The Wisdom of the Great Depression Elders

Current Affairs / Religion

Jesus, our Savior, be known to us in the community in which we live. Help us to trust that our true wealth is found in our relationship to you and to each other. Give us today the bread we need. Help us to trust that tomorrow will have enough for us. Calm our hearts so that we might be your people in a world that needs peace and a blessing. We ask this in your sacred and saving name. Amen.

This is a frightening moment, as we hunker down to stop the spread of this novel corona virus. Our sense that we can predict what is coming next, what our future is likely to be, has been taken away from us. And that is causing mostly similar emotions in all of us – grief and fear.

I find myself wishing that we could just go back to the beginning of last month, to the beginning of the year just to feel the sufficiency and trust of that day, even for a little while. But that’s not possible. And I keep remembering the story in Luke 12 that Jesus tells of the rich man who built a large barn for all his possessions, believing when it was finished that he was set for life. But Jesus tells us that it was not his fate. He had prepared for a future that wasn’t going to be his.

It feels like that to me right now. In the churches I serve and the diocese where I’m the bishop, we dutifully passed budgets based on projections, we worked on recruiting clergy and maintain the property. We made calculated bets about what was coming and what we needed to do to best serve the community and ensure our future. And today, we look at that and grieve. Because we don’t know what’s going to happen. We didn’t project for a pandemic.

In 2008, while I was Dean of the cathedral in Arizona, the economy there collapsed. Because much of the Arizona economy was based in the housing industry, the mortgage and financial crisis hit Phoenix so hard that, while most of the country was in recession, we were in a depression. I had served churches during recessions, but never during a depression. I wasn’t sure that the same playbook would work. So, I started to ask around. I reached out to the elders of the community and asked them what they knew of the Great Depression, and what had worked and what hadn’t worked.

What they told me was that the people who managed the crisis took each day as it came. Rather than planning for a future that they couldn’t now predict, they did what they could to keep going. They saved where they could, spent when they had to, and supported one another as best they could. As the banks in those days were failing, they discovered that the true wealth they had was in deposited in their relationships with each other. Ever seen the Christmas movie “It’s a Wonderful Life”? That’s what they learned. The movie isn’t just a story, it’s the found wisdom of the people who lived through the Great Depression.

I don’t know what shutting down the economy for a few months will mean. I don’t know if it will cause a recession, a depression or what. But I know we didn’t predict it. And I don’t think we have a playbook to follow. So, go back to the wisdom of our elders. Count on the community. Do what we can to keep everyone safe and whole. Those who have enough will need to share with those who don’t – even if it means making themselves vulnerable to chance. Remember the story of the rich man and his barn. Our duty is to Jesus and to his body, to the marginalized and the poor. We will need every resource we have in this moment. Let us remember that in so many other times in our story, God has provided what we lacked.

Jesus’ Love has Power over Death.

Sermons and audio

Sermon for Sunday, Lent 5A, 2020

The readings for this weekend speak to God’s power over for the forces of death and destruction. They testify to our collective memory of how Jesus entered human history and reshaped our story forever. Today, perhaps more than ever before in my life, I need to hear this teaching.

I’m struggling each day to not give up to despair. It feels like so much has been taken from us. For many of us our jobs are changed, and some of us have lost them. Careers that we have spent our lives creating are uncertain in a way we never anticipated. Personal finances and plans are suddenly having to be remade and remade again as we wait to learn what will happen to the economy.

And to add to all that, each cough or ache that we feel becomes, of itself, a cause for deep alarm. Worse, for me, are the coughs of the people I love. And maybe even worse for me are the times that one of us must leave the house for whatever reason. What will happen to them? Who will they encounter? Will they be sickened too? Some of us are hearing of friends who are very sick. Some of our friends have died.

This Lent has brought a season of desolation such as I have never experienced. But it’s not a moment that’s unique in human history. We as a people have been through seasons of plague and uncertainty before. We have known firsthand the precariousness of human life and health. Though it’s not been common for many of us in Rhode Island Episcopal churches, for a significant number of people of the world in warzones or in regions of famine, this lack of a sense of a same or better future, has been their daily experience. We are now unexpectedly joining them.

