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Wear heels. Dig them in.

Two weeks ago, I got an email from our campus Roman Catholic ministry inviting me to their weekly speaker series.  This week, they were hosting a speaker from San Diego, a woman who had started her own affiliate of the National Organization for Marriage.  She would be speaking on “Re-defining Marriage: How Same-Sex Marriage threatens Religious Liberty for all of us.” *

Oh joy.
My immediate reaction was confusion.  The Lutherans, and the United Christian Ministry were also invited, and all of us had had the “come to Jesus” conversation of progressive Christians with the other Christian ministries on campus over the summer.  This boiled down to:  Lookit!  Be nice to the gay kids, and if you find that you can’t pull this off, then send them to us, and we’ll do it for you, and save face for you.  If you can’t one of the Allies, then at least be Switzerland, for crying out loud.
But, clearly, the Catholics were not being all Swiss about this issue this week.  So what was I called to do in this moment?
There’s a case to be made for staying away. I could plead ecumenical unity, I could listen to the voice of my Paranoid!Bishop in my ear, asking why I was stirring up things again**, I could point out that it’s not like the Catholics had ever done anything to me personally (lately), and we’re all the church, and the church should stick together!
And sure.  Ecumenical unity is fine (though long gone) as is avoiding any theoretical confrontation with the bishop.  They are perfectly nice sorts of things.
But right now, the sorts of things this woman was saying is passing as mainstream Christian thought in much of the country, and I have not elected her my spokesperson.
So I went.
I went, and I sat towards the back in my collar, and my “I’m wearing a grown-up, respectable suit!” suit, and heels. (I had been invited, after all.)  I informed my students of what was happening, and asked if they wanted to join me.  Because they are uniformly awesome, they turned out in force, and asked if they could make t-shirts for the occasion.
I sat in the back and listened quietly and peaceably, while taking incredibly sarcastic notes.  The speaker basically achieved the perfect storm of right-wing social theory.  Marriage is for the sole purpose of creating and nurturing children.  Biological ties only create a family, and these ties cannot and should not be broken.  (This really surprised me–I don’t believe I’ve ever heard someone advocate against adoption the way she did, although she allowed it in ‘special circumstances.’)  Birth control is evil, as is gender neutral language, economic equality between the sexes, and the ‘blurring of gender roles.’  The Obama Administration is apparently out to get religious people, in its requirement that everyone (except churches and other religious institutions) have to provide birth control coverage to employees cost-free.  (The nerve!  Asking women to decide for themselves whether to purchase it or not!)
So she was very thorough.  She even threw in a condemnation of the estate tax (because I think it’s a rule at this point for speaking publicly as a conservative.)
But then came the Q&A.
The questions were pretty benign.  There was really mild pushback from the students, but none that she appeared to hear.
Then I got the mike.
I pointed out that really, her main problem seemed to be with the Kim Kardashians and the Britney Spears of the world: straight people who were extremely bad at marriage.  People who abused their kids and each other, people who were trapped in the cycle of addiction, people who were unfaithful, people who were unable or unwilling to be good parents, people who got married in elaborate weddings then divorced 72 days later, etc.
And none of those things applied to the committed gay couples I knew, people who were lined up, knocking down the doors of my church, asking to make public vows of fidelity and love to each other–the sort of thing my church preached was the sacramental self-sacrificial love that marriage signified.
And since that was the case, then why on earth not encourage these people to get married?
Well, she said, looking stormy.  Marriage isn’t about love.  It’s about children.  There are lots of different sorts of love, and lots of different sorts of relationships, but marriage is about producing and caring for children.
(……..Honestly.  I got nothing.)
That’s pretty much where it ended.
After it was over, several students unaffiliated with Canterbury came up to me and said how glad they were that I had asked my question.  The Catholic priest at the Newman Center came over, and said he was glad I had spoken up.  “I was waiting for someone to introduce the concept of real people into her speech.”
No kidding.
Theology always, ALWAYS involves real people.  Theology is never without consequences, and never exists in a bubble.
Stand in public, and proclaim that “marriage is about children, and not love” and immediately, you have sent the message that people who cannot have children, or choose not to, are not really married.
Stand up and say that biology, and not the courts, create a family, and now you’ve started casting doubt on the legitimacy of people who were adopted.  (Which, really, for a conservative Catholic– is quite a mind bender.)
And each time you say stuff like that, you’ve told people that there is something wrong with them.  You’ve told them that for some reason they may not be able to control, God is angry with them. God is seriously displeased with huge swaths of the population. “Horrible people!” God evidently says “Why can’t they live up to these impossible and unachievable standards that exist out here in the ether?”
By virtue of the Incarnation, if there is one thing in the cosmos God is concerned about, it’s actual people.  Not theories, not pretty dreams about what people should be, but actual, honest-to-Jesus, people.  People as they lived, and died, and celebrated and suffered.
Jesus called actual people to be disciples.  Peter, if you’ll note, was a complete doofus, albeit well-meaning, for much of his life.  Paul contradicted himself enough to rival a pretzel.  There were enough rough-and-tumble arguments in the nascent church to bring succor to the current watchers of the HoB/D listserv and England’s General Synod.  I’m not even going to go into the rumors and issues around the women Jesus hung around with.
The point is, he hung around with people.  Actual people.
His teaching served them; people weren’t meant to serve it.  (Wait, that sounds awfully familiar.)
The Spirit works through people.  Woe betide us when we stop paying attention.
*I’m not linking to her site.  You can Google “The Ruth Institute” if you want, but I’m not inclined to give this lady any more site views than she already has.  Aside from the many (MANY) issues I have with her espoused (ha!) policy positions, the irony is more than I can stand.  Their logo is virtually identical to that of Greendale Community College, of “Community” fame.  Really, I’ve not entirely written off the notion that we were all being punked.
**This is a song in my head now.  It is sung to the tune of “You’re making things up again, Arnold” from “The Book of Mormon.”  It is very catchy.  And features hobbits.  And Yoda.

