Monday, February 27, 2006

Will You Walk Away?

Late this afternoon as I was browsing some blogs, I found this post on Brian’s site, which led me to this article and discussion on titusonenine . After reading 44 responses, I felt moved to respond. This is not something I do frequently on titusonenine. While discussions there tend to reflect more thought and reflection and listening than most sites coming from the “reasserter” or “traditional” side of Anglican arguments, it is only the best of a bad lot. Rather than add to the fire, and open myself to those responses, I tend to simply click away, with an intellectual shake of the head. However, today I responded. My response is as follows.

So much of this saddens me. How shall we imagine finding common ground if we cannot even find “shared space?”

I grew up in a culture where the most common standard for Biblical interpretation was “literally true, verbally inspired, inerrant and infallible.” Now, that goes quite a way beyond “containing all things necessary to salvation.” In that light, it is not simply my opportunity, it is my responsibility to live with Scripture to discern what is necessary to salvation, and what is not.

Will you walk away from me because of how I understand Scripture? Certainly, I have reappraised some parts of Scripture. I do not hesitate to wear shirts of a blended fabric. And I am part of a long tradition of reappraisal in big things and little. I am reasonably certain I have ancestors who plowed their fields with mules. I am reasonably certain I have ancestors who owned slaves. I believe God created (and continues to create), but I don’t believe it happened in six 24-hour days. I am heir to the saints who reappraised the prophecies of the Old Covenant and recognized in them the things pertaining to Christ. I have been doing this all along, making no pretence. Will you walk away from me now?

I say with conviction the Nicene and Apostles Creeds. I affirm the Baptismal Covenant, and seek to live it out to the best of my ability. I believe in and preach the full divinity and full humanity of Christ, and believe that he is still living and present, in the Spirit, in and through the Church, and in the Sacraments. Will you walk away from me, claiming that this issue, this understanding of these portions of Scripture, negate all of that?

Again, how can we speak of common ground when we cannot imagine shared space? I have been with you on the path all this time, claiming and proclaiming the faith, and appraising and reappraising in light of Christ the word as received in Scripture. I have not changed. Will you walk away from me now, and then blame it on me?

I don’t know whether this will bring a direct response. It has not as of the time of this posting, but only time will tell. And as for the possibilities that we might reconcile, that we might still “walk together:” well, only time will tell about that, too.

ADDENDUM: I have received a comment from Kendall of titusonenine that confronted me and called for clarification of the phrase, "best of a bad lot." I have responded to him directly by email, but in the interest of clarity have included it as a further comment to this post.

Hope for the Future

Of late I have found myself looking through Episcopal blogs for those who are in seminary. I have also found two Episcopalians going through or interested in CPE. I find myself looking at those and wanting to say something – something intelligent, something supportive, something.

This reflects to some extent a natural pomposity that was a part of my predisposition for priesthood. At the same time, it also represents hope for the future of the Church generally and of the Episcopal Church in particular. I am hopeful for the future of the Episcopal Church, even in these tumultuous times; and the voices I’m hearing, or at least the thoughts I’m reading on those blogs is, by and large, encouraging to me.

And, so, it also represents a desire to help. I’m sure my prayers for blessing are well received. I hope my thoughts and suggestions are also well received.

Part of this is my conviction that it is the responsibility of the Church to help people find their vocation as early as possible. For those who might feel a vocation to orders I think this is especially important. And once we have discerned as a Church a vocation, whether to orders or to another ministry, we have the responsibility to support those persons in growing into wholeness in those ministries. We baptize infants and are called to take responsibility with parents in raising them to wholeness in the faith. We are called in the same way to help those discerning their ministries to grow.

This has not been my experience of every professional path. Some seem to believe the strongest candidates are identified and nurtured through conflict and competition. Frankly, I find this decidedly un-Christian. But worse I find it largely a failure. Focusing on the best and the brightest, and believing in winnowing out not only those truly inadequate but also those who are adequate but not spectacular, creates a very narrow sense of how professions are lived out, and how different people may be served. As in a healthy ecosystem, it is the diversity that will best serve us, and not monoculture, however efficient.

I think it important that we seek for all persons to succeed. That means helping those who might not fit some narrow definition of “the best and the brightest” see success in discovering the broader, sometimes other, avenues to which God is calling them. It is not a question of whether they have vocations; God calls to all of us. It is a question of how each of us can help each of them hear God’s call more clearly and respond more effectively.

