Sunday, March 30, 2014

Praise for the strengthening of marriage

My March 29, 2014, article for the Grand Haven Tribune, Praise for the strengthening of marriage
Recently, U.S. District Judge Bernard Friedman struck down our state’s ban on gay marriage. 
Attorney General Bill Schuette has asked a federal appeals court to freeze Judge Friedman’s decision so that he can appeal the ruling, insisting that this ban was the will of 59 percent of voters when it was added to the state constitution in 2004. While no one can say for sure what the final result will be, I would be shocked if Attorney General Schuette won on appeal.

This case raises a key question about the nature of law and rights in our society. Does the majority have a right to enforce their views upon a minority? Was the decision made by over half of the voters in our state almost ten years ago a decision that should stand — or was it one that is in violation of our nation’s higher principles of justice as enshrined in the United States Constitution.
Read more at the Tribune's website here.

Friday, March 28, 2014

Elevator Pitches and Gettin' Saved

The Acts 8 Moment group has posted a great question for this week's blogforce, they have asked people to write a 250-word "elevator pitch" for the Episcopal church. As Fr. Simmons describes it,
A standard marketing tool is the “Elevator Pitch.”  The scenario behind this tool is that you step into an elevator with someone who is a possible client.  You have the time between when the elevator doors close and when they open at the destination floor to make your pitch.  You don’t have to get all the information across in the pitch – just enough to pique the interest of the person so you can then exchange information and follow up later.  Salesmen and consultants write, memorize, and rehearse their elevator pitch so that when the time comes, they are ready to deliver it. 
This is the sort of thing every Christian should be able to do—state clearly, succinctly, and quickly about why you follow Jesus in the tradition you have chosen. So, in the hopes of also encouraging other to give it a shot (perhaps even some of the great folks at St. John's in Grand Haven), here is mine...

One Elevator Pitch
Around ten years ago, I was hungry to follow Christ but finding the Christianity that surrounded me increasingly… insufficient.

Then I found the Episcopal Church.

I discovered a tradition that was concerned with more than the most recent fad in worship or spirituality. They prayed from a book! But the prayers in that book were rich and full, strained through hundreds of years of Christian experience. They believed God actually showed up—actually showed up!—in water and bread and wine. And they believed structure was not just a necessary means to an end. They believed structure could be a way for the Spirit to move.

That is, they believed God actually showed up in God’s people. Though they clearly adored much that was old and beautiful, they knew that those rich traditions could not contain the God of Abraham & Sarah, the God of countless fearless martyrs and broken sinners that spanned thousands of years.

So when they saw God in gay and lesbian relationships, they were willing to acknowledge that those GLBT Christians actually had the Spirit. It made that young former-evangelical feel uncomfortable for a while… but then I spent time around some of those GLBT Christians and saw godliness.

I decided to stay. Not just because I liked old and ancient things. Not just because I thought it was important to listen to God’s voice. But because I knew that the Episcopal Church could help me see a God who was still saving me.

Alright, what's your elevator pitch?

- See more at: http://www.acts8moment.org/?p=53090#sthash.OpX7WXu7.dpuf

Monday, March 3, 2014

Ashes to Go: A Difficult Invitation to Holiness

My March 3, 2014, article for "Tracts for These Times" theSCP blog, Ashes to Go: A Difficult Invitation to Holiness
As we approach another Lenten season, many priests around the Episcopal Church and the Anglican Church of Canada are considering whether or not to adopt a relatively new Ash Wednesday practice. I’m speaking, of course, of the trend of offering “Ashes to Go.”

If you are not familiar with this new practice, “Ashes to Go” refers to a practice wherein clergy, sometimes accompanied by laypeople, go into the streets of their local community to offer the imposition of ashes for those going by. It is often practiced in urban areas at train stops or busy intersections.

The actual form of the offering varies rather significantly from church to church. In some churches people dress in street clothes and in others they wear full vestments. Some churches primarily and solely apply the ashes, others have crafted some sort of small liturgy that gives at least a bit of the Ash Wednesday experience to those who pass by.
Read more at the SCP website here.

