Tuesday, December 31, 2013

A New Year's Resolution for the Episcopal Church: No More Photos of Buildings

Go to a lot of Episcopal Church web sites, and chances are the first thing you'll see is a picture of the exterior of the church building. Or maybe the interior, empty. Or the sign, which will probably say something about welcoming. The trouble is that none of these images communicate useful information about why our communities are special and worth checking out. Here are four reasons to quit with the pictures of buildings already, and four more productive things to do instead.

4 Reasons Not to Take Photos of Buildings

1) No one cares. Unless you’re Washington National Cathedral or St. John the Divine, your building may be pretty, but it’s not pretty enough that you should lead with its image. Your building is important to you because it’s the site of countless communions, baptisms, funerals, weddings: events that have made a difference in your life. Your affection for your building is a side effect of your participation in a worshipping community, not the other way around.

This historic photo of the Episcopal Church of All Saints in Indianapolis is beautiful but it doesn't tell you anything about the church community.

2) It reinforces the wrong narrative. The popular narrative about the Episcopal Church these days is that we’re a grand old church in decline. When we post exterior shots of our edifices or interior shots of empty pews, we’re implicitly telling visitors to our web sites and Facebook pages that that’s all we’ve got. There are plenty of growing Episcopal churches out there that have other things they can be taking pictures of. Even if your church isn’t growing today, there is some spark of resurrection power that keeps you and your fellow parishioners coming back. Show that.

3) It takes courage to go into a church. Believe Out Loud recently published an article about the courage it can take for an LGBT person to walk into a church. That’s true, but it’s actually too narrow a view. In an increasingly unchurched culture, where Christianity has a sometimes deservedly shoddy reputation, think about what it takes for any person who has never been part of a church community, or who hasn’t been part of one for a while, to come inside. A picture of your beautifully dressed altar or sign out front communicates nothing about whether this is a safe space.

4) It misses the point of Jesus. In John’s Gospel, right after driving the money changers out of the Temple, Jesus says “Destroy this Temple, and in three days I will raise it up.” (John 2:19). John goes on to state explicitly that Jesus is referring to his own body when he says this. Our focus then, is not to be on the buildings where God is worshipped, but on God. Our buildings are places where we gather in community to orient our lives together around Jesus. But if we’re focusing on the buildings, we are fixating on what “will be thrown down” (Mark 13:2), not the raising up that’s happening in our lives.

4 Things to Do Instead

1) Focus on people. People coming into a church want to have a sense of who they’ll meet when they’re there, who they’ll be praying and breaking bread with. It’s fine to have posed shots of your clergy and staff, but have pictures of people in worship, fellowship, and service. Show what being a part of your community is like.

2) Focus on faces. Shots of the back of people’s heads are nearly as common in church photography as empty buildings, and just as off-putting. There’s a reason you don’t see many depictions of the backside of the cross - it doesn’t communicate useful information. I suppose back of the head shots say something about the age of your congregation, but that’s about it.

3) Use close-ups. It’s ok to include long shots in the mix, but closer shots of people laughing or praying or serving together will have a lot more details and a lot more interest. When you’re taking team pictures at a Habitat build or CROP Walk, remember that you don’t have to include people’s entire bodies in the picture. Cut ‘em off at the waist so we can see faces.

4) Everyone in your congregation can participate. Most people in your congregation probably have a camera in their purse or pocket. Harness that. Churches can establish new social norms and give permission to use them. Not every church will or should arrive at the same standards (be thoughtful about photos of children, for instance), but most every church should be able to come up with something. Then, encourage people to post the pictures to your church’s Facebook page or Flickr account where your communications team (you’ve got one of those, right?) can curate them.

Maybe you’ve got a great building. Maybe you don’t. Either way, stop taking pictures of it. In 2014, resolve to show the light and joy of your community gathered in Christ’s love. Check out the links below for a little inspiration.

Web sites:
St. Paul’s - Seattle, WA

A Year of More - All Saints - Indianapolis, IN

Thanks to Carolyn Clement (@singingcarolyn) and Mark Alves (@markalves) for insights that contributed to this article.

Updated 1/1/2014 to add link to The Episcopal Church in South Carolina's excellent 2013 photo album.

Sunday, August 11, 2013

Bible Challenge Week 26

I was supposed to write for the Bible Challenge blog this week, but I missed my deadline and Grace+ is on vacation till midweek, so I'm posting this here till she's back and able to post it on the Trinity blog.

