Catholicity and Culture

The Good Shepherd in Baltimore

Jesus said, “I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep. The hired hand, who is not the shepherd and does not own the sheep, sees the wolf coming and leaves the sheep and runs away– and the wolf snatches them and scatters them. The hired hand runs away because a hired hand does not care for the sheep. I am the good shepherd. … And I lay down my life for the sheep. … For this reason the Father loves me, because I lay down my life in order to take it up again.  (John 10:11-18. Excerpted.)

The Story of the Good Shepherd is a story about value. Its power is in its contrasts. The Good Shepherd lays down his life for his sheep. The hired hand runs.

We should get that. Our culture assigns value to us every day of our lives. We call it a market. My labor is worth this much. My time is worth this much. Only rarely do we get to say how much that worth is.

It makes sense that we, who spend so much of our lives doing unconscious cost-benefit analysis, identify with the hired hands. There’s a point at which the stakes become too high. The wolves circle around, and we shout that “I don’t get paid enough for this shit!” and walk.

We all would even agree that a sensible shepherd would cut his losses and run. Wolves don’t come alone. A hungry pack is more than enough to overpower one shepherd. It’s a fight that usually can’t be won. The wolves will probably only take a couple of sheep, and the vulnerable ones at that. Some losses can be incurred.

But that’s not the Good Shepherd. For the Good Shepherd to lay down his life for his sheep, he must know that the sheep are worth it. For the True God from True God to lay down his life for us, his sheep, that means that we all have beyond-infinite value.

God values us enough to give up Godself to the powers of sin and death, and in doing so overcomes sin and death.

So when God in Christ tells us to love one another as he loved us, he is telling us to make that same call.

God is commanding us to stop acting like hired hands. God is commanding us to stop letting markets dictate our decisions about one another. God is commanding us to lay down our lives for our brothers and sisters so that we can take it up again.

Any value judgement that we make about any other person based on any premise other than this is a lie. And yet we lie all the time.

We’ve lied so much that our cities are full of people who feel like the only way they can claim their value is in violence. If their value is determined by what they have, or what they do, when they have for so long had nothing, and been told that they can do nothing, the why are we surprised that one day those lies lash out? Why are we surprised that those lies come back to the things that we value, the things that we have, the things that we do?

The language of the riot is a language that is learned. It’s a language that we’ve taught.

Until we step into the midst of the wolves and call out the lie, the lie that we have handed down to these communities since we brought them here on boats and told them they were animals, then we continue to speak a language that will twist itself into the next riot.

More young black men will die.

More young black men will riot.

Then we’ll turn back to those young black men and say “See. This is why we kill you.”

That’s the exchange that always has been. That’s the exchange we’re wrestling with now. White property. Black lives. A Church that cannot live into the example of the Good Shepherd and stop that exchange of misplaced value, is a Church that cannot live into the commandments that Christ has given us. And if we can’t go to the world and say that every human being is of infinite value without any caveats, then I really wonder if we are living into our baptisms at all.

When the Risen Lord met Peter and the Disciples on the beach and told Peter to care for his sheep, I’m inclined to believe he meant it. If we’re going to claim to carry on the lineage of St. Peter, then I’m inclined to believe that he meant that for us too.

They’re lighting fires in Baltimore to tell us how much hurt is there.

So let’s care for his sheep. 

Parish Life

The Church is Dying. Long Live the Church.

I’ve had it about up to here with the endless articles and forums talking about why the Church in the West is in decline. And its not because they’re wrong. We’re losing numbers. We’re losing money. We’re losing parishes. The outlook isn’t great for our denominational structures right now. And nothing that we’re doing in response to this makes any sense.

We’ve got Joseph over our shoulder telling us about lean years ahead, and we’re calling committees about whether or not we should maybe build some silos.

This way of being isn’t just the Church’s problem. I’m really concerned that we in the West are losing the capacity for making strategic sacrifices in the short term for the sake of our collective long term health. Our inaction around Climate Change is case in point, but its not the only example. The Great Recession, infrastructure backlogs, even Congressional deadlock are all symptoms of the same underlying issue.