It’s against this background that we, as seekers after Jesus, as Christians, insist on grounding our lives in a hope that goes beyond all sensible hope. We believe that God has acted in moments like this before, and that God will act again. And we believe that even in death, we will not perish, but be transformed. We believe that Jesus shows us the reach and the power of God’s love. We believe that Jesus joins us in our fear and suffering, walking beside us, helping us to carry the crosses we bear. We believe that Jesus mourns with us all that has been lost.

And we believe that there will be a restoration. We believe that there will be life again, even in a valley full of dead, dry bones. We believe that Jesus summons us out of our tombs. We believe that Jesus is even now lovingly working to save us from all the powers of this world which would destroy us. And we believe it all; even though it is hard to see in the darkness and tempests of this hour. For “faith is the assurance that what we hope for will come about and the certainty that what we cannot see exists.” (Hebrews 11:1)

We were not created for such a moment as this. We were created to dwell with God and to live in God’s love, without fear of death and plague. Though we have strayed, by Jesus’ saving actions, we have been restored. We are now his family, members of his household, and heirs of his kingdom and rule. He has called us his friends. In this Lent, in a way many of us reading this have not ever had to do, cling to this promise. It is enough.

Amen.

We depend on one another now

Current Affairs

The most intense insight I’ve had during the beginnings of the COVID-19 crisis is how profoundly connected we all are. I knew it intellectually, and I believed it theologically, but to see it being demonstrated so directly has made it real to me in a way I didn’t imagine.

One person’s health depends on the people around them. One person becoming sick can start a chain reaction of misery for many. One person, physically distancing themselves from others as an act of love, can stop the chain reaction.

Where people are isolating, it’s working. It worked in Asia, and if the numbers coming out of Italy over the last few days hold, it’s starting to work there. We’re seeing the number of deaths and infections start to fall. God willing, they have reached the peak and its declining. There is light ahead for us.

Here in Rhode Island we are on a soft quarantine. We’re not sheltering in place exactly, but we’re being asked to care for our neighbor by being willing to stay home and stay local. The governor and her staff are hoping that we can bend the rate of infections sooner than has happened in other places. Please God let that be true, so that we can get to work caring for other parts of the nation and region.

Our individual choices now affect our neighbors, our communities and the world. May God give us the grace to do what must be done in the days ahead. Sadly, there is no way now to go back. The only way is forward.

Holy Spirit, bringer of health and healing, give us the needed grace to face this moment. Let us show our love for one another by doing the hard things that are being asked of us. Bring an end to the spread of this virus quickly. We ask in Jesus name. Amen.

Sheltering as an Act of Love and Hope

Current Affairs

Holy One, give us courage for this moment. Let us meet each day and its challenges as it comes. Give us a godly hope and then let us be a sign and a light for others. Protect all those who lives are in danger. Bless the dying and heal the sick. We ask this in the name of Jesus our Savior and our Redeemer.

I’ve started rationing the news I read and watch. My habit of dealing with emergencies by binge watching the news and refreshing social media has made things worse. Bad news follows bad news. Concerns mount upon worries. And the visceral immediacy of the images on TV and online are causing a level of anxiety that I only remember feeling in the days following 9/11.

There were studies done in the aftermath of 9/11 on the emotional impact the repeated images of the collapsing towers were having. Apparently, each time we saw the fall, the emotions of the original moment came flooding back – and this was particularly true for children. It feels to me like the same thing is happening now. Each image of an overwhelmed ICU, each image of people not following the requests to physically distance themselves from one another, etc. is just rechurning the emotions and anxiety I’m feeling.

Prayer is helping. My prayers right now are not terribly eloquent. I say the Jesus Prayer, the Lord’s Prayer, the Trisagion, and the Hail Mary over and over. These have become my breath prayers in a moment of doubt and uncertainty. How desperately I wish we could gather together to sing and pray, to share the Eucharist and joke with one another at coffee hour. You never really understand the full value of something until it’s taken a way – as we’ve heard and now know in a deeper way.

We are keeping physically distant from one another. It’s hard. It’s keeping me from the things I would normally use to cope. But it’s the most important thing we can do for each other right now.

