Tuesday, October 26, 2010

"Just heard the event you're at sucks...": When Real Time isn't the Right Time

I was really surprised by a post on my Facebook Wall last week from Charles LaFond, the Canon for Congregational Life of the Episcopal Diocese of New Hampshire. He wrote me:

How was the retreat? I have heard some disliked it but expected that. What did you think?

This was rather shocking because I was still at the retreat. We had a few minutes of break before our closing Eucharist, so I checked Facebook with my iTouch.

I also knew that Charles was on a vacation at Disney World. He had, for some reason, taken time out from Mickey and friends to seek my opinion on the retreat.

What I found out later is that Charles, in the process of posting some mobile photos from the Magic Kingdom, came across a "Friend's" post that, on some level, expressed dislike for the retreat. (I didn't ask who, or exactly what was said.) There were additionally some responses of agreement.

Turns out, Charles was the one who suggested the speaker for the retreat. Anxiety kicked in.

Charles told me later: "I Facebooked you quite literally to hear that it wasn't a total disaster, so I could get back to enjoying the roller-coasters."

One of the aspects that Facebook and Twitter encourage is the real time response to what you are currently doing. It's fun (and, sometimes, interesting to others) to post witty comments about life as we experience. It occurs to me, however, that in the ever growing world of real time expression, one should consider pausing on certain things that come to mind, like, for example, before posting what might be understood as a critique on a gathering of colleagues: especally in the close-knit community of a church.

(There's also something to be said here about avoiding Facebook, email and the like while on vacation...)

Most of us have been in meetings or the like where we would rather be anywhere else in the world. In the age of cell phones, many of us have texted or emailed a confidant expressing a virtual groan or sigh, or other choice words.

Facebook and Twitter (like email's "reply all" button ) are rather different animals. What is often intended as playful banter or expression quickly becomes critique or evaluation: and a public one at that.

My hunch is that the Facebook posts expressing dislike for the retreat was not intended to be a formal evaluation of the event. I also realize that anyone who posted anything resembling a critique of the event may feel bad upon reading this post: that's not my intent. The reality of Facebook and Twitter, however, is that everything you post on your Wall or in your Tweet Stream is public. While you may intend it for "friends only", are you really sure of every connection of those who will see what you write? Do you really want your 120 characters of reaction interpreted outside the context of a constructive evaluation or a face-to-face conversation (especially concerning people who you have a professional relationship with)?

As a clergy person, I imagine the perfect nightmare of a Facebook or Twitter post in the middle of one of my sermons: "OMG I am SO bored by this guy!!! When will it end!!!"

I'm also reminded of a story of Anne Lamont: Kookaburra, in her book Grace (Eventually): Thoughts on Faith.

Anne was in charge of the big Faith Fair of the church. Exhilarated (and exhausted) after a great day, she emails her bill from the event to the committee. Ten minutes later, she receives an email back from a committee member requesting receipts: Visa bill, cancelled checks.

Moral outrage kicks in. Anne writes:

"I reread the second email. And then I ratted the man out: I emailed everyone on the committee, and included a copy to our pastor, so she could see how unjustly I was being treated, how I was being hassled. I wrote, "Clearly, I do not have what it takes to be a Presbyterian," which means to be an anal-retentive petty bureaucrat. And, I added, "I simply cannot spend one more second on this matter." Then I hit Send.

I felt powerful and righteous, for several minutes. Then I felt like hell. I was a snitch. Why had I sent that email? It was clearly the kind of thing you wrote to get off your chest but not to send. Now the real me was being revealed in the high school showers of life."

This was not the end of the story. Anne reached back out to her friends. "I am sorry; ignore my earlier email," she writes to the committee and pastor. "Please forgive me. I know you already do."

By the next morning, everyone had emailed her back. The man who requested the receipts wrote: "We are here with only love for you, Annie."

In retrospect, I'm really glad that Charles posted to me, for I was actually enjoying the retreat:

"Been good Charles: I'm currently eating M&M's, sitting next to Sarah right before our closing Eucharist."

