Category Archives: Clergy

Sharpton Scary on Social Justice

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Interesting clip from the Rev. with the hair.  He insists that “the struggle [for social justice] is not over until we achieve equality…the dream [of Dr. King] was to make everything equal in everyone’s house.”

I’m no Glenn Beck, but I do think that the concept of social justice is nebulous at best and socially and economically harmful at worst.  I don’t know nearly enough about King to say if his ‘dream’ was absolute equality, not merely of opportunity – or even outcome – but of property.  (Or am I reading too much into Sharpton’s comments?)

If, however, Rev. Sharpton is right, we won’t see anything approaching social justice until Jesus comes back.  I’ve been saying this for a while now.  I don’t think ‘social justice’ as a concept is very useful for setting any real political agendas.  It has nowhere near the utility – or the Christian content – of something like a “preferential option for the poor.”  But hey, it does sound good.  Besides, as long as middle-class whites learn to despise their privilege at our institutions of higher learning, they will continue to shout the tropes of ‘social justice’ as a way of justifying their own existence.  Others will preach it and legislate it as a way of courting the masses to allow them to remain in power.

Rev. Al is right.  “We’re not there yet.”  We won’t be, either, not this side of the eschaton.  Social justice is here to stay…at least until Jesus comes back.

Support and Training for Young Pastors

Young pastors need support that, in my experience, goes beyond what our respective denominations can provide.  And while the advice and friendship of trusted mentors is indispensable, I believe strongly that young clergy face particular challenges that make our meeting together for prayer, fellowship, and mutual support necessary.  There are, I’m sure, many places where this is possible, but I want to recommend one to you: the First Parish Project at the Hinton Rural Life Center in Hayesville, NC (think the corner of NC, GA, and TN).  Designed for clergy under 35 serving their first churches, I’ve met outstanding people in this program and it has meant the world to me.  My group has young clergy from many denominations, including Baptist, Methodist, Episcopal, Presbyterian, Nazarene, and A.M.E, drawn from Connecticut to Alaska.

One thing we all appreciate is that this program forces much-needed time away from the parish, where we recharge with worship and get refocused on our calling as ministers.  Best of all, it is funded by the Lilly Endowment, so compared to many programs it is quite affordable.  I’d be happy to answer any questions, but for now, here’s an aerial shot of the facility, nestled in the mountains of Western NC on a lake:

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Burnout is a major problem for all pastors, especially those of the young and idealistic variety.  Do yourself a favor – check out the First Parish Project.

Insulted at a nuptial Mass…or, ‘Aggressive Ecumenism’

What follows is a response I wrote to a Catholic priest who presided at a wedding mass I recently attended.  The names have been deleted to protect all parties.  While the mass was a traditional Latin Rite mass, that was not the issue.  The issue was the homily, in which he openly insulted Protestant Eucharistic practices and implied that all weddings outside the Catholic church were, in some sense, illegitimate.  I admit this is more for my own catharsis than anything – I had a great deal of rage initially, for which I have asked forgiveness – but I thought some of you might find it interesting.  My hope is that this embodies ecumenism at its best – dialogue that can bear fruit because it engages with another’s tradition out of deep respect and extensive study.   Enjoy:

Rev. _____,

        A short while ago, I attended the _______ nuptial Mass which you presided over.  I should tell you I am not close to either family; I came with my girlfriend who was a high school friend of the groom.  I am writing you because I must take issue with some things you said in your homily. I apologize for the delay, but I needed some time to get my thoughts in order and ensure I was writing with the correct intentions.  Your comments regarding the non-Catholic celebration of the Eucharist, as well as your more general comments about wedding rituals, both hurt and offended me.