I saw an image of fireworks lit in celebration in Wuhan last night. They were celebrating the closing of the last temporary hospital to treat COVID-19 in the region. The hard choices they made worked. I saw the good news out of Singapore, Korea, Taiwan and Japan – that the cases there have dropped off to just a trickle. The act of physical distancing from one another in time of Pandemic is working. It is saving people’s lives.

This is hard, and the impact on the economy is frankly unknowable. But we can work through that when we get there. Right now, the economic cost is secondary to ensuring that as many of us as possible will have a shared future together. Be brave. Trust in the experts. Trust in God. Believe in Jesus and his love for each of us. Love your neighbors by doing what you can to protect them. Pray, pray and pray for the health care workers, the emergency workers, the everyday people putting their lives on the line for us.

The numbers are going to climb in the West for a while. I read that it will take about 14 days for the impact of the decisions we’re making right now to have be measurable. But look to the East. The measures work. They will change the trajectory of this pandemic.

Companions along the Way

Religion / SOSc / Travel
Some of you may have wondered about the letters that come after my signature. “SOSc” stands for the Society of Ordained Scientists. It’s a “dispersed” religious community, and I have taken my life vows as a member of that order. The members have been professional scientists at one point in their career (and a significant number still are), and most of them are ordained in one of the churches of the Anglican Communion (though there are Lutherans, Presbyterians and others, too.) The rule of the order, in short, is to interpret science to people of faith and faith to people of science. There’s more, but that’s the gist of it.

As a vowed member of the order, I’m expected to meet with the other members when possible. Normally the society and its members gather in England each summer, but every other year we have a meeting here in North America as well. This month, the members of the North American Provence met in Tucson, Arizona, and I was able to be a part of the meeting.

It’s a deep joy to be with the other members of the society. Part of the joy is that it’s one of the few times I get to be with people who speak fluently both the language of science and the language of theology. Our conversations are filled with the sort of obscure jokes that I love, but which few other people either get, or find funny. But the most profound joy comes from being with people who are doing the same internal spiritual work of reconciliation between two realms of thinking that seem to many (and occasionally to me) to be in deep conflict with each other. Most of our work at this meeting was talking about what that effort looks like for each of us, and the sharing of our experiences along individual journeys. It’s striking each time we meet, especially since we only meet every two years or so, how similar our experiences are — and serves as a reminder that we are not alone in this work.

Have you thought about what it would be like to meet with people doing the same sort of spiritual or reconciliation work that you are doing? Like what it would be to talk with other accountants who are also active Christians? Or to have a meal with other schoolteachers who are also active in church life? Or whatever your path and journey might look like now? These sorts of meetups have always been deeply nourishing for me. I bet they would be for you, too. At worst, you might have a boring lunch conversation. At best, you might open yourself to a new context for your own spiritual work of becoming part of the Beloved Community.

It’s always better to have companions when you are walking the Way of Love.  

Blessings,
+Nicholas

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Twitter and the collapse of coalitions.

Centrists / Futurism / Reconciliation / SOSc / Web/Tech

Walter Ong, a Jesuit who studied linguistics was fascinated by the difference between oral and literary cultures. Oral cultures value one sort of communication structure and literate ones another. (The difference is explained in The Atlantic article by Robinson Meyer linked below.)

Twitter (and to a similar degree Facebook, and I guess in a way even Instagram and Snapchat) represents an intersection between the oral and literary communication paradigms.

Meyer writes:

Before Ong died in 2003, he was asked about a special kind of writing that people do online, a genre of communication familiar to any Slack or AIM user or group-chat texter. It’s a mode that delivers words live and at the speed of speech—in which, as Ong put it, “textualized verbal exchange registers psychologically as having the temporal immediacy of oral exchange.” (This is apparently how a Jesuit talks about sliding into one’s DMs.) Ong called this new fusion “secondary literacy,” but today we just call it texting. Whatever its name, it reigned during Twitter’s early days. As I once wrote: “Twitter lets users read the same words at different times, which is a key aspect of literacy. Tweets are chatty, fusing word and action like orality; and also declarative, severable, preservable, and analyzable like literacy.”