We’re hamstrung by self-interest. And why wouldn’t we be? A good number of people are making a good bit of money off of the way things are. Even in the Church. We are more willing than ever to fork over big numbers for Church growth gurus, “dynamic” clergy, and pre-packaged programming. Whether they know it or not, and I’m sure most of them don’t, a good number of the leaders in our Church are profiting from our collective fear of decline. And we’re more than happy to let them.

Lessons from the Middle of a Hurricane.

I used to spend a lot of time in Southern California. When folks out there heard I was from Florida they would always ask about how scary the weather was. Didn’t Hurricanes make me nervous? All those high winds and storm surges… I never really understood the question. These people who are more than happy to tell me that earthquakes are “no big deal” are worried about Hurricanes?

Earthquakes can happen anytime, and without warning. You get to see a hurricane coming for weeks. You even get to know about how strong that hurricane is going to be, and have more than enough time to respond appropriately. If you didn’t board your windows when a cat 4 was coming through, that was your fault. (There are exceptions, like Katrina and Andrew. Although most of the damage from Katrina can be blamed on poor preparation and differed maintenance on the part of the Army Corp of Engineers and the City of New Orleans.)

Hell, once we got the windows boarded and the lawn furniture inside we threw parties. We rested well knowing that we were prepared. So we poured a few drinks, and waited for the storm to blow in.

Eventually you get so good at the process that it only takes a few hours. The boards are pre-cut. The generator’s oil is fresh and the fuel is treated. The hurricane kit is stocked and ready to go. It becomes a way of being. Just a fact of living in a sub-tropical climate.

A New Way of Being Means a New Way of Doing. 

So the storm is coming. We can all see it coming. We can see it’s going to be pretty bad… We can either make preparing for the storm a way of being now, or we can open up the windows and leave the lawn darts out.

Here are a few places where I think we can start preparing in earnest: (And I’m going to be painfully practical about it.)

1.) Stop spending down the principal on our endowments. 

If we don’t touch that money it will last forever. Take the earnings and spend it with impunity, but every time that principal takes a hit, that money is really difficult to get back. Our endowments are the hold over of giving habits that just don’t exist anymore. I sincerely doubt they will exist again. My generation is making less money than our parents did. We have more debt. We give substantially less. That money may be the only reason the doors stay open a few decades from now.

2.) Build for ease of maintenance and longevity.

Buildings are money-pits par excellence. (I know, I’ve got one.) Time and time again I’ve seen people make decisions about building and maintaining churches that they would not make for their own homes. There are a number of exciting new materials on the shelves at home depot that are a lot easier to care for, and that last a lot longer than their predecessors. Yes, they come at a premium, and they tend to not be as pretty as the alternatives. But when your parish has a steel roof that’s held strong for 30 years, they will be praising your prowess and forward-thinking, instead of cursing their need to re-shingle yet again.

3.) Clergy, we’ve got to get serious about restructuring our compensation.

This is a post unto itself… All I can say now is this; We can either get proactive and work to restructure our compensation on our terms, or we can hold on tighter and tighter to what we have until it gets restructured for us. We can’t sit up and say that we’re willing to lead the Church into a new way of being when we’re insistent on getting paid the same way we have since the 1940’s.

All Growth is Local.

You’ll notice that none of these suggestions are addressed at General Convention, or even at Diocesan bodies, and that’s for a reason. Whatever we do to restructure the Church for the future is going to have to happen at the Parish level. This one is on us. Its on Parish clergy. Its on Vestries. Its on Lay leaders. We’ve got to become counter-cultural pockets of active hope that are sure in the Truth we live on, and are willing to make the hard calls to preserve our mission into the years to come. This isn’t just about maintaining an institution. It’s about making sure that the people who come after us have a better set of tools to serve the world than our predecessors gave us.

There’s a lot to all of this. And its worth spilling the ink. But for the love of God, please stop telling me that the Church is dying, and let’s start talking about how we should live.

Anglo-Catholicism, Catholicity and Culture, Priestcraft

Catholicty and Culture: We Never Say Mass in a Vacuum.

I am the Rector of a black parish that self-identifies as Anglo-Catholic.They greatly prefer music out of Lift Every Voice and Sing. They are vocal in response to my sermons. They play Gospel pandora stations when they’re hanging out in the Sunday School rooms. It confused me.