I’m not about to retire, but I’m already planning (my wife and CFO will not let me fail). Sooner or later – and at this point in my career it’s sooner – I will turn the Church over to others, even in the small extent that I am part of running things today. I find reason to hope in where I see the Episcopal Church going in the blog thoughts of my younger Episcopal colleagues.

Friday, February 24, 2006

On the Mountaintop

The patient’s anxiety was clear, and the patient’s question to me was one I had heard before – one I had cried out before myself. “I believe. I have so much faith. But, how do I know? I want to feel God with me. How do I know?”

Peter, James and John went with Jesus to the mountaintop, “apart, by themselves.” There they saw Jesus, not as they knew him, but “transfigured…his clothes… dazzling white, such as no one on earth could bleach them.” And, he was not alone. There were Elijah and Moses, those shapers of Jewish history and identity, with him, caught up in conversation. Poor Peter, thinking apparently that he must do something, even if it’s wrong, had a suggestion: “Let’s give everybody someplace to sit, to stop and talk for a while.” And then there was that Voice – a voice so distinct it could only be portrayed with a capital “V” – saying, “This is my beloved Son; pay attention!” And then it was over, and there stood Jesus once again, as they had known him before – sort of.

Somehow, when we want to know God is with us, we look for something overwhelming, something spectacular. We seek that blinding light, that overwhelming Voice. Even if we expect to hear God’s voice in the deafening silence, we want the comfort of the roaring wind, the rolling earthquake, the raging fire. We will trust that the voice in the stillness is God because we have heard the tread of his heavy footsteps coming our way. And if we don’t hear those footsteps in wind and quake and fire, we doubt ourselves, our faith, our worth to God. “I want to feel God with me. How do I know?”

What is interesting to me is that on the Mount of the Transfiguration it is not the light that moves the apostles. Peter does not bask in the light or praise its brightness. Instead, he responds to the men who stand there: to Moses and Elijah, and to Jesus, now shown clearly to be their colleague. He wants to honor them, to care for them. But he doesn’t really stop to think what it means that they are there. And it’s only after he tries to stop time and freeze the moment that he hears the Voice, that Voice that fills his senses with the words, “This is my Son. Now do you get it?”

You see, throughout the history of the people of God, time and time again God comes in a person. The message of God comes to us through a messenger. Jesus gave us a hint of this when he said, “This generation will only get the sign of Jonah!” He didn’t mean the sign that Jonah received. He meant the sign that Jonah was. So it was that the three did not see Jesus with cherubim or seraphim, or with a pillar of cloud and a pillar of fire, but with Moses and Elijah: two who had brought the message before, now standing with him who would bring the message in fullness. God had not simply spoken from the sky. God had spoken to us through people. And now he would not only speak to us through a prophet; he would be with us in his Son.

We of all the peoples of the earth, we Jesus people, we should know this. We call ourselves the Body of Christ, and reflect on our vocations: are we an eye to see, an ear to hear? We celebrate that each of the members of the Body has a function. But precisely because we have a function, a vocation to express the ministry of Christ, we also realize that we are in a concrete sense the continuing presence of Christ in the world. When we live out our vocations in concrete ways, we are the tangible presence of Christ, reflecting powerfully God’s love in Christ for all those we touch,

And that was my answer to the patient: God does not come to us simply in the voice in our hearts. God comes to us in the voices in our ears and in the hands on our shoulders. If we can be a tangible part of the Body of Christ for others, surely others can make the Body of Christ tangible for us. “God has come to us in a perso'" I said. "And that’s how God comes to us still. When you know people love you, care for you, act in your best interest – not always what you want, but always in your best interest – perhaps you can know that God is with you in them.” And with that I looked at the friend at the bedside, the friend who said, “Whatever you decide I will be here with you.” And the patient’s eyes widened, as if seeing in a new light.

Wednesday, February 22, 2006

On Throwing Rocks

All right, I'm going to come clean: I'm a fan of curling. It's the one sport I've been following faithfully during the Winter Olympics. I have forgone skiing and snowboarding events, and even Men's and Pairs skating to watch people slide round rocks down a long sheet of ice toward a large, round target.