Why Twitter May Be Ruinous for the Left – The Atlantic

The point is that the forms and structures that we’ve used to facilitate oral communication and the ones used in literary cultures aren’t working to structure and coral communications in this new melding of the two. That’s good in a lot of ways, especially for marginalized voices that have been frozen out of the mainstream conversation by the above referenced tools (editorial conventions, academic imprimatur, etc.)

But it’s a challenge too, and one that is presently pushing the spinning orb of our body politic off its traditional orbits. The way people used to speak in rallies and small gatherings of supporters is suddenly being treated in the same way that formal position statements and sworn testimony had been. And it’s not working. The “rules” didn’t anticipate this meta-state of oral/written language. I expect they (we) will catch up, but it may take a generation, and in the interim, the already stressed social structures are going to be under a sort of stress they haven’t experienced since we saw the rise of a broad literary cultural during the renaissance.

Meyer’s article takes this idea and applies it to the way that transient literary communication is undermining the way the political left has built its coalitions. But what he writes about is just as important for the life of the Church (particularly the broadly catholic expressions) which have tried to create a middle ground where all can meet. But in a cancel culture, is that sort of coalition building even possible? Every difference is magnified and coalitions rise and fall at an unanticipated rate.

Go read the article. As unhappy the future it implies is coming, it’s still better to consider why what we’re seeing happen is happening than it is to just sit and grumble about how frustrated we are with what is happening.

Living at Human Speed

Web/Tech

Monday is laundry day. It’s been laundry day almost as long as I can remember.

Back when I worked at a summer camp, Monday was my day off. It was the day I would ride my bike off the mountain peak and into town where there was a Laundromat. When I was in grad school, laundry was one of my regular chores, and Monday was usually the day. And when I began ordained ministry, I started taking Monday as my weekly day off, and thirty years later, it’s still my day off (and laundry day).

But today (Monday), when I was starting the laundry, while making my breakfast at the same time, I had a thought. I don’t know that anyone else would consider it a breakthrough, but for me it sort of was.

Here’s what happened. The bagel toasting in the toaster and the washing machine entering the final spin cycle put me into a race condition. They were both going to finish at nearly the same time and I started to get anxious about which event to respond to – and began to worry that I could choose wrongly. Like, for example, unloading the laundry and having soap scented hands when the toaster finished, and then having to manage to choose between scented bagels or cold bagels. (These are the sorts of major concerns I have on a Monday morning.)

But it occurred to me that I could decide the let the washing machine finish and wait to unload it until I had finished making and eating my bagel. Which likely seems obvious to you, but to me this represented a sort of breakthrough. I remembered that the machine was supposed to help me, I was not created to serve the machine and respond to it so that it wouldn’t have to wait on me.

Because I sometimes forget that, and let the machines I’m using – or programs I’m running – or websites I’m reading – or car I’m driving set the pace of the interactions between myself and it and then, rather than having it help me do something, I let its needs or inputs set the pace. And, since the machine pace is different than the human pace, I end up getting increasingly anxious about keeping up. Which is not what’s supposed to be happening before breakfast on your day off…

See the famous scene of Lucille Ball on the candy assembly line for another and funnier example. Or think about an email flame-fest, your twitter mentions blowing up, or late-night Facebook fights as more common ones too. This technology was supposed to free us to live more fully into our best selves. It hasn’t. We’ve become slaves to the pace of the technology in our lives.

My “epiphany” this first week of Epiphany was that I don’t have to let myself get caught up in the machine pace of daily life, especially when I’m on a break.

And that started me thinking about other ways that I let the world around me set the agenda rather than my being more thoughtful and intentional about setting it for myself. Now of course there are multiple counterexamples where it’s clear that we need to respond to circumstance as circumstances dictates. But a toasted bagel and a washing machine is not in that category. The laundry can wait a moment while I enjoy my warm bagel.

So, I’m thinking about what it would be like if this coming year, I was more intentional about when I get to set the speed at which I live, and slow down when ever I can.

2020 foresight

Religion

Some resolutions for the new year.

With the arrival of 2020, perhaps you’ve had a few moments to take stock of where you are now and where you’d like to be next year. Perhaps, you’ve been thinking about some resolutions to help get you there? Let me suggest a few for your consideration.