Bible Challenge Week 26: Esther 4-Job 9, Psalm 143-148, 2 Corinthians 2-7

If this week’s readings have a common theme, it is the contingency of mortal existence. Read with modern eyes, it is hard to escape a sense of foreboding for the Holocaust in Esther’s story of a plot to slaughter all of the Jews throughout the Persian empire. Through skillful political maneuvering and some measure of good fortune Esther and her adopted father manage to avert catastrophe and achieve a secure status for the Jews in Persia. But this security is no longer due to Israel being a powerful kingdom. It comes instead from the goodwill of political authorities, and is therefore constantly at risk.

The book of Job, where we’ll be spending most of the rest of August, is a deep theological exploration of the meaning of suffering. In the section we read this week, Job, a righteous man under the law, loses most of his possessions, his children, and his health. His friends begin to posit explanations for his suffering, with those we read to this point focusing on Job’s inherent imperfection as a mortal and the possibility of some unknown transgression.

Meanwhile, the reader sees that God is permitting Satan to test Job. What is most surprising about this is the direct acknowledgment, in scripture, of what we know to be true. Terrible things happen to people for reasons that we cannot discern. It may be too much to say that these things are God’s will, but our powerful God does not stop them. We read in Job a foretelling of our own contingency, that no matter our efforts, injury, accident, or disease stalk us all. To dust we will return.

Yet what is a jar of clay but moist, pliable dust fired in a kiln? We are not without hope. In his second letter to the Corinthians, a loving follow-up to his reproving first letter, Paul emphasizes that contained within our mortal bodies is the spark of our creator. This spark does not protect us from being afflicted, perplexed, persecuted, or struck down, but: “We do not lose heart. Even though our outer nature is wasting away, our inner nature is being renewed day by day...Because we look not at what can be seen but at what cannot be seen; for what can be seen is temporary, but what cannot be seen is eternal.”

How then to respond to the challenges, suffering, and affliction of our lives? Well, we can do as Job does in these early chapters: rage against God - a legitimate and sometimes appropriate choice. But this section of the Psalms gives us another way forward. Psalm 148 is a full-throated song of praise to the creator from the whole creation. Paul writes that “Christ always leads us in triumphal procession”, for which songs of praise are typically more fitting than laments as marching songs.

Saturday, August 3, 2013

I Like Bar Charts and I Cannot Lie

I have been a long-time admirer from afar of St. Paul's Seattle, who I think has a marvelous online presence. I'm going to be in Seattle for the first time since I was a teenager, so I'm super-excited that I finally get to visit this Sunday.

But one thing I asked myself was whether this church could possibly be as good as its website. I'm a data-driven kind of guy, so I scurried right over to the Episcopal Church Office of Research's website, and boy howdy, was I impressed.

See that red bar? That's average Sunday attendance more than doubling since 2004. This in a denomination whose prevailing narrative is that we've been in decades of decline.

Now, St. Paul's is a progressive Anglo-Catholic parish, the kind of place Ross Douthat argues is ideologically unsavable, and liturgically is relentlessly uncool. I can't say for sure what's going on at St. Paul's but it got me thinking about another progressive Anglo-Catholic parish I've been hearing some buzz about, Atonement Chicago.

Ok, not as dramatic as St. Paul's, but numbers are moving the right direction.

And then I thought about the parish where my church's rector did her fieldwork in seminary, St. Paul's Norwalk, another progressive Anglo-Catholic place, and...wait, is that right? Average Sunday attendance up 300% over the last 10 years?

What about other progressive Episcopal churches without the high church accoutrements? One of my favorite places to visit is Grace Chicago. It's located in the rapidly changing South Loop neighborhood, and its congregation reflects the neighborhood, with young professionals and the urban poor sitting side by side.

I can't tell you for sure what's going on at all these places - Grace is the only one I've attended, but at my peril I'm going to hazard a quick guess. In a recent article for Religion Dispatches, Meghan Florian wades into the debate sparked by Rachel Held Evans' article for CNN, "Why Millennials are Leaving the Church." Florian notes, "The thing that I miss most in this flurry of articles? Mention of the holy spirit moving in people’s lives. Encounters with the living God." This insight hits the mark for me.

