God’s will is bigger than ‘theological narcissism.” Chautauqua Daily – 7-19-14

The Rev. Peter W. Marty, pastor of St. Paul’s Lutheran Church, Davenport, Iowa

 

What do you say to a friend who tells you that your job loss is part of god’s special plan for your life? or, if it is stage three cervical can- cer that is causing you to lie awake worrying at night, how do you respond to that well-intentioned soul who wants you to believe that god has a reason for everything? Pious clichés that use God to explain away difficult or tragic circumstances are on the lips of vast numbers of Christians. Such expressions sound wonderfully holy. They also falsify human experience. They distort the majesty of god by twisting god into a distant and aloof sovereign. “god wanted it to happen, so it happened.” That’s a favorite. if your best friend is mugged and beaten, did God really send that suffering to teach your friend a lesson? if so, what sort of lesson was it? What are the odds that the lesson struck a helpful chord? Most of us would find a lot more reason to fear rather than love God, if the lord of heaven and earth was this morally ambivalent or malevolent. While visiting a city church a few years ago, i picked up a history of the congregation. From that booklet, i learned that the congregation’s previous sanctuary burned to the ground. “no doubt, to train His people for greater things,” the account read, “it pleased the lord to reduce this splendid edifice of worship to a gutted, smoldering ruin by a disas- trous fire on December 3, 1903.” Really? I’ll bet you didn’t know god delights in burning down churches. From where does this folly come? Several sources. god gets blamed for all kinds of outlandish things, mostly because we don’t like to feel out of control in a chaotic universe. if we position god to assume the blame or credit for an inexplicable situation, suddenly it sounds more rea- sonable. Many people don’t like the idea of no one being responsible for a perplexing event. Thus, god becomes the handy arranger when one needs a cause for that flat tire in the desert, or for that stillborn child that had been the

sparkle in a hope-filled couple’s eyes. There is another reason why seemingly intelligent people tend to make god responsible for all kinds of ridiculous circumstances. Such theology works extremely well when things turn out to benefit us. Egocentricity per- meates a lot of chatter about god having “a personal plan for my life.” Theological narcissism cleverly places “me” at the center of the universe. “Somebody was looking out for me. My prayers were answered.” This may offer all kinds of comfort after a frightening tornado just missed my house. But what about my faithful and prayer-inspired neighbors just blocks away? They are standing in the rubble of what was their house. it’s hard to picture them having prayed, “lord please direct the tornado our direction. We need one real bad.” Some believers will resort to language of god allow- ing certain events, even if god did not cause them. But that theological reasoning presents huge problems, usu- ally indicting rather than complimenting god. if my child drowns in a swimming accident, and you try to comfort me by suggesting god allowed the drowning for a reason, that means god failed me. it would be akin to having a strong lifeguard, with all the equipment and rescue skill

in the world, just standing by to watch my child go down. That would be gross dereliction of duty. never once did Jesus of nazareth counsel any person to accept their suffering as the Lord’s will. God may work in mysterious ways, but there is no evidence that god works in nonsensical ways. if god is all-powerful, all-knowing, and all-present, let us not forget that god is also — we might say, primarily! — all-loving. There are certain things love will not do, and territory where love will not tread. Unconditional love will not have you quitting on another person. one doesn’t throw in the towel when fidelity and steadfastness constitute the best forms of love. There are zones within friendship where love should not invade. love has no business, for example, intruding on subjects and places that induce unnecessary pain in another person. if god is love, then god responds to us only through means that are loving. The next time a friend of yours wants to suggest that god’s care for you amounts to god arranging the daily particulars of your life, gently remind her that you are not a helpless marionette puppet, or a passive believer. Share with her the biblical word that god’s will in this world is about much greater things than simply pulling different strings to create personal misery or blessing for you. According to the Bible, god’s plan is about great big things, not the little details that organize our daily circum- stances or control our decisions. getting malnourished kids around the world fed, melting AK-47s into a billion garden rakes, constructing preschools on the grounds of nursing homes, and rectifying scores of societal injustices all make the list for god’s holiness plan. Finding a park- ing space for you or me in the next congested city we visit, unfortunately, doesn’t make the cut.

Peter W. Marty serves as senior pastor of St. Paul Lutheran Church, a 3,500-member congregation in Davenport, Iowa. He is the author of The Anatomy of grace. Since 2010, Marty has been the lead columnist for The Lutheran magazine.

