Tuesday, December 20, 2011

The Power of a Word of Thanks

On December 19th, I celebrated my 40th Anniversary of my ordination to the priesthood. That morning I opened my email and found a note of thanksgiving for my ministry. It came from Professor Louie Crew a long-time leader in the Episcopal Church, and an activist for the full inclusion of all people in our faith community. For many years now, like many Episcopal Clergy, I receive a note of encouragement from him on my birthday, my wedding anniversary, and my ordination anniversary. Here is the interesting thing about all this; Professor Crew and I have found ourselves on opposite sides of issues over the years, yet, every year I get words of encouragement from him. This intentional act on his part is more than I have ever received from any other church leader including the eleven Bishops in the seven dioceses that I have served.

I remember how such affirmations and encouragement have helped me over the years when I did get them. For example, one Christmas I opened a Christmas card from Bishop John Krum of Southern Ohio. I was a chaplain resident in Cincinnati and on Sunday provided supply services at one of his congregations, although I was not canonically resident in his diocese. The card had a printed greeting. On the inside he had hand written, “Thank you for helping with our congregation in Norwood. It means much to me.” At that point in my life when I would have doubted that the Bishop of that diocese even knew who I was, it meant a great deal. 30 years later, I still remember it! Even more significant was the fact that up to then, 10 years into ordained ministry, it was the only such personal note I had ever received from a Bishop.

Of course, I have received much encouragement over the years from many folks inside the Church. I felt well affirmed by Bishop Payne in Texas, but then I worked closely with him as a member of his staff. However, I worked closely with him and I am not sure the other clergy of the diocese felt the same. Actually, I think if we are honest about it that we clergy would have to admit that affirmation and encouragement from our leaders comes seldom and far between.

I say all this not to make any of you feel bad. I actually want like to affirm all you who give leadership in the Church. What I do want to say is that my 40 years of experience tells me that when it comes to affirmation and encouragement, there is a drought in the Church. What is strange about all this is that you would think Christian leaders would be people who especially were abundant in our praise and encouragement of others. I think of the example of St. Paul who began all his letters save one with a generous thanksgiving for the church he was writing, and ended most of his letters with acknowledgement of individuals in these local communities. After all, the great commission is to make disciples, but the great commandment is to love one another.

Personally, I would have to admit that I have been slow to figure out the importance of such words of affirmations. Today, when I look upon the revitalization of the Cathedral here in Dallas, a struggling, multi-cultural and bi-lingual inner city parish, I can most attribute our positive movement to a decision I make early on to affirm and love our folks, especially our leaders. I only regret that I haven’t done it more.

I think clergy leaders need to remind ourselves that the Church in our age is entirely a volunteer organization. Our people come, work, and give because they want to do this. They choose to do it in our congregations. We should be thankful for this and make our thanks known.

One of my dearest mentors told me that he kept a stack of Thank You cards on his desk in his office. He regularly scheduled a time each week when he would stop everything else and prayerfully write thank you cards to members of his large congregation. I admired what he did. I only wish I had followed his example better. I cannot help but wonder what a healthier and better community we would be if all our leaders could show much more encouragement and thanksgiving to others.

A few Sundays ago, one of our pre-school children came up to me after the main service and said, “Dean Kevin, can I give you a hug?” And even before I could say yes, she stepped forward and gave me one. “Yes,” I said to her, “even Deans need hugs.” To my surprise and delight, she smiled and said, “Yes, I know.”

Thursday, December 1, 2011

Headlines that We Would Like to See Versus

Headlines that We Would Like to See Versus Headlines We Will Probably See

Recently, I got to thinking recently about headlines that would be good to see versus those we will probably see in the days ahead.

We Would Like to See

Jerusalem, July 18, 2017: Prime Minister Martha Swartz announced today that a permanent peace agreement has been reached between Israel and the State of Palestine. In the agreement, both parties have agreed to keep Jerusalem a free city open to all visitors. Israel has agreed to cease expansion of new towns into the West Bank, and Palestinians have agreed to a peaceful recognition of Israel’s right to exist. “What were we thinking?” The Prime Minister said in her opening remarks before the Israeli Parliament . . .

We Will Probably See

Jerusalem, June 1, 2020: Israeli tanks rolled into Gaza early this morning as Israel launched a pre-emptive strike again Hamas to punish them for rocket fire against Israeli settlements. Prime Minister Netanyahu said “It is time Israel shows our determination to . . . . .

We Would Like to See

Karachi, Pakistan, March 15, 2015: Pakistani and Indian representatives announced a wide-sweeping peace agreement between these two long divided nations which includes disarmament of nuclear weapons by both sides. In a joint statement, the leaders declared, “Each of our nations have enough problems of poverty and poor education than to waste our time and energy building up huge armies and weapons in a battle that neither of us could win.” Military leaders from both countries hailed the . .

