Negotiating

The agonies of the Episcopal Church (and the Anglican Communion generally) have been a daily sadness for me. At my old church blog, I noted a review of how different cultures handled differences of opinion.

I came across a review of the “negotiation styles” from cultures around the world. Some cultures tend to the verbose and emotionally heated. Others don’t want to offend by suggesting any particular facts are final or true.

What interested me was the description of the “English” (but not “American”) style of negotiating. It immediately had me thinking about the history and development of Christianity in the Anglican Church.

The “English” style begins with small talk before anyone brings up whatever “reasonable proposal” is under consideration. (There can’t be any reason to hurry since we are already enjoying the conversation.) Once the proposals are expressed there is always resistance.

All change can be characterized as rocking the boat. But the last thing we want to do is rock the boat. So the result, for the moment, is deadlock. “English” style negotiating retreats to humor and vagueness, in order to stall. Then there is a recess. Perhaps a solution can be found by repackaging everything, i.e., calling it something different? Some sort of summary of the points where agreement (if not relevance) can be found gets written up. But decisions? Those will be postponed until the next meeting.

This is not to be understood as wasted time since everyone can agree that greater clarity has been achieved.

Heh.

How has the breadth of conviction and theology been accomplished in the historic Anglican Church and its children? It apparently is the English way! Bill Buckley once asked, “How would anyone know they were NOT Anglican?” Tut-tut. That would not be the English way.

But we can continue the discussion next time, now that we have made that clear.

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Holy Monotony

A nugget from my old church blog archive and a book I was reading:

The Bible is inherently obscure for us; we have to work reasonably hard to extract meaning from the text… We can expect some measure of difficulty in reading the Scriptures and need not be discouraged by it. The benefits of spending time with the Bible far outweigh the labors of coming to grips with its foreignness.”

Frankly, I don’t recall hearing anyone state that the Bible “is inherently obscure” before. But there it is in Michael Casey’s book, Sacred Reading (Ligouri, 1995). He doesn’t just have reading the Bible in mind. The spiritual disciplines of the Christian life generally call for some generous investments of time and effort.

The first requirement is patience. In fact, we have to slow down our intellectual metabolism and not expect to find quick and easy solutions to all life’s problems. It is precisely this damping down of superficial excitement that creates the environment in which we are able to perceive spiritual things more intensely…

In an era of hyper-stimulation it can be difficult for people to realize that enlightenment comes not by increasing the level of excitement, but by moving more deeply into calm. There is a kind of monotony that is not boredom but paves the way for a more profound experience… We have to move to a level that is different from the one on which we operate in everyday life.

And, yes, you might want to slow down and read that again.

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Christianity Today 1964

In 2013, my widowed mom decided to move into a dwelling adjacent to ours, so we could be better able to help her and look after her. This entry from my old church blog came as a result of that decision.

My mother is packing up and preparing to move out of her house. She has been passing along tidbits she finds while emptying old file drawers of her memorabilia. One of these was a yellowing copy of Christianity Today dated October 9, 1964 (cover price 25 cents).

The lead article asked, “Dare We Hope for Renewal?” Author T. Leo Brannon declared “that stagnation and ineffectiveness are prevalent in vast segments of the modern Church can hardly be disputed,” and “there seems to be a false hope for revitalization of the Church in the union of denominations.”

It is interesting that this was written four years after Fr. Dennis Bennett, an Episcopal priest in Seattle, Washington, had become one of the early leaders of the charismatic renewal that soon swept churches in the 1960’s and 70’s. It is also interesting because the same issue of the magazine carried a report from the first British Faith and Order Conference at Nottingham University which, to the surprise of the participants, ending up proposing an audacious merger of British churches by the year 1980. The call did not extend to the Roman Catholics, of course. And the closing speaker raised doubts about Billy Graham’s “presentation and understanding of the Gospel.” Thus there were haunting clues to the failure of that vision of unity to arrive on schedule.

Clues of another sort were included in a report of Princeton University’s President Robert F. Goheen who announced that the new freshmen class that year would be the first to enter Princeton free of the traditional requirement of attending religious exercises. “The maturing and shaping of the moral and spiritual structure of your lives must be largely your own affair,” he said, though, of course, no such assumption of the efficacy of such independent study was made on behalf of the remaining curriculum.

Christianity Today was wrapping up its tenth year of publication and that suggested a topic for another article: What factor will decide Christianity’s influence upon secular thought in the next ten years? A round table of scholars replied. Editor Carl Henry wrote, “Whenever a culture loses vision of the eternal…it is headed straight for heathenism.” Gordon Clark said, “The sovereignty of God is the only factor that will decide Christianity’s influence on secular thought. Observation gives no grounds for supposing that Christianity will have any noticeable effect in the next decade.” Addison Leitch struck a positive note, remarking, “I am increasingly impressed by the attention being given by the Roman Catholic Church to biblical studies.”