I started watching years ago. I was living in Detroit and watching a lot of Canadian television. I discovered this apparently obscure sport by accident. At first I was confused, and then intrigued: and eventually I was hooked. Here was a game not dependent on brute strength or raw endurance. It was a game of skill and precision, and a good deal of physics. Sure, it took some physical skill. The stones weighed 22 pounds; and it had to take some grace to throw that rock just right while sliding, balanced on one foot, or to keep one's feet while sweeping the ice ahead of the rock. But it wasn't determined by the most perfect or most durable physical specimen.

Which also had another charm: this was a game played by folks like me. These were real people, apparently ordinary people in comfortable clothes. And they weren't all kids. (The oldest Olympian this winter is a curler who's approximately my age.) Sure, they're doing things I couldn't do. They were sliding heavy, round stones down 94 feet of ice, controlling the speed and direction, frequently knocking other stones out of the way, and still coming to a stop within inches of the intended target. But they weren't so different from me as to do things I couldn't imagine doing. It was almost as if curling were the winter sports’ embodiment of the old saying that “age and cunning will beat youth and strength every time.”

So, that's how I got hooked on curling. That's why I've been getting up early in the morning and missing supper. It's why I've been searching the cable channels owned by NBC (sure, I know it's not going to shine on prime time, but they don't have to move it from one day to the next). I suppose it’s just another one of my idiosyncrasies – one of many – an indulgence to be savored every four years. Be that as it may, I am certainly enjoying it now.

I also see some parallels between curling and life; but that will be the topic of another day.

Tuesday, February 21, 2006

On the Cost of Believing in Reconciliation

I have been reading the Thinking Anglicans web site. Sometimes it makes me sad, but it’s the best discussion site on the current troubles in the Anglican Communion with predominantly progressive participants; and even the traditionalist participants are, by and large, thoughtful and respectful. It is largely English in its perspective. I only wish there were an American site with the same level of participation.

So, today while I was reading about the debate within the Church of England regarding women bishops, I was struck by the sense from conservative voices that there was no possibility of reconciliation. This was particularly so in two articles linked from the discussion. However, the more I thought about the rhetoric I had been hearing, the more it seemed an accurate reflection of the what’s been said in so many places.

It seems to me that the reason is that for the extremists, shouted especially loudly by the traditionalist extremists, reconciliation is capitulation. That is, this is an either/or matter. There is no room for living together with the issue, because they see nowhere to live. I think it’s largely projection, but this is how I think they see it: 1. We are right, and the only truly right position is the one we espouse. 2. If anyone wants to be right, he has to take our position; and we would certainly enforce conformity. 3. We can only expect those we disagree with to expect to enforce conformity to their position; after all, it’s what we would do. 4. Therefore, either way, it’s all or nothing.

I caught this when I read the following comment in an article by a Church of England bishop, one who opposes women in the episcopate. In reflecting on proposed “Transferred Episcopal Arrangements,” he said, “But my real sadness is this. The rejection of any ‘separate’ provision, by Guildford and many others, as nigh on schism seems less to do with the heartbreak it would cause to either party (though it jolly well should) than the mostly unspoken but widely hoped for view that this is a temporary problem that needs a temporary solution.” (By “separate provision” he means a third province in England [parallel to Canterbury and York], or similar structural provision, that would totally exclude women as bishops, and probably as priests.)

Now, this is not a strident shout of, “Never, never, never. I shall hold my breath until I turn blue.” That is not the tone of the article. However, he captures something profound. TEA is intended, I think, as a temporary solution; just as Designated Episcopal Pastoral Oversight (DEPO) is explicitly intended as a temporary solution. Not to hold up these solutions as temporary is to reject the possibility of reconciliation. If we are to believe we might somehow be reconciled, not in the sense of capitulation but in the sense of finding common, shareable, if uncomfortable ground, then any solution we choose now must be temporary.

Suddenly today I have a new sense of what has been going on at Canterbury and at 815. I am among those who have wondered why neither ++Rowan nor ++Frank have come down more strongly in response to those who seem determined to tear apart the Communion, and several of its constituent national churches. The traditionalists have proclaimed, “Either we get our way or we tear the house down.” To respond with the same level of rhetoric is to reject any possibility of reconciliation. If we believe that ultimately we are called to live together, we must understand these circumstances as temporary, and continue to not only hope but work for reconciliation.

I’m not sure ++Rowan and ++Frank are correct in their decision. Reconciliation isn’t possible if we have no partner. But if we believe (and I do believe) we are called to seek reconciliation, even if we have to suffer for it (isn’t there something Biblical about that?), then we have to continue to see this situation as temporary. At the very least we cannot be the ones who make it permanent.