We Will Probably See

Mumbai, India, March 16th, 2019: India began retaliatory shelling across its disputed borders with Pakistan today in reacting to the recent alleged state sponsored terrorist attacks in the major cities of . . .

We Would Like to See

Kabul, Afghanistan, September 15, 2021: Free and democratic elections in this troubled state have led to the election of the first female Prime Minister. “This is a victory for reform and the rights of all the people of Afghanistan” said the new leader as she . . .

We Will Probably See

Kabul, Afghanistan, September 20, 2030: 87 year old President Hamid Karzai was re-elected today in an election marked with extensive fraud and violence. President Karzai now presides over one of the most corrupt governments in the world while three of the Provincial Capitals are now held by a resurgent Taliban. After the election, President Karzai committed himself to the on-going reform of his government and said that, “All our present troubles are directly the result of decisions by the U.S. government to . . .

What We Would Like to See

Oslo, January 20, 2030: World scientists acknowledged today that “We are seeing the beginning of the reversal of recent global warming as Nations adhere to the New Paris Accords on limiting CO2 gas emissions combined with the growing use of cold fusion energy developed in 2019 by a team of renowned international scientist at the Institute of . . . “

We Will Probably See

Miami, Florida January 20, 2030: The City of Miami was officially abandoned today after extensive efforts to hold back the affects of increased ocean waters failed. This makes the 7th major world city to be washed over due to the effects of global warming and the melting of the polar ice caps. Meanwhile, both the U.S. and China announced their planned veto of a U.N. backed resolution that called for a 3% reduction in . . .

Friday, November 11, 2011

In Remembrance of My Father, Glenn Martin

My favorite picture of my father was taken just after he entered the army in 1943. He was 18 years old, good looking, and oh so young just like so many of his generation. Next to this picture, my wife has placed his Purple Heart which he earned at the battle of the Bulge in a shelling in the Ardennes forest. Dad hit Normandy on D-day plus 6 with the 251st Artillery Division. He found through to the end of the war. He was truly one of the Greatest Generation.

He seldom talked about his war experiences. He never talked about his Purple Heart and when I first found it, he passed it off with “I was luckier than a lot of guys.” Recently, I learned of the many unit citations his group received. He was silent on all this. I do know that his best friend died the same night he was injured which is why I think he never talked about this.

Dad returned home to build a life after the war. When he could not break into the meat packers union in Cleveland, he packed up his young family and moved to Dallas. Here he taught himself to be a machinist eventually becoming a Master Machinist with Texas Instruments. After I entered the ministry, he admitted to me that he had hoped that I would become an engineer. He always let me know, however, how proud he was of me.

For many of my early years, he worked two jobs. I seldom spent time with him. Of course, this was before quality time and bonding. Truth is we really never connected until I was over 40. The older we both became, the better our relationship.

My dad never really wanted much to do with the Church even when my mother and I became quite active in the Episcopal Church. This was probably a reaction against the hell-fire and brimstone religion of his Southern Baptism mother. When our Rector found out that dad was a machinist, he asked dad to help him with the restoration of a pipe organ. They spend hours together in the evenings working on it. One day, to our amazement, dad announced he was going to church because he was going to be confirmed. He never missed a Sunday after that until illness prevented it. I found out recently that he often double dipped on Sundays taking communion from one of our LEMS at the Cathedral and then getting it from the Disciples of Christ folks at the nursing home.

My dad was, according to everyone including most recently his nursing home aids, “a good man who never complained.” He would have quite literally given someone the shirt off his back. He taught me to never regard someone’s income or race, and to be fair to all. He often ended conversations with “don’t worry about your mom and me, we will be alright.”

My dad never hired anyone to work in our home. He did everything and taught me to do so too. From him, I learned the dignity of hard work. It seemed every weekend as I child, I watched him doing repairs on something or improving our home.

Then when I turned 12, he took up golf. He took me with him, and this became the one really bonding experience between us. The last few years, our visits at the nursing home were punctuated by watching some tournament together. “Great shot,” he would often say. Last Christmas, a visiting church group asked “Mr. Glenn” what he would like. He asked for a new pair of golf shoes and to everyone’s amazement, they brought him a pair. He wore them regularly while being pushed around in his wheelchair.

After an emergency trip to Baylor Hospital last month, his doctor told me that he simply could not drink or eat enough to sustain himself any further. Reluctantly, we discontinued any further treatment, returned him to the nursing home to be close to mom, and we engaged hospice. While I had long expected this to come, I wept. My mom has no short-term memory and serious dementia. She does recognize “her honey” and he always smiled when she came into his room. They had a long love affair that lasted 67 years.

On November 6th, my dad passed from this world. I will miss him, but I am not worried, as he often told me, he will be alright.

Thursday, October 13, 2011

Extending Communion to All Present

There is serious debate taking place among Episcopalians about what is commonly called “Open Communion.” This means that we should invite all persons present at a Eucharist to receive communion even if they are (a) not baptized or (b) a member of a different faith community. I would like to suggest that our current discussion about communion might be moved to another level if we consider our present situation in light of, and contrast to, that of Bishop Cranmer’s.