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Power of Words – Charleston Post and Courier Letters

July 13, 2014

I was working toward my master’s degree when I first heard a professor use profanity directed at a student.

In undergraduate school, I was a member of the debate team; therefore, I traveled to numerous colleges, universities, tournaments and conventions. I interacted with hundreds of professors.

While working toward my doctorate at LSU, I never heard a professor use inappropriate language toward a student.

During a lifetime of teaching, I have never heard a professor savagely attack a student, the student’s parents or the university that pays his or her salary.

Student athletes have far more exposure to coaches than the regular students have to their professors.

Students attend college to prepare for a career and to help them develop into productive adults. It is a crucial time in their lives.

Why would an educational institution employ someone who destroys the self-esteem of those students or undercuts their self-confidence? How much is the mental health of a student worth?

Words are powerful. They have the power to hurt or heal. That words are more powerful than the sword is more than a cliché. Most of us carry scars from some long ago unkind remark from someone important to our lives.

If a professor or coach hit a student there would be no debate. Bullying is counterproductive where ever and whenever it occurs.

Mitch Carnell

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Church Jargon Jettisoned for Better Communication

On Jul 4, 2014, at 3:36 PM, Joe Gilliland <joeterry1933@gmail.com> wrote:
The attached Episcopal News Service piece is an extremely significant newsfeature, in my opinion.  It concerns an issue that has been on my mind, even before I became an Episcopalian.  When I read it, I knew it would stir up some people.  For that reason, I have attached the comments, which reflect that.

The commenters have some understandable concerns, although I cannot help wondering if some are not protesting a little too much.  It seems a real stretch to me, for example, when one comment says,that, after all, peculiar Episcopal terminology, is something like the that used by the Marines and the Masons!  It also reminds me of when a young rector more than 50 years ago chided me for referring to the bottom floor of the church building as the basement, rather than as the undercroft, or for referring to the church yard, instead of the “church green.”  The statement by one bishop quoted also resonates with me when he notes that the Nicene Creed in many ways had a different meaning at the time it was written from what it means today (realizing, of course that we are reading a translation and not always knowing the historical context).
This discussion all reminds me that paying attention to language is an important part of widening the church’s circle.  One of the first things I learned in a college linguistics course is that language is constantly changing.  It seems that in the Episcopal Church, among others, it hasn’t always been that constant.
By Pat McCaughan | July 3, 2014 29 Comments |

[Episcopal News Service] The Rev. Scott Claassen of thads describes himself as “a Monday through Saturday follower of Jesus who worships on Sunday.”

He believes it conveys a clearer understanding of what his faith means to him than “Episcopalian” or even “Christian”.

“The main point is, it inverts our sense of discipleship from saying being a disciple means I go to church on Sunday,” Claassen, 35, told ENS recently. “Instead it says being a disciple means I practice this Jesus way throughout all of my life and I happen to get together with a bunch of other people on Sunday who do that, too.”

Call it semantics, but Claassen isn’t alone. Increasingly, individuals, congregations and even dioceses across the Episcopal Church are shifting language subtly – and not so subtly – to clarify identity and meaning and to make cultural and contextual connections.

Churches and congregations are becoming known as “communities of faith” and “centers of mission” and the word diocese has been dropped in favor of “The Episcopal Church in” places like Minnesota and Connecticut.

None of which is meant as “a strategy to get people to come to church, it’s just who we are at the core,” according to the Rev. Jimmy Bartz. He founded thads eight years ago as an “experimental community, or in church-speak, a mission station” of the Diocese of Los Angeles, he said.

“We’re about spreading love and making a difference wherever we are because that’s what Jesus was about and we’re committed to doing it together,” Bartz said. “It’s like that old country song, ‘be real baby, be real.’”

Becoming tradition ‘translators’
Helping the uninitiated navigate insider church-speak, complex liturgies and specific Episcopalianisms often involves becoming “translators, of sorts,” according to Bartz and others.

“It comes from this great gift that’s been afforded by learning the language of the Episcopal Church and its liturgy and tradition and wanting the culture to understand those gifts but having some sense that it’s too great of an expectation for me to demand that the culture learn the language that I’ve learned,” Bartz said.

The Rev. Becky Zartman, when reaching out to the largely millennial population in Washington, D.C.’s Dupont Circle neighborhood, talks “about networks, about groups of people in relationship with each other who love each other and who are trying to be faithful Christians together.

