmost caution.
To this latter list of Teflon words, might I add the word “family”?
I realize that I invite the shocked gasps of many throughout the church with this suggestion, as well as the writers of almost every parish profile I have ever read, but hear me out.
I understand that we would like the church to be a family.  But I also think that what we mean by this term is: “a group of people who support and love each other unconditionally, through good times and bad, richer or poorer, etc.”  It’s an aspirational goal;  it’s what we strive to be like.
Because many of us (most of us, maybe) do not come from families that operated like this.  Many of us came from families that did not manage to pull off the unconditional love concept, and who weren’t always so supportive of everything, all the time, always.  Families can, and do, split up.  Families can, and do, hurt each other and abuse each other, and store secrets for years and years.  Aspirational goals, and Hallmark cards, aside, the reality of ‘family’ as many of us know it is not really an experience that anyone would want to import into the church.  It’s not a life-giving metaphor; it’s covered with too much baggage.
Instead, why not be explicit with our aspirations?  If we want to be a community of people who support and love each other unconditionally, then why not say that?  Why not explain that this is, in fact, what Christian community is, and lay out exactly what our vision is?   And this has never been more important than now, when there are so many competing voices, clamoring to claim what is Christian and what is not.  What if we were to step forward and say, “Hey!  Shocking as it may sound, a Christian community is determined by its ability to love and accept the newcomer and stranger, not its ability to judge more harshly than anyone else in town.  Christian communities are built on love, not the skulls of the damned.”
Our ability to communicate the Gospel has never been more important, and it helps no one if we restrain ourselves to vague terms that are comforting shibboleths to us, but hopelessly baggage-laden to others.  We need to be clear, crystal-clear, even, and forthright with our vision for a redeemed creation: words and all!

I’m still here, am not a dryer sock

The Episcopal Cafe linked to this article two days ago  with the following headline”Where have all the Young People Gone?”

 The article itself is fine.  The headline is troubling.
It’s a popular question to ask, nowadays, by very well-meaning people, who have very well-founded concerns that the current incarnation of the church lacks a certain diversity of ages.  This is true.  The current incarnation is a bit lopsided when it comes to life-experience.  The average Episcopalian is somewhere around the age of 58.  Everyone, by now, has seen the statistics about our drop in membership, and the rise in spirituality over religious affiliation.  So the idea that ‘kids these days’ are,  statistically speaking, more likely to be drinking coffee than acolyting, on Sunday morning is not far-fetched.
But saying, “Where have all the Young People Gone?” does not help the situation.
Because that questions assumes that All Young People Have, in fact, Gone.
Not just most Young People, but ALL the Young People.  ALL OF THEM.  EVERYWHERE.
WE HAVE LOST ALL THE YOUNG PEOPLE!!  
Like socks in the dryer, or some vast conspiracy of youth to abandon the Fair Church Episcopal.
This is, I realize, a hyperbolic assumption, but it’s also damaging.  Because, as a certified Young Person, how can I begin to speak to my beloved Church about the ways in which we can make the church more welcoming to my fellow Young People, if it seems to have trouble recognizing that I’m still here?  Or that my perspective might be important on this issue?
Dear Church, there are a few Young People here, you know.  We attend your services, we sit in the back, occasionally in the front if we’re bold.  Sometimes, we sit there quietly, and give up after a few Sundays, and sometimes, we get feisty and get ourselves elected to positions of leadership.  Sometimes, we even get ourselves ordained.
So, look.  This is a conversation we desperately need to have, because this is an issue that is real.  But the only way this will work out is if we have it with each other, not around each other.  You’re concerned about the young people? Talk to the Actual Young People.  Ask us what we need.  Ask us what would help make the church more welcoming.
This is a trick we’ve all had to learn time and again, each time we wanted to open the doors a little wider, learn how to be a little more welcoming.  How do we talk to someone, and not just about them-as-a-population?  We’re going to have to learn that trick again.
So, please.  Ask us about being young people in this church.  We will tell you.  Then we can work on it together.
Because God’s Kingdom has no dryer socks.

Orientation-ing

For the past month, Northern Arizona University has held a series of New Student Orientations: two a week, all through June.  Incoming students flood Flagstaff’s pretty little town (and tiny, overstressed roads) and make shopping at the sole Target near-impossible.  Along with their parents, guardians, and/or siblings, they tour the dorms, sign up for classes, and attend the ORIENTATION EXPO!