Cranmer’s problem was definitely not ours. Nothing reveals this more than the fact that baptism was never a concern in the matter of the reception of the communion. He could assume that everyone in an Anglican Church, indeed the Nation, was baptized. His concern was whether the baptized were actually Christian. From his theological viewpoint he had many in the Church who were "sacramentalized," but not evangelized. They were at best “cultural Christians.”

We must all remember as members of a highly liturgical church that one of our most vulnerable areas is that liturgy, once it becomes familiar, can also dull our senses to what is actually happening. For Episcopalians the prophetic words that “these people honor me with their lips, but there hearts are very far from me” could have direct application to us.

In contrast to this, Cranmer made his invitation to confession – the prerequisite for receiving communion. Remember the words?

“Ye who do truly and earnestly repent of your sins, and are in love and charity with your neighbors, and intend to lead a new life, following the commandments of God, and walking from henceforth in his holy ways: Draw near with faith and make your humble confession to almighty God devoutly kneeling.”

Where is baptism in all this? Cranmer’s concern was that the baptized person look inwardly at one’s own heart and examines oneself as to our willingness and intention to receive the Lord’s Supper with a right attitude and disposition. Now, personally I am a Cranmerian when it comes to this issue.

Consequently, I think the emphasis on baptism leads us in the wrong direction. Mostly, what I hear now in Episcopal Churches, or read in the bulletin is something like this: “We welcome all baptized Christians (which should be “baptized persons”) who wish to receive communion to come forward and to the altar rail and join us.” I think all of us clergy rightfully avoid the awkward addition from the House of Bishops directive “who are able to receive communion in your own church.”

At the heart of my discomfort with all this wording in our attempt to be gracious and inviting is two-fold. First, our world is not one in which all are baptized. Even more importantly as the House of Bishops directive indicates, our emphasis at that moment becomes “membership” in a church. This is precisely what I think a seeker person hears from us. I think Cranmer would be astonished to discover that his descendents are more concerned with membership than attitude. Again, his theological perspective was largely one of the heart.

All this is made more complex by the fact that we now live in what is clearly both a post-Christendom world and a post-denominational culture. No wonder we are confused, life has gotten very complex. In the midst this complexity, we stubble over trying to be Episcopalian in welcoming and being inclusive toward others.

I would like to see our House of Bishops theological committee construct a brief paragraph that could be placed in our bulletins that expresses our theology, that all who are baptized are one. It also needs to express our pastoral reality that as a Eucharistic-centered community we welcome, in the Lord’s name, everyone who wishes a deeper participation in Christ and desire to follow him in his ways. This means that in our world we will inevitably have non-baptized seekers as well as non-Christians in our midst. Excluding those seekers from receiving communion may not be in our Lord’s best interest. Not clarifying the need for repentance and renewal may not be in their best interest whether they are seekers or members of our or some other church.

Sunday, September 4, 2011

Holy Women Holy Men Revisited

At General Convention in 2009, the church passed a large number of additions to Lesser Feasts and Fasts, our commemoration calendar.    Even though some of the names suggested met with serious objections, the resolution passed overwhelmingly.  On June 30th, the year trial usage ended, although the resource will continue to be used with its passage in 2012 nearly assured.  I voted against it, and the more that I have thought about this, the stronger I feel about this issue. 

Until recently, the Church’s commemoration calendar has been a slowly evolving item.  It took time for a consensus to emerge for a particular person to be added to the commemorations of the whole church.  Take the failed efforts of some quite well-meaning church members to place King Charles the alleged martyr to our corporate prayers. 

Then the Standing Liturgical Commission came up with a long list of new names for us to remember.  Intuitively, my radar when up.  Here is what I concluded.  Only a church led by baby-boomers would be audacious and self-centered enough to believe that we are entitled to add to our commemorations so many people at one time.  Past generations exercised restrain and modesty in adding people (and removing them.) 

As a boomer, I have known for some time that my generation believes itself the most enlighten that has ever lived on the planet.  I would contend that Holy Women, Holy Men says more about our generation than the people we intend to honor.  It has been said that tradition is the living vote of those who have gone before us.  Most boomers consider those who have gone before us as not worthy of a vote.  No wonder we find such blatant inflation of the list by those believing ourselves most worthy of choosing. 

In addition, the criterion seemed to be one of the ever invasive “inclusiveness” that now dominates the thinking of current church leaders.  Not only are many of these persons not Christians, but several were openly hostile to the Christian Church.  Why should we commemorate them?  No other organization would make its honor roll of those who wished their own organization cease to exist. This is not a list of “Holy” women or men.  Holiness in any classical sense of the term was never a serious criterion.  The better title should have been “Women and Men of Good Intentions and Deeds.”  

