30 July 2009

Silent Giants

My wife, Denise, and I just returned from a twelve-day vacation in California. With exception of two business trips, this was our first time to explore the state. We are not the typical vacation tourists. We didn't visit Disneyland (we both grew up in the Orlando, FL area). We didn't hang out at a resort or seek out trendy places. After I completed my work with the Episcopal Church's General Convention, Denise met me in Anaheim. We rented a car and headed out -- away from the lights, glitz and concrete.

By way of the Central Valley, we ended up in Yosemite National Park. Between that park and Kings Canyon and Sequoia National Parks, we spent a week staying in rustic cabins, hiking to showers, climbing steep trails and enjoying the pristine beauty. Of course, in Yosemite, there were at least a thousand other folks doing the same thing. However, these folks were there for the same reason -- getting outdoors and away from the bustle of mainstream culture and into a very different lifestyle -- one marked by cargo jeans/shorts, tee shirts, hiking shoes, back packs and floppy hats. Oh, and the obvious lack of starch, ironing boards and the myriad synthetic scents of perfumes and colognes (which one of our daughters calls "foo-foo").

The main reason we went to the High Sierra national parks was to see the "Old Ones" -- the towering giant sequoias. These silent giants have experienced up to 2,000 years of earth history -- most all of what we call the "Common Era" (CE). With girths up to 37.5 feet (the "General Sherman" sequoia of Sequoia National Park). and heights of 275 feet (same tree), one feels like a very small being next to these huge trees. It puts things in perspective very quickly indeed!

On a warm Wednesday morning, Denise and I found ourselves at the very south end of Yosemite National Park in Mariposa Grove. It is one of the largest remaining stands of giant sequoias in the world. As we hiked back to the less visited area, we found ourselves a forest of about a hundred silent giants of various ages. They towered over us and blocked the sky with their broccoli-like tops. The huge trunks all around us made it nearly impossible to take in the magnificence, majesty and shear size of these ancient living beings. I was immediately reminded of the Ents in "Lord of the Rings." I expected to hear deep, old and wise voices erupt -- sharing all that had been seen and experienced over the long centuries of their lives.

We stopped at one especially large sentinal. While this may sound strange, we pushed ourselves against the thick, red bark -- hands pressed against the tree and ears listening -- and could truly sense the life coursing through this old one. The connection was awesome and as if there was deep wisdom of the ways of the earth and surrounding environment. This tree -- with its brothers and sisters around it -- has outlived every other living thing on earth. It is bigger than every other living thing on earth. I became intimately aware of the meaning of the biblical reflection of human smallness next to the infinite reality of God.

Even along a trail, hiking in the wilds of the mountains of the High Sierra range is a journey that is made in silence. Surrounded by the myriad shades of green, the hues reds and golds of other plants, sounds of birds, constant movement of water in streams, and the challenge of walking over rocks and around boulders one becomes lost in the mystery and wonder that is creation. What I see, as I make this journey, is very much what the earliest humans saw as they journeyed here. There is connection. As I sit quietly on an ancient boulder, empty myself of internal chatter (constant pre-occupation with what I believe to be so important in life), and become really aware of my surroundings, the wisdom of creation touches my inner being and bathes me with a kind of peace and intimacy that renews, heals and cleanses. As I emerge from this time of contemplation, it becomes clear to me just how trivial most of what we call important in life really is. I'm suddenly alive to possibility.

After two weeks of General Convention, coming to the Sierra Nevada Mountains to hike the national park trails renews perspective and washes clean the crustiness that comes with being consumed with issues and business we believe to be so important. Yes, the importance is there, and the need to maintain community is essential, but it always needs to be placed within the perspective of true reality -- the one created by God in which we play but one part of a huge tapestry of life. One sure way to gain that perspective is to walk among the Silent Giants in the High Sierra range.


18 July 2009

Catching Up and the Power of Words

It has been two weeks since my last blog posting. It does not mean that I have been silent by any means. I am in Anaheim, CA and have been a deputy from the Diocese of West Missouri at the Episcopal Church's triennial General Convention. This was my sixth GC as a deputy. My first was in 1991, when I was canonically resident in Central Florida -- my home diocese. The next three deputations upon which I served resided in Northern Indiana. I was the Dean of the Cathedral Church of St. James for eleven years. The 2006 GC and this one has been as a canonical resident of West Missouri. I have been an inside observer of the Episcopal Church's heartbeat and leadership for 18 of my 31 ordained years. What an evolution!

The Episcopal Church may be small by modern standards, but it has a very important and influential place in American history. Most of the signers of the Declaration of Independence and crafters of our country's Constitution were Anglicans (Episcopalians after the Revolutionary War). A majority of our presidents have been Episcopalians--at least in name. A surprisingly large number of the industrial, business and technology leaders have been Episcopalians. Numbers not withstanding, we have been a guiding force in cultural justice and equality over the past two hundred years.