Perhaps the most prescient comment came from William Childs Robinson, a professor at Columbia Theological Seminary: “That factor which is likely to have the most decisive influence in diverting the secular thought of the oncoming generation from Christianity is the removal of prayer from our public schools.”

A charming footnote included in this issue was an item about the newest winner of the Miss America crown, Vonda Kay Van Dyke. Pageant Emcee Bert Parks remarked that Vonda Kay carried a Bible around as a “good luck charm.” Vonda Kay gently replied that the book was not a charm, it was “the most important book I own.” Her awareness of the importance of sharing her faith was hinted at when she talked about her particular talent as a ventriloquist. She often spoke before youth groups and had noticed “they won’t listen to me, but they’ll listen to my dummy.”

Thank God for the continuing witness of the saints, whether by dummies or Christian magazines!

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Why God laughs

The One enthroned in heaven laughs. (Psalm 2:4)

David went on to describe God’s anger at sinners, but the first reaction he mentioned was God’s laughter. Why did God laugh? I had always read a scornful tone into this verse, a mocking laugh. Still, it’s laughter. It could seem mean. When people have laughed at me, that’s how it has seemed to me. So… why is God laughing?

Laughter is often our reaction to others in pain. Movie comedians have mined this reaction for years. This simple point doesn’t need documentation but I’m grabbing my chance to remember some of my favorite examples.

Laurel and Hardy won their only Oscar for their 1935 short, The Music Box. The whole film is about them trying to deliver a piano, a wife’s surprise birthday present for her husband. The house is at the top of a long neighborhood sidewalk staircase (which now has commemorative signs identifying it for tourists). The boys spend half the movie trying to push the piano up those steps. That sets up a moment when they finally reach the house.

The house has a small decorative pool by the front door. Naturally — of course — there are steps at the front of the pool. You know what is going to happen. But not right away. First Oliver pauses for a moment on the last step to adjust his grip on the packing box. Then…

That’s only the first time they encounter the pool. The next time they enter it with the piano (of course!) from above, from the house’s second story window. I vividly remember nearly falling out of my own chair in laughter the first time I saw that moment. I was laughing at the clumsiness, the embarrassment. Laughing at the pain.

Another example is from one of the all-time classics of silent movie days, Harold Lloyd’s Safety Last in 1921. To save his own job, Harold has suggested a building-climbing stunt to draw crowds the department store where he works. The stunt climber he has hired is delayed and Harold “starts” the climb, his pal promising they can swap places on the second story. Even if you’ve never seen this gem, you know what happens. Harold makes the whole, hair raising climb to the top himself. Every inch of the way there are ridiculous, hilarious complications. His arrival topside produced the famous emblematic shot that came to represent all silent movie comedies: Harold hanging off a clock face. Naturally his weight begins to loosen the clock. Of course.

I once showed this movie to a friend visiting our house who had never seen a silent movie. The only time her laughter stopped was when she was catching her breath at the frightening risks Lloyd was taking. We were on edge about his close escapes from pain. But we laughed.

One more example, one I mentioned awhile back. It is much quieter, much smaller. In the final shot of Alfred Hitchcock’s To Catch A Thief (1955), Grace Kelly, who has been chasing Cary Grant, catches up with him at his French villa. They kiss. You would expect the romance story line to fade out there. But this is a Hitchcock movie. The dreamy kiss ends with Grace smiling and looking over Cary’s shoulder at the villa. She speaks.

“Mother will love it here!”

Now we get the fade out, after seeing Cary’s reaction.

And why are we laughing? We are laughing at the pain.

So let me finally get back to that. What brought this all to my attention was a post I made to a humor blog. I might as well show you here. For those of you reading this after this week’s news has faded, the headlines this week have been about an apparent peaceful negotiation between South and North Korea. North Korea has said they will end the nuclear testing that had left the world jittery for years. Donald Trump is being credited for helping bring it about. This has driven his critics nuts. Here is the joke I found and posted.

Within hours one woman had objected. “Not funny. I can’t stand Trump… he SCARES me.” I wanted to say, “Thanks for proving the rule that jokes are funny when they’re true.”

Instead, the Lord spoke to me. “Laughter and pain do the same thing. They say something seems wrong.”

I reflected on that and realized that laughter and pain are more than self-contained emotions. They are both signs that point to something that we believe is out of order. We could be mistaken. We might misunderstand the sign, or read it differently than others do. When the sky fills with thunder and lightening, children may shout with excited laughter while adults dodge for cover — or vice versa.

The sign is not the point. What it points to is. We may find different signs pointing to the same thing. Disagreement about the sign may distract from more important disagreements about their focus. Not speaking the same language blocks sharing and communication from the start. Only the devil laughs then. And that is mocking laughter.

It gave me a fresh appreciation for the problem we have in sharing anything about our encounters with Jesus, the problem God Himself still has in showing us what He is doing for us. We find it hard to believe that doing what God wants is better than what we want. God’s rules seem weird. His boundaries are uncomfortable. We are inclined to laugh at them after trying them and finding them painful.

