Wednesday, September 12, 2007

Thoughts on Being Honest Even if it Hurts: or, Yes, I Stole a Backpack

Note: this is a guest entry from one of my parishioners, Julia Hurn. Enjoy.

Recently my husband and I gave a Game Boy to my son Aidan. To say that he really loves it is an understatement. When he first got it, he had no self-control. He could not turn the thing off, despite pleadings, bargainnings and even threats from us. We have had to wrench it out of his hands often. Things are getting better, but while we were on vacation, he was in the throes of Game Boy mania and decided to bring it with him to the beach one day.

On our way home from the beach as we were unloading the car, he decided to take a bucket full of seawater and sea creatures out of the backseat with the same hand that was holding his Game Boy. You can guess the rest.

I don’t know who was more upset, Aidan or my husband who knew by heart every word of the replacement agreement he paid for when he bought the thing…”water damage not covered” was what was echoing through his head. While it did not cost near what a new one cost, it was about the priciest toy we’ve bought him, weighing in at about $60, not including the game cartridges.

Well, Aidan was so dejected. He had this shocked, devastated look on his face. Shawn was hopping mad, and I was watching all this thinking; we never should have done it in the first place. Once the shock wore off and we got safely back to Brooklyn, Shawn had the idea of taking it anyway back to the store and seeing if they would fix it or exchange it, even though water damage was clearly not covered.

I wasn’t happy that he was getting Aidan’s hopes up, but Shawn did a good job of explaining to him that he might not get a new one and he should be prepared for the disappointment. (Big sigh) “yes, dad,” says Aidan.

Not more than an hour later, I hear the happy sounds of chatting and the electronic ping ping ping of a…you guessed it, new Game Boy floating up our stairs. In walks Aidan, happy as a clam. “What happened?” I ask Shawn, incredulous.

Apparently they approached the clerk, and Shawn urged Aidan to speak directly to her about what happened. Shawn did not say he had to volunteer that he dropped it in water. But, Aidan, with sheepish shame, head bowed, muttered “I sort of accidently kind of dropped it in some water.” The clerk took one look at him (the fact that he has sandy blond hair, freckles and huge, gorgeous blue eyes didn’t hurt) and said “the truth will set you free, my friend. Here’s a new one.”

When I heard this story, I have to admit to some feelings of ambiguity. I’m happy he got another one, of course, but a bit saddened that Aidan did not learn about the consequence of his actions.

How does an accidental dropping of a game in water constitute an action, you ask? We had warned him that the likelihood that it would get damaged was very great when he took it in the car to the beach. We told him not to do it, but he went ahead anyway. Because he chose to keep his precious possession in proximity to potential disaster, he has to take some responsibility for what happened.

But I am relieved that, in telling the truth, he was met with mercy and compassion. For a little guy who is six, I think this is very appropriate. See, because now that I’m a parent, I can’t hide from my own parental/moral uprightness. I’m ashamed of something I did recently, and as a way of avoiding being hypocritical (do as I say, not as I do), I’ve just plain avoided the situation.

About a year ago this summer, I was loaned a backpack by the good people at Prospect Park Audobon Center, filled with materials to do an educational experiment. I am ashamed and embarrassed to say that I did not do the experiment, and that the materials (including some clip boards, some plastic containers and mostly papers and bird guides) are sitting in my closet.

My regular backpack started to fall apart recently; and out of desperation, I appropriated the one in my closet containing all the stuff in it, toke the stuff out of it, and backpack for me. Pretty reprehensible, huh? I have always had some excuse for not returning it all…I don’t have time right now to do the experiment; we will get to it soon; blah blah (it involved observing ducks on the pond in the park).

My husband just recently pointed out to me that in reality, I have stolen that stuff as it was given to me in good faith to be used then returned and I have not returned it, and he doesn’t think I’m ever going to. He said this because it’s been sitting for a year in our closet.

And you know, in my paralysis of guilt, he’s right. I stopped recently thinking I would ever return it. In my mind there was a “statute of limitations” on returning it, and that if I did now return it, I would be really chastised…with questions, like: what took you so long? How could you be such a bad person as to keep this very important and valuable stuff from being used by some other well-deserving person/people?

