Monday, February 26, 2007

The Practicing Progressive

Issue 12
February 26, 2007

This past Sunday, I had the privilege of being on the front lines of one more tactical offensive in the growing movement many are calling: The New Reformation. Although to be entirely truthful I wasn’t actually on the front line. It was more like seven pews back.

Worshipping at All Saints Episcopal Church in Pasadena this California winter has brought an added and unforeseen benefit to my initial intention of simply avoiding the snow and cold of Colorado for the first time in 25 years. All Saints may be familiar to some of you via their recent encounter with the Internal Revenue Service. Seems there are some in the IRS who take offense at the “political nature” of the preaching at All Saints and have initiated governmental action to remove the congregation’s tax-exempt status. All of this is being done by agents with straight faces even as they allow far larger congregations to engage in all kinds of political activities including sermons designating who one should vote for and publications threatening excommunication if one doesn’t. The difference, of course, is that All Saints leans left in their activities while the bigger, richer, more powerful churches lean way to the right, right toward the White House.

All of us have watched as cherished liberties and constitutional mandates have eroded these past six years. This assault in Pasadena is simply one more example of the kind of tyranny taking place these days. Nevertheless, All Saints continues its compassionate ways whether the government likes it or not which leads me back to Sunday’s front line action.

But it wasn’t governmental sanctions All Saints was battling Sunday. These were ecclesiastical. You may have read of the recent confab in Tanzania of the primates of the Anglican Communion which resulted in an edict issued to the Episcopal Church in America to “fast” from ordaining gays and lesbians or officiating at same-sex blessing ceremonies during the forty days of Lent. A reasonable request one might concede…as long as one is not gay or lesbian. In that case, the call for fasting is nothing more than the perpetuation of policies that have kept our homosexual brothers and sisters from full participation in congregational life.

In his sermon on Sunday, Ed Bacon, rector of All Saints, reminded us that we must never fast from justice, never abstain from seeking the compassionate way of Christ. He then announced that the All Saints congregation would continue to include all people, without exceptions, in the life of the parish. There will be no cessation in the church’s commitment to inclusive ministry, Bacon proclaimed, and the congregation rose up from their pews and applauded as one.

It was a moving moment to be sure but more than that, it was one more clear declaration that the New Reformation is continuing to capture the hearts and minds of more and more Christians who find the compassion-centered teachings of Jesus far more compelling than the too often restrictive regulations of the institutional church.

Although it is in its infancy, the New Reformation is beginning to grow and the evidence can be found in similar acts of compassion coming out of congregations and individual Christians all around the world. If my correspondence is any indication, and I certainly believe it is, adherents to the New Reformation are making themselves heard both within and without most denominations. A plethora of blogs and websites are being created in cyberspace to provide forums for this emerging movement. Here are just a few:,,, and, my personal favorite, There are literally hundreds of others and more forming every day and they are indicative of something new and exciting making its way into the life of the church…whether the church is ready or not.

On Sunday, the Christians that surrounded me at All Saints Church made it very clear that they were more than ready. Onward!

Monday, February 19, 2007

The Practicing Progressive

Issue 11
February 19, 2007

I love Lent.

It may seem more than a little idiosyncratic for someone so averse to employing certain religious traditions as I to admit such devotion but I do, unashamedly. From Ash Wednesday to Good Friday, I savor this contemplative season. Part of my attraction, I am sure, has to do with my inherent Lutheran nature that finds self-reflection, even self-censure, something of a pleasurable pursuit and forty days all too brief to return to the writings of Kierkegaard or view the films of Bergman once again. The idea of setting aside time each year to ritually re-examine one’s motives and goals has great appeal to me. I am far too much of a realist to fail to acknowledge the dark underbelly of human existence that the church calls sin. Denying our propensity toward self-serving ways leads to the kind of naiveté that allows us to ignore the often destructive ramifications of our own actions. Everything from petty gossip to global warming, incidental hurts to violent imperialism, can find its cause in our self-centeredness. A whole liturgical season set aside to confront such a conundrum seems time very well spent.

If only most churches would spend it more wisely.

Too much of the valuable time of Lent is taken up by too many churches acknowledging ancient formulas that seek to rectify our collective conduct. Oh for a Lenten season that leaves behind the ludicrous litanies of blood atonement and divine appeasement! Can we not spend this holy season in congregational contemplation, musing on the holy power of compassionate action and Christian discipleship?

“Remember that you are dust and to dust you shall return.” seems strangely inappropriate to a religious tradition consumed by personal prospects for eternity but suitably shocking for a religion that is centered, as Jesus’ was, on the kingdom of God in our midst. Lent reminds us that our allocation of time is limited. Rather than avoiding such a sobering reality with fantastic notions of a life to come, faithful disciples of Jesus will find in Lent the inspiration and courage to experience the kingdom that comes now…in every gesture of grace, in every act of kindness.

For most of the year we rest in romantic notions of an ordered universe, a divine plan. Lent, on the other hand, whispers a different truth. Life is less under our control than we would wish. Unexpected events lie in hiding, only awaiting an improper and unwanted time to make their appearance. The proper Christian response to such a foreboding future, it seems to me, is not the pious acquiescence of Job but the compassionate action of Christ, a life centered not in ourselves but others, a life lived in the kingdom that is in our midst.

And so I wish us all well on our Lenten journey. May it stir our spirits and open our hearts to truths we’d just as soon forget but desperately need to remember.

Monday, February 12, 2007

The Practicing Progressive

Issue 10
February 12, 2007

I am sure we have all had a good laugh over the announcement that Pastor Ted Haggard, after three months of spiritual counseling, is “completely heterosexual”, so let’s move on to less humorous news.