“That’s what I think of when I think of church. But some people think of it as a building or an institution or cathedral or something you only do on Sunday morning,” said Zartman, 29, assistant rector at St. Thomas, Dupont Circle, who blogs as the Vicar of H Street.

And when she blogs, “if I ever use a church word I define it or explain what it means. Better yet, I don’t use it. I might write an entire reflection on the Incarnation and never use the word. People either don’t know what it means or think they do and they don’t.”

And much of the time, “I’m starting in the negative,” she adds. “Because people have a negative connotation of the church or think that Christians are stupid. The problem is, church is such an umbrella term.

“In talking to millennials who have no positive experience with the institutional church, I’m still trying to figure out how do I explain this thing that we’re doing. I’m trying to be accessible, but to go deeper at the same time.”

St. Thomas’ vestry member Catherine Manhardt agreed.

“We have this really amazing church and liturgy and worship and common prayer and it’s central to who we are, once we get there,” she said. “But when you say I’m Episcopalian because the Eucharist is really important to me, that’s not going to resonate with people, and you want people to understand what you’re talking about.”

Rather than telling friends she serves on the vestry, “I say board of directors,” adds Manhardt, 25. Evangelism becomes “community engagement.

“For me, the most important part about church is the community … I don’t want to make who we are a barrier to the kind of people who could become part of our community.”

‘Communities of faith becoming centers of mission’
Through the New Visions Initiative (NVI) which partners thriving historically African American congregations with struggling ones, the Rev. Angela Ifill, the Episcopal Church’s missioner for black ministries, has witnessed language shifts re-energize congregations.

“Language plays a huge part in the way parishioners think of themselves,” Ifill said in a recent e-mail to ENS.

Her invitation to a New Visions group “to think of themselves as communities of faith becoming centers of mission, brought the question, ‘You mean we have to be doing something?’” she recalled. “It was a break-through in better understanding their purpose for being.”

Similarly, “praying communities” and “Episcopal presences” are the way Bishop David Rice describes “who we are, by talking about what we do … because the reality for me is that theEpiscopal Diocese of San Joaquin is a praying community and within that are many praying communities,” he said.

“The primary intent is Luke 10, being sent out, hearing the stories of people, responding to needs, and building relationships, but not as a roundabout way of ensuring that we get people into church.”

Since his March 2014 election, “the typical question I ask everywhere is, ‘what does an Episcopal presence look like in this context? What do people say about the Episcopal Church where they are” including those who don’t attend church, he said.

Bishops Ian Douglas of Connecticut and Brian Prior of Minnesota each recognized a name change was in order when they realized the word “diocese” conveyed images of buildings and bishops rather than a sense of community, inclusion, and corporate identity.

A recent shift to “the Episcopal Church in Connecticut” actually reclaims tradition and common identity, Douglas said. “It was the original name of who we were when Samuel Seabury, the first bishop in the Episcopal Church, signed the Concordat with the three nonjuring bishops in the Episcopal Church of Scotland in 1784,” Douglas said.

The word “diocese” came along in the late 1830s and became associated with the bishop’s office and staff rather than “the united witness of the 168 parishes and worshiping communities participating in the mission of God together,” he said.

A move to a new, flexible shared workspace with an open floor plan accompanied the name change. It’s known as the Commons of the Episcopal Church in Connecticut, echoing the New England metaphor of the village green as a center of activity. Initial feedback has been extremely positive, Douglas said.

Similarly, “the Episcopal Church in Minnesota” conveys the reality “that our faith communities come in all sizes and shapes and contexts” including churches, senior housing, schools, campus ministries and other agencies who worship corporately, according to Bishop Brian Prior.

Yet, “we’re really clear in our language and in the big picture that the Episcopal Church in Minnesota (ECIM) is a diocese of The Episcopal Church; there’s never been a question about that.”

Language shifts prompted structural changes, he said. “I joke that there is no bishop’s staff here,” Prior says. “The only staff I have is the one I carry in procession.”

The diocese consists of “mission areas”, invited “to get clear about their identity and context, about what God’s up to in their neighborhood and to find a sustainable model for living into God’s mission in their context.”

As a result, Prior said. “More Minnesota Episcopalians know about the world’s needs and how to bring their gifts to meet the world’s needs to engage God’s mission” on local and individual levels, rather than trying “to get everybody into church.”