I really struggled with the question “Is this an Anglo-Catholic Parish?” or is this just one of those “That word. I do not think it means what you think it means.” moments? But the more I talked with my parishioners, the more I got to know exactly what they believed and held dear about the Church and the Sacraments, the more I became convinced that they had their identity right. They knew what meant, and they meant what they said.

The identity issue was my issue. Before I got here the Catholic revival and Euro-centrism were inexplicably tied in my mind. A high expression of Anglicanism meant a high expression of Anglophilia. Instead of hinging my hope on Catholic truth, I had hung my identity on an aesthetic, and a remarkably culturally-specific aesthetic at that.  I had fallen squarely into the trap that I worry many of my young Anglo-Catholic colleagues have fallen into as well.

So for the sake of charity, and for the sake of the expression of the Catholic faith that we know and love so well, let me be clear; We are in danger of making the Anglo-Catholic revival a white man’s movement.

It’s going to take some real introspection, prayer, and effort to keep that from being the case. Anglicanism in general is no longer a white movement. Even if we limit ourselves to the Episcopal Church a recent report shows that black and multi-cultural congregations are growing at a rate that substantially outpaces their white counterparts. (Check the report here.)

I’m not saying that growth is unequivocally good. What I am saying is that our Church is changing in its cultural composition at what is arguably the fastest pace since Reconstruction, and if we’re going to be a viable, meaningful witness to a Catholic vision of the Church then we have to do some work in ourselves and check when our aesthetic is getting in the way of that witness.

Let Adiaphora be Adiaphora.

I will be the first to say that part of taking Church seriously is taking worship seriously. A liturgy that doesn’t act like the Blessed Sacrament is the center of our life and work is not worth anyone’s time, and it doesn’t serve any purpose other than to prop up a lifeless Christianity that is well on its way to irrelevancy. Worship that centers on Christ’s presence with us, that draws us into the mystery of the Altar and the holiness of God is worship that is worthy of our apostolic heritage.

There are things that are essential to that worship, and I’m inclined to believe that the list of essentials is longer than most folks in the broad church movement think it is, but that list is not all-encompassing.

I love a good Candlemas service as much as the next guy. It’s a beautiful, meaningful service that celebrates Christ’s light continuing to break into the world and into our lives. It is Anglican tradition at its finest. But if you’re serving in a predominately Hispanic context, then maybe you should throw that energy into and enthusiasm into a Mass around La Dia de Los Muertos or La Fiesta De Nuestra Senora de Guadalupe. (The Story of Our Lady and St. Juan Diego is one of the best stories of grassroots Catholic revival I’ve ever heard.)

I know that vestments are near and dear to every Anglo-Catholic heart, but I grew up in Florida, and I serve in Georgia. Lightweight vestments are my friend. They aren’t nearly as pretty as anything heavier, silk-lined, or brocaded, but they keep me from being a sweaty mess in front of the people of God, and allow me to still wear what priests in the apostolic tradition have seen fit to wear for centuries.When the temperature outside is hovering near a hundred, and the HVAC unit is screaming to keep the nave at eighty degrees.

We are Only Ever Priests in Context.

It hurts a bit, to give up the things that we hold dearly. The feasts, the hymnody, even the language. But we have to do a better job of knowing what is essential to forming the people of God that we are called to serve and what are just our liturgical peculiarities and preferences. I’m not saying the two don’t ever fall in line, and we should always strive for excellence in worship, but we need to strive for excellence in worship that is speaking to people where they are.

In the Episcopal Church we have a very bad habit of saying “Wherever you are, you’re welcome here. But if you’re going to stay, then get on our level.” In High Church parishes that pressure can be amplified exponentially, and that is doing damage to our witness. We’re only priests because the people we serve make us priests, and unless we recognize that those people come with cultures and contexts that we can speak to, and live in, then we’re just a bunch of people in weird clothes speaking what may as well be the Latin Rite. (Except that there are some contexts where the Latin Rite is completely appropriate.)

We have to get out of our own way. That means recognizing the heart of Catholic truth, leaving what’s dead to bury their own, and taking that truth to the world.