Saturday, February 18, 2006

Jesus Was at Home

I’m preaching tomorrow, and I’m involved in my normal sermon preparation: read the lessons, read a sermon, read the lessons, read some commentary, and read some more. As I have read, I have noted what people say about the Gospel story of the paralytic with four friends. They take him to Jesus’s home, and can’t get in for the crowd. So, they take him up the back stairs, open up the roof, lower him into the middle of the gathering, and Jesus heals him. It’s a well known healing story. And most of the commentators and preachers I’m reading are emphasizing the healing power of Jesus, the importance of forgiveness, and the persistent faith of the four friends.

Now, I’m aware of those aspects. I may yet end up preaching on one of them. At the same time, none of those things are first in my reflection. What has struck me is the image of Jesus, sitting in his living room (or on his covered patio, depending on whom you read) while his roof is being removed.

Now, this can’t have been a simple or quiet process. As I read, your typical Galilean roof was composed of several layers. Heavy beams were laid as the primary structural strength. Across the beams were laid smaller branches and twigs. These had to have been reasonably substantial themselves, and/or relatively thick, because people commonly walked on these roofs, and often used them in the summer as we would use a deck or sleeping porch. Finally, this was covered with a layer of clay or packed earth. This was thick enough to keep out the occasional rain or for grass to grow in. It was also packed, and would have had to have been strong enough that it didn’t crack or shatter as people walked on it. All in all, it had to have been a pretty substantial construction, something that would have taken some real time and trouble to get through.

So, here is Jesus, sitting at home, surrounded by people who wanted to hear him, to touch him, to know him. Mark suggests it is a pretty good crowd, filling the house and overflowing into the street in front. The door is clogged with bodies, as are the windows, stubborn listeners determined to catch every word, to see any miracle that might occur. To this scene come four men carrying a fifth on a litter. Who knows what the paralyzed man wanted? It’s almost as if no one asked him. But his four friends are determined. They can’t get in the door. They can’t get in the windows. So they climb up the back stairs and begin coming through the roof. Hard packed clay, branches and twigs of various sizes, perhaps another layer of clay like plaster, sealing the branches from underneath: this has to take some time and make some noise.

So, here, again, is Jesus. Would he have noticed the feet on the back stairs, the steps on the roof? They were common enough sounds, so common perhaps as to bring no notice. But at some point, some hammering starts above his head: worn, calloused heels and fists pounding at, peeling at the clay surface. At some point, clay and twigs and dust must begin to flake down, first in specks and then in chunks. At some point, people around Jesus begin looking up. Jesus begins looking up, to see his own roof disappearing in pieces, some up out of sight, some down into his own hair and ears and eyes.

What is Jesus thinking at this? Is he impressed at their determination? Is he angry at the damage to his home? Is he bemused at first, as uncertain as anyone else at what’s happening? Does he clear the floor as the hole grows bigger and bigger, big enough to get a stretcher through? Does he keep teaching, finding new inspiration in the events taking place over his head? He doesn’t send up a delegation, either to stop the destruction or to bring these vandals down. Apparently, he watches and waits, perhaps amused by the trouble these people are willing to go through, perhaps frustrated at the crowds that they can’t get through.

And suddenly a body comes through the ceiling – the first friend, there to catch and guide down the litter to which the paralyzed man is tied. Perhaps a second comes down, helping to ease the litter down, protecting the patient. Or perhaps some of the members of the crowd help catch – perhaps Jesus himself. Perhaps the first time Jesus touches this man is to help him come down safely, gently through Jesus’s own ceiling.

We know the rest of the story: Jesus first proclaims the paralytic’s sins forgiven, and then, in the face of the scandal expressed by the scribes, tells him “Take up your litter and walk home.” Surely the point is the forgiveness of God, confirmed by the healing acts of Christ. Still, I am in awe enough of the simple grace and hospitality of Jesus, who can stand there calmly while his own home is damaged, vandalized, made vulnerable, and still have the grace to welcome and touch and heal and forgive this man, and send him walking out through the crowd that wouldn’t allow him to be carried in.

That hospitality seems as much an expression of God’s acceptance of sinners as anything that follows. That simple, powerful acceptance speaks as much to me in my sinfullness as Jesus's words to the paralytic. Sure, I want to take up my litter and walk. But I'm powerfully grateful for what has to happen first: that Jesus is willing simply to have me come. For that welcome, that hospitality, in the face of all it costs, give praise and thanks to God.