As it turns out, Sarah, the woman next to me, was the chair of the committee that put together the retreat! How thankful am I today that I really did like the program!!! If I hadn't enjoyed it, I could have easily responded with "Oh, I didn't really like it," potentially compounding the hurt feelings.

Reflecting now on the whole story, I hope to remember for myself that there's a right time and media to express the next time I'm discontented with an event...

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

A Parable on Justice and Prayer

(A sermon preached on Luke 18:1-18 at All Saints' Littleton NH on 10/17/2010)
“When our days become dreary with low-hovering clouds of despair, and when our nights become darker than a thousand midnights, let us remember that there is a creative force in this universe, working to pull down the gigantic mountains of evil, a power that is able to make a way out of no way and transform dark yesterdays into bright tomorrows. Let us realize the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.”

Martin Luther King, Jr.,
from his 1967 Address to the Southern Christian Leadership
Conference, entitled “Where Do We Go From Here?”

This morning’s Gospel parable of the persistent widow and the dishonest judge gets a great deal more use today that you may realize.

There seems to be a desired belief of many people concerning God, that, if we are persistent or faithful enough, God will intercede at our urging and do what we want God to do.

We see this prayer reality most often in situations of illness: prayers to God for someone’s recovery. In times of crisis, crying out to God for someone to be made well is not only voicing our heart’s desire, but expresses the realization of how little we are able to control: the hope that, somehow, God can do something when we are powerless to do it ourselves. Annie Dillard calls it “God sticking a finger in, if only now and then.” (For the Time Being, 1999, p. 169, quoted by John Buchanan)

This is understandable prayer in the midst of worry and concern for someone’s health. But consider the consequences if it spills into everyday living. John Buchanan writes:

“God is regularly given credit for finding a new job, selling a condo for a profit in a buyer’s market, a convenient parking place even. Super Bowl champions thank God who secured their victory (though we hear little from the loser’s locker room on the subject). The winner of the lottery, unemployed, down to his last eight dollars, offered up a prayer, “Help me, Lord...just let me win this,” and gave God credit for the $295 million jackpot. In (the Hebrew Scriptures book) 1st Chronicles, a (never before mentioned) man by the Jabez is remembered as the one who prayed: “Oh that you would bless me and enlarge my border, and that your hand might be with me, and that you would keep me from hurt or harm!” (1 Chr. 4:10) God complied, and on that basis some twenty-first century Christians are persuaded that God has unclaimed blessings for us, that God wants us to be selfish in our prayers, that it is appropriate to ask God to increase the value of your stock portfolio, and that God will open the storehouse of heaven if you pray persistently.” (Feasting on the Word, Year C, Vol. 4, Eds David Bartlett & Barbara Brown Taylor, 2010, p. 189)

There are plenty of ministers who preach this Prosperity Gospel: the idea that we are to badger God with requests for self so that God can give us all of the good things that God already wants to give us. However, it ignores the fact that so many faithful people throughout the world do not have their heartfelt prayers and requests fulfilled: even if it’s for basics like food, water, or shelter. It also couldn’t be farther from Jesus’ or the church’s teachings. Huston Smith writes, “When the consequences of belief are worldly goods, such as health, fixing on these turns religion into a service station for self-gratification and churches into health clubs. This is the opposite of religion’s role, which is to decenter the ego, not pander to its desires.” (Why Region Matters, 2001, p. 45, quoted again by Buchanan)

So what are we to make of Jesus’ parable? I think that we should start by remembering that the widow’s situation is different back then:

1) No husband = no rights

2) she could NOT testify in court

3) She was not supposed to talk with strangers, and had no right to even talk to the judge

The judge, legally, never has to hear her case, but the widow, with a constant cry for justice, finally gets to him. “I will grant her justice, so that she may not wear me out.” It’s important to note that we are told he “neither feared God nor had respect for people.” This tells us that he cared not at all for doing what is right. In other words, justice does not matter to this judge. On his own, he would have continued to ignore her. He still could have. He also could have also had her thrown in jail, or worse.

