Tuesday, May 19, 2009

Something in the water?

So, Pig's last comment has me thinking about laughter. She writes: " . . . you look at pictures of those hats and think, oh my--stodgy, solemn, maybe even a little scary. You mean you are allowed to laugh in that Church??? snort."

To be fair, there is a certain stodge-factor in some places--which shall remain nameless. Certainly, there are those--like my dad--who have had bad experiences in those Episcopal churches who take themselves entirely too seriously. And while there are times of great reverence and poignancy at Trinity, we laugh a LOT.

Kids wander the aisles or sprawl on the floor. Sometimes our priest Paul's youngest boy, (Owen) will just run up and throw his arms around Paul's legs in the middle of it all. I've seen Paul preach with Owen on one hip. If we goof up the liturgy, we laugh and keep going.

This does have a fair amount to do with the context at Holy Trinity. I mean, when the congregation is salted with chemically-enhanced folks who assume every sermon is conversational, when at any moment a homeless guy might wander in through the sacristy and down past the high altar to join you in worship, when people strolling by with beer stuffed in their pockets are drawn in by the music . . . well, a natural flexibility develops.

But I'd like to think Trinity is not alone in our appreciation of humor. Once I was a lector at a service composed solely of the mucky-mucks of the diocese. I was reading that bit where the guy falls asleep and tumbles out the window because Paul (the apostle) won't shut up. Everyone about rolled on the floor laughing through the whole reading--all at Holy Trinity Paul's expense. Come to think of it, that service was at Holy Trinity when we hosted diocesan council. Hmm, maybe there's something in the water . . .

On Maundy Thursday, I was one of the foot-washers. Paul had just given a brief sermon on foot-washing, how it forces us to reveal our most vulnerable selves, a part of us we'd prefer to hide. Paul's son, Owen, had already had his feet washed by his father, but he came to my station and hopped up in the chair ready for round two. And as I washed his little feet, he laughed. Nonstop. And pretty soon I was laughing, and it spread like a ripple. I thought: This is IT! Stripped down to our most human, no hiding in shoes and socks, being vulnerable enough to be served, and LAUGHING!

Episcopalians (and other liturgical denominations) have this thing called an aspergillium. It picks up holy water from a bucket called the aspersory and allows the flinger to fling it. Here, Pope Benedict wields the aspergillium (a.k.a. "the stick of doom").

What has this to do with laughter? It started with a toddler who dissolved into a wave of uncontrollable giggles every time a drop of holy water hit her. Now, everytime we use the thing people start laughing. We can't help it. And when Paul passes the stick of doom around and we bless each other it nearly dissolves into joyous chaos--a holy water fight. And to me, that's golden. To remember our baptism and respond with pure delight--well, that's something.

Monday, May 18, 2009

9. How many Episcopalians DOES it take to change a light bulb?


One to mix the drinks, one to call the electrician, and one to talk about how much better the old light bulb really was.

Which brings me to No. 9 in my "Top Ten Things I Love about the Episcopal Church":


On the whole, Episcopalians are pretty good at laughing at themselves. Granted, part of this is contextual. At Holy Trinity, our particular spiritual gifts seem to involve goofing off, popping off, and making fun. We love to banter, and we throw an excellent party. But the plethora of Episcopalian jokes suggests many of us are pretty good at using humor to undercut ourselves, deflate our self-importance, and remind ourselves to "keep the main thing the main thing." Can I get an amen?

And the icon? The caption for this photo on the St. George Melkite-Greek Catholic Church website reads: "The image of St. Symeon--perhaps the Church's first environmentalist--gazing upon an energy efficient light bulb." Look at his hands! I think he's blessing it! Rock on, Melkite-Greek Catholics! Good on ya!!

Wednesday, May 13, 2009

Introducing my top ten . . .

Pig writes: "What I'm really curious about is why you have chosen the Episcopal Church. What do you love about it? Do they have a particular set of beliefs that ring true to you? What are the basic tenents of the Episcopal Church and what makes it different from other churches? Is it that you just like your particular Episcopal Church and its work, or is it the whole Episcopalian experience that works for you, because (and I really am not intending to be rude) with all its tradition, it just seems kind of an odd fit considering your wonderful but rather . . . ahem . . . irreverent sense of humor, and seemingly no nonsese type of personality."

Bethany writes: "Yes, all that she said! Tell us about the greenhouse of your faith."

First, a caveat: there's no way I'd presume to speak for all Episcopalians. What follows is based in my understanding and experience and certainly subject to factual error and theological weakmindedness. You'll notice I use the words "tendency" and "often" a great deal. That's because it's impossible to pin down any one idea to which all Episcopalians would agree.

Second, a bit of history and polity to frame the discussion: The Episcopal Church is the American child of the Church of England which broke from Rome around the same time as the Reformation. Neither Catholic, nor Protestant, the Episcopal Church is something in between. The Church of England has other "kids" spread far and wide around the globe. These churches are loosely affiliated through the Anglican Communion. (Thus, the Episcopal Church is an American expression of Anglicanism, and to some degree the words "Episcopal" and "Anglican" can be used interchangeably.) The Archibishop of Canterbury is the figurehead and spiritual leader for the Anglican Communion, but there is no central governing authority for the worldwide communion. That's part what gets us headlines; there's no consensus right now about how much authority the Communion should have over its member churches.

And now, here's the first installment of the top ten things I love about the Episcopal Church:

10. The Three-Legged Stool

Way back in the way back (around 1594), Richard Hooker an English theologian gave us a way of approaching our faith that we now call the three-legged stool. While some churches place their emphasis on a literal reading of Scripture, Episcopalians rely on a balance of Scripture, reason, and tradition. Alone, each of these three is vulnerable to distortion; together, they allow us to discern God's will.