The historic commemorations include people who were saints in the very sense of the word.  They are martyrs, witnesses and servants of extraordinary sacrifice.  When we think of Francis, or Anthony, or Hilda, or Constance, we are thinking of people through whom the light of Christ, their savior, shone brightly. They did not just do good things that should be appreciated by other humans.  They led holy lives that pointed to something, or rather someone, beyond themselves.  

Lastly, I would point to the consequence of this sudden inflation of names.  In a very real sense, the saints are the most valuable commodity of God’s reign on earth in every generation.  They are the examples that point all of us to a further life of service and holiness in God’s Kingdom, as the old hymn says, “And I want to be one too.”  They tell us, to paraphrase G. K. Chesterton, that Christianity has not been tried and found wanting, it has been found hard and therefore not tried.  The saints and those we commemorate in the old Lesser Feasts and Fasts, give us a glimpse of what can happen if Christianity, true discipleship, is found hard yet lived.  These folks are in a very real sense the currency of the Kingdom.  As we all know, when a nation or community decides to simply print more currency, it does no spread the wealth.  The consequence is exactly the opposite, it devalues the currency. 

This is my most serious objection to the well-intended Holy Women, Holy Men.  Its consequence is not to inspire the kind of holiness of life that our former commemorations did for us.  Its true consequence is to make the term holy almost meaningless. 

I draw one last consolation in all this.  History has taught me that a future generation, perhaps not very long from now, will simply look at our actions in this matter and ask, “Who did these people think they were?”  That may be the most important question raised by this action.  Not who were these people we added in so great a number, but who were we to act in such a self-centered and self-absorbed way?    They will only need to look at how few saints our generation has produced to grasp the answer.  

Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Tiger's Achilles Heel

Actually, as it turns out, Tiger Woods’ Achilles heel is not his heel, but his knee. He has had four surgeries to repair damage done to his left knee because at impact in his 120 mile an hour swing, he violently kicks his left knee strait. This means his left knee has to absorb the full impact of his champion swing. What does all this have to say about congregational leadership? It says a lot if you stay with me.

In Tiger’s own book on the golf swing, he describes this “violent kick” as a distinctive part of his way of doing things. Of course, today sports physiologists shake their heads at what he does and the damage it has caused him, but my point is that he told us 10 years ago his rationalization for doing so. It is a unique characteristic of his swing. Despite three well publicized coaching changes, he still repeats this action. As Lee Trevino said recently, “Either he will stop doing this, or his career is over.”

Often, I have found clergy leaders, even very outstanding leaders, who have a unique habit (dare I say flaw?) that they justify as simply part of their individual style. In other words, they view, what is really a fault, as a strength. For example, I remember a Bishop with a notoriously bad temper who explained to me that “When I am mad at one of my clergy, I sure let them know it It clears the air, and afterward it is over and done as far as I am concerned.” Of course, it wasn’t over and done as far as many of the clergy on the receptive side of the interchange were concerned, but my main point is that this leader saw such behavior as a unique part of his own style that was beneficial in some way.

I also remember a vestry person in my first congregation that would regularly tell me her frank opinion about most church issues. She would fire off a broadside followed by her comment that “You may not like it, but you always know where I stand.” I can tell you that her husband, her children, and her employees also always knew where she stood, and most had long since stopped caring.

In the long run, such justifications are just that, justifications. They are used to rationalize behavior that one should change, but many leaders use their strengths to justify such things as a virtuous part of their personal style. I know that I have done this. I am a mild introvert on the Myers-Briggs personality index. One day a clergy friend pointed out to me (painfully, I might add) that I sometimes used this as an excuse for not more positively engaging people on Sunday mornings. At first, I thought my friend was unkind for saying so, and that he did not really “understand me.” After time, I came to realize that I was using my introversion as a justification for not carrying out one of my primary jobs of as a leader, namely, showing people that I genuinely care about them. I cannot say it was easy to change this behavior. I would say that realizing that it was a problem, and that I needed to address it, rather than justify it as a part of who I was, became an important step in learning to be a more effective leader.

Let’s face it, personal insight and commitment to change is hard. God grant it to us, and God give us also truthful friends who care enough to give us such feedback. Recently, a colleague shared with me a remarkable book about just such issues. It is Overcoming the Dark Side of Leadership: How to become an Effective Leader by Confronting Potential Failures by Gary McIntosh and Samuel Rima. If you are a leader committed to growing as a leader, you may want make this part of your summer reading.

Thursday, May 26, 2011

Forgive me Oprah, I Have Sinned

Yesterday, as the whole world knows, was Oprah’s last show after 25 years. After all the hype, she effectively stood on stage by herself and urged all her audience and millions of viewers to essentially find their passion and make a difference in their world.

For years, folks have laughed and cried with her while identifying with her personal struggles and many triumphs. She is one of the richest people in America, and without a doubt, one of the most influential. She has used this influence to help elect a President, help people discover the joys of good reading, and provided hope and comfort to millions suffering from all kinds of afflictions and addictions. It is probably fair to say that Oprah and her therapeutic spirituality have a greater audience then any religious leader in our culture. She is loved and respected by Protestants, Catholics, Jews, Muslims and millions of seekers.