The Anglo-Catholic style of worship attempts, and occasionally succeeds, at mediating an experience between the human and the divine. I make no claim that Anglo-Catholicism is the only way to do this, nor even the best way - just that its deliberateness, drama, and occasional obscurity may confer some advantages in communicating the mystery of God. But Grace Church, which isn't high church in the slightest, manages to communicate this too, through extensive use of silence and through the moving practice of allowing the congregation to declare their intentions for the Eucharist while standing around the altar at the 8am Sunday service.

Whatever the style, these practices in worship - in progressive churches, no less - define a space and time set aside for the holy, offering the potential for an encounter with the undefinable divine. Couple that with a sincere welcome for visitors coming in the door (I'm looking to experience this St. Paul's Seattle - don't disappoint me), and you may have something very powerful indeed.

Friday, May 31, 2013

At Some Point Fights Must End

A friend forwarded me an article from the American Spectator this morning deploring the Boy Scouts' change in policy to permit gay scouts to participate without lying about who they are. The author, Mark Tooley, argued that in changing its policy, the scouts consign themselves to the same fate as the Episcopal Church:
The BSA is deciding the follow the disastrously predictable path of once mainstream but now dying institutions like the Episcopal Church, which gets occasional media plaudits for its sexual liberalism but is otherwise ignored. And like the Episcopal Church, the BSA of the future, after losing a million members or so, will probably rely on the endowments of the dead rather than the active interest of the living, much less the very young.
Mark Tooley is with the Institute for Religion and Democracy, an outfit whose primary purpose is to discredit progressive theology within mainline Protestant churches. They mainly hang out on the disaffected internet fringes (Virtue Online, Juicy Ecumenism, etc.), and occasionally manage some mainstream exposure. They have little history of caring much about the Boy Scouts - the real target of their attack here are the UCC, the Episcopalians, etc. The most surprising thing about this article is its naked animus toward gay people; their normal MO is to cloak themselves in respectability before going on the attack. I don't worry too much about these people because they are basically PR hacks whose paychecks depend on their holding of these views.

That said, Tooley's statistics with regard to the Episcopal Church are correct. And even his interpretation of them, to a limited degree. Focusing for a moment on the Episcopal Church, in my view the great fights over sexuality over the last few years have been one of the reasons for our decline in numbers (though there are many others). That doesn't mean the fight isn't worth having, but we have to recognize that fighting comes at a cost - which is that few people want to join an organization that is fighting. The fact that these fights have stretched over decades, complete with lawsuits and schisms, means that taken as a whole, the church has been focusing so much on its internal stuff that it is little wonder that our funerals outnumber our baptisms by a wide margin.

Again, that is not to suggest that the fight was not worth having. But at some point the fights must end. The Episcopal Church has not gone as far on same sex marriage as I would like; neither have the Boy Scouts gone as far as I think they ultimately must with regard to adult leaders (I was a Life Scout; I came out before making Eagle and left before I could be kicked out). But now is a good time for laying down arms.

Within the Episcopal Church, the space that has been created allows for conversion of hearts. There are many who disagree with the stance the church has taken with regard to LGBT people. But they have chosen to stay. So we can remain in conversation with each other, worship together, and mutually prove to each other that it is right for us to remain in relationship. This is a posture that enables an outward focus to re-engage with the world outside the church, and to invite people into Christ's love, not our quarrels.

Just so with the Boy Scouts. Will hundreds of thousands leave? Time will tell. But just as many churches say they will cease to sponsor Boy Scout troops, there have been many churches that, for reasons of conscience, have declined to sponsor them. They should not wait for the Boy Scouts to come around on gay leaders before they shift their stance. The correctness of the decision the Scouts have just made will be found in a new generation of Eagle Scouts, some gay, some straight, who have grown up in an organization that values all young men, and who will reform the same organization to similarly value adults.

For both the Boy Scouts and the Episcopal Church: no one will ever care how just our policies for membership and participation, ordination and marriage, are if we are ultimately self-involved organizations who make no difference to anyone else. It is time for those who have campaigned for change in these organizations to pivot from agitation to support, while recognizing there is still work to do to get to full equality.

Saturday, May 4, 2013

Dow Jones ex Machina - Comments on the 2014 Draft Budget of the Diocese of Indianapolis

This article represents solely the opinions of its author and does not reflect the opinions of the Episcopal Church of All Saints or the Diocesan Reimagining Task Force.