The ORIENTATION EXPO! occurs at 7:30 AM (yes.  AM.) outside along one of the walkways on NAU’s campus.  Each student activity signs up for a table, and the right to stand at said table, hawking their services.  Everyone from Parking Services, to the Bookstore, to Campus Crusade for Christ shows up, and hands out pamphlets and swag.

Basically, it’s running the gauntlet of brochures, overwhelming information, and candy, at an hour that no seventeen year old is functioning.  (And there’s no coffee. Did I mention that?)

NAU Canterbury has been present for the past 3 summers.  We have colorful brochures, colorful business cards, and a bobble head Jesus.  Here is our table.  (And yes, I set this up for a month, and JUST NOW realized that Canterbury is misspelled.  See what happens when I am asked to do things without benefit of caffeine?!)

Our table.

These expos are instructive.  For as much as we have been talking recently about getting out of the church building and mixing with Actual Unchurched People, this is a way to do it.

Things I have Learned:

  • Few know what ‘Episcopal’ means.
    I mean, like no one.  Almost no one has heard of it before.  But those who have, think it’s great.  The people who know what the big, scary, Greek word on the banner is, generally have positive associations with it.
  • So this is mainly about education.  Education that we, at least, aren’t frightening or abusive (and I’m using those terms intentionally.)  Education that we aren’t those ‘Christian’ voices who picket funerals, and bomb clinics, and advocate killing groups of people in the name of God.
  • This is, obviously, tough to do in 45 seconds.  So mainly, I talk about how we have meals with all our activities, we’re welcoming, and affirming, and give them our brochure.

I can’t overcome all preconceived notions about what Christianity is or is not in a 30 second conversation.  And this results sometimes in events like the young man who told me flat out that he couldn’t attend my ministry because he didn’t believe that women should speak in church.  Alrighty then.  And it becomes harder still when the majority of Christian voices on campus reinforce these ideas.

What I can do is be a friendly, nonthreatening and welcoming presence that hopefully, causes curiosity.  Maybe the new student will remember that this one time, there was this odd priest-lady who seemed nice, and it might not be so scary to take a friend along to go check that group out, one day, when everything seems awful, and hope seems really distant.  That’s worth being awake at 7:30 am.

New Structure, New Church, Same Jesus

Last week, before I left on retreat (Beautiful Authority Conference, which was amazing) I received in the mail a book from the President of the House of Deputies.