The impact of this reality is shown as we draw our attention to Jesus’ final question: “When the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on earth?” Peter Woods writes:

Why should the Son of Man not find faith on earth? Perhaps there is doubt in Jesus’ question because it is very difficult to keep praying in trust to a loving parent, when every circumstance of your life seems intractable and horrific. How do we keep trusting for “justice, liberation, wholeness, and cure” when there is no obvious way out?

It is here that the widow becomes our teacher. The widow had no rights. She in fact did not have access to the judge, but that did not blight her to bitterness, nor temper her trust. She kept right on calling, trusting despite all evidence to the contrary that there would be a breakthrough in her hopelessness.

It would seem that, for Jesus, faith doesn’t fix things as much as it gives
the capacity and courage to bear the unbearable.”

Jesus also seems to be saying that there will indeed be one day, when God’s kingdom is realized, where the cries for justice will all be answered. And yet, even today... in the most unlikely of circumstances...justice may still be found, and it matters that we stand up for it. In other words, your voice for justice matters today even if those in power seem uninterested, or even hostile.

God’s current role is to give us what we need in order to do this. John Buchanan suggests that the early church was not granted many of the things that it likely prayed for: safety from persecution, for one thing. However, it did receive what it most needed: a sense of God’s loving presence and attentiveness, and the strength and resilience and fortitude it needed to survive. We can count on God to come down on the side of justice. We can count on God to hear the ones who have no power, no influence, no voice. We can count on God to hear those who have nowhere else to turn. We can count on God not always to grant our requests, but to hear, with loving parental patience, the persistent prayers of our hearts. (FOW, p.193)

“When our days become dreary with low-hovering clouds of despair, and when our nights become darker than a thousand midnights, let us remember that there is a creative force in this universe, working to pull down the gigantic mountains of evil, a power that is able to make a way out of no way and transform dark yesterdays into bright tomorrows. Let us realize the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.”

Thanks be to God!

Friday, October 15, 2010

H2O in 2010

Blog Action Day is an annual event held every October 15 that unites the world’s bloggers in posting about the same issue on the same day with the aim of sparking a global discussion and driving collective action. This year's topic is water.

I'll stick to experts today:

From water.org

"Today’s water crisis is not an issue of scarcity, but of access. More people in the world own cell phones than have access to a toilet. And as cities and slums grow at increasing rates, the situation worsens. Every day, lack of access to clean water and sanitation kills thousands, leaving others with reduced quality of life."

The UN has declared access to water a basic human right...

The Natural Resources Defense Council has things that you can do, wherever you live

And, in a list that will shock you, treehugger.com reports how many gallons of water it takes to make many of the items we take for granted.

Learn for yourself, and share what you know!

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Just in case you're at my blog for thoughts on Stephen Colbert...

Welcome to anyone visiting from the Religion News Service article by Kimberly Winston!

In case you're looking for what I've written on Stephen Colbert, I need to tell you there's nothing on the blog. I had a great phone conversation with Kimberly, and I think she wrote a solid article.

I did post on Colbert's congressional hearing on Facebook last week:

"Leave it to Stephen Colbert to make a Congressional hearing interesting. Among the satire, however, is the real point. Colbert is asked why, of all the issues he could talk about, does he speak on this issue. Dropping out of character, Colbert says:

I like talking about people who don't have any power...I feel the need to speak for those who can't speak for themselves....We ask them to come and work, and then we ask them to leave again. They suffer, and have no rights."

Hope you'll stick around and check out the blog!

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Glee: Grilled Cheesus

I've written on Glee before, but I cannot pass this up:

Last week's episode was "religious": theme-wise AND results-wise.

And it all begins with a grilled cheese sandwich...

Finn sees the face of Jesus in his lunch, prepared on a George Forman grill. He is moved to prayer, thinking God is speaking to him. Finn asks for help in winning our first football game. In return, promises to try and get the Glee club to "go Jesus" in song.

Lo and behold, they win.