2014 Diocese of Indianapolis Draft Budget
2014 Diocese of Indianapolis Draft Budget Narrative

“For to those who have, more will be given, and from those who do not have, even what they seem to have will be taken away.” Luke 8:18

I have been participating in the Diocese’s Bible Challenge since Lent began. With the encouragement of some hardy souls from around the diocese gathering on Facebook, and the peer pressure of a group of faithful readers in my own parish, I have been more or less keeping up with the reading.

That means that I have come across Matthew, Mark, and Luke’s formulations of one of Jesus’s hard, impenetrable teachings multiple times in rather short order. In the context of our faith, so rich with grace, what could this saying, which seems to confirm, not confront, avarice and self-dealing possibly mean?

As a professional in the investment industry, I work with
a number of endowed institutions, some religious, most secular. I am very familiar with the financial blessings and challenges they face. This experience also places me in sympathy with those who are very concerned about the current rate of spending from the endowment, though I am perhaps less concerned than some.

It is appropriate, for instance, that we overspend what is generally accepted as a sustainable spending policy for an endowment in the midst of economic crisis. The endowment can function as a cushion to prevent catastrophic withdrawal of services in response to what may be temporary circumstances. It also allows the church in particular to distinguish itself as a reliable bulwark of support for needs of the wider community. As the economic emergency recedes, the endowment is then able to resume a normal level of spending as the portfolio’s market value recovers.

That is the theory, at any rate. But it has its limits. First, even in the most soundly managed institution, this approach implies that on average, the organization will be spending slightly more than a sustainable rate. That means that periodically the endowment needs to be topped up with a capital campaign or a major gift. This is not a sign of failure. Rather it is a sign that the donor’s original gift has been successful in sustaining the institution and providing a strong foundation for a new generation to build on. The Diocese of Chicago has recently been the recipient of such a major gift. We should be asking ourselves whether our mission is oriented to inspire similar generosity.

Second, this strategy can be sustained for some time in an institution that is structurally financially sound. But an organization that has a significant structural mismatch between revenues and expenses will inevitably run into a wall. The Diocese of Indianapolis fits the latter description today. Our largest single expense, health care, is largely outside our control. Almost half of our parishes receive some form of direct diocesan aid. These two areas of the budget are among the few to receive a significant increase in the current draft of the 2014 budget. Meanwhile, in the areas that the diocese once truly mattered to the community around us, as the visionary organization that founded numerous organizations ministering to prisoners, victims of domestic violence, and the homeless, we are now reduced to a payroll and benefits administrator. It should be a point of pride for us that these organizations are more or less able to stand on their own as independent organizations. But it is to our shame that as we are managing our budget today our diocese looks like it will never do so much good again.

Third, our current approach to the budget, which focuses on keeping up appearances and maintaining the status quo despite our diminishment in finances and numbers, puts us at spiritual peril. Rather than transforming in response to new circumstances, we find ourselves looking for a miracle from that other god, a Dow Jones ex machina, to restore us to our former glory.

Here we are, in the enviable position of being one of the wealthiest dioceses in The Episcopal Church, and year after year we find ourselves entrapped in narrative of diminishment, arguing over what to cut. Do we have little, or do we have a lot? How we approach our resources may prefigure how God will deal with us. For to those who have, more will be given, and from those who do not have, even what they seem to have will be taken away.

We are Christians. By definition, we have hope. And we are blessed to have ample examples of hope within this diocese. We speak often of the struggles of many of our small town parishes. But the vitality and comparatively strong material footing of parishes in places like Lawrenceburg and Bean Blossom among others challenge the notion that demographics dictate a declining church in Indiana’s small communities. We are among the few dioceses left to vigorously fund campus ministries, raising new generations of leaders for the church. Many of our large and small parishes are passionately engaged in local and global mission. For whatever its technical flaws, our diocese’s plans, expressed in the will of the 2011 diocesan convention, to give $500,000 for recovery in the Diocese of Haiti, shows our generous spirit.