The anticipation of the scolding and shaming I would receive really was the thing that kept me from doing the right thing. Rather than facing up to the possible bad reception by the staff there and just doing the right thing, I’d best just avoid it all together by keeping it, though every passing week and month I keep it, I feel worse.

Isn’t it the same with our children? The anticipation of the punishment for doing something bad prevents us and them from doing right thing and owning up. Being bad (or the Christian term Sinning) is something we all do because we are human. We screw up; we fail to give back what’s not ours; we try not to take responsibility for something bad we caused so we can get out of fixing it.

I love my husband for being my moral compass in these areas; my morality can get pretty loosey-goosey sometimes (one reason why I think I make a lousy Christian), and he often gently and not so gently reminds me to do the right thing. What does Jesus have to do with this? I think Jesus would laugh at me for keeping the backpack for so long. He would stand over my shoulder and say, “hey, you’ll feel so much better when you give it back,” with a smile and a wink, and then just walk away.

My plan is to go tomorrow to the Audobon Center in a car service to drop it ever so stealthily by the front door of the education dept. Anonymously, of course. If anyone asks me, I’ll just say: “I’m returning something I found to it’s rightful owners,” and leave it at that.

Tuesday, September 11, 2007

Everyone Has A 9/11 Story

It was in the evil tragedy of 9/11 that I was called here, to Old First.

In the summer of 2001, the pulpit of Old First church was, as we say, "vacant." Pastor Otte had moved on to Tarrytown, and an interim pastor, Dr. Washington, was filling-in part-time, while the Search Committee looked for a new pastor to fill the pulpit.

I was the senior pastor at Central Reformed Church in Grand Rapids, Michigan. I had applied to Old First, and had been interviewed. My wife Melody did not want to come to Brooklyn: she had a good job in Grand Rapids, we owned a home (for the first time), and we were near her parents.
The other candidate preached her trial sermon at the "neutral site" of the Flatbush Church on Sunday, 9/9, where the Search Committee had gone to hear her. I was scheduled to preach there on 9/16. It was all very confidential in Grand Rapids; I had used the excuse that our Grand Rapids church was considering a partnership with the Flatbush Church, which was not untrue. Only my church officers and my associate pastors knew the whole story.

On the morning of 9/11 I was visiting a neighboring African-American pastor with whom I was trying to do some joint programming (Grand Rapids is very divided racially). His secretary ran in to the study and told us to come look at the television. We watched, transfixed, unbelieving, and listened to Bryant Gumble, who seemed just as shocked as we were.

I raced back to my own church. Immediately I began working with other city clergy to prepare a city-wide prayer service at the cathedral. And then I got a phone call, from Rick, the vice chair of the Old First search committee. He was at the Grand Rapids airport and could I maybe pick him up, and could he stay with us (the hotels were full) and could we send some clergy to the airport to minister to the people there?

It seems Rick had been flying to San Francisco for business, and his plane got put down in Grand Rapids. Coincidence? Providence? I went to the airport and picked him up. As we drove we agreed that I might have to postpone my trial sermon, as I really had to be with my own people at this time, and Rick understood, but the problem was that the next available date would be in October or November, and they already had a good candidate. I was very disappointed of course.

That afternoon, Melody got home from work, and there was Rick on our front porch. She looked up to heaven, and said, "Did you have to drop him right on the porch?" Then I told her that my trial sermon was now up in the air, so to speak.

That night I led some of the prayers at the cathedral downtown. My congregation's own service was scheduled for Thursday. On Wednesday I met with my leadership. They encouraged me to go to Brooklyn anyway. They said, "Of all the times to preach in New York, it's now. Especially since you're from there. You'll be with us tomorrow. We can cover the rest." Okay. It's on.

So Friday we drove to Brooklyn. No planes were flying, of course, and rental cars were scarce. Rick and Melody drove, and I sat in the back seat and rewrote my sermon.