Tebowing the Bible

I don’t follow football, or any sport, really, with the occasional exception for college basketball or the Olympics.  (This, and a specific disregard for the Phillies and the Eagles makes my parents wonder if I was switched at birth.)

Tim Tebow, circa high school, I think
However, even I have heard of Tim Tebow.  Tim Tebow, who plays for the Denver Broncos, who played for Florida in college, and who makes a habit of mentioning his devout Christian faith repeatedly during every interview.
It’s not the football, so much that attracts my attention as it is the last bit.  It’s the conflation of Tebow’s faith and his football that has gotten people’s attention, so much so that “Tebow-ing’ is now a thing–a new word to describe his habit of dropping to one knee in a prayerful pose of gratitude when he scores a touchdown.  (Which is awesome, because we needed a neologism for genuflecting.  Thanks, guy!)
When he was in college, Tebow had a habit of inscribing Bible citations in his eye black–that stuff football players smear under their eyes.  John 3:16 was his favorite.
And this got me thinking.  John 3:16 is an insanely popular one-off verse to cite.  You want a Christian pop-culture slogan or a 2 second TV ad, a specialized handshake to assure the members of your crowd that you’re ‘one of them’ then dropping the 3:16 bomb is the way to go.
But is it the best one?
John 3:16 says “For God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten Son, that whoever should believe in him should not perish but have everlasting life.”  Bam.
Well, ok. That’s pretty good!  It’s short, it’s pithy, it’s to the point.  Strong language, no passive voice.  (Well, it’s translated from some pretty fancy Greek, which does use the aorist tense, but we’ll gloss that for now.)
But, because I like to deconstruct things (I have a ‘Team Derrida’ t-shirt, and if you got that joke, I’m going to buy you a commiserating cup of coffee.*) I have some questions.
Mainly, is John 3:16 the best verse?
Because, ok, God loved the world, that’s a good message right there.  But if I’m a newbie (and let’s assume I am, because this is who messages in eyeblack are aiming at, right?), then how am I to understand the rest of this verse?
  • I don’t know what ‘only-begotten’ means.
  • Does ‘everlasting life’ mean literal ‘you-never-die’, or something metaphorical?  (Because that actually does matter. And should be discussed/explained.)
  • And how do I believe in him?  (also, which him are we talking about?)
  • Do I believe in the historical reality of Jesus, or something more specific, and if the latter, then what, specifically?
  • And, the verse says nothing about what I should do, in the next moment.  Nothing about how I should treat the woman sitting at the desk beside mine, or the guy sitting on the sidewalk outside the door, or the kid wandering down the street, who stole my GPS last year.  None of that is addressed.
I’m just told to believe in a guy, and live forever.  I’m not told what to do about the people around me, the problems I have now, or anything else.  Hmmm.
So, is there another option for Primary Christian Slogan Verse?  Because this one seems confusing and incomplete.
Here are some options I came up with.  Now I’m just spitballing here, so bear with me.
1. Micah 6:8 “He has told you, O Mortal, what is good. And what does the LORD require of you, but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?”