I acknowledge this openly, although I have a confession to go with this. My first year at the Cathedral, I made an offhanded and denigrating remark about Oprah. One good lady here took me to task afterward for speaking despairingly about a woman who had helped millions of individuals and especially millions of women find their voice. As I reflected on her comments, I had to admit I had taken a cheap shot.

Not that Oprah is perfect by any means. In fact, it is her imperfections that are part of the power of her influence. How many over-weight folks have watched her many programs on losing weight and exercise, only to be comforted later by her weight gain – “see, she can hope, try and even fail, just like the rest of us.” My personal gripe with her was a series of remarks she make about the impossibility of people remaining in long-term marriages these days. She explained that life-long marriage was an idea created by folks living in a world where the average age was 25. Good point, but what she omitted, and is omitted by everyone who speaks popularly on this topic, is that most first time marriages, the vast majority, remain long-term commitments.

More importantly, I had to reflect in all this about “where” I was coming from that morning in the pulpit. I concluded that I had unconsciously betrayed one of the foremost biases of Episcopal clergy. I was, of course, being elitist. It was precisely her popularity that bothered me. Not that I begrudge an African-American woman getting a piece of the American pie. It was that she had gotten a large piece of the popular American pie. Forgive me Oprah, I had sinned.

One of the reasons that Episcopalians are becoming such a rapidly extinct species is precise what I showed that day. We are, generally speaking, deeply out of touch with common people and their needs, hopes and aspirations. Oprah is not. Oprah got constant feedback on this and it is called “ratings.” Ours is slower, but it is called “attendance.” As the ratings war goes, we are losing.

Many think we are losing because we use the wrong music style. Others, such as our own Presiding Bishop, think we have grown old and do not reproduce in significant numbers. Dissenters think we have all plunged down the slippery slope of liberalism and moral relativism. I think it is deeper.

Jesus came to the earth, lived among ordinary people, and preached the Kingdom (or reign) of God using illustrations taken from everyday life. Most Episcopal leaders that I know live in the realm of esoteric ideas, cast out theological concepts that are too complicated, and offer preaching and teaching that has almost no “take home application” at all. If you believe us, what would you do? I once heard a prominent Episcopal leader say that “application in a sermon is trivial.” Guess we can tell you what to think, but do not ask us to tell you how to live.

We might all take a lesson from Oprah. Want to help our people and at least keep the folks we have?  Then, come down from heaven and live on the earth with the rest of the folks. Jesus did.

Thursday, May 5, 2011

Clergy and Marriage

One of my pet peeves in life is the fact that more and more Episcopalians, even clergy, are taking a Roman Catholic view of the sacraments rather than an Anglican one. I saw this as candidates before the Standing Committee in Dallas would explain their view of the Eucharist. I wonder if this is not part of the current debate about so-called “open communion.” If one believes that the Eucharist will benefit a person no matter what their own personal spiritual situation, then by all means go into the local market and give it to everyone.

Another area is that of marriage, and this is most illustrated regarding married clergy. I find that most Episcopalians that I know view married clergy from a Roman perspective. What I mean is that Episcopalians see our clergy as Roman priests who are allowed to have a live in companion. This is ok as long as we spend 50 to 60 hours a week attending to parishioners and their needs. Yes, Episcopal leaders will often acknowledge how hard being a Priest is on one’s family, and there is the problem.

Let me be absolutely clear about this. My being married and my marriage to Sharon is central to my vocation as a priest. If I am to be the shepherd that I am supposed to be for the people of the congregation, this flows out of my vocation as a husband (and a father.) Being married is not something that I am allowed to do in addition to being a priest.

If I have any regrets about being ordained, the main one has to do with my relationship with my sons. I wish that when I was younger that I had given them more quality time. I was off overworking in parishes and I justified this by saying that I was trying to be a good parish priest. In the Anglican view, as I give myself to my family, I am giving myself to my vocation. It was a wise older priest who taught me this hard lesson.

I remember an incident in the Diocese of Texas that deeply troubled me. One young clergy family was faced with a major medical crisis with their son. This demanded them spending many hours at the hospital and in therapy helping. After a while, the Vestry asked the Bishop to remove the clergy. “After all,” they argued, “We brought him here to minister to us and not his family!” It never occurred to them that God had brought that particular family to them for their opportunity to offer ministry. When the Bishop heard this, he shook his head and said, “They just don’t get it.” They never did either and eventually forcing him to resign.

Having said this let me ask how clergy are to model the Christian vocation of marriage if we do not get this ourselves? One of the critical issues in our success driven meritocracy is that men and women are consistently asked to sacrifice their marriages and family at the altar of success. Christians should be a counter-culture to this and it could start with our attitude toward our clergy.