Sunday, March 2, 2014

No More Killing, No More Death

My March 2, 2014, article for the Grand Haven Tribune, No More Killing, No More Death
Earlier this month, federal prosecutors announced that they will be seeking the death penalty in the case of Boston Marathon bombing suspect Dzhokhar Tsarnaev.
When prosecutors made this announcement, they said it was because Tsarnaev acted in “an especially heinous, cruel and depraved manner” — and because did not show remorse for his alleged actions on April 15, 2013, when three people were killed and 250 more were injured in the bombings.

The death penalty is not a legal form of punishment in state courts in Massachusetts; but because Tsarnaev will be charged and tried in federal courts, prosecutors are able to argue for its use.
Read more at the Tribune's website here.

Friday, February 28, 2014

Reimagining Structure and Equipping Mission, or, This Could Be Bigger Than You Think

The Task Force for Reimagining the Episcopal Church (TREC) has released it's second study paper, this one on "Reforms to Church Wide Governance and Administration." It is much more substantive than the last paper and is already garnering some excellent responses (see Steve Pankey, Scott Gunn, and, of course, Crusty Old Dean.)

Though Care with the Cure rarely comments on the ongoings of Episcopal Church politics (which is odd, since this was the bread and butter of a lot of my old blog), this is one I do want to say a few words on. One reason is because I am an alternate to General Convention for the Diocese of Western Michigan (fourth alternate, if I'm not mistaken, which makes me almost entirely useless—perhaps a safe reality!). The other, larger reason is because governance and administration is one of the areas where I have particular interest.

Seriously, I was at a Lily gathering for new clergy a couple years ago and one of the opening mixers had people go to different areas of the room for the area of ministry which they enjoyed most. Over a hundred people scattered to areas for Mission, Preaching, Liturgy, Teaching... and I wound up with about five other people in the area for Administration.

Rockstar.

Though this paper is quick to point out that changes to governance will not save the Episcopal Church (good to know), I think that the way in which a body chooses to govern itself and administer its business can say a tremendous amount about what it believes. Furthermore, inept or inefficient governance and administration can cripple the energy level and work of any organization.

I say this with the deepest humility, knowing full well that my first couple years as a rector were a steeper learning curve than I could have imagined. I know exist, administer, and lead in a remarkably different way than I used to... but I know with deep pain the way in which failings in wise governance and administration can quickly lead to such a focus on issues of governance and administration everything else goes out the window.

One more thing before I get to the meat of the TREC paper. One of the most fascinating things I learned from the late Bishop Jane Holmes Dixon was in a gathering with my fellow residents where we were talking about having worship or Bible Study at the beginning of an otherwise administrative-based meeting. She cautioned that this practice could lead to people thinking that the worship and spiritual stuff just happened at the beginning, before we got to administration. Instead, the whole meeting should be seen as a spiritual exercise. Worship before a meeting should clarify that reality—not obscure it.

So, governance and administration is spiritual work.

OK, that out of the way, let's talk about the paper itself.

First off, as COD has noted, the emphasis on the paper reveals the preconceptions and priorities of the working group. This is not necessarily bad or good—it just is. However...


Executive Council and Church Center Administration 
There is an immensely complex (for the average Episcopalian) three option approach given to the organization of Executive Council and the Presiding Bishop. All of the angst of who the Presiding Bishop is and should be, along with the role of Executive Council, is clearly poured into these options. The paper does an admirable job of acknowledging that TREC is not of one mind and trying to chart three possibilities—but the underlying agendas and claims of power-grabbing that resulted in these three options is a reality that needs to be grasped seriously.

This is particularly important because, in my experience, angst and anxiety ridden hand-wringing over the role of Executive Council and the Presiding Bishop is primarily the game of long-time GC deputies or people that have had a hand in leadership for some time... a lot of it simply boggles the mind of the average Episcopalian who rather likes our Presiding Bishop and wants the Executive Council to keep things moving in a healthy way.