Finn, under the belief that "Grilled Cheesus" has answered his prayers, testifies in front of the Glee club, insisting that they should sing about Jesus and faith: surprising all and shocking some. The reaction is mixed: some like the idea, others are wary. Mr. Shue suggests that they go with a "spiritual" theme for the week, to the apparent uneasiness of Rachel and Kurt.

We quickly learn that Rachel's worry is self-centered: in her clearly developed picture of her life, she sees her kids (with Finn, of course) raised Jewish (A plot device that leads Finn to further trust in Grilled Cheesus).

Meanwhile, Kurt's father has a heart attack, and lies in a coma in the hospital.

With the best of intentions, the members of the Glee club reach out to share their faith and prayers for Kurt.

Kurt, while appreciating the gesture, makes it clear that he doesn't want their prayers: he doesn't believe in God.

Kurt simply and powerfully states that he doesn't see the need to believe in a God that first makes him gay, and then subject to ridicule and rejection by God's followers.

Kurt continues to push away his friends as they attempt to do what they can for Kurt and his father: expressing their faith, and hope for healing.

There has been some criticism how the "atheistic characters" in television are tortured souls or generally unhappy people (in Glee's case, Kurt, who is gay, and evil Sue). I can see the point, but I would suggest that Kurt is, in actual, a rather stable person (well, as far as a gay teen can be in our current society....) He's not miserable in general. He accepts who he is, and has friends who do as well. Sure, being a high schooler is dramatic, and with his father's sudden illness, we see him in crisis: but it's not do to his atheism.

Sue, on the other hand, is a tortured soul (or at least a soul who likes to torture others...). Her move to help Kurt stop the Glee club from singing about religion, however, is not her typical pettiness, but a serious aversion to praying for "good things to happen". She represents the other side of the pray to get mentality. This is actually the same kind of faith as Finn, who gets what he wishes from praying to Grilled Cheesus, and thus becomes vocal and adamantly pro-God.

People often yearn for religious certainty (and simplicity). Sue decided long ago that there is no God because she prayed to God to cure her older sister, which did not happen. So God must be a joke and not exist.

This is a candy machine mentality to our relationship with God. We put our money in the slot, press the button, and expect the results to appear below. A good result, we have our proof that God is good, and give praise to God who must have answered our prayers. No results (or bad results), we either explain it away (God must have a greater purpose) or reject it (there is no God, because if there was, God would not allow this to happen).

Sue reconsiders her position after talking with her sister: realizing that, at the very least, faith is a little more complicated than she was willing to admit.

Finn also reaches this point when his third prayer to Grilled Cheesus goes horribly wrong: getting to be quarterback again, but only after the starting QB gets his collar bone broken on a play Finn suggests. With great guilt, he goes to Counselor Emma to confess "what he's done." Emma convinces him that his "wishes" were things that were rather likely to happen, and that God is not really talking to him through an image of Jesus in a sandwich. Finn sees the truth in this, but professes that he liked the idea of God talking to him, and he now feels very alone. Emma wisely suggests that he has company in this: that this is an eternal human struggle. Finn singing REM's "Losing My Religion" really brings this home.

Kurt finally goes with Mercedes to church: not because he is seeking God, but because Mercedes is his best friend, and he trusts her. She seeks not to convert him, but to express her hope for him (and share the strength of her community) in the midst of tragedy. The results are lovely: Kurt remains atheistic, but understands Merecedes point of the need for human beings to believe in more than themselves (in Kurt's case: believing in the relationship between him and his father, and seeing it as sacred, which reflects back to their opening conversation in the show.) It is beautifully done.

The overall point of this episode is that real religion is not professing certainty, but engaging the questions of who we are and how the world works. The questioning of who we are, the things that happen to us in our lives, and the way we make sense of it all (individually and community) are worthwhile endeavors: whether we end up Christian, Jewish, Islamic, Sikh, or Atheistic (all mentioned in this episode). Making room to hear where others are strengthens our common humanity, and ultimately leads us to see beyond our individual selves. The "sacred" becomes where our lives intersect with others: embodied in the ensemble version of Joan Osborne's "One of Us", and the wonderfully delivered closing dialogue between Mr. Shue and Sue.