Friday, April 22, 2011

Good Friday and Earth Day

Today is both Good Friday and Earth Day. While my religious sentiments leave me believing that it would have been better to postpone Earth Day a week, secular folks would no doubt point out that it is not Earth Day that is a movable festival. And it does seem appropriate in some ways that the two are connected.

Some of us would like to point out that we are doing to the Earth what others once did to the Son of Man, Jesus of Nazareth, namely, we are crucifying it. Dean Morton, the former Dean of St. John the Divine, who shocked a whole generation of pious Christians by placing a female figure on a Crucifix, suggested once that his next feat would be to place a wolf on one. I do not know if he ever made good on this threat. Provocative as this may sound, he had a point.

The same passions that once led a jerrying mob and their paranoid leaders to put Jesus on a cross stand behind the catastrophic destruction of nature that is happening in our modern world, and this is selfishness. We cannot collectively save the rain forests, or the whales, or the water we drink, or the air we breathe because it would inconvenience many and cause others to lose money. We are frequently warned by sane and reasonable people that we should think of what radical environmental action would do to our Gross National Product. Like Pilot, we know what the right decision and just action must be, but for expediency, we surrender our planet over to mindless destruction. In this sense, the connection of the two days seems theological justifiable, but this is far enough down that road.

Unlike the events of Good Friday, the current crucifixion of the environment has a limited comparison. For example, there is no resurrection for the environment from our willfulness, neither does its death redeem anyone. Originally, the celebration of Earth Day was a naturalist or, as some would deridingly say, tree-hugger event. But of late, many mainline clergy have taken up the cause. Having been an Episcopal Priest for nearly 40 years, I am tempted to dismiss this as one more faddish attempt of upper-class religious types to find some purpose or cause relevant to our world. God knows they have long ago abandoned the idea that the original crucifixion has relevance. They now join Professor Bork in believing Jesus’ death (if it really happened) was a tragic accident that had no atonement significance except in the minds of his early deluded followers. On this point, however, I confess my jadedness. I have lived too long with my numerous high-church Universalists colleagues to take much of any of their new theological innovations too seriously.

I say let Good Friday, and Passover for that matter, stand alone. I would suggest to those who do care passionately about our Earth that the two religious events help us to understand why the polar ice cap is melting, polar bears are dying off, and plastic bottles are gathering in cataclysmic numbers in the oceans. The point is this, human beings are flawed and we are weak. Even when it is in our own best interests, we are too flawed to act. We are, in the truest biblical sense, sinners in need of redemption, and we are not able to save ourselves. Neither should we naively look to science to save us either.

The only answer, as classical Judaism and Christianity offer, is conversion. We do not need awareness and urging to take some simple steps to reduce our global footprint and practice being green. We need a moral revival and a corporate and communal change of heart. Christians can start by shouting that this is not our world and that the Earth does not belong to us. It is God’s, and we are but stewards whose vocation is to pass off a healthier and better world to our children’s children. To fail in our vocation corporately (my buying a hybrid is not enough) as stewards of this planet is open rebellion to God and God’s inevitable judgment will, and is, falling upon us. We need to see that our rebellion and selfishness causes the Earth to suffer even to the point of death. In other words, good intentions will not do what we need. The path to conversion begins in this area, as in all areas, on the road of repentance.

We need the passion story and we need it first or we will never be able to summon the communal will and the moral courage to alter the path that is leading us to immense suffering, pain and death, not just for the planet, but for us. You may not agree with me that this is God’s world, but I think you can agree with me that Earth does not “belong” to us, we belong to her, “this island earth our home.”

Thursday, April 7, 2011

The Acts of Love Campaign

As I have coached Congregational leaders about stewardship, a frequent question is; what about time and talents? I always give them a few pieces of advice:

1. Separated it from the financial appeal. This only diffuses the focus on financial stewardship. Financial support for congregations is difficult enough without diffusing the energy around three different things at one time.

2. Never offer an area of ministry that is not available or is screened by an uncooperative gatekeeper. When people fill out a sheet that contains the various ministries of the congregation, and they indicate an area of interest, that area needs to be available. For example, a smaller congregation list for time and talents lay reader. However, the church already has seven lay readers, and adding more lay readers will only mean less opportunity to read. This de-motivates the leader of the lay readers from adding the person.

3. Always follow up. This is closely related to the above. A common complaint from many people is that they volunteered for something and no one followed up. When a person experiences this, they are less likely to volunteer in the future.

In recent years, I've been challenged by the need to get people to sign up for areas of ministry. Like many of you, I have put announcements in the bulletin and in the newsletter with little or no response. Part of this can be explained by the high demand on people's volunteer time. Recently, I gained some new insights into the difficulty of recruiting people for ministry, especially younger people.

First, I was reminded that for those under 50 years of age, membership in an organization is not a destination. In the book titles “Bowling Alone” the sociologist author contends that many more people are participating in activities but refusing to join organizations.

Second, the younger people are, the more they want to make a difference, a hands on difference.