Don't get me wrong, we've got to find a healthy and efficient structure for this work, but we might need to find ways to deflate some of the anxiety and invite less invested people into the conversation who could have fresh eyes. I'd be curious what a church wide poll of these three (or some other) options might reveal about the mind of our church on this question.

Option one (the longest in explanation) is a strong Executive Council and weakened Presiding Bishop's office, they suggest much of it is status quo, but it also creates a new CEO position that would take many of the current PB duties. Option two is a strengthened Presiding Bishop. Option three makes the Presiding Bishop once more a diocesan bishop with presidency and leadership (the way it used to be) and creates a new General Secretary, hired by Executive Council, who functions as the CEO.

What structure do I prefer? Option two. Hands down. Our church's historic fear of episcopal leadership (an ironic reality given that we are the Episcopal church) has confused me ever since I first walked in the doors ten years ago. Option one seems like a mess, it's too close to the overlapping jurisdictions and turf battles that currently characterize the state of things, but it gives even more authority to a board which would, I fear, muck it up even more. Option three seems like option two, only with us not having to have the General Secretary also be our Presiding Bishop.

What do we believe is the ministry of bishops, after all? In the catechism, it says,
The ministry of a bishop is to represent Christ and his Church, particularly as apostle, chief priest, and pastor of a diocese; to guard the faith, unity, and discipline of the whole Church; to proclaim the Word of God; to act in Christ’s name for the reconciliation of the world and the building up of the Church; and to ordain others to continue Christ’s ministry.
Bishops have a particular ministry of teaching. They are called to guard the faith, unity, and discipline of the church. They are called to proclaim the gospel and to act in ways that will reconcile the world and build up the church of God. They are called to ordain.

All of those seem to be the duties we would want to have in a "CEO" or a  "General Secretary"... that is, assuming that as an organization we are committed to proclaiming the Gospel, strengthening the ministry of the baptized, and carrying on Christ's ministry of reconciliation.

If we believe that bishops have these gifts, if we believe that these gifts are strengthened and enabled by a particularly grace of the Holy Spirit given at ordination... then why wouldn't we want the Presiding Bishop to be the person who leads the organization of our church? Perhaps that would clarify that the organization actually is a church.

I do think, however, that the Presiding Bishop should be elected by the totality of General Convention instead of just the House of Bishops. This would, hopefully, further ensure that this person is truly called and empowered to be the Chief Pastor and Primate of the whole church.

Having dealt with part two first, now, with my cards laid on the table, it will be easier to talk about parts one and three.


General Convention Reforms 
In part one, the paper suggests several reforms to General Convention. Almost without fail I think every single one is a good idea. Yes, please limit resolutions so that the body of Convention is doing what the body needs to do for the rest of the church to do its work. Yes, make the focus a missionary convocation (just don't think that a legislative body cannot, by nature, be that).

Also, don't think that training and equipping three or four priests and lay people from every diocese will naturally result in training and equipping the rest of the priests and laity of a diocese. How much training at General Convention would actually trickle down into the life of the actual diocese? Not as much as we might hope.

Perhaps that means that we should re-think the missionary convocation nature of Convention. Have diocese send voting delegates and alternates (yes, do cut down on the size, as recommended). But also invite dioceses to send people who have calling and interests in the specific workshops and opportunities for training that could be offered at Convention.

Heck, keep the current size your heading towards, but reorganize it. Each diocese voting delegation consists of the diocesan bishop, two priests, two deacons, and two lay people, with an equal amount of alternates elected. Make the Convention unicameral (a suggestion that is notably absent from this paper though popular in many quarters of the church, particularly if voting by orders is maintained and expanded by having all four orders recognized in votes: laity, deacons, priests, and bishops). Elect as deputies leaders who can do well the legislative work of Convention, who have an eye for mission and the patience required for good parliamentary work.

But then, use what remains from the budget you used to have for sending people to send more lay people and clergy to Convention to learn, to grow, to be equipped for ministry.

Let's make it one big, frickin', ministry bazaar, where the best of Christian ministry in the Anglican tradition is available for those who want to learn and grow and be more effective.