Saturday, February 11, 2006

Prayers at the Time of Death

I am waiting, waiting, waiting….

I wrote recently of a relative with a sickness unto death. Bless her heart (and her heart is a major factor in this), she still breathes. She is reportedly ever weaker, but she still breathes. I hesitate to say she is with us: she has not been responsive for some time. But as of the time I write this, there in her hospital bed, with her children and other family around her, she still breathes.

And we who love her wait. I have been present for many death watches. I know from my professional perspective the toll it takes on families. But now it is my loved one and my family. As is always the case, it is different.

I think of her children. They watch and wait, not wanting to leave her and yet having real needs of their own. Things have taken long enough that perhaps they do not hang on to every breath. I hope and pray that staff long ago removed any monitors. It is too easy to be distracted by numbers, displayed in pretty colors. They seem so real, so solid, in the face of the powerlessness of waiting. But they cannot tell us what will happen. They can describe what has happened, what does happen in each moment that passes. But the family waits for what will happen: that moment when her body is finally at rest and her suffering is over.

I am also conscious that I am far away. I am a hospital chaplain, and my wife is a nurse. Surely we could be useful. But the truth is there is little we might do to help, and nothing that we might do that will change God’s time. We might interpret a little here, we might advise a little there, we might provide some comfort. And, sadly, we might become as much a distraction as the pretty numbers, with family watching us watch her, rather than watching her themselves.

So all of us, whether at the bedside or far away, wait and deal with our sense of powerlessness. Events are in train that we can do little to shape and nothing to really change.

I think about what I say to families in these moments. It seems to me a good measure of the integrity of a priest to ask whether he finds comfort in the words he uses to comfort others. I am praying for her and for all of my family as I pray for patients and families: praying that the Spirit may be present to embrace and sustain each of them, not removing the grief but assuring that we do not grieve alone. I am trusting that she is present to God, and God to her, and is experiencing the joy of the Kingdom. I am hoping for the health and wholeness God has for her, health and wholeness beyond our conceiving that is only possible in the presence of God.

AND NOW: I wrote the thoughts above Thursday night. Friday morning she died. Now it is the wee hours of Sunday morning. The waiting is over, the family is gathering, the mourning is begun in earnest. Pray for all of us in our grief. Give thanks for a life lived before God. Share with us the promise of God's Kingdom: a promise to all as God's love is for all.

Rest eternal grant unto her, O Lord, and let light perpetual shine upon her. May her soul, with the souls of all the faithful departed, by the blood of the everlasting covenant rest in peace.

Wednesday, February 08, 2006

Quality and Pastoral Care

I work in a health care system, and like all corporate entities these days' the system is very self-conscious about mission, vision, and values. We hold up values that we think make us stand out. It's not enough to point out that we give excellent care; everyone in the industry says they give excellent care (and almost everyone is really trying as best they know how). So, we try to highlight those values we think make us stand out from the competition.

In our system, three values stand out: that we are faith-based, locally owned, and committed to quality. Over time, I will certainly speak about all three. Today the one most on my mind is our commitment to quality.

That is true in no small part because, even as I began this reflection, I was sitting in a leadership meeting, the central topic of which was a detailed description of the criteria of the Baldrige National Quality Award. The fact that I could write this during the presentation was a measure of how often I had heard this presented before, and not of how I valued it. In health care we need to be committed to quality, and the Baldrige criteria are arguably the best available. We want to do our best, and do it consistently, from the bedside to the boardroom to the boiler room. That will bring the best care to everyone: patients, families, and staff and associates.

And what is the chaplain's role in all of that? In one sense the answers are pretty clear. Chaplains can participate in interdisciplinary teams and in institution-wide efforts at quality management and performance improvement. I have even written on resources for chaplains to think about the process of performance improvement [“Performance Improvement: Theological Reflections”, Chaplaincy Today, Vol. 16, Number 1 (Summer, 2000)]

From a different perspective, this is a matter of great discussion among chaplains. You see, we are not agreed on what constitutes quality in pastoral care. It is part of the difficulty we have had in determining how we should account for our work and our time. Elements of quality in pastoral care include at least being present to the right people, making the right intervention, committing the right amount of time, and coming as close as possible to the desired effect. However, each of these dynamics is unique to the situation. Do we care for the person in the center of the situation, or to the person with the most dynamic response to the situation? What is an appropriate intervention, in light of the situation and the persons served? Prayer? Scripture? Counseling? Silent presence? What is the right amount of time? A long visit? A series of short visits? And hardest of all, what is the desired effect? And how would we measure it?