The combination of these two insights led me to create for the Cathedral The Acts of Love Campaign. Here are the steps I followed in creating and executing this campaign:

1. I ask all my leaders to develop a one sentence description of what a person does in their area of ministry. (It was amazing to see that some leaders were not able to do this.)We prioritized the list to one page. This allowed for 15 to 20 items.

2. We balanced these between internal ministries (benefiting current members) and external ministries (reaching those outside the congregation.)

3. We communicated the purpose of the acts of love campaign based on the theology of tithing; giving 10% of one's time and talents.

4. To the left of each item listed, we had one box that indicated an interest in a new area of ministry, and a second box that indicated continuing in an area of ministry.

5. I set a goal of having 25 to 50 new commitments. We created a thermometer of new commitments and continuing commitments to place in the entrance to our parish hall.

6. We mailed the sheet to everyone in the congregation along with a reminder sheet that they could keep for their own benefit.

7. We followed this for one month reminding people to make their commitments, providing additional sheets to those who needed them, and placing sheets at the front and side entrance to the Cathedral.

8. We had a staff member follow-up all new commitments by communicating to the leader of that area of ministry the contact information on those who had indicated an interest.

9. We followed up with leaders to be sure that they had contacted the person and invited them to participate.

The next time I do this campaign, I intend to incorporate short testimonies from volunteers in various areas into our Sunday liturgy. I also plan to track these commitments, particularly the new commitments, to see which areas of ministry are of most interest, and which are not. I hope by doing this to find out something about our people’s passions. As of today we have had 114 new commitments and 116 continuing commitments. Amazing!

Thursday, February 24, 2011

Speaking as an Independent

What the Media and the Tea Party Get Wrong

I can speak with some authority on this topic even though many people do not like clergy giving commentary on politics. My authority comes from the fact that I have been a part of choosing the past several presidents and determining the make-up of congress. How can I make this bold claim, because I am an independent voter, you know, one of about 20% of the population that carries the swing vote in our country.

For example, I could have told Democrats why John Kerry would lose the election against George Bush when many of both parties thought the odds were on his side. I would like to point out that nobody asked me, but the bottom line would have been “show me that you can have a better plan than Mr. Bush in how to handle Iraq and Afghanistan and you have me vote.” He did not, and they did not, so I voted to stay the course even though I was not happy with the course.

Since the last election, the Tea Party folks who have a vested interest in convincing us that they are the way of the future, and the media, who should do a better job of asking “us” have tended to come to the wrong conclusions. Here is their message. In the last election, the voters have reacted to the spent thrift polices of the Democrats, panicked over the health care reform, and have converted to fiscal conservatives who now want, more than anything else, less government, less taxes and a balanced budget. This is why we will have to vote the rascals out in the next election, and prove again that many in the media simply do not get it. Further, I will predict that if Republicans in general make this their cause in the next election, President Obama is assured of a second term.

If they had asked, here is what I (and lots of independents) would have wanted them to know.

1. We are disappointed with the Democrats. They had a majority in both Houses and the Presidency and yet were unable to give clear direction for the future and to bring about the kind of creative change that the President promised. Do the words “immigration” and “Afghanistan” have meaning here?

2. The President spent one year working to reform health care. What we got was some good, and a typical governmental action that is completely incomprehensible to an ordinary citizen. Does the phrase Tax Code clarify what I mean? Hence. I wanted a course correction.

3. There is an almost a 10% unemployment rate in our country. I know many affected by this. Jobs and the economy are my primary concern. I lost confidence in believing those in power in Washington (read Democrats) were doing anything constructive about unemployment.

4. I am concerned about a growing deficit for my children and grandchildren. I believe this deficit is the price for fighting two wars without raising taxes to pay for them. I am willing to pay the price for good government and things to improve our collective life. I do not want to pay for an endless war in Afghanistan especially by funding a corrupt bunch of politicians stealing the money mean to improve the welfare of their country.

5. I do not think government is too big or too costly. I do believe that being big it wastes money and this should be under constant review. Along with this, I am offended by so called “ear marks” except when they benefit North Texas. (Hey, I did not say independents are always reasonable.)

If I am right, and I am, at least about most independents. Those who promote the idea that the Tea Party, balanced budgets at any cost, and the reversal of the Health Care Bill are our top priorities (along with stopping President Obama from serving a second term) are wrong. They have interpreted what we meant as a “course correction” for a revolution. They are listening only to the strident voices. If this leads to shutting down the government, pursuing a balanced budget to the determent of our economy and employment, and counting our votes as the wave of a Tea Party future, they will receive a shellacking in the next election. They, Republicans and Democrats both, should have asked. The media should be asking now.

Tuesday, January 4, 2011

Happy Holidays, Bah, Humbug!

