Give Me an N!

You may have noticed in the last few days what appears to be an Arabic sign popping up all over the place.  I checked it out and immediately changed my profile picture on Facebook to this sign.  Why?

The sign is the letter N (nun)  in Arabic.  It is the first letter of the word Nazarene, the name by which Christians are known in the Middle East.  This letter has taken on sinister meaning as the forces of IS or ISIS mark people, property or chattel with an N meaning that the property or persons now belong to the ISIS.  Fellow Christians are given the ultimatum to convert to Islam, pay a tax or die.  Many have taken a fourth option of fleeing for their lives.  The tax of Christians and Jews by Muslims is an ancient practice from the early days of Islam.  Check it out.  I am unaware that this is the practice of modern Islamic states but it has been a  teaching of the religion.

arabic nThis reflects the problem of fundamentalism. Fundamentalists of any variety have in common a desire to regain the golden age of their faith. For Muslims it is the seventh century for many Christians 1950, but be that as it may such golden ages never existed. These fanatics (check my posting from August 9th – The True Believer) are setting out to remake the Caliphate of the Seventh Century in the Twenty-first.  Pray God they fail. It will require someone stop them as they cannot be reasoned with by honorable men. .

I have learned in my long study of Family Systems Theory that what my teacher, Rabbi Friedman, said about such is painfully true. In systems thinking all living things composed of protoplasm organize themselves in the same ways.  What is true on a cellular level is metaphor for all other levels of living things. They will behave in predictable ways.  Ed Friedman labelled them pathogens.

  • Pathogens do not self-regulate
  • Since they do not self-regulate they ooze into their neighbors space
  • Also, since they do not self-regulate themselves they never learn from their experience
  • They do not have to be hostile in order to be malignant.  Oozing into others space is sufficient.
  • Pathogens achieve their conscious or unconscious effect because those around them allow them to ooze into the others space.  Remember Munich in 1939.

It really does not matter if we are talking about cancer cells,  packs of dogs or ISIS: they all function the same.  Something will have to be done about them for the cancer they represent in the body politic.

I invite you to wear, wave or affix the Arabic Letter N to Facebook, your lapel or the bill board down the street as a mark of solidarity with our fellow Christians.  If someone reading this is not a believer please do so because the weak and innocent should not be murdered, enslaved nor raped and tortured. Call on those who have power and the responsibility for leading nations to stop these fanatics before the region is in flames not only of churches but of everything in their path. For this is a Caliphate of Evil. Muslims who do not welcome them are destroyed as well. What I say is not about the content of their belief as it is a critique of their succumbing to ideology.  Succumbing always leads to trouble (Carl Jung).

The Holy Innocents

The Holy Innocents

Please join me all of you of good will in praying for these Christians and othersr, indeed all in danger on account of their faith. I propose the collect for Holy Innocents as a place to begin.

We remember today, O God, the slaughter of the holy innocents of  ISIS [Bethlehem by King Herod.] Receive, we pray, into the arms of your mercy all innocent victims; and by your great might frustrate the designs of evil tyrants and establish your rule of justice, love, and peace; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.

 

God grant us and to his whole world peace and the knowledge of His love for the doing of His will. . JWS

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Major Jason Wright

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Major Wright is defense counsel for 9/11 mastermind.  He has resigned his commission rather than leave the defense team. We need more people like him in this country.

Major Wright is defense counsel for 9/11 mastermind. He has resigned his commission because he considered it unethical  to leave the defense team of a capital case even though ordered by the army.   We need more people like him in this country.

 

RELIGION IS HARD-WIRED IN HUMANITY

Gertrud Mueller Nelson

Gertrud Mueller Nelson

There are practices that appear to cross all religious systems and are near universal means for spiritual formation. Prayer is a human enterprise limited to no one religious tradition. Prayer is universal and even how one prays is widely similar. Now in these days a curious phenomenon has appeared. the secular rationalist and dismissive secular American. has begun to unconsciously fashion faux ancient practices. I got my first cue from Gertrude Muller Nelson in her book, TO DANCE WITH GOD..

SHE WROTE “WHEN THE CHURCH GAVE UP FASTING THE CULTURE TOOK UP DIETING.”

1. What is a diet, but a soulless fast? Now, consider the ancient practices with a corresponding secular invention.

2. What is a vacation but a soulless pilgrimage without purpose or focus. It is small wonder that people return home more exhausted than before. A pilgrimage is a journey to the holy, while a vacation is avoidance of the self.