Chaplains in particular, and clergy in general, are all somewhere in the midst of those questions – arguably, “all over the map” is an understatement. Those questions are integral to the spiritual care we provide. We all recognize the questions as important, even as we wrestle with the answers, not only to set standards for the profession, but to make the individual, daily decisions about how best to minister.

Which moves us back, I think, to a commitment to professional self-consciousness, self-supervision, and improvement. I think there are a number of ways that we can think about the process from our religious heritage. However, in practice it’s simple enough: I need to be attentive to what I do. I need to evaluate whether I am meeting the standards I think appropriate to the best of my ability. I need to stay educated and to try new behaviors to try to meet those standards. And then I need to be attentive again to whether those changes improve my ministry.

And so I’m quite comfortable with the focus in health care on quality and performance improvement. I can see how it is good for patients, families, and staff, because over time it can improve the work of all of those who care for them. And I can see how that is as true of me as it is of any other professional in the business.

Monday, February 06, 2006

Not Without Honor Except

I have always had a sense of connection to James Agee’s A Death in the Family. It doesn’t have a lot to do with the plot of that classic work. It is instead a certain sense of connection to the author himself. I also grew up in Knoxville – much later, of course, but his descriptions of the summer of 1915 resonated for me. My family was also from around Lafollette, Tennessee. Indeed, members of my family knew members of his. As a child one of the first plays I remember seeing was a dramatization of A Death in the Family. Central to that story is the death of the father in an automobile accident on a highway I would come to know well in my own time.

He was also an Episcopalian, educated at St. Andrew’s School at Sewanee, where I later went to seminary. The School was then owned and operated by the Order of the Holy Cross, an Episcopal Benedictine order of which I have been an Associate for twenty-five years now. I have knelt to pray at the chapel altar that was the scene of another of his works, Morning Watch.

I am particularly conscious of those tenuous, circumstantial, and oh so powerful connections because there will be a death in my family. I say this now because someone I love is very sick and not expected to survive. At the same time, I say it knowing that it will be true, sooner or later, unless the Kingdom comes first. Until the Lord comes again, all of us will die; and eventually there will certainly be a death in the family.

That is a time of ambivalence for me as a priest and a chaplain. I know from long professional experience about deaths in other people’s families. I have stood at many a bedside, always praying, sometimes singing, mostly silent. I have done my best to love them from the distance of a professional position, to let them grieve as they need to grieve, calm or crying, quiet or screaming, standing or falling. I am there to reflect the love of God in Christ with patience and compassion and that professional, calm, non-anxious presence.

But this is my family; and there I am not a priest, not a chaplain. Sometimes, when my wife finds I haven’t listened as I ought, haven’t been as sensitive as I might, and confronts me about it, I answer that I reserve the right to make mistakes in my own home – and then apologize profusely. In my own family I cannot be the priest if I am to grieve properly myself. I cannot maintain professional distance without interfering with my own needs to relate and to be related to. I cannot share the feelings I need to share if I’m maintaining the calm poise that is my professional stock in trade.

I did make that mistake once. When my grandmother died I was asked to pray. It was a small request, but it became more important when it became obvious in the funeral that the local pastor, while well intentioned, did not know her at all. At the graveside the next day I was asked only to pray, but I felt a need to express a sense of the family’s loss that I thought had been missed the night before. I did a good job; but in the effort to do a good job I became distant from my family, and even from myself. In the process of doing the good professional job I lost my opportunity to grieve my own loss as I might have.

Soon I expect to be on my way back to Knoxville for a death in the family. I will once again travel roads I know so well, roads that speak to me of home and family, and of the times and places that shaped me, those tenuous, circumstantial, and oh so powerful connections. I will be in the midst of people who are part of me, as the person now sick and dying is a part of me. I may not be able to escape entirely the need to use my professional skills for the good of these people I love. I can no more entirely avoid that than can my cousin the doctor. There will be questions I can answer, support that I can give, and I will not totally withhold myself.