Crossing the Tappan Zee we could see the fires and smoke at ground zero. Coming in over the Triboro was where it hit me emotionally. It was a familiar route from my childhood, how we drove back home to Bedford-Stuyvesant after visiting my relatives in Jersey. As you know, the whole city felt stunned and shocked and wounded. No airliners over the Grand Central Parkway, but fighter jets circling, a powerful symbol. That's where I "lost it."

We got into Park Slope Friday night. We walked around. The doors of Old First were open, people were there, candles were burning in and out, sheets of newsprint were hanging in the narthex and people were writing their prayers. The laymembers of Old First, without any help from any clergy, had decided to make this grand old building a sanctuary for everyone. I was impressed. This was the kind of church I'd like to serve. And every other church in the neighborhood was closed up and their gates locked.

On Sunday I preached the 9/11 sermon at the Flatbush Church, and the text from Jeremiah was perfect. As I came down the aisle, I was greeted by Mr. Woodson, an elder from the church of my childhood. He calls me Danny and he welcomed me home.

I have never felt so "called" as I felt then. And Melody began to believe that maybe this could be okay.

A week later the Search Committee offered me the pulpit. They made a great offer to Melody as well. Over the next two months we went through the normal approvals of the consistory, the congregation, and the Classis of Brooklyn, and in December, 2001, we moved to Garfield Place.

I am always uncomfortable in pointing to this or that in my life and saying, This was God. That feels presumptuous to me. I certainly do not believe that the destruction of the World Trade Center was an act of God, or was endorsed by God, or desired by God. And I do not want to trivialize 9/11, or make it overly personal for myself, when it was far more personal for many other people.

But it is very strange and mysterious to me how such an evil thing should have been, in my own life, for good. But in the midst of that awful event, I was called here, and I came.

Monday, September 10, 2007

Sermon for September 9, 2007

Note: This was a special interfaith prayer service. The first part of what follows here is the Welcome at the opening. The second part is my homily on Jeremiah 18:1-11, which is the Old Testament lesson for the Fifteenth Sunday after Pentecost. I am sorry that I do not have here the other sermon we heard, which was by Dr. Gazi Erdem.

Opening Welcome

Today we commemorate 9-11. That day made all the difference. We need to interpret that day in terms of God and to pray to God about the repercussions of that day. That day made all the difference to Muslims in America, and so it’s fitting that we do this together with Muslims. We Jews and Christians and Muslims pray to the same God. We tell different stories about God, and our stories don’t all match up, but God is One, and our God is the truest unity we have, so it’s in praying together that our best unity is found.

It was in 2002 that Rabbi Jerry Weider challenged me to use 9-11 to make contact with the Muslims of Brooklyn. Since then we have welcomed here Imam Abdallah Allam of the Dawood Mosque, and then Wa’el Mousfar of the Arab Muslim American Federation, and then Faruq Wadud of the Bangladeshi Baitul Jannah Mosque, and then Debbie Almontaser of Women of Islam.

Today we are pleased to welcome the Universal Foundation, which represents the Turkish community of Brooklyn. But their hospitality was first. They welcomed us to their Ramadan Iftars. It was at the Mosque of the Crimean Turks that I was first invited to join the prayers. That was profound for me. While they prayed in Arabic I knelt beside the wall and I prayed as a Christian, and there, in prayer, I discovered that it was the same God we were praying to. It was in prayer that I found our deepest unity, because the Spirit of God was present there.

Today I am most pleased to welcome Dr. Gazi Erdem, from the Consulate General of Turkey, who is the Mufti or chief Iman of all the Turkish Imams in North America. Sort of like a Muslim archbishop. It’s an impressive office but Dr. Erdem carries it with gentleness and a great sense of humor. I love his laughter and his joy. I have heard Dr. Erdem address a thousand people at the Waldorf-Astoria, but I’m really looking forward to what he has to say within a house of prayer.

Today we are praying side-by-side. Our Christian prayers will be Christian and our Muslim prayers will be Muslim. Our unity is not some unnatural amalgamation. Or unity is in the One God that we worship, and in the loving hospitality that we practice with each other.