            I doubt there were many people who caught your off-hand remarks about the Eucharist.  With the exception of my girlfriend, I do not believe any of the other Protestants in the audience understood what you were saying.  I, however, did, and found them profoundly inappropriate.  I recognize that Catholics and Protestants have different sacramental theologies (and of course, there is a great divergence within Protestant communities), but I think this is something to lament rather than make light of.  As I recall, you asserted, with a smirk, that Holy Eucharist was not just a “symbol” or a “metaphor,” and I believe you also used the phrase “real presence.”  I actually agree with all of that.  I have no problem with transubstantiation.  I have spent a great deal of time, in my young pastorate, trying to teach my congregation to have more reverence for the sacrament.  This is part of a wider movement within my denomination to work towards a more frequent celebration of Communion, a change for which I am greatly hopeful.

            But, to get back to my point, what purpose does it serve to mock other traditions?  Do you really believe there were Catholics there who thought the presence of Christ in the elements was only symbolic?  To put it succinctly, it struck me as a cheap shot.  I also took it personally, because I hold a great deal of respect for the Catholic tradition, particularly in worship and theology.  I grew up in a Southern Baptist-dominated area of North Carolina, where all kinds of horrific stereotypes about Catholic persist.  I am very grateful that I had teachers and friends that helped me to appreciate the beauty of the Catholic faith, and this is a lesson I try to instill in my parishioners.

            Furthermore, it seems disingenuous to mock Protestant practices when Catholic teaching has at least a modicum of respect for them.  Vatican II’s decree on Ecumenism states,

“Our separated brothers and sisters also carry out many liturgical actions of the Christian religion.  In ways that vary according to the condition of each church or community, these liturgical actions most certainly can truly engender a life of grace, and, one must say, are capable of giving access to that communion which is salvation.” (503, “Decree on Ecumenism,” in Vatican Council II: The Basic Sixteen Documents.  Northport: Costello Publishing Company 2007.)

I take this to mean that, despite our substantial differences, Roman Catholics believe the sacramental rites of other Christian communities can and may, through the Spirit, convey some measure of grace.  If this is the case, I believe it is not too much to hope that our practices be respected. 

            Thus, I did not anticipate the traditions of my own church to be publicly mocked at a Catholic mass.  It strikes me as particularly egregious to do this at an occasion where there are likely to be non-Catholics.  In a few months I will be marrying two dear friends of mine, one of whom is Catholic and the other of which is Baptist.  I do not believe it will be appropriate to the occasion or to the glory of God to make light of either tradition.  I expect the same courtesy from clergy colleagues, especially in public.

            I was also taken aback by your general comments about marriage.  I confess, I was nodding my head as you went on about people getting married “skydiving, scuba diving,” and the like.  I too believe that a marriage is a holy occasion which is a most appropriate for a church.  For anyone professing the Christian faith, if their marriage is indeed to be a means of grace, a union which is worthy to be compared to Christ and his Church, it should take place in a church proper.  Fine.  Excellent.  But why go on to say that everyone else – the skydivers, scuba divers, beachgoers, and dare I say Protestants?! – are only “pretending” to be married?       

            Again, this serves no purpose.  It comes across as cynical mockery, whatever truth there may be to the statement.  I was particularly grieved for some other young people who were there, several of whom were born into Christian families (two of them were baptized Catholics who had fallen away) but no longer identified themselves as such.  This was the statement that most perked their ears and turned them off in a service where they already felt alienated.  Christianity has, as I’m sure you know, in almost all quarters gained a reputation for being judgmental, narrow-minded, and arrogant.  Such comments only reinforce these unfortunate biases.  What Vatican II said about ecumenical dialogue should ring true for both clergy and laity on all occasions when we gather for worship:

“…catholic theologians, standing fast by the teaching of the church yet searching together with separated brothers and sisters into the divine mysteries, should do so with love for the truth, with charity, and with humility.” (511, “Decree On Ecumenism”)