Oh, and on the whole idea of diocesan giving: if you diocese doesn't give at the level decided on by the broader body of General Convention, and has not been given a specific exemption for real good reasons by Executive Council, then you lose your voting rights. The paper suggests we need to "develop a sensible means of holding dioceses accountable for paying their assessments." I say it needs to be sensible and have actual teeth. 

And please, please, stop using the language of "the biblical tithe." It looks ridiculous for us to insist upon a biblical tithe when we say that language of "biblical marriage" has no standing in actual biblical scholarship. The level should be the level it is needed to be to enable the ministry of the church at the national level, not tied to a biblical symbol for dependence upon God. Tithing is important—but if you only look at a biblical tithe as the responsibility of giving, you have neglected Jesus' invitation in these past couple weeks of lectionary readings to have a righteousness that exceeds that of the Scribes and Pharisees. 
 

Reforms to Commissions, Committees, Agencies, and Boards 
In part three, the paper takes on the questions of Commissions, Committees, Agencies, and Boards (CCABs). It gets rid of almost all Standing Commissions (though I'm not sure of the governing ideal that determines which stay and which go—absent that, this is unlikely to get very far). It has the Presiding Officers creating task forces and working groups... which might work, assuming there is a good blend of carryover from previous similar task forces to the new ones.

However, once more, it assumes the separation of a bicameral house, encouraging these task forces and working groups to have greater "collaboration with any House of Bishops committees and working groups." However, if General Convention was a unicameral house, then the task forces could be integrated from the beginning.

If the Episcopal Church is to thrive in the twenty-first century, it will not be because this group or that group one their culture, turf, or political battle with another. It will be because these battles were overcome by the reconciling love of Christ. It will be because we empowered bishops to be bishops, priests to be priests, deacons to be deacons, and lay people to be lay people. It will be because we found ways to work together collaboratively, because we created avenues for those who are hungry to do good ministry to be trained to do good ministry.

TREC is absolutely on the right track... I just don't think they are yet thinking big enough.

Caveat emptor: The three people I mentioned at the beginning, along with many others, have greater wisdom and experience in this than I do. My strong views here are not because I think I have the total picture, they simply reflect the passion of a young priest who thinks this picture is bigger than some may suspect.

Tuesday, January 28, 2014

I See Christ

A parishioner of mine, David Theune, has been working on a project for a while. He, along with over 200 people in the Spring Lake community, read the book, Sticks and Stones: Defeating the Culture of Bullying and Rediscovering the Power of Character and Empathy by Emily Bazelon. Several community initiatives came out of the project, one of the most interesting of which was the idea to put together a book with stories of empathy shared by people in our community. David e-mailed me, along with several other people, and asked if I might write something for the book. 

I spent about a week thinking about it, wondering what story I might tell, what I might say. And then, I wrote this...

My wife and I both are pretty busy people (as is most everyone these days). I am an Episcopal priest and she is finishing a graduate degree in Clinical Mental Health while also working part-time at a residential home for adults with various challenges. So, when we do get an opportunity to go away, just the two of us, it is always an immense gift.

This past November was our fifth wedding anniversary. Though previous anniversaries have always involved special trips of some sort, we felt the need to scale back this year and so did a weekend in Grand Rapids, using some hotel points I had accumulated through my work. We were walking around downtown Grand Rapids, in and out of stores, generally having a lovely afternoon together in the cold, brisk, downtown air.

As we walked, a man was sitting near a tree on the street and he asked me if I could spare a few dollars for a meal.

I think every person struggles with what to do in these situations. Do you give money if you have it? What if he spends it on something that will only hurt him further? If I give money to everyone, wouldn’t I wind up broke? My family pledges a percentage of our income to our church, isn’t that how we help the poor?

For me, since I very rarely even have cash on me, our cashless society has sort of become my “out.” I can simply say, “I’m so sorry, I don’t have any cash or change on me,” and then continue walking down the street, feeling slightly guilty until something else inevitably grabs my focus.