This is not to say Episcopalians agree on all these matters. Not by a long shot! We are as diverse in our opinions and socio-political ideologies as our culture. Despite the barb that Episcopalians are the "White, Republican Party at Prayer," the truth is otherwise. We are "high church" and "low church," Democrats, Republicans, Independents, Native American, Latino, African American, Asian, Middle Eastern, wealthy, working class, middle class, liberal, conservative, moderate, straight, LGBT, and from every element of American intracultural life as possible. When we speak of being "inclusive" we mean it on every level possible. And, all of this was here at the General Convention of the Episcopal Church (the 76th triennial).

For the past two weeks, I have been working, praying, legislating, meeting and living with nearly 6,000 sisters and brothers who are Episcopalians in every catagory of life mentioned above (and maybe some I didn't include). It has been an honor and an education. I am constantly amazed regarding how much there is to learn about other folks. I am also amazed at how other folks are willing to share, if they perceive the inquiry to be honest and authentic. And, the most important part of all this is that I have seen the God of Jesus Christ in every one of these folks...in ways I have not experienced ever before. What a gift of Grace!!

The Holy Spirit has been leading me into deeper truth for a good while now. The lastest deepening began with sabbatical last summer (2008). In working with the Lakota in the Black Hills, I learned the words: Mitakuye Oyasin. The rough translation is close to "We are all one together." The direct implication is that Wakan-Tanka (God) is in all creation, we are his creation, which makes us one with each other. This is lived out among our Lakota sisters and brother in profoundly authentic and transparent ways.

Three years ago, at the 2006 General Convention (held in Columbus, OH), we mandated that, over the three years leading to this GC, a program would be developed to help us explore relationship and community. Thus the theme Ubuntu was born. Ubuntu is a Zulu (Xhosa) word that describes human identity as being formed through community and encompassing sense of caring, sharing and being in harmony with all creation. In short, Ubuntu means, "I in You and You in Me."

Now isn't that a coincidence. The Lakota phrase Mitakuye Oyasin and the Zulu phrase Ubuntu have almost identical meanings...each at the core of meaning for them such that in both Lakota and Zulu all prayers end with those statements...like our "Amen" (which means, "it is thus").

In truth, at this General Convention, there were no "for" and "against" camps. People intermingled, talked, shared, listened, prayed and walked together. We struggled together, and, above all, we have been careful with each other -- treating one another as precious gifts of God -- as we each are.

Some of our decisions were difficult, and we will face some confusion, anger or distress in our home community environments. This is not because folks disagree, but because, in general, folks in our communities live lives as individualists rather than individuals in community. The early Christian community was, in fact, an Ubuntu-style community. A careful reading of Acts of the Apostles will open that reality. Jesus taught it: "I in you and you in me: You are one as the Father and I are One." The Gospel is one of Mitakuye Oyasin/Ubuntu. The contemporary Christian community has nearly lost this cornerstone element of what it means to be a Christian.

I am remarkably at peace following this General Convention. To be sure, I am exhausted. The pace of the last two weeks has been intense. On average, each day was about 16 hours long in terms of the work most of us were assigned. I served on the Ministry Committee (#14) and, like all other committees, we began at 7am. In the evening, the committees met to continue perfecting legislative materials and holding hearings...where those advocating resolutions came to speak and share information about those resolutions charged to the committees. The only break of length during the day was at lunch (about 90 minutes) and dinner (about the same).

One cannot really complain about how this works. We only do it every three years. Imagine it. Now, what we have done gets three years to work through. The next GC will take further steps, fine tune, remove or replace what we have done this GC. Thus we grow and evolve as a Christ-centered community.

I have been working hard to deepen my life in the Spirit -- through new contemplative prayer techniques, deeper reading of Scripture and other source material, listening more carefully to my sisters and brothers as they share their journeys in the Spirit of God. The Grace and Power of the Word....the Christ of God (see John 1) was very present during the past two weeks.

Today, I begin three weeks of vacation. My wife joins me today for some days of exploring part of California and visiting dear friends. While I am tired, I feel more at peace than I have felt in quite some time. We have done good work. We have done God's work -- with and for God's People in this part of the Kingdom...the Episcopal Church.

Mitakuye Oyasin!! Ubuntu!!

06 July 2009

Church and State

The celebration of Independence Day is a venerable expression of our love for those whose sacrifice and vision created our country with its unique Constitution and guarantee of liberty for all citizens. It was a shaky start to be sure. As with any new idea, diverse opinions made gaining a solid foothold sometimes very dubious indeed. I continue to study a great deal of source documents and commentary on the development of what we call democracy. It is that, but wrapped in a republic form of government. We even say that in the Pledge of Allegiance: "...and to the Republic for which it stands..."