  • Good, pithy, strong verbs, etc.  Covers the ‘here’s what you do!’ aspect well.  But the question format might leave some doubt as to the fact that, in fact, God does want you to do the justice, kindness, humble-walking bit.
2. 1 John 4:21 “The commandment we have from him is this: those who love God must love their brothers and sisters also.”
  • In reality, I’d nominate all of ch.4 in 1 John, mainly because it goes on at length about God=love. (Seriously.  Read 1 John, whilst skipping over the bit about the antichrist.) But entire chapters of the Bible, especially of Johannine epistles, are not pithy.
3. The entirety of Romans 8
  • Again, brevity is a problem here.  But it’s just so good…..
Any other suggestions?
Or…. is it just possible that Christianity doesn’t fit easily into a slogan?  Is it possible that it’s something that requires a conversation, a relationship, an entire lifetime to explain even close to properly?
*At which, we can discuss why Derrida would probably not have a team, so much as a collection, a smorgasbord of people, a gathering, per se, because a team would still need to be interrogated further, their motives taken apart.  “Why are they there?  Who is on this team?  Who is not on this team?  What prevents them from being there, and why?”  
Possibly, the coffee should be switched to decaf.

My God can evidently beat up your God

This past week, the governor of Texas released a television ad which revealed some startling and disturbing news:  children can no longer celebrate Christmas openly.

I’m glad he informed me of this, as I was all set to proceed as normal with Advent 3 and Advent 4, before celebrating my merry little way into Christmas Eve and Christmas 1.  (Possibly I might go nuts and break loose with the Feast of the Holy Name.  Who knows?  I’m unpredictable!)  But thank God for you, Rick Perry!  Who knows what horrors might have befallen me had I proceeded?  Fire from the sky, locusts, plagues, mass chaos, cats befriending dogs, etc, etc.  (Also, suddenly my schedule just opened way up.  Drinks, anyone?)
Is it possible Rick Perry is the Grinch and I have failed to notice up til now?
(A more pressing question: please God, does this make Rick Santorum Max the dog?  Because that would explain so. very. much.)
It’s possible that this has escaped Rick Perry’s notice til now, but there do exist people who choose to either not celebrate Christmas, or to celebrate it differently than he does.  (The same goes for Easter, actually.  Also, Maundy Thursday.  Seriously, Newt Gingrich, anytime you want to spearhead a Catholic-politician movement to widen the federal recognition of such an important religious holiday as Maundy Thursday, bring it on.)
So people celebrate it differently.  Or don’t celebrate it.  And in the mind of Rick Perry, Bill O’Reilly, etc, this creates a war on Christmas.  This is puzzling.  Do holiday trees invalidate the birth of Christ?  Does saying ‘Season’s Greetings!” one too many times cancel out the Incarnation?
What sort of flimsy, wishy-washy Christmas is that?
Once God breaks into creation, God doesn’t drift back out again, like Casper the Highly-Suggestible-and-Holy Ghost.  You can’t take the Christ out of Christmas.
Christ is in this thing permanently.
Which, if you ask me, is sort of the whole point.