            The above quote applies equally to the aforementioned comments about Eucharist.  Rev. _____, what deeply hurts me about all of this is that I went to that service excited and interested to experience a Latin Rite mass.  My last year in seminary, I gained a profound appreciation for and interest in the Catholic Church when I took a course on the theology of Joseph Ratzinger/Pope Benedict XVI.  The professor, Dr. Geoffrey Wainwright, is a Methodist pastor and theologian who has been involved in many of the dialogues between our churches (such as the discussions leading up to the joint Catholic/Lutheran/Methodist declaration on the Doctrine of Justification).  He became acquainted with the Holy Father when then-Cardinal Ratzinger was prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith.  Dr. Wainwright has a deep respect for His Holiness, both as a theologian and as a successor to Peter, a respect that he ingrained in all of us who took the course.

            While searching for your address on the internet, I stumbled across a piece you wrote on the Latin Rite.  Near the end, you recommended reading one of the Holy Father’s earlier works, The Spirit of the Liturgy.  This was one of the monographs we were assigned for the course. Chapter four contains this beautiful reflection on the Eucharist:

“The Lord has definitively drawn this piece of matter to himself.  It does not contain just a matter-of-fact kind of gift.  No, the Lord himself is present, the Indivisible One, the risen Lord, with Flesh and Blood, with Body and Soul, with Divinity and Humanity.  The whole Christ is there.” (88, The Spirit of the Liturgy, Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger.  San Francisco: Ignatius Press 2000)

Rev. _____, I do not presume to lecture you on Catholic faith or practice.  Whatever knowledge I have of your tradition is limited at best.  I do, however, feel confident to share that I believe that in a mass, where the Lord is truly and wholly present, the comments I have mentioned above were inappropriate.  That being said, I’m sure that I have made more offensive comments while presiding at a service.  And, from what I saw, you seem like a skilled leader of worship, celebrant, and preacher.  I only make the above points because your comments were incongruous with what I took to be Catholic positions regarding “separated brothers” such as myself, and because I took exception to them as a pastor.

            Please forgive me if my comments here lack humility or charity; I have asked the Lord for forgiveness already, for my pride, inattention, and malicious thoughts both during the mass and after.  I am not proud of my initial reaction to your comments.  I hope that the issues I am bringing to your attention only amount to a slip of the tongue or momentary forgetfulness.  I further hope that this letter will be received in the spirit that is intended: “As iron sharpens iron, so one man sharpens another.” (Proverbs 27:17)  As a Christian and a fellow shepherd in the Lord’s fields, I felt duty-bound to make my feelings known to you.  I thank you for your service in the Church, for your faithful following of Christ’s call, and for the time and attention given to my grievances.  May God bless you and your ministry at St. _______.

Grace and Peace,

Rev. Mack
Pastor
West ____ United Methodist Church

What’s wrong with marriage (weddings) today

The worst part is the preacher’s de-facto blessing….

P.S. This could also be subtitled “Why it sucks being Protestant,” because we know that no Catholic or Orthodox priest would tolerate this kind of activity at a holy ceremony.  Ugh.  If marriage is now undervalued and abused, which I believe it is, surely this is related to the fact that the marriage ceremony is itself undervalued and abused.  Give me a  funeral any day of the week.

Clergy In a Hypersexualized Culture

From a new study by Baylor University:

In any given congregation with 400 adult members, seven women on average have been victims of clergy sexual misconduct since they turned 18, a new national study reveals.

“… we were surprised it is so prevalent across all denominations, all religions, all faith groups, all across the country,” said lead researcher Diana Garland… “Clergy sexual misconduct is no respecter of denominations.”

The study revealed that more than 3 percent of adult women who had attended a church in the past month reported that a religious leader had made sexual advances to them. Research found that 92 percent of those sexual advances were made in secret, and 67 percent of the offenders were married to someone else.