Like the report out of Atlanta this week that told of the ecclesiastical trial of Lutheran pastor, Bradley Schmeling. Unlike Pastor Haggard, Pastor Schmeling long ago announced his homosexual orientation and, according to all accounts, has served his congregations and his denomination, well during the ensuing years. Schmeling’s problem and the cause of his appearance before the Evangelical Lutheran Church’s Board of Discipline lie with his honesty. Wishing to live an authentic life, he informed his bishop that he had fallen in love with another man and was living in a monogamous relationship with him. The bishop, as bishops are wont to do, immediately pressed charges against Pastor Schmeling for disobeying the guidelines for pastors of the denomination.

In its 14 page decision and with a slim one vote majority, the board announced that it felt “compelled” to remove Schmeling from the ELCA clergy roster for disobedience. At the same time, the board said it was “nearly unanimous” in its disagreement with the current set of pastoral standards enforced by the ELCA and urged the denomination to consider making significant changes.

While I can sympathize with the board’s wish for a different outcome, I am appalled by their lack of courage. Somehow giving precedent to the enforcement of institutional mandates over compassionate albeit “illegal” action seems antithetical to the foundational identity of the Lutheran movement. Had Dr. Luther waited for institutional change before leading his followers on a different path, we would have one less denomination today. The explanation employed by the Board of Church Discipline sounds perilously close to the obstructionist tactics Christians have used in the past to deny women and minorities their equal rights as children of God. What if Rosa Parks had waited until Montgomery’s Town Board officially approved the rights of African-Americans to sit in the front of the bus? What if Nelson Mandela had waited for his apartheid government to change its unjust and evil ways? What if the Episcopal diocese of New Hampshire had caved in to ecclesiastical pressure rather than celebrating Gene Robinson as its bishop?

I am ashamed that my church remains mired in a morass of theological mumbo-jumbo when the spiritual lives of thousands of faithful gay, lesbian and bi-sexual laity and clergy continue to be undermined. I am angry that the leadership of my church, so concerned with pacifying its conservative members, chooses to perpetuate institutional injustice. The ELCA long ago left the fold of Biblical literalists, so why does it continue to cling to archaic understandings of human nature only endorsed by Christian fundamentalists and other, equally ignorant and damnably bigoted, fanatics?

What many found so laughably ludicrous about the Haggard announcement this week was the seemingly blatant lack of authenticity inherent in the declaration. No one of any competence in the fields of psychotherapy or human sexuality, I suspect, gives any credence to the pronouncement. Even those of us untrained in such specialties can see through the sham and shake our heads at such foolishness.

And yet when a dedicated pastor who, by all accounts except that of the institutional church, has led an exemplary life, he is condemned for failing to meet arbitrary guidelines, guidelines that appear to make authenticity and integrity subservient to long discredited worldviews and archaic biblical biases.

Let us hope that someday soon the ELCA will look back to its roots and turn to its future unafraid of re-formation.

Monday, February 05, 2007

Practicing Progressive

February 5, 2007
Issue 9

Now that we’re all agreed that a rose by any other name would smell as sweet, isn’t it about time we starting finding other names?

This past week I attended a book-study led by a kindly Episcopalian priest. He was the quintessential old cleric complete with Albert Einstein hair and Jerry Garcia beard. Laden down with books and papers, he more than occasionally seemed to forget where he was and why we were all staring in his direction. But, as I say, a kindly man indeed and it was a pleasure to share a couple of hours with him.

During our time together, however, I did find myself pursuing a theological tangent or two. The first was generated by my instructor’s insistence, over and over again, that the Bible is a book filled with metaphor. For every sticky biblical wicket, be it Adam and Eve in the garden or Jesus’ turning water into wine, our teacher stopped to remind us of the metaphorical meaning of the story. It was a classically liberal interpretative stance and, by and large, I agreed with his conclusions. Still, I wondered, what is it about liberal Christians that has them happily musing metaphorically through the Bible, tossing out this tale or that story in a anti-literalistic bliss but always seeming, to me anyway, to stop too soon and too short.

It is easy to knowingly smile at the foolishness of taking the virgin birth as fact or the stilling of the storm as history but why then isn’t that same perceptive perspective carried out in the liturgies of our liberally enlightened congregations? A Sunday morning prayer that has us begging for divine mercy or a liturgical recitation that has us mechanically announcing Jesus’ descent into hell or rocketing up to heaven is hardly illustrative of a metaphorical mindset. Hymns that continue to thank the deity for sacrificing a child for the sins of the world seems dramatically out of step with priestly protestations about the metaphorical meanings found in scripture.

Each Sunday as we reenact Jesus’ last night on earth, we employ language that sounds anything but metaphorical to me: “Take and eat; this is my body given for you…This cup is the new covenant in my blood, shed for you and for all people for the forgiveness of sin.” Indeed, a good deal of our church history includes extensive arguments over precisely at what point the bread becomes flesh and the wine, blood. A few centuries of doctrinal debate involved the exact nature of the trinity; a few others were spent on a most particular Christological formulation. Hardly the stuff, it seems to me, of metaphor.

Still, when I confess my curiosity over such inconsistencies, many of my Christian friends cannot understand my failure to appreciate the obviously, to them at least, metaphorical language of the liturgy. Surely I am not the only confused worshiper. I would hazard a guess that there are more than a few who, like me, have sat in the pew and wondered why we continue to use language and imagery that obfuscates rather than illuminates the teachings of Jesus.

If we have to keep reminding ourselves that our metaphors are metaphorical then it is long past time to find new and more illustrative ways of proclaiming the good news of Jesus.

P.S. On an entirely different note, a pastor friend of mine sent this to me and I send it now to you. Please take a few minutes to watch it.