On the basis of Jeremiah, you might get the impression that God was behind 9-11, that God sent the evil against America. That was the claim of some fundamentalist Christians, and ironically, that put them very close to Al-qaeda, as if 9-11 was what God wanted.

On the one hand, we do believe that God has the freedom and authority and sovereignty and power to do whatever God wills to do, and we believe that God is the great judge of the world, and that God judges the nations, but on the other hand, we also believe that ever since Jesus, at least, the way God judges us is not through violence or disaster or weapons or by making use of criminal actions but simply and directly by means of God’s Word.

God’s public Word. God’s open and straightforward Word. In the prophets. In the Book. We are people of the Book, we are people who honor the prophets, because through the Book and the prophets God speaks to us and judges us, and the reason that God judges us is in order for us to hear and learn and turn and live.

The judgement of God is a privilege and a gift. People make judgements all the time, pundits and politicians, police chiefs and generals, CEOs and CFOs, regulators and mortgage lenders, we make judgements all the time, and our judgements affect our freedom and our lives, and amidst the clamor and tumult of all these voice, to get the judgement of God is a privilege and a gift.

And the judgement of God is simultaneously good and bad for us. It is good for us if we honor and accept it and it is bad for us if we refuse it and ignore it. It justifies us if we affirm it and it condemns us if we deny it. It’s up to us whether it’s for evil or for good. God gives us such freedom and responsibility.

This prophecy from Jeremiah combines what many people find paradoxical, the freedom and responsibility of humanity with the total sovereignty of God. But the truth of this, in different ways, is a common conviction of both the Reformed Church and Islam. And so, to push the metaphor, we say to God, "Thou are the potter, I am the clay, mold me and make me after thy will, while I am waiting, yielded and still." That’s a Christian song, but it perfectly describes the physical attitude of "islam," which is to wait on God, yielded and still.

The enduring significance of 9-11, for us, at least, is not how many died, though that is hugely important. The enduring significance of 9-11 is not why Al-qaeda did it, though we need to be clear about that for our foreign policy. The enduring significance of 9-11 is that we learn from it, that we learn from it rightly and not wrongly, that we interpret it rightly, not on our own, but with God’s wisdom, and that in response to it we examine our own selves, that we search ourselves, and the way that we search ourselves is by means of the judgements of God, and the judgements of God are given to us faithfully and lovingly in the Word of God.

In a moment we will do just that. We will pray selections from Psalm 139, in which we open ourselves to the searching of God. I wish that our lectionary editors had not taken out the last few verses, which are both the most severe and most liberating, but we do with what we have. Psalm 139 is one of the great prayers in the Bible, it’s a profound expression of the religious consciousness, and remarkably modern despite its antiquity, and, as far as I can tell, it’s a prayer that can be said equally by Jews and Christians and Muslims.

We will take a few moments of silence in order for you all to look it over, and then I will invite you to rise together and pray it with me. Our custom here is to do it responsively; I read the first part, and you read together the part in bold print. After the Psalm will come the traditional Gloria Patri, and would the Muslims and Jews be so kind as to indulge the Christians as we sing it with the hospitality of your listening? I thank you in advance.

Watching the Episcopalians

I remember during the heady days of ecumenism that one of the top Lutheran bishops was happy for the prospect of full communion with the Episcopalians because it took them one step closer to Rome. Well, the next step will have to be like Neil Armstrong’s, because right now the Episcopalians are even in trouble with Canterbury.

As I write this, Bishop Gene New Hampshire (that would be Rt. Rev. Gene Robinson) has been uninvited to the next Lambeth Conference, which is a big deal for Anglicans. Is the Archbishop of Canterbury not in full communion with the Bishop of New Hampshire? Shall the rest of the Episcopal Church accept this half of an excommunication of one of their own?

Did Rowan Williams expect this when he became Archbishop? I wonder if he looks back with longing on his quiet days in the see of St. David and the primacy of Wales. All this Anglican Communion politics, when what he’s best at is encouraging the church in a secular England and winsomely representing the gospel there. Canterbury is the head of the Communion, but he’s only the first among equals, and he has little clout compared to Rome and even Constantinople.