Given the available resources and the present set of circumstances, how then might we begin to take steps to reorient our budget toward becoming a more visionary diocese, one whose resources show a greater commitment to loving our neighborhood and faithfulness to the Great Commission? Here are a few specific proposals:

1) Build capacity for stewardship at the parish level. We should take full advantage of our affiliation with The Episcopal Network for Stewardship, an excellent resource provider. My own attendance at their 2010 conference in Indianapolis was transformative in my understanding of a model of stewardship based on generosity rather than guilt. Specifically: The Episcopal Network for Stewardship is having another conference in Salt Lake City in July. While attending the conference is beyond the resources of many, TENS is offering four of its sessions on stewardship basics via webcast at the modest fee of $75. The Executive Council and Mission Strategy should work immediately to identify and recruit current or potential stewardship leaders in parishes needing additional stewardship training, providing scholarships for webcast attendance where needed. It seems this would be a wise investment of the Leadership Development line item in the 2013 budget. A potential approach would be to gather these leaders in a common location by deanery to view the webcasts together, accompanied by one or more proven stewardship leaders from throughout the diocese to facilitate discussion.

The stewardship capacity building could be further supported by structuring a portion of the mission strategy funding as matching funds based on incremental improvement in stewardship results based on Fall 2013 pledge campaigns. Speaking from the experience of All Saints, the availability of matching funds as an incentive for new or increased pledges has been instrumental in a renewed culture of stewardship in a parish not historically known for its affluence.

2) Identify whether we have Mission Strategy parishes ready to take a transformative step. Over the coming triennium The Episcopal Church has budgeted for the creation of 50 Mission Enterprise Zones to fund ministry to underserved populations within the church, to the tune of $20,000 each, structured as a matching grant. Consulting with parishes committed to creative ministry, Mission Strategy should work with parishes to identify opportunities to restructure diocesan funding to qualify for a Mission Enterprise Zone grant. The most obvious candidates for this funding appear to be our parishes doing work with Latino populations and/or in rural areas.

3) Defer increased funding for communications until at least 2015. We must focus on maximizing the use of free or low-cost technologies before committing additional funds. Rather than identifying a way to get print media into parishioners’ hands, we should instead maximize the reach of the Gathered Community, which presently reaches only 400 or so people due to the diocese’s lack of e-mail addresses. Given the historic ability of the diocese to procure mailing addresses for its print communications, devoting similar effort to obtain e-mail addresses would be a worthy project. The weekly mailbag should be opened to a broader audience and should use Constant Contact or a similar tool for distribution. This can be done for under $500 annually. This would dramatically improve this communication’s readability, and also provides the ability to archive the mailbag’s contents. The problems of our web site are well known, and probably do require additional funding at some point. But it is now reasonably functional and not a top priority.

The diocese must comply with the resolution passed at last year’s diocesan convention and engage seriously with social media. Our Facebook group is reasonably active, but functions more like a classic e-mail listserv than an official voice for our diocese. Effective use of social media gives the diocese and other church bodies the unique ability to intrude, for lack of a better term, into where a great many people today are spending a great amount of their time. And in the proliferation of feel-good “spiritual” quotes one may perceive the Athenians’ grasping for their unknown god. Many of our parishes are active and effective users, but by using Facebook ineffectively at the diocesan level, the official voice of our diocese is silent.

4) Reduce the scale of diocesan convention. Our almost-neighbor, the Diocese of Western Michigan, completed their 2013 diocesan convention a few weeks ago within the space of six hours or so on a Saturday. This not only reduces costs, but also broadens the potential base of participation, including to young people and those in professions such as teaching that find taking a Thursday afternoon and Friday off untenable. The legislative calendar could be cut down considerably by recognizing the fact that we are already bound by, not required to assent to, most General Convention legislation, allowing social and workshop time to be available, as well as cutting down the workload of our General Convention deputation. The costly symbolism of holding the convention in various locations throughout the diocese should be dispensed with in favor of using existing diocesan properties with capacity to host a group of our convention’s size.

5) Restore the funding to our cooperating ministries. I understand that it is the desire of some for the diocese to move away from the checkbook philanthropy it has historically practiced with regard to the cooperating ministries. It is true enough that what we have been doing in recent years falls far short of “transforming unjust structures of society”, as we are called in the Five Marks of Mission. This today is the only material way in which our diocese, as a household, contributes to the well-being of the community around us. We misinterpret the message of Jesus if we think that the insufficiency of our actions justifies taking no action at all. As a diocesan household, one of our most exciting possibilities is the ability to do mission on a scale no parish can do alone. We are also shortsighted if we neglect the power of visible service as a tool for evangelism. In the present day, the CROSSWalk initiative against gun violence taken on by the Diocese of Chicago is a prime example. Funding the cooperating ministries the way we have historically may not be the long term way forward for the Diocese of Indianapolis, but until we discern a longer term strategy (and we must), there is no excuse for turning our backs on local mission opportunities. The restoration of this line item can be funded by deferring the funding increase for communications, reduced funding for diocesan convention, and by reductions in Mission Strategy that I have every faith will be obtainable through an intentional focus on stewardship.