But I will also be sensitive to my own need. I am older now, and more aware of myself, of my needs. I know the cost of losing myself in my professional role. I may be needed at times to serve, but I will not lose my opportunities to grieve. I will reserve my right to be sad and aching and human. There will be a death in my family; and it will be important that I be there as a member of the family, and not stand separated across the divide of that calm, non-anxious presence.

Saturday, February 04, 2006

Public Service and the Least of These

I didn't watch President Bush deliver his State of the Union Message. I saw no reason to do something I knew was going to disappoint me (I will also say, in fairness, that I had little hope from the Democratic response - too little to watch that, either). Instead, I watched "The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy." I was also largely disappointed with the movie (it was almost, but not quite, totally unlike the book), but I did laugh a couple of times, and I didn't expect to be disappointed before I even started.

I have come to expect very little from State of the Union messages, or from any major policy presentation from either party. If I'm interested I will read it in print in the next day's paper. But even then I have poor expectations.

Why? First, rhetoric seems to be a lost art. One would think the desire for good "sound bites" would encourage some verbal flourishes. But, in fact, it seems not to do so. A truly witty comment requires some context, some setup. Moreover, the current fashion of "staying on message" mandates against subtlety. Sheer repetition has its place. It settles the simple phrase in the memory of the listener. But it doesn’t allow for any variation, any exceptions.

More pragmatically, I have little expectation of any program or goal described in the State of the Union Message to ever come to fruition. That doesn’t mean it’s impossible or has never happened. But I have little hope that what comes from Congress will really accomplish much to benefit the American people. That’s not an expectation of gridlock, although that can be a problem. It is an expectation that the concept of serving seems lost from the lived expressions of the phrase “public service.”

Granted, some of this reflects my differences with the priorities of the Bush administration or of the Republican leadership in Congress. I am concerned with “the least of these, my brothers and sisters” (Matthew 25:40), and I do not see that as the first priority of the current government. Most of them aren’t offended if “the least of these” benefit. The hope, as the saying goes, that a rising tide lifts all boats. Unfortunately, they take no account of those boats too damaged, or too tightly attached to anchors, to rise. They take no account of those boats too loosely moored, so that they may still wash up on the rocks.

For example, what would it mean if the American economy were oriented toward maximum employment instead of maximum market value? Where is the commitment to investment for the long term, whether in production capital or in human capital? So many who realize that one must invest money and risk money to make gains over the long term refuse to consider the long term value of investing in our children.

So, it’s the sense of service that I miss from “Public Service.” So much seems to be in service of getting reelected. Now, I’m not na├»ve: those who don’t get elected don’t get to govern. However, I long for those who will risk the criticism of the press, of the “political bases” left or right, to provide efforts that would truly serve “the least of these,” not as a possible (unintended) consequence but as the primary purpose. Could we have a drug benefit more oriented to the drug consumers than to the drug producers? Could we attack our addiction to oil, not to mention our air quality concerns, with support for mass transit and urban residential development? Could we address our concerns about the cost of health care by offering universal care while requiring universal participation, and so maximizing the actuarial pool? Could we support business by ensuring a minimum income that is actually a living income, and so ensure both adequate resources for all Americans and adequate cash flow for commerce throughout the economy? Could we maintain our economic power in the world by supporting public education so that not only are our best and our brightest the best in the world, but our least and our average are also the best-prepared workforce in the world?

These are not the sorts of programs, I fear, that would be supported by the power brokers, either economic or political. In an environment committed to maximizing short-term profits these are long-term investments. They would require a commitment longer than the next political cycle or even the next business cycle. They would require a commitment of government to society that would run counter the to common romance of the “rugged individual.” On the other hand, they are programs that would benefit all of us by beginning to benefit “the least of these,” our siblings. And they are programs that would return Public Service to a focus on service, and not on politics.

Thursday, February 02, 2006

The Theological Elephant in the Living Room

I looked today at the new edition of Episcopal Life. On the cover is the Closer Look article, “Science and religion: Friends or foes?” Under the same category are sidebars on Darwin and on the “Catechism of Creation.” You can see them on line here .

I have to admit that until recently I thought this controversy was dead. Yes, I knew there were those who believed in the literal historicity of Genesis 1 through 4. I knew there had been some scientific efforts to demonstrate that the earth was only 6,000 years old, all of which had failed. I knew that there were those who tried to attach some technical-sounding language to that belief and called it “Creation Science.” But I never took seriously that so many people still wanted to make this work, to move the Biblical view of creation from acceptance by faith to demonstration by fact.