We believe that God intends us to use reason when we approach Scripture. So, many Episcopalians tend to consider things like cultural context when interpretting scripture, and we often look for the overarching narrative to guide our lives rather than looking for a prescriptive do-and-don't list. The Anglican approach to Scripture tends to be wholistic rather than reductionistic--the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. Metaphor matters. So we tend not to pluck out particular verses as proofs. That's why I'll never win a Biblical argument with someone of an evangelical persuasion.
Tradition also has value; the wisdom of those who have come before us can shed light on our present journey with God.

Note the order: Scripture comes first, then reason, and tradition comes last. The order implies the relative weight each "leg" should bear, but if any one is missing, the stool falls down.

What does this mean to me? It means that I can approach the Word of God with curiosity and a reverent playfulness that is reminiscent of Judaic midrash. The Word is not something to be merely decoded and parsed, but a living narrative that can inform and vivify my life. The contradictions in Scripture no longer cause anxiety, or need to be explained away, but like disparate elements in a good poem create a "rub" that reveals even more richness. Similarly, tradition is not a shackle, but something lovely and rare to bump up against my contemporary experience and see what sparks fly. I absolutely love the complexity and constant discovery that this three-pronged approach creates. And when this unfolds in community, the Holy Spirit gets a chance to really shake things up.

Thursday, May 7, 2009

Q & A

While I ruminate on a couple of upcoming blog entries, here's your chance:

Ever wonder: What's with the incense? Why are Episcopalians always arguing (in public)? Why on earth would you Episcopalians call your leaders "primates"? Where can I get a cool hat like that one? How come are there so many drinking jokes about Episcopalians? Is Episcopal the same thing as Catholic? How many Episcopalians does it take to change a lightbulb?

Post your questions about the Episcopal Church, Episcopalians, and all things liturgical, and I'll do my best to provide or dig up (or make up) a plausible answer.


in the foyer of Holy Trinity's parish hall during HT Dinner Table:

Guest: So when are the AA meetings that happen here?
Volunteer: I think there's one tomorrow at 5 pm.
Guest: Oh, that'll never work for me. I'm always drunk by 5 pm.

(We think he was joking. And yes, the vintage beer ad is real.)


I think this falls under the diaconal call to "interpret to the church the needs, concerns, and hopes of the world." Click here to read about one deacon's witness on Ormonde Plater's blog.

Friday, May 1, 2009

Sometimes you're the tether, sometimes you're the ball . . .

At all times, your life and teaching are to show Christ's people that in serving the helpless they are serving Christ himself.

On the surface, this part of the ordination vow seems like a no-brainer. The last part of Matthew 25 pretty much lays it out with the culling of the herd. No mincing of words there.

But lately I'm having some issues with the word "helpless." I could be wrong, but I don't recall this word placed in Jesus' mouth in the Gospels. "Least of these" is about as close as we get. Who are the helpless?

Well, word-nerd that I am, I looked it up. This from dictionary.com: "unable to help oneself; weak or dependent; deprived of strength or power; powerless; incapacitated." So who are helpless? Well, babies, of course--except that they can cry to signal what they want, so they aren't totally helpless. People with extreme dementia? People in a coma? Hmm. Maybe.

But the people Jesus talks about in Matthew 25 are not, by this definition, helpless. They are hungry, thirsty, in prison. But that doesn't mean they are helpless. And most of the people I serve in my diaconal ministry are far from helpless. Poverty encourages it's own kind of power. When our survival instinct meets threat, helplessness becomes relative. Prey becomes predator, abused becomes abuser. Salt the situation with some alcohol or drugs and you'll have a master manipulator before you can say "God bless." We all do what we must to get by.

Do I sound jaded? Already? I hope not. I've spent the last couple of days failing to heed the giant sucking sound of a domestic-violence-alcohol clusterf*&k with some folks I pastor. How is it after three days of witnessing their chaos, I find myself engaging the drama? (Yeah, I know, the "three days" part should have been my first clue.)

I think this has something to do with an unhelpful stance implied in the words "serve the helpless" which implies an us (well-equipped saviors) and a them (incapacitated victims). We become fix-it junkies with those in need as our projects, and before you know it the Holy Spirit wanders off looking for something more interesting to do. In reality, even those who are a total disaster have more volition than we see in them. One of the worst things we can do is presume helplessness, assume the role of helper, and attempt to strip away any remaining agency they have. Or just as bad, we presume helplessness and suddenly discover they've have a surprising wherewithal to transform us from helper to enabler (which is a polite way to say "self-destruction facilitator").

Remember tetherball. Set aside, for a moment, those dark memories of getting beaned upside the head with the tetherball by that kid who couldn't keep his hands out of the classroom fish tank. The thing with a tetherball is that it's . . . well . . . tethered. No matter which way you hit it, it's going to wrap itself around that pole. By the laws of physics, it's helpless not to. That's what I'm finding in my diaconal work. Everybody has their pole--addiction, violence, overwork, codependence, compulsive whatever--and no matter which way life slaps you, you're bound to wrap yourself around that pole. Poles can also be less "in-your-face" but still destructive like one of my personal favorites: "Everyone must like me." But everytime the tetherball hits the end of its rope, there's that same damned pole again.

So . . . SURPRISE! Joke's on us: we're all helpless! Remember? It's a broken world. And we're included. We are all tethered to sin--or in the less loaded terms of a pastoral care text, to our "limitations" as well as "gifts."

A deacon helps no one by futhering the illusion of helper and helpless. In fact, she can pretty well muck it up even further if she fails to show "in [her] life and teaching" an understanding of her own helplessness and an awareness that service does not mean fixing. And because it's so ingrained to defend the mask of benevolent servant, so deeply tempting to make those we serve into projects, this could well be the deacon's most telling challenge.