The full study has not been published yet, but I’m curious how “sexual advance” was  defined for the purposes of the study.  The study also mentions the “culture of niceness” prevalent in churches.  One wonders if a number of the perceived advances were indeed so cut and dry.  Of course, we often don’t know our own motivations.  A scientific study can’t reveal the complexities of such interactions.  How often could a simple compliment be construed as an advance?  It is not difficult to imagine legitimate pastoral concern being (intentionally or otherwise) perverted into a flirtatious encounter.  I don’t mean to be overly apologetic.  This study just makes all clergy, across the board, come off a little too predatory.

Of course, it is fascinating that this holds across all denominations and religions.  I don’t know if this should take wind out of the sails of those who insist that Catholic clergy abuse is due to the celibate lifestyle.  It seems that we’re all sexually out of control.  As persons and clergy, we have been so formed (read: malformed) by a hyper-sexualized culture that we cannot even control ourselves among those whose spiritual care we are to direct.

Just this week I was at a local gas station, and realized that the $.75 machine in the men’s bathroom, in addition to the usual assortment of contraceptives, was also advertising XXX photos for sale.  I know this is not moral, and I’m not even sure it’s legal.  But unfortunately, it is no longer surprising.

The Fathers of the Church would be horrified at our distorted notion of freedom.  What we call freedom, they would rightly call slavery to our basest impulses.

Things I Never Expected as a Pastor: Jewelry Parties

After a meeting this evening, I was invited (unbeknownst to me) to a jewelry party.  One of my members was throwing a Mary-Kay-esque jewelry party and needed a 10th person to get some kind of bonus prize from the company rep.  She asked me to come by the room afterwords but didn’t say why.  Upon entering, I learned that I had filled out the magic number and she got a prize.

At first I was annoyed.  “This is what my time is being used for??”  But then I paused.  I was being arrogant.  I’ve been arrogant.  To an extent, I think, I’ve let an elite seminary education get in the way of my ministry.  After all, the Christian movement gained much of its momentum by the one who wrote,

I have become all things to all men so that by all possible means I might save some. I do all this for the sake of the gospel, that I may share in its blessings.  (1 Cor. 9: 22b-23)

Sometimes being a pastor means being a counselor.  Other times a teacher.  Sometimes it might mean babysitting, or video games.  Sometimes it is as high and lofty as Holy Communion.  And maybe, just maybe, sometimes being a pastor means being a warm body at a jewelry party. 

Why the hell not?

The Church and Singleness

Churches are generally not great for single people.  Even churches with vibrant singles ministries only construe them as a place to meet other singles with the hopes of making them no longer single.  Protestant churches in particular do not know what to do with single Christians.  We have no vocation of singleness to look at, no imagination for what the Christian life looks like as an unmarried person.

My last semester of seminary, I noticed a mad dash to the altar.  NOBODY wants to be a single pastor, and with good reason.  All of the social events involving my denomination’s structure are geared towards “pastors and their spouses.”  I went to my first such meeting this week, and found that I was not only the youngest person there, I was, as far as I could tell, the only one who was likely single and had never been previously married.

What does holiness look like for the single person?  How the hell does a single pastor date?  My fundamentalist past tell me, “no sex before marriage,” but this is not a positive vision for the single life.

The best I’ve read on the subject is Lauren Winner’s Real Sex.  She re-convinced me that the church’s traditional stance on marriage was correct, by being honest and giving sound theological reasons for believing them.  I have read nothing better on the subject and encourage all committed Christians, single or not, to check it out.

Again, as a Protestant, I don’t have a tradition of saints to look at, or nuns, monks, and priests who model the single life.  What are we to do?  “It is better to marry than to burn with desire,” I suppose.  But how does a pastor date? Who wants to marry a pastor? (Probably no one, if they knew what they were getting into!)  And yet our churches expect married clergy.  Truth be told, they expect the spouse to be a bit of an unpaid co-pastor.

We Protestants desperately need to find ways to affirm singleness.  Not everyone is called to be married, and if indeed it is OK to, as Paul says, “remain as you were,” they deserve better from us.