I was not raised to give the money away, in general, anyway. For some reason it wasn’t in the DNA of the religious tradition I grew up in.

Several years ago, when I was a college student pursuing my Bachelor of Science in Biblical Studies, I spent a summer living with a couple in Canton, MI. John and Joyce were my host family while I did a ministry internship at a congregation in Dearborn Heights.

One night we were downtown Detroit, getting ready to go to dinner at a restaurant near the new Tiger Stadium. We came out of the parking garage and a woman came up to us on crutches—one of her legs had been amputated. “Can you spare a few dollars?” she asked me, the college student studying Bible.

“No, I’m sorry,” I said awkwardly, as I cast a furtive glance away from her and walked on by.

But the couple I was staying with was behind me coming out of the garage. Joyce stopped to talk to the woman, immediately getting out her purse and fishing around to find a few dollars. She clasped them into the woman’s hand. The woman said thank you and went on her way. I stood there uncomfortably, watching this take place and waiting for John and Joyce to catch up with me.

Once they did, Joyce said simply, “Jared, you should always give money to people who ask you.” She smiled and we went into the restaurant.

She was very kind, almost matter-of-fact about it, but she singed my soul just a bit. She reminded me of something Jesus said, in Matthew 5:42, “Give to everyone who begs from you.”

Seems pretty clear and straightforward, unfortunately.

However, that was over ten years ago and in the time in between, I would give less and less. Society (and me) went increasingly cashless. I spent time working in Washington, DC, when I truly was confronted by people in need over and over again. I discovered that walking around in my clericals made me even more of an easy target.

So, eventually, I just kind of stopped. What I do to help the poor through the church must be enough, I rationalized to myself.

But this cold November afternoon, walking down that street in Grand Rapids with my wife, something broke in me. The man asked for money and I ignored him and kept walking down the sidewalk, but only a few paces in, I was struck and could not walk any further.

I turned around and walked back to him, reaching in my pocket for the $10 bill I knew was there from the change I had made for parking the night before. As I approached him, I smiled and handed him the cash.

“Thank you, sir,” he said. “Thank you.”

I held onto his hand and looked him in the eyes, deep in the eyes. “No,” I said, “Thank you. I want you to know that you stopped me today because you reminded me of Christ. I saw Jesus in you. Thank you for giving me that.” I felt a tear well up in my eyes. I brushed it away and rejoined my wife.

“I think I want to start keeping small amounts of cash on me,” I said to her.

A story is told about John the Almsgiver, Patriarch of Alexandria in the early 7th century. Someone applied for alms, but it was discovered by the office that he was applying in deceit, that the person did not actually need the money. The administrative official went to the patriarch and told him. John said, “Give unto him; he may be Our Lord in disguise.”

At its base, empathy means feeling the emotions of another, it means not letting yourself be an island, walking through the day ignoring the hurt and fears and pain of those around you. As a Christian, I’m grateful that our Lord gave a method to his weak and sinful followers. If you do not yet have enough of the love of God in you to feel the emotions of another, to love them with action, then do this: try at least to see me in them.

And then, then, the love will follow.

For more information on this project, you can see the Grand Haven Tribune article, David's blog post about the project, and, if you live in the Tri-Cities, you can click here for the story submission form.

Monday, January 6, 2014

Reclaiming Evangelism in the Episcopal Church

My January 6, 2014, essay for the Tracts for These Times SCP Blog: Reclaiming Evangelism in the Episcopal Church.
I’ve been involved in the Episcopal Church for almost ten years now, five of those years as a priest. I now understand much better than I did as an adolescent the theology behind the Christian tradition of baptism. I know now that since the publication of Baptism, Eucharist and Ministry over thirty years ago, the current ecumenical consensus on baptism is actually rather profound. Indeed, the theology of baptism with which I was raised led rather naturally to the baptismal emphasis of the Episcopal Church, particularly since the 1979 Book of Common Prayer.

But if there is something I am increasingly aware is missing ever since I came to be in this Anglican tradition, it is this—a sense of the role evangelism plays in the church.
Read more at the SCP website here.