And one returned

In the ordination vows, as all ordained folk know, there exists an infamous line: “you are to carry out all other duties that may be assigned to you from time to time.”  It’s in the Examination, during the Ordination of a Deacon, and, since ordination is an indelible mark, promises made here are boom!  Permanent!  It is an unassuming little promise, but as aged ordained folks will tell you, this is the promise where They Get You.  This is the promise that ends, five years later, with once-chipper-young ordinand fixing the plumbing in all 5 of the church’s bathrooms and wondering what on earth happened?

That’s the less-fun scenario.  That’s the story told by grizzled elders who, more than likely, did not go on CREDO retreats or pay attention in Fresh Start, so they did not take their most important Day Off.
The more-fun scenarios are ones like I’ve had:  improvising a funeral for a dearly-departed dead bird (RIP Davey).  Unpacking the theological significance of ‘Arrested Development’.  Being given a cat as a thank-you by a parish.
And the most rewarding of all: Periodically I get to be Official Church Presence at something.
This past week was Coming Out Week at NAU.  For the first time at NAU, the university also has an Office of GLBTQ Affairs to coordinate said week, and its activities.  (Give thanks, all readers.  Our president presumably saw a calendar, noticed it was 2011, and decided to Get somewhat With It.)  Two of my colleagues and I noticed this development with glee, and asked nicely if we could do something having to do with inclusive Christianity.  (For such a thing exists, don’t you know.)
The result was a brown-bag discussion this past Thursday, on churches that took an inclusive view of the GLBTQ community.  One of my colleagues had an emergency at the last minute, and couldn’t come, leaving me and my Lutheran colleague to hold down the fort.
I made cookies, and wore my collar, and heels.  (Because when you want to convince people that God does, in fact, love them, you should wear proof that someone thinks you capable to opine for God on occasion, and bring proof that someone loves them enough to bake them Diabetes in Disk-form.)
We expected that we’d get maybe 6 people.  We got over 20.  All talking, all engaged.  We talked for over an hour and a half.  Everything from “how do you approach that verse in Romans?”  to “how do you counteract the media image of Christians as Westboro Baptist?” It was an extremely thoughtful and earnest group of college students.
I didn’t say anything earth-shattering.  However, I did get to be the one to sit there in a collar, and say, “Hi!  I, as an Official Christian-type Person, would like to tell you that the church I represent does not believe that you are going to hell.  We believe strongly, in fact, that God loves you just as much as anyone else, and that happens to be quite a lot.  God actually created you just as you are, intentionally!   And if I am the first person to tell you this about God, then I’d sort of like to stomp on the former religious leaders in your life with the high-heeled shoes I have worn specifically for this purpose.”***
After it was over, and I was packing up the left over cookies, one girl stayed behind.  She came up to me and my Lutheran colleague and thanked us, “You’ve entirely changed my image of the church,” she said, “All I’ve heard before this was negativity and hate.  I didn’t think I would find a place that would accept me, but I heard something different today.  So I wanted to say thank you.”
Sometimes my job is complicated–budgets and funding sources and pastoral care issues and family systems theory.
Sometimes it is just simply awesome.
This was one of the simply awesome days.
***I DID NOT ACTUALLY SAY THESE THINGS.  I used other words.  And I did NOT threaten physical violence, to which I am opposed quite passionately.  PLEASE don’t actually stomp on people with high heels on.  I don’t advise it, no matter how whacked-out their theology may be.

Requiem in pax

It’s fall in Flagstaff.  Or, more precisely, since I turned on the heat this morning, and snow (!) is forecast for tomorrow, it’s the beginning of winter.

And while that means nice stuff like pumpkin lattes, turning aspens, and my endless scarf collection, it also means, as I have learned from time in parish ministry, that people tend to die.

My mother has been a hospice nurse all my life, and so I grew up around death, and am not unfamiliar with its rhythms–people die around holidays, around days of importance to them, and around the changing of the seasons.  When I was first starting out in ministry, one of the weird ideas I had was that somehow, I would get more used to this rhythm of losing people.  (Then CPE happened, and that’s another story.)

Turns out, no one ever gets used to it.  Each loss is unique, and that’s just all there is.  In the past month, we’ve had two sudden deaths, which is tough on a community.  This time, however, it was one of those stalwart couples whom everyone knew, and who died within weeks of each other.