This is not a plan for the long term. But this is a nudge to move our diocesan budget back on the right track, a track that reflects the call of Jesus to make disciples and to love our neighbor. A track, that with careful planning and sincere discernment, may cause us to be an apostolic institution worthy of future financial gifts. Through the generosity of today’s stewards and history’s benefactors, God has seen to bless this diocese richly with financial resources. But the attitude with which we view what we have has everything to do with what will happen to it. For to those who have, more will be given, and from those who do not have, even what they seem to have will be taken away.

Episcopal Vocabulary Lessons - A Report from the Executive Council Listening Session

Monday, March 4, 2013

Bible Challenge Day 15 - A Triumph for the Gold Standard

Genesis 37-39, wherein Joseph alive is worth only 10 silver pieces less than Jesus dead.

Psalm 13, wherein God is cried to, and then trusted.

Matthew 13, wherein weeding the garden is not recommended.

The fact that Joseph is sold by his brothers to slave traders for 20 pieces of silver, while Judas betrays Jesus for 30 pieces some several thousand years later suggests some sort of triumph for advocates of the gold standard. Left unstated is who is minting the coins. You don't have money without some sort of political system...the only one the text tells us about is Egypt. Would be interesting to know what the archaeology has to say about this.

Tamar's deception of Judah is remarkable for the fact that the text seems to take her side. At the same time it is very troubling that it was apparently ok for Judah to patronize a prostitute but a capital offense for Tamar to be one. And yet temple prostitutes were part of the landscape somehow. Is this a tribal/class thing?

Sunday, March 3, 2013

Bible Challenge Week 2 Omnibus

[Insert stock sorry for not blogging mea culpa here.] At least I kept up with the reading.

So a lot happened. Sodom and Gomorrah were destroyed, Lot's daughters got him drunk and got busy with him, and the cast for Joseph and the Technicolor Dreamcoat was begotten. Jesus concluded the Sermon on the Mount and healed a lot of people. There's a strange episode where a bunch of swine charge into a lake and presumably drown, possessed by demons.

I'm finding the pace of this reading pretty enjoyable. It beats the snippets you usually get during worship by a lot. And when I was doing readings for my religious studies minor at IU, I was reading large quantities of scripture quickly, so I missed a lot of fine details while looking for larger themes.

Case in point - in the 11th chapter of Matthew, Jesus says this of his critics: "For John came neither eating nor drinking, and they say, 'He has a demon'; the Son of Man came eating and drinking, and they say, 'Look, a glutton and a drunkard, a friend of tax collectors and sinners!'"

The Bible is sorely lacking in dialog in the form modern readers would generally understand it, but this is one of those moments where it takes only a little imagination to picture this as a John Stewart bit. It pays to remember that Christians believe that Jesus is simultaneously fully divine and fully human. This is a very human moment.

Friday, February 22, 2013

Bible Challenge Day 5 - God Backs Away

Genesis 13-15, wherein Abram comes full circle, he and Lot are separated, then reunited through Abram's heroism, the first tithe is paid, and God promises Abram's descendants vast tracts of land.

Psalm 5, wherein the Psalmist is slandered, and asks for God's protection

Matthew 5, wherein Jesus says some beautiful and challenging things

Genesis is filled with competing visions who God is physically. We have God who walks in the Garden of Eden, from whom Adam and Eve literally hide in the bushes. Other people are described as "walking with God", notably Enoch (about whom we know basically nothing else), and Noah.

Abram's relationship with God is more distant. We know in Genesis 12:1 that God speaks to Abram, but what form God takes at that time is unclear; the same is true in 13:14, which seems to prefigure (or be another version of?) the covenant coming in chapter 15. But by chapter 15, it's seems that God is speaking to Abram in sometimes terrifying visions, that the days of God just walking around on the earth are at or near a close.