During the recent Holiday Season, our brothers and sisters in Christ down the road from the Cathedral at First Baptist in Dallas stirred up some controversy over greetings during Christmas. You may have heard about it. Upset that more and more businesses were using the more politically correct “Happy Holidays” as opposed to the more traditional “Merry Christmas,” the pastor at First Baptist decided to take action. The Church produced on the website a list of the “Bah Humbug Businesses” that used the generic Happy Holiday greeting. They also listed businesses that used the clearer Christian Merry Christmas. They left it up to their members to decide who to patronize, godless materialists, or, well, you get the point.

This action generated the kind of heated discussion that one could predict with all sorts of people chiming in on whether it was appropriate to take such an action. The argument from First Baptist’s perspective seemed to be one of witness, “Jesus is the reason for the season,” and of evangelism, there may be some out there who don’t know that Jesus is the reason for the season.
What I found interesting was in a completely different direction.

My grandmother was a Baptist and my earliest exposure to the Christianity was in a Baptist Church thanks to her. Back in those days, as my Grandmother carefully explained to me, Baptists didn’t celebrate December 25th as a special day, neither did they go around bubbling “Merry Christmas.” A little knowledge of History goes a long way in expressing why this was so.

Baptist historically believed, as did most Calvinist, that the tradition of celebrating Christmas on December 25th was a Catholic late innovation that is not justifiable on the basis of Scripture. It should go without saying that nowhere in the Bible is December 25th mentioned as the date of Jesus’ birth. In the reforms generated out of Geneva in the 17th Century, Protestants tried to reform the Church basing all teaching and corporate life “solo scriptura” on the scriptures alone as the authority.

The Calvinist folks in the Church of England were called “Puritans” because they wished to purify the Church from such papal and medieval trappings. Puritans attempted to change the Church from within, but when Anglicans decided to retain certain traditions which seemed godly if not directly provable by scripture, many puritans became disenchanted. In the 1640s, they lead a revolt, indeed a civil war, that led to the execution of the English King. He was replaced by Oliver Cromwell as Lord Protector of England. The puritan revolt was also a strongly democratic revolt, but Oliver soon imposed a dictatorial rule over England. It can be argued that England as an Empire with its world dominating navy began under his rule. Under his rule, the Puritan clergy and perspective was given free reign. And one of their first acts was to eliminate and forbid the practice of Christmas. No government officer or official could go around with Merry Christmas on his lips unless he be boiled in his own pudding and have a holly sprig stuck in his heart. Christmas did survive, but mainly among the peasants and poorest of the nation. The civil celebration of Christmas, indeed the very use of the term “Christmas” was eliminated from public life.

They did have a point. The word Christmas, after all, comes from the two words “Christ’s Mass.” Well, with Cromwell’s death, and the brooding negativity and joylessness of Puritans having dominated all life, the English Parliament restored both King and English Church along with all of its elaborate celebrations including Christmas.

Puritans and their descendants including Southern Baptists, however, never relented of their position that Christmas was both papal and even pagan in its origins. Hence, here is the origin of my Grandmother’s position, and the position of most Baptists till about 30 years ago.
Then a historically counter-intuitive thing started to happen. Many younger Baptist clergy noticed that Christmas was still around and, even in its highly commercialized existence, it created an evangelistic opportunity. Consequently, they began holding Christmas Eve services, having living Christmas trees singing carols, and some even instituted pageants retelling the Luke account of the Birth of Jesus, yes with manger, donkeys and all. After all, as the argument went, people might be wrongheaded about Christmas, sentimental to a fault, and Christmas might be commercial to a sinful degree, but people do think about Christmas, celebrate it, so why not squeeze juice out of this lemon and make some evangelistic lemonade? Personally, I think their spiritual mothers and fathers would be stunned by this action which is, after all, a betrayal of all they once fought for. But, hey, I am not a Calvinist and it is not mine to say.

This recent development, however, brings us back to our friends down the street. My question is not whether taking on political correctness was the thing to do. My question is how far they have compromised their own tradition. Now, ironically, First Baptist has become the defenders of saying “Merry Christmas,” by which we commend one another to the celebration of Christ’s Mass on December 25th.

Of course, some of you will want to say that as an Episcopalian I am only mad because Baptists are trying to steal our franchise, and you might be right. However, I still think it worthwhile to point out the ironic contradiction in their actions. There is also something more.

I am happy having folks say Happy Holidays to one another and don’t feel it my duty as a Christian pastor to correct them when they do. There are two reasons for this. First, there are other Holy Days for other religions during this time of year, and I am not comfortable with any group of Christians believing we have the right to force our particular celebration upon non-Christians. Second, there is enough soberness, humbug and mean-spiritedness in our world today. If there is a time of the year when even atheist can join in “Happy Holidays,” and we can join with them in providing toys for needed Children and clothes to keep them warm, then I think the world a bit brighter place for it. After all, isn’t the bottom line of all this that “the light has shined in the darkness and the darkness has not overcome it?” I think this attitude more in the gracious spirit of the person whose birth we Christians remember at this season of the year.

Feliz Navidad,
Dean Kevin