To Dance with God - Gertrud Muller Nelson3. What the Liturgical Year is the practice of faith, Civil Religion is to the culture. In the eyes of the ignorant they are the same, sharing Christian holy days. Think of it this way. Music in the West uses the same notes for all compositions. The notes sound the same even though as they are played in different keys. The culture rather likes the Baby Jesus (so long as he never grows up enough to meddle) and Easter is there but the focus is on bunnies and Spring rites. July 4th and President’s Day pass for saint’s days, and the flag, that civil totem is equated, even in the minds of some Christians, with the Cross. I love my country and I keep the flag as far from the altar as possible.

4. While constant prayer is a posture of faith, the call to continual communion with the Holy, the culture constructed a continual litter of stimulus important to nobody but forwarded by somebody to everybody with red-flagged emails, all caps, demanding instant access.

5. Tithing, the re-gifting of some of the abundance we have received from God is an act of faithful gratitude. April 15th and taxes are the shadow of the economy of heaven. If tithing were not tax-deductible would it long endure?

6. The Sacred Meal of the Eucharist has as its counterpoint Thanksgiving, that yearly Festival of Civil Religion. It is wonderful in its way, has vague Christian trappings but is firmly civil Religion.

7. Sabbath is a time but more an attitude of getting quiet before God has as its opposite: the weekend. I don’t think I need say more. One is holy and the other runs us ragged.

Only when the church discovers it own ancient practices will we have anything to offer the culture.  Until then the culture will go on making up unreasonable facsimiles of soulful practice. JWS

Light is the Word

We travelers, walking to the sun, can’t see

Ahead, but looking back the very light

That blinded us shows us the way we came,

Along which blessings now appear, rise

As if from sightlessness to sight, and we,

By blessing brightly lit, keep going toward

The blessed light that yet to us is dark.

Wendell Berry   Sabbaths  –  1999 VI

What did we learn at Thanksgiving that will get us Through Christmas?

holydays

The Holy Days are coming, those occasions that by the rhythm of once a year but all our lives mark the seasons of living.  We live in a country that has the double whammy of Thanksgiving followed a month later by Christmas. We have double helpings of feasting and double visits from family. One raises our cholesterol and the other our anxiety. 

gI_SFPBookCover3Da.jpg I have learned that while the Holy Days are Holy they are not always happy.  In fact I am convinced, particularly this time of year,  that only orphans think that having a family would solve all their problems, the rest of us know better.  How to survive the Holy Days?  I suggest that you might want to read (or go back and read) Screamfree Parenting. “Ah,” you say, “It’s not my children that are the problem.”  To which I say, “Take out the word parent and put in living.”

Screamfree is a way of thinking that focuses on our own functioning rather than the functioning of others.  To prepare for the Holy Days, we might ask ourselves some of the following questions. On Thanksgiving and Christmas when families gather:

 Who will experience the most anxiety and who the least?

  • What amount of “space” is between me and the family? Am I stuck or cut-off?
  • How much energy is spent on the  “issues” of being together?
  • How do you stay “loose” in the family so that you can risk being an adult?
  • How can I plan ahead so that I know what I will do/be when the family member begins doing what he/she “always does.”
  • How can I define myself, sometimes by keeping my mouth shut?
  • How can I focus on the reasons that I love my family even while being with them?
  • Can I go into “research mode” and seek to learn from my family, resisting the temptation to give advice and fix them?

The country is anxious, states, cities, neighborhoods are anxious. How to do non-anxious-presencedeal with this anxiety during the most anxious time of the year?  As my teacher, Ed Friedman, used to say that, “consistency is only possible when we Focus on our own functioning.  Breathing in and breathing out is a good focus when anxiety rises. Getting more oxygen aids thinking and breathing may be the only thing that we can control. Stick to the facts not what we think they meant by the words they spoke. If things get more than we can take find an excuse to take a walk or visit a sick friend and then come back later. If you are out of town, hotel rooms are neutral.

Now I will see if I can take my own advice.  In addition to the national and religious holy days we also have the annual parish meeting on this coming Sunday, December 8th.  Please come and join us as we take council in this annual gathering of the parish. 

Let’s focus on the things that matter so that we are not distracted and miss them.

Peace, John+

Overcoming the Split Between Fact and Value

One of the fates of spending six years and three denominations in theological education was to come to a place of not taking any point of view all that seriously as people seem largely to think in the style in vogue at the time they were schooled.

