Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Heretics Here, Heretics There, Heretics Everywhere

I just had another conversation with one of my heretical college students. At least he thinks he's a heretic. I'm not so sure. In fact, I would definitely say that what he is is a thinking person who looks at some of the most outrageous claims of Christianity with more than a bit of skepticism. In other words, he's a young man who is realizing that he is allowed to think about religion, not just accept it.

In this particular case, the issue was the divinity of Jesus. Right now, his working ideas are that there was nothing more divine about Jesus than the rest of us, but Jesus lived it more perfectly than we do. If you applied Occam's Razor to the question of Jesus' divinity, this is probably the answer you should get. Or maybe that the story has been written leaving out the parts that show Jesus was just another schmo. After all, how many people do you know who have trouble with the idea that Jesus pooped?

I pointed out to him that the problem with a statement like "fully God and fully human" is that anything that follows it will almost inevitably err by emphasizing one over the other. Before that, though, I asked about his understanding of the Trinity, since, without a divine Christ, that scheme rather falls apart.

It was a great conversation that took detours through the creeds, the Holy Spirit and ended up in the power of story telling (It all made sense. You had to be there.), which included a discussion of sacraments as essentially story telling events. If we had had time, I would have suggested that Christianity is essentially a life story that Christians are called to align their own stories with. There are, in fact, other life stories (e.g., other religious traditions, the American story, etc.) that people do the same thing with. What makes us Christians is that we believe Christ's story is one we should align our lives with. And obviously, other people have some thoughts about this too.

It was one of those wonderful conversations that inspire people to become college chaplains. So why am I pissed off?

Well, largely it has to do with the fact that this bright, clever student who is working with issues I never began to think about when I was his age is having to fight against everything he has been raised with just to say these things. And he was brought up in the Episcopal Church no less, a church that prides itself on offering space to explore what you believe. So instead of learning that it is perfectly okay to wrestle with these questions--that this is a part of developing a mature faith--he has learned that he has to declare himself a heretic to think these things. And instead of spending our time together with me helping him to look at his beliefs, I had to spend half the time giving him permission to believe these things.

I don't know what this student will end up believing about Christ's divinity. If I were forced to bet on it, I'd guess he will be fairly orthodox in his beliefs before it is all over. But that's not really all that important. The Christian faith can only be faith if we are allowed to hold it, mold it, question it, turn it inside out, and even spit on it now and then as we continually try to grasp it (which is, in itself, an impossible task). But we're too afraid to let that happen. So instead, we make the creeds into the door keepers of theology rather than the open doors that take us a whole myriad of places. And we scare our kids against exploration of anything that might mean they occasionally step off the narrow path.

Except the narrow path thus defined is actually reduced to the dividing line on a super highway. And it you step off the line, you will get hit by a speed demon ready to destroy your life. Sorry, but there should be a lot more wiggle room out there than that.

Why am I so angry about this? Because this is not the only student I have who thinks he's a heretic. And I have one who is afraid to read the Bible because of the problems she has with the things other people have told her it says.

What they are all saying is that they want a place where they can explore what they believe without getting beat up for believing the wrong things. Where I come from, that is what a church is supposed to be. But, oops, these folks all come out of churches and are seeing that they have to leave, at least for awhile, if they want the chance to explore.

These should be the leaders of my ministry. But only one of them is even coming. They will talk to me, but they have been too burned to be able to take leadership in a church where they think they are only recognized as believing or unbelieving. And that is just too sad for words.

Sad too is the fact the the above named 'heretic' is simultaneously wrestling with whether or not he is called to ordination. Talk about a straitjacket! How can he even begin to approach that issue when he is still looking to be accepted as is, questions and all? And, yes, for the record, I realize that some of the roadblocks might be self imposed as his unrecognized way of avoiding the call to ordination. Except he's not the only one, just the one I had lunch with today.

So why do so many young people leave the Church during college? We think it has to do with churches not knowing how to provide activities for them. But I think it is much deeper than that. We lose them because, at this time when they are questioning, there is no theological place for them. We can stop worrying about the young singles events; make space for a little heterodoxical thought. You know, it might just challenge the way we think too. But that's what we are really afraid of, isn't it?

