Thursday, October 22, 2009

Plenty Good Rooms

This week the Vatican announced its intention to make a place at its table for Anglican and Episcopalian brethren who are discontented with recent trends in their own denominations. The Vatican’s stated objective is to increase their numbers and they have been accused of “sheep stealing” by various pundits and commentators. Regardless of the motive, the Vatican is performing a fundamentally Christian act: reaching out to brethren who feel disconnected and welcoming them into the fold of fellowship and worship in the Church. What matters is that a people of faith find a place where they can worship in community and without compromising their closely held values. In the words of that beautiful spiritual, there are “plenty good rooms in my father’s kingdom” and these Christians feel that they are at liberty to “choose their seat and sit down.” I would argue, however, that they feel that way because they are at the end of the day, fundamentally not Catholic.

In the Anglican Communion, we believe that God speaks directly to us, not through an intermediary. In the Anglican Communion, the denomination is driven from the pews and not the Pope. As a result we are “messy.” We disagree on clerical qualifications, we argue about inclusive language, heck, we can’t even decide whether to sit or stand during the prayers at communion! We argue about these things sometimes so heatedly that we have to agree not to talk about them for years at a time, as was done at a recent convention. And yes, sometimes it makes us look absurd, extreme or disjointed. That is because our denomination is predicated on the ability of the laity to discern and determine the call of the church as a body. Growing pains are a natural side effect of an institution that is growing.

I am a Theology and Ethics major at a Methodist Seminary. When my colleagues tease me about being an Episcopalian, I say that we are indeed one step away from Catholicism… but it is a step to the left. I think that means that we applaud our Anglo-Episcopalian and Anglican fellows for having the integrity to acknowledge their discomfort with trends in our denomination and desiring to align their worship with their convictions. I hope it means that they will always feel they have a place with us, that they are welcome in our churches, in our homes and at our tables in the understanding that we are all guided by the same desire for authentic faith. I hope for them, as I hope for all of us on any journey in any faith or community, that their discernment is as thoroughgoing as their commitment to their faith. “Blessed are they that keep his testimonies, and that seek him with the whole heart.” May his word be as a lamp unto your feet.

Throwing Christians to the Lions in the 21st Century

This week my daughter’s high school had standardized testing. Out in front, meticulously restrained to the sidewalk pavement and therefore not on the grounds of a public school, representatives of The Gideons, handed out to the entering students, pocket sized copies of Christian Scripture. The books are quite small, they are bound in one of the school colors and they were thrust into the hands of the students just as casually as if they were flyers for the sandwich shop down the street. The students took them, too, just as casually. Inside the school, however, these little books were tossed in the garbage, used as projectiles, defaced, defamed and disrespected.

Now I am not one who proclaims the sanctity of the book. Frankly, that smacks of idolatry to me. The Word is sacred, the book paper. My own Bible has writing in the margins and dog eared pages. Isaiah was once soaked in coffee and smells like Kona Blend to this day. This, to my mind, is a good thing. No, it is not the defacement of the icon that concerns me.

Nor do I want to give the impression that every one of the kids who took a book from the Gideons subsequently abused or disrespected it. Most were bemused but respectful and either set them aside or crammed them into the bottomless pit that is a high school locker. Really, the vast majority of kids couldn’t care less either way.

And I am sure that the hearts of the Gideons outside were in the right place. . These good men reached out in accordance with their mission to “promote the Gospel of Christ to all people.” They intended to offer support and consolation on an incredibly stressful day. Perhaps they thought that, going into that Algebra AP, the feel of the recitation of Scripture might make a student more calm. In point of fact, the recitation of the Pythagorean Theorem might make them calmer, but whatever. They might even have imagined that in a moment of crisis or despair someone might open the little book to the Gospels or the Psalms or the Proverbs and have their lives changed by the Scripture in that moment. These are worthy aims, I have no beef with this.

What concerns me is the Christian in the crowd. I am thinking of the teenager who is just at that age where going to Church Camp or Youth Group outings is really fun to do, but a little embarrassing to admit. This is the teen who is right at that moment in their faith life where they wonder if the obvious and pervasive stupidity that they have just begun to notice is a part of every single adult of their acquaintance extends to their pastor and therefore their faith. This is the teen who is deciding how religion will fit on the horizon of their emerging adulthood. What this child sees inside that building is that his faith is a liability. His peers jeer at the Scripture, they read the words with dripping sarcasm and the laugh at the dopey language and tired parables. The Christian student in this scenario is in the horrible position of having to stand up for his faith in the face of the loudest of his peers, or to deny his faith and slink away, resenting the Scripture for having put him in this position in the first place. The Gideons who lovingly handed out those scriptures in the hope of reaching the Christians inside the building have only succeeded in throwing the most vulnerable of their brethren to the Lions.

Scripture could very likely help a person who is anxious and unsure as he or she enters a testing situation or an interview room or an application process, but in order for the Scripture to do that person any good, he has to have read it before hand, to have processed it, incorporated it into his bones and made it his own somehow. That isn’t done on Testing Day, on the sidewalk outside of school by a stranger with a blaze orange book. By all means minister to the youth of our community, evangelize right up until the very last day, but do it with compassion, thoughtfully and intelligently. Possibly, on the day of the SAT’s, hand that sweating sophomore a role of Tums and a card with an inscription that says, “I’m hoping for the best for you.” That seems like, well, what Jesus would do.

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Hate Crimes Legislation is a Federal Anti Bullying Campaign

Congress is expected to expand federal hate crimes laws to add "sexual orientation" to a list that already includes "race, color, religion or national origin." Is this necessary? Should there be special laws against crimes motivated by intolerance, bigotry and hatred? Isn't a crime a crime?

Hate crimes are particularly horrific because they say not, “I hurt you because you hurt me,” but “I hurt you because you are.” And also, frequently, “because I can.” Hate crimes are so common in our culture that we have multiple names for it. One of them is bullying. Virtually every school district in the United States has an anti-bullying campaign to teach our children to recognize intimidation, take it to the authorities and let the authorities work out the consequences. Hate crimes legislation is no more than a Federal Anti-Bullying Campaign. Where a citizen is victimized for being who he is and is afraid to stand up for himself, the government says, “If he threatens you again, you come and get me and I’ll deal with it.” But what any school child will tell you, whether he is the victim, witness or bully, is that the ani-bullying campaign is only as strong as the punishment it delivers. If the principle wags his finger at the bully and says, “Now don’t kick sand in Dexter’s eyes anymore, Spike,” the bully will go right out and fearlessly victimize the little guy again. In a culture where we have to teach our children to do what is right and where an adult sized potion of courage is required to do it, the least we can do is promise that the legislation that protects them has teeth. It doesn’t matter who the little guy is, the big guy can’t push him around on our block.