Reared in an evangelical (pre-fundamentalist) Baptist Church, I was impressed by the unconscious allegiance to the Gospel as we had received it.  The Bible spoke we believed to the real situation of people in their lives and that the text was reliable in how it spoke of God. It never occurred to us to think otherwise.  I was largely unaffected by the hermeneutic of suspicion, as it was called, seeing what I call a hermeneutic of hostility, a militant regard that the scripture speaks in a hopeless superstitious way, with a sort of arrogant assumption that we now had it right being post-enlightenment and all.

I also observed that the reactivity to this hostility was to retreat into a rigid, sterile fundamentalism.  The thinking of liberal Christianity is formed; best I can tell, around a commitment to the fruit of faith without regard for the vine that bore it.  Anglicans, especially American ones have spent the patrimony on a “feel-good,” hearty hospitality inviting people to a sacrament having form but little power. Actually, that is not true.  They invite people to the mass, denigrating it by discounting the very sacrament of hospitality, namely baptism. A priest colleague of mine once responded to my stated commitment to classical Christianity with a dismissive, “Oh, John, we are redefining everything.” What?

Or as a priest, who dabbled in ministry, said by way of invitation to a Jungian seminar, “All of you who like me, cross their fingers, when they say the creed, please come.”  The same cleric while teaching confirmation class told everyone to stand and as the Nicene creed was read aloud to sit when something they did not or could believe was read and promptly sat down as it was barely underway.  My reaction to that is that we do not judge the creed the creed judges us.

Icon depicting the First Council of Nicaea.

Icon depicting the First Council of Nicaea. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Neither the extreme fundamentalism of the right or left has life in itself.  I found myself deeply attracted to the Anglican tradition.  The radical middle, pulling the extremes to the middle seemed good to me at the time and serves me still.   At the same time at the age of nineteen I had a life affirming charismatic experience in the 1970s again observing that while I counted that experience real and valid that the interpretation of that movement produced a “rigidity flexibility” (as Ed Friedman once put it.)  What I longed for was a way to make sense of what had happened to me so I searched for what I called a “religious psychology” seeking to understand why such a powerful and creative experience seemed to produce a neurotic state that in some cases left the person worse off than before. Embracing non-dual thinking, giving up the comfort of contradiction, all the while knowing that what we know is not all to be known will bring us closer to the Kingdom than all the certainty we could ever muster.

JWS

Aside

“We in the West have been trained and conditioned since childhood, firstly by over-anxious mothers and then by the values of society, to be afraid of pain, to see it as an enemy to fight and repel. Television advertisements don’t say, ‘Relax and learn to ease it’ when showing someone in pain. They say, “Take this pill or that pill and they will make you relaxed enough for your headache to go.  They implant attitudes which make us think we have to buy our way out of pain. In subtle ways they tell us that we DESERVE relief from it; that it is one of our rights to lead a pain-free life.”

Ursula Fleming  — Grasping the Nettle [pg. 33]

For Better for Worse (you are not kidding)

Wedding by Beau Bartlett

Wedding by Beau Bartlett

What is it about life that makes us assume the living of it will meet the expectations we have of it?  Hold that thought, I’ll be back to it.  My stories do come to an end but the telling of them goes round in circles before getting there so please be patient.   I took some career testing about ten years ago and I tested out in the 98th percentile to do the very thing I do.  How cool is that? I love being a priest.  I love it more now than I did over thirty years ago when Bishop Stough laying his hands on my head pushed down hard symbolizing as he put it, “the weight of the tradition falling on my head.”

Marriage Feast at Cana – Paolo Veronese (c. 1528-88)

 I didn’t’ see stars then but have from time to time since.  However,  I confess that of all the tasks of the priesthood the one that has worn thin for me is weddings.  The unscientific poll I run with colleagues of all Christian stripes and even across lines of religion reveals a distinct cooling of the ardor of  clergy for the joining of the ardor of others.  It’s nigh universal. Why?  You clearly have never lived through the doing of one. Not that they are all bad because they are not, but odds being what they are, ever so often the ancient gods or some other infernal power decides it is time to afflict the House of Saint John with what my staff calls the “wedding from hell.”

Wedding from Hell

I’ve come to the conclusion that weddings should be produced like funerals:  planned quickly, executed carefully after which we move on. No such luck, wedding planning begins the day the baby girl is born.  If you can put your hands on a copy of Bride Magazine at the bride’s house you would find that the subscription began nine months before her birth. Even before we routinely learned the gender before birth, even then, hope sprung eternal.