On Sunday, I got to celebrate all three services at Epiphany, and it’s our practice to dedicate the Eucharist to the recently deceased.  Usually, I don’t know the person who has died.  I haven’t been here that long, and frequently, the memorialized person is a relative of a parishioner.  This week, however, it was someone that I saw almost every week, sitting out in the congregation.

But using the ancient prayer for the dead (May their soul, and the souls of all the departed, rest in peace, and rise in glory), and then going into the eucharistic prayer language about how we “join with the saints and angels and all the heavenly chorus” was an interesting experience.  Because now I had named one of the heavenly chorus–like watching a sporting event on TV and realizing you know someone in the massive crowd.

We’ve held onto the communion of saints idea for centuries for this reason, I suppose.  It gives words to the idea that no one is really gone from our congregation–they just move positions a bit.




Kids these days

This week was Week Two of “What if Canterbury Got to Have Its Service in a Real, Live Church?” Experiment.  Each week, this has gotten to be a smoother process by an order of magnitude.  (Last week, in a process too long to go into, I discovered that three of my four on-hand Canterburians did not have driver’s licenses.  Kids!  All wild and crazy and lacking the ability to drive legally.)

But it never fails to amaze me how large the gap is between what the Average Congregational Episcopalian seem to expect a “college service” to look like, and what the Canterburians then deliver.  From the initial conversations I had with these A.C.Es prior to the start of the 5:30pm services, I gather that many expected experimental liturgy!  Wild rock music!  Possibly some extemporaneous praying!  But definitely drums of some kind.

Instead, the students would like a greater reliance on the Hymnal 1982, and the authorized hymnals.  (Point of reference: this group doesn’t like singing Spanish hymns in translation.)  They have a strict list of Rules For Music, from which I am forbidden from straying from (i.e. No folk Christian music  published between the years of 1960-1998, except as approved on a case-by-case basis. Nothing that would suggest that Jesus might be anyone’s boyfriend; nothing that mandates hand gestures, but if spontaneous movement arises, that is acceptable, (aka the Macarena Paradox) etc.)  They would greatly like a thurible (cheap ones can be ordered online from Mexico!) And I’m fairly certain that at some point, I’m going to end up with a handmade t-shirt that says “Rubrics are binding!” on it.  And I shall wear it with pride and glee.

And all of the above is the hardest pitch I ever make in larger church gatherings.  No one believes me.  The conventional wisdom of “Young people don’t like traditional music/liturgy.” just won’t budge.

…and there is some truth in that.  Or, more properly, some young people don’t like some liturgy done in some ways.  You can no more generalize about an entire couple of generations than you can about, say, all women.  Or all men.  At all time, everywhere.  Unless you’re a late 1990’s comedian.  (In which case, my guess is your calling is not to be a leader in the church.)

Really, they like church to be church.  And not church pretending to be anything else.  That is what they’ve signed up for.  (believe it or not.)  Because there are a ton of places to go and hear folky music, or rock music.  Or sit in an amphitheater and feel better about yourself.

There aren’t a whole lot of places to go and have a transcendent experience of the divine come near, connect with a tradition generations-upon-generations older than you, and be challenged to live a better life in community with those around you–some you like a lot, and some you would really ignore til the day you died.

Starbucks doesn’t quite cut it.

And remarkably, that’s what these students have signed up for, of their own free will, and cheerfully, too.  They’re not there because of a societal expectation that going to church is what makes you a good person, or keeps you in tight with the ‘right’ crowd.  Nope.  They’re there because they want to be.  Because they find something there that they are passionate about.

It’s the rest of us, maybe, who get freaked out by that.


Adventures in Post-Modern Ministry: That Word Does Not Mean What You Think it Means

On Saturday, I went to a lecture on Jacques Lacan and the use of metaphor and narrative in counselling situations.  Because I thought it would be fun!

And, also, given the number of times I preface conversations with, “But then again, I’m postmodern, so….”, I thought brushing up on actual postmodernists would be wise.