The image toward the end of today's reading, "When the sun had gone down and it was dark, a smoking fire pot and a flaming torch passed between these pieces" (the divided sacrifice that Abram had made earlier in the day), is a poignant sign of God tiptoeing away, no longer appearing to human eyes, but veiled by darkness, soon to stop leaving footprints on the earth.

Thursday, February 21, 2013

Bible Challenge Day 4 - The Psalmist vs. the Prosperity Gospel

Genesis 10-12, wherein we are exceptionally interested in the descendants of Shem, and also stop speaking the same language; also our hero Abraham (nee Abram) is introduced

Psalm 4, wherein the heresy of the Prosperity Gospel is refuted, mildly

Matthew 4, wherein Jesus is tempted by Satan, waited on by angels, and heals a bunch of people

I have given up alcohol for Lent, so I am tempted to imagine the angels showing up to wait on Jesus after his fasting as a heavenly flock carrying trays of dry martinis. I'm pretty sure that's not what happened.

But instead of fixating on the angels, I would rather focus on Psalm 4 for the moment. For me this is the first psalm that resonates with my own experience. It hints at the fact that faith in God is not a ticket to comfort and prosperity: "When you are disturbed, do not sin; ponder it on your beds, and be silent. Offer right sacrifices and put your trust in The Lord." If God were to always keep us comfortable, what would there be to be disturbed by? This is the reality of lived faith; what comfort there is comes from trust, not a deserved or bargained-for reward.

Wednesday, February 20, 2013

Bible Challenge Day 3 - Deserving to Drown

Genesis 7-9, wherein the earth is flooded and then something weird happens in Noah's tent, but I'm not quite sure what
Psalm 3, wherein the psalmist seeks deliverance from danger
Matthew 3, wherein Jesus is baptized by John the Baptist

There may be no greater example of history being written by the victors than the story of the great flood in Genesis. There may be bloodier stories in the Bible, but they don't often get painted on nursery walls. Don't get me wrong, the story of Noah is a good story, and who can resist imagining being on a boat with such a menagerie?

But spare a moment to think about this from a different perspective. 1998 was the year of the asteroid movie, and while Deep Impact was a plain also-ran compared to Armageddon and its unstoppable-please-make-it-stop Aerosmith theme song, it did feature the image of an estranged father and daughter making peace with one another on a beach, just as a monstrous tidal wave is about to consume them. This is, as far as I'm concerned, the only emotionally interesting moment in 4+ otherwise wasted hours of disaster porn. Yes, I saw both of them. In the theater. Judge not.

That one intimate moment, quickly swept away by the force of nature, may be a useful way to visualize the flood. The people drowned in this story had friends and families and children who didn't make it, lives and memories that disappeared when "all the fountains of the great deep burst forth, and the windows of the heavens were opened". It can be tempting to think that these dead deserved what they got, but I wouldn't be so quick.

Virtually the first thing Noah does when he's back on dry land is get completely plastered (by accident, but still) and then curse one of his sons for seeing him passed out naked (and whose fault is that exactly? This story is weird). This is the same man who a few chapters before was described as one who "walked with God." Perhaps he was never as righteous as he was earlier made out to be, or perhaps we have here an early indication that even the most righteous person can never fully merit God's grace on his or her own. I suspect that's a theme we'll come back to.

Tuesday, February 19, 2013

Bible Challenge Day 2: On the Run

Genesis 4-6 - wherein Cain kills Abel, the genealogy of Adam and Eve is rehashed twice, and Noah learns to be a shipwright/gamekeeper in a hurry

Psalm 2 - wherein David, presumably, asserts his authority as a king with divine favor

Matthew 2 - wherein Herod slaughters the children of Bethlehem, and the Holy Family is on the run.

The thing about Matthew is that he's very intent on making sure we understand that what is happening in the story is a fulfillment of what the prophets have said. So when Jesus is born in Bethlehem, it is fulfillment of scripture; when the Holy Family flees to Egypt, it is to fulfill a scriptural reference suggesting that the Messiah will come from Egypt; when Herod kills the children of Bethlehem, it is so a scripture foretelling great sorrow at the loss of children would be fulfilled, and when the Holy Family decamps from Egypt back to the Holy Land, it is so Jesus "will be called a Nazorean."

This is fine as far as it goes, but if you're really trying to place yourself in the story, to understand its wonder, violence, desperation, and displacement, the constant references to prophecy are a distraction. They impose an order on the story that Joseph and Mary could not at the time perceive.