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Desperate Churchwives

Okay, besides reading it in this morning's paper, I have now seen three Facebook links in reference to the statement by the Roman Catholic Church about their now having a regularized process for accepting Anglicans who wish to transfer their membership. First, a few facts:

1) No one leaving us and going to Rome is converting. Both groups claim to be Christians, so any transfers are just that, not conversions to another religion. Want proof? They will not be re-baptized. You see, the funny thing is, Romans, like Anglicans, believe that God baptizes people, and we both assume he does not occasionally just screw it up. Nor does he have two different bodies to be baptized into. There are a few fundys out there who need to get a coherent theology on this one.

2) Rome has been accepting married male Anglican clergy since shortly after we began ordaining women. Funny thing is that they do re-ordain. That alone would be enough of an insult to my orders that I would have to decline.

3) Laypeople wanting to join the Roman Church have been able to approach a parish and ask to do so for centuries. Basically ever since there was an Anglican Church, we could join. The Roman Catholic Church has never been a closed system, despite the peculiar ways people write about this so-called new event.

4) What is new is that these folks will be able to retain some pieces of liturgical life from Anglicanism. I have not seen exactly what the guidelines are, but this seems an odd capitulation to me. Just how many exceptions is Rome going to offer to Anglicans to (apparently) entice us? Me, I want a better paycheck before we can even begin the negotiations.

5) Most people who leave the Anglican communion would be hard pressed to join a denomination that demands obedience to many more doctrinal statements than Anglicanism ever gave them. After all, they are leaving us because they feel they are being forced to accept things they don't like. We'll see how much they are ready to practice the rhythm method of birth control.

6) If a congregation votes to leave the Episcopal Church and join Rome, they will have to do it without their property, which belongs to the diocese. With the current exception of Virginia (stay tuned) every time the taking of property has been sought in courts, eventually the courts have said the property belongs to us. So do not look for that beautiful Gothic Episcopal Church downtown to be flying a Roman flag too quickly, unless we choose to sell it to them.

7. All of the dioceses (4 at last count) that have voted to leave the Episcopal Church have chosen to go join other parts of the Anglican Communion. On a large scale, people are not interested in leaving Anglicanism, just a couple of things they disagree with in the American Church (which isn't entirely American--even in the broad sense--but we will leave that for another day).

8. The Episcopal Church did not actually say anything different last summer at its General Convention. We said we would follow our previously written rules about ordinations and we said we would study same-sex marriages, unions, etc. Oh, and we would allow for generous pastoral latitude around the marriage issue (including allowing more conservative bishops to do parish visitations if wanted). I have read several times how we are developing liturgies for same sex marriages; it simply is not true. If you want to complain, go read what the Lutherans did!

9. And by the way, the doors swing in both directions. Lots of folk coming our way because of our stances on women and gays, on divorce, and because we took steps two decades ago to stem the tide of child abuse and sexual predators.

So what did Rome actually do? They wrote a policy manual, apparently. Before, Anglicans who wanted to transfer were treated individually, so what one was required to do in Richmond could be completely different from what they had to do in Baltimore. Now, the bureaucracy has taken over. One small step for a (Ro)man, one giant leap for paperwork.

Do we like it? no, of course not, if for no other reason than the glee with which it sometimes seems a few Roman Catholic officials are doing these things. But will I lose much sleep over it? Not a chance. The reality is that we are both Christian denominations who happen to disagree on a few things, perhaps most importantly on how one offers dissent from official doctrine. And every person who leaves us for Rome makes it easier for us to go forward with the Gospel as we have received it.

But God bless those who stick around. The worst thing that could happen to us would be if we had no dissent. That is the easiest way to get off track. Differing understandings of God's Word demand that everyone become sharper theologically because we have to justify our stances. If we should ever lose that, it will be a sad day.

For Anglicans, worship is theology and vice versa. As long as we can come to the table together, we can co-exist. It is sad that is not to be for some right now, but one day, we will bring the kingdom fully into being through the grace of God, and all this foolishness will be over. And we will really come to understand that God loves all of us.

Tuesday, October 6, 2009

On Evangelism, U2 Style

Okay, I went to the U2 concert Saturday night. I was a newbie, and now I am writing the required blog to gush about it. If you don't believe it is required, just go the Sojourners website and catch Jim Wallis' blog about taking his son. Of course, I did not have the lighting manager hear about me being there and seeking me out in the crowd. Ah well.... Oh, and good luck getting off of the Sojourners email list once you sign up.