Wednesday, October 6, 2010


The digital age has more than its shares of fears: worms and viruses designed to electronically rob or reek havoc, and deception and misdirection designed to coerce or compromise. The fear of the virtual predator must be foremost is many adults eyes: especially as we see children and teens spend so much time plugged in. Many of us, however, miss that the harm most likely to be found on the internet by kids comes not from the hardened criminal, but from their peers.

The case of Tyler Clementi, the Rutgers University freshman who jumped off the George Washington Bridge after a sexual encounter with another man was broadcast online, has shocked many. But his death is just one of several suicides in recent weeks by young gay teenagers who had been harassed by classmates, both in person and online.

The list includes Billy Lucas, a 15-year-old from Greensburg, Ind., who hanged himself on Sept. 9 after what classmates reportedly called a constant stream of invective against him at school.

Less than two weeks later, Asher Brown, a 13-year-old from the Houston suburbs, shot himself after coming out. He, too, had reported being taunted at his middle school, according to The Houston Chronicle. His family has blamed school officials as failing to take action after they complained, something the school district has denied.

CNN is doing a whole series on stopping bullying, including this piece by Stephanie Chen:

Kids are more digitally connected than ever, according to the Kaiser Family Foundation, which reported that children devoted an average 7 hours a day to their gadgets. The proliferation of cell phones, iPods and Facebook brings a complicated challenge for parents, teachers and students: The constant exposure to technology and the web amplifies opportunities for children to bully each other online.

One in five youths between age 10 and 18 have been a victim of cyberbullying or participated in cyberbullying, according to a survey of 4,400 children conducted by the Cyberbulling Research Center, an organization tracking the internet bullying trend. This figure is conservative, because children are often afraid to come forward to their parents, bullying experts say.

Cyberbullying can take on various forms, from a middle-schooler firing a hurtful text message to high school teens harassing a boyfriend or girlfriend online. The National Crime Prevention Council defines cyberbullying -- a term practically nonexistent more than a decade ago --- as what "happens when teens use the internet, cell phones, or other devices to send or post text or images intended to hurt or embarrass another person."

"It's a daily nightmare," said Alexandra Penn, founder of Champions Against Bullying. a nonprofit based in Los Angeles, California, that provides resources for reducing incidences of traditional and internet bullying in schools. "There's nowhere to run, nowhere to hide.”

Recent research shows that cyberbullying can cause higher levels of depression in a child than traditional bullying. Compared with face-to-face bulling of schoolchildren, a child who had experienced cyberbullying from someone anonymous "may be more likely to feel isolated, dehumanized, or helpless at the time of the attack, " according to a study from the National Institutes of Health.

The CNN article goes on to report that many states, schools, and private communication companies are responding by trying to get new laws and measures, hotlines, and technology to combat cyberbullying, but the virtual ground to cover is vast.

I have a list of "Blogs Worth a Look" on the left side of my screen, and noticed two of them have posted on this subject as well:


I've also been impressed by the coverage from Catholics for Equality's Facebook page

Don't despair, but don't be silent either. Malcolm quotes Dr. King:

When our days become dreary with low-hovering clouds of despair, and when our nights become darker than a thousand midnights, let us remember that there is a creative force in this universe, working to pull down the gigantic mountains of evil, a power that is able to make a way out of no way and transform dark yesterdays into bright tomorrows. Let us realize the arc of the moral universe is long but it bends toward justice.

Amen! Amen! Amen!

Tuesday, October 5, 2010

Sharing Sincere Faith

(A sermon preached at All Saints' Episcopal Church on 10/3/2010)

Some of you may have seen an unusual sight while walking on Main Street last weekend. There was a strange man whose nametag read “Kurt Wiesner”, walking around with a sign; imploring people come up to All Saints’. Sounds like me, but it wasn’t me. I did, however, have a had in this: after all, I made the sign.