  1. Daily bible reading. With smartphones, tablets, or even a paper edition, it has become easier and easier to commit to reading Holy Scripture every day. I have a standing appointment on my calendar to read the lessons for the daily office each day at 9:30 AM. Sometimes I get to read them with others, sometimes it’s just me. But I read selections of the Bible each day in such a way that by the end of two years, I’ll have read the Old Testament once, the New Testament twice and the Psalms a number of times.

    Daily reading of the Bible has changed who I am. I believe it can change you too. Maybe this is the year for you to start. If you already have started, keep going! Let the Spirit of God reveal God’s truth to us through the reading of inspired writing, and let us be changed more and more into the likeness of Jesus as a result.
  2. Regular church attendance. The way our lives are evolving, it has become harder and harder to find time to make it to church each Sunday. We clergy types have noticed, and we really do understand. But the solution to being busy or feeling overwhelmed is not to cut out the one thing that will give you a sense of being centered or being at peace. If your preferred service can’t fit with your schedule, try an earlier one? Or a Saturday night one? Or a mid-week one? But try to make it to church weekly in some way or other. Study after study show how much it helps us to feel connected to a real physical community. Take the research seriously. (Church attendance even made it into the 10 commandments by the way. God didn’t do that by accident. Grin.)
  3. Read from different sources. We are in the beginning of an election year, in a moment in history when mass communications and social media can be used in ways that few anticipated. People can use money and technology to give voice to things and ideas that aren’t true – and aren’t helpful to you as an individual and to us as a community. If you just read people and media that you agree with, you have no chance of stopping that unhealthy and dangerous process.

    I’ve made it a practice to read people that thoughtfully annoy the heck out of me, because I want to make sure I’ve heard the other way of looking at events. I’m not encouraging what’s called “what-aboutism” which is merely responding to a concern with a counter concern. What I mean is to find the thoughtful balanced comments that disagree with what I think is true. And then to engage them as a corrective on the (rare? -grin) occasions when I have it wrong.

Whatever you have planned for the coming year, do remember to take care of yourself: spiritually, physically and emotionally. I don’t think this coming year is going to be any less fast paced than the past one has been, and if you and I are to be of service and support to our neighbors, we need to be healthy enough to help.

God bless you all in this new year!

Read this: Reformed Episcopalians and Anglo-Catholics Together in Witness I — Earth and Altar

SOSc

A number of folks I follow online have been teasing a new website of essays and thought pieces for last month or so. The site, Earth and Altar, has gone live today and one of the best thinkers in the Episcopal Church today has an inaugural article posted.

Let me just post a taste of Kara’s essay:

This piece will not present a laundry list of complaints about the contemporary church. Instead, it will present two historical examples that might help to illumine our present. One is Charles Kingsley, the Victorian Darwinist clergyman who was one of the key figures in the “muscular Christianity” tendency of the 19th century that was a key opposing party to the Oxford Movement. The other is Karl Reiland, an Episcopal priest who found himself at the center of both the fundamentalist-modernist controversy of the early 20th century and the American eugenics movement.  

The cases of Kingsley and Reiland illustrate what happens when Christians, and Anglicans in particular, replace the particularity of Scripture and Christian theological grammar with something else.  Since the 19th century, that “something else”has often fallen under the category of scientifically-informed reason, and it has been portrayed as the necessary and inevitable next step in an inexorable trajectory of religious and social progress. That “something else” has often endorsed a utopian political agenda that aspires to bring about the Kingdom of God on earth through human effort. [emphasis added] Tragically, it has also baptized what historian Jenny Reardon names as a key feature of modernity: the “entanglement of rules that govern what can count as knowledge with rules that determine which human lives can be lived,” and which are treated as collateral damage on the way to a better world.

Lot’s more where that came from if you follow this link. There’s the promise of more to come tomorrow.

If what we say these days about about the Church participating in God’s Mission rather than the Church doing God’s Mission, then that italicized sentence above is the danger that I’ve watched lots of well meaning folks (myself included) fall into over the years. The Church exists for God – it is not a means to an end for some human utopian attainment.

Fair warning for those on the Canterbury Trail… you’re being attracted to an expression of the Church that has a …complicated… relationship with Empire and power. We have often struggled – and the renewal movements with Anglicanism have a mixed success rate with keeping Jesus as the main thing.