Now, I love to read, and I love books, and so I am disinclined to question when free books start appearing in my mailbox.  But this book was an actual, physical BOOK #1, and #2, it was explaining to me the glorious history of the governance structures of The Episcopal Church, and how it makes us who we are.
And, it does.  But the problem is, who we currently are, in all its vast complexity, is not all we ought to be.
Like I said last time (or the time before the Trinity Break), currently, we’re doing an excellent job pretending to be some odd corporation.  Occasionally, on smaller scales, we like also to be a country club.  And, at points in our history, we have also tried to be a full-on kingdom.
We aren’t good at any of those things, nor are we called to be any of those things.
We’re called to be a church. The embodiment of Christ at this time and place on the earth.  We are called to be turned outward, and serving the world in Christ’s name, like chaplains to the world.
In almost no way are we currently set up to do that.  We’re set up to form committees, and to issue recommendations, or build stuff, or argue.  (We are fantastically good at arguing.)
But as far as dealing with a world that is not predominantly Christian, and not so inclined to listen to our recommendations, learn our language, or venture into our amazing buildings, we are not set up for that.
We need to build a servant structure: and not just servant in terms of “serving the mission of the church”, but servant in terms of serving the world.
And (brace yourselves) but the first thing we need to do is combine the House of Deputies and the House of Bishops.
Each diocese gets their active bishops, two clergy, and two lay votes.  I didn’t come up with this brilliant plan; Tom Ferguson+ and others explain it quite well. (We can keep the Presiding Bishop to play with the other primates, for however long we get to stay in the Anglican Communion, and to organize annual Bishops’ Gatherings.  Otherwise, the presiding officer of the new Joint House should be elected from any order of ministry, for the term of the General Convention, banging the gavel and whatnot.)
There are several practical advantages to this plan: it decreases the cost of General Convention dramatically, it lessens the financial pressure on individual dioceses, it decreases the silo effect between House of Bishops and House of Deputies.
Also, it forces us to put our money where our mouth is with regards to ministry of all the baptized.  Since the 1979 BCP came out, we’ve worked hard to establish that you do not receive special powers when you are ordained.  However, neither do you lose your baptismal powers and obligations when you are ordained.  I am bound to respect the dignity of my fellow human beings just as much now as I was prior to donning the plastic collar, if not more so.  When we say everyone is equal before God, then everyone really does need to be equal in the eyes of the church’s structure, and that should include being in the same room to hash out how we’re going to be church together.  And if you’re too intimidated by your bishop to vote a different way, then may haps you, and your bishop, need another lesson in baptismal theology.
So now that everyone’s in one room together, we really no longer need doubles of the committees.  Hooray!
And, we’re going to impose two new rules to guide the work of said committees:
1. Don’t Say it, Do it.
2. Everyone is 3 years old.
Rule #1: Don’t Say it, Do it. 
The first rule is stolen gleefully from Scott Gunn+.  In essence, we need to get out of the mindset that we still run the world, in the manner of Coca-Cola, or Constantine, and that, via efficacious speech, the world will bend to our righteous will.
The Korean Peninsula will not reunify just because we pass a resolution saying we are in favor of that.  The Cuba embargo will not be lifted either.  Nor will a two state solution be reached in Israel/Palestine through the power of our paperwork, EVEN IF we send a copy to the president.
What we should do instead is ACTUALLY DO THINGS.  Want a two-state solution?  Disinvest in Caterpillar, Motorola, and companies that do business in the Occupied Territories.  (This worked to end South African apartheid.)  Want to help heal the planet?  Ask churches to convert to those swirly lightbulbs, and give them incentives to do so.  Ask them to investigate solar panels, and give them incentives.
We can’t just state what we think about things any more and assume people care.  We need to do things, and then explain why we are doing them.  Any committee that can’t fulfill its mandate in actionable steps needs to reconsider its mission.
Speaking of that:  Rule #2!  Everyone is 3 years old.
 We need to explain why.  All the time. Why do we care about global poverty, and universal healthcare?  Why do we care if everyone is included in the church?  Why do we care about transparency in the budget?  Why?  Why? Why?
We need to pretend that the entire world is populated by extremely cute and lovable toddlers who keep asking us, “Why?”
We cannot assume that people understand the connection between Jesus and taking care of the poor.  We cannot assume that people understand the connection between Jesus and loving your neighbor.  We cannot assume that people understand who in the world Jesus Christ, as portrayed in the gospels and as we know him, actually is.  We need to remember that for many, many years now, there has been a concerted effort to use the name of Jesus to bash people who are different, and to justify all manner of hateful actions.  To begin to undo that is perhaps one of the most powerful acts of mission we can engage in.
Last night on the Colbert Report, Stephen Colbert had on his show both Sr. Simone Campbell, who heads NETWORK*, and Martin Sheen.  Both are devout Roman Catholics, and both have been noted for their activism on behalf of peace and poverty issues.  (It was an awesome Roman Catholic grand slam.)  What struck me is the audience response.  When Stephen Colbert (who teaches Sunday School at his church, mind you) asked Sr. Simone why nuns were such ‘radical feminists’, and spent so much time serving the poor and sick, she came right back at him.  “That’s the gospel. That’s what Jesus taught us to do.” The crowd burst into sustained applause.
Ditto when Martin Sheen came out.  “Why are you such a liberal commie-type?” queried Colbert, “Well, it pretty much is about that gospel that the sister was talking about.  I’m following Jesus and this is what Jesus taught me.”  Again, the crowd went nuts.
In a period of less than ten minutes, an actor and a nun evangelized a non-churchy audience much better than most Episcopal churches ever do.  Why are we doing this?
Because of Jesus.
Ultimately, the structure we need is answered in that.  Make a structure that serves the world, and invites the question, so that everything we say, do, and are is answered by, “Because of Jesus.”
*NETWORK is an progressive Catholic group which “educates, lobbies and organizes for economic and social transformation.”