It’s not that God is cruel or mean. He’s laughing because we are so confused, lost in the darkness. His laughter, like ours, is a signal that something is not as it should be. If we are scared, that doesn’t mean it’s His fault. If we’re scared about what He is doing with us, we’re wrong.

As Jesus said over and over, “Fear not.”

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Two takes on prayer

Two nuggets from my old church blog archive, both on the subject of prayer:

From the early pages of the Russian spiritual classic, The Way of a Pilgrim:

Many approach prayer with a misunderstanding and think that the preparatory means and acts produce prayer. They do not see that prayer is the source of all good actions and virtues. They look upon the fruits and results of prayer as means and methods and in this way depreciate the power of prayer. This is contrary to Holy Scripture, because St. Paul clearly states that prayer should precede all actions: “First of all, there should be prayers offered” (I Timothy 2:1). The Apostle’s directive indicates that the act of prayer comes first; it comes before everything else.

The Christian is expected to perform many good works, but the act of prayer is fundamental because without prayer it is not possible to do good. Without frequent prayer it is not possible to find one’s way to God, to understand truth, and to crucify the lusts of the flesh. Only fidelity to prayer will lead a person to enlightenment and union with Christ.

+ + +

I taught a session on prayer to class of students answering the call to the diaconate. The class included a writing assignment. One of the students wrote about her own prayer life, saying,

“I began to become a ‘friend’ of God. The demands stopped, and God ceased to be a Santa Clause to Martha.”

That’s almost enough to make me think my work here is done!

Recognizing that prayer with Almighty God is more than a matter of handing Him a “to do” list is a huge step in the right direction. If you are in a hurry you’ll barely have time even for giving orders. That kind of communication may work in the military or with employees. It’s no way to run a friendship or a romance.

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Ground zero

Another archive nugget from my old church blog:

Toward the end of the 4th century a group of seven monks from the Holy Land set out to visit the already legendary Desert Fathers who were living in monastic communities and solitary cells up and down the Nile River in Egypt.

Sr. Benedicta Ward has observed that these visitors took note of the intense focus the Desert Fathers placed on the battle over one’s thought life. This was where a man encountered the first and most subtle distractions that could divert attention away from studying the Bible or the life of prayer.

You might think the ascetic life of these men (and women) was a waste of opportunity to serve the poor and meet the needs of widows and orphans. (In fact these saints were more successful at tilling the desert lands than anyone and it was well known that the monasteries always had bread and provisions for all any time there were famines or crop failures in neighboring cities.)

The Desert Fathers saw themselves as intense spiritual warriors, learning how to fight the enemy of all mankind. The demons who mocked or cast doubt on God’s Word were well-known adversaries. The desert saints were vigilant in resisting them and teaching others how to stand strong in faith through the disciplines of prayer.

In the Ten Commandments, the first nine describe clear points of behavior that are plain to see by all. But the last commandment can only be obeyed invisibly, inside the heart and mind. That is where all the temptations and battles with sin begin. The Desert Fathers recognized this was ground zero in the struggle for our spiritual life.

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Unacceptable gifts

A movie illustration from the archive of my old church blog:

Actress Helen Hunt won her Oscar for her role in the 1997 movie As Good As It Gets. She plays a waitress and single mom who has an asthmatic child over whom she is chronically anxious. Adding to her worries is the fact that she feels she gets a runaround from doctors and hospitals whenever her son has an attack. She’s an exhausted wreck.

Then there is a knock at the door. A doctor comes in to visit with Helen and her mom and discuss the child’s condition. She shows him his medical file. He begins to sort things out, arrange appointments and write some prescriptions. The look on Helen’s face is one of confusion, joy, and amazement at this miraculous turn of events.

“I can’t afford this,” she says.

“It’s been taken care of,” the doctor assures her.

“Who…?” she asks.

The doctor tells her it is a grumpy, cranky customer she hates to serve when he comes to the restaurant where she works. (The character is played by Jack Nicholson. Say no more.)

In an instant her expression changes. The blood drains from her face. She begins to shove all the paperwork back. “No,” she says, forcefully. “NO!

It is a wonderfully dramatic moment in writer/director James Brooks’ script. The gift offered is perfect, exactly what the poor mom needs. But because she can’t stand the thought of it being given by someone she dislikes, she’s ready to give it back. (“You don’t do that!” her mom rebukes her. “You don’t give a gift like this back!”)

Yet the moment rings true because that’s exactly what we do too, too often, with God’s gifts. We’re in desperate need. He has the abundant power and love to help us. But it’s… Him. We’re pretty sure He is not likeable or trustworthy. We don’t want Him around. But there’s no one else stepping up who is willing to rescue us. And that Gift is on the table.

Life isn’t always like the movies. But sometimes, for a moment, I think that it just may be, after all.

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