The day started out auspiciously–there was coffee!  Good coffee, readily available!  The day could commence!  (Sometimes, these things are dicey.)  In the process of acquiring said coffee (Sacrament #8), a woman came up to me, and without preamble, announced, “Your nametag is upside down.  That could be interpreted.”  She walked away, and I decided this lecture had just become the best lecture ever.  (For the record, it got caught on my hair.  I wasn’t trying to make a statement.)
In a nutshell, Jacques Lacan was a French psychologist who reexamined the teachings and writings of Freud in light of new philosophical theories of semiotics and deconstructionism.  ::crickets:::
And the fact that this previous sentence probably made little to no sense to many, many people would have made Lacan extremely excited, and proved his point.  Which was that language itself is isolating, and to be truly understood by another person was impossible.  This is also known in my small head as The Inigo Montoya Theory of Language (Or: The  “I Do Not Think That Word Means What You Think That It Means” Problem.)
Basically, it goes like this:  I say something to you, using English, our common language.   You understand me well enough, being that English is our shared language, but you understand me imperfectly, because you cannot possibly understand all of the connotations, all the memories and associations and connections that are triggered for me by the words I chose, since they came from my entire lived experience, my family’s history, and everything I know of the world that is unique to me.  And, if I attempt to explain it to you, we are facing the problem of imperfect language again.  It’s a vicious cycle!  We’re all soooooo aloooone!  Sad mimes in berets!
So, then, Lacan and other French post-modernists would argue, we are continually talking past each other to some degree or another.  (Lacan, being a psychologist, would also argue that this also makes us sad, and can ultimately motivate us to have better lives, but that’s another story.)  To try to mitigate this talking-past-problem, we humans have developed the capacity for conscious metaphorical language, since our basic language isn’t conveying literal truth so well anyway.  (In fact, you could argue, and I would, that all language is metaphor; some just more conscious than other.)  Like me saying I was brushing up on post-modernism–I wasn’t literally brushing up on Lacan.  He’s dead, and that’s both disgusting and hard to do.  But it conveys something more concrete (see, another one!) to you than me saying I was re-learning Lacan.
And here’s where I think this applies to ministry.  As we’ve become more self-consciously post-modern (or, rather, many of us have, especially those among us who are youngish), I’ve noticed our metaphors becoming more self-conscious as well, and more elaborate, almost like we’re trying to construct an entire other language with more circumscribed meanings, to lessen the innate misunderstanding.  We actually want to communicate better, have that implicit understanding, and we have a growing awareness that people are different from us, and this understanding is actually not guaranteed.  So we try to manufacture ways around that.
My brother and I went for months on end, in high school and college, where we would mainly speak to each other in quotations from ‘The West Wing.’  Aside from the fact that we clearly have extremely good taste, I think it was an attempt to find a shared language, somewhere, given that at the time, we had almost nothing else in common, no common experiences to solidify our common language.  But the world of the West Wing was static enough that if we quoted that to each other, we knew what it meant.  But outside that static world?  Nope, we were ships passing in the night.
For preaching, this is huge.  For anyone in the church at all, this is huge.   If language is freighted with extra baggage, and we can’t assume any common meanings any more, then preachers have to be extra-special, super-duper careful.  And I mean it.  Anything said is liable to misinterpretation and confusion, and not just by the one guy in the fourth row who didn’t like you in the first place.
Tape the Prayer of Humble Access to your foreheads, people, and memorize it.
 In fact, maybe we need a new one for the 21st century:
“WE DO NOT PRESUME… that those words that meant one thing when we were kids still mean that same thing.
WE DO NOT PRESUME…. that the Bible verse that has been comforting to me is comforting to everyone.
WE DO NOT PRESUME…. that because I repeat a phrase over and over again, everyone knows what it means.
WE DO NOT PRESUME…that we can continue to use the same words and phrases with abandon and everyone will understand what we mean.”
The work of preaching is now as much about constructing a common language as it is about sharing the gospel.  We have to redefine ‘salvation’, ‘grace’, ‘love’ , even ‘God’ and ‘Jesus’, because we cannot assume a common, static understanding.
We have to reconstruct one for ourselves.