Anyway, the really frustrating thing about writing about U2 concerts is that everything that all those other people have written about them is true. Yes, it is a fantastic concert. Yes, the sound system is amazing (for $25 million, it should be. And there are 3 of them floating around the country because they take so long to put up and take down.). Yes the visuals were spectacular. Yes, the political message was well handled; as an Episcopalian, I loved seeing Desmond Tutu talking about the One Campaign. Yes, I was moved when Bono brought the young boy up on the stage and ran around the outer circle before giving him his sunglasses (I admit, I would have been happy to be that boy, and even happier to be going to school on Monday wearing the glasses!).

And yes, without calling it this, they created church. Thousands of people all tuned to one wavelength and feeling both transformed and transformational. Not bad, especially since half of them don't even realize that that was what they were doing.

So what do I write, other than I get why people are willing to pay for the tickets and know I will do it again? Heck, I seriously toyed with cutting out of work and driving to Atlanta to see them tonight!

How about this? Can the rest of you so-called evangelists hitting us over the head with Jesus and the Bible take a cue from these guys? No, you don't have to be incredibly talented and the biggest band in the world to spread the gospel. But you also don't have to guilt people, shame them, or bore them to death to make your point. What might help is if you showed some genuine joy and enthusiasm about how your relationship with Jesus is changing your life rather than just telling us about it with stern or angry looks on your face.

I know Bono and friends are Christians. Only an idiot has missed that piece of information by now. I can read their lyrics or hear Bono's speech at the National Prayer Breakfast. I recognize biblical quotes in the lyrics that show they really have read more of the Bible than a few pithy lines lifted from the Gospels. See where their money is going (e.g., carbon offsets for the eco-damage of the set). The thing that oozes out of them though is that there actually is some attempt to live as Christians going on here.

Are they perfect at it? Of course not. Could one argue that the extravagance of the rock star life is goes against the very idea? You could make that case, arguably. But then they have never set themselves up as model Christians. In fact, they do one of the evangelical no nos, which is to admit to their imperfections--without getting caught. (Have you listened to "I Still Haven't Found What I'm Looking For"? A great song about being believers but still struggling with what that means.)

More than anything, they present themselves as works in progress. They never claim to be saved; their salvation is being worked out, through the grace of God, every day in their lives; it's not some sort of static event.

Oddly enough a whole lot of people who will never enter our Churches are finding a lot in this that attracts them. If they got this same attitude from the Christians they meet, maybe they would be ready to explore faith with you. Too often, we ask, no, demand vulnerability from people joining the church ("Confess your sins!"), but show none of it in return, wearing the armor of salvation against the seekers as if they are the enemy.

Three years into this campus ministry business, I keep finding myself in a recurring conversation with students. It starts with a sentence like "I think I am called to ordination except I don't think the Church will accept some of my views. I think I am a heretic." What this usually means is that someone in their local parish (that is, some clergy or church school teacher) has manages to create a wonderful box for Jesus, and now the student is starting to see God outside of that box and getting afraid of the implicactions about what they thought they knew.

Now, if that is the message we are spreading to people feeling a spiritual pull towards God, what are the others getting? For the record, I have heard a few challenging statements, but only one that might even remotely qualify as heretical. You would be surprised at the relief these conversations offer to the students. People what are we doing??!!! No excommunications so far, much less burnings at the stake.

So, yes, I paid out my $100 for the show, and got no promises that my wealth would increase, my arthritis would be healed, or my soul mate would come to church next week and we would start a spiritually deep but chaste relationship. And for that money, I got a great musical show. And I also got an invitation to join something wonderful. For a couple of hours, I was able to go into my spiritual self, not pushed but given permission in the form of a very attractive invitation. And I did not have to pass the tests, learn the order of service, juggle the hymnals, or put fake contact information in the visitors book. Can your last visitors say the same thing?

And, yes, I'll do it again. And the left side of my brain will probably try to look at how they do it. But I'll bet the right side will take over and just let me experience the moment, rather than analyze it. Hope to see you there. And you will just have to live with the cheesy U2 quotes as updates on my Facebook page for awhile.