Saint George’s Hall Windsor

Premarital counseling is required by Episcopal Canon Law.  It’s a good idea in theory. However,  it is almost impossible to get a message to people moving toward one another accelerated by the rock of ages from their families of origin.  No matter how hard you chase after them the message never catches up. It actually works better six months later.  A wedding really belong to the bride’s mother not the bride.  So long as everyone knows that nobody will get hurt.  I have a theory about that, the only original thought I’ve had,  namely that Eve, being made from Adam’s rib and all. never had a fancy wedding so she stole her daughter’s and the disruption has been displaced by one generation ever since.

So putting it lightly, a lot is riding on one day in the life of a couple, rather more than one 24 hour period was constructed to bear.   This weighty reality is such that the  marriage is almost a let down from the wedding.  Not only that but we think we are to live by the phrase (taken from fairy tales, for crying out loud), “they lived happily ever after!” Give me a break, if you please.  Nothing could be further from the truth and the makers of liturgical books have much lower and more realistic expectations. According to the  Book of Common Prayer what matters is what you are prepared to do. Will you love and cherish?  It never asks once whether you are in love such that the axis of the earth moves when you look into each others eyes.  Not only that but the covenant (contract in the State of Tennessee) is just until you are dead! There is no marriage or giving in marriage in Heaven.

Icon of Wedding at Cana

It strikes me given the fact that our Lord himself tried to avoid getting involved in a wedding crisis that time in Cana, we should be more careful ourselves. He would have gotten away with it too except his momma forced his hand in the matter. Perhaps that is when they gave up on the idea and banned weddings in heaven.  Now that I know there are no weddings to do in heaven, I’m even more interested in going there.

Aside

Image

York has had a market in the centre of the old city or at least a thousand years. Saturday today as then was market day and everybody comes to town.  You can find most things there.

Take a look at those figs! Adam could have made a three piece suit  with leaves from that plant!

Fruits and vegetables and flowers to military surplus from all over Europe – lots of desert  camouflage and interesting gear. There was way cool stuff in that booth. Image

Fish from Whitby on the North Sea to poultry and homegrown meats – sustainable agriculture is very much a commitment of Yorkshire. We will be a while catching up.  

The New Gate Market is in the middle of the old city and remember a gate is not an entrance even though that is written on the arch over the road, no a gate (gata is the word in Norwegian for road)  is a road – a bar is a gate.

People watching is fun, although you are not supposed to acknowledge anyone, walk on the left side of the sidewalk and above all things never ever speak to anyone.  It’s just not done. So being from the South and all, bless my heart, I forget and am polite except that here  Southern manners are impolite.  It’s really a little confusing (and annoying).

You can look at the meats but only speak if you intend to buy something. I’m kidding (a little).

Reflection on Tree Climbing Fish and Little Churches

Little Churches always feel guilty for not being big churches. If only this (whatever this is) were different, all would be well and the kingdom would come near unto us.  A common example centers on, “we are aging and need young families or we will die” was the exact issue posed to me once in an interview; meaning what will you do if you come here?

Oh, beloved, be deceived not!  The truth is that generally they don’t really mean the business about attracting young families at all. They are not lying. They are however, immature and unconscious of their deeper motivations thus setting up the minister and themselves for failure and injury.  The uninitiated clergy (young clergy usually staff small churches)  will run out and find those young families only to discover they are like the kid  adolescents holding the bag at the snipe hunt!  They only did exactly what they were asked to do. It is an example of the unforeseen cost of perceived goals. (Behold the house built over the sinkhole.)   Because it would require change:

  • Money spent on first rate nurseries (rooms painted, clean (can’t fake that) and inviting
  • Making the facilities inviting and child friendly
  • Raising tolerance for children in church, resisting the temptation to screen out by clearing disapproving by silent, though visible, resentment to a chiding comment about current child rearing.
  • Providing Sunday schools and formation worth getting up and taking the children (if they like it they will demand to go and since many American households are run by children, folks show up.)
  • All this would mean they would have to share power with new people with new concerns and ideas.

As I shared these points with the search committee they were horrified and my candor torpedoed my candidacy because what their head told them was needed could not over come their need to control and not essentially change.  If I had gone there and taken their stated goal seriously within a year and a half, I would progressed from holding the snipe bag to being the goat at the goat roast and never known really what did me in.

Mr. Penwell is right!  Look at the balance sheet of the congregation.  If there much surplus watch out because there is never enough money when spiritual growth is happening, I mean by that the observable intangible such consistent warmth welcome to strangers.  I know that as a priest that this is true as visitors tell me on their subsequent visits.  When I hear that pretty consistently I know hearts are expanding.  This speaks to the maturing of those sitting in the pews.   More about what maturity means in the coming months. JWS