Truth be told, I didn’t really suspect to see my father working the streets of Littleton like his sign proclaimed the message that the world was ending, and not just that now was the opportunity to come eat pie (although some would consider this message of equal importance).

My father got such a kick from helping out at the Pie Festival, and both of my parents greatly enjoyed their time interacting with so many of you. Their enthusiasm of course started with the fact that Darlene and I are here at All Saints', but I believe that their passion for All Saints’ is in no small part due to the spirit of this congregation, clearly seen in so many of you.

Last night at the White Mountain School, I was able to witness more healthy family passion. I attended the Alumni dinner. I was there, as the All Saints’ Rector and as a Trustee of the school, to offer a blessing. I adapted a quote from the National Association of Episcopal Schools in my blessing that was well received…a quote that was later read by Head of School Tim Breen in his summation of the state of the school.

“Above all, Episcopal schools exist, not merely to educate, but to demonstrate and proclaim the unique worth and beauty of all human beings as creations of a loving, empowering God.”
(National Association of Episcopal Schools)

The presentations of the night, from start to finish, echoed this view of formative growth for the entire school community.

The best part of my evening, however, came at my dinner table. I sat with 6 women: all from the class of 1955. We talked a lot of church, All Saints in particular, as well as the school’s identity as an Episcopal School. We talked about changes from the past and how it all connects to the present and future.

I probably talked too much, truth be told. I couldn’t help myself: I was too excited about the hope for the church and the school: and revved up by the clear involvement and interest from my table of enthusiastic former students of the school.

These women clearly loved their school, and yearned for its continued success…not for the sake of memory, or to make the school like it used to be…but because they were grateful for the opportunity that it had given them, and heartened by what it was now offering to others.

It wasn’t just my table: this energy came from everywhere in the room.

The women reflected a joyous desire to be connected to the good things desired by the current generation of students, faculty and staff, and there was enthusiastic commitment to the future of the school.

This is the same energy that we have been seeing here at All Saints’: valuing the current place as well as the potential of every person, and investing our time and effort into the support of one another.

It was then that I recalled a piece of the Epistle reading for this morning from the 2nd Letter to Timothy:

“I am reminded of your sincere faith, a faith that lived first in your grandmother Lois and your mother Eunice and now, I am sure, lives in you.”

There is of course a twinge of painful nostalgia here...

It have seen the great frustration of many a parent, grandparent, uncle and aunt. After all, so many people now see their children and younger relatives in different churches, or no church at all.

Likewise, many a person has been scared by a family members’ judgment and heavy handed attempts to force particular beliefs and practices.

This is often the difficult reality between generations: not just now, but at various times of history.

But I wonder what exactly is being praised in the Epistle, in the uplifting of Lois and Eunice. Did they force their faith onto their offspring? Are they being commended because they made the next generation like them? I doubt it: trying to make others believe like us almost always ends with disappointing results.

I am willing to bet, in the transformative times of the 1st century, that the faith of Lois, Eunice, and Timothy did not look the same. Grandmother, mother and son did not necessarily share the same viewpoints. They were each their own person, they likely had different understandings of the world, and certainly they lived their lives in different ways.

Clearly, they made loving, faithful room for each other.

My hunch is that first Lois, and then Eunice, gently shared their joyful stories with their child: the stories of God, family, tradition, experience, and what their faith meant to them.

As each child became an adult, they could appreciate the things freely shared, and could choose to incorporate these ideas into their own understanding.

I believe that it is the sharing of stories and “sincere faith” that ultimately connects the generations to each other: creating not clones, but people who learn how to think critically and make informed decisions for themselves.

When our faith shines through in a way that does not attempt to coerce or force, those who witness our sincerity come away with the sense of hope and love. Instead of creating places of weighty restriction, we demonstrate the great generosity that God has for all of creation.

We become connected in our shared hopes, in our understood differences, and in our sense of responsibility to one another.

That faith is found at the White Mountain School, in the Episcopal Church, and here at All Saints’.

Thanks be to God.