It is easy for us to gloss over these early passages because they're so familiar that we know everything will be ok; Jesus will escape death (for now). But Joseph and Mary didn't know that. They chose homelessness and itinerancy just to keep their child alive.

Monday, February 18, 2013

Day 1: Wherein We Already Have a Contradiction


Genesis 1-3 - wherein the world is created, twice
Psalm 1 - wherein the law is praised
Matthew 1 - wherein Jesus is begat

I'm not going to say anything about the creation narrative other than that it is beautiful in both its grand sweep and small details. I will also take this opportunity to go on record as accepting evolutionary science with not the slightest bit of dismay. People who treat the Bible as a history book put themselves in the unfortunate position of having a falsifiable faith that forces them to close their eyes to what is right in front of them. That's not what I want nor is it what I believe God wants.

What I found most interesting in today's readings was actually the juxtaposition of Psalm 1 and Matthew 1. Psalm 1 talks about how the righteous "delight in the Law of The Lord". Meanwhile in Matthew 1, Joseph finds that his fiance is pregnant. Now, even if you haven't read the Old Testament laws before, I'm sure you are aware that women where there were doubts about their virginity before marriage tended not to come to a good end. But check this in Matthew: upon finding out about Mary's pregnancy, we have this: "Joseph, being a righteous man and unwilling to expose her to public disgrace, planned to dismiss her quietly." Considering what the Mosaic law gave him the right to do, well, it's just interesting to see that the Psalm regards adherence to the law as characterizing righteousness while Matthew suggests that a righteous man can be known by his mercy. I think this might be a helpful thought to return to as we get to some of the darker parts of the Old Testament.

Reading the Bible Again for the First Time

I learned about the Bible in what a large swath of Christianity regards as the most apostate way possible: in the classrooms of a public university. The circumstances were that I had what the Evangelicals call a conversion experience (Episcopalians don't have a native word for it, regrettably) when I was 20. Among the first things I realized was that I didn't know anything about the Bible.

So to fix that, during my junior year at Indiana University I decided to pick up a Religious Studies minor. I took classes on the Old Testament, New Testament, the thought of St. Paul, the history of American Christianity, and because getting the minor required a course on non-Western religions, I took a class on Confucianism and Taoism, most of which I have forgotten aside from reading an improbably number of texts involving ingesting cinnabar (That sounds like candy, by the way, but it's not. It's mercury ore. Apparently a lot of these people died untimely deaths).

The experience was thrilling. My headlong rush into the Bible took me straight into the realms of textual criticism, taking apart Paul's letters for clues to early Christian liturgy, understanding the different audiences the Gospel writers were addressing, and learning that there were three accounts of creation (one of which involves tearing a sea monster in half - bet you didn't know about that one). All this came as a shock to my more fundamentalist classmates, who had taken these classes only to be blasphemed to on a daily basis. But the more I learned about how these texts came to be, the more I learned about how the original Christians wrestled with the question of who Jesus was and what he meant, the more I found company for my maturing faith (this had its limits: there was a class where we discussed the Jesus Seminar, whose mission may be well-intentioned but I think is futile and silly). I developed a particular affinity for St. Paul, who like me had a sudden conversion, who remained a plainly flawed individual post-conversion (more so than he would admit, I'm sure), but could also write inspiringly and movingly about the love of God.

I came out the other side of my state-school Biblical education knowing the Bible backward and forward, with a particularly astute knowledge of Paul's letters and Gospels. I have now let that skill atrophy for about 15 years.
Aside from the hit or miss periods when I read the Daily Office, I haven't read the Bible systematically for a good long while. The last time I meant to was when I wound up in the hospital for a few days with a broken ankle when I was 27, but it turns out, weirdly, that large quantities of morphine are not conducive to a careful study of Matthew.

So I'm excited that the Diocese of Indianapolis is launching the Bible Challenge today. The plan is to read the entire Bible in one year. I'm particularly excited because while in the course of my education at IU I read the New Testament multiple times, I've read most, but not all, of the old. I realize part of the reason for that is that IU didn't see the point in making me read both Chronicles and Kings; I won't be so lucky this time.

I'm not going to promise much: reading the Bible is challenging enough without committing to write daily about it, but I'm going to endeavor to say something, at least every now and then. So, onward!