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.