He hopes to revise parochial reports to measure, in addition to budgets and average Sunday attendance (ASA), levels of community impact.

For example, “there’s a faith community here with an ASA of 19 who feeds a hundred people every Friday. They have a huge impact on their community. That’s vibrancy. That’s really engaging in God’s mission, and that’s of more interest to us.”

‘No one-size-fits-all’
Language shifts notwithstanding, no one-size-fits-all; Episcopal identity still encompasses a wide spectrum, from evangelicals to Anglo-Catholics, say Prior and others.

Personally, says Bartz, “it drives me crazy that I hear from Episcopalians all the time, that ‘I can go anywhere in the country and get the same thing in church,’” he said.

“I think that’s a devastating indictment about how shallow our church has become, that we really don’t expect anything from people other than the execution of a particular liturgy in a particular way on Sunday morning. I understand it, but it drives me crazy.”

But for Broderick Greer, 24, a former Missionary Baptist and current Virginia Theological Seminary student, the liturgy’s poetic language was a way into the church. “I had run out of words in my personal prayer life and the church was able to say words it had been saying for centuries that I just couldn’t find for myself.”

Consistently asking the questions of faith – as individuals, as churches, as dioceses – is a given, and the challenge of inaccessible language can be overcome by the church “educating its people and those outside it,” he said.

“We say the Nicene Creed every week but we know that it doesn’t mean the same thing to us as to the people who wrote it. And so that’s why there is value in saying the same words that people have always said but knowing that those words are not static. They are living and offer life and new meaning for us and part of the task of the church is constantly interpreting what these words mean.”

About 40 Twitter followers responded to his recent tweet ‘what first drew you to the Episcopal Church?’ which he compiled into a Storify. For many, liturgy and language were the attractions.

“I thought to myself … why are we not tapping into this gift we have and sharing it with the world?” Greer said. “We think it’s so great and yet we don’t tell anyone about it and don’t tell anyone about the Christ we encounter in it.”

– The Rev. Pat McCaughan is a correspondent for the Episcopal News Service.

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Independence Day 2014

12989702-waving-usa-flagEvery day of my life I give thanks for being an American. I had nothing to do with where I was born, but I am grateful for this accident of birth. I mean no disrespect for any other country. I was born into a working class family in upstate South Carolina. My parents were the salt of the earth. They worked hard to earn a living and to make a home for my sister and me. They were the kind of people who made this the great country that it is. They believed in the American dream and they instilled that belief in the two of us. They taught us that all honest work is honorable. They taught us to respect ourselves and that all people are God’s children.

My wife was born into poverty in West Virginia. Most would have said that she had no chance for a successful life. A caring public school teacher saw her potential and inspired her to want more for herself. Both of us received good public school educations. Both of us enjoyed wonderful, successful careers and after different paths we found each other later in life. Neither of us could have had the lives we have enjoyed any place else in the world.

I am proud that my country is still striving for that more perfect union. I am proud that we elected an African/American as president, but I will be just as happy when we elect a woman or a Hispanic. I will be even happier when those qualifiers are not even mentioned. Freedom and opportunity still ring from every hilltop and valley

I am thankful that we are free to worship or not to worship as we choose. I salute the flag. I proudly recite The Pledge of Allegiance and my spine tingles with the sounds of our national anthem, America the Beautiful and God Bless America. In the words of the country song, “I am proud to be an American.” My heart aches when our government abandons out time honored values of just treatment of our enemies.

I pray without shame, God bless America. I pray for our leaders and for those who protect us at home and abroad. I pray that we will always be that land that proudly proclaims, “Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free.” We are a nation of immigrants and our society has profited from the contributions of all those who came.

As we celebrate Independence Day, give thanks for all of those who gave their lives that you and I could enjoy this great land of freedom. Give thanks for those who strive every day to make this a more perfect union. Give thanks for those whose political opinions are different from yours because that means that we are still free to disagree and to express those disagreements. I did not ask anyone’s permission to write or publish this article and there are no guards outside my door. I can read whatever I choose to read and I can travel whenever and wherever I choose without interference. I will spend the day celebrating with my family the blessings we enjoy but too often take for granted. We must learn over and over again it seems that freedom isn’t really free.

On this Independence Day and every day of my life, I am blessed to be an American and I am grateful for the privileges and responsibilities that go with being a good citizen.

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