That changed, of course, after I moved to Kansas City. The metropolitan area and its various municipalities straddles the state line between Missouri and Kansas. I live on the Missouri side and work on the Kansas side. So, I’m a close observer of the struggles back and forth of the Kansas State Board of Education. The recent election and subsequent removal of the Dover, Pennsylvania, School Board were similar to the events in Kansas. The current Board of Education, which has leaned heavily toward Intelligent Design, replaced one that had affirmed the current scientific view of biology. And that Board had replaced an even earlier one that had also taken an Intelligent Design view. Evangelical Christian churches have organized for political effect. They are careful not to cross lines that would upset the IRS; and they are monitored by a centrist political watchdog group to make sure they don’t. There is currently a fight in the Republican Party in Kansas between social moderates and social conservatives. My general reaction to that? As O’Brien wrote often in the Aubrey/Maturin novels: “Confusion to the French!”

But, I am also conscious that this is also a factor in the current difficulties in the Episcopal Church and the Anglican Communion. Those who wish to claim issues broader than human sexuality will say it began with issues of Biblical interpretation. The Episcopal Church is under attack both within and without from people who want to take a literal and unconsidered interpretation of at least some passages of Scripture.

This, too, can be described in “scientific” – which is to say, rational and philosophical – language. John H. Rodgers, a bishop of the Anglican Mission in America, presented at their recent convention a paper titled, “Where are we in the Anglican Communion and what should we in the AMIA be doing to help set things in order?” In it he states, “The intellectual currents of the rationalistic Enlightenment of the 17 and 18th Centuries, the Romanticism of the 19th Century and the naturalistic, scientistic secularism of the 20th Century have bitten deep into the thought and life of these [western] Provinces. The result is a moral and theological relativism and a view of God as "loving" defined in psychological terms such as unconditional acceptance…. Biblical study and the thoughtful examination of all sorts of helpful material concerning Scripture, usually referred to as biblical criticism, was emphasized during the Reformation of the 16th Century as a way of finding revealed truth, in order to adjust and criticize aspects of the Churches tradition and cultural thought. Subsequently in the West biblical criticism often becomes wedded to naturalistic assumptions which thereby reduce the Bible to man's thinking about God rather than God's Word to man.”

The difficulty here is that it calls into question an earlier statement in the same paper: “Anglicans tend to be intellectually confident, open to and interested in all truth, in principle. (Not fearful or uneducated or indifferent to careful analysis and comprehensive thought, aware of the call to bring every thought captive to Christ)….Since the one God is both Creator and Redeemer, all truth is God's truth. (See the Prologue to John's Gospel) Redeemed reason and faith are harmonious. (See reason as thought, reason as scholarship, reason as synthesizing world-view in relation to faith and the place of intellectual "metanoia")“ If biblical criticism was useful to adjust and criticize aspects of tradition and culture then, why is it not useful to criticize injustice now? If all truth is God’s truth, why are new understandings about what it means to be human before God, including being sexually human, not worthy of consideration? If redeemed reason and faith are harmonious, why is reason being so summarily rejected in this question?

This is the elephant in the living room of our current arguments in the Episcopal Church and the Anglican Communion. These efforts are as much an effort to return to an uncritical reading of Scripture as are those of boards that want Creation Science taught in public classrooms. True, we have not yet heard the regressives call for a literal reading of Genesis; but, then, the proponents of Intelligent Design haven’t, either. But neither position is truly internally consistent without such an interpretation, even if that assumption hasn’t been claimed. Of course, those among them who also oppose the ordination of women have come close.

So far no one among the antihomosexual voices has actually called for a position of biblical literalism, inerrancy, and infallibility. I could understand and respect them if they would. I could not agree with them; but I could respect them, just as I respect those members of my extended family who have that belief. If that is not their position, then they have the responsibility to articulate clearly why these verses deserve literal acceptance when others do not. And until they do, their efforts are simply further attempts to return to an unreasoned interpretation of Scripture, and a related uncritical view of authority and of what Christian culture ought to look like. And if John Rodgers is right - and at least in this I think he is – and the Anglican tradition is “open and interested in all truth,” seeing “all truth is God’s truth” and “redeemed reason and faith are harmonious,” it is they and not we who have departed from the tradition and chosen to walk apart.