One article of the Constitution guarantees the freedom of religious expression. This was an absolutely new concept in civilization. The Roman Empire had attempted something like this by allowing conquered countries to continue the exercise of their indigenous religious practices. However, those religious entities could not engage in political enterprise. The confusion led to near collapse in the fourth century. Constantine steadied the empire's boat with his conversion to Christianity and mandate that all of the Empire would embrace Christian life and practice. From that point until the Constitution of the new United States, Church and State had been oppressively intertwined.

A large majority of the framers of the American system of government were Anglicans (Church of England at that time) and found it impossible to take an oath of allegiance to the Crown of England while fighting for independence from that crown and developing a new government. After the Revolution, the Anglican Church continued as the Episcopal Church. In its first General Convention of 1785, a form was set for celebrating the Day of Independence in public worship. Four years later, in the General Convention of 1789, with three Bishops of its own to create an independent body, it was determined that celebrating independence in a church worship setting was tantamount to, again, intertwining Church and State. To that end, worship celebrations for Independence Day were removed from the Book of Common Prayer.

The above status remained until the revision of the Book of Common Prayer in 1928. At that time, the liturgical celebration of American Independence was reintroduced with the stipulation that such celebrations would not reflect an exclusivity that had marked the Anglican status of State Church in Great Britain. With two World Wars and other points that raised patriotic conscience, the ideal of the liturgical reformers became lost with the "folks in the pew" of most Christian traditions. While not denominationally exclusive, we have come very close to state church status in our religious rhetoric and worship celebrations. In the Episcopal Church, I have observed many abuses of church/state status in parishes. In one parish, the American flag and Episcopal Church flag would be processed side-by-side at the head of the procession on Sunday mornings (right behind the cross). At the Chancel the two flags would part to let the procession pass. Then, the third stanza of "America" would be sung...during which the Episcopal Church flag would be dipped toward the American flag...as in submission. Now, folks, that is an abuse of church/state status.

Our government has been a little more guarded in maintaining an appropriate relationship between Church and State. Churches risk losing their status as independent religious bodies if the priest/pastor uses the pulpit to support a candidate for office or embrace a particular partisan political measure. One can speak freely about the moral or ethical implications of certain public, social political actions but cannot endorse a person or an issue from a partisan stance. This is a good thing. I am very careful in the parishes where I have been Rector to insure that I and my clergy staff use the pulpit for its intended purpose...the proclamation of the Good News and the challenge for living an ethically and morally sound life. That's tough enough on its own!

For reference, I am a veteran. I served with distinction in the United States Navy for six years and was decorated for my unique work with the submarine squadron staff to which I was assigned on active duty. It is an experience I treasure and would do again without hesitation. My military service was a time of growth, insight and development for me as a young adult. I am proud of that service. This is to say that I cannot be accused of lacking patriotism. There were a lot of dangerous things happening in the world in the early/mid-1970s -- things that most folks knew nothing much about. My work was in the thick of some of those events.

As a Priest in the Episcopal Church, I lead parishes that have veterans of all branches of service ... as well as non-military government service. I have heard and collected stories of courage, bravery and exemplary actions in combat and harm's way from every war in the 20th century. I am humbled by what these men and women accomplished to insure our ability to continue in the kind of government our forebearers envisioned. With them I celebrate our history of upholding freedom. However (and this is important), what we have proclaimed, we have also abused. I have seen the effects/affects of our prejudicial actions toward First Nations (Native American) cultures in the name of Manifest Destiny. This ideology was first artriculated by John Sullivan in the New York Morning News in 1842. It became a type of battle cry for the taking of land from peoples who had occupied it for centuries untold. Those people were told (in subjugation) that they were not free to worship in their cultural styles or continue their cultural practices. They were confined to lands that our government did not want -- because those lands were not fit for agricultural use.

While that seems like a digression, I believe it is fundamental to the understanding of Church and State. This past Friday (3 July) I celebrated Independence Day with parishioners gathered for our regularly scheduled noon Eucharist. I spent Independence Day preparing to leave for General Convention of the Episcopal Church. While I was traveling yesterday (Sunday, 5 July), our parish again celebrated Independence Day with liturgically assigned readings, prayers and music. Mother Anne Hutcherson (one of my two priest associates) had a wonderful sermon in which a flag belonging to her father was used. So, we do celebrate our freedom.

With all that, we continue to pray for people and governments different from us in ideology and practice. We pray for their souls' health and for wisdom in the ordering of their common lives. Those are prayers for transformation of heart and mind...not to be like us but to exercise integrity, humanity and compassion in their leadership. Jesus was very clear, "Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you." (Matthew 5:43-48, which is assigned for the celebration of Independence Day). It is our work to pray for and, in our own lives, model justice, wisdom, compassion and mercy. The Church is where we are supposed to gain those virtues. It is the State in which we practice those virtues to create a just and equitable human community.
Church and State are related, but we have to recognize that, in the Church we honor God as sovereign and learn the truth of discipleship. It is not the State we honor, but in which we live and practice what it means to be created in God's image. It is imperative that we begin in our own boundaries where the freedom of others has been abused.