We grieve for the Anglican Communion right now. I don’t see how they can work this out, considering the parties and positions. The Nigerians versus the Americans. The Americans are the Nigerians of the Western hemisphere and the Nigerians are the Americans of Africa. Or some would say, the Germans, but Germans are not Anglicans.

From a Reformed perspective, you have to ask, why is Bishop Robinson such an issue when Bishop Spong never threatened the Anglican Communion? I have met Bishop Robinson and heard him speak. He loves the Lord Jesus. He worships the Trinity. He confesses the faith once delivered and he testifies to the gospel. He believes in the Resurrection and the Atonement and the Exodus from Egypt, for Heaven’s sake.

Bishop Spong is still called a Christian only because he calls himself that. He’s an impressive man, especially to himself. Bishop Robinson exhibits repentance, humor, and self-deprecation.
But the Anglicans don’t think from a Reformed perspective. When you finally come down to it, apparently the cliche is true, that for Anglicans it doesn’t matter what you believe. Well, it does, of course, but not enough to pose a threat.

What matters is your ritual. What you celebrate and how you celebrate. This has its virtues. If you attend any Anglican church, the sermon might be thin, but the liturgy will give you a Creed, the Trinity, the death and resurrection of the Lord Jesus and his coming again, some repentance from sins, some real prayers, some real blessings, and some real miracles — the sacraments. During the sermon you can read the Thirty-Nine Articles in the back of the Prayerbook and thank God for the Belgic Confession.

Anglicans found it problematic when some Canadians and Americans began celebrating gay weddings, or holy unions, or whatever, but even this was tolerable. It used to be the case that all Anglicans, worldwide, were united by the Book of Common Prayer. But since the ’60’s the various provinces have developed their own Prayerbooks, and the New Zealand book is now very different from the British ASB. Liturgical disunity may distress Anglicans, but they’ve been living with divergence for some decades now, and it hasn’t threatened their Communion’s unity.

But a gay bishop! Anglicans are fundamentalists about one thing, and one thing only, and that is the hierarchical episcopacy. In the Seventeenth Century their motivation was political — "No bishop, no king." What their motivation is nowadays is open to question. But as we saw in the process of full communion with the Lutherans, everything is negotiable, except episcopacy.
And when an out gay man is elevated to the episcopacy, then Anglicans are threatened.

What matters is not what he believes but what he is, because a bishop is. The symbol of an hierarchical bishop is not his pulpit but his chair. When he’s just sitting there, holding his staff, he’s at the center of his job. Celebrating Eucharist and baptizing and preaching can be done by mere priests. Only bishops can confirm, but since a Prayer Book Study in the ’60’s it’s agreed that this is not essential but political. It gives the bishop something special to do when he or she visits a parish. Otherwise a bishop has nothing distinctive to do.

A bishop just is. The chief role of a bishop is to represent the church, and, with such Incarnational theology, to represent Christ himself. Well!

The Anglican Communion is at heart a communion of bishops. This communion is objective and linear, like a family tree. They may or may not take the Bible literally, but they are literal about their hierarchical network.

Your ordinary American and Canadian laity are not really in communion with each other. They are in communion with their respective bishops, who are in communion with each other, provided their communion is guaranteed by being in communion with the Archbishop of Canterbury. The crisis shows us what Anglicans are fundamentalist and literalist about!

This past July I attended three different Anglican churches in Canada. The first week I went to the tiny parish near our cottage, where we have prayed for eighteen years. Our lay reader preached on the gospel, and he was good; he preached the text. The next Sunday I had to be in Kingston so I attended the cathedral. An archdeacon preached on the gospel, and he was excellent; he preached the text. The third week our little parish had a union service with the parish in the next town, so with four other locals I went there. I heard another archdeacon preach on the gospel, and he was very good; he preached the text.

Not once did I hear a peep about the troubles of the Anglican Communion. I heard about the Lord Jesus, and his death, resurrection, and coming again, and we confessed our sins, and we praised the Trinity, and we repeated the Creed, and we gave thanks and ate his precious body and blood. I was quite satisfied each time.